I was having a Halloween party. A half naked guy with dreadlocks was spinning fire next to my pool. This caused me to reflect on the fact that the dance created by keeping a fire alive, spinning, and providing light must be one of our earliest human memories. We were all entranced. Whenever a helicopter zoomed over looking for trouble, the fire dancer would quickly douse the flame and then resume when the coast was clear, reigniting his fluid spark. A friend asked me: “Who is that guy?” I loudly proclaimed: “That’s my boss!”
Charles Shaw was the founding editor of Newtopia Magazine, one of the most important of the very few progressive websites in the aftermath of 9/11. I served as Art Editor, chief interviewer, and Senior Editor for the West Coast: who else would have so easily granted this riot grrrl without a college education a chance to strut her intellectual stuff? Newtopia won awards but it was hardly the most important thing Charles has done.
Charles is the former Editorial Director of Conscious Enlightenment Publishing (Conscious Choice, Common Ground, Whole Life Times, and Seattle’s Conscious Choice), former head writer for the nationally syndicated radio show Reality Checks, former Senior Staff Writer for The Next American City, Contributing Editor for Worldchanging, and editor for the openDemocracy Drug Policy Forum and the Dictionary of Ethical Politics, both collaborative projects of Resurgence, openDemocracy, and the Tedworth Charitable Trust. His written work has appeared in just about every progressive media vehicle over the past decade and in 2009, he was recognized by the San Diego Press Club for excellence in journalism.
Last year, Shaw’s Exile Nation, an autobiography of his spiritual and emotional journey after a life of drug addiction followed by incarceration in a federal prison was serialized on Reality Sandwich. The Exile Nation Project went on to become the moniker for his ever-evolving projects.
With assistance from a grant, Charles produced his oral history on the war on drugs and the criminal justice system in America. The feature length film included live interviews with members of congress, drug addicts, prisoners, judges, psychologists, shamans and others to force the revelation that drug addiction and drug usage are not as severe a problem as the punitive penal system and the slave labor racket of prisons for profit.
The group of interrelated multimedia presentations that evolved are collectively titled The Exile Nation Project. They include the oral history documentary, plans for a feature documentary, and a documentary on the horrific Zona Norte in Tijuana; I’m one of several consulting producers on these films.
In this interview, we take a look at his many varied projects and examine his motivation on his mission to tell the world his personal truth, and to shine light on the little known injustices that go on behind the scenes for other “exiles” of this nation.
Why did you serialize Exile Nation online first and what did the process teach you as a writer?
I chose to serial publish the extended manuscript in weekly installments on Reality Sandwich throughout the course of 2010, as a means of exploring new publishing models. It took a full year to run the entire book, and the process was interesting, having a live weekly audience to interact with, and the ability to build suspense over time. We had a decent weekly readership with no advertising and virtually no promotion. But in the end, everyone clamored for print, and I learned that the process of reading is just as important as the medium upon which it’s read. People want to curl up with a book; they don’t want to immerse themselves in your world alongside the myriad simultaneous distractions that the computer offers. I also learned that in the twenty years since I graduated college with a degree in literature, the average attention span, literacy level, and thematic comprehension of the general public had been cut in half, if not worse. Ergo, the print version will be half as big as the serial version.
To ask me what I learned writing my own memoir is a Herculean question I wouldn’t even begin to try and answer here. It took me six years to write it and it was the most intense personal and spiritual healing process I have ever gone through.
The single greatest aspect to writing my book was that it allowed me a process by which I took my greatest fears and shames, and alchemically transformed them into the things that empower me most. By owning my own Shadow, so to speak, I liberated my soul from a lifetime of Hell. And to my surprise, I found people far more sympathetic than condemning. Americans love tales of redemption.
You recently went to Tijuana with a friend to film the living conditions of thousands of deportees from America, many of whom lived most of their lives north of the border. These people existed as our fellow Americans in everything except proper paperwork, even graduating from high school and in some cases having families. Through some circumstance in the judicial system, these people have now been herded into what can only be called a killing zone. Since they are without families or ID in Mexico they have no support system, so they wait at the border staring at San Diego, the Emerald City, a few short miles away. They are easy prey for the drug cartels, trapped in a hopeless cycle of earning just enough money by cleaning cars to buy the drugs they take to stay awake for long hours of drudgery, drugs they take to cope with their horrendous surroundings, and the fact that there is no way home. Filming their suffering, their sewer shelters, and police attacks, you were in constant danger from the cops, cartels, and junkies. What inspired you to do this film, and how did you manage not to get yourselves hurt?
I was turned onto the story that will eventually become Exile Nation: Tijuana last year while I was filming the first documentary in the series, The Exile Nation Project: An Oral History of the War on Drugs. I was in Tijuana collecting a series of interviews with various people who had been caught up in the drug war and are now part of the ad hoc ibogaine network that has popped up south of the border in an effort to help treat addiction with a substance that is banned in the US. Chris Bava was one of those interviewees, a former addict and heroin trafficker who spent time in Federal prison, and now lives in Tijuana working as a photo journalist and lay-provider of ibogaine. As we were finishing our interview about his life, he began to talk about the plight of the deportees in Zona Norte, Tijuana’s infamous crime-and-drug infested ghetto that runs along the Via Rapida abutting the US-Mexico border. This is as great a place of destitution as there has ever been, and somehow Chris began documenting the lives of the deportees in photographs. It’s utterly harrowing the conditions these people live in, and by and large they have no hope, because they make up an untouchable caste of societal exiles, not really Mexican, not really American. This despised underclass came about as the end result of the intersection of the War on Drugs and the Obama Administration’s two-year old Immigration & Customs Enforcement pogrom known as “Secure Communities” which has deported over 2,000,000 immigrants in the last two years. What this means is that Mexican-Americans who are busted in the States for low level drug offenses receive what amounts to a life sentence on the streets of Tijuana, and trust me, the life expectancy is not that long once they get dropped over the border. With no money, no food, no shelter, and no means of support, the ranks are quickly thinned by deaths both intentional and accidental, mostly at the hands of the Tijuana police, who are brutal and corrupt on a level that would make Caligula go pale. What all of this amounts to are human rights abuses on a scale that merits the attention of the world community. These people have been utterly forsaken, flushed down the societal sewer pipe, where they quite literally live now, inside the Tijuana sewers, hiding from the relentless deadly police raids.
How did we manage not to get hurt? Well, some of us did get hurt. One of our lead characters, Dragon, who forms the central narrative of the film, was spotted filming the police clandestinely and was chased down, beaten, and arrested. They took the camera and we had to bail him out. About then we realized the police were most likely onto us. There had been two gringos with cameras rolling around in a black Mercedes with bulletproof windows all week, and eventually word got around. There were a few times we had to bug out to avoid getting arrested, and at least once the police were staked out in front of Dragon’s place looking for us. And that’s all for intentional footage. Imagine how scary it is when you stumble upon a street filled with cartel dealers, and don’t know it until half way down the block they begin hurling rocks and bottles at you. It’s totally insane down there, and cameras are about the least welcome thing I can think of. Ultimately, we had the benefits of knowing the locals. That made all the difference.
In the raw footage I saw of your film there seemed to be far more men than women, including the dead ones (like a Disney film). Are more men than women arrested or deported? What happens to the women?
Many more men commit low-level crimes or find themselves in a deportable situation than women, the numbers are pretty clear on that. But the women who do end up deported face the same struggles and perils. In fact, it’s worse for women, and generally they don’t last long. They end up raped & killed, or they get run over, or they overdose. One of the women we befriended, Yolanda, was sent to La Mesa Penitentiary, a ghastly place if there ever was one, for allegedly punching out a gringo who was trying to rip her off after she turned a trick for him (yes, many women end up in prostitution).
The footage I saw was like tweets from the center of a nightmare. A human rights violation of epic proportions, even more sinister than the Palestinian Authority, a killing floor of onrushing traffic and poisoned drugs. Murder and a life so horrible some decide to cross the border and do hard Federal time trading slave labor for room and board. It’s an atrocity completely ignored by the media. So many of your projects seek to expose the dark parts of society, or the truth about human suffering. Or is it justice you’re after? What is it that drives you to document what most human beings seem to want to forget, or better still, ignore completely?
It’s really quite simple. For whatever reasons, a few years ago I was given a second chance at life when by all accounts I should have been dead. This second chance at life was by the Grace of whatever power you believe in, and led to a complete rebirth in which I finally, at 36-years-old, began living the life I wanted to live, free of drug addiction and PTSD (topics central to the narrative of Exile Nation). Over the last five years or so, as I worked hard to heal a lifetime of trauma and abuse, I realized that one of the side effects was that I was developing compassion for those like me, and for those who have no one to speak or advocate for them. I believe it is my spiritual obligation to defend the disenfranchised, to speak for them, to humanize their suffering, and to rebuild relations between them and the society that has forsaken them. These are all people, human beings with families, dreams, ambitions, hopes and horrors. They deserve to be cared for. We all do.
I remember when you first told me about Newtopia. What got me was your idea that the net was giving us a chance to do the news without corporate and political spin based on your conviction that clear and clean news was as essential as water. What did you experience that helps explain how come we still don’t have that?
I think it’s obvious why we don’t have it. We have a for-profit news media. The government used to regulate the broadcast media fairly rigorously, since the airwaves the broadcasts were traveling on were considered the public domain (oh, the irony). News had to be properly sourced, and editorials were required to feature both sides of an issue, or multiple political candidates, something called the Equal Time Rule. Nowadays, digital technology has erased the need for the airwaves, and so, cable news remains unregulated, a lawless territory where there is no punishment for manipulating the truth, manufacturing consent, or outright lying and false advertising. It’s the same thing as when a high level official is forced to testify in some hearing, but they aren’t put under oath.
You broke the Diebold voting machine fraud and were the first to publish Dahr Jamal’s reports from Iraq, at a time when opposition to the Bush administration was widely considered treason in the wake of 9/11. Between patriotic hate mail and suspicious powers that be it must have been very challenging. What did you experience navigating Newtopia through those censorious years?
Honestly, it all seems like a whole other life ago. I remember being so angry, but there were so many reasons for that beyond just the (still-) stupefying idiocy of the Bush Administration. What I did not know at the time, but understand clearly now, was that I was in the middle stages of a complete un-learning of everything I had been conditioned to believe growing up as a white kid in America. My commitment to muckraking journalism was part of my own massive system of denial. I had yet to understand that our government does not act in our best interest, and that (please pardon the cliché) the whole Matrix thing wasn’t just a metaphor. Those days were dark, driven by fear, xenophobia, paranoia, and imperial hubris, all the hallmarks of creeping fascism. Our culture was still in the early stages of grief from 9/11, the Shock-Denial-Anger phases, which tended to overlap in waves. By 2004 I had already made inroads into Bargaining, and thought I was doing the “right thing” by publishing alternative opinions on what I thought were the most salient issues of the day. Today, all those same issues feel like an episode of The Dark Knight, highly stylized and stage-managed Moments In History. I’d never want to go back, that’s for sure. It was a long road to Acceptance, and frankly, I prefer the view from here.
You’re one of the few progressives I know who has consistently pointed out that we have too much in common with the Tea Party to simply dismiss or demonize them. What do you say to people who see the Tea Party as the enemy?
I ask them if they have ever heard the term “culture war.” If they say yes, I ask them if they’ve ever heard of something called, “Divide and Rule.” If they get that far, its really only a short hop to get them to the point where they are thinking differently, and seeing former “enemies” as fellow countrymen suffering the same royal screw job. Sadly, too much of the Tea Party’s driving ideology is rooted in racism, nativism, and plain old cultural differences. These become inflamed in the face of ever-expanding legitimate hardships like unemployment, elimination of social services, spiraling health care & education, housing bubbles, and patently unfair taxation, to name but a few. What the Tea Party has fallen prey to, and what they will never acknowledge, is that they are essentially behaving exactly as the ruling class they despise wants and needs them to behave. In a 3-class, capitalist system, the lower classes need what’s known as a despised or “untouchable” caste or underclass upon which all their loathing and hatred can be projected. These untouchables serve as the whipping posts for the most exploited class of workers, ironically bonding them closer to their system of exploitation, producing a false sense of security, and superiority. Today, since its no longer socially acceptable to openly discriminate against people based upon race or sexual orientation, the despised classes now encompass drug users, criminals, and immigrants. Ask the Tea Party how they feel about those guys.
I have two friends who grew up in Chicago in families with some political experience and you both told me to watch out because Obama would turn out to be a creature of the Chicago machine. Can you explain what that means to our readers?
It means a lot of things. The Daley Machine was responsible for putting more than a few important people into office. Kennedy owed his Presidency to them. Kennedy was also the last to try and break ranks and shut down the National Security State at its nadir, before the debacle of Vietnam. We all know what happened to him, and who did it, and why. Obama was a creation of the same system of bullshit and corruption that had tainted those far more radical than he. In 1969 the Chicago Police tried to murder Bobby Rush, then Minister-of-Defense for the Black Panther Party. Rush enters the political system and soon becomes an Alderman in the City Council. Thirty years later, as a US Congressman, his son is murdered for screwing up a drug deal. If that doesn’t explain it, I don’t know what else will. The Machine will extract its pound of flesh.
Share three of the most shocking statistics about the prison industrial complex.
With only 5% of the world’s population, and styling ourselves as the “Land of the Free,” we incarcerate more of our own citizens than any other country, by an order of 7. In other words, we incarcerate both the biggest percentage of our population, and the largest raw number of prisoners on Earth. We employ more civilian informants than the Stasi in East Germany under Soviet Rule. By 1999 we incarcerated–as a percentage and in raw numbers–more Black people than apartheid South Africa.
You’ve researched some of the most promising alternate therapies for healing posttraumatic stress, and for addressing addiction, and the hostile alienation that causes crime. What are the most promising? Are they being made more accessible?
Psychedelic therapies involving sacred plant medicines like ayahuasca, iboga, and peyote, and synthesized compounds like LSD and MDMA. These have all shown remarkable efficacy in all those areas you mention. There has also never been more information about these therapies than nowadays. PTSD is the hot button issue, particularly with the devastating levels found in returning Veterans. You know an issue is serious when the Federal government approves testing of a substance it once claimed was toxic, and put “holes in your brain.”
You were on the Action Committee for the Green Party during the Newtopia days. I remember opening the AOL home page to see you leading a march in NYC shoulder to shoulder with Jesse Jackson. In the breakdown of public faith in our two party system it would seem the Greens could flourish. Why aren’t they a political force in America?
The Green Party has too many “weird” ideas and not enough money. Also, they are a third party in an ossified two-party system. Oh man did I learn my lesson with that one.
People should know that there’s more to your life than your Exile Nation projects and your political interests. For example you were one of the organizers of Fractal Nation this year at Burning Man. Clearly the Burning Man experience informs your other activities, giving you a sense of community and inspiring your do it yourself independence. Tell us about your experiences with Fractal Nation this past summer.
FractalNation Village was a “first-time” Playa collaboration of over a dozen individual event production groups, people who throw festivals and symposiums and art openings for a living. Among our leadership are some of the most talented rising stars of the international art and consciousness “movement”, if you can even call it that. More than that, we’re all friends and we really enjoy each other’s company, and respect each other’s skills. We created, in an exceptionally short period of time (perhaps record-worthy for the Burning Man community), an integrated art and performance village of over 500 that had round-the-clock programming for five straight days. We knew what we were doing wa ambitious, but none of us really expected the village to be as big a success as it was. It was humbling; we all agreed we had never seen crowds of that size at a single camp before. That was completely amazing, and it was a joy that everyone got to share. But it was also a backbreaking amount of work, and expense. What did I learn? Everything. All over again. I had five years of experience managing major theme camps, but this experience redefined the whole practice for me. I am most proud of the fact that FractalNation was able to pick up the mantle of visionary art culture on the Playa, and carry on the tradition that first began five years ago with a camp called Entheon Village. Those were the people who trained me. FractalNation was, in many regards, simply fine tuning years of experience, trial and error, or triumph and humility, into a well-oiled machine. It’s the community evolving, and learning greater and greater levels of self-sufficiency and expression.
ARTICLE BY TAMRA SPIVEY
Newtopia staff writer TAMRA SPIVEY is a founding member and primary singer of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War and Exile Nation, and associate producer of The Gits documentary. She was art editor and west coast editor of Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation, collaborating on in depth interviews with whistle blower Michael Ruppert, ACLU and record business honcho Danny Goldberg, and grassroots political strategist Larry Tramutola. Follow her on twitter @MongrelPatriot.