The Anarchists Next Door
- News for Anarchists & Activists:
August 3, 2001
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 LA Times
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 BlocStay 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
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
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.
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
"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
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"
Marxismlike that which had produced Maoist China or
Stalinist-Leninist USSRhad 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.
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
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 outthese 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
"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
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."
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 communityshe
works with Food Not Bombs, a radical network feeding the
homeless. But her idea is to unplug from the system
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."
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