I just heard last night that my dear friend, Joel Olson, died. I’m still very out of sorts with all of this, and I feel much more comfortable writing philosophy and politics than about my personal experiences and feelings. But, reading other people’s stories about Joel has helped me make it through the day and maybe someone can benefit from reading some of mine. I’ll add some pictures as I come across them.
When I was almost done with my undergraduate studies at Kent State, I decided when I finished that I’d move to Arizona. Friends in Anti-Racist Action and the Anarchist Black Cross Federation put me in touch with a few people in Phoenix. Joel was one of them. We began communicating about our mutual interests in critical race theory and he offered to give feedback on my honor’s thesis. I was linking up theoretical and historic developments in revolutionary anti-racism and critical race theory with feminism and attacks on gender essentialism. He gave me very helpful input.
Not long after submitting my thesis in December of 1999, I traveled to Arizona to find an apartment and meet some folks doing political work there. I met up with Joel, John Quintos and some others who were part of an anarchist study group at Chez Nous, a classic rhythm and blues bar (that was later torn down to make room for a bank). This meeting led to some new friendships; a few of us later wrote the Bring The Ruckus document together.
I moved to Phoenix in February of 2000, and ended up stranded, heart-broken, and alone. I formed friendships with Joel and his wife, Audrey; they made the place feel a lot less desolate. When cops showed up looking for me at work, they let me crash on their couch for awhile so they couldn’t find me. While staying with them and getting to know Audrey’s dad, Doyle, (who was living in his RV behind their house) they showed the kind of hospitality and warmth I came to know I could always expect from them.
I worked with Joel and others in Phoenix Copwatch and Bring The Ruckus. When the war in Iraq seemed inevitable, we worked in a coalition against the war. When we weren’t fighting The Man, we were around the corner from Joel and Audrey’s place at the Emerald Lounge (before it turned into a hipster club and then replaced by a Starbucks), or drinking Tecate on their porch. When I married my now ex-wife, Joel was my best man.
I went to most of the shows Audrey’s band, Über Alice, played around the state. Doyle was the driver and Joel and I were the roadies. I helped them book their West Coast tour with contacts I had from running my old punk zine and label, Interbang, and was happy to hear the show I set up for them in San Francisco (with old friends in the band Fuckface) was their favorite on the tour.
When I first moved to Phoenix, I was going to go to grad school at Arizona State. Joel was just finishing up with his PhD from the University of Minnesota and dealing with the stresses of an early academic career. This involved him traveling to towns all around the country that he would never want to live in, otherwise. Watching him go through that process convinced me not to continue with my studies. I was happy when he was offered a job at Northern Arizona University (NAU), if for nothing other than because Joel and Audrey would still be close to family, especially with their new baby, Malcolm. Besides, Flagstaff was not too far away. Unfortunately, our busy lives and a couple hundred miles meant we didn’t see each other nearly as much as we would have liked.
When I decided to go back to grad school, Joel helped me with my applications. I had been out of school for a decade and not in contact during that time with many former professors. He wrote letters recommending me, which I can assume helped in my eventual acceptance at NAU.
In my two years in Flagstaff, my partner, Charmon, and I had dinners with Audrey, Joel and the kids, Malcolm, Emmett, and Nile, as frequently as our schedules would permit. They were all at our place for our baby shower when the forest we lived in was taken over by a human caused forest fire and had to be evacuated. Joel and Audrey did their best to help us pack whatever belongings we could into our cars. When our daughter, Juniper, was born, we were in the hospital for nearly two months. I had to leave for England for a week toward the end of the stay, and Joel and Audrey made sure to look after Charmon and Juniper, bring meals to Charmon, and make her know that she was not alone. Our families had frequent dinners at our home and theirs. Joel and Audrey were our first babysitters, and Juniper was in love with little Nile.
I always enjoyed my conversations with Joel. As our politics matured, we developed differences over counterhegemonic strategy, the intersection of ecological carrying capacity and migrant rights, and other finer points of radical politics. But there was always much to learn from Joel, from his experience and from his intensive studies. While we differed on bioregionalism, he encouraged my focus on confronting the problems of authority that technological complexity often generates, and encouraged me to see that I might offer some missing precision to existing anarchist politics of technology. As an aspiring educator, I particularly benefited from his insights on how to deal with being an academic and a radical; how to confront the problems of authority in the classroom and how best to convey ideas that could challenge the status quo; and to balance commitments to education, family, and politics. Despite any of our differences, I always looked up to Joel. He was an exemplary educator, activist, husband, father, and human being. He’s an example to all of us who wish to traverse the practical complications of our commitments to academic careers, social justice, loved ones and families. Above all, he taught me that these commitments can work together, and that we can find motivation in the possibility of a freer world for our children.
When I moved from Flagstaff, Joel came over to help me load up the truck. I gave him my picture of Malcolm X that always hung by my desk since the 90s. It was the last time I saw him. Part of me can’t believe that Joel is gone. I am shocked. I am angry. Audrey doesn’t deserve to be without the man she has spent most of her life with. His children deserve his love and to learn from their father as so many others have. His community deserves his tireless commitment to justice and freedom for all, to live and love where they please.
The intellectual community and activists everywhere need to learn from him about how class society is held together by the cross-class alliance forged through the ideology and historic practice of white supremacy. We need to learn from him about the potentially profound successes we might enjoy from carefully employed extremist strategies.
We gained so much from Joel. Reading messages from many who knew him makes this even clearer. But we have lost much with his passing, and like many others, I will forever miss him.
Recent written works by Joel Olson:
- “W.E.B. Du Bois and the Race Concept,” in Racially Writing the Republic, edited by Bruce Baum and Duchess Harris (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).
- “Friends and Enemies, Slaves and Masters: Wendell Phillips, Fanaticism, and the Limits of Democratic Theory,” Journal of Politics 71, no. 1 (January 2009): 82-95.
- “The Problem with Infoshops and Insurrection: US Anarchism, Movement Building, and the Racial Order,” in Contemporary Anarchist Studies: An Introductory Anthology of Anarchy in the Academy, ed. Randall Amster et al. (New York: Routledge, 2009), 35-45.
- “Whiteness and the Polarization of American Politics,” Political Research Quarterly 61, no. 4 (December 2008): 704-718.
- “The Freshness of Fanaticism: The Abolitionist Defense of Zealotry,” Perspectives on Politics 5, no. 4 (December 2007): 685-701.
- The Abolition of White Democracy (University of Minnesota Press, 2004)