Non-Nonviolence: A Wave of (Anarchist) Action

KingAnon

Dr. King as appropriated by Anonymous.

Two and a half years ago, anarchists pushed their Trojan horses into city parks for Occupy Wall Street. Now they are piling back into the horse, once again hoping to be pulled through the gates of popular credibility. Can we be surprised twice? Or do we liberals so yearn for urgency and passion that we want to flirt with anarchist dreams again?

Martin Luther King Jr. was much quoted throughout Occupy, which the anarchist movement hopes to revive with Worldwide Wave of Action, launched on Dr. King’s assassination anniversary, April 4. Since November, apocalyptic Occupy graphics and Anonymous videos have enlisted Dr. King’s powerful oratory as an endorsement of “autonomous nonviolent direct action.”

MLK_GandhiInternet users and celebrities stirred by pulsing propaganda may not know Dr. King wrote this about Little Rock: “I believe firmly in nonviolence, but, at the same time, I am not an anarchist.” His next sentence leaves no doubt. “I believe in the intelligent use of police force,” wrote a man who understood both police brutality and provocation.

Dr. King also agreed with other civil rights leaders when concealed identities were discussed and rejected as childish in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Like all good leaders he sought and nurtured leadership qualities in others. Most importantly, Dr. King knew how to work with other leaders and supporters to craft practical demands that grew a power base.

These are only the handiest indications of anarchism’s tragi-comic divergence from the civil rights movement. Organized, unwaveringly emphasized nonviolence is different from the libertarian “diversity of tactics” embraced by today’s anarchists, a nonviolent nod to property destruction and riots. Just to be sure.

Wave of Action has far less in common with Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery or Birmingham than Abbie Hoffman in Chicago; less I Have A Dream than Revolution for the Hell of It, the title of Hoffman’s first book. There can be no push for major new legislation, and certainly no revolution resulting from Wave of Action, we can be sure. There will be dispersed but not wholly disorganized provocations of police.

Wave of Action may appear to be fizzling, but keep in mind it lasts three months, running through Earth Day on April 22 and the annual apocalypse of May 1. Any mismanaged police force or tragic mistake made by cops during this period gives anarchists a chance to whip up anti-police sentiment.

Dr. King has been enlisted by Wave of Action to provide a virulent anti-police, anti-government mentality with some space to operate. Anarchists are aware that most people, given the opportunity to examine the ideas informing their creative graphic displays, will find them lacking. Only they rationalize their unpopularity as a sad case of the masses not being ready for the heavy insurrectionist truth.

Thus, they invoke Dr. King’s name with no small amount of cynicism. The inspiration he offers is useful because it is familiar to the sorry statist slaves that constitute civil society. Our reluctance to surrender voting as a democratic tool makes us a chore, but only in the short run. Talk of nonviolence implied to be that of the civil rights tradition will give way to the “diversity of tactics” model, which marginalizes directed nonviolence as just one option and provides an escape clause for Black Blocs and other anarchist antics.

“Join us as we celebrate his life,” said one advertisement for the MLK death-anniversary launch of Wave of Action. Even more awkwardly, we are then enjoined, “Commemorate the moment and change the world!” This is perhaps a telling slip, suggesting the writer really does want to rally around MLK’s assassination, rather than his deeds and doctrine.

I detect here not poorly considered words, but conflicting impulses, recalling how the Yippies first advertised a “Convention of Death” for the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. As the date neared, the Yippies decided “Festival of Life” would be more inviting to the hippie throngs they wished to lure to Chicago in what became a police riot.

Anarchists reach for Dr. King over Abbie Hoffman for obvious reasons. Jokes like running a pig for president might have once seemed fresh, but this is not an act that inspires. The transcripts of the Chicago 7 trial reveal too much about anarchist narcissism, elitism, and scorn for government process to build a new movement. Few want to hear from Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin anymore, the true antecedents of Wave of Action. Thus, the anarchist is forced to appropriate stand-ins to generate support.

My favorite Wave of Action video was “Spirit of MLK Launches Wave of Action.” We hear the opening to Dr. King’s most famous speech, inviting us to imagine that Anonymous is rekindling the crowing moment of the March on Washington, a moment achieved through eight years of strategizing and providing organization and leadership to ordinary people.

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom,” says the doctored Dr. King. Each time, we hear a DJ squiggle that repeats the words, “greatest demonstration for freedom.” The editors reveal their anti-statist fundamentalism by omitting the last words of Dr. King’s opening sentence, “…in the history of our nation.”

A real anarchist buzz kill, that nation talk.

 

No God, No Master. Bombs Here and There

Picture 1

Opens April 11 in NYC.

Even if the new movie No God, No Master muddles the most prolific anarchist bombing campaign in U.S. history with Hollywood sentimentality, the upcoming release might make anarchism and the political issues around it easier to discuss. I’m very much looking forward to the movie opening, as is anyone who has wondered why the episodes are rarely taught in history courses.

Beginning in 1914, followers of Luigi Galleani exploded bombs in multiple cities, from New York to Milwaukee to San Francisco, so many that news of bombings became familiar. Among the Galleanists were Sacco and Vanzetti, whose trial would be a primary historical touchstone for anarchism in this era, reducing questions down to their guilt or innocence. There is also historical awareness of the Palmer Raids, in which Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and his right-hand man J. Edgar Hoover rounded up and deported immigrant anarchists.

Galleani’s role as catalyst often goes unacknowledged.

Generally, the side arguing that Sacco and Vanzetti were unfairly prosecuted for murder has had the upper hand. There were many trial irregularities. There is also an emerging consensus picture that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts framed one innocent (Vanzetti) and one guilty man (Sacco). This is a complex narrative no one on either side of the debate wanted to adopt. Not unlike the Haymarket trial of 1887, we find that the martyrs weren’t the bleating lambs their supporters portrayed.

Luigi Galleani and the truly surprising number of bombings attributed to his anarchist cell influenced the formation of both the ACLU and the FBI. Galleani eclipses Sacco and Vanzetti in importance, yet for various reasons became a footnote in the famous trial that shaped perceptions about anarchism in the United States. No God, No Master might renew the debate at a time when there is a lot of interesting passed-over scholarship about anarchist bombings between 1886 and 1927.

It’s not just a matter of which anarchists were involved in which bombings, but also a study in how the government reacted and how the broader labor movement was impacted.

I will offer more with my upcoming review of The Day Wall Street Exploded, a book with fine insights into the era by historian Beverly Gage, published by Oxford University Press in 2009. I also have a copy of Paul Avrich’s Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background from 1991, which Gage relies on, and hope to bump this up on my reading list before the theatrical release of No God, No Master on April 11. I’ve been unable to determine which works the film script used for its material.

The trailer looks promising, the early reviews less so.

While anarchists typically refute any connection with “bomb throwing,” a violent component of anarchism is inescapable. By cutting themselves off from traditional politics with absolutist stances, the option of violence becomes a ready option, not to mention their most effective publicity tool. Anarchists make trials their stage. Non-anarchist sympathizers will often be confused by the anarchist’s claim of innocence, which they adopt as an en totem rejection of court authority less than a claim about the evidence presented.

No matter the quality of the script, it promises to revive a much-used anarchist phrase that has lately been on the wane. Anarchists have long enjoyed introducing themselves by saying, “We don’t throw bombs,” beginning with Alexander Berkman in the 1930s, George Woodcock in the 50s, Murray Bookchin in the 70s, Bob Black in the 90s, and David Graeber in the Oughts.  I wrote about this habit among anarchists I knew in college in a previous post.

“I don’t throw bombs. I repair bicycles as part of a collective.”

“I don’t throw bombs. I plant kale to feed the homeless.”

The phrase “diversity of tactics” is today’s more common rhetorical approach used by anarchists to muddle their necessary acquiescence to the role played by non-strategic violence within their tradition. When movie screens project images of a very real episode in U.S. history and those large explosions, anarchists will again reach for the old phrase.

To their credit, there is currently a large and vocal element within today’s anarchist movement in the U.S. that distinguishes between destroying buildings — which is OK, it’s just property destruction — and acts which threaten lives. The consensus seems to be that murder is wrong. Anarchists who talk of sending mail bombs may be chided for putting the postal worker at risk, as I saw on one anarchist comment string.

When it comes to the period covered by the movie, anarchists are correct to complain about “the caricature of the bomb-throwing anarchist.” Galleanists usually placed bombs. In another instance, they mailed them. And of the 36 mailed, only two actually exploded, neither killing the intended target. Anarchists willing to transcend the caricature of bomb throwers should also consider the number of times Galleanists blew themselves up accidentally.

Picture 2

Luigi Galleani (Daniel Mooney)

The history of anarchist bombers, from the Galleanists to the Weather Underground, shows them to be a danger to themselves as much as others. If today’s anarchists eschew dynamite because it’s now harder to obtain, they are better off. Our contemporary anarchists on the U.S. West Coast seem largely content with graffiti and police provocation and much bravado about bombing on the Internet. For the few who venture further, arson and incendiary devices are favored today.

Any movie based on history is open to corrections, of course, but anarchists will enjoy the renewed attention on their past while also accusing everyone of being brainwashed by Hollywood. Historical characters will be compressed into a single composite, timelines blurred, and dialogue adapted to propel the story forward. Anarchists will be tempted to portray No God, No Master as yet another intentional persecution by the forces of capital, who want only to repress them with popular movies about their predecessors.

The historical impact of the Galleanist period belongs to everyone, as do any discussions that follow, and anarchists might have to get used to other people having informed opinions about them and their doctrine. Even if the movie bungles its topic, we will get a welcome counterpoint to misleading anarchist claims about their own history. ■

Masked Oakland

MaskedOakland

Because I wrote last week about the beautiful souls opposing Oakland’s surveillance plans, the day before a City Council vote on the matter, I wanted to offer an update to readers who may not live in the Bay Area. As always, I focus on the anarchist angle and don’t much discuss other factors. One depiction from anti-surveillance partisan Yasha Levine is here. Reporter Matthew Artz provides a neutral overview here.

The call “ALL OUT” from Occupy Oakland, seen Tuesday, is understood to mean doctrinaire anarchists. The sidewalk in front of our home serves as an anarchist promenade, so I can tell you that the sour-faced, black-clad youth who normally pass by were absent Tuesday evening. This is always the case when a riot occurs, though anarchists can’t always pull one off.

Mayor Jean Quan needed to respond in some way anti-surveillance outcry, not limited to anarchists after Snowden. She also needed to deprive anarchists of a chance to spark a riot. Hours before the meeting, she announced her support to move the existing surveillance center to the Port of Oakland and that the center would not be linked with surveillance within the city.

This accomplished the city’s primary objectives, which were to keep the city eligible for a $10.9 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security and approve a deal with the security technology contractor, Schneider Electric. At the same time, the move ameliorated fears that Oakland would be allowing the DHS to spy on citizens, target activists, or initiate race-based crackdowns.

Quan’s shift in position would allow the American Civil Liberties Union to claim victory, backing away from the true anti-surveillance believers. The ACLU had charged that privacy protections were vague but did not join anti-statist fundamentalists in opposing surveillance against crime and terrorism per se, though the mix of voices within the raucous crowds at City Council meetings are hard to distinguish.

Meanwhile, the port, which is under the jurisdiction of the city, gets surveillance against terror threats, which is the DHS’ primary concern.

The meeting was open to public comment and beautiful souls of all kinds filled out speaker cards, though by the end people were simply elbowing their way to the lectern. I followed the proceedings on Twitter and KTOP-TV10, where viewers had to choose between members of the public traumatized by visions of Orwellian dystopia and city officials trying to cut a deal.

Council sessions open to public comment have long had the tone of a dysfunctional therapy group in Oakland, with anarchists now promoting a kind of primal scream therapy. Council members listen to the public as best they can to often tragic stories, some told well and some poorly, trying to pluck out something of bureaucratic or political value.

The photo above shows a man Matthew Artz referred to in a tweet as “the surveillance ninja,” who wore a mask while photographing public officials at the meeting. Some interpreted his message as a piece of political theater, the mask intended to show how everyone would have to live in Oakland’s new surveillance state. Even if it was only theater, wearing a mask in council chambers ignores the context of Black Bloc rioting in Oakland, the stunt was a play at quasi-anarchist fashion at best.

“I think everyone should wear masks every single day,” said the man, who seemed drunk.

“Thank you,” a council member replied. “We get your message.” ■

Black Helicopters Over Oakland

Our local anarchists here in West Oakland, California, are not much different from the right-wing militiamen of the 1990s. The difference between collecting Black Bloc gear for urban fighting and wading through remote swamps with guns and fatigues is only one of style and doctrinal nuance. They both see liberty under siege and  black helicopters on the horizon.

A special event for true believers.

A special event for true believers.

Surveillance? Sure, look into it. Just don’t let the FBI/ATF blow up the compound.

I’ve been researching anarchism for two years and blogging about it for one, pushing a simple premise: anarchism is an intellectual and political dead end. Basically, I was looking for a blogging topic and decided I had a talent for picking on anarchism in an informed way. No one else was bothering.

Predictable phrases pop up when you say unkind things like this. Anarchists, or people who’ve spent too much time listening to them, make the same objections. The language of anti-statist fundamentalism is strikingly monolithic. Try to tweak an anarchist, and you’ll be first  be accused of harboring misconceptions about anarchism, or chastened for not defining anarchism.

Having already capably addressed these and other complaints in previous posts, I’d like to address Oakland’s surveillance controversy. You know that anarchists are influencing public debate when it grows oddly fixated on surveillance and policing, also when those provoking the cops are the same ones screaming the loudest about the police response.

During the small riots in Oakland following the Zimmerman verdict last year, patrons dining inside restaurants when windows were smashed had difficulty gleaning wisdom in the anarchist argument that window breaking is merely property destruction. So too would the waiter who, running outside to confront an anarchist, was hit in the head with a hammer.

One anarchist website said the waiter’s resistance to their actions made him a Zimmerman supporter. Similarly, they ask us to see an emerging dystopia in a proposed surveillance plan before the Oakland City Council. Anarchists come from far and wide when the topic is on the agenda, filling the authoritarian council chambers with voices of liberty, shrill and strident.

The plan, coming to a council vote Tuesday, would establish communications channels between local law enforcement and a national network of 78 digital surveillance centers implemented  following 9/11. The presence of the Port of Oakland and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) constitute critical infrastructure that make this city a priority for the Department of Homeland Security.

These “fusion centers” were created to better share information about terrorist threats between different law enforcement agencies, and arrive with grant money from the DHS. Oakland would also share info with DHS, though oversight would rest with the city. This obviously carries the vestiges of the George Bush “war on terror” and the accompanying reliance on private security contractors. When speaking about the center, city officials have emphasized the center offers tools for gang monitoring, everyday crime fighting, and emergency response.

There’s much to debate about the Domain Awareness Center, as Oakland’s fusion center is called, but I’m sticking with anarchism. An unspoken aspect of the DAC surveillance controversy is the subject of terrorism, particularly the “homegrown” variety. Everyone knows the city’s proposed surveillance plans are backed by a grant from the DHS; not everyone connects these plans with anarchist antics on the web and in the streets.

Many of the most passionate anti-surveillance activists are anarchists who may not be involved in terrorist acts, but foster a psychological environment where talk of such actions is received as exciting and heroic. Local anarchist crimes, not always publicized during investigations, surely rank high on the list of concerns driving the Department of Homeland Security’s interest in Oakland.

A senior housing development adjacent to an Oakland BART station burned in 2012 and was ruled to be arson. Beyond that, we only know three men were seen running away. If the ATF suspects anyone, they’re not saying, but there are reasons to consider that the perpetrators might be anarchists. In 2013, anarchists took credit for arsons of condominiums in Seattle and Vancouver, saying they were opposed to gentrification.

“Just before midnight, Monday, February 25, we strolled over to the townhouses under construction on 24th and Norman in the Central District,” said the Seattle communiqué. “After slipping inside, we set one ablaze. Oh what ease! Oh what fun!” The next sentence could have come from any number of anarchist websites in the San Francisco Bay Area. “By furthering gentrification and ecological destruction, these buildings dress disaster up as progress, promising a ‘green’ future that will never be.”

BEYOND ACTIVISM

In December, there was an article in Oakland’s alternative weekly, the East Bay Express, that showed the Domain Awareness Center is in large part a response to the local anarchist movement. Strangely, while offering strong evidence showing anarchists actions are a serious concern to Oakland police, the article works vigorously to thwart just that conclusion.

Co-authored by two anti-surveillance reporters, the much-cited article sounds the Orwellian alarm. Entitled, The Real Purpose of Oakland’s Surveillance Center, the subtitle states the case: “City leaders have argued that Oakland needs a massive surveillance system to combat violent crime, but internal documents reveal that city staffers are also focused on tracking political protesters.”

FloodCityHallThis claim is worrying to those valuing the right to protest. The authors obtained thousands of internal emails and showed them to ACLU attorney Linda Lye, who said she was alarmed. Yet, readers don’t get to judge the emails for themselves, nor are they told why in the age of Internet the reporters chose to withhold them. We should trust their conclusions, even as they foster a paranoid vision of local and federal government.

Seeking to diminish the public arguments of city officials that they look to surveillance as a crime fighting tool, we are informed the following: “In more than 3,000 pages of emails, the terms ‘murder,’ ‘homicide,’ ‘assault,’ ‘robbery,’ and ‘theft’ are never mentioned.” Two terms we’re left to wonder about are “rioting” and “arson.” Were they mentioned?

We do read, however, that Lt. Christopher Shannon of the OPD asked in one email “if the Emergency Operations Center and the DAC control room’s layout had ‘changed much since May Day,’ referring to yet another large political rally in Oakland when the DAC appears to have been used by OPD to monitor demonstrations,” the article says.

The authors do their best to make this seem ominous, but attentive Oakland residents will recall May 1, 2012, as an anarchist riot. Few heeded the anarchist call for a general strike. May Day was an attempt by doctrinaire anarchists at the core of Occupy Oakland to revive their sense of insurrectionary momentum, lost in a morbid series of Fuck the Police marches and childish rhetoric.

The writers of the article try to convince Oakland readers that May Day could be characterized as “a large political rally,” as if weary Oaklanders would be unable to recall the pervasive signs of anarchist influence. “I’m back in the Bay for May Day, loitering outside the top-secret anarchist hideout,” read a dispatch on the website Bay of Rage. “Two by two, my friends are showing up from all around the country.” Results can be seen here.

Rather than proving an Orwellian crackdown on dissent, the article quotes emails demonstrating that anarchists, not activism in general, are the objects of police attention. Oakland’s IT manager, Ashan Baig, wrote an this in an internal email: “Try your best. I need the Demo ASAP, it shouldn’t be more than 3 mins. Check out http//www.occupyoakland.org website to understand the background.”

The authors, who also write for the Oakland-based Center for Investigative Reporting, chose not to explore police interest in Occupy. (This was not the best reporting from either the CIJ or EBX, both of which can generate good work.)

But anyone who did view the Occupy Oakland website around July 25 might have noted a certain insurrectionary enthusiasm that went beyond “activism” into an obsession with cops. The official Occupy media platform was enthused by provocation, with numerous hints of criminality, that left the 99 percent in the dust. There was no mystery as to why police might be monitoring the protest environment for criminal activity.

Observers of Oakland’s surveillance controversy should also recall the timeline. The Oakland City Council announced plans to expand Oakland’s Domain Awareness Center  just a day after a period of anarchist rioting within the Zimmerman protests, on July 16. The most disruptive anti-surveillance voices at council meetings hold to the same the anti-statist fundamentalism pushing council members to act.

In some cases, they are the very same people. ■

Note: The deFremery Park march in the poster seems to have mostly attracted anarchists, and wasn’t very successful. The march was called in West Oakland, rather than downtown, and began at 3 p.m. At around 3:30, an observer tweeted, “What’s up with the white ppl w/ the upside down flag in front of deFremery?” She said cops were there in force. The park was clear of any marchers by 5 p.m., with indication some were detained. The event proved a distraction to the the nearby quilting club. As for the mention of FBI raids, they do apprehend criminal suspects in Oakland. Anarchist collectives have been raided, though I’m unaware if any charges have been made public.

Purity and Provocation: The Anarchist Roots of Pussy Riot

“Error has its own logic as well as its own truth.” — G.V. Plekhanov, 1895

NadiaPrisonBeliefsAs an anarchist tale, the Pussy Riot story begins with the cult-like anarchist group called Voina, led by its “group ideologist,” Oleg the Thief. Before outstanding warrants drove Oleg and his wife underground, he was among Russia’s most well-known anarchist provocateurs. Oleg would be eclipsed by his own protégés who would go on to found Pussy Riot, with Voina jealously ranting about their “feeble copycat actions.”

Voina’s modus operandi was this: executing performance art actions that were either menacingly profane or outright illegal; getting arrested; and campaigning to free the most recent “persecuted artists” or “political prisoners.” Uncivil disobedience mixed with performance art were thus fashioned into grand feats of direct action and purportedly heroic blows against statism as personified by Vladimir Putin.

Oleg, costumed in prison stripes, executes Voina's "Punk Concert in a Courtroom" action in 2009.“Punk Concert in a Courtroom,” 2009.

“At least 20 criminal investigations into the group’s activities have been initiated,” boasts the Free Voina website, most often on the charge of hooliganism. The group was very familiar with Article 213 of the Russian criminal code, the same law under which Nadia, Maria, and Katya of Pussy Riot were convicted.

In like fashion, the early actions of both groups were received as artistic pranks but escalated to overt confrontations with authorities.

Previous writers who have linked Pussy Riot with Voina have been accused of overstating the connection. The quickest antidote to this notion is a web page by Tom Peter, a Reuters photographer who captured intimate moments within Voina in 2008-09. We see Nadia and Katya — as well as Nadia’s husband and Pussy Riot promoter, Pyotr — integrated within Voina’s daily life. Katya rides on the nose of a passenger train with Oleg and his wife, Natalia. Pyotr is shown relaxing with a book by anarchist Bob Black. Nadia, Katya and Pyotr attend the birth of Oleg and Natalia’s son.

Commercial media mention Nadia and Katya’s involvement in Voina largely to contextualize the “Biology Museum” action. Publications thus titillate readers with a photo of a public sex act that includes a younger, naked Nadia. This is the approach taken by the Pussy Riot documentary, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, which skims through the Voina connection in about a minute to deliver the quirky money shot.

Nadia joins the fray as a member of Voina.
Nadia joins the fray.

I have little to say about the famous “Biology Museum” action, or most of Voina’s avowedly anarchist actions, where apparent pranks edge into self-immolation and morbidity. I argue instead that the most telling Voina performance involving Nadia was “Punk Concert in the Courtroom,” a preplanned disruption of a federal court hearing for an art curator facing obscenity charges back in May 2009.

The action, in which Oleg is costumed in prison stripes, established the template used by Pussy Riot. “The Voina activists secretly carried two guitars, microphones, amplifiers, and other stage equipment into the courtroom,” Voina explained of the court action, which took place two years before Pussy Riot’s launch. “Just after the judge had declared the session open, the activists, presented as the punk band ‘Cock in the Ass’, turned on the stage equipment to the full volume, jumped onto the benches and performed their main hit — ‘All Cops Are Bastards.’”

A NEW KIND OF POLITICS aPussyRiotAndElvis

Where Voina toiled for many years to win small stories in fringe art magazines in Europe, Pussy Riot conquered the Western music and feminist press in six months. Voina always emphasized they were less a performance art group than a “militant street gang” with anarchist politics. Pussy Riot stresses that they are not a punk band but “a form of oppositional art, political action that utilizes artistic forms.”

Let me explain what anarchists mean when they use the word “politics.” Anarchists of previous eras proudly described themselves as “anti-political.” To avoid being dismissed, today’s anarchists summarily expand the definition of politics to include an anti-political stance which rejects political engagement with institutions they deem authoritarian. Wikipedia currently defines anarchism as a “political philosophy,” but anarchism is more accurately described as an anti-political belief system.

Oleg

Oleg

When Voina called themselves “human rights activists,” they were not saying they sought increased rights from the government, or even to replace the Putin regime with one closer to Western tastes. They were saying that human rights are somehow inherent to the social order and can only be achieved with the elimination of centralized government. As “anti-Putin activists,” they viewed Putin as merely the most overt symbol of government tyranny.

Anarchism’s obscure and impractical qualities make explaining anarchist actions to a broad public problematic, assuming that the explainers even detect the anarchist ideology themselves. Throughout its history, anarchism has attracted writers drawn to simple passion. Chroniclers often decide the story will read more sympathetically by downplaying an anarchist influence, or by ignoring it entirely.

A new book by Masha Gessen, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, takes the former approach, and last year’s documentary, the latter.

Reading Gessen, a reader could get the idea that Voina was a high-minded art group and that Pussy Riot later encountered friendly anarchist helpers from time to time. Meanwhile, the 80-minute documentary mentions anarchism not once, unless you count the song lyrics that play over the end credits, “Anarchists! Feminists! What we need!”

Welcome to the world of Balaclava Mania, which encourages us to marvel at Pussy Riot’s precious courage. The Free Voina website (explicit content warning) fills in the gaps, showing this courage to be a long-standing addiction to intrigue. Said on the front page to be the work of “Friends of Voina,” elsewhere inside the site is described as the single official propaganda organ. The website presents a morbid swamp of information I relied upon as a primary source.

Alexander Mercouris is a British lawyer and blogger who in 2012 wrote two meticulous articles about the Pussy Riot trial, debunking common misconceptions point-by-point. He is my most reliable source. To keep the focus on Pussy Riot as anarchist provocateurs and not criminal defendants, I won’t bog down this article with too many of the trial’s legal points when Mercouris has covered these so well.

Suffice to say, religious believers have rights too. “The defendants in the Pussy Riot trial are attractive young women who, as self professed ‘feminists’ and ‘punks’, are in tune with the modern western liberal zeitgeist in a way that the Russian Orthodox Church, with its bearded priests, ancient rituals and complex history, is not.”

Mercouris shoots down the notions of a “show trial” in which Pussy Riot are “prisoners of conscience” who were “persecuted for their beliefs.” He also treats the fan girls at Amnesty International to a remedial lesson in liberalism: Russian criminal law is in step with that of Western countries, where freedom of expression is not immune from restrictions and is subject to criminal penalties applied in the interest of the rights of others.

A USEFUL CLOUD OF LIES

Oleg the Thief was a philosophy major at Moscow State University when he renounced the use of money in the late 1990s, existing as a squatter and shoplifter. His anarchism seems to have begun in the style of Leo Tolstoy, who is among a very few anarchists in history to have distinguished themselves outside of their anarchist activities.

Devoutly Christian and uncompromisingly pacifist, Tolstoy’s anarchism is the least known and practiced in the West. Western anarchists who argue that anarchism is by definition an atheist doctrine misunderstand their own tradition. They ignore their roots among the Medieval millennial sects and, worse, the degree to which even atheist anarchists are Christ-like.

To what degree Oleg was ever a true pacifist is unclear. By Voina’s end, he concluded that violent revolution was the only option. The element of Tolstoyan anarchism that Oleg embraced was the renunciation of worldly statism. Tolstoy also rejected money, living collectively and surrendering his inheritance and book royalties for Christian anarchist purity.

Natalia

Natalia

Oleg was joined in a life of self-imposed poverty by his wife, Natalia, who got her degree in physics. “Gradually, we renounced everything ‘human’: a home, wealth, jobs, careers,” Oleg recounted. “We loathed the regime. We lived in attics and we spent nights in hallways and classrooms of (Moscow State University). In summer we slept on the streets. We call it the ‘no-whoring way.’”

An exemplary life as criminal paupers was inspired by uncompromised freedom and opposition to the state. The art thing came later. “Our adventurous, criminal life received an aesthetic formulation,” Natalia explained about Voina’s first art show in 2006. “I named the group after my man. ‘Vor’ sounds like ‘war’, and ‘war’ in Russian is ‘Voina’.”

The full list of Voina’s 17+ official actions is here on the website of their “chief media artist,” Alexie Plutser-Sarno (explicit content). Voina claims over 200 people were involved between 2006 and 2012. The core group included 15 people at its height, though by the end Voina insisted they were only four core members. The number is five if you count Oleg and Natalia’s son Kasper, touted as “Russia’s youngest political prisoner” because he’s been taken into state custody three times due to his parents’ activities.

Alexie

Alexie

Like Pussy Riot, Voina once enjoyed media coverage as non-violent performance artists with a political message, no one being much concerned with what that “politics” was. Voina’s “art” almost always broke the law and courted a police response, but the accolades from the art world didn’t thin out until the art grew wholly indistinguishable from rioting.

In January 2012, Pussy Riot was still a rising local phenomenon and Voina was losing credibility. Russian media personality and liberal politician Victor Shenderovich, who had been thoroughly charmed by early Voina actions such as throwing cats at McDonald’s employees, now wondered if Voina was damaging the surging anti-Putin movement.

Throwing cats in McDonald's, 2006.

Throwing cats in McDonald’s, 2006.

Shenderovich said at the time, “Voina’s latest performances — turning police cars upside down on Palace Square, spraying police with urine, or burning police trucks — look tasteless from an artistic point of view, unlike their previous art projects.” Previous art projects include a female Voina member dispatched to a supermarket aisle to perform that bizarre and degrading act with a chicken.

As with Pussy Riot, Voina’s motivations weren’t always clear, becoming  subject to erroneous liberal projections and assumptions. “There’s a great number of myths about Voina circulating in the media,” says Oleg’s wife, Natalia. “Any given publication is 30 percent gossip and hearsay. On the other hand, the misinformation in the media sometimes works in our favor. It helps to have a cloud of lies surrounding you when the state is attempting criminal persecution against you.”

INTENDED IMPACT

Nadia

Nadia

In January 2012, Pussy Riot performed unannounced on a historic platform outside the Kremlin for the action preceding the famous one that landed the women in court. The “Occupy Red Square” action drew only curious onlookers. Moscow police noticed this intentionally conspicuous performance and, after talking to the women, seem to have shrugged too. No arrests, no trial. Just another Pussy Riot video to post on YouTube.

Pussy Riot needed a more sensitive venue than Red Square, which turned out to be Moscow’s largest cathedral. Masha Gessen’s new book, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, says not everyone in the Pussy Riot collective liked the idea of an action at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. When collective members suggested other venues, worried a cathedral action could well lead to jail time, it was Nadia and Katya who won out.

One collective member interviewed by Gessen said she often felt like an extra in Nadia’s show and regarded the church action as Nadia’s project. Another, who also backed out of the action, suspected that Nadia and Katya really wanted to go to jail.

Church security stopped Pussy Riot as they started into “A Punk Prayer.” Before being removed, the women managed a few burlesque kicks and were able to shout the chorus, “It’s God shit!” There was no mention of Putin during the action, but other Pussy Riot members fled the church to edit the video, which was then dubbed with the anti-Putin lyrics. The final product also was mixed with backup footage shot earlier a different, similar looking church in case the shoot at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior went wrong.

The video caught fire in Russia, due far less to the anti-Putin lyrics than the sight of women desecrating the church altar. Few commentators observed that Putin’s name was not sung nor even uttered during the action for which Pussy Riot was prosecuted. As Mercouris points out, the doctored video fuels lasting confusion in the West over what actually transpired, creating the myth of a seminal “anti-Putin” action.

Anti-Putin outcry over vote rigging was broad-based and already on the rise in Russia before Pussy Riot entered the scene. Many Russians were troubled about the prospects for democracy and the regime’s credibility was seriously damaged. Concerns about the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church was a back-burner issue at best before Nadia and company entered the scene.

Whether Amnesty International likes it or not, the large majority of Russians are members of the Russian Orthodox Church. While the church does well for its reactionary believers, many others hold moderate views as well as anti-Putin sentiments. Some stay within in the church as matter of national identity rather than religious fervor. And moderate Russians would be needed to mount serious opposition to Putin, the direction the political climate was drifting during the vote rigging scandal.

Anarchists are proudly unperturbed by such lessons of political economy. Reaction satisfies. An unusually restrictive new anti-blasphemy law in Russia has come to be popularly known as “the Pussy Riot law.” This suggests a strategic failure, one that would go unnoticed by doctrinaire anti-statists who oppose all central legislative authority and law enforcement. It would only validate their self-image as heroes flaunting authority.

If Pussy Riot accomplished anything, aside from promoting themselves, it was in linking a nascent anti-Putin movement with a provocation against a large church tightly bound with Russian history and tradition. Throughout their history, anarchists who hurl themselves at reactionary forces provided them with a pretext to more vigorously protect their interests. Anarchism has long been accused of having the opposite of its intended impact. For all they accomplished at home, Pussy Riot might have been just as effective stuffing ballot boxes with Putin votes.

STRANGE BELIEFS

Katya

Katya

Both Gessen’s book and the documentary enlarge the picture of events — even if, in setting anarchism aside, they turn down a cohesive narrative thread and confuse audiences. The documentary introduces us to the people around Pussy Riot. Katia’s father says he recognized his daughter’s dress on the video showing masked women storming the platform in front of the church altar.

“I asked her: Are you crazy? Couldn’t you find a better place to practice your strange beliefs?”

Although Katya’s father has since warmed to her celebrity, his initial reaction typifies a broad segment of the Russian population. This is the reason the majority of Russians supported the convictions. Many thought the two-year sentence excessive. Otherwise, Pussy Riot drew little more local sympathy than a Black Bloc does in Seattle or Oakland.

Nadia shared the church plan with her father a month before the event. “I tried talking her out of it immediately because I know the mentality of the people they were provoking,” her father says in the documentary. When he realized he couldn’t talk his daughter out of it, Nadia’s dad — a smirking aesthete himself — strangely says he decided to help with the lyrics.

“Their mistake was that no one understood their protest. Go protest where you’ll be understood,” said a trial prosecutor, referring to Pussy Riot’s dubious suggestions they were protesting for separation of church and state and allowing women to be priests. “The Pussy Riot movement has done irreparable damage to liberalism. Now people think that all liberals are intolerant fascists who don’t listen to the opinion of others.”

Maria

Maria

In its editing choices, the documentary repeats Pussy Riot’s portrayal of their actions as some kind of head-to-head battle with Russia’s president. “Putin himself said he was surprised that they weren’t picked up for their earlier stunts,” said the other prosecutor. “Somewhere I read that I’m receiving direct instructions from Putin. Elsewhere, they say Putin is writing the verdict instead of the judge. It’s a type of paranoia where you see Putin behind every bush.”

Such paranoia frequently accompanies the anarchist worldview. “When we speak of Putin,” said Maria in her statement before the court, “we mean not so much Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin but the system he has created: a power vertical that requires the state to be managed personally at every level.”

The documentary’s co-directors mix vestiges of Cold War rhetoric with rock ‘n’ roll mythology. The Putin of Balaclava Mania is an updated Stalin whose mission is to quash Pussy Riot, who represent Western cultural freedom and fun. In this incarnation, Putin is not just a tyrant, but a horribly straight-laced prude threatened by Pussy Riot’s youth and sexuality. If only Putin would get off of Pussy Riot’s blue suede shoes.

BETRAYERS

To get a general sense of the Russian political climate the month before Pussy Riot went viral in the West, this segment on Britain’s Channel 4 News reported widespread anger over commonplace vote rigging. The piece also includes an interview with a beleaguered Oleg, still running from Interpol and saying he no longer believed in peaceful protest. Channel 4 suggested Putin might be in real trouble.

Pyotr

Pyotr

A few months before the vote rigging scandal, Voina had been consumed with another matter, the formation of Pussy Riot. Nadia, Katya, and Pyotr were expelled form Voina in 2009. (Pyotr calls the expulsion a split, and continued to represent himself a Voina member.) It wasn’t until Pussy Riot was formed in September 2011 that Voina publicly denounced them.

Despite Oleg’s dismissals, the three had been no further than the very edge of Voina’s inner circle, and had to be counted among the group core back when it was numbered at 15. Oleg sounded like a wounded tyrant recognizing that one of his “ordinary walking people” might show some creativity of their own. (By “walking people,” I think Oleg meant to call them mere “walk-ons” in his Voina productions. One of Pyotr’s primary assets to the group was his stronger English.)

The rambling diatribes against Nadia and Pyotr show Voina’s viciousness. By their account, Nadia and Peter stole Voina belongings such as computers and slogan banners, and was sloppy about security. The list of offenses is so long that one finds its difficult to understand why the two “betrayers” could have stayed around so long to do so much repeated damage.

Oleg recalled Nadia had trouble attaching a noose around a Voina performer in a piece called Decembrists Commemoration in 2008. “That’s why one part of the photo shoot failed. Usually we tried not to give her two tasks at a time, but that time we hoped that she could handle it,” sneered Oleg. “Apart from that, all she could do was march in front of the cameras with a revolutionist-like face.”

Imitation was not received as flattery. The Pussy Riot action involving kissing subway police trainees was seen by Voina as a discredit to their organization. “Their actions are a mere clownery that has nothing to do with heroic art of the Voina Group,” said Alexie, whose greatest artistic achievement is spray painting a draw bridge with a 60-foot phallus in the style common to men’s room stalls.

“(Pyotr) Verzilov is a liar, a thief, a police provoker and dexterous deceiver,” said Oleg. Pyotr may indeed be obsessed with self-promotion, more so than Oleg or Nadia. Oleg’s accusations that he and Nadia botched actions and that Pyotr was slack about security are substantiated by Gessen’s portrayal of later Pussy Riot actions. The documentary suggests Pyotr to be a fop, which Gessen confirms in noting his attachment to Ralph Lauren shirts.

Nadia and Masha also denounced Pyotr from prison, accusing him of using Pussy Riot’s name for his own purposes. Nadia and Pyotr seem to have bridged their differences after her release, and he is again speaking for Pussy Riot and supporting their activities.

Nadia’s impatience with Pyotr is seen in the documentary, back during her bail hearing soon after her arrest. Pyotr angles his way through the crowd to get a photo of his wife behind the courtroom bars. The room is also filled with professional photographers snapping away at Nadia, yet Pyotr is trying to get a shot on his phone camera.

“You look good,” he says to get her attention.

“I always look good,” Nadia retorts with mild irritation before she turns gracefully back toward the commercial media’s flashbulbs. We see Nadia realizing that her action had gone further than anything she expected. Voina members who accused Pussy Riot of “feeble copycat actions” may have been right that Pussy Riot borrowed their formula, but Nadia proved she had grown capable of steering her own group all the way to the prison colony.

VOINA 2.0

aBalaclavaManiaVoina’s manifesto announced that their number one objective was the “creation of image of artist as romantic hero, who prevail over evil.” This Manichean mindset comes with passion equal to the religious fervor of Russian church patriarchs, who denounce Pussy Riot as “demons.” If the Russian Orthodox Church is a sign of backwardness, so is Russian anarchism.

Anarchism embraces a rather innocent vision of humans living without the constraints of any coercive authority. Authoritarians are little less than devils. This notion is what informs their rationalist world view, but what actually drives their behavior is their delusionary role as freedom fighters for this anarchist society. If anarchists seem gritty and wise, it’s only because they are willing to sacrifice so much in the service of a childish conception of the world.

Voina shows Nadia and Katya deeply involved with anti-statist believers. What about Maria, who was never a member of Voina? I think that, of the concluding statements the three women delivered before sentencing, Maria’s was the most overtly libertarian, and thereby the least astute about her situation before the court.

Gessen’s book provides some interesting new details. Maria was introduced to Pussy Riot late, in December 2011 during the anti-Putin protests, by a Pussy Riot anarchist that Gessen calls “N.” Maria was on the hippie vegan end of the anarchist milieu, and other Pussy Riot members wondered if she knew what she was getting into. Her innocence in seen in court when she whimpers that she doesn’t understand the “ideological aspect” of the criminal charges against her. She seems genuinely lost.

Yet Maria gives one of the few clear signs of anarchist influence allowed into the documentary when she mentions Guy Debord, the Situationist. Maria found anarchism along her progression from earnest environmentalist trying to save the Utrish forest to anti-Putin activist. Gessen’s book only mentions this in passing in a quote from Maria’s husband, without explanation.

“There was Utrish, then there were the birds, some sort of ecocamp for migratory birds, then soap-making and anarchists,” Maria’s husband, Nikita, recalled of their drifting apart. “Then Putin showed up, and this really was incomprehensible.” Nikita was more focused on stopping drinking and caring for their young son, not knowing she had joined Pussy Riot.

Maria goes further than Nadia in decrying verticalism. She asserts the paranoid exaggeration of Putin’s power, saying Putin created a system “that requires the state to be managed personally at every level.” Skewing more libertarian compared to the anarcho-communism of Nadia, Maria complains schools ignore individuality and that classroom lessons are still taught as they were in the Soviet Union.

“A person learns to forget about his liberty starting at a young age,” she said, sounding like every right-wing libertarian I’ve ever known on the subject of government-funded education.

Where Nadia spoke of the masses with respect, Maria’s contempt for ordinary Russians is strong. Recalling her fight to save the Utrich forest, she complained that people were “automatons” who did not protest when pushed out of their homes. “And they will sit out there in the street right up until the moment when the authorities tell them what to do next. They are totally spineless. This is very sad.”

Yet Nadia has her own libertarian side. When she passionately quoted her own group’s lyrics to conclude her court statement, “Take off your uniforms and come taste freedom with us,” she indicated a belief that sets anarchists apart from other revolutionaries. Anarchists imagine they have already achieved freedom, which to them is simply seeing the state as authoritarian. Get everyone else to awaken to the tyrannical horror of the situation and — voila! — anarchist order.

INEDIBLE FRUIT

Oleg’s willingness to call himself the “leader” of Voina might seem unanarchist of him. Anarchists have often had accepted leaders, though with qualifications. The rigid emphasis on leaderlessness is a recent fashion. Anarchists lead like anyone else, with a mixture of position, connections, force of personality, and mastery over the doctrine being applied. Politics doesn’t stop because someone finds politics unacceptable.

Voina overturns police cars.

Voina overturns police cars.

To believe that anarchists don’t have leaders is to accept a cartoonish notion where “horizontalism” and “verticalism” stand in polarized opposition. Oleg asserted that hierarchy was necessary during actions and he can be seen barking at subordinates during filming to get the camera angle right. Several Pussy Riot actions are lost to history due to videography mistakes. After the church action, Nadia swore tyrannically all the way home about video staging errors. Only the backup video and editing saved the action.

Oleg was out of step with emerging anarchist trends several ways, and not just by looking like a grim peasant leader next to Nadia’s more Western appearance and sharp Slavic good looks. Voina did not try to hide their identities, even when filming themselves overturning police cars. This is a departure from current anarchist “security culture,” which emphasizes evading jail. They advertised their actions as known members of Voina.

Pussy Riot updated the Voina formula by masking themselves as well as by focusing on feminism. Their image as young punk rockers and the sensitivity of a church venue allowed them to get beyond the bemused grins that frustrated them, achieving the desired impact without an act of violence. (Though in watching the calm intensity with which Nadia explains the English word “riot” to a police interrogator, seen in the documentary trailer, who can imagine she identifies as a pacifist?)

Back in the days of Voina’s image as non-violent activists, in January 2011, they received £90,000 from the British anarchist and graffiti-artist Banksy. They said they would give the money away, though one wonders if so pure a money source as the UK’s most-loved anarchist offered an escape clause to the no-whoring way. Oleg has been wanted by Interpol since July 2011.

Alexie rests after a heroic art show.

Alexie rests after a heroic art show.

When a journalist asked them where Voina would be in 10 years, Oleg spoke like a doomed martyr.  “I’m not sure that I will live that long,” he said. “The path of a Russian activist is tragic. Once you’re engaged in actions, you don’t belong to this world anymore. You belong to actionism.”

The Voina member called Crazy Lenya was more optimistic. “I am confident that the regime will choke on us,” he said. “We’re inedible. We’re poisonous fruit.”

Natalia didn’t answer the question, instead worrying about her son being taken away and the police closing in. Oleg interjected to offer this comfort: “Ten years does not mean anything to us. We belong to history.” The Voina websites have been only occasionally updated since 2012, and since then the group has become a footnote to Nadia’s Pussy Riot. Oleg and Natalia fled to Italy with their son, with no known “actionism” since then.

Unless you count Pussy Riot. ■

Anarchism Without Scare Quotes

An anarchist displays a rubber pellet as a war trophy

An anarchist displays a rubber pellet as a war trophy

As far as I can tell, the last time a major U.S. television network produced a strong piece focused on American anarchism per se was in 1999. Scott Pelley lowered the 60 Minutes baritone on some youngish anarchists in Eugene, Oregon, for a 13-minute segment titled The New Anarchists.

60 Minutes rounded up six unmasked veganomians in a Eugene living room for a chat about anarchism and elicited key doctrinal beliefs. Back then, a handful of anarchists could speak to reporters without feeling they were violating the sanctity of leaderlessness by acting as spokespeople. I’ll use the 60 Minutes segment as a touchstone to examine how the anarchist dynamic has altered since 1999 and why, as anarchism has proliferated on the Internet after Occupy, portraying their influence confounds the media.

The anarchists’ responses to interview questions on 60 Minutes are interspersed with video from the Seattle WTO riots of that year. Unfair smear? Nope. Anarchists kindly supplied the video. It’s hard imagine today’s post-Occupy, livestreaming anarchists being so ready to cooperate with corporate media in this way, or violating their “security culture” by showing their faces as they discuss participation in a violent action.

Many readers outside North American might not be familiar with 60 Minutes. The news show regularly placed in the top ten watched programs in the country each week. Popular culture celebrated 60 Minutes for its blend of aggressive questions and tight close-ups on nervous interview subjects, and families tuned in each Sunday at 7 p.m. to watch compromised people sweat.

I respect a well-crafted professional news program that squeezes a neat overview into limited timeframe, even if I don’t entirely agree with the slant. Of course, 60 Minutes is not without its own heroic liberal stance, but this production shows the topic of anarchism in America isn’t impossible to cover. International readers should consider that the national U.S. media currently avoids identifying anarchist provocation, leaving the right-wing Fox News to cover the topic, which they always fold with liberalism and socialism into one communist conspiracy.

Seattle as Disneyworld, 1999.

Seattle as Disneyworld, 1999.

The young anarchists of 1999 hold up better than the business cheats and corporate flaks usually put in the test on 60 Minutes. Their answers are earnest and doctrinaire, appearing part cold insurrectionary, part puppy dog, those earnest shock troops the media never interviews.

Pelley asks the six for their stand of violence, there are hesitations and nervous glances. “Yes? No? I see heads shaking both ways,” Pelley persists with a skepticism we no longer hear. There’s no fear that linking anarchism to violence at all is somehow persecution.

For the anarchist, negation of the state is frequently accompanied by negation of the self, and we hear this in their replies. The state is violent, so smashing merchant windows is not violent, goes the logic. This is a common anarchist sentiment, one of those redefinitions anarchists casually slip into a conversation.

Defending the riot in Seattle, one anarchist says, “Breaking a window or spray painting is not violence at all in my opinion.” When the group had been asked if they support violence, this anarchist had been among those who shook a head no. Reporters might wonder if this anarchist would say the same thing about throwing bottles or firing bottle rockets at cops. “The law was not decided by us. We are being governed by a system we do not agree with and that we completely reject,” one anarchist says with refreshing candor. “Therefore the law means nothing.”

So, apparently, does the anarchist definition of “non-violence.” While there are truly pacifist anarchists, from the Russian author Leo Tolstoy to the British punk band Crass to the Christian anarchist communes of the American Midwest, most West Coast anarchists are playing loose with the definition of violence.

The anarchist’s formulaic arguments may seem at first imposing but wither quickly with prodding.

“Why the anger?” asks Pelley.

“Love of life, love of the earth,” begins one dreamily, descending into hateful anti-statist rhetoric from there. It’s not that the anarchists have more anger than the rest of us, it’s that they have more love. By failing to appreciate the depth of anarchist love, the rest of us all deserve what we get at protests gone anarchist, having failed to embrace liberty as they so courageously do. Here again we see what David Apter observed about the anarchist’s convoluted mission “to convert a structural condition of hate into a sentiment of love.”

Then there is the thrill of imagining oneself a revolutionary. One Seattle video clip captures the suburban-bred solipsism that calls itself revolution. “I always wanted to be in a revolution,” says a masked young woman with wild eyes says, laughing maniacally in the midst of the riot. “I’m thrilled to be here. Fuck Disneyworld!” As if to suggest riot provocation were her own version of Disneyworld.

When asked what their parents think, one denounces his mother for working too much and “filling her mind with TV and drinking Pepsi.” His unforgiving, petty grievances against his mother are simply sad. For anarchists, capitalism is the result everyone’s personal choices, leading to stark moral divisions, and no one is cut any slack for having to get along in the capitalist world.

The 60 Minutes narrative understands the anarchists as provocateurs. “The overreaction of some cops in Seattle gives the revolutionaries new ammunition,” the narration neatly lays out. Oakland’s local TV news crews have a hard time understanding the dynamics of anarchist provocation, which remains a perpetual possibility in Oakland since a squatter scene sprang here up in 2010. Indeed, they often seem eager for blood.

Though a decade has passed since the 60 Minutes episode aired, the youth who made the sidewalk in front of our West Oakland house into something of an anarchist promenade seem a similar group, only with more black in their wardrobe. The core who first appeared arrived with many Oregon license plates and sound much the same, right down to the earnest “come on, dude” cadence of their speech.

"One group took credit for all this," said police.

“One group took credit for all this,” said police.

One important factor supporting a national story on anarchism in 1999 was that Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper specifically pointed to Eugene, Oregon, as the culprits’ base. An anarchist group had taken credit for what they viewed as a successful riot. Such public statements crack open a topic for a news story, but comes with risks.

In Oakland today, Mayor Jean Quan and her police chiefs opt to use the term “outsiders” to refer to anarchists and associated adventurists who provoke police during protests here. I saw a press conference where a reporter asked Quan about anarchists, at which she rolled her eyes like a huffy California schoolgirl and skipped to the next question.

There may be wisdom in this. Opening up a media discussion about anarchism doesn’t lend itself to clear messaging about law enforcement. It’s more manageable to center the discussion on whatever crimes or infractions are being committed.

As satisfying as it would be to hear Quan take some strong jabs at anarchism by name, it’s too easily portrayed as political persecution. That’s what happened the last time Quan tried using the word “anarchists,” during an interview with BBC Radio during the height of Occupy Oakland in November 2011.

“I was recently on a conference call with 18 cities across the country who had the same situation,” Quan said in the interview, “where what had started as a political movement and a political encampment ended up being an encampment that was no longer in control of the people who started it.”

The Washington DC blog Capitoilette interpreted Quan’s interview as proving a coordinated crackdown on Occupy by multiple mayors. The charge spread to quasi-anarchist outlets like TruthOut and AlterNet, edging mainstream with New York Magazine. (Capitoilette noted that the meeting was held while Obama was out of the country, suggesting either that Obama wanted to keep his hands clean, or that he would have prevented the purported mayoral conspiracy.)

The articles sanctified a paranoid notion at the Occupy encampment. Quan’s real offense may have been singling out anarchism as a problem: “I spent a lot of last week talking to peaceful demonstrators, ones who wanted to separate themselves — in my city — away from the anarchist groups who have been looking for a confrontation with the police,” said Quan. I still hear people in Oakland saying the encampments were dismantled because Occupy’s politics threatened the status quo, and this traces back to Quan’s use of the word “anarchists.” No wonder she stopped using it.

The 60 Minutes segment shows us far more of the difficulties police face in contending with anarchists, particularly when they first appear in force. Anarchism was easier to cover because 60 Minutes could isolate one sleepy college town as an anarchist hotspot. Today, anarchist hubs are so widespread that to catalogue them ventures into Red Scare territory, though really what we are talking about is merely criminal adventurism.

Because they were examining anarchism in the backwater of Eugene, Oregon, the slick New Yorkers could also visit John Zerzan, if not a leader than the leading voice of the primitivist brand of anarchism that’s strongest on the U.S. West Coast. “By definition, anarchists have no leaders, but John Zerzan serves as a sort of philisophical guide for the group in Eugene,” 60 Minutes informs us. “He writes books that advocate the end of the industrial world.” Zerzan greets 60 Minutes with a nonchalant diatribe against what he vaguely calls “the system,” but Pelley shows his interviewing skill in prodding Zerzan further.

“Are you saying, ‘No government?’”

Zerzan seems caught off guard by Pelley’s insistence, but gladly shares his absolutist stance, as anarchists do when asked. “Oh, of course, as an anarchist that’s a given. Self-organization is the way to go.” At Occupy, reporters passed over absolutist anti-government beliefs that were behind all the self-governing. As I wrote in my last article, anarchists could not be said to have been “disorganized,” as reporters so often described.

To create a picture of the anarchist resurgence today, journalists would have to explore Occupy’s anarchism and reevaluate the media cliche that it was too “disorganized” to categorize. Given that Occupy retains mainstream credibility, it’s a sensitive matter to also suggest to your audience that they or people they know were mixed up in an anarchist experiment.

Sensitive but not impossible.

1968: When Anarchism Was Groovy

In this six-minute semi-professional film, a drunk Abbie Hoffman explains Yippie “police theater” ahead of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. We hear him explaining how he hopes to provoke a riot even though he knows he’s being filmed, distinguishing him as exceptionally brazen but not ideologically anomalous within the anarchist tradition. The YouTube caption doesn’t tell us the film’s source, provide an exact date or location, but we are at a youth gathering of some kind.

Hoffman gloats to a young activist how the Yippies plan to refashion the Democratic Convention from one of standard TV network fare to “The Cops Vs. The Yippies.” Star-struck faces are seen in cutaways. There is also a strong police presence. The camera pans from cops standing atop a retaining wall above where Hoffman sits expounding on riot and media dynamics. Hoffman was 32 years old at the time, enjoying national fame as a Yippie leader and author of Revolution for the Hell of It.

Abbie Hoffman gropes his comrade's girlfriend. No one gets uptight about it.

Abbie Hoffman gropes his comrade’s girlfriend. No one gets uptight about it.

I thought the film was a great example of an influential anarchist’s attitude toward rioting and the people he recruited, so I’m providing a transcript with commentary:

Hoffman: Essentially what we’re going to do is throw a lot of banana peels around Chicago. And have the machine stumble. And when it stumbles and it gets into a policy of overkill and it starts to devour itself.

Young man: So the cops are going to turn on themselves? How do you know that?

Hoffman: No, no. They’ll be fighting other people in power. See in Grand Central Station, they weren’t just clubbing us longhairs, you see, they started to take on commuters. You know, and people coming home from the opera, and mayor’s officials who were wandering around, and FBI agents who were there in secret and disguised as hippies. They were all getting clubbed just like us. (Laughs.)

We are watching a small early scene from the anarchization of the New Left.

Even before Chicago ’68, some in the New Left were figuring out what the anarchist creed of tactics above strategy meant at real protests. Hoffman refers to an anti-draft protest at Grand Central Station in New York City in March of that year. The Yippie event had drawn just the sort of police overreaction that Hoffman delighted in — a police riot — and now he strives to provoke another on the more visible stage of the Democratic Convention. The Yippies made token efforts to organize a “Festival of Life” in Chicago, advertising rock bands that failed to show up.

Hoffman openly displays a lack of concern for people drawn into his anarchist provocations. Around him are the hippie youth he hopes to entangle. They play guitars and flutes, bounce a beach ball, play paddy cake, and make out as Hoffman lays out his scheme for a riot in Chicago. He accurately predicts a police overreaction.

VillageVoiceHoffman once explained the difference between fun-loving, scene-making hippies and doctrinaire anarchists by saying a “Yippie is a hippie who’s been beaten up by the cops.” This is not just a wisecrack, but an expression of anarchist doctrine in which those drawn into such situations will come to see the repressive nature of the State, winning converts to anarchism if not sparking a revolution. It doesn’t always play out that way. At Grand Central Station, Village Voice writer Don McNeil was among those clubbed and saw a “pointless confrontation in a box canyon.”

The young man in the film is among those in the New Left beginning to question Yippie tactics, but meekly.

Chicago would go largely as planned and Hoffman, along with others in the Chicago 7, would be put on trial for violating a U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1968 provision against crossing state lines with the intent of inciting a riot. In fact, the provision was inspired by earlier Yippie antics at the Pentagon, playing out a long pattern of anarchist actions that resulted in increased government restrictions. As always, anarchist claims of being champions of liberty are undercut by their actual impact; rather than reassess, the anarchist responds to government actions with increased provocation.

Hoffman: I’ve  owned a gun, but uh, but it’s just another theater prop, I can’t shoot it for shit. See I could hold you off forever just by using, uh, theatrical techniques. I’ll show you, you now, see, you be straight. You be straight guy, and you push me. You be the cop.

 (Young man follows Hoffman’s instructions, who breaks his beer bottle against the wall.)

Come on, man! You fucker! Come on, come on, take me!!! See, you ain’t going to touch me. You convince them that you’re crazy enough to do anything and then they won’t touch you.

Hoffman took pleasure in instigating fights. He was a natural bully, and would later be diagnosed as bipolar in 1980. Because anarchism precludes genuine political action, the anarchist mind has only four options for action: education, farm communalism, theater and/or violence. Hoffman mixed the last two, and this would form the character of the last phase of the New Left, taking the original inspiration of the Civil Rights movement and adding Vaudeville with violent rhetoric directed at “pigs,” which to Yippies meant not only cops but anyone perceived to be complicit in the Establishment.

Hoffman: For example, before we went to the Pentagon, uh, we start hearing all these spook stories about mace, you know? So a couple of us sitting around, getting pretty stoned, we said, “Mace, huh? That’s pretty dangerous. We need a drug of our own. How about Lace?” Heh, heh.  And we start playing with Lace, you know, lysergic acid crypto-ethaline, LSD, and DMSO, and you know, invented by Osley (sic), and well let’s go out and get some!

So we go out and get some plastic water guns and some Schwartz Disappear-O, purple fluid, and you squirt it on the wall and it vanishes, see, high penetration quality, right? So we call a little press conference, bring over the press, and we squirt it at the wall. And they say, “Well, it’s pretty good. Maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t.”

We say, “OK, come back in four hours.”

We come back, we have two couples, see? We squirt ‘em! They take off their clothes and they fuck.

Reporter says, “Holy shit!” You know. They go to take it and we say, “You want to try it? You can get brain damage. You know. You run that risk.” And they put it back because, because, you know, they’re afraid to die. And the press is wire-istic and they’re going to eat that goddamned thing up. And you look in Time magazine, man, and there it is, a fact. No quotes, no hoax, no nothing. “Lace: The New Wonder Drug. Makes you fuck! Goin’ to the Pentagon.”

(Laughter.)

Young man: But can that kind of thing protect people in Chicago? Are you worried about that?

Here is that question rephrased: Are water guns laced with “high-penetration quality” LSD an effective weapon against cops with mace? For the Yippies, drugs along with sex were promoted as vehicles to liberation, supporting an elitist lifestyle that turned up its nose at “straight” America. This psychological state, borne of Millenarian certitude, seemingly validated by a horrific though distant war in Vietnam, was what the Yippie movement offered young people. This, and the opportunity to get your skull cracked for Hoffman’s revolutionary amusement.

Hoffman dismisses the young man’s concerns as he would any schlep.

Hoffman: Sure it can. I’m not worried about Chicago at all. Of course not. Never worry. Only mothers worry.

Young man: (Nervous laughter.) Chicago seems like we are herding ourselves into a stockade, you know. I’m mean we’re getting ourselves all together where they can surround us . . .

Hoffman has an easy time talking over his soft-spoken and deferential interlocutor, who is echoing what was becoming a common concern after Yippie happenings at the Pentagon and Grand Central Station. The young man might be a member of SDS or National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam or just an earnest student, but in any case he nicely represents the earnest New Left indulging in anarchism with vague discomfort.

At the end of the film, a freedom-loving Hoffman literally rolls over the young man to grope his girlfriend. He doesn’t even get uptight when Hoffman pulls his hair. Groovy.

Few Baby Boomers ever took the time to place Yippies within the historical context of anarchism. Anarchist ideas were frequently discussed without being labeled as such. Certain actions could be debated as counterproductive to protest against the draft and the war in Vietnam, which indeed evolved into an absolutist “anti-War” movement caught up in libertarian enthusiasm for illegal drugs, post-pill sex,  and swearing as tools for revolution.

Hoffman: . . . what the Democractic Party, look at their theater, right? The International Anthem Theater. Have you ever been down there? Have you been to Chicago? Well, it’s out of sight. It’s right in the stockyard, see? It smells like shit and death and piss, aaand it’s boring. You know, they’ll have like Kate Smith singing the National Anthem, right? They’ll have all these boring pigs, you know, fat, businessmen, serious. Very serious thing, see?

And they’ll be showin’ this, see? And meanwhile, you know, like every two minutes out of every hour, there’ll be us, out in the streets or up in the park, doing all this thing. Rah, rah! Rah, rah, wow! The New America! Exciting! And it’ll be like a football game, see? Football game’s a good model. Cops Vs. The Yippies, or the National Guard, or whoever, the paratroopers from Vietnam. I don’t know who they’re going to bring back to contain us! They’re going to bring a lot of heavy equipment, see? (Laughs.)

And people will be watching that on TV and they’ll say, “We don’t watch that boring speech stuff. We want to watch the Rose Bowl out there.” You know? And they’ll get mad! They’ll say, “Why aren’t they showing us that Rose Bowl? What are they showing us that boring stuff for?” You know a lot of people are going to kick in their televisions that week.

AbbieHoffmanPeople who struggled to find something positive about Hoffman often chose to compliment him on his media savvy. Peter Coyote, co-founder of an earlier anarchist group formed in San Francisco, the Diggers, called Hoffman and Yippie cohort Jerry Rubin “media junkies.” Coyote recalled in 1989 that Hoffman spent time with the Diggers absorbing Haight-Ashbury anarchism before taking it back to New York City. “We explained everything to those guys, and they violated everything we taught them. Abbie went back, and the first thing he did was publish a book with his picture on it,” Coyote recalled.

“Those guys (Hoffman and Jerry Rubin) knew that for the Democratic convention, there were no park permits, there were no rock bands, there was no nothing,” said Coyote. He affirms the Chicago 7’s guilt in a conspiracy to incite a riot and also zeroes in on the motive that eluded prosecutors who felt excessively threatened by Yippie anti-Americanism. “They called all those kids together to be extras in a piece of ‘police theater’, as (Digger Peter) Berg calls it. And they did that to present themselves over the media to America as the new leaders of the radical left. That was as manipulative and conniving a piece of bullshit as anything Lyndon Johnson ever did.”

Reflecting on the Yuppie turn of Jerry Rubin,  later the author of the post-anarchist apologia, Growing Up At 37, Coyote tried to throw some props to Hoffman, who never stopped trying to recapture his lost influence as an anarchist. “Of all of them, Abbie has really changed, I think, and grown up and figured out what his life is for,” Coyote offered. This was an untimely observation, as three months later Hoffman killed himself with an overdose of pills and alcohol, said to be because his brand of activism was lost to Ronald Reagan. Note that Reagan’s anti-counterculture stances helped his rise to the presidency.

In 1968, anarchists could still revel convincingly in the shallowness of their beliefs, which seemed so intriguing. Playing the clown was useful when Hoffman’s flimsy doctrine first appeared on the scene, but Yippie humor grew old.

Hoffman boasts that the Yippie’s revolutionary program was “full unemployment.”

Hoffman: Hey, so you’ve got America, they’re all into Freud. Say to them, “Hey, man! We’re all getting laid, man! We’re all listening to music! We’re having a groovy time! What do you want to work for?” Talk to them about full unemployment. They know you don’t work and they’re very intrigued by that. “You don’t work?’

No, man. I don’t work, man. I’m just fuckin’ around having a good time. “That’s disgraceful!” They hate that in America.

Young man: Right.

Hoffman: Don’t work. Of course we don’t work, we never going to work. What do you guys want to work for? For some haggy old wife and some kids that don’t respect ya?

Young man: (Yawns.)

What follows shows Hoffman at his libertarian, freedom-loving finest. The young man’s girlfriend comes to his side. She’s trying to get the young man to forget Chicago, but also eyes Hoffman flirtatiously.

Young woman: I want to go to the commune tomorrow. Do you want to come?

Young man: Tomorrow? No.

Second woman’s voice offscreen: That’s Abbie Hoffman!

Hoffman: (Waves flirtatiously at woman offscreen.)

Young woman: Yeah, I want to go to the commune.

Young man: After Chicago we can go.

Young woman: After Chicago? But I want to go.

Young man: You want to go now?

Young woman: Well now or tomorrow or soon.

Young man: Well, I guess you should go then.

Hoffman begins to make his move, which the young man tries to ignore.

Hoffman: What’s this? A fascist? You’re such a fascist.

Young man: I’d like to go after we get back.

Young woman: What does he have to say, this guy?

“This guy,” as if she doesn’t know he is Abbie Hoffman. Clearly, the young woman can identify schtick better than her boyfriend.

Hoffman: You’re a fascist.

Young man: (Looking down, trying to ignore Hoffman’s intrusion.) I think you’re trying to drag me off to the…

Young woman: You’re a fascist. (Woman screams in mock menace, lurching forward at Hoffman.)

Hoffman, deliberate in his playfulness, lurches back over the young man and lands on top of the woman. Everybody laughs at the mock mounting. Why be uptight?

Hoffman now knows his advances won’t be checked by the young man and takes an anarchistic peek under the woman’s skirt. She laughs harder, but also suggests she’s growing uncomfortable because she brings her boyfriend back into the conversation.

Young woman: Come to the commune!

Hoffman: Come to the commune? Come to Chicago! Pulls man’s shirt.

Man’s voice from off-frame: Take a half. Just each take a half.

Hoffman pulls young man’s hair to signal his dominance and the young man again accepts Hoffman as playful. He grabs the woman’s arms and pulls her toward him.

Hoffman: You (to the young man) go the commune, you (to the young woman) come to Chicago.

Young woman: (to Hoffman) You come to the commune.

I’m glad I missed the Sixties.

Kenneth Lipp

Researcher & Journalist - Editor, The Declaration. Open Source Intelligence & Analysis, Web Presence Consulting, Data-Mining, Custom Search and Content Aggregation

The Uncontrollable Ones

News and Events for Anarchists

The Culture Monk

Photographs & Philosophy - The Periphrastic Mind of Kenneth Justice

Cunning Hired Knaves

a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption

LBO News from Doug Henwood

Insta-punditry on political economy.

Operation Egypt

Global solidarity with the people of Egypt

Anatoly Karlin

The world as it will be, not as we want it to be...

Agonistic Liberal

liberal, but not progressive

Da Russophile

Exposing Western myths about Russia.

HarsH ReaLiTy

My goal with this blog is to offend everyone in the world at least once with my words… so no one has a reason to have a heightened sense of themselves. We are all ignorant, we are all found wanting, we are all bad people sometimes.

Digestible Politics

Politics Made Easy!

Plastic Manzikert

International Relations. Foreign Policy. Land Wars in Asia

MADE IN AMERICA

Notes on American life from American history.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.