Black Rose Book Distro, a network of radical “pop up” bookstores in St. Louis, was attacked by white supremacists in January.
I first heard about the incident via Twitter as the distro’s volunteers spread the word about the damage to their books, zines, and safer sex supplies.
Authors, publishers, and activists of all kinds quickly stepped up to replace almost everything, and all of the Black Rose Book Distro locations are open again. But I still think it’s important to spread word about what happened, because American nazis pose a growing risk to not just the physical safety of marginalized groups in the U.S., from LGBTQIA folks to immigrants and people of color, but also our culture and knowledge too. The members of Black Rose agreed when I approached them for an interview.
“We’re no longer asking for help recouping our losses, although we’re still replacing books and zines,” the collective behind Black Rose told me. “We’ve already been donated more zines than we lost and almost as many books.”
Instead of “offering us any more material aid,” they said, “we’re challenging radicals to be more vigilant in looking for signs the Alt-Right is active wherever you happen to be.”
Black Rose Book Distro volunteers push back against ‘elitist’ activism
Currently, three volunteers run the three locations of the Black Rose Book Distro, with support from many more. Describing themselves as “anti-authoritarian persons living in and around the greater Saint Louis metro area,” I agreed to keep further details of their identity anonymous to protect them from retaliation and further attacks. The trio answered my interview questions collectively, via email.
“Black Rose Book Distro more or less came about through our mutual frustration at how inaccessible, unwelcoming and even elitist radical spaces can sometimes feel,” they told me.
In particular, they felt that new activists are presented with “a sort of canon of often dense and difficult ‘sacred texts,’ often overly academic and obscure; hardly accessible or even particularly relevant in an immediate and obvious way to the day to day struggles we face in this fucked-up world.”
All three core volunteers said they became radicals through firsthand experience with oppression, rather than through academia or the punk music scene or other common paths to activism. “Not that there’s anything wrong with those paths, they’re just not our paths and they’re far from the only ways to come to feel and think and act and desire better worlds.”
Inspired by the idea of distributing radical books and information that felt accessible and immediately relatable to their everyday experiences, the three began by selling goods off a table at political and music events. This felt like “preaching to the choir,” when they wanted to be reaching people who were overlooked by the usual suspects on the left. At the same time, running a full storefront seemed like too much of a hassle, bringing with it rent, regulations, and other daunting challenges.
We settled on a model where we partner with existing venues — in our case, a bar, a coffeehouse, and a restaurant — with the understanding that we’re sharing, not renting space. We found three public spaces friendly to our project’s goals and structure, where there’s also a decent amount of foot traffic, spaces frequented by the local Left — but not exclusively by activists and self-identifying anarchists, etc.
The Black Rose pop-up spaces offer books for sale, along with free zines and safer sex supplies. They negotiate directly with authors and publishers to buy books at the lowest possible cost which is still fair to the creators, and sell them at the greatest possible discount. Since spreading information is the sole goal of the distro, they put any profits they make back into stock or supplies.
“So far, the people we’ve met through contact with our readers has been a pretty even mix of people involved in activism, self-identifying radical Leftists, and people who don’t necessarily identify strongly, exclusively with a particular political tendency, activist project or organization, but who maybe feel like recent events in the world and their own lives have radicalized them, or who have felt strongly about certain issues for a long time, now.”
‘Our resolve has only deepened’ after far-right attack
The attack represents another, more sinister side to St. Louis.
“If you’re the sort of person who pays attention to graffiti, you’ll have noticed an uptick in right-wing tagging the past year or two,” they said.
As with so many other parts of the U.S., “racists, misogynists, queerbashers & transphobes are becoming more belligerent in daily life.”
The group received threatening voicemail after they’d successfully generated publicity for the book distro by flyering around town, and survived a previous, smaller vandalism incident. However, this attack was the worst by far.
While restocking one of their locations in the first week of January, they discovered that nearly a third of their books on the shelves had been destroyed, with many vandalized by stickers which read “White Lives Matter” or “”ITS OK TO BE STAIT” [Sic, a misspelling of “straight”]. Their zines and safer sex supplies were wrecked, and beer and coffee appeared to have been strewn about.
For fact-checking purposes, the volunteers shared photos with me of the damaged merchandise, but I agreed not to post them because we don’t wish to give any “digital trophies” or inspiration for future attacks to fascists. While the attack represented a major setback for the volunteer collective, they’ve bounced back quickly, and prefer to focus on moving their work forward.
“This was the worst Alt-Right attack we’ve sustained so far, but we survived,” they said. “And our resolve has only deepened to continue and strengthen our project.”
Protecting culture & resisting genocide in America
While they’ve largely recovered, the Black Rose Book Distro team agreed with me that this incident is part of a pattern of white supremacist violence since the last major election.
On a personal note, I can’t help but compare it to the nazi attack on the Houston Anarchist Bookfair last year, when members of white supremacist groups like Patriot Front attempted to disrupt my class on antifascism, along with another class on queer-friendly sex education. Similarly, a “book burning” was scheduled last year in California, though it was one of many nazi events canceled after Charlottesville. Participants planned to target “books on sexuality and sexual education” along with books on radical forms of political thought. White supremacist groups like Patriot Prayer have also made repeated attempts to attack Chicano Park, a public park and sacred cultural space claimed by the working-class Barrio Logan neighborhood in San Diego.
These attacks connect modern “neo” nazis to their inspiration, the original breed of fascists and nazis, who also deliberately targeted knowledge along with people for obliteration. The famous picture of a nazi book burning actually depicts the burning of the archives of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, which was one of the first scientific research institutes to treat queer sexuality and transgender people as normal human variations, rather than pathologies.
It’s important to remember that genocide doesn’t just mean murdering a group of people, but also destroying their shared culture. Nazis and fascists in America aren’t just killing, but threatening the knowledge and culture of groups they’ve targeted for extermination as well — just as their forebears did. While these attacks have been small so far, we need to act now to prevent these groups, and the politicians they support, from solidifying their power base and furthering their deadly plans.
“White men who joke about ‘helicopter rides’ for radicals marching in the streets holding signs, the Alt-Right, that’s what THEY WANT,” the Black Rose trio told me. “Their whining about discourse and free speech and the facade of ‘respectability,’ entering into mainstream politics, it’s all just a means to an end for them.”
“And that end is OUR end,” they added.
If you’re as worried as we are about this trend, the Black Rose Book Distro has some advice: organize, with anyone willing to take up the fight against fascism.
Look for like-minded, like-feeling persons to connect with, build strong relationships based on trust and resistance and find ways to confront and disrupt Alt-Right organizing and activities. Do whatever we can do to keep one another safe and build communities of resistance, not exclusive radical scenes based on pure adhesion to a particular radical theory or doctrine, or the accumulation and (coercive) deployment of social capital.
The stakes are as high as can be.
“In the times we’re living, our resistance cannot be a game, for show, posturing,” they said. “This is a life & death struggle being waged against more and more people, as the ruling class increasingly narrows the boundaries of who is to be included, and violently expands Other categories and intensifies repression and exclusion of Others.”
We can never make peace or compromise with fascists, white supremacists or nazis.
“If we truly care, if we are responsible and we mean to take action to realize the better worlds we believe are possible, we will remember that we are in a life or death struggle, and act accordingly.”
Black Rose Book Distro Reading List
I asked the crew at the book distro to share some of their most popular titles with me:
- Bædan Journal (all three volumes)
- Crabb, Cindy, “Learning Good Consent: On Healthy Relationships and Survivor Support”
- CrimethInc.’s “Rolling Thunder” journal
- crow, scott, “Black Flags & Windmills”
- Federici, Silvia, “Caliban & the Witch”
- Factora-Borchers, Lisa (editor), “Dear Sister: Letters From Survivors of Sexual Violence”
- Gelderloos, Peter, “The Failure of Nonviolence”
- LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism
- Milstein, Cindy Milstein, “Taking Sides” and “Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief”
- Nangwaya, Ajamu & Truscello, Michael (editors), “Why Don’t The Poor Rise Up? Organizing the Twenty-First Century Resistance”
- Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement, “Burn Down The American Plantation”
- Sakai, J., “Settlers: Mythology of the White Proletariat, Mayflower to Modern”
- Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta, “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation”
- Walia, Harsha, “Undoing Border Imperialism”
- Williams, Kristian, “Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America”
Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, y’all!
Black Rose Book Distro, St. Louis Radical Pop Up Bookstore, Attacked By White Supremacists by Kit O’Connell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://kitoconnell.com/2018/02/26/black-rose-book-distro/.
This post was made possible by Kit’s patrons, including a generous anonymous sponsor who asks that you support Austin Pets Alive! with your time and money.