Show Up, Go Forth and Find: What Jen Angel Taught Me

A decade ago, Jen Angel contacted me about a project she was co-founding, soon to be named Agency: An Anarchist PR Project. The proposal, as Jen and her co-founders explained it, was that “by creating original, accessible materials written for a broad audience (including anarchists and non-anarchists alike) and promoting anarchist perspectives on a wide range of current events, we will amplify the reach of existing anarchist voices and projects.” There’s a kind of invitation that is so fluid it feels unnecessary to call it recruiting or organizing, where both asker and listener share political commitments and aspirations that the proposed project embodies, and this was it.

I first encountered Jen’s work in 2000, when I read the second issue of Clamor magazine, headlined as “A Loud and Continuous Uproar of Hundreds of Human Voices.” A smart, clearly laid out, topical, and broadly accessible magazine, Clamor grew out of the punk world that read Maximum Rocknroll, but always aiming at a potential audience of, well, everyone. “We pick a general theme — something that is fairly universal to all people — and we begin to tackle the subject in ways that we typically don’t see the subject treated,” as Jen and her co-editor Jason Kucsma described their approach introducing a 2004 issue on the theme of death.

Clamor was expansive, not niche. Youthful in feel, but open to all phases of the life cycle. It became an incubator of new radical written voices and a mechanism for getting them on shelves in chain bookstores across the country. Clamor refused to separate “personal” and “political” arenas of life, speaking with a voice that was both radical and humane. It was a brilliant collective work in a time of an emergent anti-globalization and anti-war activism, many of whose protagonists were animated by larger refusals of capitalism and the state. Clamor resonated with the energy, ambition, and creativity we experienced on the streets and in our hopeful hearts. 

Clamor and Agency have in common a drive to put transformative ideas and daring aspirations out to the broadest audience possible. This is fueled by a sense that revolutionary politics are not just a form of setting oneself apart from a broken society, but instead a bid to connect to others in order to un-break it. But if desire makes the voice, it is hard work and organized minds that construct the megaphone. And Jen excelled at this too. Jen started ambitious projects, she carried them through, and she accumulated the lessons of doing so. You don’t have to trust me on this; you can read her reflections on Clamor in her pamphlet Becoming the Media, and her accumulated knowledge from doing publicity work for radicals in Get Noticed! How to Publicize Your Book or Film.

I’ve known Jen Angel as a collaborator in projects large and small, a passionate community builder, a comrade in radical politics, and a friend who has my back emotionally and practically. Somewhere during the time when every activist convergence felt like home, and every project sought a wider audience, we crossed paths between familial homes in Ohio and chosen homes in the San Francisco Bay. Our conversations were precious, grounding, hopeful.

Jen Angel is a person I strive to be like, who lived as a full-throated assertion of why life is worth living, and who loved herself and others and brought the energy and desire within herself and within those around her to the surface. As her life led her to new circles of community, she never stopped making me feel like her space was welcoming me home.

In January 2020, Jen’s collective house threw a party for her 45th birthday. Set for the late afternoon, verging on dinner time, it was an all-dessert party to which several dozen people showed up with cakes and pastries, fruit arrangements and libations, each creative enough to brighten the day of someone who spends their working hours baking cupcakes. The crowd was a crossroads of scenes, with affinities for activism, anarchism, polyamory, kink, and queerness all present. Jen seemed to revel in the overlap and took time to draw people she knew from different spaces together. Then she had the entire gathering form a circle extending through the kitchen, the edible delights between us, and with brash self-confidence orchestrated a sharing of introductions and memories among us all.

So today, I’m shocked to have the certainty of her continued presence suddenly and tragically interrupted.

Obviously, there is so much we, her richly-tended community, and I, her particular friend preparing to see more of her this summer, have lost. But the greatest loss is the years taken from her, the life she will not have a further chance to live, the life she built and sustained. In this we, her people, are unfairly advantaged because we will see each other more clearly now, while she won’t be able to join us.

And now we enter metaphysical territory because the material isn’t all there is. But the material is a whole damn lot. And from sugar that is flavored and sculpted as art and as a shared delight, to desire that is expressed rather than forbidden, to friends and lovers who are seen and touched rather than dreamed of, the material is one thing Jen taught me by shining example to take seriously, to show up for, to not sublimate into interior complexity, but rather to go forth and find.

Carwil Bjork-James is the author of “The Sovereign Street: Making Revolution in Urban Bolivia”, and an Anthropology professor at Vanderbilt University. He conducts immersive and historical research on disruptive protest, environmental struggles, state violence, and indigenous collective rights. Over the years he has participated in Project Underground, the Independent Media Center, Direct Action to Stop the War, and Free University of New York City.