In the first episode of Crip Times, hosts Yousef, Kayla, and Kristina speak with artist, activist, academic, and all-around brilliant human, Syrus Marcus Ware.
This conversation discusses the movements and actions that have occurred in Toronto and across Turtles Island over the summer of 2020. The building of collective knowledge surrounding social justice and abolition. The four discuss the role of Deaf, Mad, and Disabled folks in activism, their value and necessity in activist spaces. The conversation moves to intergenerational movement building, the role of traditional knowledge in our imagined and possible futures, and the role of children in activist spaces. They discuss activist scholarship and how traditional academic spaces can be used as sites of activism.
“It’s just time to take a leap and imagine a future that is different than this one.”
The episode wraps up with a conversation on joy and desired futures.
Image description: A black and white photograph of Syrus Marcus Ware. Overlapping the photograph is large, right-justified pink text that says ‘Syrus Marcus Ware’. ‘Syrus’ is in all caps and ‘marcus ware’ is in all lowercase. At the bottom of the image is the Crip Times Podcast Series logo. The background is bright green, The image was designed to evoke a vintage floppy disk, with bold, rounded text, and a lighter green box containing the logo.
Crip Times’ Favourite Quotes:
“When we start to actually ask questions about just what it is, that the police do particularly well and when you actually start to try and make a list, okay well, they’re not responding to sexual assaults well. They don’t seem to de-escalate conflict when they arrive, they seem to escalate conflict, they don’t respond to crisis calls. So all the Mad people who are being killed or taken away to Psychiatric detention in these wellness checks, well they’re not doing that well. So you start asking the questions, it starts to become pretty obvious we are spending millions of dollars that isn’t actually working for so many of us.”
“So we would have Indigenous resurgence, we would have a place that thought that Black lives were inherently valuable. We would have a world where Trans Women would get to be in their 80s or 90s. We would have a world where Disabled, Deaf, and Mad people were expected, anticipated, celebrated – you know? Where all of the ways our body minds worked and behaved were exactly what were supposed to happen, you know? Where we would actually honour the many, many gifts that we all come with.”
“We’re working for a world where Black Trans women with disabilities or who are Mad or who are Deaf are thriving. Because when we’ve done that, we’ve done it for everybody.”
“Our current society is set up on a carceral logic that you just need to fix the people, the state is fine. Of course we know that’s not true. The state is working as it’s intended to, it’s not broken, therefore it cannot be fixed. We must abolish it. Right?”
“Abolition is an idea that says that we can take care of each other. We don’t need the police to take care of us, we don’t need the state to take care of us. We take care of us.”
“Disabled and Crip artists to the front please and let’s imagine some new ways together!”
“We can win. We can do this. We can solve climate change. We can heal the planet. We can end anti-Black racism and White supremacy. We can make sure the future is not just accessible, but is led by Disabled, Mad, Deaf leadership.”
“So instead we could say, oh, children are valuable just as they are, actually! Not as future workers but actually as they are. And our elders are valuable, you know? Not as former workers, but as inherently just as they are. You know? So intergenerational movements are where it’s at. And I think that will be a big thing as we move forward into our futures.”
“Kids are quite trained already and quite adept at doing this work. We just have to bring them into our movements and consider their work to be valuable.”
“We could just live in this beautiful, beautiful planet and we could be in relation to each other and we could take care of each other and we would make sure that everybody had what they needed to survive and thrive, and we could just live. And be there for each other. I mean, it could be so much more beautiful than it is.”
“So it’s just time to take a leap and imagine a future that is different than this one.”
Voiceover: You’re listening to a Wheels on the Ground Production.
[Jazz music playing]
Yousef [Y]: Hello and welcome to the first episode of Crip Times. Today on Crip Times, we will be speaking to Syrus Marcus Ware, an artist and activist with your hosts, Yousef, Kayla, and Kristina.
Now we have the general recording going. So welcome Syrus to uh, the first episode of Crip Times. It is an absolute pleasure to have you here. Uh, would you like to give a little bit about yourself for our listeners?
Syrus Marcus Ware [SMW]: It’s an honour to get to be a part of the inaugural broadcast. I am Syrus, I am an artist, an Activist, an educator, a scholar. Um, a professor at McMaster University, an activist for BLM Toronto and BlockORama. And as a visual artist I’ve been making work for about 25 years. Um, here in Tkaronto and beyond. And yeah. I, I am so happy to get to chat with you!
Y: We’re really pleased to have you on board for this episode. To start off with our first question, we spoke as a group last um … right after you had done an action in front of the Toronto Police Headquarters I believe it was. Um, and now we’re recording the episode a few months later. And the most recent headline being that uh, Donald Trump has Covid-19. Which I think we found out as of this morning.
Um, so I was wondering if you might wanna speak a little bit as to what’s been going on for you as an artist and an activist in that roller coaster of a time that we’ve been um, going through?
SMW: Yeah, what a wild uh, 2020 it has been. I mean, my experience has been very similar to what a lot of people are saying. Uh, nobody could’ve predicted any of the things that have happened this year. Um, when we last spoke it was in … just after Juneteenth which is a very significant day for Black communities. It’s a day when we remember the signing of the emancipation proclamation and a bunch of liberatory struggles that happened in the month of June in the southern part of Turtle Island.
And we had created a 7500 square foot mural uh, public mural created with 80 artists that said, “Defund the Police.” And it was written in bright neon pink, the Queer-est colour we could find. Um, and it was painted in real time on the morning of Juneteenth. And it was such a beautiful moment. It was this moment of solidarity, of action. Of this uprising that was just beginning at that moment that really became this revolutionary moment, you know, throughout the summer.
But this was just the beginning of it, it was just shortly after the killing of George Floyd. And Regis Korchinski Paquet and before the shooting of Jacob Blake and we came together, this bright and early this morning, and painted this huge mural and it was just so powerful, you know? And then of course we did another and this movement for defunding the police was growing and swelling and spreading all over the world. It’s a global movement. And of course what started to happen is that the police started to push back. Right? Because of course what was happening was that the movement was actually quite successful. When we start to actually ask questions about just what it is, that the police do particularly well and when you actually start to try and make a list, okay well, they’re not responding to sexual assaults well. They don’t seem to de-escalate conflict when they arrive, they seem to escalate conflict, they don’t respond to crisis calls. So all the Mad people who are being killed or taken away to Psychiatric detention in these wellness checks, well they’re not doing that well. So you start asking the questions, it starts to become pretty obvious we are spending millions of dollars that isn’t actually working for so many of us. So that movement started to move and swell and of course the state does not want to change, and the police do not want to be defunded so they started to crack down on – you saw a lot of crackdowns on activism all across Turtle Island and Inuit Nunangat.
But there’s other amazing, incredible things that have happened. People have been able to practice collective care for a couple of months now, for some of us for years in disability communities for years, but you know, in the mainstream people have been practicing it for a couple months now. People have been starting to get more politicized. So there is beautiful uh, movement in action happening that is, that is starting to reimagine the state of the world. So in June when we were saying hey … you know, I think it’s time to defund the police … even though in my heart I was screaming we need to abolish it, we weren’t really ready to spread that, you know, the message was people were scared even just to think of defunding. Whereas now with everything that’s happened, people are regularly saying we need to abolish the system that killed Breonna Taylor. We need to abolish this entire system.
So just in a short couple of months we’ve gone from maybe we have a problem with policing to this burn it all down. Which is what I’ve been wanting to do since 1996 when I became an activist, I was like we need to change this system and we need to change ourselves. So um, yes miraculous things have happened since we last talked. They found life on Venus, didn’t see that coming! You know?
And uh yes, they did you know, shoot Jacob Blake seven times you know, in the back. Um … yeah. There’s just been so much that’s – and as you say now – the Trumps supposedly have Covid and or are trying to avoid further terrible debates, and/or both. Have Covid and are trying to avoid terrible debates.
But we are definitely witnessing a 2020 like no other. And uh … yeah. It’s incredible.
Kayla [K]: This is Kayla speaking. Um, last time we spoke you were identifying that there is an erasure of Black identities in disability activism. You specifically identified Black Lives Matter Toronto as a disability activist group. Um, and so for our listeners who might not be aware would you like to speak a bit more about intersections of those movements and identities and how disability justice is prioritized, um, in your work and in your organizing?
[07:33] SMW: Yeah, disability justice, broadly conceptualized, has always been part of our movements. From Harriet Tubman leaving the underground railroad as a disabled Black woman, in part because she was a disabled Black woman, that she was able to be as successful as she was. And because of the way that systemic ableism created the conditions for her to have this traumatic brain injury from a beating on the slave labour camp, and the people around her not believing that she could possibly be this brilliant mastermind because they had a lot of assumptions about disability.
So from that point on, all the way through, disability has been part of our organizing. And in the Black Lives Matter movement, which is a Queer and Trans led movement, it’s a disabled led movement, we absolutely are doing work and organizing to try to draw attention to these police killings and to this disproportionate amount of Black death that we see on Turtle Island and Inuit Nunangat in this current moment. And when you look at who it is, who’s being killed on the regular, it’s often Black, Mad people, it’s often Black Disabled people. And so we necessarily root our work in disability justice because that is who we’re fighting for. This is who is, who’s being killed.
When we did that broad campaign around Andrew Loku and sent up a tent city in front of police headquarters in 2016, that was in support of Mad lives. To make sure that Mad people got to be Mad in public space, to make sure that Mad people got to live and to thrive and to, and to become Elders. And all of the things that get taken from us because, just the very nature of being Mad in public space and believing, behaving in ways that are seen to be unexpected by, by sanist people. Um, you know, it is enough for us to, to be killed or to be locked away in psychiatric detention.
So we’ve been continuing to do this work that centers around Disabled, Mad, and Deaf people and necessarily root our work in disability justice as a result of it. So yeah, it is a big part of the movement for Black lives. It’s a big part of Black Lives Matter, and um … you know, the kinds of changes that we’re hoping to push for, the kinds of revolutionary system wide changes that we’re pushing for when we talk about Abolition, would necessarily result in a radically re-imagined world that would be so much more welcoming, uh, for Disabled, Deaf and Mad people. It would be a world that desired disability because we would have completely re-imagined … we would have completely reimagined the structure of our society. So we would have Indigenous resurgence, we would have a place that thought that Black lives were inherently valuable. We would have a world where Trans Women would get to be in their 80s or 90s. We would have a world where Disabled, Deaf, and Mad people were expected, anticipated, celebrated – you know? Where all of the ways our body minds worked and behaved were exactly what were supposed to happen, you know? Where we would actually honour the many, many gifts that we all come with. You know? From this wild universe that we are born into, that we – all of our experience – would be considered inherently valuable. That is the kind of revolutionary change we’re talking about. You know, it is a radical reimagining of our entire world.
And as we get rid of some of the things like raced capitalism, you know, that is – that ties – value to productivity, which is inherently ableist. And will always be something that doesn’t work for disabled people because we don’t follow the same, uh, temporal uh … we don’t follow timelines in the same way because we have a Cripped way, that we Crip our time. And you know, this rooting everything in race capitalism creates conditions where particular people have money and the rest of us don’t. And so as we undo capitalism, we are in this period of late capital where the system is collapsing. We’re about to become so much freer. You know? So, yeah. Money – uh … race – uh, disability – all of these things are interconnected and create particular experiences for folks who are really marginalized in the system.
And so trying to imagine a world that is vastly different, the world that as a Cohambee
River Collective says in the 1970s, the folks who are most marginalized, when you make the world safer for them, we’re necessarily making it safer for everybody. We’re working for a world where Black Trans women with disabilities or who are Mad or who are Deaf are thriving. Because when we’ve done that, we’ve done it for everybody.
[12:21] Kristina [Kr]: I am in awe of everything that comes out of your mouth, Syrus. You as a human and the fact that I’ve been able to overlap with your life on this planet is such a privilege. I kind of wanted to talk a little bit more about what you’ve seen as a bringing of abolition into the collective consciousness in really the last couple of months. You mentioned you’ve been working in abolitionist spaces since 1996. And really, the summer in 2020 had brought defund the police, abolish the police, into our consciousness. And as an activist, how, how have you seen the movement change? And what do you think gets lost in the messaging with just hashtag defund the police?
SMW: You know, when we were starting to talk about you know, when we were talking about abolition in the 90s you know, people – it was just a non-starter. It was really like, er, records stop. Even in activist spaces. Even in activist spaces, there was this – well what about? Or the idea of carceral feminism. Or how we were relying on carceral logics to do away with the harm we were experiencing. And you know, being in this moment now, 25 years later, where you know – seemingly everybody – uh, put that in quotations I suppose, but everybody is talking about abolition.
It is a wild, wild thing to be able to be having these robust conversations about what our world could look like if we resolved conflict, crisis and harm in different ways, you know? And I’m having that conversation with, with my parents, I’m having that conversation with you know, right wing newscasters, I’m having that conversation with, with my kids daycare, I’m having the conversation in all the most unlikely places. I’m reading about it in Cosmo magazine. It’s a conversation whose time has come. And I think in this, in this – that trajectory of just how abolition has been taken up – is interesting to see. But I also want us to caution you know, away from a Neoliberalization of the word and of the meaning, right?
So neoliberalism tries to consistently taking out the politics from a concept to uh, depoliticize as a way of ensuring the state’s survival. You know? It necessarily takes all of the responsibility away from the state and moves to the individual. And that’s just part of neoliberal practice. So it’s not going to say, it’s not going to full embrace abolition. Because that would mean changing the state, not changing the individual. Our current society is set up on a carceral logic that you just need to fix the people, the state is fine. Of course we know that’s not true. The state is working as it’s intended to, it’s not broken, therefore it cannot be fixed. We must abolish it. Right?
So this is a really interesting moment we find ourselves in, and I think you know, um, abolition you know is a, is, is has been rooted in so many communities. There are so many ways we can govern ourselves, we can turn to Indigenous knowledges. We can turn to, you know, Black traditions. We can turn to all of the ways Disability Justice communities that we’ve developed ways to transform harm to practice transformative justice. To resolve conflict, to pod map, to take care of each other. We can turn to all of these ways that we’ve already created for how to do this, and we can draw on those in order to continue this work.
So yeah, abolition is, is … I’m, I mean abolition is very possible in our lifetime. You know? In 1996 talking about closing the prisons and people would just be like, but what about?! And in 2020, you can say well maybe we can close the prisons and people are like let’s talk about what else we can do instead. Now there’s the possibility to actually have that conversation.
So it’s very exciting, it’s a very exciting moment to be alive, for sure.
[17:05] Y: I’m interested in how your practice in the abolition movement um, but also with what you’re saying about earlier, of honouring all these different people and experiences and … places that we come from as individuals. I’m interested in how those two things intersect in your arts practice and if you could speak about that a little bit. I’ve seen it for example in your work, um, creating Antarctica as a theatre piece and installation. I also see it in the large-scale drawings you do of artists and activists, um, and I’m interested in how those two things have sort of turned you into the uh, creative that you are now.
SMW: Yeah, thanks. Um … yeah, my art and activism are intrinsically connected. Uh, I have been making work that is rooted in this idea of Black activist culture and exploring Black activist culture and trying to understand it and trying to support the lives of activists. I started doing an activist love letter project in 2012 that had strangers writing love letters to activists in their communities and I mailed you know, thousands of letters over the years. And I really was trying to build up a community network of support around folks who are fighting for change because I had read this beautiful letter that this Mad activist, Tooker Gomberg, wrote at the end of his life to all activists and he said that it was essential to do things in our lives that supported us outside of activism. So that we could do activism and fully do it, but that we have other things like gardening and friends and bike rides. And things that sustain us outside of just organizing relationships.
So that, if you do start to tumble into a depression or a burnout, you have other things to rely on other than just activist movements. Because activism is fast paced, it’s quick. People – they’re just onto the next meeting, they don’t always have the time to stop and slow down. So to have other things in your life, I was moved by that. And um, started getting people to write these love letters as a way of building relationships outside of activism for people. Then I started drawing people and drawing them really large and trying to celebrate them, to honour the labour of activism. The labour of doing the meetings and making the photocopies and sewing the banners.
You know, all of the stuff that is behind the scenes. You know? You just see the activists in front of the camera on the news, but there’s a million steps before that to get them to that place.
So, um, you know drawing these portraits that celebrate and revere activists was a way all of this is part of this tenant of abolition which is we take care of each other. So abolition is an idea that says that we can take care of each other. We don’t need the police to take care of us, we don’t need the state to take care of us. We take care of us.
And so my practice has been rooted in this idea of trying to help take care of us, help take care of each other. When I made the performance and play Antarctica, it was you know, set in this dystopic future where the state hadn’t done a particularly good job at taking care of us. So much so that climate change was run rabid. And that the planet was dying because of it, and that the only last hospitable place left on earth was Antarctica now thawing out.
Um … and that play was very much about White Supremacy, and about abolition, and about uh, climate change. And about systems collapse. And about all of the things we find ourselves in in this current moment. It was very much a speculative look of what 2025 could potentially look like if we continued on the same trajectory.
So um, but there’s this activist in it. There’s this activist who believes in abolishing the state, and she believes in abolishing the company that sent them there. And she believes in creating a new world where they take care of each other, where people can take care of if they can make it there, where they can be free together. So she is very much this abolitionist activist who happens to be amongst the 11 that get sent home to stake these future land claims in Antarctica.
So that was a fun project to work on and to unpack what abolition could look like in everyday life and the ways we can try to take care of each other.
And then I have been, you know, doing other speculative future work which to me is very much about abolition, because abolition is a speculative practice because it’s imagining another world being possible. And you know, when we try to talk to people about why we need to abolish the prisons and police system, they get really scared and they say oh but what about this, this, this, this. And then it stops us from ever having a conversation about what alternatives could actually look like.
[24:04] So I try to make work that explore what the alternatives can actually look like. So in the project “Ancestors Do You Read Us? Dispatches from the Future” it’s set in 2072. And we have survived, and we’ve overthrown the police and we’ve gotten rid of capitalism and Black and Indigenous people have survived and so therefore everybody has survived, and we’ve created this other world where we are free. And they, our ancestors, use old technology to patch back into their past, into 2019 to give us this message of hope and what we need to do in order for them to live in their beautiful glorious freedom in 2072. And basically they’re saying It’s time to overthrow the state. It’s time to get rid of White Supremacy, and to do all of these things and then we’re going to make it. And we do make it.
So yeah, that’s what I make work about.
Y: I think that’s the best advice you could give anyone at this point.
[00:23:30] K: And you know, last time we spoke as well you were um, quoting Toni Cade Bambara who says the role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible. And I think you’re one of the folks out there doing that.
SMW: Thank you.
K: Yeah. And that irresistibility makes the most marginalized among us desirable as well, right? I wanted to ask you about the diverse methods of protesting that you’ve identified. You know, for disabled folks to be involved as well, like nothing about us without us, and saying like if disabled people aren’t there, it’s not the revolution. Um, so what ways recently have you been really inspired by disabled folks showing up for the revolution?
SMW: Yeah, I mean there’s just been so many ways that people have been creating revolutionary action from their homes and from their beds. We saw disability leadership, disabled leadership from the beginning of this pandemic. As disabled people are like, oh, we all gotta stay home. Here’s what you do. oh, we need to start prepping and getting stuff together so we can be ready for any eventuality. We’ve been doing that forever, here’s what you do. oh, well everything’s online and it’s your only way to connect with people? Got that too, here’s what you do.
So disabled people have been taking the lead at setting the tone for how to survive this pandemic since the beginning. And when the revolution popped off in June, and I’m calling it the revolution because it really is this moment of revolutionary action, uh, at the end of a climate change cycle that could be make or break it. So it really is now or never. This is the moment. So, you know, in that revolutionary action we started seeing incredible activism coming out of disability communities that looked different.
People were organizing in ways that didn’t just require you going out of your house and meeting up with 5000 people, which is so inaccessible for a million reasons. And also a really terrible idea during a pandemic.
We had to gather in the streets, I understand that. And I’m in support of all the folks who gathered. But there are other ways that we can do it that would help to keep us all of us a little bit safer. So watching the ways people were sharing and supporting PPE, the ways people were making sure that people had food deliveries after rallies and protests. Those were beautiful things. But also all of the Crip ways we were doing it from our bed, people were doing poster projects, people were doing podcasts, people were doing online organizing, people had online gatherings. There was just so many ways that people were having these conversations that prisoners – of course, prisoners rights’ project – was doing weekly webinars. So there was all these things you could engage with from home.
So in a way, you know, it created more opportunity for disabled, sick, and Mad people. Deaf and Mad people to be engaged. I was seeing a lot more stuff being interpreted, having captioning. It was just a really encouraging moment. So you know, I was talking with Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha in the spring, we were talking about all this activism, but we were also talking about some of the activism in the streets and feeling a sense of what’s happening, how are people gathering and what’s going to happen? And you know, what does it mean for those of us who can’t gather in the streets because of immune issues?
One of the things that we concluded was that we really didn’t need to worry because if this is gonna be the revolution, it will only be the revolution if Disabled, Deaf, and Mad people are at the centre. And we are going to be, and we will be and so you know, this is not the revolution if it’s not that, right?
And so you know, we know that the organizing is going to look dramatically different and particularly now as we head into the second wave, you know, the organizing is going to have to take leadership from Disabled folks because we’re the one who’re going to know to make sure we do this in a way to keep us safe.
But this is also a place for artists to come in. artists are so creative, and we need to start to imagine new ways of organizing that don’t just require bodies coming in and standing in a similar place. Organizing can look different in so many ways. And artists can be very inspiring in helping us to think more broadly.
So Disabled and Crip artists to the front please and let’s imagine some new ways together!
[00:28:00] Kr: Yeah, no, I think imagining a new future is really what we need to be doing. Currently there is so much veneration about re-opening the economy in the midst of Covid 19.
And it’s like what if we reimagined our world, and I feel like the work that you’re doing and the work that um, activists are doing are offering these re-imaginings in the future that don’t require an economy to be harmful to the livelihoods of people, especially uh, disabled folks.
SMW: Yeah, capitalism doesn’t work for most people. I mean, capitalism was, is a very temporary system. We’ve only had it in human history for a short period of time relative to human history. And it’s a system that is designed to make sure that some people have a ten and the rest of the people have very, very, little. So that is a functioning system that people are going to just acquiesce to and not rebel against is dying. It’s just not possible that could go on in perpetuity.
Jeff Bezos or Bozos or whatever his name is, the one who made millions and millions of dollars through this pandemic as the rest of us panic bought sundries so we could have a prep supply that can’t continue forever. That this one percent just keeps accumulating wealth and hospitals have to reuse PPE. And Schools don’t have enough money for teachers, I mean – it’s just – it’s a system that does not work.
And so we also know that it’s a system that is dying. So all systems go through a life cycle. There is a theory of panarchy, panarchy cycles which originated in the 1800s. it’s this idea that all systems go through an adaptive change life cycle. Even a system like a society goes through a lifecycle. So it goes through a period of rapid growth and expansion, which we saw with capitalism which we saw in the 1900s. and then it becomes so vast and so complex that it can no longer support the life at the bottom, you know, the forest has grown so tall and it’s canopy so broad that the light can’t’ make it through to the little plants at the bottom of the forest. And so it starts to collapse. It can no longer sustain itself.
And we are in a period of systems collapse. And what happens after that is a period of rapid reorganization and reimagining planting new seeds in the bottom of the forest floor after the fire, and new things start to grow. And then you have a new society that grows and expands and eventually collapses.
So we are in a period of system collapsed right now where capitalism is no longer sustainable. At the height of the pandemic in the spring, they were putting a trillion dollars a day into the market. A trillion dollars a day just to sustain it because it’s an unsustainable mechanism under conditions like this.
So, we’ve been – you know, academics and scholars – have been talking about this period of late-capital since the late 90s. You know, that we were in the period of late capital.
That capitalism was dying. Well now this is what it actually looks and feels like. It looks like this bizarre phenomenon that we find ourselves in where they were pumping oil out of the earth even though they couldn’t sell the oil in the spring. And the barrels they were selling for however many dollars a barrel were now worth negative and they were paying people to take the oil. Stop pumping the oil out, if you have enough, stop pumping the oil out.
But capitalism is predicated on the idea that you always need more, more, more, more growth, more expansion, more extraction. And that is just not sustainable, it’s not sustainable for anything where there’s life. Where there’s living beings. You just can’t extract until there’s nothing left and expect anything to be standing – living at the end of it – sorry for that ableist language.
Yeah, so it’s an amazing time to be witnessing the fall of capitalism. And this system is something else is about to be birthed. Something much more beautiful that won’t rely on money in order to consider who is inherently valuable.
[00:32: 38] Y: And I think that’s really beautiful. As like … not like you know, not the like fall or destruction is beautiful but rather that it’s, it’s a way for us to understand what’s happening. I think it’s, it really paints a picture of hope, of yes – better things can absolutely come out of it. You know? If history has taught us anything, it’s – you’re right – it has happened before. I keep thinking, you know, being an American and looking at what’s happening, um, to the South of us. I always – I keep having like, in the back of my mind – go, oh hey, it’s the fall of the Roman empire all over again. As many people have said before.
And I guess it kind of leads me to ask you, if this is the fall – um, what do you hope, what do you imagine – that the spring is going to be? What do you hope for our future in that case? What is your dream for that?
SMW: Yeah, I mean I write a lot about the future. I write a lot of speculative fiction, and I spend a lot of time trying to imagine what it could look like. And to be honest, I actually don’t, I actually don’t quite know which direction we’re going to go in. but I do know in a lot of my writing, the stories are often set in a future that is decidedly less technological than the current one we’re in. Where you know, we perhaps return a bit more to some old ways, you know, and I think figuring out how to do that that still ensures that everyone still has access in a beautiful, full way.
But we can return to some old ways of being together. In the futures I’ve written about, I’ve – we’ve – often returned to being much more in relation to the earth and to the land. Um, we are in communities and we support each other and take care of each other. We collectively are responsible for our shared goods in the stories I write. People are often taking turns going and collecting water and often having nightly and an evening gathering where they dance and celebrate together. So the future I imagine we’ve returned to a bit of a different way of being together and being in relation to the land.
Now in reality, outside of the page, you know, outside of a fiction book, I think that probably our future will continue to be influenced by technology and I think that there are beautiful ways that we can use technology to help you know, heal the planet and to help make sure that everybody is connected as they could be so that people don’t feel a sense of isolation. While at the same time, I think returning to Indigenous knowledge practices and to old ways of knowing, there’s this beautiful um, uh … symbol in the Adinkra language which is a pictorial language from the Asante people in Ghana, West Africa, and it’s a historic language. And it says “sen cofam” which is, there are two images for “sen cofam”. One of them is about a goose that is walking forward but looking backwards at its tail and it says, you know, it is not wrong to go back and pick up what you have forgotten.
So somebody with a memory impairment, I’ve always been interested in that concept. That this idea that we can learn from our past in order to plan for our future is really important to me. And I think we can turn to some traditional knowledges as a way of maybe imagining what we might want to head towards in our future.
Um … yeah. It’s pretty wild. I’m very excited about the possibility that we as Assata Shakur tells us, we can win. We can do this. We can solve climate change. We can heal the planet. We can end anti-Black racism and White supremacy. We can make sure the future is not just accessible, but is led by Disabled, Mad, Deaf leadership. We’re running a lot of the decisions about how we want to organize and be together because we are the experts in this idea of taking care of each other. Imagining that we could live in communities that were much more interconnected. That were much more um, supportive of each other. Like I really think that we’re about to get so much freer and I can’t wait!
[00:37:24] Y: Yeah, I think that’s, it’s, it’s really comforting getting the reminder that we can learn from the past. Like these things already exist for us, the things that can help us thrive in the very uncertain future. Um, and uncertain present that we have these things that our ancestors, that our grandparents did before us that we can use to survive. And keep the world a flourishing place.
SMW: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean this is the – yeah. These, even that expression of sort of being on the shoulders of giants, that we can, you know, look at some of the work that has already been done and also look to the new ways that the young ones are imagining and dreaming up that we haven’t even thought of. You know, and having intergenerational work I think is a big part of this, you know? It – it really will fuel our future in a more beautiful way. I think about the work that the Black Panther Party was doing in 1971 where they gathered people to rewrite the constitution. They were like the constitution’s a mess, we’re gonna rewrite it, and they gathered folks from all these – all these different parts of the Black communities – to come together to rewrite this constitution. And they have a treaty in there, on the rights of children. And about how the children have the right to be children. And the children have the right to make decisions, and children have the right to self-determination. They also have an elaborate uh, section on Queer and Trans rights and they are asking for things in 1971 that we’re still fighting for today. The right to be gay anytime and anyplace. The right to sex change on demand as it was called at the time.
You know, those are the things that they wrote about in 1971 that we’re still fighting for today.
You know, the rights for women. The rights for migrants, for drug users. There was all of these things that they wrote out that they’d like to see in their ideal society. But what I’m so struck by is the section on the rights to children. That we could actually value children as being inherently valuable beings, not just little adults or someone that is about to become valuable. That is what capitalism does, it says that your main value is in the 18-35-year-old range when you’re able to just consistently work and produce in order for somebody else to make money.
So instead we could say, oh, children are valuable just as they are, actually! Not as future workers but actually as they are. And our elders are valuable, you know? Not as former workers, but as inherently just as they are. You know?
So intergenerational movements are where it’s at. And I think that will be a big thing as we move forward into our futures.
[00:40:30] K: I was just saying I’ve been thinking a lot about children and capitalism lately. I have been reading Anne Helen Peterson’s book on burnout, and she describes exactly what you’re saying, where children are being raised with their productivity in mind before all else. And having their schedules you know, jam packed with um, extracurricular activities and extra tutoring and sports and things that aren’t for joy but for yeah, making these mini adults. And it’s not – it’s not great.
K: So thank you for bringing that up.
SMW: Yeah I mean it’s really; I have a 9-year-old. And you know, it’s like – it’s wild being able to be around a kid. And we’re raising her, we’re activist parents and we’re raising her from an activist pedagogy so the most important thing to me that she learns is social justice values. And then the math and the trigonometry can come later. I’m really not that particularly worried about it. I want her to learn about activism, I want her to learn about justice. I want her to learn about the climate. I want her to learn about things like that. That’s, that’s very important to me.
But yeah, just this way that you know, that, that kids um, they’re awesome. If you actually just listen to them. If you actually paid attention to them. They have such incredible – I can remember, I wish I could tell you this woman’s name – because it, you know, this will be my biggest regret of you know, one of the things about having a memory impairment. If it’s not written down. But there was this activist I got connected to in the 90s, and she was 13 and she had spoken at this massive rally in New York. And uh, there was recording, this is the 90s – it wasn’t on the Internet, it was a recording I heard of her speech – and she was just like, “Ah!” Like Marshal P Johnson and Assata Shakur balled into one. Incredible. In what world do we take leadership from 13-year old’s in our movements? And maybe we should be. Maybe we should be. Just yeah, making more room for children to be considered inherently valuable just as they are exactly as they are. In the moment that they’re in, you know. I think that’s so important.
But this is what we get; this is the kinds of freedoms, and the kinds of ways we’re going to get to relate to each other once we get rid of capitalism.
[42:53] Y:So Syrus, in this intergenerational future that you envision, what would be the advice that you would give … what is the thing that you would want to say to other kids, or what do you say to other kids when they show interest in being involved in these?
SMW: I mean … I would say, we need you. You know? Like the world needs you so badly. Your ideas, your creativity, your games, your play. We need you. And it’s not often that grown-ups say to kids, you know, I actually really need you. But we do. you know? Like I understand we don’t want to put a lot of pressure on them and we don’t want them to feel undue pressure, but we need them. Our survival is actually essential to them. So making sure that they know that they’re valuable that we need them there, we welcome their ideas and we want room for them.
I can remember my daughter and the daughter of a co-organizer with BLM years ago now, uh, you know at our meetings we’d have childcare and the kids would go out and play. And we’d have our meeting. And then one day the kids came, and they said, wait a minute, why is it that we go out and play and you guys have the meeting? Aren’t we in BLM too, shouldn’t we sit in the meeting sometimes? I was like yeah you guys are four, but sure. Yeah actually, why don’t you set the agenda? We might have a more interesting time.
So just like making sure that kids know that they – yeah, actually – there is no wrong time for them to get involved. And they can start to imagine you know, the potential futures. You know, they’re already doing so much activism. They’re doing activism that we don’t even see as parents and as adults. The kind of organizing that they’re doing on the playground every time one of them stands up for another one who has a Queer parent, you know? Every time they’re standing up and calling out transphobia, which kids do all the time cause gender stuff doesn’t matter to kids. They’re like oh you identify as a guy. Cool, whatever. They just move on.
The way kids are taking the lead on climate change, and you know, my daughter was coming home from school saying we have to use our food and not waste it and we have to recycle, and we have to … you know, kids are really, they don’t, they wanna be able to live. They wanna live in a future where the planet is around. So they’ve already been taking leadership in climate change.
So kids are already incredibly involved in their own ways. We just don’t necessarily see them because it happens on the playground, or it happens when they’re away from the grownups. They’re already negotiating, figuring out ways to resolve conflict on the playground. They’re figuring out all these kids that we as grownups are trying to figure out. That’s what abolition is, figuring out new ways of resolving conflict, crisis, and harm. Kids are trying to do that.
My daughter was lucky enough to have this incredible teacher, Madam Lalonde that taught them to go from a big conflict to a little conflict, and how to identify if something was a big problem or a little problem. And I wish most of the police officers on our force had had that training, you know? From this grade two or grade three teacher, you know. I think a lot of people could use to understand what a big problem or a little problem is.
Kids are quite trained already and quite adept at doing this work. We just have to bring them into our movements and consider their work to be valuable.
K: Amazing. I’m just going to sit with that for a second.
K: It’s so simple but it’s so incredible.
[00:46:37] Kr: One thing that I kind of wanted to talk about a little bit is everything that we talked about in this conversation and your activist work and your artistic work. In kind of my … the limits of my brain this current moment in time, kind of see them as oppositional to traditional institutional academia. And you recently started at McMaster University. So, how do you bring in this bright and wonderful artistic and academic practice into a more traditional academic space that is contained within an institution that hasn’t typically embraced activism and art practices in the way that you’ve enacted them?
SMW: Yeah, I mean the academic industrial complex is a thing. I mean, it is an industrial complex and so we know that it can be this very contested space. But I have always sort of drawn my work on, you know based my work on this beautiful conceptualization of activists’ scholarship that uh, Julia Chinyere Oparah and Margo Okazawa-Rey talk about, about how we can create semi-autonomous zones in our classrooms where we get to do things a little bit differently and practice things a little differently and bring in more radical thoughts and bring in more activist traditions. So we can create these semi-autonomous environments even within a larger institution.
So they talk about the need for activist scholars to be in those spaces, because it can be a moment where you can politicize an entire group of people to get involved and organized if you do it in the right way. You know, I’m very much drawn to that. And then I also think about, um, just the ways that so many of our Elders you know, were involved in trying to push for change from within and without academia. Let’s not forget that Huey Newton was Dr. Huey P. Newton. Angela Davis is Dr. Angela Davis. A lot of people seem to have gone into academia as a way of doing something, and then what I’m interested in well once you get into those environments, how are you pushing for changes that will dramatically improve the lives of all of the people that you’re engaging with through that environment? Academic institutions can be very violent places and they can be places that are not rooted in safety. And so, how do we you know, change these spaces through our presence there. So yeah, I really, you know I encourage people to check out Julia Chinyere Oparah and Margo Okazawa-Rey work, um … uh, because it, it provides a bit of hope for a way to do it. Um, yeah. Yeah. It’s good. I mean, I feel very happy my university was very actively involved in the student strike.
And you know, I think that there are ways that people are trying to make uh, these places into sites of change. And that’s very encouraging.
[00:49:51] Kr: Thank you. My soul needed that conversation today.
K: We ask all of our guests the same two questions to wrap up. And one of those is um, what is bringing you joy right now?
SMW: Oh nice! Um … a couple of things are bringing me joy right now. I mean, certainly I think uh, even though we know that these are very difficult times, uh, the ways that people are taking care of each other, uh, is bringing me a lot of joy. The you know, the – I’ll get groceries for you because your immune system is fucked so I’ll be the one to go to the grocery store – or I’ll order in a meal for you, or the you know, the ways that we’re sort of taking care of each other through the pandemic is bringing me a lot of joy. I chose to try to, like everybody else, uh throw my hat into the urban gardening pod so I planted a bunch of things on my tiny little balcony and they grew! You know, and I felt a sort of daily meditative practice of caring for these plants and that has brought me a ton of joy. And now the harvest is coming in and I’m eating kale and I’m eating collards, I’m from the south and I’m really into it. And there’s tomatoes growing, that’s bringing me quite a lot of joy.
And then I think … yeah, just you know, sort of knowing that um, I’m just headed into a period of ramped up creation. I’ve been in presentation mode for a while. Uh, I’ve been showing work and presenting work which is the flow of it. But I’m about to go into a bunch of creation mode, and that is always really exciting because it’s the making stuff. You know, I mostly work in drawing and performance these days, but I did an actual painting a couple of weeks ago for Chase Joynt film all about trans, uh, disclosure and Trans identity and uh, it was so fun to paint again! So I’m just really excited about going back into creative mode. It’s bringing me a lot of joy.
K: That’s awesome, thank you. Yeah, I feel you on the like, getting all the good foods we can before the snow hits us here in Ontario.
[00:52:25] Kr: Syrus, I have so much like love, respect and admiration for you and your work um, in the times that, in the years that I’ve known you and known of your work. And one thing that I love about your work is that it allows me to have more hope for the future and kind of have more desire for what the world can be and what I can be for the world. And so, we also like to ask our guests like what is your vision, what is your hope, what is your desire for the future?
SMW: Yeah, you know I think a lot about this. I mean I’ve been kind of obsessed with this question uh, since 1996 I guess. When I started doing organizing, I was like, what’s the future going to be like?! But I’m very much, um … I’m very much interested in, in this idea. So there’s this beautiful Camia Dossen song called Utopian Futures. And she is a Black, folk, punk singer. And she writes about you know, this Utopian future. This world where the bombing has stopped and where we’ve stopped capitalism, where we’ve healed the earth. And I’m like yeah, I think that’s pretty much it. I’m really hoping for a future where we can rest. You know? Where we can finally rest because we will have eradicated White supremacy, we will have eradicated race capitalism. We will have eradicated medical and systemic ableism. We will have eradicated all of these things that are offense to our persons, to our bodies every day. And we will be able to therefore rest. We will be able to you know, lie in the grass or sit under a tree. We’ll be able to watch paint dry if we want to. We’ll be able to chat with friends. We’ll be able to make art. We’ll be able to do all of these things because we won’t be fighting against this wicked, wicked system. We’ll just be able to exist. To just live. You know? And just be free, you know?
And Assata Shakur talks about being a reluctant warrior. And she says that she’s a reluctant warrior because she wishes she had been born into a world where struggle wasn’t necessary because she would be free to be so much more. she would be free to be a sculpture, a gardener, a carpenter. But instead she’s a struggler because of oppression.
And I feel like for a lot of us, we’ve become these reluctant warriors. But we’re hoping for that time when we get to pause and will get to be the carpenter and the sculptor and the gardener. You know? And I want that for us, where we get to basically, I’m just going to work on woodworking today. I’m going to draw. I really am going to go sit by the creek. We could just – we could just live in this beautiful, beautiful planet and we could be in relation to each other and we could take care of each other and we would make sure that everybody had what they needed to survive and thrive, and we could just live. And be there for each other. I mean, it could be so much more beautiful than it is.
And I think that it’s actually not hard to imagine how to get there. Because we know that even if we don’t know exactly what the system is going to need to look like in order for that reality to be present, we know that we can come up with something better than our current one.
So it’s just time to take a leap and imagine a future that is different than this one.
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K: Crip Times is presented as a part of the Wheels on the Ground podcast network. This podcast is produced by us and supported by Tangled Art + Disability and Bodies in Translation. If you enjoyed this interview, we release new episodes every Monday where every good podcast can be found.
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