Sean Swain is an artist, musician, prolific writer and a anarchist prisoner in Warren Correctional Institute in Lebanon, Ohio. In January 2018, Sean was interviewed by journalist Jae Em Carico concerning activism, revolution and communalization. The following are Sean’s thoughts and insights into those topics.
Carico: What initially got you involved in activism?
Swaine: I think before I answer the question, I have to reveal something about how I think: I don’t know that I understand “activism” as a separate category of behavior from any other behavior. What I mean is, when I eat food, I am fueling a resistance machine. When I sleep, I am providing rest for a resistance machine. So, when we consider that, at its base, activism really is an individual like you or me doing stuff that changes conditions to make things better for ourselves– and for others too –we see that even folks we would consider non-activists are engaged in “activism.” An advertising executive is engaging in “activism” when the “condition” he attempts to change is the name on the door of that prized corner office and he puts a plan into motion, even though we wouldn’t probably use that term to describe his behavior and probably he wouldn’t either.
So, having said that, for me, writing has always been synonymous with making a conscious effort to change conditions. I stuttered as a child, so writing was a method of communication that wasn’t humiliating, didn’t lead to ridicule. In fact, I found out that, as far as writing goes, I was pretty good at it. And when I got into high school, I discovered that writing could be something useful and impactful. I found myself taking the journalism class, which produced the school paper, largely because it was an easy way to get a decent grade and the teacher, Mr. Rogers, let us sit around and play euchre while carrying on intellectual and academic discourse.
Until then, for me, writing was communication. But, once I was exposed to the idea that writing can be a method for “speaking truth to power,” I deliberately pushed the envelope with my writing in the school paper, writing criticism of the school board, for example. And to his credit, Paul Rogers let everything I wrote get published.
Because I was that kid who stuttered, I hated bullies. And I was an idiot who never had the sense to shut up, so I always stood up to the bullies. What I learned from working on the high school paper was that you could stand up to one bully in one instance over here, which is cool, I suppose, or you could write something and what you wrote could be a big fist crashing into the faces of bullies everywhere. Bullies like school boards or the staffers paid to patrol the school hallways to force kids into class or the principal and oppressive school policies.
I was really hopped up on lofty ideals about truth and power, and I was really delusional about how much anything that one idiot can do really changes anything.
Also, my dad was a union worker. I saw what he dealt with, and that was largely because the unions have all been bought by the major industrialists. So, from his experience, I knew that unions were necessary and that uncompromising, incorruptible unions were even more necessary. And now, wherever I see someone struggling, exploited, treated unfairly, that’s not some stranger who has no connection to me. That’s my dad with blisters on his hands.
I’d like to say that every time I engage in some form of activism, every time I attempt to stand up to those who exploit and oppress that it isn’t personal, but it is. It’s personal.
It’s always personal.
Carico: What were your political views before anarchism and what led you there?
Swain: I grew up in a lily-white suburb north of Detroit where “Reagan Democrats” originated, these self-hating class-oblivious workers who ushered in a super-fascist buffoon. I was a cub scout and spent about a year as a boy scout. I pledged allegiance and believed all the nonsense from my high school civics classes about our exceptionalism. I went into the Army for the G.I. Bill and left that experience traumatized and disillusioned, pretty certain that we weren’t the “good guys.” But I had been mentally mismanaged and despite my natural skepticism, I was pretty lost. I had no real, coherent concept of what was wrong with the world or why; I just had a sneaking suspicion that things were fucked up and that nothing quite worked as advertised.
Then the nephew of the clerk of courts kicked in my apartment door and, in a panic, I killed him. That event was like a “critical disjuncture” in my life. There’s the Sean Swain before that event, and the Sean Swain after. Before it, I had white privilege and I was on my way to becoming even more privileged– drinking the Kool-Aid, so to speak. After that event, I was a monster chased with pitchforks and torches, as if everything I had been my whole life had never happened. I went on trial and was convicted of murder and sent off to prison.
So, the trajectory of my life after leaving the military, after my exit from the Babies for Breakfast Program, has been a steady slide to the left, an evolution in thinking as I encounter more suffering, more exploitation, more systems that are not just corrupt but are really covertly operating to disempower and disadvantage the people they are supposed to help.
When I first got locked up, I really believed that the whole thing was just a mistake and that it would be corrected. But after I won my appeal and went back for another trial, only to see that the fix was in on the re-trial, I came to see that it wasn’t just that the program didn’t work as advertised, that it was a deliberate weapon pointed at everyone who didn’t count.
And most of us don’t count.
Mind over matter: They don’t mind; we don’t matter.
So, inside prison, I got involved in reformist projects to inform and educate the public, to get influential power structures and institutions like the Catholic Church to support parole reform legislation and other progressive efforts to humanize the justice and prison systems. I read a lot. I became a pacifist and eventually slid from democrat to socialist. I read Marx. Gandhi.
Mentally, I had stepped from one cage and into another one. I still didn’t imagine an approach that didn’t involve petitioning the State, that didn’t involve asking those in power to exercise their power differently. It still didn’t occur to me that maybe those in power shouldn’t have power. It didn’t occur to me that maybe anyone exercising power over me does so as a consequence of stealing the power that I have over myself, that those in power are thieves and enemies, that however they exercise power they are enemies, frauds, exercising power that really belongs to me… and to you… and to you and you and you.
It again came back to my writing. My writing and advocacy got me into trouble with Toledo Warden Khelleh Konteh. Konteh sent goons to rough me up and they ground my face into the floor while I was cuffed and prone. I had holes in my face. So, to avoid investigation, they sent me off to the prison nuthouse for “evaluation.” During the thirty-day evaluation, my face healed. But, while I was there, I was worried they might hop me up on meds and destroy my mind, so I was desperate to mail my writings out. The only address I had was for a newsletter from Houston, so I sent my writings there and asked them to keep those safe. Turns out, it was an anarchist collective and when they read my criticism of prison they asked if they could share those with a guy in Chicago named Anthony Rayson.
I said, sure.
So, seemingly by happenstance, my writings landed into the hands of the most prolific anarchist zinester in the history of the universe, and Anthony started cranking out tens of thousands of copies of my writings. At the same time, he began my education, sending me anarchist materials, tons of them. And I came to realize that there was really an analytical and critical framework of thought that could explain my own subjective experience– that my intuitive sense, my gut feeling that the larger system was full of shit was not only generally right, but that really smart people had already quantified it all, had already mapped out the entire problem.
So, to be clear– Anthony Rayson and other anarchists were not responsible for “converting” me to anarchism or for “corrupting” me or for turning me into a tool of their nefarious conspiracy as the fascist fuckweasel system might see it. No, the fascist fuckweasel system had already “corrupted” me with its brutality and its treachery, had already persuaded me that it was my enemy and had done so with billy clubs and pepper spray and Apache attack helicopters. The fuckweasel order had already made me its lifelong enemy. Anthony and others simply gave me the building blocks of their ideas, analytical and critical thinking that informed my identification with a framework for understanding my situation and the larger situation we all face.
If not for Anthony Rayson, my mind would still be imprisoned.
Carico: How is organizing inside of a prison? What is the day to day like for a captured comrade? And how does one keep a publication running from inside?
Swain: Interesting you would ask me how it is to organize inside of a prison, when, if you really think about it, you already know. Each of us was born inside of a prison. Each of us grew up inside of a prison. We live our lives inside that prison and we die in it and then others carry on after we’re gone– inside that prison.
To live in the United States or inside the borders of any other nation-state is to live in an open-air prison. The guards may circle around a larger perimeter. The recreation yard might be bigger. It might be co-ed at your security level with big screen tvs and pizza delivery and jobs that pay more than $20 a month. Maybe. But, where you are now, let me ask you: Can you erect your dwelling where you want? Can you hunt or forage your food? Build a fire and cook it? Care for your family and extended network of friends as you see fit? Teach your kids to use bows and arrows or spears?
The Community Improvement Council will demand you take down your tent. The police will cite you for hunting out of season. The guy who put up the fence will charge you with trespassing for picking his apples. Some park ranger will make you put out your fire. Children’s services will document the “abuse” of your children and put them in foster care and educate them in public schools.
You’re not free. You’re slightly more free than I am. Slightly. I’m perhaps slightly more aware of the prison that surrounds me than you are. Perhaps.
But, if so, it’s only because you don’t see the national security creeps leafing through your emails or eavesdropping on your calls or staring at you from those orbiting satellites. Or you simply choose not to think about all that, because you don’t want to face the fact that planet earth has been developed into one big concentration camp– it would feel overwhelming and you wouldn’t know where to begin doing something about it.
So, let me guess if this is what you face when trying to organize, based on my own experience:
Most people have been conditioned not to care about themselves. And even if they want to care about themselves, they don’t even know how to effectively do that. Part of effectively caring about themselves would involve building connections with others who are suffering the same oppression or exploitation, working cooperatively against a common enemy, but their thinking has been so corrupted, has become so toxic, so colonized, that they don’t so much as consider actively involving themselves in their own liberation. They don’t imagine anything more than the current immiseration and so they hatch plots for changing their position in this immiseration, schemes for personal upward mobility. This involves acceptance of the larger system as permanent, perpetual. It is an intellectual compromise, a sense that, since it will always be this way, I might as well improve my own situation within this shit society… and not bother challenging the shit society.
And even if you present an idea of resisting against the enemy and you get past the general sense that you’re a radical or an extremist who should be viewed with great caution, those who are inclined to get organized immediately fall into the trap of hierarchical organizing just like their enemy, and they seek to “reform” the system, to change the deck chairs on this slave ship rather than trying to sink it. So, most efforts to organize end up a kind of descent into hierarchical, reformist wheel-spinning that just keeps the larger system grinding along.
To give you a sense of how I see it, an analogy: We’re like seven billion children slapped around by abusive parents, conditioned to think that this is normal, this is how it’s supposed to be. There are only a small number of us who truly question this, who refuse to accept it.
Those abusive parents sleep pretty soundly– the sound sleep of the over-confident.
And you and I know where they keep the steak knives.
So, in terms of organizing, how much organization do we really need? I think, really, with what we’re facing, we don’t need to “organize” resistance, we need to remain “disorganized.” The less organized, the better. The less that our resistance forms a cohesive pattern that can be seen, the more successful we can be at attacking the abusive program. Organization weakens us. Organization is a trap for those who perceive that we need “numbers” or “majorities” to change things. We don’t.
As individuals or small groups, what we have to do is identify the targets that the enemy cannot defend– because the fascist state cannot put a cop or a soldier on every street corner, defend every cell tower or dam, put a security camera on every single fire alarm. What we do is identify vulnerabilities and exploit them. We block a highway with flaming, stolen cars at rush hour or we blow a transformer, call in fake bomb threats, pull fire alarms, yank down a cell phone tower, cut holes in fences, attack the larger matrix in millions of ways that throw the proverbial monkey wrench into the machine.
We don’t need a crowd to accomplish that. We don’t need to wait and wait and wait until we reach some critical threshold of numbers.
If we’re looking for an excuse to wait, we can always find one. If we’re looking for an excuse to act, we can always find that too. And if we act, we’ll connect with others who feel the urge to act, and if we survive long enough, we’ll inspire others out of paralysis and they’ll start acting too.
We now live in an age where the whole world can bear witness to our acts of rebellion by posting the video. We can replicate ourselves via the Twittersphere, as others find our good ideas and copy them, enhance them, and as others learn from our mistakes and discard the strategies that don’t work.
I see the larger system as a computer with lots of moving parts and lots of intricate connections. Every part, every component must be working optimally for the computer to work optimally. If just one part is functioning improperly, the machine becomes less responsive and maybe even breaks down completely. But what if those components in the machinery have free will and just a few of them not only function improperly but begin covertly sabotaging the machine? How many does it take? And for how long?
The damage accumulates, the machine slows in its operations, the damaged components impact other components and they fizzle also, and, at some point, you meet a critical threshold where the damage increases faster than the machine can restore itself, and we face a scenario where swivelization itself begins to unravel, leaving “free zones” that are totally unmanaged, zones we can squat and occupy and then use as a base of operations to export disruption.
Detroit. Syria. Iraq. Exarchia.
And from there, the unraveling speeds up, the machine breaks down faster and faster. This is true in the prison that holds me or in the larger prison that holds you.
As to day-to-day life, being an anarchist in the custody of the prison complex is to be a nail in the custody of hammers.
They’re stupid and brutal and they don’t know any other method. They’re irrational and unreasonable and they’re not even sure why they hate you and fear you, because they don’t even necessarily understand what you think. So, they engage in a war of extermination, a three-hundred-and-sixty degree mind-fuck designed to wear you down, obstruct your every effort, drive you to suicide, alienate you, get fellow prisoners and free-world folks to view you with suspicion and caution. They control every aspect of life– food, clothes, living space, possessions, communications with the outside world, medical care, everything.
A couple years back, I learned that the FBI has 1297 pages of files on me. I have been under perpetual investigation since 2012. Why? Because I believe that the hierarchical ordering of society is inferior to non-hierarchical ordering of society, that the current disorder is unsustainable and driving us to collective suicide, and that we would be better off if we questioned it and found a way to stop it.
So, that’s what you’re up against in a prison environment on a day-to-day basis. And if you find some way to become more visible and you gain support from folks in the free world and build a larger network of self-defense that’s effective at confronting the prison complex, the fuckweasels just get angrier and sneakier. They find silly ways to attack your life.
Hammers only know one response. Pound.
And, of course, they simply extend your time in their custody. In my own case, even given the provably-false and illegal conviction, the judge expected me to serve 12 years and go home. My next parole eligibility, I will have served 30 years and counting– not because of the original “crime” which was no real crime at all –but because I had the audacity to publicly describe why I don’t like them, why I don’t respect them, and why I find their criminal agenda so reprehensible. I have served decades for performing the public service of opposing these sociopathic monsters.
As to keeping any kind of publication going, that’s not always possible. I have, in my experience, suffered long periods of silencing, particularly since exposing their program of domestic torture, beginning in 2012. They have a multitude of dishonest tricks. They will equate thoughtful expression with “threats,” like when prison fascists took my statement opposing torture, written for a conference in Canada, and said my opposition to an international crime somehow constitutes a threat of bodily harm to every employee of the Ohio prison system and their families. Or when they confiscated a script from the Final Straw radio show that had already aired, subject to sanctions from the Federal Communications Commission, and accused me of advocating “terrorist-type activities,” as if the FCC conspired with me to let me advocate terrorism over the radio.
Lately, they obstruct my ability to communicate with publishers and others who want to publish my work by invoking a prison rule forbidding prisoners from “conducting business,” a strategy that the Pennsylvania prisons attempted to pull– unsuccessfully –with Mumia Abu Jamal. But, even if I had counsel, courts would likely let prison officials get away with whatever they want to do, largely because anarchists are non-persons. Rules and laws do not apply to anarchists. We have no rights except those we can defend ourselves. So, attempting to remain relevant and present beyond prison walls requires us to constantly adapt and evolve new methods to get around the fascists and their obstructions.
At the end of 2016, I had to undertake a 50-day hunger-strike to get my communications mediums restored– communications mediums that had been suspended without so much as an explanation for a year and a half, cutting me off from the rest of the world. Imagine the strain that put on my elderly parents, never getting a call from me, their only child, even as my dad was hospitalized and almost died.
I’m really very fortunate because of the amazing people who have been working so hard to provide me the platforms to speak beyond prison walls and to facilitate my efforts to get around all of the obstacles that the fascists throw in my path. And it’s not due to any quality, I think, that I possess, but is due to the fact that the idea of freedom really resonates, and is due to the fact that everyone deep down hates a bully, despises an oppressor, and they want to see justice at the end of an ordeal. As a consequence, lots of really fantastic people have been doing really hard work to keep me alive and present on that side of the fence. Those people have made enormous sacrifices of time and resources so you can read this.
Prison fascists aren’t afraid of me; they’re afraid of everyone out there, the thousands of Molotov-chucking, machete-wielding, dumpster-burning, cop-car-tipping savage-cannibal-swainiacs who might pop out of the bushes to drag away prison officials and eat them if they try to pull the plug on me.
Which means that what really works to keep the oppressor at bay is the threat of potential violence. Violence really is the only language that the State understands. So, if you want to be able to persuade the State, you have to find ways to be fluent in its native language: violence. Even when I was on the hunger-strike, for example, the State did not begin to negotiate until prison officials started receiving “death threats” from “exotic area codes.” They didn’t care if I starved until I threatened to send out my obituary… suggesting that I had died… and that prison officials had essentially killed me… while their home addresses were posted online at blastblog.noblogs.org.
They contemplated angry anarchists knowing their home addresses and wanting to avenge my unnecessary and preventable death, and they began negotiating an end to the hunger-strike.
I was bluffing. It would be irresponsible and more than a little bit rude to tell folks I was dead when I wasn’t and to maybe cause them to do something rash they otherwise wouldn’t have done. But prison officials didn’t know that.
Carico: How do we prevent near term human extinction?
Swain: When dealing with the fascist control state, you have to leverage whatever freedom you intend to exercise. And the only leverage that counts, in my experience, is the potential for violence.
If we sputter out in the near term, it will not be because of nukes or toxins or global warming or fossil fuels. It will be because we were so enraptured by the myth of our own importance, the myth of our own exceptionalism. If we sputter out in the near term it will be because we are all so pathologically transfixed by the myth of hierarchy and mass production and our false sense that the entire universe is just as in love with us as we are, that we don’t see the truth: That we are killing everything.
So, I have very little sympathy for this species if it kills itself.
To make an analogy, I won’t push a whale back into the ocean. I have no patience for any organism that will just throw itself up onto the beach and lay there, waiting to die. If you’re not even going to struggle to get back into the depths, then I’ll leave you for the seagulls. Same goes for humans. I’m a big fan of natural selection, a bigger fan of natural selection than I am a fan of humans. So, if it turns out that natural selection doesn’t select us, I guess it was fun while it lasted. Our extinction will speak to the fatal flaw of hubris and apathy and an inability to recognize the reality that confronted us. Let that be a lesson to the next evolution.
Hopefully, if we die out, we’ll be lunch for something. Hopefully, we don’t take all life with us. All those other species don’t deserve to be our collateral damage. They didn’t fuck everything up. We did.
Having said that, I think that, if we want our species to continue on this planet, and I do, we have to find some way to address the problem. And the problem isn’t humans, it’s the way that humans have chosen to live.
We mass produce food, which in turn mass-produces our population. Every living thing is made of food. So, if you grow enough food for a billion humans, you’ll end up with a billion humans. If you grow enough for seven billion, you’ll end up with seven billion.
The problem is, we live in a closed system, a limited space. The planet we live on has a certain “carrying capacity,” a certain amount of life that it can sustain.
So, when we increase our numbers, something else has to decrease. Over a long enough time, if we continue to artificially inflate our own numbers, we start snuffing out other life forms, start taking up the life-space that used to belong to everything else. We become a kind of threat to everything alive, upsetting the balance of everything, eating up and shitting up the entire planet faster than it can heal.
We already have numbers that far surpass where we ought to be. If we had never departed from semi-nomadic hunter-gathering to undertake this mass production scheme, the human population would be somewhere around a hundred million to two hundred million people. That’s a lot of elbow room. That’s a lot of open space for other species, for varieties of life to thrive, for the planet to heal and re-vitalize itself.
We have an excess population of roughly 6.8 billion people.
We humans are not a threat to destroy our world. Our way of life is a threat to destroy our world. Our method of food acquisition, which is the foundation of our swivelization, is driving our runaway train of population growth, and that train will soon go off the tracks if we don’t find some way to stop it. There is only so much of the community of life that surrounds us that we can slash and burn and destroy before we begin destroying the very community we rely upon for our own survival. We are throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water… if the “baby” represented all life on the planet.
We have powerful systems– nation states, economies, centralized production and distribution processes –that form a kind of matrix that perpetuates this mass-production culture, swivelization. These powerful systems do not really serve us, but serve the cultural myth. So, if we really recognize this reality that confronts us, and we see that this larger matrix is really going to bring about, inadvertently, our extinction, then we have to kill that matrix before it kills us.
It is a battle for our survival and the survival of life on the planet. Period.
For life to continue, swivelization must die.
Now, having said that, I’m not suggesting that we somehow persuade seven billion people to forego the mass production of food. We don’t have time for a public education program to get the population of the world on board with going Neolithic. Again, we don’t need numbers. We need action. We need everyone who sees that their own personal survival is dependent upon the collapse of the current disorder to begin attacking the system in subtle ways, interrupting its operation, disrupting its optimum functioning.
We think globally and resist locally.
We can all brainstorm, “If I ran this global system, what are all of the things I would not want to happen in this area where I live? In this workplace? In this school?” The key, I think, is to begin thinking and planning and living as though what each of us does or doesn’t do to bring about systems collapse might be what makes all the difference.
Because it does. It makes all the difference.
Carico: Is a vanguard necessary for a revolution?
Swain: By my thinking, “vanguard” is an idea. When we are part of the “vanguard” we are out in front of others, special, more revolutionary than all of those other, plain, ordinary folks who just aren’t as developed in their thinking as “we” are. So, this concept of being in the “vanguard” is a way to feel superior to others.
Some folks have posited the idea of a “catalytic vanguard.” Ever heard of it? By that idea, a catalytic vanguard seeks to organize itself out of a job. That is, they start off special or superior, but they seek to raise the consciousness of the rest of us rabble so that we all become as important as they are, and then the role of the vanguard disappears.
Maybe I’m too critical.
At any rate, I see the idea of “vanguard” as a way for some people to be more revolutionary than others and then to feel special about their leadership role and the burden of being the saviors of the universe.
Now, the reality is, some of us are more advanced in our thinking than others of us. Some of us have knowledge bases that are more useful than others of us. In discussions on some topics, some of us know less and should therefore do more listening than talking. But in other discussions on other topics, the opposite might be true.
So, for us to have a “vanguard,” there would have to be some of us who are “super-revolutionaries,” who know more than the rest of us in everything that matters, and there has to be the “rest of us,” a group of folks who are generally useless and know less than the vanguard in everything that counts.
That doesn’t describe any community I know. I have never been involved in any group or community where most of the folks were useless and a handful of the folks knew more than the rest. It seems to me that, if you are under the grips of a delusion of your own importance, if you are incapable of listening, then you may feel that you are part of the “vanguard,” but I think that speaks more to your inability to value the knowledge bases of others than it speaks to your own, actual superiority.
If I’m involved in a community where someone else is the vanguard and I’m not, I’m calling them on their shit– because I know things that matter too. And if I’m involved in a community where I’m in the vanguard, we’re probably fucked– because any group that has an idiot like me in the vanguard is not worth joining.
I think human relationships don’t work effectively when a handful are approaching it with the sense of their own superiority and a sense that the others are inferior. Vanguardism institutionalizes such a relationship.
Carico: How do we fight sectarianism, in your opinion?
Swain: Full disclosure, I’ve been accused of being really sectarian.
I’m a firm believer in limiting my own time and my own efforts to projects that are fully anarchist. What I mean by that is, I don’t want to involve myself in reformist activities that might bring about changes in the way the system operates and make the system kinder or gentler. If I involve myself in that kind of activity, accomplishing goals that bring us a more progressive hierarchical program, then I’m involved in maintaining the hierarch system that’s murdering all life on the planet. I’m an accomplice to omnicide.
If we’re going to have a pseudo-socialist food-bank or a community this-or-that that can somewhat accommodate those most impacted by the injustices of the system, the “flotsam and jetsam” who are abandoned by the program, then we’re doing the work of pseudo-socialists. Why don’t we leave the pseudo-socialist work to them? Why don’t we undertake anarchist work, identifying the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the larger structure that holds us hostage and drives us toward our own collective doom, and, when nobody is looking, kick the shit out of it?
My point being, if we are advocating for better hierarchy and if we are struggling for the goal of a better hierarchy, and if we devote our lives to the reform of the hierarchy, we’re getting in the way of some poor hierarchs and taking all of their joy in life. It’s like vegetarians working in the butcher shop.
Having said that, I’d like to clarify that I think anarchists are as anarchists do. Anarchy is an action verb. Well, really, it’s a noun. If we’re going to get technical. But for purposes of a neat sound byte: Anarchy is an action verb.
I don’t care what you think or what you believe. Thoughts and beliefs have little impact on reality. We live in a pathological culture that puts a lot of emphasis on the contents of our minds, as if “believing” alters reality. It doesn’t. Action alters reality.
So, in this practical reality, I have no problem working with anybody who is willing to undertake a project that will hasten the collapse of the swivelization program. You can hate me. You can have tattoos that demonstrate your personal hatred for me. I don’t care. The question, for me, is: What is the anticipated result of the project we undertake, and will it contribute to the collapse of the swivelization program that threatens to murder my offspring before they’re born?
If the answer is, “Yes, it will,” then I don’t care about your views on abortion or your religious preference or your stance on gay marriage or what pronouns you prefer. You’re my ally. Not based upon “beliefs” but based upon action. What we do.
To be sectarian, to act like we have the luxury of picking and choosing our friends and being exclusive, accepting only those who think just like we do– it’s delusional. It’s presumptive, as if we have all the time in the world to take down this giant, global program that’s murdering the future.
We don’t have that kind of time. We can’t be picky or selective. We’ve already let this murder machine grind along for eight thousand years. So, there has to be some impatience, a sense of urgency for us.
It might already be too late.
We might already be doomed to be the fossils that some future-evolved species digs up and puts on display.
Let’s stop arguing about stupid bullshit that doesn’t matter and blow up the Death Star.
If we truly care about life on the planet existing tomorrow and the next day and the next, we’ll knock off the nonsense that stops us from getting important work done. If we don’t care, then I refer you to my lack of sympathy for the beached whale a couple of questions back. We deserve to sputter out.
Carico: What are your thoughts on communalization and networking intentional communities?
Swain: I’m a big fan of practicality. I like “what works.” However others choose to organize themselves according to whatever shared principles and for whatever reasons, it is my hope that those relationships result in their own personal joy and fulfillment while serving the greater goal of contributing to our long-term survival, which means the failure of the larger system of hierarchy and mass production.
However it is that we choose to live, whatever experimentation we pursue in our social relationships, we engage in trial and error, and even our errors benefit us and inform our next evolution in social experimentation.
As humans, we are social creatures. Prior to swivelization, we formed tribes. Tribes were the social units that informed our identities and our senses of our own purposes. We have been adrift for roughly eight thousand years– some of us, anyway –but our tribal inclinations are very much in our DNA, the same way that wolves form packs and bees live in hives and lions have prides. The tribe, for humans, was the central social location, where meaningful activity occurred. It was both an extension of each of the individuals who belonged to it, and it was the sum of its parts, a kind of organic collection of smaller units to form a larger one.
Wherever you have humans, you have tribes. Tribes are the vehicles of our long-term survival. If we’re good at it, the social formations we create will be the vehicles of our long-term survival, the space within which we prepare to resist and forage and live and love and reproduce and die. And if we’re really good at it, our tribes will be the spaces that prepare us for life beyond swivelization, for after the collapse, and it will be the social spaces that make us so content that we will not consider returning to the drudgery of swivelization, and it will be the formations that will defend our post-swivelization way of life and defeat any other attempts to restore swivelization.
If the commune or intentional communities we create serve our needs in that way, then our long-term survival and the survival of our social organization are served, whatever we are calling it.
Carico: Can you give us your thoughts on the most effective tactics you’ve seen or thought of in terms of the following:
Swain: Before I address the content of the question, I must provide the following disclosure for any reader, and particularly for the corrections staffers who screen all of my outgoing emails, including this one: While the following answer to a specific question recounts the activities of a group calling itself the Army of the 12 Monkeys, and while prison disciplinary processes have already found me guilty on numerous occasions for violations of prison rules related to the 12 Monkeys’ activities, the following is in no way to be construed as advocacy for the activities or for the Army of the 12 Monkeys, and it is in no way presented to imply that the writer is affiliated with or involved in any way with the organization or the activities described.
Okay. That should cover my ass.
Now, a totally dispassionate, non-advocating account that covers the five categories listed above…
Early September 2012 I was held hostage at Mansfield Corruptional Institution in Mansfield, Ohio. It’s a pretty big place. The population is roughly 2500 prisoners in 16 cell blocks. Eight blocks are on the north side, eight on the south side. It’s essentially two prisons inside of a prison; each side has its own chow hall and own recreation area, so if you and I are both there, but one of us is on the south side and one of us on the north side, we might never see each other for years. Additionally, the Three Tier system was in operation, which divided the population again– the model prisoners were designated “3A” security and the behavior problems were designated “3B.” So, there were four 3A blocks on each side of the compound and four 3B blocks on each side, and these two security levels also never mixed.
What we had was really, in practice, four prisons inside of the larger prison. This made it virtually impossible to coordinate anything that would be prison-wide. If 3A prisoners on the north side, for instance, wanted to wild-out, they had no way to spread the word to 3B on the north side or the 3A or 3B blocks on the south side. That’s how divided the population was at Mansfield in 2012.
Then the Army of the 12 Monkeys happened.
Quick note of disclosure, prison fascists insist that I am Monkey #4 of the Army of the 12 Monkeys and that I was the one who wrote the manuals and flyers and all of the other materials that popped up in every single block– by the thousands –on the same day, completely out of the blue. Thousands of copies of all of the materials, in all sixteen blocks.
Not only is this a kind of logistical miracle, given the security divisions there, but also because the investigators at every prison have informants in the prison population, distributed seemingly everywhere, constantly reporting on what prisoners are doing. So, think about this: In order to get materials inside each block, you would need a minimum of sixteen conspirators. That’s already a lot of people. But, you’d need sixteen people somehow coordinating where that’s impossible, so you’d also need go-betweens– how many, I don’t even know. But with every person you add to a conspiracy, you increase the chances of including an undercover snitch… and you greatly include the chances of a snitch hearing something or noticing something.
The fact that these materials popped up in all sixteen blocks simultaneously speaks to the fact that the investigators were absolutely blind-sided. The prison administration didn’t see it coming.
Some of the blocks set up a kind of “12 Monkey library” in one of the reading rooms, or laid out the materials on the block ping-pong table, where prisoners came browsing through, dropping off what they had already read and picking up more materials. This went on for a couple of days before staff realized what the materials were… and went into absolute panic-mode.
Now, the contents… One of the manuals was entitled the “Orchestrating Manual,” and it described methods for organizing horizontal groups– guerrilla columns –and how to expand the network of rebels through the strategy of insulated cells, a method used by groups like Al Qaeda. Another manual was a “Direct Action” manual that presented all of the tactics for crippling the prison– the tactics geared best for individuals, small groups, and mass actions, and how to maximize those actions to build resistance to mass participation.
There were also flyers distributed in each block. One flyer had the Guy Fawkes mask on it. On one side, it said, “If you are a PRISONER, consider this an invitation…,” and on the other side it said, “If you are a WARDEN, consider this a threat…,” and then, down below that, it listed all of the things prisoners can do to make the prison unmanageable– jamming locks, breaking machinery in the Ohio Penal Industries factory, running water and electricity all day, uniting gangs, and so on. One flyer showed a helicopter in the sites of a slingshot with a caption below it that said, “JUST DO IT.” At the top was a quote from Malcolm X talking about how if you stay radical long enough and get others to be like you, “you’ll get your freedom,” and at the bottom it said: “This message of hope has been brought to you by the Army of the 12 Monkeys.”
The flyers were also incorporated into the manuals, so anyone getting a manual had a “starter-pack” of flyers they could copy and distribute.
What impressed me personally was that the flyers made the 12 Monkeys seem like something cool to join, something fun. I didn’t read the manuals, as my security had been lowered to Level 2 and I didn’t want to get caught with the materials in my possession, so I didn’t pick them up.
It’s my understanding that the manuals were posted online at the following:
Also, there were links to these manuals from anarchistnews.org and maybe even from seanswain.org. So, those manuals can be printed off and read. I heard rumors that there are traveler kids who finance their cross-country escapades by selling 12 Monkey materials at infoshops as they go. That indicates to me that there are folks out there in the larger prison of swivelization who see applications for the strategies and tactics described in the manuals.
But, again, I have no way to know… because I didn’t read them.
Some observations on what I saw, however: It appeared that the 12 Monkeys made no argument for why prisoners ought to resist. The conventional wisdom is, you have to tell people why they ought to be angry, right? But, the 12 Monkeys didn’t. The 12 Monkeys appear to have assumed that oppressed people already know why they should be pissed, and so by-passed such an explanation to get to the important information about what to do about it.
I’ve given that some thought. Why did they do that? And it occurred to me: If somebody is already pissed, then you just need to give them an action plan; and if they aren’t pissed, and don’t know why they should be, they’re not going to participate anyway.
So, rather than waste time on some complicated critique of the prison industrial complex, the 12 Monkeys simply said, “This is what we need to do about this…”
So, that’s pretty unique.
Also, something else I’ve considered about the Army of the 12 Monkeys: They didn’t have organizers or leaders or recruiters pontificating in the blocks, trying to build cadres or vanguards or other such structural organizing. In fact, unless you saw the sneaky bastard who dropped the pile of literature on the ping-pong table, you had no clue as to who any of these people are. So, unlike the gangs you find in prison, the 12 Monkeys weren’t attempting to build a kind of permanent organization with ranks and leadership and so on.
They only wanted to exist long enough to tear the prison apart.
And “membership” wasn’t really membership. You didn’t stop being a gang member to become a monkey. What I mean is, you might see prisoners from rival gangs participating in resistance activities that the 12 Monkeys promoted. In that sense, you would only be a “monkey” during those moments when you were accomplishing the resistance activities, and at the conclusion of your successful effort, you would walk away and return to being what you were before.
So, everyone was potentially a monkey. And no one.
At first, as the thousands of pages floated through the cell blocks, nothing happened. It was almost as if the prisoners thought they were being “punked,” that it might just be a joke. So, there were days of conspicuous calm.
Then the proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan. Things escalated very quickly. Two weeks after the materials appeared, the FBI was on site in a “consulting” capacity, attempting to assist prison officials in containing the 12 Monkey rebellion and catch the conspirators who started it.
I have often thought about why the FBI would show up at a Podunk prison in the middle of Klanville, Ohio. How would the federal government have any interest in a prison rebellion at a shit-hole like Mansfield? The only thing I can come up with is this: Prisons are everywhere… and the federal government runs prisons too… and if the 12 Monkeys’ methodology was to somehow go beyond Mansfield to some other prison… and then another… it might just be the end of prisons, period.
Normal prison operations at Mansfield quickly grinded to a halt. Staples in the locks of unit staff offices made it impossible for case managers and unit managers and unit sergeants to function. No conduct reports could get heard if the sergeants couldn’t get into their offices.
In the chow hall, someone clogged the drains and flooded the kitchen, causing the plumbing to collapse. The prison had to spend hundreds of thousands to dig up the floor and replace the plumbing, and then somebody dumped dry cement from masonry down the drains again and collapsed the plumbing.
The OPI factory lost several days of production because the locks were jammed… then the machinery was broken… then there was the fire– someone lit a kite box on fire in the building where the factory was located. That was pretty symbolic, as the kite box contains the kites sent as communication from prisoners to staff.
“We have nothing to say to you.”
The guard shacks on the compound were under constant assault, bombed with paint balloons, broken into, the couch covered in urine, the inside of the refrigerator revealing a steaming turd, the guards’ lunches stolen. Those eye-sores were seen by every prisoner walking to and from chow… and they knew that the 12 Monkeys had attacked the guard shacks.
Prisoners were attacking the prison.
And it looked fun.
The number “12” was emblazoned on the outsides of buildings in view of the prisoners, scrawled on bathroom walls at recreation and the library, written on the walls of the tv rooms in the blocks. The 12 Monkeys were seemingly everywhere.
Breakfast one morning was delayed until almost ten o’clock because all the locks on the doors to the dry goods and refrigerators in the chow hall were jammed. And everyone knew who had done it.
One guard who enjoyed assaulting prisoners was found knocked out near a guard shack and when responding officers arrived, they heard shouts from prisoners in the distance, “12 Monkeys, bitch!”
Staff were dispatched to stand around in the grass on the compound with paintball guns, looking like idiots. They didn’t even know what they were supposed to shoot at. They had the scared eyes of occupying troops.
Administrators were conspicuously absent, seemingly barricaded in their distant offices away from the growing rebellion.
Prisoners were attacking the prison.
They had no demands, no agenda that, if met, could get everyone back into their assigned seats. So, prison administrators were powerless to meet demands that were never so much as articulated. The message, it seemed, was that the Army of the 12 Monkeys would continue attacking the prison simply because it was there.
On 19 September, roughly two weeks after the rebellion began, prison fascists apprehended me, confiscated my typewriter, and tossed me in a torture cell behind the medical clinic– a cell where two prisoners died a week apart just two months later. On 20 September, two other prisoners were dragged to segregation.
The three of us were charged with engineering the 12 Monkey rebellion.
In our absence from population, the rebellion escalated; prisoners used batteries and rocks found on the yard to smash windows and then vandalize offices. Four months after we were segregated, other prisoners were sent to segregation, accused of further 12 Monkey activities. Only one of them was charged.
Four prisoners, myself included, were sent to higher security as having orchestrated 12 Monkey activities. Now, think about this: There were sixteen blocks, so at least sixteen prisoners had to participate in distributing materials. Let’s assume the four of us who were captured really did what we were accused of doing, just for the sake of argument.
Where are the other twelve that we know had to be involved?
Investigators went to each block during lockdown and called every single prisoner in for interviews. Those investigators were under the withering shadows of FBI consultants. The snitches were rallied.
There had to be at least twelve other conspirators. How did they avoid getting caught?
In the history of Ohio prison, this might have been the most disruptive event next to the Lucasville Uprising… and at least 75% of those who had to have participated got away scott-free because nobody told.
Even when the three of us who were initially accused went to our disciplinary hearings, with the FBI monitoring all developments and probably promising pretty nice rewards for cooperation, there was not a single confidential informant statement. Not one.
I suspect that hundreds of prisoners had to have a decent idea about the identities of many of the prisoners who had been involved, and hundreds more had something to gain by simply corroborating what prison officials and the FBI wanted to hear.
To me, that’s just as dangerous as the rebellion itself– the fact that a common identity had been forged to such a degree, a sense of common loyalty among complete strangers, that not even one prisoner who maybe had a history of snitching was willing to break ranks and point the finger at a single rebel.
I have been under perpetual FBI investigation since September 2012. They’re convinced that I engineered the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Their flunky for the Ohio prison system, Trevor Clark, has told me that they will never remove the 12 Monkey designation from my file. So, I have registered the Army of the 12 Monkeys as an unincorporated association with the Ohio Secretary of State, registering it as an “animal enterprise,” so that interference with the 12 Monkeys is a federal crime with a terrorism specification.
It is my hope that folks will be inspired to form columns of the Army of the 12 Monkeys everywhere, maybe linking it with the FAI and Cells of Fire, maybe using the Army of the 12 Monkeys as a kind of uniting organization, so that anybody resisting oppression anywhere invokes the Army of the 12 Monkeys.
Again, in case you missed it, the materials were here, with links to them from anarchistnews.org and maybe seanswain.org:
On all the materials was the slogan: “We are everywhere. We are growing.”
Imagine if that was true…
Carico: Any shout out or words of inspiration for aspiring comrades?
Swain: Robert Taber made the analogy of the flea. It’s small, powerless. It can be on the back of a pit bull, a ferocious and powerful beast with muscles and claws and teeth. But if the flea can bite and hop and bite and hop, it can feed off of that pit bull. The weapons that the pit bull possesses– mighty muscles and claws and teeth –aren’t really designed for killing fleas. Each time the pit bull uses his weapons against the flea, he ends up scraping himself or biting himself.
If the flea can stay alive long enough to join with others, there’s the chance of reproducing. For the flea, survival is an act of rebellion.
For the pit bull to prevail, he must kill not just one flea or even a thousand; he must kill every last flea. If just one survives, it becomes another infestation and another.
So, the longer a flea bites and hops, reproduces, bites and hops, the worse the situation gets for the mighty pit bull. Until, finally, overwhelmed and demoralized, weak from the thousands of tiny bites, the weary pit bull lies down, tired, and goes to sleep…
We don’t regret the things we do. We regret the things we didn’t do. So, the situation that confronts all of us now, the situation of non-freedom where we stare down an Apache attack helicopter under the control of the privileged and ruling elite– can you live with that? Someday, in the future, if there is one, can you live with yourself if you don’t resist right now– small, subtle rebellions that add up and accumulate and make of you a greater burden on the system than a contributor… so that, day after day, with everything each of us does, the machine grows more cumbersome, more unwieldy, and eventually… it grows weary… lays down, tired, and goes… to… sleep… ?
What each of us does right now matters.
It all matters.
What each of us doesn’t do matters.
It all matters.
I guess that’s all. Thank you for this opportunity.
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Write to Sean!
Sean Swain #243-205
P.O. Box 120
Lebanon, Ohio 45036