This is the second part of an interview held with CT Butler, a founding member of Food Not Bombs. You can find the first part here.
AB: Having a long and storied history of activism and organising, what advice would you impart for the activists and organisers of younger generations?
CB: It’s true. I have a long history and it’s very colourful. I’ve been to hundreds of protests in my lifetime — mostly in that twenty year period, although I spent a good deal of time travelling around doing Occupy. I’ve been arrested dozens of times, so I have a good deal of experience dealing with the police, and by experience I mean that I lost count of all the times I’ve been arrested due to me getting brutalised by the police by having them beat me up. I suffer now from PTSD because of this. I was actually targeted back in that era. I was beaten unconscious.
I mentioned that I did organise a takeover of the US capitol back in 1984. The thing was back then there were no metal detectors, and there wasn’t an issue around that. The public was allowed to walk right into the rotunda. You didn’t even have to get a reservation. You could just show up and walk in. So getting into the capitol we didn’t have to do anything illegal. We just didn’t leave. That was the arrest charge. We were ordered to leave and didn’t leave because we started protesting. It was nonviolent; although, there were probably ten thousand police officers there because of our nonviolent protest by religious leaders: bishops, nuns, priests, ministers, and rabbis. It was a 'very dangerous crowd.'
What did I learn from all that? I learned the value of education, research, and training to prepare ones self. Not just for the expected protest, but of the unexpected injustice. The mantra was, back in the day: 'educate, organise, take action.' The point being that the individual protest and the individual causes are all important, but they’re not the root of the problem. From an anarchist analysis it’s much more systemic, so the response is systemic, as well. The system is not winning protests. That’s not the goal. The protests are necessary because of the problem, but they aren’t the outcome that we want. The outcome we want is for people to be educated and for them to have done their own research into what really is true.
It seems like people don’t know how to do critical thinking and research anymore, which was a core part of our anarchist collective. It was reading books (we didn’t have an online presence because there were no computers then). We would read books, grab pamphlets, go to meetings, then we’d all go home and talk about them and argue about them. We did critical thinking and we did research. We didn’t become insular and isolated. We went out and looked at other people’s ideas and made them challenge our own. We then trained ourselves. We practiced. Not only did we practice nonviolent responses to police brutality for protests, but we also practiced everyday life instances where a nonviolent anarchist can make a difference.
Very recently in my life, I was flying, and in the plane a Black man bumped into this white guy. This white guy got upset, but the Black guy apologised. He didn’t mean to do it, and it should’ve been over right then, but then the wife of the white guy had to start saying something. Pretty soon it became loud, and I’m right there because their seats are right next to me.. Finally they get off, and the couple actually goes to complain to the airline saying the Black guy basically attacked them. I saw the whole thing, so I stayed. I acted as a witness for the Black guy. I did so not because he was Black, but because it was the truth. I saw that they were the problem, and I wanted to make sure that they didn’t use their white privilege to make it sound like something else had happened. I really didn’t have to do anything. I just stayed and witnessed. I was silent, although I did give my name and talked to the police for two minutes saying my side of the story, which was to support the Black guy and say it was the white folks causing the problem, and that was my role in it. We have to be prepared to do that, and that of course could have led to consequences. I was willing to take the risk that the white couple who now identified me could take out their anger on me. We have to be prepared for stuff like that and stand up and witness for injustice when it happens.
The kind of things we used to practice in our role plays were situations like waiting for a subway, and on the platform was a parent who was physically abusing their child, and we would decide how to intervene. You had to decide what type of nonviolent change agent you would be in that moment, and it was simple. You could just walk up to them and ask, 'Do you know what time it is?' You would interrupt the moment and the parent’s anger. You would put the adult in the place where they are now being witnessed by another adult. You can’t be continuing that behaviour in a bubble. My point being that education, research, and training are necessary in educating, organising, and taking action.
The last thing I’ll say is up on the wall in our original collective of Food Not Bombs, we were struggling with a lot of young anarchists who thought that anarchy meant 'no rules,' and the sign on the wall said, 'No rulers. Not no rules.'
AB: What advice might you have for individualist anarchists or anarchists who may be sceptical of the democratic process, including that of consensus, due to thinking that it can only result in the ‘tyranny of the majority’?
CB: That really struck a note. I remember we spent a lot of time arguing amongst ourselves in the early collectives. We had nothing better to do than sit around the house and argue with each other about finer points of anarchism. We did that a lot, and I distinctly remember long discussions about the tyranny of the majority basically as compared to what? The tyranny of the minority, which is what we have now?
Before in history, and obviously it resurges its ugly head repeatedly in modern times (like January 6th), you know, tyranny of the individual. Monarchy, or cult of the personality, or whatever you want to call it, but one person being at the top of the pyramid. So you have this continuum: tyranny of the individual, tyranny of the minority, tyranny of the majority, and of course what’s next is tyranny of everyone. It’s no tyranny if everyone’s doing it because tyranny by implication is 'power over.' Really, the word tyranny is poor because what the word really is is power. So in this continuum it’s an individual that has power over everybody else, or a minority has power over everybody else. An example of that is a board of directors in a corporation. They run the corporation. They have power over everyone else in the corporation. That’s the model we mostly use in this modern day, but it’s a progression in human history. There is this idea that organisations could have the majority rule where the majority has power over everybody. We tried to make it work. We now are very aware that this country is an experiment in that, and it’s a very tenuous one, but then you go to the fourth position which is that everyone has power over everyone, which then makes my point.
This continuum is entirely based on power, and if you had a horizontal structure where nobody was at the top and nobody was at the bottom, then it erases the question. The question is moot. It’s not about power. You can do all the same things you could do with power with values. Real values. The values that drive us. The answer to that question is that the democratic process is to be based on values, not power. When you do that, you take care of the tyranny of anything. In fact, I’ll go even further. Not only do you take care of the tyranny of anything, you take care of ageism, of all the '-isms,' ableism, you dismantle them all in group settings. If you use values and a horizontal structure, none of those things work because they’re all about power. Racism is about 'power over.' Sexism is about 'power over.' I’m a radical. I’m a radical’s radical. I believe we can run society based on values, not power. That’s the answer to your question.
AB: Can you tell us about some of your upcoming projects? What are you currently working on, or what do you have planned for the near future?
CB: That’s a hard question to answer because in my personal life, I’m in a major transition right at the moment, and so I sort of have dreams rather than plans. As a preface, for the last ten years basically, I have been on a retreat healing my wounds from all my years of activism. I’ve done what I could. I didn’t have a lot of money to get professional help, but I did what I could to heal myself in various ways. Time was a big factor, so I’ve done really well in recovering and actually wanting to get back into the work. Really, for ten years I haven’t really done anything related to anything I just talked about in this whole interview. I’ve been on a mountain top alone. I have had a lot of time to think and to think things through, and I’ve gone deeper with my understanding. Like many people, I’ve been impressed with Stephen Hawking and his ability to say things that are very complex in a very simple way and get to the core of the point. His books are like that. They really get down to it. I want to write a book like that about a mixture of things. I’m of the opinion at this point, after all these years of reflection, that the missing component is something I’ve learned from teaching.
In terms of groups, there are four major components. There are four things operating simultaneously that can be identified separately. The first thing is language both in terms of the language that they’re speaking but also the colloquialisms and the way people talk to each other, the words they use, and the meaning of the words. Language is obviously very important. The second is techniques and skills. The ways in which we are good at facilitating or good at having group discussion techniques like raising your hand if you want to speak or having a 'go around' around the circle that can make a difference in the way the meeting functions. The third component is the structure of the meeting. What comes first, what comes second, what comes third, where people sit, and what the agenda is are all structural components. The fourth component is much harder to define. It’s the tone of the meeting. It’s how people treat each other dynamically. These are things like when people get angry and they start shouting. When people shout, it changes the dynamic of the room. When people say something really smart, it changes the dynamic of the room. So you have these four components.
The last one I generally call 'group dynamics.' People certainly have studied the last one a lot. There are a lot of books about interpersonal dynamics. There are a lot of books about skills and techniques. I have a whole shelf of facilitation skill books and group dynamic techniques. Of course, certainly since the feminist movement, more people are becoming very aware of how language matters. Language is important, we think about it, and now we are even questioning the use of the pronoun in society today which I think is great. I personally prefer the pronoun 'per,' but at Twin Oaks they use 'co,' and that works pretty well to. Even with all this, there’s very little, and most people’s awareness when discussing things like group dynamics or group meetings is about structure. We don’t talk about it a lot, we don’t think about it a lot, there’s no books about it. It’s kind of invisible. I use building a skyscraper as an analogy that the purpose of the building is the group dynamics, the foundation and the i-beams are the structure, the walls, doors, and windows are the techniques, and the paint, carpet, and shades are the language. You never see the structure. It’s just there, and that’s the way people treat the structure in group dynamics. It’s just there. They don’t really think about it or notice it much.
In the last forty years, there has been a shift in the collective consciousness in the United States culture in awareness of the fact that people, mostly men in leadership positions, were mostly in their head. The New Age movement was sort of saying to get in touch with your heart and emotions, so there were a lot of books about the struggle between the head and the heart. The structure of things right now is that there is this battle between your head and your heart inside of you. There are whole movements that think that you should follow your heart. There are others saying that you should instead follow your rational mind. To me that’s all a false argument. That’s the wrong structure. All those discussions are moot. They don’t make much sense because they’re leaving out the structure, and the structure of my world is that there’s actually three components to this structure. It’s head, heart, and gut. There’s the head that’s your thoughts, the heart that’s your emotions, and the gut that’s your values. We also don’t talk about values that much these days either.
There’s also a biological correlation to this idea because from what I’ve learned there is a concentration of neurons in your skull, there is a concentration of neurons around your heart, and there is a concentration of neurons in your gut. The most important part about the concentration of neurons in your heart and gut is that they are about one cell removed from communicating directly with the right side of your brain without any interpretation or any conscious thought processes. The emotions from your heart are told to your brain directly, and your values from your gut (your gut reaction) without even knowing necessarily that it happened. That’s why you experience it as your emotions happening to you. It’s already happened and you're just noticing it. That’s true. That’s the way it actually happens. That’s an important awareness of how to balance head, heart, and structure or gut, and until we acknowledge that and recognise that to live in the world and make the world work, we need to have all three of them operating in harmony. Not exactly the same, but in harmony with one another, or in concert or collaboration inside yourself. In my opinion, until we come to terms with that, there will be discord, disharmony, and hurt.
AB: To close the interview, I’ve come to know that you have a lovely herd of rescued goats. What is the best thing about being able to come home to them each day? What sort of wisdom have you been gifted as a result of being around them?
CB: That’s the best question, but it’s not quite accurate. It’s not coming home to them, it’s waking up in the morning. I have a reason to get up every morning. You know, there are some mornings where I’d rather not get up, but I have a reason to get up, and I do. I have a goat herd of eight pygmy goats. I have two giant (and I mean giant as in over one hundred and twenty pounds) livestock guardian dogs. These are not pets; they live with the goats. They are full-time outdoors. I did not train them. They know what to do on their own. They are genetically wired to be livestock guardian dogs and nothing else.
What did I learn from them? First off, the dogs: they are the essence of anarchy. They are completely autonomous, self sufficient, respectful, honest, direct, powerful, dangerous, and courageous. I could go on. The reason why I’m listing those things is because through all this work that I’ve done with group dynamics and large scale drama (you know, organising big protests), I’ve always encountered that humans are so disappointing. They’ve got so many issues with falseness, masks that they hide behind, hidden truths, and sometimes outright lies.
The goats, as you mentioned, are rescue goats. They’re our pets. They aren’t production for anything. We don’t get milk from them, we don’t get fibre from them, we certainly aren’t going to eat them. We saved them from certain death. Each one has their own story, and each one of them is unique. Each day I interact with them, what I learn and experience is candour. When they’re stubborn, they are one hundred percent stubborn. When they're affectionate, they're one hundred percent affectionate. They’re real. They’re direct. There’s no mask. There’s no pretending. There’s no falseness. There’s no trying to be more than they are. They are just who they are. It’s a direct communication, so when I feed them, they appreciate that relationship. Reciprocally, after I feed them, I will just sit down on the ground in the pen, and each of the animals will take a turn, come over, and thank me. They will appreciate me and look in my eyes. One of them is my buddy. He rubs against me like he’s a cat. I don’t even think that’s normal goat behaviour. I don’t know what’s going on there.
With the two dogs, I have become a part of their pack. I think they think that I’m one of them. They think I’m a funny looking Akbash. The truth is that I have earned their respect, so now we have a dialogue. We communicate regularly. They won’t do anything they don’t want to do. You can’t train them. I tried. I hired a dog behaviourist to help us train this dog because he was out of control, and the behaviourist was aware of this breed. They’re called Akbash, and she taught us that these are not normal dogs. What she taught me, first of all, was how to read the body language (the signs) that the dog was sending. They’re different from your domesticated dog, and that actually makes them dangerous. People think that they are behaving in a way that’s typical of their average dog, and what they’re actually about to do is bite you. They don’t behave the same way. It was a little bit challenging. I had to learn how they talk first. She then taught me how to talk to them, which is by gaining their respect. I had to prove to them that I deserve to be listened to before they listen to me. That really happened.
Now, years of bonding with them have helped protect the house from wildfires. We live in a small town next to Paradise, California, which was burned down completely by a wildfire in 2018. The fire fighters were able to protect our house because the goats had cleared a perimeter around the house. The goats actually saved our house. We had to evacuate with the goats and dogs and take them into town. That was really a horrible experience, but we were together, and we bonded really deeply during that experience. Now I’m really close to the animals. I get up every morning, and I have these beautiful friends of mine that show love for me, I show love for them, and that makes my day. Then I have to go out and deal with the humans. I am blessed to have a goat herd, and it’s really exciting.
I should say that my entire life I’ve been a city boy. I love New York city. I’d hardly ever visited a farm. I’m not a farmer, I’ve never gardened, and I can’t really grow things. I love nature, and I defend nature, but I can’t really grow it. It’s not my thing. To be a farmer, a rancher, and a goat herder in this part of my life is just really bizarre, but, given that I needed these ten years to heal, it was the best medicine. Not only have they saved our house, but they’ve given me a huge dose of sanity and health. I have really bonded with the goat herd, and they’ve really bonded with me and my partner Wren, so much so that when we move to the east coast (we are fed up with the wildfires), we are going to take the whole family with us. We are converting an RV into a travelling barn. So those are my plans for the future. That’s where I’m at. Thank you very much. This was wonderful.
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