By James MacKinnon
Over the wire comes a report of an anarchist punching a police officer
the face, "repeatedly," during a street protest in Philadelphia. I imagine
that little clot of information exploding outward through the endless
fractals of the Information Age. I picture it reaching the suburban
dinnertime conversations of a hundred million American Beauty
households, and if I listen closely, I can hear America tut-tutting.
But then, there is something shocking about some punk putting one up
in a copís face. In a culture that can absorb, without flinching, the fact
that certain individuals can afford to order take-out for the worldís poorest
billion without losing their seats in the Billionaireís Club, punching a cop
remains a genuine shock. If you make an effort to understand it, your
internal pop-psychologist kicks in: Iím getting the sense that youíre
angry. More than likely, you give in to an almost gut-level feeling that this
is very, very wrong: In America, One Does Not Punch an Officer of the
Sitting in a shady urban park, I bring this up with Closet Punk ("Iím kind
of a punk, but Iím in the closet"). He has been sitting cross-legged with
an almost Gandhian stillness, but now he stands and begins to act out
the climax of a 1999 protest in Montreal, when riot police sealed death
penalty protesters in an alley before they had even begun to march.
"You could just feel this panic building," he recalls. "Suddenly they ran
at us Ė a totally unprovoked police charge."
As people scrambled to escape up a single-file staircase, the cops
closed the gap. Closet Punk mimes the way a baton to the face
knocked his friend down onto the bike she was pushing. He stepped in
as a human shield, felt the jarring pain of a truncheon to the thigh, then
managed with one hand to grab the officer's weapon. "I just looked him in
the eye and . . ." He gropes for a way to describe the complexity of an
epiphany. "The state is going to crush you if it doesn't agree with you,"
he says finally.
The protest in Montreal ended when the police destroyed the activists'
signs, then allowed them to leave, two-by-two, like animals off Noah's
ark. And so, in Closet Punk's world, news of people striking back
against police has a much different effect than it does on a person
watching the nightly news and thinking that all these balaclavas and
bandanas have grown a little stale.
In 1969, Carl Oglesby wrote about the effect in The New Left Reader:
"The policeman's riot club functions like a magic wand, under whose
hard caress the banal soul grows vivid and the nameless recover their
authenticity." Closet Punk wraps up his story of cops and rebels. "That
was really like a life-changing thing for me," he says, then laughs lightly.
"It's ironic. They've unwittingly created a radical anarchist."
Anarchist. (Pause; roll of timpani, clash of cymbals.) Yes, the
capital-A-Anarchist is back, and he's wearing a big black gas-mask and
breathing like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. He's cursing the hippies and
climbing the walls of the gated community. He's throwing bricks and
lighting fires, and when he rolls out at midnight in his long black car, you
better believe that heíll have Jesus in the trunk. This is an
all-points-bulletin, and in Anytown, America, good citizens are
scrambling to hide the booze and lock up their daughters.
Thatís the easy definition. Taking a truer measure of anarchy is
puzzlingly difficult, as David Samuels found when he reported on the
infamous radicals of Eugene, Oregon, for Harperís magazine. Samuels
concluded, in concerned tones, that the anarchists suffer "the absolutist
psychology of children whose parents split up or sold out or otherwise
succumbed to the instability inherent in modern marriage." However
wrong or right about his sample study, Samuels was opening an
historical wound. Lenin himself declared anarchism an "infantile disorder"
(best cured, added Trotsky, with an "iron broom"), and critics ever since
have suggested that anarchists, as one historian put it, "project on to the
State all the hatred they felt for parental authority."
It is just as easy, of course, to explain a personís faith in authority
through the psychology of a child with a burden in his pants. If only
anarchists suffer such Freudian analysis, itís because journalists are
conditioned to expect tight limits on public behavior, argues Jason
McQuinn, an anarchist for 30 years and editor of Anarchy magazine.
"Rather than taking into the light the idea that there are some people
who believe they can change power in a structural way," he says,
"mainstream media wants to believe that these people are in some way
acting out their sickness." To many, that will sound paranoid, like the
complaint of a nudist who just doesnít get why the rules are against her.
But, like the nudist, the anarchist is just so different that youíre all too
prone to stare at the obvious. At best, you might try to guess what
makes her tick. There are a lot of gaps to jump before you finally think:
Maybe this person makes sense.
If you want to stare into an anarchist den, you might start on Earl Street,
in a mixed neighborhood of Toronto. The building itself is Romanesque
Italian, rising in stone and stained glass. This is Our Lady of Lourdes, a
Jesuit parish, and the place of worship of poet, author, and professor
Moritz is an anarchist and Catholic, or as he puts it, "a Catholic among
anarchists, and an anarchist among Catholics." Itís a difficult and deeply
personal balance that Moritz describes as a refusal to reject any
influence that resonates with his sense of humanity. "Iím a palimpsest,"
he says. "My life is a matter of maintaining contradictions and
Anarchists like Moritz are easier guides into what might be called "the
anarchist conversation" than, say, a vegan squatter who goes by the
single name "Kronstadt." As he would be the first to declare, though,
"easy" does not mean "more legitimate." Itís a question of starting
points, and the anarchists interviewed for this story Ė including a
warehouse worker, a youth-care advocate, a "boss," and a computer
coder Ė start somewhere nearer to the house-in-the-suburbs, 2.5-child
norm than my (fictional) Kronstadt. Moritz, for example, recommends
anarchism as, to begin with, a way "to lighten up your thought."
In its immediate impression, anarchism is the intellectual equivalent to
the place the socks go when they vanish from the laundry. Consider, for
example, the disappearance of outrage. Earlier this year, The Filth and
the Fury Ė a documentary about the seminal punk band the Sex Pistols
Ė hit audiences with an opening collage of 1970s Britain. Pneumatic
models hawk vacuums on TV; black-tie swells drive past squalid housing
projects; the Queen looks like she smells something nasty that she
canít possibly mention. Itís a set-up, designed to make sure you
understand that, once upon a time, it made sense to scream, like
Johnny Rotten, "Anarchy! Get pissed! Destroy!"
What might strike the viewer, though, is that nothing much has changed.
Imagine a collage for the year 2000: virtual fly-fishing, "doggie day-care,"
the cult of Oprah, two million in prison in the USA, the greatest gap
between rich and poor in living memory. Somehow, though, all that punk
rage seems passé. Are these just "different times?" Or do the same
forces that virtually prohibit ripped jeans (so í80s!) also convince us that
Outrage fell from fashion, so much so that even our most visible radical
groups Ė like Earth First!, the Ruckus Society, and the Direct Action
Network Ė seem restrained. Most have settled into media-savvy
campaigns of non-violent direct action (many of their members, it has to
be noted, are anarchists). But within the anarchist conversation,
OUTRAGE IS A WARMING FIRE around which to debate the unmentionable
questions. Right now, a new consensus is attracting a limited following,
best known through the Black Bloc street radicals that believe corporate
media is a monster that isnít worth feeding, that property damage isnít
violence unless living things are wounded, and that enduring police
violence may be the same as accepting it.
Without this debate, people like Albert Moritz would condemn the Black
Bloc anarchists out of hand. Within the debate, he refuses to rebuke
them. "I wish them well," he says. In fact, Moritz, the good Catholic,
refuses to reject even the possibility of a morally defensible offensive
attack on the police.
"These are real questions," he says. "After the Second World War, the
United States was perhaps the chief enforcer of the notion in the
Nuremberg trials that you are demanded to adhere to a higher standard
than the laws and ideals of the country that you happen to be in, the
organization that governs that country, or the military body that gives you
orders. You were held guilty unto death if you didnít dissent from them
unto a higher standard. But, within our own political discourse, itís
usually considered absolutely verboten to invoke that same principle."
The submerged conversation that connects people like Moritz to a
teenager building a fiery barricade out of a Dumpster is the reason
anarchism, and not only "the anarchist," creates such a furor each time
it rises near the mainstream. To government and corporate authorities,
no good can come if Jo Coffeecup discovers that this thing called
"anarchism" is like an ongoing talk-radio program where the unspoken is
always the topic of the day.
Youíre listening to Circle A Radio, folks, and the question today is, "Are
there times when itís OK to attack the police?" Weíve got Caleb
Williams on the line from Boise. Hi Caleb.
Hello out there, I just want to say that I love your show . . .
You can almost hear the truncheons thumping on the riot shields, the
stern murmurs in the White House, the family counselors helping
parents figure out if their children are hanging out with anarchists.
"I sometimes have the feeling that many of these people suspect there is
a kind of Berlin-Wall-in-1988 quality to the supposedly massive
satisfaction and confidence of the late capitalist system," says Moritz.
"They react with rage because there is some fear behind it."
We are slowly circling the anarchist beast, but thereís no other way to
approach a 200-year-old philosophy that is still absent from most
political science reading lists. Its "experts" reject the term, and insist
that if their words arenít fixed and true, then thatís exactly the truth
theyíre shooting for. "The first anarchist was the first person who felt the
oppression of another and rebelled against it," writes Peter Marshall in
his hefty history of anarchy, Demanding the Impossible. In effect,
anarchism lays claim to the root of grassroots.
A few things can be said for certain about anarchist philosophy.
Anarchists reject the legitimacy of external government, political
authority, corporate power, hierarchy and domination. They believe that,
through social rebellion, society can become a voluntary association of
free and equal individuals. "Mind your own business" has been an
anarchist motto, but the emphasis on equality separates the anarchist
from any free marketeer. Anarchism imagines the maximum individual
freedom that is compatible with freedom for all others, and it is along this
line that anarchists fiercely debate and divide. Thereís an old joke: "What
do you get if you lock two anarchists in a room? Three splinter groups."
The movement that emerged with the "Battle in Seattle" has been
publicly linked to anarchism, says Cindy Milstein, a faculty member at
the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont, but the association isnít as
strong as it should be. "I have never seen a movement that included so
many anarchists, whether they were dressed all in black or not," she
says. "The direct action part of it Ė from the affinity groups, to the
puppeteers, to independent media Ė has either been strongly influenced
by anarchism or is initiated by anarchists." The new movement building
out of Seattle is, at least, "proto-anarchist." It is radically decentralized,
largely leaderless, tolerant of a wide range of expression Ė and ready to
party whenever power takes a tumble.
These are essential elements of anarchist history. The Zapatistas in
Mexico are anarchistic: sovereign, self-governing, structured without
hierarchy, intensely local, and in direct confrontation with government
and corporate power. Green politics, with its rejection of leader-worship
and centralized power, borrows heavily from the concept that "anarchy is
order" (the root of the "circle A" symbol). At a time when nuclear
holocaust seemed only a matter of time, punk rock urged us to ruin this
doomed world and see what emerged Ė an echo of anarchist Michael
Bakuninís 1842 statement, "The urge to destroy is also a creative urge."
The New Left of the 1960s argued for decentralization and direct
democracy, and against the power of the police, state, military, and even
"the tyranny of culture." From self-governing communes to yippie
sloganeers ("Revolution for the Hell of it!"), a largely unrecognized
anarchism bored deep into Americana. The Black Panthers resembled
current radical anarchists in their dual commitment to self-defense
against police and "active community" in the form of free medical clinics
and food services. And anarchism was at the heart of the 1968 riots and
general strike that brought France to the brink of revolution at a time
when, like now, the word seemed ridiculously naive. The Situationists Ė
radical critics who formed an anarchist resistance to consumer society Ė
fought police from behind barricades, believing that their sudden glimpse
beyond the spectacle of the commercial glut had created a mindshift
that state and commerce could never again co-opt.
Anarchism has also had its peace: the anti-nuclear movement was
deeply inspired by Gandhi, who had studied the pacifist anarchist Leo
Tolstoy, who admired historyís first self-declared anarchist, the French
revolutionary Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. It has had its brief and requisite
fame: anarchism is linked to the assassination of US president William
McKinley, and in 1892, popular anarchists Alexander Berkman and
Emma Goldman conspired to attempt the murder of Henry Clay Frick,
chair of Carnegie Steel. (Frickís use of Pinkerton strikebreakers had
resulted in the death of ten workers and three guards.) Anarchists can
also claim at least one historic foresight: they had denounced
communism before it could even be called a movement. Back through
time the anarchist reels. Back to Jesus ("The first anarchist society was
that of the apostles," wrote one anarchist thinker); back to the Lao Tzu,
who argued that, to the free person who gives others their freedom,
"What room is there left for government?"
"When you offer people a chance to create their own lives, itís incredibly
powerful," says Milstein. "The ideas are strong enough that people will
come to them."
If anarchism is resonating throughout the new politics, it is in large
because there is just so much to resist: Britney Spears and Tommy
Hilfiger, e-commerce and media mergers, tweedledum politics and
police-sanctioned protest. The traditional Left has produced Bill Clinton
and Tony Blair, while the Right enjoys an exclusive claim on freedom,
responsibility, and individuality. The physicistís term "potential energy"
seems a good description of the times, and anarchism is the WRECKING
BALL WAITING TO SWING.
If history is any measure, though, it is the anarchist and anarchism that
will be misunderstood, denounced, and driven again into its deep
underground. One anarchist, writing for the Independent Media Center at
the outset of the early August protests in Philadelphia, predicted an
impending storm. "The media simultaneously demonizes and discredits
the protesters, turning them from citizens with legitimate concerns that
arenít being heard into an unruly mob with no cause that wants to find
any excuse to trash buildings and beat up cops. Then, the general public
is willing to look the other way as police invade civil rights."
Just days later, Philly police commissioner John Timoney, himself
jostled during protests surrounding the Republican convention, called for
a crackdown. "Somebody who has nation-wide jurisdiction has got to
look into these groups," he said. "I intend on raising this issue with
Closet Punk can already feel the heat. He asked to be named only by
his graffiti tag; he works on a politically sensitive inner-city project and
worries that city officials could use the weight of his label Ė anarchist Ė
to shut down the operation. "Itís a philosophy thatís really undergone a
lot of oppression over the past 100 years," he says.
He hopes, without expectation, that the public will come to see beyond
the balaclava. Closet Punk has become an anarchist advocate; most
recently, heís organized a reading circle that meets in a public park.
Theyíre checking out Goldman and Chomsky, and the gentle Peter
Kropotkin is coming up on the list. Itís an interesting image: ten allies of
the dreaded Black Bloc reading, as Oscar Wilde put it, "a man with a
soul of that beautiful white Christ."