Keepers of the Flame

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

The idea is that the resources to live, and the chance to do good, are out there for the taking—it's an economy of opportunity, not scarcity, an ethos that extends to their analysis of global poverty. Ben, 21, an NYU dropout who now cooks food each week for the homeless denizens of Tompkins Square Park through Food Not Bombs, says anarchism's egalitarianism helps attract youth who are new to politics of any kind. "Some of the drunkest kids I've ever seen are now going to Food Not Bombs meetings and taking responsibility," he says. "Once they find a place where they're not on the bottom rung, where they can take initiative, they do it. They start out listening to a Subhuman song and they end up reading Noam Chomsky." Come to think of it, he later adds, that's pretty much how it happened for him, too—catching punk shows at ABC No Rio, noticing the Food Not Bombs shopping cart, and slowly waking up to the fact that poverty and hunger are not natural. As the conversation breaks up around midnight, the kids head out to dumpster dive, to supply food for their own kitchens and the anarchists camping out at Cabo Rojo in the Bronx, to save that community garden from the bulldozer.

After spending any significant amount of time around the nonhierarchical, collective sensibilities of these anti-capitalists, you can begin to feel your entire life is corrupted by absurd power imbalances, your apartment overrun by excess goods. Ben mentions that Food Not Bombs had a serious discussion about collecting more plastic forks from fast food places so they could put savings from the cost of purchasing them toward the WEF legal defense fund. David Graeber, 40, a Yale professor and Anti-Capitalist Convergence cofounder, says the network would probably spend no more than a couple thousand on the WEF protests, all earned through passing the hat.

Which is not to say this movement is ascetic. Lena and her friends use words like joy and beauty as often as some long-ago editor of Mother Earth. Jenna rhapsodizes about how anarchists constantly create space for poetry jams, musical performance, and art; Ben giggles as he recounts a black bloc contingent at a Boston biotech protest, led by a man in a bunny suit carrying a sign that read "The Violent Fringe." This week, as the NYPD practices cracking heads at Shea Stadium, the puppetistas are madly rehearsing a street tango corps and a line of Radical Rockettes, assembling a samba band, and building papier mâché globes painted with images of better, possible worlds.

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"

In debates over the sustainability of the global justice movement, the anarchists are mostly chalked up as a problem. But their spirit of cultural celebration, combined with an elaborate web of small, accessible collective endeavors, has clearly provided activists with skills, support structures, and points of entry.

Of course there's still that nagging question of violence, as important to the movement as to the media, because, as Danaher of Global Exchange says, "The test of any tactic is whether it builds the movement. And you don't attract people to a movement that looks dangerous and messy." But there were plenty of half-a-million-strong peaceful marches in Washington, D.C., over the past decade that raised nary an eyebrow, while Seattle galvanized a generation.

Watching some old footage from that watershed event, Warcry shakes her head at the depth of the people's discontent. "To be honest, what the left has done since the '60s hasn't been that successful, and we can't afford to embrace tactics that don't work," she says. "I don't think Seattle would be on the map if it weren't for the catalyzing level of rage that was made visible through property destruction." She calls window-smashing "the transformation of the psychogeographic landscape" and points out that it's far more strategic than most people think—with specific corporate targets, such as sweatshop operators like Nike—and getting more strategic as the years progress. Besides that, as Public Citizen's Dolan emphasizes, whether people get injured in New York this week is mostly up to the police.

When pushed, most of the Anti-Capitalist crew recognize that the people of this city—including its uniformed officers—are still recovering from the trauma of 9-11. Though it's hard to find an anarchist who doesn't fiercely defend the right to destroy certain kinds of property, placing vandalism of McDonald's in the respected tradition of the Boston Tea Party, most are also cautious that the movement itself not get too attached to this, or any other, particular tactic. "No one's talking property destruction right now in New York City," says Graeber, a sometime black bloc'er, "though a certain level of urban redecoration is appropriate. No one's going to abjure spray paint."

No one's promising that there won't be a black bloc, either. Warcry recalls joining the bloc at previous protests, the sense of anonymity, collectivity, of people you don't even know having your back, of "glimpsing the possibility of a world where they don't have total and absolute control," of feeling that viscerally. Her tribe is the one that's not intimidated by the new Patriot Act, that hasn't lost sight of challenging corporate exploitation even while there's a war on.

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