Interview with Beth Payne

Phoenix, AZ (TFC) – Beth Payne is an anarchist organizer living in so-called Phoenix, Arizona, on occupied O’odham land. She helped found Carpe Locus Collective, Phoenix ABC, the Phoenix Anti-Capitalist Conference, and a radical community center/anarchist infoshop called the Sp(a)ce. She is a proponent of social anarchism, and puts her energy into building long-term sustainable radical infrastructure and community survival projects. Payne has a special interest in ensuring that anarchism is informed by its accessibility through mutual aid and education. She has two children with her co-parent.

John: How did you get involved in social justice organizing?
Beth: As a teenager, I got involved in the underground hardcore music scene, and started doing zines on downtown Tucson punk music, skateboarding and graffiti culture. The 90s hardcore scene really radicalized my politics, and I got into green anarchism during the anti-globalization movement. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of things, like start a family with my partner, and work in fields that aligned with my politics whenever possible. A few years ago, I decided to quit working full time to spend more time building community survival programs and other anarchist mutual aid projects in the Phoenix area, where I now live. The collective I started with some comrades is called Carpe Locus Collective, which means “seize the opportunity.” We put on the annual Phoenix Anti-Capitalist Conference, and opened a radical social center/infoshop called the Sp(a)ce.


John: What are some of the albums, bands and lyrics that inspired you?

Beth: Oh man, so many… I’ve always loved Bikini Kill, although I was critical of the riot grrl movement. Strike Anywhere remains one of my favorite political bands, I love that positive two-step alongside anarchist calls to action. I really love underground hip-hop too, Sage Francis is one of my favorite artists, but I also love Ana Tijoux, Aesop Rock, and fellow organizer Jared Paul who just dropped a new album on Black Box Tapes, Sole’s label.
What do you see as arts role in radical struggle? Emma Goldman said it best, “when we can’t dream any longer, we die.” I think it’s easy to get bogged down about the things we’re fighting against, but we also need to take the time to celebrate what we’re fighting for. Artistic integrity is one of the most easily translatable forms of anarchism- our ability to create for ourselves and connect to others in the process give us hope. I’m all about finding those cracks in the wall, the spaces we create for ourselves and the communities that sustain us… we have to find those cracks and expand them, hold them open a little longer and invite others in. Art can be a language that transcends some of our differences, allows us to share our vulnerabilities and deepest pains and hopes with complete strangers… that takes a radical level of trust in one another.


John: Tell us more about what you do down at the Sp(a)ce?

Beth: The Sp(a)ce is a radical community center and anarchist infoshop, based out of a house that was loaned to my collective by our good friend, Krazy Bill, shortly before he passed away. We currently rent the Sp(a)ce from his sons, but are looking to move into a larger and more accessible location next summer. We started the Sp(a)ce to give tangibility to anarchist projects and ideas, help radicals find each other, and provide resources and support for new projects to take root. As soon as we opened the Sp(a)ce, we started an open collective to manage it called the Sp(a)ce Program, and gave keys out to everyone who is invested in the Sp(a)ce and wants to work out of it. I have no idea how many keys we’ve given out, I don’t think anyone knows. We have weekly community potlucks, workshops, an anarchist library with an open use computer, an art workshop, a kids room, a free store, a community garden, and an awesome 16′ x 20′ skate ramp. While it is mostly a space for radicals and anarchists to share ideas, hold meetings, and build together, it is also very important to us that it is integrated into the neighborhood and contributes to the existing community. We have formed good relationships and been accepted as part of the neighborhood, and worked together with some of our neighbors to drive a white supremacist out of the hood. Currently, we’re working on establishing a zine library, a co-op printshop, and a weekend program offering help with home and yard maintenance to neighbors. Several groups such as Tempe Food not Bombs, Phoenix ABC, etc. are based out of the Sp(a)ce, and we have open hours 6 days a week.


John: What are some tips you’d give to people about building community and breaking past sectarianism?

Beth: Sectarianism is tough, it exists in every radical community. My perspective is that free association is very important to healthy communities. Sharing similar ideas and goals doesn’t mean that we are all going to be friends, or want to hang out. But I’m a very big believer in the St. Paul Principles that anarchists organizing against the 2008 RNC embraced. They are:

1. Our solidarity will be based on respect for a diversity of tactics and the plans of other groups.
2. The actions and tactics used will be organized to maintain a separation of time or space.
3. Any debates or criticisms will stay internal to the movement, avoiding any public or media denunciations of fellow activists and events.
4. We oppose any state repression of dissent, including surveillance, infiltration, disruption and violence. We agree not to assist law enforcement actions against activists and others.

Essentially, it is not strategic for anarchists and radical leftists to direct our energy towards fighting one another, and we should be able to organize in a way that respects our differences of opinions and tactics when working towards common goals. We should never find ourselves doing to the work of the state by intentionally undermining each other on ideological grounds. That said, we also maintain a collective responsibility to address abusive and dangerous individuals within our communities, whether they are tools of the state intentionally or otherwise.


John: How about dealing with other interpersonal struggles that come from more communal living situations?

Beth: Anarchism is both inspiring and frustrating because it assumes an enormous capacity for accountability and action from each other. It’s not enough to abolish the state, the police, prisons, and the non-profit industrial complex. We also have to demonstrate praxis around providing each other safety, security and health. That praxis takes many forms, from community survival programs (free stores, FNB, free medical clinics, etc), to individual accountability for addressing abusive and dangerous behavior within our circles. We live in a culture where people call the police over minor disputes with their neighbors instead of forming relationships and finding ways to co-exist respectfully. The root of that is how easy it is to eschew our individual accountability to outside authorities, rather than do the much harder work to find common ground. Anarchism requires that we own our personal responsibility to resolve conflicts, and protect one another from abusive people. There’s no accountability process or approach that works 100% of the time, in fact, most of our attempts to find accountability fail on some level… but we still owe each other our efforts to stay engaged and continually improve on our abilities to resolve things without invoking authority or state violence.


John: How can we start rewilding and being more sustainable while avoiding the greenwashing so prevalent in our culture?

Beth: Hmm, that’s a loaded question. I feel like sustainability means a lot of different things to different people, but it often excludes the human impact of the way our society is structured. For instance, the concept of ‘rewilding’ carries a lot of colonial implications, for a lot of people it’s a romantic form of escapism from culpability and complicity with the damage done to the environment. But escape to where? In most parts of the world, and definitely in the US, rewilding means escaping to wild areas where native folks have already been forcibly removed over generations of colonialism. Settling in those wild areas just perpetuates centuries of colonialism, and ignores the fact that indigenous folks are still forcibly resettled on lands that typically have less natural resources, and many of them are living in extreme poverty. It’s not enough to focus on a reconciliation with the environment and put our energy into reducing our impact on that alone. We have to put equal or greater focus on addressing our ongoing complicity in the generational violence that has spilled blood on this land.


John: What do you feel are the solutions for the tendencies of the dominant oppressive culture to remanifest themselves inside progressive/radical/anarchist circles?

Beth: Trick question, there are no solutions! Just kidding, but realistically, we are always going to encounter that issue. We have been conditioned our entire lives to accept very damaging social hierarchies as the status quo. It takes a lot of intentional work over time to dismantle any of that conditioning. Realistically, the most important thing is to engage in politics with a lot of humility. Surround yourself with people you can trust to give you honest and challenging feedback, and fight the instinct to get defensive or dismiss what they say. All of our theory should be informed by our actions, and vice versa. The ideas we believe in are useless if they can’t be applied to our real lives.
I strongly believe in free association and the right for communities to protect themselves from dangerous and abusive people. There’s a common argument made that free association can’t exist in post-industrial capitalism, because there is no survival imperative tying people together in groups. Although that’s obviously true, I disagree with the idea that we don’t still have a responsibility to protect each other. Excluding people from our spaces and communities because of their abusive behavior is not to “punish” them, it is to ensure that we do not become complicit in their actions by vouching for them or giving them access to community members. Anarchism is about personal responsibility and social accountability, complete ownership of the outcomes of our actions. It makes no sense to advocate for the abolition of police and prisons if we eschew our own ability to protect each other within our own communities. Obviously, we try to educate first, but we need to be able to recognize when someone’s choices are harmful and abusive to others and they’re unwilling to take any accountability for that.


John: Does the inclusiveness of the anarchist community allow more room for sectarianism and a platform for disparate ideas to be conveyed as anarchism?

Beth: I’m not sure that the anarchist community in America is very inclusive at all. The amount of sectarianism makes anarchism feel like a “scene” in America; it’s very insular and there’s a lot of jockeying for social credit. Most of that is discouraging to new folks, and a waste of energy. That said, it’s also reflective of the social hierarchies we recreate in all aspects of society, and we have an obligation to break that down ourselves. Too much social capital in the anarchist “scene” is attached to the pursuit of allegedly perfect theory and analysis. There’s a lot of fronting and infighting online in particular, and bullying of folks who are still self-educating and trying to figure out where they stand on different concepts. It’s a deterrent to engagement in more worthwhile direct action. That vanguard behavior makes anarchism seem like an elitist club, mostly for white boys who have the time and energy to sit at home and argue online.
I’m much more interested in working on real projects in real life with one another, and having comrades who accept each other as imperfect and learning. We all have things we’re more passionate and on point about because they personally impact us; we need each other’s perspectives and insights to put the pieces together in any meaningful way. That also means we need the patience to talk through idea with “new” folks, when we have the energy to do so. Do you remember the ending of Fahrenheit 451? Each of the people left after the end is carrying around one book or story in their head, and they need each other to be a library. None of us is a library on our own.


John: What advice would you give activists on dealing with alienation, trauma, burnout and grief?

Beth: I love these questions. This is a really tough one, but very relevant to me right now. A few months ago, I went through a really rough separation with my co-parent, who I had been with for 12 years. We have two small children, and we had been together for most of our adult lives. I had a really hard time dealing with the overwhelming emotions of it all, and I really self-alienated to deal with my grief. Some of that was self-care, but a lot of it was not healthy for me. But really important realizations come from ruptures and experiences like this, and I have been so incredibly grateful for the strength of the radical community around me during these last few months. Not only did good friends and comrades step up to take over things I couldn’t handle, they checked in with me gently and often. They brought me food, things I needed to resettle, sent me care packages, sat in my new place with me late at night even though I didn’t have any chairs. I have always had a hard time asking for help when I need it, and I didn’t even realize how badly I need that support. I appreciate the hard work that we have done to connect to each other meaningfully and create intentional community now more than I ever have. It is about mutual aid, and it’s about love and solidarity with each other. It’s about connecting honestly and being vulnerable with one another. So, I don’t know if I have advice as far as to say that we have to build the communities we want to belong to. It isn’t an weekend “activist project.” It’s our lives. We need each other, we are rebuilding what has been stripped away by a toxic culture and conditioning that has devalued our importance to each other. Build openly, share pieces of yourself with each other, and be prepared to be carried when you really need it.