By Otto Pippenger
While covering the Bernie Sander’s speech at City College in late September, I noticed a familiar face wearing a hammer-and-sickle sweater. I found myself face to face with Brace Belden, the 27 year old San Franciscan and former City College student who reached widespread notoriety on twitter as “Pisspiggranddad” by posting photos and commentary during his six months fighting as a volunteer in The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria against ISIS and others in the Syrian Civil War with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units or YPG.
An avowed Marxist-Leninist, Belden has been banned from Twitter but has not stopped his political activities here in San Francisco where he fights for tenant’s rights, safe injection sites, and other socialist issues through his involvement in the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the Democratic Socialists of America, among other groups.
To date he has been covered in The New York Times, Washington Post, Rolling Stone Magazine, and Chapo Trap House amongst other publications.
Belden sat with me for an interview later that week, a partial transcript of which follows, to discuss his time in Syria, media attention, City College, and his political beliefs. Answers and questions have been amended for brevity.
*Interview begins here*
OP: Did you have a political or public-relations goal when tweeting, or was it purely personal?
BB- In terms of having twitter, that’s cause I was bored, I’d get the internet about once a month [in Syria] It was sort of a way to connect with the outside world, at least before I learned Kurdish.
OP: How good is your Kurdish?
BB: Pretty good- I can have conversations in it. Its villager Kurdish, not academic Kurdish. I can make myself understood.
OP: Back to the beginning- when did you become a marxist?
BB: Well I am a Marxist-Leninist. Before that, I was like, ‘of the left’ without a super-coherent set of things. I knew what the different strains of things were but I wasn’t committed. I was more just young. I became a marxist around 2010, which extended itself into Marxism-Leninism, its theory and practice.
Op- Are you in favor of full democratization of the economy?
BB: Yes, though ‘democracy’ is a word I stumble upon. I- I believe more specifically in the dictatorship of the proletariat.
OP: So do you believe that the masses in America today are capable of becoming Marxist? That American values- democracy, fairness, lead into or are compatible with some version of socialism?
BB: Well. That’s assuming those are American values.
OP: How much did your perspective change when you went abroad?
BB: So Syria is probably one of the most mis-reported countries in history. Media would have you believe that it is this noble struggle of like, the White Helmets (volunteers in the Syria Civil Defence forces) adjacent like moderate rebel groups who love the Democratic party and want to put Obamacare in Aleppo.
OP: On the issue of volunteerism. You’ve been getting a lot of flack as an alleged “white-boy adventurist” how did you feel you and the other Americans and westerners were received by the Kurdish people?
BB: There were foreign fighters in the ranks of certain unnamed Kurdish groups since the 80’s. No one said a word about it when I was there. By its very nature Communism or to be a communist is to be an internationalist. So there’s plenty of valid criticisms, but I think “white boy” and to be sure, white boys have done their fair share of damage in the Middle East…
OP: So you feel you’ve done your part? You wouldn’t consider going back?
BB: Uh no, I wouldn’t right now, mainly because of American involvement. I’m glad I left when I did.
OP: Let’s talk a little about San Francisco- you grew up here?
BB: San Francisco baby, love it. I was born here, lived here for like four or five years. My family moved to the North Bay, moved back here when I was seventeen, and have never left for more than six months at a time!
OP: And I met you at the Bernie Sanders rally of course. How do you feel about his politics?
BB: Oh yeah, well social democracy is worse than capitalism- arguably. Because social democracy seeks to fool the workers into thinking they’re doing something proactive when in actuality what it’s doing is propping up the teetering stool of capitalism.
OP: What are you doing in your political work around here?
BB: What we’re doing is trying to form a coalition outside the Democratic Party. Outside regular progressive circles even, and it’s been very successful so far. I am trying to get socialist policies passed. I think that’s the only effective thing we can do here.
OP: What about safe injection sites?
BB: That is something I was talking to the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) about. As part of their health care policy. The safe injection thing didn’t pass last time, so we’re attempting it locally, and there’s no reasonable opposition to it.
OP: Coming off of Twitter, are you trying to capitalize on your notoriety or trying to cool it down?
BB: Trying to cool it down. Because if I capitalize on it, first of all, that’s some cornball sh*t to do. Second of all, I don’t want to be seen as personally profiting in any way off the f**king Syrian Civil War. Thirdly, I don’t want to become a spokesman for something.
OP: Because you’ve been involved in bands like WarKrime, and Wild Thing, would you say you were attracted to publicity?
BB: There could be some truth to that. Especially with WarKrime (Belden’s former hardcore band), we were trying to be sort of provocative. But yeah, I’m sure there’s some truth to that. But, maybe this is me sublimating my worst impulses.
OP: Have you had a hard time reconciling yourself to ambition, while committing to politics, through organizing, altruism?
BB: It depends on what you mean, because if I did capitalize on this it wouldn’t be altruistic, it would only be egotistic.
OP: Did you have complaints with the Rolling Stone article, and the media’s portrayal of your political convictions?
BB: It was so weird, and the whole thing just made me seem like this unhinged weirdo. And then in the Washington Post, this lady I met right after operations interviewed me and this other guy. And they just made it seem like “these guys don’t even know how they ended up here.” So this woman’s thing had me as “the gamer who’s dad wanted him to work at a bank but he was too lazy and he just ended up in Syria!” It took me so long to figure out– it took me like a year of planning to do it. Saving money. I knew all the different groups. People are always like “did you not know anything about the YPG?” I know a lot about Kurdish politics. It’s always been a very inaccurate portrayal of me.
OP: But you’ve gotten through The Communist Manifesto?
BB: Well I’ve gotten through all the major texts. Everything major by Lenin.
OP: Anything by Mao?
BB: Yeah! Yeah. I’ve got the Little Red Book, I’ve got an expanded version of the Little Red Book (laughs).