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"You can’t put a 3,000 word essay on a banner": Black Lodge Press on the need for urgency in anti-fascism

The pressing importance of combating fascism, the place of radical politics and agitprop come together in this popular print project. Founder CJ Reay talks about its roots in queer art, protest and anarchism.

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The word ‘crisis’ has become commonplace for many people, whether it’s energy, climate, or cost of living. Strikes are being organised across the country as more and more professions push for workers rights. Increasingly, young people are becoming involved in activism that seeks to educate and inspire.

CJ Reay, founder of Black Lodge Press, has built up quite a following. The press puts out comics and zines from queer artists, as well as print work that features illustrations mixed with slogans. I spoke to CJ about art, activism and urgency.

“I've been running Black Lodge Press for seven or eight years, and I started by making zines based around illustration of queer and anarchist politics," CJ told me.

"I was doing zines and artwork and comic books and stuff like that, and doing that self-publishing route of just making stuff for me mates, publishing my stuff, publishing my friends' stuff and then it morphed more into a printmaking project.

“I was working on some weird comic books that were inspired by queer artists who were lost in the HIV-AIDS epidemic. Artists like Derek Jarman and Arthur Russell and David Wojnarowicz was the stuff that I was making, although it was like a comic, it was basically the same as what my prints are now. So it was that kind of framed imagery mixed with text, which morphed from that into single piece prints.”

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The urgency of fascism

CJ has always taken inspiration from the European anarchist and anti-fascist scene.

“I love the artwork and the cultural artefacts that go along with that scene. From posters, graffiti, zines, and stuff like that – it has such a vivid style to it that I love. I wanted to create something in that style and maintain the politics of it as well. At the moment, I’m producing stuff that’s really on the nose, and that has no subtlety to it.”

This lack of subtlety seems to be a necessity born out of the political climate. Recently, there have been discussions around the best approach to counter Nazis and other fascists. This has included whether or not Nazis should be punched in the face. When fascist Richard Spencer was hit with a sucker punch, the debate that sprang forth was surprising. Broadly speaking, some are firmly opposed to hitting Nazis, whilst others see it as a moral imperative.

For those of us who’ve grown up around fascists and racists, it was difficult to believe people actually thought you could combat Nazis by debating them. Black and brown people, queer people, disabled people, and many more combinations of those identities are keenly aware of the feeling you get when people look at you as though they want you dead. Given that our government is choosing to allow people to drown in the sea, fanning the flames of racist rhetoric, and ramping up its deadly transphobia, one cannot help but feel that sitting back and saying fascists shouldn’t be punched is a luxury.

I grew up in a place that had race riots and where the British National Party won their first council seat in the country. Knowing and feeling that, both structurally and personally, people want you dead is a feeling that cannot always be communicated with words. Fascists find their way into schools, workplaces and homes with their rhetoric. It should feel dangerous that people want you dead; instead, you become acutely aware that you are the danger in their eyes.

When discussing approaches and debates around confronting fascism, CJ shares a similar experience to my own.

“I grew up in a little town in West Cumbria. It's where the BNP had their national headquarters, in this tiny little town of like 5,000 people in West Cumbria. And it's where they also printed their newspaper as well.

"Anti-BNP organising was a really big part of my late teenage years. When I was 16, me and some friends organised an anti-fascist group and we really went hard against the BNP and other fascists in the area. When you're organising and coming face to face with fascists regularly, there isn't really much space for nuance or chance for discussion with them.

"That urgency is where I’m coming from. For me there isn’t any point, when fascists are organising in your local town or your local community, to have discussions that are like, ‘Oh, should you do this? Is it right to say that?’ I think, coming from that background, I’ve got this sense of dropping the niceties and just saying what I need to say.”

CJ’s urgency is apparent in the output of Black Lodge Press. As CJ explains, when the stakes of fascism and racism are the threat of extinction, discussion isn’t a viable option. Indeed, the directness of CJ’s artwork makes the messages more accessible and far more memorable.

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‘Radical’ politics

Much of CJ’s artwork could be considered radical, but in the context of Britain’s current political, social and economic climate the definition of the word becomes much more malleable.

When the status quo has failed so thoroughly that people can’t afford to eat or heat their homes; when nurses can’t feed their families; when the climate crisis is disproportionately affecting people in the Global South who have contributed the least to the problem; when Black people are gunned down in the street by police following through on their training – is it really radical to be on the other side of that?

Abolition of police forces has become a burgeoning topic, particularly after the murder of George Floyd in the United States. By its nature, abolition demands urgency, certainly. However, abolition may well also provide the urgency that is required when faced with a gaze that wants you dead. It feels like a more apt response to the crisis of death that is capitalism. CJ feels it’s impossible to remove capitalism from discussions of what is, or is not, radical.

“When we think about theories that are anti-border, for me and my entire politics, it’s all wound up in its relation to capitalism. When we’re talking about racism, migration or borders, we can’t have those kinds of conversations without discussing capitalism and globalisation.

"It’s totally hypocritical to have our world economic system in which you can have free movement of goods, and free movement of capital, or free movement of corporations across borders. But then the people that they're exploiting, and the people that they’re earning those profits and capital off, can’t cross those borders. It’s such a wild contradiction. And it’s so inherent to how capitalism operates as well.

"For me, in these discussions, it’s about having an honest conversation about how capitalism operates. If we’re going to discuss borders, we have to discuss how inherently evil and racist capitalism is.”

Details

“I’ve come from this background of anarchist and anti-fascist organising where you go to demos and protests. If you’ve got a banner on a direct action it needs to be very succinct. So for me, that correlates with my work in a way where directness and simplicity are what get a message across. You can’t put a 3,000 word essay on a banner. You need something like a six-word statement.”

In other words, art necessitated by circumstance creates a self-sustaining relationship. Sometimes an essay is what’s needed; sometimes a single phrase say it all. As with all forms of activism, one action alone cannot be the end point. Whether it’s discussions on how to deal with fascism, how to make abolition a desirable future, or how to reckon with racism and borders, several strategies must be used to imagine and inspire.

“With my work, I feel like the point is agitation. Whether that agitation produces a positive or negative reaction, I don’t really mind. It’s more about agitating to bring about a conversation," CJ summarises.

“I think artwork and music help create a sense of revolutionary or counter-culture. For me, you can’t have radical politics and radical culture without having things like art and music.”

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