Zac Henson, an avowed communist, runs a mutual aid auto repair shop in Alabama. If that’s a sentence you thought you’d never read, you’re not alone. Henson’s project, staffed by volunteers like one writer Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein refers to as Hollis, is one of reclamation — the participants want to debunk people’s assumptions about rednecks, car culture, masculinity, and the South:
“It’s my way to care for the community,” Hollis said. Echoing something Henson had told me, Hollis said that as a man in the South, he felt he was often prevented from caring for other people. Hollis — tall, clean-cut, martial — grew up poor in Montgomery, raised by a single mother who, he says, taught him to be sensitive. But going to chaotic public schools amid a crack epidemic and then an opioid epidemic buried his sensitive side under a pile of toughness. Violence became second nature. At 16, he dropped out of school and moved into a house with 14 other people. They sold drugs and robbed to provide for everyone in the house. It was, he realized later, his first experience with communism.
Addicted to dope and charged with theft, he was in and out of prison for nearly a decade, but eventually he got out for good and got clean. The therapy he received at his half-way house taught him how to confront his rage and violence and reconnect with his inner child. As with Henson, the AFC is now the place where Hollis continues to confront the structures that push working-class white men to develop and perpetuate toxic traits, and where he practices diminishing his own authority and re-embedding himself in the community. And while it is hard to gauge the success of this aspect of the project, a site where people are even having conversations about toxic masculinity is, in a place like Alabama, quite novel.
The AFC is also Hollis’s best segue into conversations about politics with other rednecks, people he knows from prison and rehab, and other men. When anyone asks him why he works on cars for free, he can explain changing the community through direct action. While he doesn’t call the work communism or mutual aid, he often gets others to donate their time to better their community and realize that a different way of organizing society is possible. Some volunteers at the shop are even conservatives; they’re not necessarily aware of the politics of the place. But they, and others, continue to show up. I started to see the approach like a wholesome prank: to do left-wing organizing in Alabama is to conveniently forget to mention you are doing left-wing organizing. Gotcha!