Filed under: Analysis, Anarchist Movement, Animal Liberation, Critique, Incarceration, Interviews, Midwest, Political Prisoners, Radio/Podcast, Repression, The State
Continuing our series of interviews for the June 11th International Day of Solidarity with Marius Mason & All Long-Term Anarchist Prisoners, we spoke to a supporter of the Cleveland 4, and Nicole Kissane and Joseph Buddenberg.
The Cleveland 4 are four Occupy Cleveland activists — Connor Stevens, Douglas Wright, Brandon Baxter, and Joshua “Skelly” Stafford — arrested in 2012 after being coerced into plotting a series of bombings by an FBI informant. Doug is serving 11.5 years, Brandon 9 years 9 months, and Connor 8 years 1 month. The judge applied a terrorist enhancement, resulting in longer sentences and harsher prison conditions. Skelly took his case to trial, refusing a plea deal. He was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years.
Nicole Kissane and Joseph Buddenberg are two animal liberation activists indicted in July 2015 under the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act for acts of vandalism against fur stores and the liberation of thousands of mink and other fur-bearing animals. In early 2016, both signed non-cooperating plea agreements and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. In May, 2016, Joseph was sentenced to two years in federal prison. In January, 2017, Nicole was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison.
In the interview, we talked about the ongoing situation of the Cleveland 4, post-release support, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, increasing the connections between the anti-prison and animal rights movements, the best ways to show solidarity with prisoners, and the importance of maintaining support after cases fall from the limelight.
JUNE 11TH: Can you start by telling us about yourself and your experiences with prisoner support?
X: Yeah, so I got involved in doing prisoner support because I had been doing work in the Animal Liberation movement for quite a while and I was good friends with Kevin and Tyler, who were indicted under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act a few years ago. So I got thrown into doing prisoner support just being good friends with them and feeling like I had to do what I could to help my friends out as they were going through that experience. And that kinda opened me up to another world of prisoner support, and since then I’ve been working with them as well as doing support for Nicole and Joseph who were also indicted under the AETA. And I do work with supporting the Cleveland 4.
J11: Can you speak to the importance of prisoner support as part of the anarchist project and other liberatory struggles, and specifically the necessity of supporting long-term prisoners?
X: I feel like prisoner support is really important because we have to recognize that if we’re involved in these resistance movements that are challenging state power, if we are doing that in effective ways, there is going to be push back. And so we have to acknowledge that’s going to mean that our movements are going to have prisoners. So if we’re going to have prisoners, then we need to have prisoner support be part of the foundation of the work that we’re doing.
It needs to be constantly considered as part of our organizing, and we shouldn’t consider state repression as a surprising thing that happens. It should just be something that we take as something that is going to be there, and so we need to incorporate that in our organizing work that we do. For prisoner support just being a constant part of that. Making sure we do what we can to have the infrastructure to engage in supporting people long-term, because if people are going to be in prison for years, then we don’t want people to be forgotten about after a few years. That shows a failure on our part to not be with them, supporting them for every day that they’re in there, and making sure that people never feel forgotten.
Because if people do feel forgotten or support for them starts lacking because they’re been in there for longer, then that’s showing the state is then winning, because it just shows that if they give people long enough sentences then they lose the movement’s support. So we need to constantly be incorporating that in the work we do and making sure that, regardless of the length of someone’s sentences, they can know and trust that people will be there for them until they get out, and beyond that.
J11: Can you tell us more about the prisoners that you support?
X: So, I mentioned the Cleveland 4. I’ve been doing a lot of support for them, and they are a group of four people: Brandon Baxter, Connor Stevens, Doug Wright, and Josh Stafford. They were Occupy activist who the FBI entrapped into a plot to blow up a bridge. This plot was created by the FBI, the FBI supplied fake explosives, and had a paid FBI informant manipulate this group of young people for many months and coerce them into this plot, and then prosecuted them as terrorists. They received terrorist enhancements on their convictions when they were sentenced, and they are all serving about ten years in prison, give or take a year or two, and lifetime probation after that because of the terrorism enhancement.
So definitely ongoing support is needed for them and their case is definitely representative of what happened in the post-9/11 era, where we see the government creating these so-called terrorism plots, and then manipulating people into them. Then, the government can act like they’re capturing terrorists even though the government’s making up the plots, and then keep funding this so-called “war on terror.” We should definitely be breaking down their case. As well, the government has done this in many instances to young Muslim men. And we should just be very critical of what’s happening and pushing back on that because the government’s using it to keep creating this narrative that they need to engage in all these surveillance and COINTELPRO tactics in order to “fight terrorism,” even though the government is the one crafting these plots as well as the ones carrying out the terrorist acts.
I said I do support for Nicole and Joseph, who were indicted under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act because they were accused of freeing animals from fur farms throughout the country, as well as causing other forms of economic damage to stores selling fur. Joseph is doing two years in prison, Nicole got twenty-one months. Then following that up, Joseph has two years of probation, she has three years. And again, with the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, we can see that as well as an example of how the government uses terrorism rhetoric to try to stir up fear around social justice movements, and make people afraid to get involved and to take action, because they’re afraid then that they’ll be prosecuted as terrorists.
But again, we need to look at the bigger picture and break down the government’s goal with the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. It is, essentially, to make people afraid to advocate for animals. Very few people have actually been indicted under it, but it still has had a pretty terrible chilling effect on the movement. So by supporting people like Nicole and Joseph as well as showing that people continue to engage in work towards the liberation of animals, that’s an effective way to push back on the government’s intentions with that.
J11: Brandon Baxter of the Cleveland 4 was recently transferred to Illinois. What are the circumstances around that move, and do you know how Brandon is adjusting to his new location?
X: Yeah, so he was recently transferred to FCI Pekin, which is kind of in the middle of nowhere in Illinois. It’s near Peoria, which might be slightly better known. But he was recently transferred there from Terre Haute in Indiana, and so far the move has been good for him. It’s a much newer facility than Terre Haute, so there are better conditions in the prison, it’s bigger, and he gets to be outside more. He hasn’t been there very long yet, so he’s still in the adjustment phase, establishing new routines, getting settled in there. For anyone, the transfer process can be stressful just because of the actual process of being transferred, and then adjusting to a new environment. But overall he’s doing better being there, and just right now working through settling in.
J11: So I just saw that Josh Stafford, or Skelly, was recently released from the SHU. Can you tell us a little about that situation?
X: I don’t know details of what happened but I know that he was transferred. He was in Florida and now he was transferred to USP McCreary in Kentucky, and I don’t have any updates yet on how he’s doing with that. He just got there this week, so hopefully people are writing to him and everything because, again as I was just saying about Brandon, the transfer process can be very stressful as people are adjusting to being in the new environment. If people can, make sure to be writing letters right now so that he feels support as he is dealing with the same process as Brandon is with having to adjust to being in a new place and getting settled in.
J11: You were talking earlier about Joseph and Nicole, I think Joseph is about half-way through his prison sentence, and Nicole has been in for maybe six months. Can you tell us how they’re doing, and what kind of support they need right now?
X: Yeah, so Nicole, the last update I have about her is that she’s been doing really well. She’s been able to make friends with her bunkmates and she’s reading a lot, and has an exercise routine and has figured out a schedule for herself. She is just handling the circumstances really well, considering. Joseph unfortunately, his time has been a lot rougher. He’s been in the SHU for several months and will likely be in for a bit longer, so that brings a lot of feelings of isolation. The prison has been interfering with his mail a lot, so oftentimes letters that people are sending to him don’t get to him, or he realizes that letters he’s sending out don’t make it to people. So that’s been an additional stressor for him, to feel more disconnected from the community.
But I’d really encourage people to do what they can to keep writing. If you’re writing to him and don’t hear back, that’s likely not his fault. But he still really appreciates hearing from people. Something I’ve found is that sometimes just a card or a postcard will get to him even when letters don’t. So if you can just take a minute to write out a postcard or something to send to him, he really appreciates those shows of support. It means a lot to him when he’s feeling very isolated. He’s also appreciating right now getting a lot of zines and magazines and articles to read. He hasn’t felt as much lately like reading books, but he’s really been appreciating the smaller forms of reading materials. So he needs continued support, and those are unfortunately some more obstacles in showing support for Joseph. But he really appreciates all the mail that does it make through to him.
J11: So the other AETA case: Kevin and Tyler, I think they’re both off house arrest and out of the half-way house now. What are some things that you learned from their cases, and how does support continue even after our friends are released?
X: Tyler is done with all of his sentence now, he’s even off probation. His sentence ended up being three months of time served that he did when he was initially arrested, six months house arrest, and then six months half-way house. He’s now completed all of that and he had a year of probation that ran consecutive to it. Kevin is actually in his last two weeks now of half-way house, he will be out on June 1st. And so he is getting excited for that, he’s started looking for a place to live and everything. Kevin did about three years in prison.
Something that I think is a good lesson from their cases, not to be confused with Nicole and Joseph, is that the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act has the scary “terrorism” word in it, but especially looking at Tyler’s sentence (six months half-way house, six months house arrest, and then the three months of prison) the sentences aren’t that different than what we might see if they were charged not under a terrorism statute. So I think that’s an important thing to note, that sometimes we should look past what the rhetoric is around things and look more at what the sentences actually are. Not that every day in jail or prison someone has to spend isn’t terrible and shouldn’t be happening at all, but I think it is important to break down some of the fear of what “terrorism” convictions actually mean.
Kevin and Tyler are both doing really well right now, but as people are getting out of prison and half-way houses, we do have to continue to show people support because it’s a continued process of adjustment as they start to think about what their relationship with the movement is going to be, and how they want to be involved. We should be supportive and welcoming to them, but also remember that people are dealing with a lot of trauma as they are on the other side of this, and maybe trying to navigate how exactly it makes sense for them to get back involved. For me, with them as my friends it’s just been having those conversations and paying attention to what kind of support they need, and being responsive to that. And that’s something where whether we’re friends with people, or not friends but just watching updates on a website or something, being responsive to what people are asking for is important, and remembering that just because somebody is out of prison doesn’t mean that they don’t need that support.
J11: Do you often find that much of support for anarchist or other political and radical prisoners comes from a small number of people and limited circles? One aspect of this must be trying to generalize it and spread that work, and build connections with other movements and tendencies. Can you speak to the connection between animal rights circles and those of prisoner support, or other examples that you have?
X: Unfortunately a horrible trend in the more mainstream animal rights movement has been that it’s been a very isolated movement, very single-issue focused. And that ends up working out fine for animal rights prisoners because they do get a lot of support, and I’ve seen the difference in different support work that I’ve done. I’ve see how the mainstream animal rights movement overall has a lot of people with a lot of resources, maybe access to money in different forms. So there’s an outpouring of support and donations that really help the animal rights prisoners, to constantly have money on their commissary, to get a lot of letters, to have people offering support in different way.
It’s often frustrating, though, to see how limited a lot animal rights people will be in who they support. They’ll support animal rights prisoners, but then not understand that it’s the same system that’s criminalizing other people and putting people in cages, and not understand that support should be spread out to other people as well. So something I’ve personally tried to do a lot with having connections to the animal rights movements is trying to have more conversations with people. Whenever we’re talking about supporting people like Nicole and Joseph, also talking about supporting the Cleveland 4 or other prisoners. Also trying to use it to start a conversations about broadly why is prisoner support important, why we should be talking about prison abolition.
And I hope that’s something within the animal rights movement that can become more understood, that if we’re opposing putting animals in cages, we should be opposed to putting humans in cages, and we should look at all the issues with state power that come into play. But I’d say that it’s definitely something that needs more work, and luckily there are a lot of animal rights activists who do get it, and support a lot of different prisoners, and talk about prison issues more broadly. As people who already understand it, we should take it as a responsibility we have to talk to other people in the movements that we’re a part of about expanding the support that we do, and constantly challenging the idea that prisons should even exist. A lot of animal rights activists haven’t thought much into that realm yet.
J11: What are some obstacles that you’ve observed in doing prisoner solidarity work? And what do you think we could collectively be doing better?
X: Something that I’ve run into is, I mean as you said in the last question, there are often a limited number of people doing it, and it can burn people out. I know that a lot of the work that I’ve done, I’ve seen a lot of people really excited to be a core part of a support crew, and then within a year they kind of drop out of being involved. And so I think we need to have a lot more conversations what it means to do prisoner support, and that it’s not just something that you can do for the first year while a case is getting more attention, but that it is a long-term thing.
And also be more openly talking about the stresses involved in doing prisoner support, because it’s not easy. A lot of times we’re dealing with heavy issues with people, a lot of times people doing support work are friends or partners of the people in prison, and so there’s even greater emotional stress in doing it. We need to constantly be having those conversations of how can we show each other support, and how do we make sure we do have the emotional capacity to do the support long-term, to be doing it in ways that are as healthy as possible, and to be able to talk about the stress and how we can deal with it, and what we can do to find ways to release. Because it is going to be difficult and it’s going to bring up issues for people, and not everyone’s going to want to do it, but for the people that want to, we should make it something that is sustainable, and that we do talk about it.
J11: Can you speak to how the strengths or failings of prisoner support have personally affected your friends, either currently or previously in prison, or who are doing some of the core support work?
X: Hearing from people who are my friends in prison, it’s great to see their reaction when they do feel support, how excited they are when they get letters, and how much it means to them to be hearing from people, sometimes around the world, who are showing support for them. It can help them still feel connected to a community when they feel so isolated. It’s great to see those examples of people reaching out, that always makes me happy to see for those people, and it makes me glad to know as someone working to support them that people are being responsive to all the effort we’re doing to encourage people to write letters and all that.
But a lot of times the initial support doesn’t continue at the same level, and I’ve seen moments when it seems hard for people when they’re starting to get fewer letters, or people they’re writing to stop writing to them because people just don’t continue with that. So again, that goes back to having a conversation about how we do continued support for people. Whether that means people being a part of support crews and being more directly involved in all the layers of support work, or just being someone who takes time to write letters to prisoners, we should remember that it’s important to keep writing, to keep staying involved in doing whatever we’re doing because it’s not fair for us to start lacking in the support we’re doing while they’re still in prison.
J11: Do you see ways that June 11th can help address these challenges? And what are your hopes for June 11th this year?
X: I think that June 11th and other days where there are pushes for prisoner support are great reminders to people to keep doing what they’re doing, and to encourage thinking about the bigger issues that we’re dealing with. There are definitely layers to this, there’s the layer of: we’re doing this because we want to support our friends and comrades, and we want to make sure that they don’t feel alone, and that they know we have their back. And then there’s the bigger level of: it’s a fucked up system and we need to constantly be doing what we can to expose what the prison industrial complex is, and to be doing work to reduce the strength that it has, and to be challenging its legitimacy, and to have the bigger conversations, whether it’s in our movements or more publically than that, about what we should be doing and how to turn that into action.
It’s great to see campaigns against building new prisons or campaigns to reduce funding the police forces and things like that. And to keep also organizing against prisons in tangible ways that are beyond the support work that we’re doing for prisoners, but also challenging the ability of prisons to function as they do.
J11: What are your broader hopes and vision for June 11th in the years to come?
X: I hope it continues to be something that more and more people know about. In my experience it’s something that mostly the anarchist community knows about, so I’d like to see more of the resistance movements and other social justice movements become more aware of it, and it be something that can be a way to introduce more people to the importance of prisoner support and the other issues that come with that. Prisoner support stuff, I just always hope will be something that encourages people to look further into issues, to get involved in some way, or to write to someone, and that it could be an entry point for them to get more involved in the work.
And for people that are new to it, I encourage people to start writing letters to someone, because hearing someone’s personal experiences from being on the inside and getting to know them as a person rather than just someone who’s labeled a prisoner. That’s the best way to learn about what the system really is, and what it does to people, because I think people are often surprised that things aren’t what they seem, and that some of the worst things about prison sometimes wouldn’t be what people anticipate even before they start writing to someone. But once you start to get to know someone personally, you really see what this system does to people and how it can tear people apart and how important it is to be in touch with people and have those different forms of support, and to do what we can to try and stop it from doing this to people.
J11: Are there any struggles or moments in the recent past that have been inspiring to you?
X: It’s been quite the year of things, something that stands out to me is that I had the opportunity to do legal support at Standing Rock, and that was a place where a lot of new people were getting involved. And it was cool to see how, in an on the ground, in the moment situation, people were figuring out how to do jail support and prisoner support. And when I was doing jail visits with people there, I had some pretty inspiring and amazing conversations with people about why they were there and what that moment to them meant.
I had super intense, emotional conversations with young indigenous people who were in jail out at Standing Rock, and about the brutality that they were experiencing from the police there. But they had such conviction that this is what they needed to be doing, they needed to be out there, and just so inspiring to see how much they understood the violence of the system, yet they were still there pushing back on it. So looking at situations like that where we’re seeing the violence of Standing Rock playing out on social media, to see it closer up and to see just the devotion that people had to what they were doing was just pretty incredible.
J11: Are there any other projects you’re involved in or interested in that you’d like to talk about?
X: I guess the final thing I’d like to say is to encourage people to support the Cleveland 4, and Nicole and Joseph. There are support websites for both of them. Its cleveland4solidarity.org and supportnicoleandjoseph.com. As well as Facebook pages for both, and also there’s a Twitter page for Cleveland 4. Those are great places to watch for updates about what’s going on, and what kind of support they need. You can see addresses for writing to them, you can see book lists, and you can see how to make donations to support them. They need support, and hopefully lots of other prisoners are getting support as well, and I hope this is all continuing to be a part of these bigger conversations that we need to be having about supporting individual prisoners as well as what this means on a broader scale.