This essay is part of Home Icons, a series about the cultural and material histories of domestic objects. Read the others here
As the Covid crisis became more apparent in its world-historical magnitude, there was for many a sense of this being “It” — The Big One, a crossing, a moment of revolutionary potential. Many political networks have a lot at stake, ideologically, in The Big One, whether by enacting the networks of mutual aid already developed on the left, or as a moment of I-told-you-so vindication among largely right-wing doomsday preppers. When anarchists acted out The Big One, the mainstream began to understand anarchism as something more complex than the mythical or misrepresented “Antifa.” Far right groups, like the Boogaloo Boys and Patriots Prayer, began showing up on network news, armed and violent. Knowing full well that the notion of a “Big One” is an absurdly reductive and politically useless fantasy — bordering on a kind of voyeuristic sadism — I did cave in one aspect of prepperism and purchased a handheld Baofeng UV5R radio. A friend of mine had, months prior, mentioned the radio to me, as we shared pessimisms about the future. Some quick research showed that the model was a standard for people new to radio, aspiring amateur broadcasters and preppers alike. “It’s only 25 bucks,” I told myself.
The radio itself is militantly utilitarian — square, brickish, black. The user interface is impressively arcane and unnavigable. The handset can receive AM/FM frequencies, like a car radio, but extends into VHF and UHF ranges too — very high frequency and ultra-high frequency, respectively. Sparing overly technical details, this basically means the radio can receive frequencies beyond the AM/FM spectrum. The full range of the radio spectrum is a pretty sizable chunk of the electromagnetic spectrum and is precisely allocated into frequency ranges by the FCC. For instance, the immediate range beyond FM, 108 to 117.975 MHz, is allocated to aeronautical radionavigation. Unauthorized broadcast in that range can be a felony. “Authorized” broadcast requires one to sit a test from the FCC — once certified, one is free to broadcast via any FCC compliant radio to 29 specific frequency bands allocated to amateur use. The Baofeng can broadcast at five watts. Most commercial radio stations are mandated to broadcast above 10,000W. Even still, delightfully, if I used the push-to-talk button, I would be breaking the law. What’s it good for then?
The idea of buying the radio was to exploit small weaknesses in the state’s monopoly over information. Unsurprisingly, a $25 walkie-talkie did not vanquish a generously funded police department
After the murder of George Floyd, police brutality toward protestors exploded. The days when I couldn’t be on the streets, I decided I would listen to the police scanners at home and pass along important details to comrades on the street. A perfect use for this puzzling radio, I thought. But it was useless. Scanners in my city used trunked (digital) radio systems and broadcast around 840MHz, well outside the range of all but prohibitively expensive specialty receivers, certainly outside the range of my own. Most U.S. cities’ police radios broadcast online, so I started listening in. However, the streaming website soon shut down the broadcasts for my city, stating “rioters were using them against police.” The idea of buying the radio receiver was to exploit small weaknesses in the monopoly the state has over information — unsurprisingly a $25 walkie-talkie did not vanquish a generously funded police department. Frustrated, I decided to find what I could actually do with this thing — mostly listening to the NOAA weather forecast transmissions. I listened to the computer-generated voice inform me about excessive heat warnings and the signs and severity of heat stroke while dispatches of police violence and the arrests of folks protesting it still rang in my ears, as I prayed my loved ones were safe.
To me, the resonance with Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing seems natural. In the movie, a heatwave and racial tensions in Bed-Stuy combine to form the social atmosphere of the block the film takes place on. Bed-Stuy did see protests in May, and the nearby Barclays Center was the site of hundreds of arrests and viral video captures of chaotic beatings by police. A heroic bus driver refused to transport arrestees for the NYPD. Though the regular sounds of protests are chants, oral histories in themselves — say his name, no justice no peace, la gente unida jamás será vencida — echoes of the radio as a social instrument exist in these protests too. There is, without fail, someone carrying a speaker and playing loud music during a march. In Do the Right Thing, Mookie works at an Italian-American owned pizza joint at the end of the block. Radio Raheem, a fixture on the block with his loud boombox blasting NWA or the local DJ, is called a racial slur and has his radio destroyed by the restaurant’s owner. This leads to a violent altercation and Raheem’s murder by the NYPD. Raheem was a major source of sociocultural transmission in the film. The social space of radio is intertwined into the fabric of the block, and Raheem provides a community service, creating an aural bubble of cultural cohesion. His radio’s high volume is the ostensible impetus for the fight that leads to his murder at the hands of the police. “The story of life is this,” Raheem says before his murder, of the effect caused by the relentless, interlacing forces of love and hate, “static.” Raheem’s murder, and the senseless, vile murders of Black men by police, drive this truth home.
I think of another film too — Lizzie Borden’s 1983 Born in Flames. The film is a pseudo-documentary about women, mostly Black women or lesbians or both, who, despite the “successful” democratic socialist revolution 10 years prior to the setting of the film, still need to demand wages for domestic work and protection from sexual assault. They look at a democratic-socialist government that has failed to truly change the lives of the proletariat and say: “This isn’t good enough.” Several different groups of women run pirate radio stations and networks of mutual aid through childcare and domestic labor. When an important organizer is arrested and dies in prison, and all of the pirate radio stations are burned down by the feds, Black lesbians, socialists, white punks all come together to retaliate. After sending illegal broadcasts calling for support, the women blow up the antenna of the World Trade Center, interrupting a reactionary politician arguing for returning to a non-socialist government. Radio is a source of power and has the potential to cleave several ways — towards the radical power of direct action, or the reactionary potential of the established state apparatus.
Unlike the powerful pirate radio station in Born in Flames, the radio in my hands is useless. There are no coalitional politics for me to broadcast. Contemporary leftists, from the DSA to black bloc anarchists, aren’t especially plugged into radio transmission. More accessible media like Twitter and encrypted groupchats are the online sites of community organizing now. You don’t need an FCC certification to send a tweet. Amateur radio operators in the U.S. tend to gravitate toward technical forums that revolve around the devices themselves and are overwhelmingly male and pretty dweeby, enjoying outstandingly nifty but practically useless feats of engineering like bouncing transmissions off mountains or clouds or satellites so they travel further. I tune the radio to the Black-owned public radio station in the city. It is the weakest commercial radio station in the U.S., broadcasting at a mere 1.5 watts — less than a third of the theoretical transmitting capacity of my cheap Baofeng. You can tune in to the station with clear reception in a radius of several miles, tops. I can listen to the radio and not much else: Dozens of people are arrested and stores are looted; police cruisers burn; at least four of the symptoms of heat stroke include nausea, headache, flushed skin, confusion.
Unlike the powerful pirate radio station in Born in Flames, the radio in my hands is useless. The future is accessible and hybrid — far too messy and beautiful to exist in the squelch of any radio
When FDR addressed “the Average American” with his radio broadcast “fireside chats” in the 1930s and ’40s, the relationship between the state and the citizen to media, respectively, changed dramatically. Murray Bookchin, in a talk at Concordia University in 1990, berates presidential candidates for feigning to address him, the viewer, directly, pretending to look him in the eye during a televised address while actually gazing into a machine. Bookchin insists that this mechanically mediated gaze from the instruments of state power is essential in reducing humans to, ultimately, taxpayers, truly alone in their homes, feeling as though they are interacting with a political apparatus or even with a person or friend, while doing neither: a podcast of yesterday. Taking a cue from Arendt’s polis, he insists that political life must instead begin the second one steps outside, in the city, in the neighborhood, that this reclamation of the immediate socioecological surrounding and person-to-person action and interaction is the way to reform the notion of citizenship to create a world that provides for the needs of the people, where people can provide one another with the means to survive and thrive. My radio was supposed to be a way to bring the “outside” community Bookchin speaks of inside, as many of our modern devices do: We now make many political choices every day within an economic apparatus that bets on people who basically stay in. (And for many, like unhoused people and people forcibly removed from their homes who tow the static line between outside and inside, or for the homebound — who, as Johanna Hedva writes, cannot throw a brick through a window if they can’t get out of bed — this boundary is even more complicated.) The notion of home as a simple space, and community as communication, are relics of the past. The future is accessible and hybrid — far too messy and beautiful to exist in the squelch of any radio.
This particular radio, in my hands, is useless to me — community is not. Community is donations of tampons, delivering groceries to homebound and immunocompromised loved ones. Anarchists are beaten in the streets but also organize to feed unhoused people, and provide funds in the spirit of reparations and more financial support to those in need than any U.S. governing body during the pandemic; they break windows and work for a better world. It was an absurd misstep to place my hope in a small, cheap radio — hope belongs to people. But hope is politically useless until we act as if a better world is coming soon. In the words of the late David Graeber, “Direct action is, ultimately, the defiant insistence on acting as if one were already free.” This is not an endorsement of hope alone, but of the work and care that the best kinds of hope create.
In August I move out of the city. Several of my friends come to visit me in the woods before they plan to hop on a freight train to northern Maine the next day. They have forgotten their Baofeng radio at home — it was the exact same model as mine. There is a specific frequency band spanning 4MHz that every trainyard in the country uses. The “bulls,” responsible for finding and removing folks trying to ride trains, use the radios to communicate with the tower that tells the trains where to go. I give my friends the radio and drop them off behind the Walmart that abuts the train tracks, after we share a shoplifted bar of chocolate. Radio can be a tool for coalition after all. But the coalitional politics leftists foster every day isn’t contained in the squat and ugly box. It is more often contained in a gift — sometimes streamlined into the concept of a “donation,” sometimes simply the contents of your pockets — unconditional, loving, radical. The social ecology of Bookchin isn’t contained in the physical home but in the act of building a social home — in taking care of each other, in building a community that provides for the needs of the people it’s made up of. The dream of a better world is sometimes in the knowledge of loved ones whizzing through the Northeast safely in a grain car full of woodchips, just to see the woods. When I give my radio I give space, I give home and receive it too. It was never about the radio — it was about care. When there are no police scanners to listen to, I listen to my friends instead. I find that the station comes in much clearer.