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Mar 19, 18

Cutting Class Interview with Autonomous Student Network from Austin

This interview first appeared in Cutting Class, and features an interview with the Autonomous Student Network of Austin.

Over the next few days, we’ll be releasing pieces to highlight the work of some of the organizations involved in the Cutting Class project. We hope this will provide some clarity on where we are coming from and how that affects the way we have organized this project. We also hope this can help provide a beacon for other autonomous groups to get in contact and start collaborating–whether on this or on other projects!

First up is the Autonomous Student Network (Austin). For more info on their history and style, check out their year in review piece!

1. Introduce your crew: what projects are some you working on, how long have you been around, where are you based, etc.

We are the Autonomous Student Network in Austin, Texas. We initially formed under that name around January 2017 and our first action as a group was our participation in the local J20 protests. Prior to that this group existed as a small affinity group for about 6 months before really getting organized. Our name was actually inspired by the comrades in Pittsburgh who sometimes use the name, although we decided to organize under the name in a very distinct way. Most of our work is focused on students at the University of Texas at Austin. Most of our members are students there and live nearby, although we do and have had non-student members and students from Austin Community College campuses.

ASN has two major ongoing projects—each with its own sub-activities. The first project is Autonomous Student Media. This project emerged out of dissatisfaction with the campus news, The Daily Texan, and its reporting on radical activities. Publishing op-eds about the dangers of homeless people, sending reporters who had retweeted David Duke to leftist events, and giving platforms to neo-nazis in their articles were just some of the activities that disgusted us. Those problems inspired us to start constructing an alternative media outlet to express leftist & marginalized student narratives & voices—whether the news that the Texan is prohibited from reporting by their University overlords or stories they don’t think are worth telling. ASM was founded on principles that emphasized autonomy & independence, an explicit rejection of professionalization in media production, and a commitment to ensuring that content did not run counter to basic ethical standards for us—such as refusing to put out anti-homeless pieces or cop propaganda. That project currently has a website, which is semi-active, and a regularly published zine named The Call (the name was inspired by a text published anonymously by The Invisible Committee). They are currently establishing contacts with local homeless youth to try and represent their voices on our platform, so that we can go beyond just being a “student” outlet that ignores our relationships to all the folks the University displaces in our name.

The second project is Autonomous Student Defense. This project was founded out of an earlier commitment within the group to abolitionist politics & anti-cop organizing, along with a recognition—from conversations with our peers especially—of the many dangers students faced in the campus area due to hate crimes, harassment, fascist activity, and more. As more students reported hateful activity on top of the already existing pervasiveness of street harassment & toxicity in West Campus—the student housing & party area next to the UT campus—we also saw an uptick in police presence directed mostly at harassing homeless people, targeting the specter of the (implicitly homeless & black) murder/rapist that had been haunting UT since the 2016 murder of Haruka Weiser, and (as we would later find out) targetting political activists. Recognizing that, ASD aimed to form a student self-organized response that would function as an alternative to the police and would respond to dangers in West Campus with an explicitly political recognition of what kinds of threats mattered—i.e. prioritizing hate crimes and oppressive violence against marginalized folks instead of responding to crimes against property.

This project has seen a lot of changes. It currently has a text alert system set up, through which we provide updates on hate crimes, harassment, & fascist activity around campus. We have also done patrols in West Campus to offer people safe walks home, intervene in & de-escalate dangerous situations, provide self defense, and copwatch. Most recently we’ve started hosting community meetings to build more sustainable community connections and guide our actions. The most recent meeting led us to start working on a wiki project to catalogue incidents & agents of harassment and abuse—local rapists & abusers, professors who make classroom settings unsafe for marginalized students, local neo-nazis, and more—as well as the institutional failure in responding to them. In the future we’re looking into expanding more activities to directly confront incidents of harassment as they happen and hosting training on how to construct a rapid response network against deportations.

Both these projects have in various ways been integrated with other work we do, the main task over the past year being antifascist work. Our Media project has been essential to producing counter-propaganda and responding to rounds of nazi flyering, while our defense program has worked on providing security for community organizations and tracking local nazis in order to out them, send text alerts, and—in the case of one person named Dustin Hamby—get them fired from UT.

Overall ASN currently operates most effectively as a group that can form small, autonomous crews that can carry out actions with relatively low effort but high payoff. Propaganda, communiques, banner drops, and being a militant presence at demos have been our most effective tasks. While we would love to claim some kind of mass student influence or reach, we’re not in a position to do that. But we do stir shit up where we can and we’ve got a decent network of support behind us.

2. What are some challenges you’ve faced (internal or external)?

From the beginning we have been concerned with and trying to address the issue of inter-generational transmission that seems to plague student groups. Our goal has been to ensure that we build the infrastructure, projects, and capacities necessary to ensure that ASN can serve as an organization/space/site for people to work on projects and construct an autonomous political project for years to come, even as older members graduate and leave. We’ve only been around for one year so it may be too early to say this, but we’re confident that we’ve got some working solutions to that problem. This year we experienced many old members leaving the group as well as an influx of new members with a lot of energy. To better integrate folks & build up the capacity of this next generation of organizers, we initially worked on constructing a safe & affirming environment for people to get involved.

We pride ourselves on being an organization where you can get involved in discussions, planning, & activities for any of our projects at the first meeting you show up to. This past year, our media project was taken over by an entirely new crew than ran it last spring, and they brought both new energy and new ideas, and had the opportunity to figure out what works & what doesn’t. We’ve brought people out to their first militant actions, being careful to make sure they have a buddy to guide them through it and that they know what they are getting in to. With every action we center care as well, and we often use actions as an occasion to throw a party as a sort of bonding ritual. We hold space for a variety of different ways of being involved that aren’t just the spectacular activities of confrontation & protest, and try to foster a space where folks do not feel coerced into participating in an action out of fear of not being revolutionary enough or failing our “cause.”

None of that was easy, as one of the earliest challenges we faced internally was dealing with issues of toxic & abusive behavior and accountability. We developed a set of protocols for mediating conflicts and holding folks accountable after it became clear that a member exhibited a pattern of reckless, violent, and emotionally abusive behavior. We dealt with the aftermath of their suspension & refusal to be held accountable for their actions, as well as fractures with other groups who continued to put that individual into organizing spaces and leadership positions even after we asked them not to do so. Since then we’ve attempted to refine our method to ensure we can put in work to actually reach some sort of transformative solution & change people’s behaviors.

Our external challenges come from the general political terrain of Austin. Austin is a liberal cesspool where the most prominent activist forces for the longest time have been either part of the Democratic Party machine or non-profits perfectly located within the activist industrial complex, who jump onto movements & suck the life out of them and leave us as powerless—if not more powerless—than before. The campus left had long been stifled by the local International Socialist Organization chapter, which frequently put a damper on militant energies and functionally worked the same way many of the non-profits did. There have periodically been fractures which opened up alternative formations, most recently posed by the militant left organized under the banner of Maoism. But as we formed as an organization, there was not much of a unified anarchist scene to network or work with. Instead, we’ve had to form sporadic connections—with Maoists and with autonomous organizers—and try to build working relationships across groups. And as we’ve done so, we’ve had to navigate years of pre-existing conflicts and histories between groups that either exploded before our eyes or we’ve tried to heal and move past.

3. What do you think some of the major limits, and major, untapped possibilities for radical campus organizing are today? How can we address those limits and realize those possibilities?

We believe that one major limit to campus organizing is the limitations of student life itself. First, it’s extremely hard to build any sort of long term base among students. Student organizations always face the risk of dissolving after most of their current members graduate. The cycling of classes of students every few years makes it very hard to retain or transmit institutional or historical memory, such that it feels like every few years we are playing out the same conflicts and the same problems on campus that happened less than a decade ago.

Organizing students is even more difficult because of how complicated that category itself is. Students are not a homogenous entity, and staking one’s hopes on some abstract ideal of “student” mobilizations will leave you even more disappointed and exhausted from encounters with students who are very clearly entrenched in their institutional power. There are extremely important fault lines between different groups of students, and “students” is a very fragile category to attempt to build a fictitious unity under. Most students are very happy with their position and the promise society has offered them. Their upbringing has made political questions inconsequential to them and they rarely experience a direct or pressing need to get involved in any radical way. They are very happy pursuing the normal trajectory of student professionalization and become one of those future businessmen, politicians, scientists, or whatever other job they feel will guarantee their position in life. Instead of wasting our time there, our potential lies in finding those fault lines between different students and organizing around them—escalating those conflicts in a way that threatens the students in power, the administration of the University, and the world the University serves. Those fault lines—ones based on white supremacy, capitalism & class status, gender, and more—are the most fruitful areas of intervention to point people towards possibilities beyond the University & towards building autonomy amongst the most marginalized students.

Other major limitations have been the apathy of students who, after a few years of exposure to the horrid realities of the world we live in & the failures of the University, have cynically accepted these problems as realities we cannot change. The sense of outrage that emerges every so often at the most recent crisis on campus fades away into a background cynicism, a sort of coping mechanism for students to survive and push through until they get their degree and leave. On the flipside are the students who see the problems of the world but fall into the University’s trap of professionalization—going into non-profit and NGO activism, internships & future job opportunities, reformist politics, or even entering student government. How we’ve sought to address this is by demonstrating that there are alternatives, and that collectively we can have the capacity to fight back & change these conditions. Through demonstrations of our capacities—even in small groups—we can potentially inspire people to get involved and move beyond apathy and professionalization, and hopefully break with the endless cycle of outrage without action.

If the University is a factory for the production of citizens, professionals, and the infrastructure to sustain this society, then we have to find ways to jam that production process. This means breaking the University’s monopoly on knowledge, by either bringing knowledge outside of the University and into the communities they are relevant to or by engaging with forms of knowledge & learning that emerge from outside of the University & it’s drive to know, classify, and control. We also have the potential to show students other paths they can follow after graduation that enable them to hold on to their militancy and insurrectionary energy. We can demonstrate ways to use various skills or forms of knowledge imparted by one’s education in service of autonomy & autonomous projects, rather than professionalization. Providing options for people to survive and still hold to their principles, instead of becoming the archetypal sell-out or “anarchist college kid who becomes a regular middle class professional with a family.”

4. How does your project connect with/support radical movements in your city and beyond? Are there good relationships worth mentioning? Bad ones?

As an organization, we’ve been working hard on building networks with local organizations and being better coordinated for big events—such as May Day or antifascist actions. We’ve had a longstanding relationship with the local infoshop at Monkeywrench books, who often help print, distribute, and display publications of our zine. We’ve had somewhat consistent connections with campus organizations like the Palestine Solidarity Committee, with whom we strive to show solidarity when possible and collaborate where it is effective. More recently we’ve started making some connections with groups like the local chapter of Black Rose and the IWW, local groups like Grassroots Leadership and Black Sovereign Nation, and more. For a long time we’ve been interaction with various groups all interested in doing antifascist work, but we are starting to reach out beyond that to get involved in other currents of mobilization—particularly broader anti-racist work and anti-deportation organizing.

5. What are some short and long-term objectives your crew has been working towards?

Our short term objectives have largely been project-focused. We’re working on expanding our capacities to do student defense work by getting more community engagement, while balancing our enthusiasm for action with an awareness of our limited capacities. We are working on putting out the next edition of our zine and on soliciting more submissions & engagement with our website. Beyond that, we’re trying to be flexible in terms of engaging the movement waves in Austin. In the interim, we’re also trying to build more organizational memory and capacity that can be transmitted to newer members, so that everyone has the skills and knowledge they need to work on their projects effectively.

In terms of long term objectives, we’re currently just trying to grow, figure out a way to sustain ourselves for the future generations of members, and set up the infrastructure for our two projects to really have an impact on the campus environment.

6. What is your relationship to the rest of the campus left?

This is a tricky question given the weird nature of the campus left at UT. Most of us know each other and we have good working relationships with most groups. We’ve historically had a good relationship with groups like the Palestine Solidarity Committee, Queer & Trans Student Alliance, and Revolutionary Student Front. Last year we were involved in a big coalition of leftist campus organizations, through which we formed a lot of our contacts & affinities. However, that coalition fell apart last Spring and since then we have been dealing with a more fractured & insulated leftist terrain on campus, one which we are trying to overcome despite the ongoing conflicts—in organizing style & structure—between various groups on campus.

7. How can folks support your work?

Folks can follow most of our activities on FacebookTwitter, and our wordpress. Also check out our media project’s website. Sometimes we’ll post about broader calls to actions/social media responses that we would appreciate to see signal-boosted. If folks want to help us out materially, some funds would help us build capacity in the form of equipment for our media project, self-defense tools, and materials for banners & propaganda.

If you’re in the Austin area (especially if you’re a student, go to UT, or are thinking about going to UT), hit us up and come to a meeting or something! We’d love to have you.

While you’re here, we need your support. To continue running the website, we need support from community members like you. Will you support It’s Going Down, and help build independent media? donate?

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Cutting Class is a counterinfo project for the ungovernable generation - launching March 2018

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