distinctions in proximity: Kris Henderson and Robin Markle
distinctions in proximity: co-interviews between artists and activists was a printed companion to Artist In Solidarity, a People’s Movement Assembly co-hosted by Amber Art & Design, People’s Climate Arts and the Arts & Culture Working Group as part of the US Social Forum held in Philadelphia, PA on June 27th, 2015. The Arts and Culture Working Group of the USSF called for (self-identified) artists and activists to engage in dialogue via email. The published interviews were gathered by Phoebe Bachman and Maggie Ginestra with the hope of creating a document of shared ways of working and thinking.
Kris Henderson is an organizer with Decarcerate PA, Human Rights Coalition, the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration, and the Pennsylvania Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. They are the Legal Director of Amistad Law Project.
Robin Markle is an artist, organizer and revolutionary witch practicing her crafts in West Philadelphia. She is a coordinator of the Philly Childcare Collective and a member of Decarcerate PA, the LCA Housing Coop and the Marginal Notes study group/coven. She sells queer altar candles at FlamingIdols.com and her writing and art can be seen at robinmarkle.com.
Robin Markle: Dear Kris,
What motivates and inspires you to do the work that you do?
Kris Henderson: My biggest motivations are people I know and love who are in prison who need to come home and people I know and love who I fear could get caught up in the criminal legal system and be taken away from our communities.
Some of the most thoughtful, most caring, most compassionate people I know having been condemned to die in prison. That’s not justice. At the same time, my 14 year-old cousin is pretty oblivious to the realities of the criminal legal system and how easy it is to get swept up in it for a mistake or for nothing at all.
I don’t think we can abolish prisons without Black liberation and we need abolition. We need to find other ways of dealing with harm and of keeping our communities safe or else people of color and poor people are going to keep filling up our prisons, jails, and detention centers as human commodities.
What about you?
RM: I feel similarly. Kids/young people I know and care about are a big part of why abolishing the police state and ending mass incarceration are important to me, and why I make art to support these movements. Especially being around lots of young children as a nanny/babysitter and through the Philly Childcare Collective, I wonder what their lives will be like and pray that they face less violence when they are older than generations of Black people and other people of color who have come before them. It’s also important to me that kids are involved in social justice work – we need to empower them to lead, they will be the creators of our future – and hopefully a more just and liberated – world.
On the flip side, looking back to ancestors of the past, both biological and cultural, gives me a lot of inspiration too. Sometimes it just feels like shit is so bad, the worst it could be or ever has been, and I get really hopeless. I see the horrible consequences of white supremacy and white people’s actions and sometimes I just get overcome with white guilt and and feel like all white people should just go drown ourselves and stop messing everything up. And I know intellectually that that’s not productive, that white people need to leverage white privilege and power in service of movements for Black liberation, but sometimes my feelings of hopelessness overcome what I know intellectually. So in those times I like to remember people like Marilyn Buck and Laura Whitehorn, both of whom were white queer women activists in the 1960s and 70s who worked in solidarity with Black liberation movements and spent decades in prison because of their actions. Not that I aspire to spend decades in prison, but to me they are examples of people who truly gave their lives in every way to work for liberation. My favorite queer idol candle that I’ve made is of Marilyn, I burn it frequently for strength. I also think about my biological ancestors. My great-great Aunt Fanny moved by herself from a small town in Russia to New York City when she was 20, in 1900. She wanted to move her family to the U.S. to escape anti-Semitic violence (the Pogroms). She worked in sweatshops and saved up money to eventually move her entire family of 9 to the US. A year later there was a pogrom in their village and her grandfather was killed. I like to think about Fanny because 1) she was so brave to travel by herself as a young woman with no resources to a country where she didn’t speak the language, and I want to be that brave, and 2) it helps to remind myself that my ancestors faced random (and at the same time institutionalized) acts of violence for their identity as Jews where they had to fear for their lives on a daily basis. I think it is important as someone who descends from survivors of that social context to stand in solidarity with groups that face similar violence now.
What helps you when you feel hopeless or burnt out (if you ever do)? And if this is too redundant to the last question, what strategies and tactics interest you right now? Where do you want to see the movement go and where do you want to put your energy?
KH: I want to see our different movements truly become one movement. I want that movement to be international and Human Rights-focused. So many of the things we’re fighting for are Human Rights and it would be awesome if we framed them as such more consistently and made connections between all of our struggles.
Organizing can often become this push for reform, a fight for small victories. I think we should be joyous when we win, even when the victory is small, but that we must constantly keep pushing. The eradication of oppression is going to take radical action, not reform.
I think we can get there, and create another world, but it will take time and collective visioning.
What would a more just and liberated world look like to you?
RM: This is so cliche, but I think it would be a world where people could freely express themselves and not feel like they’re forced into labels and boxes or judged or discriminated against for their expression. One small way I try to work towards this is never labeling kids as “boy” or “girl,” just kids or people. Kids should get to express themselves however they want and later they can choose if they want to identify as a woman or a man or someone who is non-binary, they don’t need to be told from the time they’re babies that they’re a boy or girl.
I love visionary/speculative fiction/sci-fi as a tool for exploring models of more liberated worlds, I’ve been following the work around this at the Allied Media Conference for the past few years and am really excited about the book Octavia’s Brood, though I haven’t started it yet. A couple books I’ve read that show models of more liberated worlds that I really liked are Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy and The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk.
What was a time you felt like you were really close to a more liberated world? Like the veil was thin or temporarily lifted?
KH: I think the times I have felt closest to a more liberated world have usually happened when I am in a place that illustrates how punitive our world is now: prison.
I will be having a conversation about abolition or transformative justice or an organizing plan in a way that is completely unfettered and open and honest and then I will suddenly realize that in a few minutes or a few hours, I will leave this person in this place. And it’s this weird sort of subversion, talking about an end to capitalism and the prison industrial complex and racism in a place that is built from these things. It makes me feel like, if we keep working at it, we’ll figure all of this out and create a better world, that when we are listening to and following and really building with people in the belly of the beast, that we will win, inevitably.
Image credit: Robin Markle, Resistance Cake. Baked for Decarcerate PA’s platform launch party.