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Anarchists

The Anarchists Next Door

Two divisive local groups are planning to chart their next move in a passionate but fractionalized movement.

By DEAN KUIPERS, Special to The Times, 08/03/01

It's August again, which means it's time for anarchist conferences. Two Los Angeles gatherings are in the works, and both address the central debate now raging through the burgeoning global anarchist community: to hop or not to hop?

After the grim violence that left hundreds injured and a 23-year-old anarchist dead during July mass protests against the Group of Eight economic summit in Genoa, Italy, the "summit hopping" of the anti-globalization movement is in question. Mass demonstrations are irresistible to the media, but the attendant clashes with police also scare the public away from anarchism's core ideas. Riots tend to alienate huge numbers of nonviolent activists within the movement.

Among local anarchists, the split over tactics and focus is reflected in the nature of the two conferences. The organizers of this weekend's invitation-only Strategic Resistance in Santa Monica and Venice feel a need to chart anarchism's forward momentum and perhaps carry it into the building of alternative communities. But some of the anarchists behind the Human, Earth and Animal Liberation conference, or HEAL, who were not on the Strategic Resistance invitation list, see the goal-oriented structure of Strategic Resistance as an authoritarian drag.

Open to all comers Aug. 17-19 at a location to be disclosed on the opening day, HEAL is more of a smorgasbord, offering presentations ranging from "Black Bloc—Stay Smart, Stay Free" to "Open Relationships" to "Basic Chemistry." Though the conferences are not competing events, their divergent organizing styles reflect two strong tendencies among the estimated 500 to 1,000 anarchists in the Southern California community.

In many ways, the question at hand among anarchism's mostly young and stubbornly irreverent converts is their role in the local community. Should anarchists unplug from mass culture, or plug into new anarchist institutions, or both?

Anarchists answer that question not by voting or joining political parties but via lifestyle, and the identity politics that distinguishes one sect from the next often involves splitting hairs over, say, whether it's OK to use a flush toilet.

One "social anarchist" earns a PhD in order to work in higher education, while another who calls himself an "individualist" sets up backyard punk rock shows and finds escapist liberation in the Radical Anarchist Bowling League.

One "primitivist" lives in a tree to protest logging in Santa Cruz and advocates a return to Stone Age culture, while her friend the "green anarchist" is more modern but supports the Earth Liberation Front, which has burned down luxury homes all over the country.

All type get together for occasional demonstrations and when necessary support each other in jail, but day-to-day life is where a lot of the philosophy plays out. And for all of them, the question of how much to push for another street confrontation modeled on the Battle in Seattle is far from benign. As some have discovered firsthand, association with street actions can turn life as a local activist into an exercise in paranoia.

Eclectic People

Drawn to Radical Action

A year ago, when anarchists Anne Kelly and Brendan Crill hosted organizing meetings for the 2000 North American Anarchist Conference, their downtown Pasadena neighborhood was crawling with cops. Federal agents sat in unmarked vans across the street, radios squawking. Visitors' cars were followed. Once, a phone call to their house was answered by a woman who said flatly, "FBI." A quick redial assured them that it wasn't a wrong number; they were certain the phone was tapped. "I sat right here in this chair talking on the phone and saw the same woman walk past the window five times," remembers Kelly, 21. "She was an agent, going 'round and 'round the block."

The problem, of course, was that their perfectly legal conference was timed to coincide with the Democratic National Convention. After almost a year of anarchist uprisings from Seattle to Washington, D.C., to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, authorities were on the warpath. Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks announced he'd be watching the anarchists, and Mayor Richard Riordan warned businesses around L.A.'s Pershing Square that anarchists were plotting "violent disruption."

The two academics, both now graduates in physics from Caltech, had not embraced anarchism for the drama of some clandestine underworld. They held open news conferences and met with business owners, explaining that they weren't planning riots and mayhem. They were drawn to anarchism because they felt liberal politics had completely sold them out to corporations. And the Democratic Party? Forget it.

Kelly, who's job-hunting, and Crill, now a community college instructor, are "social anarchists," those who believe in creating new alternative institutions, like co-op schools or unions.

"My parents are Catholic Democrats, so I was imbued with a sense of social responsibility from when I was young," Kelly says. Politically active in high school, she found that attacking specific social or environmental problems was too stop-gap. Protesting oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for instance, just meant oil drilling would move somewhere else. "That made me very suspicious of liberal politics."

Crill, 28, was a serious punk rocker who came to anarchist ideas through the music and the libertarian scene it bred. He found the politics of the music scene to be "weak"; fans were into awareness but not political action that challenged their lifestyles. He met Kelly while working on his PhD, and together they formed an anarchist study group. Like an overwhelming number of young people who would have been leftists in another era, both believed that "statist" Marxism—like that which had produced Maoist China or Stalinist-Leninist USSR—had been utterly discredited. These, they say, just traded one elite for another, replacing the tyranny of the market with the tyranny of the party. Anarchism, by contrast, had refined a method of consensus decision-making that eliminated the "boss" and seemed, to Kelly and Crill, like real democracy.

They went to Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization in 1999 and saw exactly the kind of political action they'd been searching for. Before their eyes, anarchist-led democratic organizing took over the city.

The 2000 conference, which brought several hundred anarchists to Los Angeles, was their first taste of what it means to be linked to "radical" action. Police surveillance quickly wore them down. They thought they might be set up. A planted bag of pot, maybe. So they went through the old, wooden two-story house, already furnished like a college crash pad, and removed everything they could do without. "All we had left was, like, some Comet," Kelly says.

The fear of ending up in jail on false charges pushed Kelly to do something else she'd been avoiding. She called her folks and told them everything. That she was an anarchist and was organizing a conference on destroying American society in order to rebuild it. She's still close to her parents, so apparently they took it pretty well. In the end, no raid came. And, despite the hovering police helicopters, the conference was not connected to any of the angry rioting attending the DNC.

Institution-Building

Among Militants

This year, if Strategic Resistance has come under less scrutiny, it's only because there's no DNC in town. The police, like the public, seem to notice the anarchists' presence only when they take to the streets in actions like the hastily-called anarchist march May 1 through Long Beach, where black-clad youths skirmished with police and 92 were arrested.

Questions about the effectiveness of the Long Beach May Day march represent the current global anarchist debate in micro. Many anarchists, though loath to criticize militants within their tribe, believe it's time to deepen their roots in community organizing. While utopian, the subtext of institution-building is still a belief in institutions, and that draws howls of derision from militants.

"People equate anarchism first with chaos, but what anarchism is is community organization," counters Beth Baker-Cristales, 34, an anthropologist teaching at a local college whose name she prefers not to disclose. A longtime anarchist and a married mother of two, soft-spoken Baker-Cristales works in a collective with Kelly and Crill on a new publication called Regeneration. At her open, ranch-style home in the mountains above Tujunga, she sits with her 2-week-old son, Carlos.

"I can clearly imagine a society in which we have local neighborhoods that run their own sources of energy, that produce their own goods, and that organize in national and international consensus-based organizations," she says.

That idea, she says, holds the seeds of an entire reworking of our economic system. "But it wouldn't be a state-run, centralized economy," Baker-Cristales adds. "It would be driven by cooperatives, by membership-based organizations."

"That's the reason why I would like to have this conference," says Crill, referring to Strategic Resistance, which is expecting about 200 registered participants. "To develop an organization where we can really bring a lot of people together and put forward our politics."

The idea of building community institutions is hardly new to anarchist politics. Anarchist meeting houses, cooperatives and coffee houses are common throughout the U.S. and the world. Many contemporary activists take inspiration from the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s who, during the Spanish Civil War, created a network of cooperative farms, democratic village councils and even a telephone exchange.

"Anarchism is a natural fit with the neighborhood empowerment movement," notes professor Larry George, director of the program in international studies at Cal State Long Beach. George is writing a book on the international movement against corporate-led globalization. "Revitalizing community centers, challenging public corruption, holding businesses accountable, making noise when the natural environment is sold out—these are things that anarchists are already doing. We may begin to see whole neighborhoods being transformed into anarchist communities, as has happened in Eugene [Ore.] and the Bay Area."

Most of the key organizers of the Seattle protest came from such Bay Area anarchist groups as the Art & Revolution affinity group and Global Exchange. Similarly, an entire bloc of about 100 militant anarchists blamed for smashing windows in Seattle hailed from the radical "green anarchist" community of Eugene.

A proposed Community Feast center in Pasadena gives a good idea of how anarchists might find a niche in your local community. Now in the "fund-raising" stage, the center is the brainchild of collective including anarchist Shawn McDougal.

"Northwest Pasadena, a historically black, working-class part of town, is now about 35% black, 55% Latino. The five of us in the core collective all live there," explains McDougal, 30. "[Community Feast will] be a space to bring people together across boundaries of race, age and language and have simple projects that help people unplug from the matrix through the power of collective action. For example, a tool library. Why does everyone in the neighborhood need to have their own tools?"

This idea flies directly in the face of America's belief in so-called rugged individualism. "That individually wrapped mentality is one of the key things that we need to break in order to build an anti-capitalist culture," McDougal notes blithely.

McDougal sees Community Feast as an expansion of his paid work with the American Friends Service Committee, an 80-year-old Quaker group with which he organizes against gentrification and homelessness in Pasadena. "Alternative institutions are a long-term trend within anarchism," McDougal adds. "Direct action is not just about blocking processes that are destructive. It's also about creating alternatives and living what we believe."

Green Anarchists,

Insurrectionists

Yes, under a model like McDougal's, anarchists might even sway local elections. Don't, however, look for an Anarchist Party anytime soon. Unless, of course, it's a radical punk rock bowling party.

On a backyard patio at an activist house known simply as Mid-City House, in a slightly worn neighborhood near LaBrea and the Santa Monica Freeway, some of the anarchists who plan to attend HEAL gather around a vegan grill to relax, drink beer and listen to punk rock music. The occasion is a party for the Radical Anarchist Bowling League, or RABL. The group usually meets once a month for bowling and laughs "to do something other than talking," explains Christophe, a friendly young man in a Rosie the Riveter apron who lives in the house. "All anarchists ever do it talk."

There's a difference, though, between what is implied by Christophe's statement, and the community action envisioned by the Regeneration collective. For many of the punk rockers at this gathering, the alternative to talking is shoplifting or fighting the police.

This particular day, a few seem to be nursing hangovers from a HEAL fund-raising bash at the house the night before. When a reporter shows up, some members of the Alternative Gathering Collective, who helped organize HEAL, quietly leave the party.

Privately, some say there is a lot of tension over the question of street protest. "The three of us are green anarchists and insurrectionists, and [Strategic Resistance organizers] are syndicalists," says a young woman who calls herself Woodrat. The day before the RABL party, she and her two comrades, a woman named Mouse and a man named Decoy, sit around a table at what they term a "bourgeois vegan restaurant" in Orange. All of them were arrested in Long Beach May Day protests this year.

Green anarchists, they explain, are radical environmentalists who want to destroy contemporary civilization in order to restore wild nature. Woodrat, 18, and Mouse 18, are also primitivists, who advocate a return to pre-capitalist hunter-gatherer society.

"I'm a primitivist supporter, but I believe in the use of things like solar power," says Decoy, revealing the delicate nature of these distinctions. He is wearing black cargo gear, from boots to hat.

Woodrat is not against building alternative community—she works with Food Not Bombs, a radical network feeding the homeless. But her idea is to unplug from the system completely.

Woodrat's commitment to this difficult idea is total. She quit high school and keeps no permanent address, phone number or e-mail. She eats mostly by "dumpster diving" discarded food. Her anarchist lifestyle involves, she says, "not working. Not paying rent. Not paying for your food or clothes. Being in revolt against the system."

Mouse adds, "It's just not feeding into the system, supporting it financially or otherwise." Mouse has just quit her job at a telephone answering service and left the cooperative house where all three once lived. She says she is going to live on a beach and rough it in the wild, working to stop logging through long-term tree-sits.

Mouse also acknowledges that this plan has caused her "bourgeoisie hippie mother" a lot of grief. But, she says, this is the nature of revolution. Freeing herself from the system robbed it of power.

Woodrat, Mouse and Decoy understand that theirs are choices that not many people of any age, race or class are able or likely to follow. But their first responsibility, they say, is to their liberation.

All three support ramping up armed attacks against corporate and governmental institutions. They regard the death of Carlo Giuliani in Genoa, shot by police whose vehicle was under attack by masked militants, as provocation.

"We should be avenging Carlo," affirms Woodrat. "I personally think that it should inspire us to fight back more, to withdraw from the system more. We're fighting for our lives, for our own freedom."

 

Last Updated: 11/16/2014
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