anarchism

September 24-25: Resist the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh

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Coming off the protests against the Republican National Convention (RNC), I’m not sure entirely how I feel personally about organizing in response to the G20 in Pittsburgh, but I’m really heartened to see that some solid people are putting work into giving the G20 a rowdy midwestern welcome. After seeing folks take to the streets to oppose the G20 in April in London, hopefully those of us in the U.S. can take a similar approach.

September 24-25: Resist the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh

Join Thousands at a Convergence of Action, Resistance and Hope

Pittburghers didn’t ask the G20 to come here, but it is our intention that the worldview the summit represents will die here.

This September 24-25 Pittsburgh will host the next summit of the G20, a group of finance ministers and central bank governors from the world’s largest economies who meet twice yearly to discuss and coordinate the international financial system. Around 1,500 delegates, including heads of state, will be here along with more than 2,000 members of the media, and thousands of police and security agents tasked with squelching dissent.

This summit, and the predecessor meetings this past April in London, occurs on the heels of the worldwide financial meltdown that has been severely impacting hundreds of millions around the world. Since its inception, the G20 has been a tool used to promote a world vision based on the ability of capital to move as it pleases, at the expense of labor, human rights and the environment.

Now that the system these leaders have forced on the world is in crisis they continue to operate as if they have the answer. We know that they do not. To save countries, they propose we turn to institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), an entity that has historically imposed murderous structural adjustment programs on the world’s poor.

G20 summits, alongside other meetings of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), an entity that has historically imposed murderous structural adjustment programs on the world’s poor.

G20 summits, alongside other meetings of institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization, have rightfully been targeted by hundreds of thousands of people around the world because they represent a global vision based on war-making, social and economic injustice, and corporate greed. Pittsburgh will take its place alongside people around the world who have protested and resisted such gatherings in their hometowns.

Pittsburgh was chosen as the host city because of its history, and because the President is looking to buttress his working class credentials. It is true that our city has much to offer the world in terms of progress, we just happen to disagree with the politicians on what these words mean or what others should take from our experience. Pittsburgh has experienced 50 years of population loss and industrial decline as well as more than 150 years of industrial class conflict. We have gained an instinctual knowledge that you get what you are willing to fight for. We celebrate that worker and community self-organization has often succeeded where government, bosses and the supposedly enlightened have failed.

What has carried us through the tough times has been our relationships, the tight knit nature of our mostly non-corporate dominated neighborhoods, a do-it-yourself ethic, the unpretentious manner in which people treat each other, and a sense of local pride that isn’t based on salary or one’s place in some hierarchy. Pittsburgh never died, and the currently-in-vogue talk of “rebirth” measures success, growth, and progress in terms of the number of corporations based here, the multi-national profits, or the success of our politicians at going from Mayors to County Executives to Governors.

For our measuring stick, we look to whether or not all have the resources needed to lead and pursue rewarding lives, and if we are meeting community needs without the involvement of the state. We look to the health of our environment and the treatment of other living things, the equality of educational opportunities, the degree to which we lessen our participation in the exploitation of others, and how successful we are in moving towards a new kind of society in which you don’t have to fuck people over to survive.

And in these respects, our city is making progress. We find inspiration and common cause in the efforts of the multitude of other projects and initiatives that are transforming Pittsburgh into a more just and sustainable place to live, efforts that are in a conflictual relationship with state power, and will be joining resistance to the G20. And truly, if the G20 were about anything besides state power and money it would be these efforts that other countries would be coming here to discuss and look at, because there is much that we have to offer in creating a better world.

Pittsburgh is not without its problems, and there is much that needs to be addressed. During the summit and its lead-up little will be said about the troubling grip the UPMC medical industrial complex and others hold over the region, the chronic illnesses caused by the extremely high levels of particulate matter in our air, the troubling ethical questions posed by the warfare robotics that are being pioneered here, the police violence and acts of unaccountable brutality against the public, a stacked deck against labor organizing, a depressingly inadequate public transit system, and a political process marked by a lack of ethical accountability and transparency.

We should be clear then, we love our city, and in so far as we see the G20 as a threat to our collective health and well-being we intend to be an obstacle to its ability to function. This is an unavoidable decision given what the summit is, and what it represents. The presence of the G20 summit in Pittsburgh will be a major – if short-lived – disruption to the city and the people who work and live here, with or without protests. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has acknowledged as much, stating the summit will result in “chaos” due to security cordons, increased traffic, etc.

The government has already staked out its position: the needs of 20 politicians justify whatever disruption and cost to our city, and the responsibility felt by thousands to participate in resistance to the G20 and to articulate an alternate vision for society is more than unimportant, it’s a threat.

Based on past summits the media will play the state game by focusing on whether protesters will be able to disrupt the ability of the summit to meet, using ominous and sensationalist stories with unsubstantiated claims of evil outsiders come to wreck havoc on the good people, because these stories, even if refuted and later disproved, serve to justify attacks on the public’s liberties and dignity. This must not, and will not, deter resistance. The stakes are too high.

The real value of this summit, to its participants and those resisting it, is not in the substance of the “leaders’” discussions. Our power is not in whether or not we have the ability to prevent a bunch of finance ministers and heads of state from talking. The real importance is in the way an undisrupted ceremony reinforces the dominant worldview. If that view is flawed, it must be rejected, and the spotlight such a gathering creates must be one in which people will manifest liberating social conflict.

We therefore believe that the necessary attempts of thousands to interfere with the summit are not an ends in and of themselves, they are a critical part of the means we can use to achieve the victory we are collectively organizing for in September: to heighten existing social resistance, and to present an alternative narrative of why our world is the way it is. We must make it clear that the world need not be this way, and talk about our vision for a movement towards a new society based not on profit and coercion but rooted in meeting collective needs for both material comfort and the freedom to pursue fulfilling lives of opportunity and dignity.

In this effort we invite and encourage your participation!

In Struggle,

Pittsburgh Organizing Group

http://www.organizepittsburgh.org

If your group would like to endorse this call, let us know at pog@mutualaid.org

Economic disaster is no match for people’s spirit and self-organizing

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This article is reprinted from an anarchist newspaper published out of Berkley, California called Slingshot. I think it does a good job of discussing current popular responses to the global economic crisis while also looking at the challenges for leftists and progressives. How can we respond to the current crisis in a way that is both relevant and challenges the underlying system/logic that brought about the current crisis? As a whole, I think “the left”–especially in the U.S.–has done a pretty bad job of responding to the current crisis.

Economic dislocation and pain has always given rise to creative forms of protest, direct action and rebellion. Right now, the French are showing the way with a wave of “boss-nappings” — when the boss tries to close a factory or layoff workers, the workers lock managers inside and won’t let them leave until demands for better severance pay are met. But outrage has been overflowing all over from unrest in Bolivia to Greek farmers blocking roads to riots in Vladivostok, Russia, and clashes with police in Reykjavik, Iceland. At the recent G20 protest in London, hundreds of people smashed the windows of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

The US has a powerful history of action during hard economic times — from general strikes to bread riots to widespread squatting that occurred during the depression in the 1930s. And while protest in the US often lags behind the rest of the world these days, things haven’t been totally boring in the USA. There have been marches on Wall Street and in Chicago, 300 members of the United Electrical workers seized their factory in December to protest its closing.

Given that recessions are part of capitalism’s normal functioning, it isn’t always clear whether popular uprisings inspired by economic pain can go beyond purely reformist and limited goals. While it is encouraging to see more people in the streets and less respect for bosses, corporations, and authority, it makes no sense to demand “jobs,” “more economic activity” or “more money” out of precisely the same system that has let us down. The recession is causing pain for people precisely because the economy has so much power over people’s lives — demanding that the system start working “better” so it can even further dominate our lives makes no sense.

Protests related to an economic downturn risk being myopic — addressing symptoms, but not causes, and seeking crumbs, not the whole pie. But popular eruptions don’t have to be so short-sighted.

How can we seize on capitalism’s current self-inflicted wounds — widening tiny cracks into huge breaches in its rotten facade? In the last issue of Slingshot, I suggested that the recession creates opportunities for people to build alternative economic structures outside the capitalist system that can enable us to live more sustainably during the recession and after it is over. These alternative structures can replace competition, consumption, and privatization with cooperation, sharing, and a broad re-evaluation of what we really need to make us happy and free.

The other opportunities opened by the economic collapse are exciting chances to mount direct attacks on the structures of capitalism, industrialization, and hierarchy that create and sustain material inequality and misery, and that — in the process — are wreaking devastation on the environment. Right now millions of people see banks, the stock market, and the dog-eat-dog economy as the problem, not the solution.

A boss-napping in France that forces a company to pay an extra three months severance is ultimately not very threatening to capitalism. The workers are still accepting their status as workers and the bosses’ right to own the factory and close it if they like. The extra wages can be factored in as a cost of doing business. The manager taken hostage is usually just another paid employee of a big corporation — not all that close to the people who are really in charge. Such an action fails to question the flaws in the system that run deeper than a periodic downturn leading to some layoffs, business failures and foreclosures. How can such actions be put in a broader context and make wider demands?

Even when the capitalist economy is booming and consumption is growing, all the hours spent at work, new products to buy, and technological improvements leave us poorer in the things that really matter. When the economy is healthy, we are robbed of our time to invest in relationships and community. A world in which all our needs are increasingly met through the market — rather than voluntarily by other people around us — replaces meaning, depth and intimacy with distraction, superficial interactions, and loneliness.

The gross domestic product grows as more and more people eat highly processed food transported over great distances, and fewer and fewer people have the time to grow their own food in a garden and sit with friends cooking a slow supper. The mainstream assumption that more money, consumption and higher production improves the “standard of living” or human happiness is absurd — based on manufactured misunderstandings about what really matters.

This recession is perhaps the first major economic collapse since society has become fully aware of the environmental consequences of capitalism’s model of limitless economic growth. During the Great Depression, it was clear that capitalism led to economic inequality, arbitrary displacement and misery. Capitalism meant millions would live alienated, meaningless lives based on mechanistic consumption and production, rather than humanistic pursuits of freedom, joy and beauty. In the 1930s, the scale of world capitalism and the state of environmental awareness made it difficult to understand capitalism’s even more dramatic flaw: a model that requires limitless growth cannot coexist with a finite planet.

The subprime mortgage recession of 2008 — or whatever future generations may eventually call these times — is occurring within a far different context. Now, perhaps the chief indictment against the system is on environmental grounds. The idea of restoring the economy to “normal” becomes even more sinister when one considers the health of the world’s ecosystems.

Will the failures of the capitalist economy beyond temporary layoffs be on trial during this long, hot summer of discontent? Can a factory occupation demand not just severance pay, but that the factory be turned over to its workers rather than closed? And once we own the factory, will we redirect its function away from producing limitlessly for profit and consumerism, and towards manufacturing things we actually need in a way that doesn’t undermine our ability to live on a fragile planet? Or will we decide we don’t need factories and the stuff they make at all?

Militant tactics like wildcat strikes, bread riots and neighborhood eviction defense contain within them very important seeds for a different world. Each of these actions represents people alone or in groups stepping outside the dream world of the system — a world of consumers and spectators powerless to control their own lives. To the contrary, when you’re in the streets, you are a full participant in history, not a passive observer. You’re helping to determine what will happen next and how social institutions shall be organized or transformed.

Finding Our Roots Conferences Explores Anarchism and “Space”

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This past weekend, I traveled to Chicago to attend the Finding Our Roots Conference at Roosevelt University. This is the third year the anarchist conference on praxis and organizing has been held. The theme of the conference this year was space:

“Why and how is space important to the theory and practice of anarchism; what is ‘anarchist space’? How are anarchists involved in struggles around space, both within and beyond our community? How is space central to the struggles of oppressed and marginalized groups? How does space operate within the social landscape and machinations of capitalism, as well as within resistance to capitalism?”

Obviously, this is an extremely broad category, and therefore a variety of topics were covered over the weekend. A schedule, including descriptions of each workshop, can be found on the website linked above. There were typically about four workshops during each time slot, so I was only able to attend a fraction of the total workshops offered. What follows are brief overviews of some of what was covered.

Gentrification: Containment, Displacement, Yuppie Infestations, and the Resistance to Come

This workshop, facilitated by Fancy and Ezra, began with a brief history of gentrification, going back to the 1930s when racist government policy equated a nonwhite person living in a house to the same “damage” as a tree falling. The group agreed that the definition of gentrification involves displacement of a group of (nonwhite) people in cities. Fancy noted that many people falsely equate white flight to gentrification, and therefore it is viewed by the public as a natural result of the market, when in fact realtors and city officials tend to target certain neighborhoods.

The discussion turned toward resistance. One attendee brought up the importance of providing services for community members when the city cuts them off – access to food, health care, or whatever is needed. A DuPaul professor talked about his work in the Pilson neighborhood, where his students go and talk to the residents, helping those who do not speak English to develop well reasoned arguments against gentrification and its effects.

Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid will result in gentrification of the Washington Park neighborhood. It was brought up that even if Chicago does not win the bid, the neighborhood will be still be gentrified due to Tax Increment Finance Money.

Mad Liberation and Safe Space

Facilitated by the Mad Tea Party group of Chicago, this workshop was about creating safe spaces where those who struggle with mental illness can have autonomy over their own recovery.

It was noted that “madness” cannot be separated from our culture. One person shared his experience in the mental health system, in which he worked a menial job six days a week that made him depressed and exacerbated his struggles. Upon seeking help, he found himself in an institution where the end goal was to get him back into a job – he recognized this as a form of oppression.

Several people expressed concern that the issue of mental health is one that gets pushed to the side in anarchist organizing. In response to this, groups have been formed in Chicago (and, I’m sure, in many other cities) to provide peer support, such as The Icarus Project).

Collective Living Spaces: A Roundtable Discussion

Much of this discussion was based around common problems and issues that arise in collective housing and how to deal with these, either preemptively or after the fact.

The goals for many who choose to live in collective houses are to find an alternative to patriarchy in their living space (as opposed to traditional family structures), and to live out a microcosm of what one wants to see in the world.

Security was the biggest issue for many. Several houses had protocol for how to deal with cops, took batteries out their cell phones during meetings, did not allow pictures of the space to appear on the internet, did not allow drugs or alcohol, and had a zero tolerance policy for any perpetrators of sexual and/or violent assault. People had differing opinions on the question of whether it is ever acceptable to call the police.

The Seizure of Space and the Public Sphere: Enduring Lessons from the Zapatistas

Facilitated by Richard Gilman-Opalsky, author of Unbounded Publics: Transgressive Public Spheres, Zapatismo, and Political Theory, we examined the example of the Zapatistas in Mexico, who, rather than seize the state, chose to live in an autonomous communities, taking public space and making visible an alternative way to live. Opalsky critiqued the recent actions in Greece, viewing the Zapatista model as a more effect tool for change.

The discussion turned to indigenous struggles in the U.S., such as the Lakota Indians in South Dakota, who continue to struggle in the Black Hills.

Creating Safe Space in an Unsafe World: Supporting Survivors Whilst Respecting Their Autonomy

The discussion in this workshop, facilitated by Bash Back Chicago, began with a talk about community, and learning to create a community where it becomes OK to call people out on inappropriate behavior, to create accountability for people’s actions – particularly for male bodied people to call out other male bodied people. There was extensive discussion of whether community needs can ever trump a survivor’s expressed desires – for example, if the survivor did not want the perpetrator to be dealt with, but community members feared for their safety.

People shared stories about their own experiences, as survivors, support givers, etc. The workshop concluded by talking about the importance of connecting dominant power structures to sexual violence, and reclamation of power.

Sobriety Within The Struggle

Attended by people from a variety of viewpoints (straight edge, those who do drink, etc.), there was a lot of productive discussion in this workshop. Many who abstain from substances spoke about their concerns: that it was hard to organize when people attended meetings hung over and stoned, that it was alienating and detracted from community. There was expressed frustration at peoples’ interpretations of “sober spaces” – that people would just drink or do drugs beforehand, and show up intoxicated. Others were frustrated that self identified anarchists, who hate capitalism and avoid it in every other way, support huge alcohol and tobacco companies when they party.

There was also a discussion of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which most everyone agreed was a destructive group, in which a certain set of morals was forced on its participants, who were told they would never be sober without belief in a higher power.

Overall, the conference was a great chance for discussion and to meet other like-minded folks living in the Midwest.

Anarchy Alive!: Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

For those of us who consider ourselves anarchists or who are sympathetic to the idea of anti-authoritarian, bottom-up forms of organizing, it is occasionally frustrating that many of the books written on the topic are decades old. While there is much to learn from Emma Goldman’s Living My Life, the writings of Peter Kropotkin, or other classic anarchist texts, you can’t help but feel that they are rather dated and in many ways simply don’t apply to the current political situation. This is unfortunate because popular movements from the ground up–whether they call themselves anarchist or not–have been at the forefront of the most exciting political changes in the past decade.

In this context, Uri Gordon’s Anarchy Alive!: Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory is a welcome addition to the writing on anarchism. Gordon’s purpose is not to argue the case for anarchism–he writes that case has been made well in two-hundred years of anarchist writing–but rather to explore “the development of anarchist groups, actions and ideas in recent years, and aims to demonstrate what a theory based on practice can achieve when applied to central debates and dilemmas in the movement today.”

It’s a book that is written primarily for anarchists or those who are knowledgeable about the movement, but it does offer a couple of introductory chapters that provide a quick introduction to the topic. Gordon argues that anarchism is a contemporary social movement that has an intricate political culture that revolves around shared political orientations. These include agreement on the use of direct action, decentralized and horizontal organizing, and shared political language emphasizing resistance to capitalism, the state, patriarchy, and domination. Gordon acknowledges that diffuse networks and constantly evolving thought characterize anarchism. The first chapter, “What Moves the Movement?” looks at many of the characteristics of the movement and its political activities while the second, “Anarchism Reloaded” examines anarchist ideology and how that has evolved over time. Gordon mixes his examination with relevant quotes from contemporary and historical anarchist literature as well as personal experience and succeeds in creating an exciting introduction to contemporary anarchism.

Following the introductory chapters, Gordon delves into some of the most serious debates in contemporary anarchist thinking–power, violence, technology, and the nation-state. In each of these sections, Gordon provides overviews of the current debate by frequently incorporating the thinking of various anarchist tendencies. After showing where the debate has taken place thus far, he offers his ideas for where it could go or how to advance the thinking. To be sure, these are just one anarchist’s ideas, but they often provide valuable insights that are worth considering. For example on the issue of violence, he writes that arguing over what constitutes violence is rather futile and that the real question to ask is when is violence justified. Never? Is it justified if it prevents greater violence? These questions are accompanied by numerous examples and grounded in a through knowledge of both past and contemporary anarchist theory as well as in modern anarchist practice. Of these issues, his discussion of Palestinian solidarity work and how it intersects with anarchist anti-statism is quite interesting, while his chapter on power–and the many problems associated with it–will likely resonate with many anarchists. Gordon examines how power functions, the problems that can occur when one group or individual holds a disproportionate amount of power, and other such issues.

The book does get a bit muddled at times and occasionally delves into theoretical territory that can try the reader’s patience. But those who stick through it will be treated to a book that is at once inspiring and shows that anarchism–far from being an “infantile disorder”–has the capacity to offer compelling answers to many of humanity’s most serious problems.

Uri Gordon, Anarchy Alive!: Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory, (Pluto Press, 2008).

A History of Anarchist Organizing in Grand Rapids

Anarchism has Been An Influence on a Broad Range of Left-based Activism in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Over the past several years, anarchism–a leftist political ideology that calls for the elimination of the state and capitalism and the implementation of a system of self-governance based on mutual aid and cooperation–has had a fair amount of influence on left-based organizing efforts in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While it is easy to dismiss the organizing of individuals and groups who identify as anarchist as being woefully inadequate when it comes to developing anything that can remotely approach the level of being able to challenge the state, anarchism has had an influence.

From motivating people to get involved in activism through punk rock music to helping to informing how people make sense of the world, anarchism has influenced a wide variety of activism over the past several years, particularly among high school and college age youth. Grand Rapids anarchists have organized to distribute food to the homeless, to protest against the Iraq War, to educate people via movie showings, discussions, etc, and to protest the Republican National Convention (RNC). From 2005-2008, anarchists were involved in running two different collective bookstores and libraries–Sabo’s and The Bloom Collective.

In the spirit of our recent looks at the history of anti-war organizing against the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War, what follows is an overview of anarchist organizing in Grand Rapids. As with those histories, the focus of this piece will be on what happened during the Bush years. While one of the first political events I attended was an anti-police brutality march in downtown Grand Rapids organized by folks involved with the Anarchist Black Cross in the mid-1990s, it wasn’t until 2003 that anarchism could really be described as visible in Grand Rapids. It was around this time that leaflets attributed to a group, ALIGHT, could be found and anarchist graffiti was frequently seen around town.

The following history is organized by group or project, roughly in chronological order. Feel free to skip around and skip ahead as needed.

It is also worth noting that this is just one history of many that could be written on the period. It is heavily based on articles published on MediaMouse.org and information gleaned from the Internet, participants, or personal experience. If folks have more information, feel free to leave a comment.

ALIGHT: 2004

ALIGHT was an anti-capitalist group that formed in 2004 out of the perceived need to move beyond anti-war organizing to address what the group viewed as the root problem, capitalism. While not explicitly anarchist, the group’s initial statement–distributed as a poster and placed around town–was clearly inspired by anarchist movements:

“We take our inspiration from the Zapatista uprising against NAFTA, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty fighting for housing for all, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan challenging patriarchy, the Black Network of Community Organizers fighting police brutality, and all the antiauthoritarian movements of the past and present and see in these movements the potential for change and the roots of a new world. History shows us that through direct action people have the power to defeat even seemingly invincible power structures and that it is social movements, not the electoral games of the elites, that can change the world.”

The group argued that many of the problems that the United States faces–from poverty to “the militarization of our communities and our borders”–are rooted in the system of capitalism. The group specifically sought to challenge capitalism by being:

“…a group that makes overthrowing capitalism its long-term goal while remaining pragmatic about its possibilities. We believe that through organized direct action we can achieve concrete gains in our everyday lives within the system of capitalism, while using these short-term gains as a way of building the long-term capacity to challenge capitalism and bring about systemic change. We do not believe that there is much to gain by adopting a strategy entirely dependent on the idea of “working within the system.” History has repeatedly shown us that the system is stacked against us and that its architects are adept at accommodating and neutralizing those who seek change on its terrain. Instead, we believe that by building strong networks of resistance emphasizing community and sustainability–networks that enable and empower individuals to come together in solidarity and build alternatives to capitalism and a capacity to challenge it–we can be successful in changing our world.”

Much of ALIGHT’s initial propaganda focused on presenting its analysis and motivating people to get involved. To that end, it distributed posters and pamphlets around town at events such as the Eastown Street Fair. However, the group never actually met. While it produced a small number of well-written statements and posters, the group never involved more than a few people and disappeared before doing anything substantial.

CONFRONTING EMPIRE: WINTER AND SPRING 2005

Confronting Empire was a group formed in late 2004 to organize primarily against the Iraq War. The group organized only two events: a protest on the second anniversary of the United States’ invasion of Iraq and a protest outside of President George W. Bush’s commencement speech at Calvin College. Confronting Empire was never explicitly anarchist, but a number of people who identified as anarchist played a key role in the group. The group drew heavily from the local punk scene for its members, many of whom had no previous involvement in organized activism.

At the protest against the second anniversary of the Iraq War, a large number of participants–many from Confronting Empire–participated in a “radical anti-imperialist marching band.” The group was led by a banner reading “US Out of Iraq” and was flanked by banners reading “Capitalism Kills” and “End US Imperialism.” A number of participants carried red and black anarchist flags, wore bandanas over their faces, and chanted loudly. It was a substantial shift from past anti-war protests that tended to be dominated by an older and more polite crowd. An example would be the group leading an anti-war march through Woodland Mall following the downtown protest.

Confronting Empire faded out in the spring of 2005 following the Bush protest at Calvin due both to a lack of interest and internal problems.

FOOD NOT BOMBS: WINTER 2005

At the same time Confronting Empire formed, many of the same people were involved in a local chapter of Food Not Bombs. Food Not Bombs is an anarchist project that spread across the United States (and to some extent the world) in the 1980s and 1990s that distributes food–usually discarded food that would otherwise go uneaten–to homeless and low-income people. While the name is political and designed to ask questions about the relationship between spending on military needs versus social needs, the Grand Rapids Food Not Bombs group simply prepared vegan food and served into anyone that wanted in downtown Grand Rapids. Over its five-month existence, the group served food on Saturday afternoons at the corner of Division and Wealthy, Division and Cherry, and Heartside Park.

Food Not Bombs ended in the spring of 2005. Throughout its existence, it had a number of problems including its failure to identify the specific needs of the local homeless meeting, infrequent cooking and serving (only once every two weeks), lack of consistency (sometimes there would be a couple dozen people cooking and other times four or five), and difficulties in forming a “group” to deal with the various problems or enhance the effectiveness of the project.

It’s also worth noting that there was also a Food Not Bombs group in Grand Rapids in the mid to late 1990s.

THE MOSAIC / SABO’S INFOSHOP: SUMMER/FALL 2005

Sabo’s was an infoshop–a radical collective space offering anti-capitalist literature and a space for events–that was located on Fulton Street in Grand Rapids. It was housed in a building that was also known as THE MOSAIC Cooperative. Sabo’s was organized by the Grand Rapids branch of the Industrial Workers of the World. It offered a variety of books and other literature for sale, including a section of free material. The space closed after a short while due to internal and external problems faced by the collective (i.e. rent, landlord, group dynamics, etc).

THE INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD: WINTER 2006 TO THE PRESENT

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)–a storied anti-capitalist labor union that began in the early 1900s–has survived in some capacity since that time, albeit with substantially fewer members than in its heyday. Over the years, the group has maintained some presence in Grand Rapids, even at one point having an “IWW Print Shop” in Eastown that produced leaflets and newspapers for various leftist projects. However, for much of its existence the union has done relatively little actual union organizing, focusing instead on solidarity efforts.

In 2006/2007, this change, with the Grand Rapids IWW undertaking an effort to organize Starbucks. Starbucks had been targeted nationally for its poor treatment of baristas and low wages, a campaign that led to lawsuits in New York City between Starbucks and members of the IWW’s Starbucks Workers Union.

In Grand Rapids, the effort focused on the East Grand Rapids location, although leafleting and other actions (including an international day of protest in 2008) took place at various locations. The efforts led to nationwide visibility for the Grand Rapids union. In response to the organizing, Starbucks launched an aggressive anti-union campaign, leading to sanctions from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Eventually, the company fired a union organizer. This prompted more protests as well as further legal action, including a MIOHSA case and another NLRB case.

ACTIVATE: SPRING 2006 TO DECEMBER 2008

In 2008, ACTIVATE–which always had strong anarchist leanings–became an explicitly anarchist group, describing itself as “an anarchist and anti-authoritarian group organizing.” For the group, this built on two years of organizing using anarchist principles including collective decision making, decentralized protest, and direct action.

Over its more than two years of organizing, ACTIVATE focused primarily on anti-war organizing. It was arguably one of the most successful anti-war groups active in opposing the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Unlike other groups, ACTIVATE organized a number of well-attended protests and sought to use those protests to increase the effectiveness of the anti-war movement in Grand Rapids. From protests against President Bush that drew over 1,000 people to smaller events, it focused on organized events that had clear demands–usually the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. troops and contractors from Iraq–and presented an uncompromising message in the media. It further tried to take its message to those who actually had the power to bring about its demands and focused on strategic targets (such as military recruiting). For example, in 2007 it targeted U.S. Representative Vern Ehlers for his role in supporting the occupation of Iraq. The group led a march of 200+ people to his home and attempted to get Ehlers to sign a pledge that he would stop funding the war and call for the immediate end to the war. This forced Ehlers to be publicly accountable for his support for the war for the first time in years. During the Spring and Summer of 2007, the group continued to focus on Ehlers, while presenting a radical critique of the war even as other anti-war organizing efforts in town were dominated by middle-of-the-road Democrats.

In 2008, the group shifted focus, putting its effort on using the interest around the presidential to advance a radical critique of the electoral process. It released a statement that was highly critical of the US elections titled “Our Dreams Will Never Fit In Their Ballot Boxes.” In part, the group wrote:

“Unfortunately, if we stop and think about it–it’s pretty unlikely that one candidate is going to bring about a major change in society. In a world plagued by systemic problems–war, poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia–it is unlikely that a candidate is going to address any of these issues. And, deep down, we know they won’t. For decades–despite the millions of dollars and hours spent on the presidential elections–things have been getting progressively worse. Yet, every four years we do the same thing, we reduce our politics–and what we hold in our hearts–into a choice between two–maybe three–candidates for president.

We’ve put an extraordinary amount of energy into elections. We’ve put our faith and energy into checking boxes and pulling levers, reducing our idea of political involvement to just voting. However, the inefficiency of voting is clear. We can vote once, twice, maybe three times a year–but we can organize within our communities and act anytime–anywhere. Moreover, as a tactic that is relied on almost exclusively-voting has not been particularly successful. The history of social struggle in the United States teaches us that major victories-from the labor movement to the Civil Rights movement-were won in the streets, not at the ballot box. We’ve forgotten the innumerable and creative ways that we can change the world and in the process have forgotten that voting by itself is not activism. Radical change comes from struggle, organizing, and movement building-it comes from the grassroots, not from politicians.

This year, it’s time to break out of the ballot box. Let’s push ourselves in new directions. But first, let’s be clear that we’re not telling you not to vote–and we’re not telling you to vote, either. Instead, we’re asking you–as an individual, as part of a community, as part of an activist group, or as someone who just has a hunch that things need to change drastically–to think about how we can transform ourselves, our communities, and our world for the better. With so much focus on the elections, how can we encourage folks to get involved beyond simply voting? Can we strategically use popular movements to pressure candidates and demand more? How can we build a new world? Is it even possible for our current system to incorporate all of our ideas for change–and do we even want it to?”

Aside from distributing this statement in poster and pamphlet form, the group was heavily involved in organizing protests against the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC). The group issued a nationally circulated call to action to shutdown the RNC, but more than that, it used the RNC as an outreach locally to advance a radical critique of representative democracy and to promote an awareness of the history of recent anti-capitalist protest. The group delivered several presentations outlining this history and plans for the RNC protests, organized consultas, and tried to use the RNC to get people excited locally in using grassroots organizing to fundamentally change society.

The group also criticized Barack Obama’s positions on Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which were largely accepted uncritically by the anti-war movement locally and nationally. When the presidential candidates visited Grand Rapids, ACTIVATE challenged them, either by holding loud protests outside of their appearances (McCain) or distributing hundreds of leaflets (Obama).

The group–recognizing the fact that many people saw it as unofficial “leaders” of the anti-war movement in Grand Rapids–also sought to increase the capacity of others to organize and take action against the war. To this end, it released a series of “how to” guides on a variety of topics from organizing protests to working with the media. The group also held an “activist boot camp” at which they held a variety of workshops to help people learn how to organize. Along with these, it also published a piece critical the idea that anti-war groups (and radical groups more generally), need to tone down their politics and tactics to gain “good” media coverage.

ACTIVATE was an affiliate of the national Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) for over two years, but it eventually left the organization over political and tactical differences with the organization.

Their website is still online at ACTIVATEGR.ORG, if you are interested in seeing the kind of stuff they worked on. Unlike many other anti-war groups in Grand Rapids, ACTIVATE was able to attract the participation of people of a wide variety of ages, although it was particularly adept at reaching a younger crowd than had previously been involved.

THE BLOOM COLLECTIVE: SUMMER 2007 TO THE PRESENT

The Bloom Collective is an infoshop and lending library located at 1134 Wealthy Street in Grand Rapids. It was the first project in Grand Rapids that really formed as an anarchist collective. The group adopted a formal decision-making process and developed a series of policies to outline how it would make decisions on a variety of issues. All of this helped the group open a storefront where it offers a lending library featuring books, zines, documentaries, and other materials focusing on social change.

The Bloom Collective has hosted a number of events, including regular documentary showings on a wide variety of topics, workshops, and even classes.

Like any collective project–especially an infoshop–it has had a variety of ups and downs over the past two years, but it’s still open and is a good place to find out what is going on in Grand Rapids.

REALLY, REALLY FREE MARKETS: SUMMER 2008 TO THE PRESENT

The first “Really, Really Free Market” in Grand Rapids was organized by The Bloom Collective in July of 2008. While not explicitly anarchists, “Really, Really Free Markets”–essentially flea markets where everything is free–is an example of anarchism in action. Those attending the market are encouraged to take what they need and share what they don’t need, ultimately providing for the needs of everyone in attendance.

Following the first “Really, Really Free Market” in July of 2008, the task of coordinating the markets was undertaken by a different group of folks. That project eventually turned into a new group called “Good Morning Revolution.” More information is available on their website at http://goodmorningrevolutiongr.wordpress.com/

All of the markets that have been held have attracted a large number of folks, although they have yet to move far beyond the activist milieu from which they arose.

Event Looks at the State of Radical Grassroots Social Movements in Michigan, Chicago

Solidarity & Defense Hosted an Event that Looked at Radical Grassroots Movements in Michigan and Chicago

On February 7, a group called Solidarity & Defense “a small but growing alliance of anti-authoritarian militants active in both the workplace and the community,” hosted an evening of speakers and discussion at the International Institute in Detroit. The theme was “Renewing the New Years Promise” and it featured regional organizers speaking on their organization’s vision of social change. A variety of topics were covered, from gentrification to police repression.

The night began with a panel of six organizers. The first panelist, Robert, is a member of the Railway Work Unit of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Chicago Four Star Anarchist Group, and was involved with the Republic Windows occupation in December. He talked about the importance of pre-figurative organizing – counter institutions, citizens councils, and Cop Watch — in order to put pressure on formal institutions. Robert spoke of the importance of focusing on specific issues at hand in communities, rather than broad ideas. One way to do this is through the IWW, pinpointing which industries are suffering (such as the auto industry) before people are laid off, and making decisions “horizontally,” then bringing them up “vertically” by workers placing pressure on executives.

Lacey, who is currently based in Detroit but organized in Lansing for several years and is involved with Solidarity & Defense, spoke of the importance of solidarity within communities and defending communities when they are attacked by legislation or policies. She noted that we are currently in a unique political situation of new found enthusiasm – the last election drew a lot of people into the idea of change and motivated them. According to Lacey, the job of community organizers is to find a place for people to plug in. She addressed the police repression at the RNC, emphasizing that “you have to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” and stressing direct action as a strategy for change.

Bill and Robert spoke on their involvement with Y.O.U.T.H. Inc (Youth Organizing to Uplift Tomorrow’s Humanity), which provides programs for youth, tutoring within schools, a gym space and food to emphasize health, and provide training for specific trades. They also talked about the need for goals, and the importance of connecting different projects and working together.

Carmen, who is involved in the Detroit public school system, spoke of the needs of the Latino community in Detroit: legal clinics, health and safety classes, and immigrant support. She spoke about groups organizing in Detroit for border support, posting bail for undocumented workers, and translating Spanish classes by ESL students.

Brie, who is from Chicago and involved with the Four Star Anarchist Group talked about the importance of art in the movement. In the past it has been used to pacify us through the entertainment industry, but art is a strategy activists can use to empower people. Brie also talked about veterans’ issues, saying that anarchist groups can be used a means for support, to combat the common feeling of always being on the defense. Activists can being to take a more pro-active stance on these issues, which Brie cited as a goal of the Solidarity & Defense group.

Melissa, the final panelist of the evening, is involved with NorthStar, the collective/infoshop based in Lansing. She spoke of the need for activists to build connections amongst ourselves, and the importance of being engaged in the community. Melissa also discussed facilitating empowerment – we can build a radical capacity for people who are generally disempowered, so they can take control of their own lives and situations.

Following the panel was a discussion with the audience. One critique is that some thought the discussion dominated by older white males, despite the fact the audience was made up of many women, Latino/as, and African Americans.

Anarchism For Beginners

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Anarchism is a political ideology that has been largely forgotten among the political mainstream and has been largely forgotten by the institutionalized left. While a number of socialist and communist newspapers continue to be published across the United States, anarchism has considerable less public visibility. However, as Marcos Mayer shows in Anarchism For Beginners, despite its lack of visibility since the Second World War, anarchism remains a popular political philosophy. Unlike many mainstream histories of the topic that treat anarchism as a distinctly 19th and 20th century phenomenon, Mayer argues that anarchism continues to have influence on society, particularly after the Soviet experience discredited the socialist and communist left.

A Brief Overview of Anarchist History

Mayer begins his short, illustrated introduction to anarchism by talking anarchism’s resurgence in the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s. He cites contemporary thinkers such as Noam Chomsky who identify as anarchist–along with a renewed interest in the topic–as being key in keeping the philosophy alive. From this introduction, Mayer segues into an overview of anarchist theory and action over the past 200 years. He gives short overviews of the major theorists Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Goldman, while looking at the historical successes and failures of the movement, including the Spanish Civil War, the terrorist campaigns of the late 1800s, and its contribution to women’s rights. Whereas many histories confine their discussions to one continent, Mayer gives a global overview of anarchism, looking at the movement in Europe, the United States, and South America.

Expected Shortcomings

As would be expected in such a short book (169 pages with illustrations on every page), Mayer’s book has to leave out some topics. Unfortunately, while it goes further than many books in that it recognizes the continued relevance of anarchism, it comes up short in offering examples beyond the anti-globalization movement. In the discussion of anarchism after World War II, Mayer talks only of its influence on artistic movements such as Dadaism, the French Situationists and May 1968, and punk rock. Of all these, the discussion on punk rock could have been greatly improved, as Mayer focuses only on the more commercialized sections of the punk scene, rather than the anarcho-punk movement that has fostered an underground network of publications, collective houses, and music labels, all of which are often intimately tied with political action. Similarly, while he touches on it briefly in his discussion of Murray Bookchin, Mayer misses the opportunity to look at anarchism’s role in the radical environmental movement. Contributions to the animal rights movement are also overlooked.

A Worthy Introduction

Overall, Anarchism for Beginners is a worthwhile starting point for someone looking for a quick overview of anarchism. Its short length and cartoon style make it a worthy introduction to a complex topic, and its brief descriptions of different anarchists and movements offer a good jumping off point for further exploration. Moreover, unlike a lot of primers on anarchism–this one was actually written in this century. After reading this book, interested readers might consider moving onto No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism or An Anarchist FAQ: Volume 1, both of which will expand on the concepts introduced in Anarchism for Beginners.

Marcos Mayer, Anarchism For Beginners, (For Beginners, 2008).

Eco-Anarchist Being Held in West Michigan Prison

Anarchist Michael Sykes is incarcerated in a West Michigan Prison

“He was tired of seeing all the forest being destroyed,” say police in the case of Michael Sykes, an 18-year old anarchist arrested last year in Southeast Michigan for the arson of two homes in suburban developments near the Ohio/Michigan border.

Sykes accepted a plea agreement and avoided a trial while being sentenced to a minimum of four years in prison and a maximum of ten. Sykes is currently incarcerated here in West Michigan at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia.

Background and Motivations

According to police in the case, after his arrest last March, Sykes identified himself as an environmentalist and claimed that the arsons were a statement against the destruction of the natural environment.

The corporate media has largely portrayed Sykes as a nihilist who had a hatred of society. The case received extensive coverage in The Toledo Blade, which reported detectives’ assertions that Sykes “hates society. He wants to see society fall.” In an article on his sentencing, The Toledo Blade reported that Sykes offered little explanation for his actions. Instead, the newspaper played up the angle that Sykes had “psychological issues” that motivated the arsons. Sykes’ mother criticized the media’s coverage of Sykes as making him seem to be a “monster.”

While psychological reports provided to the court by Sykes’ attorneys indicated that he was “a very troubled juvenile,” the judge in the case imposed a sentence designed to make an example of Sykes and to deter others from committing similar acts. Despite his age, Michigan law required that Sykes be sentenced as an adult. Similarly, the sentence did not provide for psychological help for Sykes. Rather, he was ordered to pay restitution of $200,000-$400,000.

Support

Sykes’ case has garnered the attention of the anarchist and radical environmental movements. Sykes has made the list of “eco-prisoners” compiled by the North American Earth Liberation Support Network, a group that “support[s] people who are accused or convicted of actions taken in defense of the Earth and its inhabitants.”

The prisoner support group Earth Warriors are OK! has also created a “Support Michael” website to inform people about his case and to encourage people to send letters and books to Sykes to help him through his prison sentence.

Riots Continue in Greece

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Since writing about them earlier this month, riots have continued in Greece through the holidays. At the same time, solidarity actions took place across the world and estimates are that thousands of actions have happened around the country. As a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz writes, “These are no single-issue protests or vague grievances. This is full-blooded revolutionary anarchism.”

Writing from the US, it’s hard to determine how we should relate to what is happening in Greece. To be sure, there is a long legacy in Europe of militant left movements–whether they be student, trade union, or immigrant-based–winning major victories and changes in their respective countries. This legacy of militancy and willingness to fight to protect gains won by social movements have created a vastly different political and social climate than what we find in the US. Whereas the left in the US is often rendered ineffective and irrelevant, the left in much of Europe–including the anarchists in Greece–is a force to be reckoned with. Hence, the struggle in Greece and the reports that the French president is backing off plans to pass controversial legislation out of fear of a backlash from the left. Other European leaders reportedly share Sarkozy’s concern.

To help us understand what is happening in Greece, the following recently published articles have been immensely helpful:

You might also check out our earlier piece on the Greek situation.

Some Background on the Riots in Greece

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Over the past two weeks, widespread rioting and protest has consumed much of Greece in response to the shooting of a 16-year old Greek anarchist. The protests have been organized predominately by anarchists and other leftist groups, and there appears to be a real possibility that they could last for weeks to come and possibly force the conservative Greek government out.

The protests have involved a wide range of tactics from nonviolent street protests and riots, to the occupation of factories, universities, government buildings, and television stations.

Of course, looking for information about the protests in the mainstream corporate media is a futile endeavor. Here in West Michigan, The Grand Rapids Press ran a short article from the Associated Press last week, but it was typically devoid of content and missed much of what is going on.

For those interested in what is happening in Greece, we encourage you to check out the following websites:

Looking at the riots from the perspective of someone living in the US can be confusing, especially without an understanding of the political context in Greece. However, here are links to a few articles that might make it easier to understand:

One of the more interesting aspects of the riots has been the solidarity demonstrations that have spread rapidly across the world, even to the US. So far, there have been actions in Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York City, with more planned for the 20th. The 20th has been dubbed a day of international solidarity actions by a group of Greek anarchists who have called for actions across the globe. Outside of the US, solidarity protests have involved riots and occupations.

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