The purpose of Portland Emergency Eviction Response is to make forced eviction a phenomenon of history, whether we’re talking about mortgage foreclosures, evictions of renters, or “sweeps” of houseless communities. We want to build a network that can effectively challenge these practices.
Organizing this network, and working with people facing eviction who want to resist eviction, is not supposed to be about the people who formed the network, but rather about the work of the network itself — and its ability to continue as such, ultimately without the participation of its founding members, like any good network will do. And, really, more importantly, organizing this network is about winning the struggle for universal housing.
However, as with any group involving actual people, who are intentionally not functioning anonymously, in the case of the Minister of Staple Guns, anyway, people in PEER are real people with real histories. Recently, questions have arisen about who this guy is, and why so many rumors abound about him. So I thought I’d try to respond to some of the more common rumors, and some of the ones that I believe might be common, at least in certain circles (particularly among anarchist youth on the internet), and I thought I’d do that in the form of a Q&A. I particularly thought I’d do this because to try to follow all this stuff is mind-numbingly tedious and probably confusing, even if you’re an old personal friend or a big fan of my music or writing. And you should not need to be particularly familiar with me as an individual or as an artist, to understand or be part of PEER, or eviction defense in Portland or anywhere else. So I’m going to try to be brief!
Who are you?
My name is David Rovics. I grew up in Connecticut, and I’ve lived in a lot of different places (Boston, San Francisco, Seattle), since 2007 in Portland, Oregon. I was raised by progressives in a largely Republican suburb. My radicalization process began with opposition to nuclear holocaust under Reagan’s presidency when I was 12. I went through a Maoist phase. By my late twenties I was a touring singer/songwriter, mainly playing for activist groups, mainly singing about what they’re doing. In that capacity I’ve been involved with social movements around the world, since the late 1990’s. I’ve never even remotely come close to having a hit or anything like that, but my songs are streamed millions of times a year, mostly by radical youth in countries where English fluency is the norm. When the pandemic hit and I was unable to tour anymore, I started more fully pursuing my longstanding interests in both journalism and organizing around rent control and eviction abolition, since I have long been a class warrior above all else, and my rent has gone up by 240% since I moved to Portland.
Do you think all these rumors about you are because of Cointelpro and other nefarious activities like that?
Some of them might be, but others are definitely originating from real people, for real, and sometimes even very legitimate, reasons. I’m way not perfect. But what happens to the rumors after one starts spreading is often another matter. It’s in the many generations of what we used to call the “telephone tree effect” that things may get extremely distorted. Add to that social media algorithms, trauma of all sorts, triggers of all sorts, and everything gets so much messier.
Are you a narcissist? Why do you organize under your own name, instead of using a pseudonym?
I really do appreciate the many advantages of anonymity. It can be very helpful for many reasons. It can help to emphasize the cause, rather than the individuals who may be opportunistically trying to lead the fight, for one reason or another. It can help prevent the rise of a leader that may become corrupt in one way or another. It can help emphasize the importance of horizontal organizing, and how well it can work. It can help you not have your house attacked by Nazis after they find your address. All of this is very true. On the other hand, being public for a public figure is kind of inevitable. So I figure rather than going under a pseudonym and waiting to be recognized by any number of people who tend to recognize me in a crowd at a protest anyway (even when wearing a mask), I’ll just be public. Also, my hope was that as a known quantity, to some extent, this might actually help people trust the intent of the network I’m involved with forming. I’m not sure about that yet.
Are you a Stalinist? I heard you wrote a song praising Fidel Castro.
I’m very opposed to authoritarian regimes, and I have never written a nice song about Stalin or Pol Pot. I politically align with tendencies generally characterized by terms like “libertarian socialist” or “anarchist socialist” or “anarchist,” depending on who you ask, or what time period we’re talking about. However, I don’t think Cuba since 1959 bears much resemblance to the USSR under Stalin. There is a lot of nuance in the world, and not a lot of perfection. It’s important, I think, to see the differences between, say, Stalin and Castro. Equally, it’s important to see the differences between European-style capitalism and US capitalism, and to understand that one is in fact way better than the other, even if both leave a lot of room for improvement.
Are you a fascist? I heard you interviewed one.
I wrote an Open Letter to Patriot Front and the Proud Boys in Counterpunch, and a college professor friend asked me if any members of the far right had given me any feedback on the essay. I said no, but it occurred to me that I had been in touch with someone who represented himself as a former fascist. He thought my open letter was very good, and the email he wrote me made me want to interview him about how he became a fascist and how he realized the error of his ways. This was just in the wake of the Capitol siege on January 6th, and I thought (and think) it’s important to understand what motivates people who would do that sort of thing. I should have done more research, and should have reacted much less defensively to all the people on Twitter and elsewhere who attacked me for posting this interview. After too long, I figured out I had fucked up in several different ways, and I took down the interview and wrote a mea culpa which I published in Counterpunch, if you’re interested in the details. But I’m definitely not a fascist, and never was one.
Do you support terrorism? You’ve written songs that seem to endorse the IRA, the PFLP, the YPG and other groups like that.
I have never physically struck another person in anger in any form since I was 16 years old. But in principle, I certainly understand that under various circumstances, people facing impossible situations decide they must resort to violence, such as killing the soldiers who are killing them when they protest nonviolently. I also think it’s important to understand different struggles, whether or not you would ever personally participate in such a struggle, and whether or not you’re involved with supporting the struggle beyond trying to understand it, and humanize its participants. If humanizing terrorists makes me a terrorist sympathizer, then I am most definitely that.
Are you really an anarchist, though? You wrote a piece in 2010 criticizing diversity of tactics.
It’s true that I have had a lot of criticism of what we have come to call diversity of tactics. I still do, though I wish I hadn’t written that piece in 2010, because it ended up being shared mostly by liberals who didn’t like the black bloc in the first place. I was more coming from a place of being part of the movement, but critical of using the tactic of trashing property and burning dumpsters at any given opportunity. I was not saying in that piece, or at any other time, that militant forms of resistance of all kinds are somehow not necessary. I was saying that tactics should be used strategically.
Are you an anti-Semite?
Most definitely not. I am personally of Jewish lineage, and I’m not a self-loathing Jew either. I am very critical of the state that represents itself as the Jewish state, the state of Israel, and its policies towards the Palestinians, which are more vicious than apartheid South Africa’s treatment of Black South Africans, in the judgment of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and many others. Particularly in the US, Germany, and Israel, being very vocally opposed to Israeli policies and supportive of the Palestinian-led global movement to boycott Israel can earn you enemies. I not only never get gigs in the folk music circuit anywhere in the US, and never get any play on commercial or “public” radio, but I am frequently attacked by pro-Israel liberals, and by people associated with the anarchist youth scene in Germany, and occasionally in the US as well, who identify with a political tendency that has a dangerous amount of sway on the German left, called the Anti-Deutsche. I have written a couple of essays about this political tendency in Counterpunch if you’re interested in more details.
Are you a holocaust denier?
There have been many holocausts. Some people freak out when you say that, but I guess they never heard of Armenia or Oklahoma. Anyway, we’re talking about the Nazi Holocaust here when people make this allegation. And I’m certainly not a denier of any of those holocausts. In the Nazi Holocaust, my grandmother and her mother, who was still alive back then, lost touch with all of their relatives in Europe. All of them. All killed. So yeah, it happened, for fuck’s sake. However, over time there have been many questions raised about the Nazi Holocaust as well as about the holocaust in Cambodia, in terms of exactly how many people were killed. These are legitimate areas of inquiry, but if you even talk to someone who is interested in this field of research, you will be called a holocaust denier. I know!
Are you a womanizer?
I wrote a song called “I’m A Better Anarchist Than You,” and folks who are digging up dirt on me often come across Tom Frampton’s satirical version of the song, “I’m A Better Folksinger Than You,” which is a song that documents my apparent habits of buying new clothes, drinking corporate coffee, and going to bed with groupies. I don’t know what Tom knew of my actual life at the time. While it is absolutely true about the buying new clothes and drinking corporate coffee, and I won’t bother explaining that, the part about going to bed with groupies is important, to me. While Tom’s song presents an over-simplified, one-dimensional view (which is no fault of the song, it’s just a song, they’re often like that, by nature), in retrospect, it is absolutely true that my polyamorous beliefs and practices were very convenient for me, and often very hurtful for others. I was not careful enough, in so many ways, and I have many regrets.
Are you a transphobe?
Understanding the realities for trans people took me too long. As late as 2013, I did not fully grasp the situation, and when some people were miffed that I had not done something about a certain song I had recorded that was about someone who no longer identified with their old name or gender, I reacted defensively, as I have done on way too many occasions, when criticized online by people I’ve never met. In the course of what happened next, which included a lot of communication and a threat to picket a concert in Ireland, with the help of people both younger and wiser than I, I figured a lot of things out. I recorded “Song for Chelsea Manning,” but have found trying to erase the previous version from the internet to be impossible. And I deeply understand why re-recording the song was an important thing to do, and I hope everyone else does, too.
I can probably think of other rumors that might be in the mill, but they’d probably be more in the realm of the bizarre or fringe. For example, many of the more nutty wing of the 9/11 Truth movement don’t like me because they say I’m basically brainwashed if I really believe 19 Arab guys hijacked four commercial airliners and crashed three of them into large buildings, killing thousands of people. Not only do I really believe that, but I know someone who smoked cigarettes with Mohammed Atta outside the building where he worked, with a whole bunch of Israelis, in Florida. But yeah, I don’t believe Dick Cheney lined the Twin Towers with explosives. They were planes, and that’s what made the buildings collapse, including Building 7. Even though I did write a song a long time ago that questioned all of that. But I digress. If there’s anything else you hear about me, I’d love to address any potential concerns anyone may have about anything, and then can we please abolish evictions and stop the sweeps?