Remembering a Southern Revolutionary

Don Jennings AKA Randy Lowens AKA Prole Cat

(May 2, 1960 – March 8, 2012)*

 

There are large parts of the American South in which anyone who questions the Iraq war, or thinks that women should decide what to do with their own body, is considered to be radical, on the extreme edge of any kind of acceptable politics.

 

Don never accepted these limits, and never pretended that he was anything less than a revolutionary anarchist. Nor did he take the other easy path, to remove himself from this climate, to get sucked into the internet or to move away and pretend he wasn’t a Southerner. His outlook on life was radical without apologies, but it was also rooted in the culture that he grew up in, as ugly as parts of that culture are.

lowens
Illustration by Ralls Jennings

I met Don in the summer of 2004. Until then I’d been very interested in anarchism, but was young and inexperienced. Don had been active in Earth First! in Kentucky, where he’d worked with a solitary Trotskyist to try to raise a class-struggle perspective, but I believe that he had never actually come face-to-face with another anarchist until some mutual internet contacts put us in touch when he moved back to North Georgia.

 

I don’t remember how late I was leaving the sandwich shop where I worked to meet him, but I remember worrying that he’d be angry. He was leaning against the side of his pick-up truck, and with a thick mustache and a thicker southern accent, he just smiled, waved my anxiety away, and reassured me that he was well-acquainted with the difficulties in the life of a wage slave.

 

This generosity of spirit was something that he always maintained. Don was one of the founders of the Capital Terminus Collective (CTC), a class-struggle anarchist group whose name was a play on Atlanta’s original name of Terminus City, and he never hesitated to make the multi-hour trek for our meetings or to join us in protests. Although all of the members financed the collective, most of us were young and/or broke; Don gave generously, and always made it clear that he wanted to avoid having any extra input because of that.

 

The small number of radicals in Georgia made it very hard to be sectarian, since protests and public events were so miniscule that active radicals and leftists couldn’t avoid each other. Nevertheless, Don’s attitude was always an example that the rest of us would have done well to follow. He was comfortable discussing, debating, and even working alongside everybody, from Trotskyists and Maoists to Kucinich-type democrats. He gave much more weight to how people acted than on how perfectly their politics squared up with his on paper.

 

It wasn’t just in his social attitude that he combined firm political convictions with a repulsion for dogmas. I’m not sure if Don ever went to college, but he is without a doubt one of the most intellectually disciplined comrades I’ve ever had. I remember borrowing a history of Platformist anarchism from him, which was stuffed almost to bursting with pages upon pages of notes. At around the same time, he tried to introduce me to topics as diverse as Marxist analyses of American reconstruction or to Trotsky’s explanation for the rise of fascism in Germany. I wish now that I’d taken more of a cue from him to explore these topics back then, rather than letting them collect dust in the back of my mind.

 

His non-dogmatic attitude also applied to the Southern culture around him. He distinguished the manifestations of bigotry and religious zealotry that have become the stereotype for this culture, from  Southern culture as a whole. During CTC’s first trip to an anti-war protest in Washington – at a time when the entire collective could still fit in his pick-up – he brought out his dulcimer. He loved to go to bluegrass festivals, he said, and he didn’t mind the ubiquitous religious-themed music at all, as long as the music came before the religious theme. What bothered him were those who just saw music as a vehicle for their propaganda. (I imagine that he had the same attitude towards political music.) Strumming a tune, he whined out the refrain of a whimsical but pointed satire: “Let us sing through our noses about Jesus…”

 

Don always tried to maintain a balance between practical activity and theoretical reflection. One of his most original pieces, and probably his most controversial, was called “Anarchism and Confederate-Flag Culture: One Man’s Journey from Southern Heritage to Libertarian Socialism.” The Southern “rebel” culture is a deep-rooted phenomenon, and most American radicals hesitate between pretending it doesn’t exist or echoing the dominant rejection of everything Southern, without trying to examine the material and cultural causes. There is a palpable feeling in the US that even the Southern accent is somehow reactionary and backwards, and when radicals parrot this stance, it only makes it harder to discuss their ideas in the south. Whether one agrees with everything that Don wrote or not, the discussion that he tried to start is an incredibly important one, and should be continued. At least as important is his attitude as a writer. He was never pedantic, never too abstract or theoretical – it was always clear that he was writing from practical experience, and he worked hard to make his prose crystal clear:

 

“If you are someone who displays a Confederate flag out of overt racism, this text is not for you. In fact, we will fight you in the streets. If, however, you are someone who insists that he is not racist, but you have at some point in your life displayed a Confederate Flag out of a general sense of rebellion against the government, the boss, parents, pompous Yankee liberals, or just against modern society in general, then this text is addressed to you. […] By painting slavery and racism as a uniquely southern phenomenon, the CEO’s manage to divert attention from the racist legacy that remains. When they falsely imply that racism is uniquely southern, and then correctly add that the racial situation in the south now mirrors that of the rest of the country, they declare the problem solved. Implicitly this has the effect of encouraging such reactionary nonsense as charges of “reverse discrimination.” […] These facts are what the “racism is a southern thing” myth is intended to obscure. Blacks, Latinos, and to a lesser extent, working-class southern whites are all harmed by this myth. It is time to place the responsibility for American racism and poverty squarely where it belongs, at the doorstep of the business class, and at the foot of the American flag (and all other Anglo-nationalist flags) which provide the business class with aid and comfort.”

 

Don’s lively, conversational style should serve as a model for any of us who want to write for anyone outside of our anarchist clubhouses. It should be no surprise that he also nurtured a passion for creative writing. A blog called “Gnarled Oak, Knotty Pine”, with the characteristic subtitle, “some random lyricism about working class life in Appalachia and the Deep South”, contains a lot of his more recent writing.

 

Don’s life stands out as a shining example of a worker-intellectual. He never tried to erase his roots, nor was he ever content to stop trying to sharpen his mind and put his radical politics into practice. He was a large-hearted and dedicated friend and comrade, an example which I can only hope will serve as a model for many in the future.

 

Don Jennings, ¡presente!

 

*Note: I wrote this obituary for Don shortly after his passing in 2012. It was published in the Industrial Worker and on Libcom.org. I am posting it now to help renew his memory. Another good obituary, with plenty of links to his writings, can be found at nefac.net.

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