Interview With Brenton Lengel

Photo Credit: Jenna Pope

Photo Credit: Jenna Pope

Washington, DC (TFC) – Brenton Christopher Lengel is an anarchist, playwright, and an Appalachian Trail 2000-Miler. He is one of the last Yippies and a founding member of the Anarchist arts company Autonomous Collective. He has also spent significant time as a journalist, political commentator, and talk radio host having been present for much of Occupy Wall Street in NYC. Brent has been a guest panelist on Huffpost Live, and is a regular contributor to The Ed Tyll Show.

Brent also ran his own show Insurrection with Brenton Lengel a weekly anarchist-themed radio show and featured interviews and commentary from many prominent figures in the activist world including George “Rithm” Martinez, Captain Ray Lewis, and Andy Stephanian.

 

Brent has been heard on 22 US radio stations 132 International, plus Satellite and Internet, everywhere from New York City, to Africa, Europe, China, and the Russian Federation.

He was also the only journalist who managed to secure an exclusive one-hour interview with Cecily McMillian, while she was incarcerated in Riker’s Island Penitentiary, which can be found on youtube in four parts.

Brent currently lives in New York City where he spends his time writing, producing new groundbreaking and subversive art, and making the argument for a better, more sane and compassionate world. Check him out online at: www.brentonlengel.com

1. When did you first get into activism?

My journey’s an interesting one. I was actually pretty conservative up until I graduated from college and entered the workforce. I’d majored in theatre, so of course I found myself working a string of low-wage jobs, mostly for amoral and abusive people. After the death of a friend I couldn’t take it anymore and I disappeared into the woods for six months, during which I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail Maine to Georgia. The culture of the trail was such a sharp contrast to modern capitalism: there you carried everything on your back, bragged about how little you had and often enjoyed both food and shelter provided by the spontaneous kindness of complete strangers. I didn’t know it at the time but living on the AT was very close to how many anarchist societies function, and to this day its largely what I think of when I imagine libertarian communism.

Brenton Lengel summiting Katahdin, Aug. 2008

Brenton Lengel summiting Katahdin, Aug. 2008

Some years later I encountered anarchism on the internet. I actually was pretty hostile to the ideology at first, but I quickly learned that what I thought anarchism was, it wasn’t and if I wanted to win arguments against anarchists, I would have to learn about anarchism. So I did, and I came back and won the argument, and then a year and a half later I realized I’d been wrong the entire time. The watershed moment for me came when I was living in NYC: I cut my teeth as an underground artist and playwright and that’s where I began to develop class consciousness. The New York arts scene is very much a world of nobles and peasants, and it didn’t take long to realize I fit into the latter category. Little by little I came to see just how screwed we all are and how much wealth and parentage really counts for in the American caste system. All of this finally came to a head when I saw a graph that had split out the distribution of wealth in the United States, contrasting what Americans thought it was and ideally wanted it to be, with what it actually was. When I saw just how much wealth the top 10% of the nation controlled, I think I sorta just threw up my hands and said “fuck it, property is theft!”

Shortly thereafter, Occupy Wall Street happened. I actually didn’t realize at the time it even had anything to do with anarchism. I figured it would be a bunch of democrats and champagne socialists and mostly ignored it for the first two weeks. Then I started to see pictures of my friends there, followed shortly by pictures of some of them getting arrested, and quickly I realized something very big was happening. So I grabbed some poster board and painted a large black & red sign that said “Class Warfare? Bring It!” in big white letters and the rest is history.

“Capitalism is inherently hostile to our environment, seeing it essentially as a collection of resources to be exploited, rather than a vital part of our own existence and thus capitalism is, in effect, inherently hostile to humanity as a whole.”

2. What is your vision of an anarchist society in terms of criminal justice? In terms of labor? In terms of environmental restitution? In terms of mass healthcare?

Criminal Justice is always the hard one. Hopefully in a fully communist society, crimes like theft and criminal trespass will mostly disappear, and most other anti-social behavior can be treated for what it usually is: the effects of abuse and/or mental illness. Still, even in a moneyless, classless, propertyless society I’m sure rapes, murders and assaults will still happen, though hopefully somewhat less frequently. I would hope that we as a society would replace prisons with a fusion of mental hospitals and social rehabilitation facilities, to be staffed by voluntary working groups of people trained in psychology, sociology and conflict de-escalation, where the emphasis is rehabilitation as opposed to punishment.

Similarly, I’d like to see the police replaced with a network of similar working groups dedicated to protecting people and resolving conflicts. These would differ from traditional police and military organizations in that they would have little to no rank, no tiered pay and would ultimately would be accountable to the communities in which they operate. I’m also very attracted to the idea of the “Warrior Poet” and I think culturally whatever organization eventually takes the place of the police needs to make efforts to build empathy and understanding in its’ members, by introducing arts and philosophy to its’ training regiment. I know plenty of people will scoff at this but there’s really no reason a person can’t be badass AND cultured and it’s in the interplay between the two that I think we can find the answer to the problem of personal and collective security.

To the matter of the court system, I would likely leave legal disputes up to a system of general assemblies, with the ability to appeal decisions by said GA at another larger assembly. As before, these GA’s would be horizontal and open to any and all members of the community in question.

Brenton Lengel and George Martinez leading the annual Marijuana March, NYC 2014

Brenton Lengel and George Martinez leading the annual Marijuana March, NYC 2014

When it comes to labor, I’m a big believer in workplace democracy, which is funny because one of my day jobs is management. As a result, I know that rank can sometimes be necessary for a healthy work environment, the reason being that people often will take direction from a supervisor without complaint, whereas if the same suggestion comes from someone they perceive as a co-worker they can very easily become angry or insulted. On the other end of the spectrum people who are having problems will often be too intimidated to speak up because they fear damaging their relationship with the others, or simply don’t want to be the squeaky wheel. Good management is key to dealing with this, HOWEVER good managers are very few and far between, and our society relies on this form of hierarchy entirely too much in my opinion. Also there isn’t enough recourse for people with bad managers. As such, I want worker ownership and an overall democratic approach, but I think many workers will find it to be in their collective best interest to appoint managers and facilitators to help things run smoothly. What’s key is that said managers need to be accountable to the people they work with, rather than some owner or CEO. I’m very interested in anarcho-syndicalist management strategies and in general I find the idea of worker’s self-management incredibly intriguing.

As for the environment, I am of course a staunch environmentalist both owing to my time on the Appalachian Trail and my faith as a Nichiren Buddhist. Buddhists from my sect consider the outward environment to be inherently linked with the inner self, going as far as to argue that both are separate manifestations of the same thing; as such, environmental destruction in pursuit of profits will inevitably result in social dysfunction and human misery. Capitalism is inherently hostile to our environment, seeing it essentially as a collection of resources to be exploited, rather than a vital part of our own existence and thus capitalism is, in effect, inherently hostile to humanity as a whole. I think Libertarian Communism has the potential to create a world which brings out the best in humanity and the earth on which we live, but only if there is a strong cultural commitment to conservation and environmental education.

Healthcare is a particularly important issue for me. My father is a medical doctor and I was a pretty sickly kid who suffered from a large number of allergies at an early age. However, due to his profession I grew up with the best food and the best medical care available and thus, today I’m a reasonably healthy man who can do stuff like hike 2,176 miles of the American Wilderness, run marathons and fight (sic: lose to) cops during street protests. Everyone needs to have access to that kind of care. It’s also incredibly important to me because my fiancee was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2012, and over the last few years has had to undergo major surgery five times, if she hadn’t had a job with good insurance at the time it would’ve ruined us. Universal Heathcare is a human right and I think it needs to be brought about as soon as possible by any means both just and necessary. Hospitals and healthcare need to be owned and controlled by the doctors and nurses, not a handfull of businessmen or investors. I have similar views with regard to big pharma.

“Revolution in the abstract sense is always inevitable. The past always loses to the future and tradition is always destroyed by progress.”

3. How do we prevent near term human extinction?

Laugavegurinn Trail

Meditating in a canyon in Iceland, 2014

Long term? I think it will require an overthrow of global capitalism and a total cultural shift in how we think about and interact with our environment. In the short term? Heavy environmental regulation coupled with massive conservation efforts and direct actions against organizations that pose a clear and present danger. I recently read The Monkeywrench Gang and while I’m not ready to sign up with Earth First and think most “eco-terrorism” does more harm than good, the earth is being destroyed and those who are doing the most of it do indeed have names and addresses. I think there need to be efforts both to reach out to them and hopefully persuade them to change their ways, and if they cannot be persuaded then defensive measures need to be undertaken, again by any means both just and necessary.

4. Is revolution inevitable? Is it necessarily going to be violent?

Revolution in the abstract sense is always inevitable. The past always loses to the future and tradition is always destroyed by progress. Immediate political revolution in the first world? Well I’d say the jury is still out on that one. It may be that the ruling class will realize it’s sowing the seeds of its’ own destruction and take measures to reduce their own fortunes and promote equality via a gradual process of reform which allows them to maintain their position while at the same time becoming people who history remembers fondly as dynamic and courageous leaders, or it may be that they fight the future with all of their might until after a huge amount of misery and a catastrophically large pile of bodies they are remembered as fools and tyrants if they’re remembered at all. Either way it’ll largely be their choice. What I hope they’ll remember is that no matter what they happen to do in their time, we always win. We used to have kings, we used to own other human beings as property. It takes time but I always take comfort in the fact that inevitably we will drag them (hopefully not kicking and screaming) into the future and everyone will be better for it. No matter what happens, barring the extinction of the human race, we absolutely are going to inherit the earth – there’s no doubt about that, the only question is how long it will take.

As to whether the revolution will be violent, I really hope not. History says otherwise but as I’ve said, tradition is always destroyed by progress. Nichiren Buddhists have a concept called “Human Revolution” in which each individual brings out their own personal transformation via their Buddhist practice, becoming their “best self”. The global version of this is called “Kosen Rufu” which is the mass realization of Human Revolution. These days I’m much more attracted to ideas like Kosen Rufu than any kind of violence. I’m not necessarily a pacifist but we have to remember that violence begets violence and people who employ it rarely get the outcome they were hoping for. We also have to remember that due to nuclear weapons, for the first time in human history we have the ability to destroy ourselves through conflict and everything that can must be done to prevent this.

“The ideal group dynamic that we all need to be striving for, at least in my opinion is the unity of disparate members who celebrate each other’s differences and strive to bring out the best in themselves and others.”

5. How do we combat secterianism and still allow for autonomy?

We had a big problem with that at Occupy Wall Street. Humans, and especially leftists have an unfortunate tendency towards tribalism and this can lead to hostilities. I think the cliche about The Left is that, at least in America, socialist parties often degenerate into rooms full of old white men sitting in a circle screaming white privilege at each other ad-nauseum. However, forced conformity and uniformity is also hugely undesirable for obvious reasons.

I don’t mean to keep bringing buddhism into this, but I actually think that the answer can be found in the writings of Nichiren Daishonin and his concept of “Many in Body, One in Mind” and how this plays out is that there are essentially three group dynamics with regard to diversity:

"On the Rock" by Tenrei Horiuchi 1903-1982

“On the Rock” by Tenrei Horiuchi 1903-1982

The first is Many in Body, Many in Mind – this describes a disorganized crowd. A sort of extreme individualism made up of atomized loners. It’s a shitty group to be a part of, because cooperation is difficult and it is easy to feel alone an alienated and bullies tend to thrive in this environment because they can easily push around those weaker than them.

Then you have One in Body, One in Mind. This describes everything right-“libertarians” fear the most: a hegemonized monolith of forced community. There’s great power here, which is why conservatives and authoritarian communists are attracted to it. However, ultimately it’s a toxic and potentially even more destructive dynamic than the first because it disregards the needs and happiness of it’s individual members, in favor of some abstract “whole” but of course this whole doesn’t really exist – it’s just an idea. Thus it is easy to abuse members within the group and foster a toxic repressive environment.

So that brings us to the third possibility: “Many in Body, One in Mind” – this is somewhat similar to the leftist ideal of solidarity, though I think solidarity is an inferior concept because it relies on external and ultimately superficial things like class and identity, which in and of itself disrespects and disregards individuality and encourages suspicion and envy even among allies. Solidarity also relies on an external enemy and so without that enemy the group either falls apart or finds a new one. Thus the ideal group dynamic that we all need to be striving for, at least in my opinion is the unity of disparate members who celebrate each other’s differences and strive to bring out the best in themselves and others. The unification force needs to not be mutual oppression, nor jealous ambition and competition but rather it has to be solidly grounded in humanism and respect – in the idea of enhancing your own life by enhancing the lives of those around you, creating a positive feedback loop in which everyone benefits.

Unity and Autonomy are not two opposing forces destined to forever crash into one another like two trains moving on the same track, they’re more like opposite trains moving on parallel tracks. We can benefit from both of them so long as neither takes a turn onto the other’s track. So what we on the left need to be ultimately doing is constantly seeking to build and maintain an environment that is simultaneously accepting of differences and fostering of individuals unique talents and ambitions while not building “martyrs to the cause” who neglect themselves in favor of some abstract ideal, which in my experience, ironically undermines the entire enterprise.

6. What is some of your favorite radical art?

Photo Credit Dag Benningstrom

Photo Credit Dag Benningstrom

I’m a huge fan of the work of Matthew Silver who is an NYC-based street artist. He does disruption-based performance art all over the city, based around this character he created to be your archetypal “crazy person”: wild hair, pants around his ankles, halting speech punctuated by chicken clucks, etc. I often see him on my way to work in the summer and it really warms my heart every day to see him screwing with the posh chain stores nearby, trying to get someone to give him a hug or dispensing advice that is equal parts both subversive and profound that most ignore because of how he looks and acts.

I’m also constantly in awe of my friend, fellow Yippie and literal partner in crime John Murdock. He’s an east-village comedian, dirty balloon man, and used to have his own radio show on WBAI right before the station went under. We got arrested together doing a direct action at OWS, and ran an activist-themed open-mic. at The Yippie Museum that served as a subversive hotbed and hub for radical activists in the NYC underground, before it too sadly, became yet another victim of capitalist gentrification. He’s currently living at an anarchist commune in Staten Island doing work with another artist/anarchist Took Edalow.

Finally there’s my old co-host Hon. George “Rithm” Martinez, whom you may remember as the “Occupy” candidate for senate back in 2012. He’s the former US ambassador of hip-hop (yes that is a real position) and currently is an artist/scholar in residence up in anchorage Alaska. George does some really good work, and also produces some awesome radical music, including two anthems he made for Occupy during it’s heyday.

 

7. Any projects you are currently promoting?

Quite a few actually. On the political front, Autonomous Collective is working with Joe Ferris of Slancap and the London Anarchist Federation to release and distribute a library of audiobooks of classical anarchist pamphlets. The aim is to translate the works of Bakunin, Emma Goldman, Rudolph Rocker etc. into audio format, to make them more accessible to the modern world and release them through multiple web-based anarchist channels, probably starting with the slancap facebook page and growing out from there. We also plan to start using New York actors so as to get the highest possible quality and reach, though for now, you’ll have to make due with me reading “What is Authority?” because we’re still in the early stages.

Coming up in July, my other theatre company State of Play Productions Inc. will be hosting a workshop and reading of a new play of mine called “No Gods, No Kings” which is about anarchism and is set during the Spanish Civil War, and I just finished the first draft of a screenplay about the life and death of Buenaventura Durruti, which will hopefully be made into a film at some point because it’s freaking amazing.

I have a few other major projects, but I’m going to play them close to the chest for now, just keep an eye on my website www.brentonlengel.com for updates over the next few years.

“Activists are crazy. You don’t suddenly decide you want to overthrow the existing economic and political paradigm because you have everything you want – you become an activist because there’s something broken that you have not reconciled with the rest of the world.”

8. What advice to you have for people hoping to get into activism?

March Against Capitalism

Speaking at the March Against Capitalism, NYC 2015

That’s a tough one. Activism, at least to me, is a bit of a calling. It’s like being an artist. I mean I didn’t get involved with OWS because I necessarily wanted to, I more or less had to if I wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror every morning. Our world is really fucked up and there are a plethora of incredibly important causes that demand our limited attention and resources. So if you feel that pull, my advice would be to figure out what you’re most passionate about, and do your best to connect with people who feel similarly IRL. Go to street protests, find local hotbeds of subversion and most importantly DIY it. Don’t wait for someone else to give you permission to make the world a better place, and don’t think you have to join some big organization to have an impact. You’d be very surprised just how much one dedicated person can do when they put their mind and body to it.

9. What advice to you have for avoiding burnout?

Be kind to yourself and don’t sacrifice who you are and what you want to be for “the revolution” most of us are idealists and we set ridiculously large goals that often times are beyond our ability to see to fruition. Realize that at the end of the day, you are just one person and you have a life outside of saving the world. Do not become a martyr to the cause, and don’t create some idealized identity that you feel you have to live up to, you aren’t that idealized revolutionary, you are a human being and you are going to make mistakes and this burden does not just fall on your shoulders. Similarly, be kind and forgiving to others and don’t get too focused on ideological purity. The fact is we’re all just making this up as we go.

If you’re not happy with who you are and what you’re doing you’ll be of no use to anyone, including the revolution. Take care of your body, take care of your mind, don’t succumb to lifestylism and make sure that you always have a roof over your head and food to eat before you go off trying to solve someone else’s problems. Also, this is very important: Activists are crazy. You don’t suddenly decide you want to overthrow the existing economic and political paradigm because you have everything you want – you become an activist because there’s something broken that you have not reconciled with the rest of the world. This can translate into dealing with some people who are unbalanced and may flake, or lash out, or behave in any number of immature ways, so make sure that the comrades you find are smart people who are worthy of your time and energy. Manage your social circle carefully to avoid cops, nutjobs, and people of low character.

If you can do that, you will be successful, maybe not in the way that you imagine but you’ll look back on what you’ve done and you’ll be proud of it. At the end of the day, if you can say you’ve made other people’s lives better, than you’ve done your job.

10. Any final words or shout outs?

I want to give a shout-out to Beezy Douglas an amazing musician and dedicated activist who helped to to start questioning a number of core suppositions about the world and who has also been an incredible friend. He runs The BZ Douglas Carnivale, which if you get the chance to see it is a center of gravity for some amazing underground acts and radical thinkers. His song “Slapstick Tragedy” is still one of my favorites, and deals with the reality of living in modern day America and seeing everything we see, with the minimal ability to do anything about it.

If any anarchists are interested, here’s a short play of mine they might get a kick out of called “Anarcho” that ran at the Flea Theatre for a few weeks.

Also, in July my comrade Cecily McMillian will be releasing her memoire: The Emancipation of Cecily McMillian about her life and eventual arrest, trial and incarceration as part of OWS in 2012. I’ll call it a must-read for any activist or anyone who is interested in the single-minded pursuit of justice.