Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jim Campbell, Remembered

A debonaire looking Jim, 1981

It is two years today since Jim Campbell died of a heart attack, bicycling in rural Ontario with his partner Julie. He was 57, and had been looking forward to retiring in a few years, to finally being able to move out of the city.

When i used to visit toronto in the 1980s, Jim was always a great guy to look up and to hang out with. i was a teenager at the time, and he seemed to make the idea of being on the left for the long haul (after all, he must have been in his thirties!) without becoming a lunatic seem accessible and possible.

Plus he was funny as hell, with a sense of humour that could manage the improbable, combining cynicism with hope. i remember on more than once occasion he'd ask - rhetorically, and with a grin - who would be in charge of garbage removal "after the revolution." The question would be answered quickly enough: "I guess people like me will, just like now." A joke born of experience, as you can see below in his reflections on the "lazy faire" middle-class anarchist scene he was a part of for most of his life.

Still on the topic of "the revolution," i remember him joking that when it broke out and things were at their heaviest, he would make the grand sacrifice and volunteer for the dangerous job of going on the European Solidarity Tour. It wasn't self-deprecation, more like a cunning and sweet deflating of the romantic silliness people get into their heads about what the rev will entail.

i knew Jim, and saw him most often, in the 1980s and early 90s. For many of these years his main political activity was putting out Bulldozer/Prison New Service, a news-bulletin (and later newspaper) of writings and artwork by prisoners. It included amongst its authors some of the sharpest revolutionary minds locked down in Amerika at the time. i first read the words of Shaka Shakur, Kuwasi Balagoon, Standing Deer and others in those pages. Eventually with over 2,000 subscribing prisoners, and financed almost wholely out of Jim's wages as a city maintenance worker, PNS/Bulldozer was one of the most important radical publications of its day.

One of my last "political" memories of Jim was when some of us went to table at the Anti-Racist Action conference in Toronto in 1996. Jim had never been a part of ARA, but was certainly a part of "the scene" (i still remember him bumming a cigarette to help calm me down after police on horseback attacked ARA's '93 anti-HF demo), plus he was still one of most respected revs in Toronto, even though he had not been exempt from the internecine fighting which would shortly rip that scene apart. i was tabling with a crew of former ARA members, who were on pretty bad terms with their erstwhile comrades - but with Jim carrying in our pamphlets and magazines (which he got in shit for), we were able to table the entire weekend with no hassles.

Nevertheless, when political conflicts came to a head in Toronto, ripping through the ARA milieu (which was the most dynamic political force on the far left at the time), Jim like many others was left feeling emotionally burnt, and burnt out. i have been told that it was largely this experience which led to his withdrawing from political organizing at that time ... i have also been told that shortly before his death there was some reconciliation, and some tentative attempt to get back in the loop ... But about all this i don't really know, as for me those were busy years - personally and politically - and so with much regret i feel like i hardly saw him during his last decade.

From what i understand, Jim wrote a lot - but mainly in the form of letters to comrades in prison whom he corresponded with. While much of the editorial comment in PNS was undoubtedly by his hand, it wasn't all, and it generally wasn't signed, and so it's difficult to know. Probably his most well-known text is his essay about the Vancouver Five, initially a talk he gave to the Anarchist Lecture Series in Toronto in 1999, then published in the Spring 2000 issue of Kick It Over magazine, and which a group of us subsequently reprinted as a pamphlet (The Vancouver Five: Armed Struggle in Canada - looking online i see it has also been translated into Spanish).

But IMO an even better text is "Fifteen years of Bulldozer and more: The personal, the political, and a few of the connections", a reminiscence by Jim that appeared in PNS #49 in January/February 1995. The article can be viewed and printed as a PDF, but i am also reposting it here. Eitehr way, it is well worth reading in its entirety, not only as movement history, but also as one man's explanation of how he came across his politics:

Fifteen years of Bulldozer and more:
The personal, the political, and a few of the connections*

Fifteen years ago, in February 1980, the Bulldozer collective was formed when 4 or 5 activists from various places in southern Ontario met up in Toronto and decided that we should start working together on prison-related issues since we had individually begun to do so. We were so inspired by the letters we were receiving from prisoners that we decided that should share them more widely, that summer we put out the first issue of a newsletter called Bulldozer - the only vehicle for prison reform.

Much has changed since that time - and generally for the worst. Prison populations have increased in Canada by over 50 per cent, and by much more than that in the U.S. Conditions have deteriorated due to overcrowding and program-slashing. Control Units have proliferated and sentences have gotten longer. More than ever, prisons seem to be an inevitable part of the lives of the poor and marginal. Their role in disrupting and containing the colonized peoples - Native, New Afrikan, and Latino - is as effective and disguised as ever.

With only a few exceptions - i.e. the closing of the Lexington Control Unit for women - the struggle against prisons, inside or out, has been weak and ineffective. Only a few states like New Jersey have any connection with the earlier prison struggles. The prison struggle in Canada which was strong in the late '70s and early '80s met with a combination of reform and repression that killed whatever energy was left. Resistance in the Washington state system which represented one of the final thrusts of the prisoners' movement that reached back to the days of George Jackson was eventually disrupted by forced transfers and overt brutality. Since then conscious and active prisoners have generally found themselves isolated, either deliberately so in Control Units, or simply because the majority of prisoners prefer to remain asleep. Sadly enough, there are many prisoners who have been on our mailing list since the '80s.

On the outside, a small number of very dedicated individuals and groups have kept going, but there has been no movement to speak of until very recently. Prisoner-support work has not been that popular with the left, nor with social activists in general, and as in most movements out here, a year or so seems to satisfy most people's interest in doing the work. In spite of the hard work on campaigns to free particular POWs, such as Leonard Peltier, most of them remain in prison, a constant reminder of our weakness.

But Bulldozer has not survived fifteen years by dwelling on the negative, and I don't intend to. Recently, there have been positive developments on both sides of the border which suggest that we are able to take some political initiative in the crime and punishment debate. The meeting in Philadelphia in December, 1994, in which anti-prison activists from across the U.S. (and Toronto) came together to set up the Control Unit Monitoring Project (CUMP) is certainly a significant step.

CUMP is a major political initiative and will be a test as to whether or not a movement can be built on the outside, working with prisoners, to close down Control Units. The development of this campaign requires a political strategy. As one of the longest standing collectives involved in anti-prison work, Bulldozer has a certain responsibility to assist in this development. Yet we are hampered because we are based in Toronto, and after more than fifteen years involvement with the American left, there is still much that is totally mystifying about radical politics in the U.S.; the enormous division between the various races is particularly perplexing. One of the ways in which we've maintained credibility over the years is because we don't talk about what we don't know. We hesitate to make suggestions as to what outside activists in the U.S. should be doing to advance the struggle, beyond very general principles, because the political realities in the two countries are very different.

With this in mind, I would like to use this article as the beginning of an irregular series that would articulate some of the politics we've developed over the years. It is not intended as a "What is to be Done" but more where we've come from and what we've seen work. PNS does reflect our politics, but they have been more implicit than explicit. We've never written long essays telling prisoners what they should think. Rather, we've tried to provide a forum in which prisoners, individually and collectively, could articulate and develop their politics. We were always more interested in what we could learn, rather than what we could teach. If individual prisoners could learn from us, so much the better, but that would come from ongoing dialogue and communication. The political direction of the paper would be determined by prisoners, even if the decision as to what would or would not be printed was always ours.

Counter cultural politics

Bulldozer's politics are rooted in the counter-culture, going back to a student house begun in the fall of 1971 in Kitchener, Ont. which developed into one of the first anarchist collectives in Canada, with a heavy emphasis on radical psychology and existential philosophy (and sex and drugs and rock and roll.) All through the '70s, the collective tried to maintain a political orientation to counter cultural politics, even as the individualism that was glorified in these movements allowed for the reassertion of race, class and gender privilege, and a reintegration into business-as-usual for many former radicals and activists. In 1979, we moved to the country, and set up a communal dirt-farm with the expectation that it would be a viable rural community from which we could maintain a political practice.

The first issue of Open Road, a kick-ass, and very well produced, anarchist news-journal came out of Vancouver in August of 1976, transforming radical politics in Canada. Many of the articles in that first issue - Leonard Peltier's impending extradition to the U.S., George Jackson Brigade actions, an interview with Martin Soastre, a Puerto Rican anarchist and former POW, coverage of Native and prisoners' struggles - would not look out of place in the PNS today. My own sense of political possibilities and necessities were opened up by the year (1977) which I spent working with Open Road in Vancouver. But there was little opportunity to put them into practice when I returned to Ontario. I became increasingly dissatisfied with the self-indulgence of the counter culture and the anarchist-purism that celebrated it. I missed the more activist-oriented politics of the Vancouver scene but moved to the country anyway to follow the politics of collectivity through to the end.

The farm floundered right from the beginning due to a lazy-faire attitude and middle class arrogance. With self-expression and "do-your-own-thing" as the highest values, most communal members were unable to respond to the realities of a situation determined by an unrelenting hostile climate, and the cycle of the seasons. Having grown up poor and living-in-the-country, it didn't seem to be such a big deal to be back, poor, and living-in-the-country. I left totally disillusioned at the end of 1981, moved to Toronto permanently, cut my hair, and got a full-time job shortly after. I had started to write to prisoners and the first issue of Bulldozer came out while I was still living there. I was keen to continue with the work.

Open Road motivated the creation of a more action-orientated, militant politic in Vancouver such as the Anarchist Party of Canada (Groucho-Marxist) which carried out a series of "pieings" - literally throwing a pie in the face of a politician or celebrity, with Eldridge Cleaver being the most famous "hit" - in order to make a political point. As simple as this may sound, it brought about political and personal transformations from planning and carrying out the actions to dealing with the consequences - confrontations with reactionaries and authorities. The more serious people in the scene started to do support work for the prisoners in the old B.C. Pen whose struggles eventually resulted in its closure. From then on, prisons have been an essential part of the work taken on by our circles.

Out of this came Direct Action, an armed group which in 1982 blew-up an electrical substation on Vancouver Island ($5 million in damages) and a Litton Industries factory north of Toronto that built components for the Cruise Missile ($10 million in damages and several injuries). Some of the same people were also involved in the Wimmin's Fire Brigade firebombing of three video stories specializing in violent porn. They were arrested in January, 1983, immediately putting us into doing support work. In June of 1983 Bulldozer was raided and threatened with a charge of Seditious Libel (calling for the armed overthrow of the state) for the distribution of support-leaflets we were putting out. A mid-wife, living with us at the time, was arrested and charged with "performing an abortion" in an attempt to get information from her about our links to Direct Action. After several thousand dollars in legal fees, and a year of high-stress, all the serious charges were dropped in connection to the raid. After losing several legal challenges over the legality of evidence, the Vancouver Five, as they had come to be called, pled guilty to several charges related to the actions.

Bulldozer was being published irregularly during this time. The 8th and final issue came out in 1985. I was personally and politically exhausted, and Bulldozer as a political project disappeared for two years. Fortunately, a very active group of young high school students in Ottawa had been influenced by the politics put out around the trials of the Vancouver Five. Even as our own political motivation had disappeared in despair, they took the ideas and started working with them, leading to the appearance of Reality Now! an anarchist zine that was very influential. Eventually, their enthusiasm helped to regenerate my own politics. After two years of inactivity the tedium of a comfortable working class life was becoming all too apparent. When Bill Dunne needed an outsider to help him with The Marionette, a prisoners' newsletter he was doing from Marion, I rejoined the struggle. PNS then developed out of The Marionette.

Social history

This provides a brief history of Bulldozer, though it is more of a social than a political history. I want to be clear that Bulldozer developed out of the alternative or cultural politics - i.e. the punks, and hippies, purist anarchism, women, lesbians and gays, etc. - which has been the primary means by which white youth have radicalized over the past few decades. It is all too easy, and certainly necessary, to critique these cultural movements. Their general failure to deal adequately with issues of race and class does make them little more than "white rights" groups as Lorenzo Kom'boa Erwin puts it. The social alienation that originally motivates many white youth into becoming part of these cultural or marginal movements get channeled into an accommodation with race and class privilege. Intense self-absorption, often combined with heavy drug and/or alcohol use, leads them to think that their subjective rebellion has some meaning. But modern capitalism cares little what anyone actually thinks, so long as one produces, or if unemployed, accepts being economically marginal.

The women's movement is, or at least was, different in that it did pose a real threat to the existing patriarchical structures of this society. This can be measured by the severity of the ideological counter-attack waged against it, even if it was discovered that the position of women in society could be changed without endangering the interests of those who get the goods. Awareness of their own misery had lead many women individually and collectively to develop a radical analysis of their social position. This self-awareness became a vulnerability as self-help, New Age therapies - often looted from Native societies in a continuation of the kolonial kleptomania that has characterized white society - were used to help women (and men) to fit into the existing system. Political consciousness was increasingly seen as being part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. The necessary struggle to feel good about oneself - self-esteem - allowed for an acceptance of class and racial privilege.

For all that, though, we haven't turned our backs on the alternative movements. The fundamental oppression and super-exploitation of, and violence towards, women remains. And mainstream culture is a death culture, not much wonder that so many young people, working class and middle class, try to find some life outside of it in one movement or another. Going way back into the early '70s where we were more political than the rest of the hippies, and more hippy-like than the other politicos, we've tried to develop what could be termed the political wing of the alternative movements. Through time, our politics chnaged thanks to people such as Kuwasi Balagoon and the local Leonard Peltier Defense Group - with whom we went through some real hard times from '83 to '85 - as we struggled to come to terms with the colonialism, genocide and slavery upon which North Amerikan society is based. I will take up this topic in some other article, but I wish to return to the politics of the alternative movements.

The original insight that the "personal is political" was truly radical in that it went to the root (radical means going to the roots) of social existence, our own individual lives. So great was the contradiction between the myth of social happiness, and the misery found in most people's lives once they looked, that it energized the various social movements from the '60s on. The slogan originally meant that there is a social context to our personal lives, and that a serious examination of who we are would lead us to understand the political context within which we lived. But its subversive impact has been smothered by reducing the political to the personal, as though nothing mattered politically except for one's personal life and a few close friends.

Yet it remains that coming to understand who we are is a necessary first step towards participating in an authentic liberatory process. Part of the impact of PNS itself is because it speaks directly to prisoners' lived-experience, rather than simply offering an intellectual explanation of political reality. The paper helps those who are struggling to know themselves in spite of living in a cage feel strong - and that's a victory. Coming from what could be called a "secular spirituality", we share with traditional Natives, New Afrikans and Muslims amongst others, the sense that an individual's life is a "struggle" in and off itself; that it is our task as humans to unravel the mysteries of our own existence, to determine the truth within it, and to find the proper direction. Politics come back into it since any honest examination should lead to a clear understanding that this society is based on a complex blend of race, class and sex. Many whites, and others as well, unfortunately back off from these political implications.

The critical importance of understanding the connections between politics and one's personal experience became much more vivid for me when I "remembered" five years ago that I had been subjected to severe and frequent sexual abuse as a child. Suddenly my own life made a lot more sense to me. I had discovered the key to my private mythology. The rage which I had learned to channel into my political work became understandable. It made sense to me why I was drawn by the plight of the prisoner. I had spent much of my younger days isolated, brutalized, surrounded by those much more powerful than I who were out to do me harm, used by bigger and stronger boys. An image that had haunted me for years of a prisoner, beaten down, forlorn and forgotten, huddled in a corner of a cell, had come straight from my own life, figuratively if not literally. I had been driven by a vow - as unconscious as it must have been - to not stand by while others were being abused.

There is much that we've learned over the past few years about abuse and healing that have political implications, particularly for prisoners since surely prison is nothing if not a system of institutionalized abuse. I will take this theme up more fully another day. But for now, I will say that as we became more aware of issues around abuse, it made sense to discover that at least half of the activists we knew were sexually and/or physical abused as children. We had lived the lies and hypocrisy of the family, religion and society. Our opposition to all three was not merely some intellectual construct, nor mere political fashion but was born of bitter experience. I did not need the suffering of others - women, Native people, Afrikans, prisoners or whoever - to motivate me politically. I had resisted long before I even knew there was a struggle. Like many of my prisoner-friends surviving long years of isolation and brutality, something within me refused to be broken.

I was in total mental and emotional anguish until well into my twenties, but for whatever unknown reasons, I was able to focus my rage on the corporate-state, and its bullies and bosses. Political activity became a means of eventual resolution. Slowly, but surely, I connected with other misfits, malcontents and losers. The counter culture gave us a certain space to be ourselves. We might still be totally alienated from society, barely able to function day-to-day, heavy drug use helping to keep the pain at bay, yet we were no longer alone. And we would fight back.

In a psychologized society such as ours, political activity will often be shaped by unresolved personal problems. We are driven by our demons. But working through these problems need not mean the end of the political activism that was energized by the inner conflicts. It should, in fact, mean that we target the enemy ever more precisely. The abuse must stop! We can stop being abusive. We can resist the abuse we're suffering. But abuse is not simply due to personal failure or the lack of appropriate therapy or bad genes but totally integral to a homophobic society that uses class, race and sex to determine who gets what. This is where political will comes in. As long as abuse continues, then we must fight against it even if, or especially if, our own pain and suffering has been eased. *

Jim Campbell


I have used Bulldozer as a personal identification in the past, and the article above reflects my personal history and opinions, and have played the main editorial role since the beginning. But Bulldozer can't simply be reduced to me personally. There are several people who currently help shape Prison News Service and their efforts are much appreciated. I do want to acknowledge some of the others who have made significant contributions to Bulldozer in the past.

Sunday Harrison has been around Bulldozer more or less since the beginning, especially including the raid and its aftermath. Her technical skills and creativity have helped give PNS a much more professional look than it would otherwise have had. We have very much developed our ideas together - even if on any particular detail we are as apt to disagree as agree.

Bill Dunne, the editor and main writer for the now defunct The Marionette also was a major influence on my thinking. Our years of exchanging letters certainly tightened up many of my arguments. Without him, it is unlikely that PNS would exist.

After the raid in 1983, our support came from our Native comrades and from women working at a Lesbian print shop. Though I barely knew most of these women, they immediately came through with crucial assistance. It is many years later, but I don't forget those who were there when help was needed. The lesbian community has also done the basic work on understanding sexual abuse and how it affects those who survive it. I would not have been able to write the above if it were not for the personal support and political stimulation and information that came from lesbian friends. We are interested in connecting with anyone else who is working to integrate surivor issues with a radical political analysis.

Jim C.

Jim more recently

Like i said, there's not much written in Jim's name, certainly not enough to get a sense of how important his contribution was. This is much in keeping with his general demeanour, which was always humble, though not in any contrite over-the-top way, but more as would befit "a hippy amongst the politicos."

Here are the very few texts by Jim that have found their way into cyberspace:

There are also two articles by Dominic Ali about PNS:

And of course reminiscences both personal and political following his passing:

A plaque at Dragonfly farm, to Jim's memory
click to see larger detail

hopefully we'll see you in the next world Jim; until then, you are missed...

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