Keepers of the Flame

As Moderate Groups Turn Down the Heat, Anarchists Light a New Way for Dissent

This groupthink has not only obscured the true nature of the protest violence—since the police have been by far the most aggressive perpetrators, from the pepper spray and nightsticks of Seattle to the fatal bullets of Genoa—but also made invisible a significant new development: The anarchist fringe is fast becoming the movement's center.

Decades of Republican assaults on the basic functions of government, capped by a presidential election decided by dirty tricks and partisan courts rather than by popular will, have plowed the soil for a generational politics that is suspicious of political power. No Logo author Naomi Klein has long argued that the global justice movement has an inherently anarchist feel. But as the months have rolled by since Seattle, more and more activists, with little fanfare, have come to explicitly identify as anarchists, and anarchist-minded collectives are on the rise.

There are now more than 175 Food Not Bombs chapters, at least 60 Independent Media Centers (the newest of which are mostly in the global south), nearly a dozen People's Law Collectives, countless troupes of puppetistas, and several new medic teams, including one cofounded by anti-capitalist EMS worker James Creedon, who assisted with the World Trade Center rescue. And starting with the Quebec free-trade protests last spring, the radical wing of the movement has consolidated its troops under the banner of the Anti-Capitalist Convergence. All of these formations will provide crucial infrastructure for the protests ahead.

Warcry’s American Dream: "Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to dissent"
photo: Dennis Kleiman
Warcry’s American Dream: "Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to dissent"

The movement is widely perceived as anti-intellectual, but sales are up at Oakland's AK Press, which publishes more than 80 anarchist titles, including a new English translation of Daniel Guérin's classic anthology of anarchism, No Gods No Masters; and students are flocking to Vermont's Institute for Social Ecology, where they study the anarchist works of Murray Bookchin and, according to instructor Brooke Lehman, 29, "spend the summer talking about how we might realize our vision of direct democracy and freedom."

Unlike modern-day social reformers, who want Nike to let inspectors into their factories or the World Bank to forgive some debt, anarchists explicitly oppose capitalism itself. They don't attack the International Monetary Fund or the WEF just because their policies exploit the poor, but because their power is illegitimate. They envision an egalitarian society without nation states, where wealth and power have been redistributed, and they take great pains to model their institutions in this vein, with autonomous, interconnected structures and consensus-based decision making. UC Santa Cruz professor Barbara Epstein, an expert on direct action, senses that anarchism has now become "the pole that everyone revolves around," much as Marxism was in the '60s. In other words, even young activists who don't identify as anarchists have to position themselves in relation to its values.

The reformist perspective is likely to retreat further with groups like the Sierra Club absent from WEF week and the AFL-CIO presence reduced from a march to a rally. Danaher says Global Exchange will focus instead on the alternative World Social Forum in Brazil. Shooting more from the hip, Public Citizen staffer Mike Dolan, an architect of Seattle, says his group has not yet endorsed the one permitted march because the sponsor, Another World Is Possible, "can't guarantee that the event will be nonviolent, and that the movement won't be marred by vandalism." At press time, Drop the Debt, Earth First!, Rainforest Action Network, and the Ruckus Society had all not signed onto the march, either.

With these significant players sitting it out—or penned in by overzealous police—who's left to distribute schedules, run listservs, host spokescouncils, paint banners, and coordinate legal and medical support, food, and housing? The anarchists are making do.

The Anti-Capitalist set tends to be far more mixed by background than, say, the middle-class student movement, and no deep pockets are keeping them afloat now. Their genius is in making use of the wealth all around them—whether human resources or capitalism's leavings—despite a lack of cash or access to traditional forms of power.

At a party last week for the political comic book World War III at Theater for a New City, an interview with InterGalactic conference organizer Lena turned into a group discussion—as so many interviews with anarchists seem to, the collective impulse is so strong—about the joys of mutual aid. "It's about finding out who needs what and filling in the blanks," says Lena, who incidentally is the daughter of a construction worker and has supported herself since age 16. Her friends Jenna, 22, a slender Asian woman; and Kevin, 23, Jenna's lanky white partner, are indeed itinerant activists, floating from community to community in what they see as a profoundly American hobo tradition. They live off bartering and networks, not checks from Mom. "I appreciate anarchists so much," says Jenna, "because I've never gone to a demo and not found housing or food." Kevin recalls showing up in Houston, hearing about a collective anarchist household, and bunking there for a month and a half while he engaged in prisoner support. The two just returned from a trip to a punk show in Gainesville, Florida, that morphed into a month of work on a community farm.

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