Issue 3 (December 2010)
Creating Outside Agitators (1)
Puck Lo and Ianna Hawkins Owen
We’d like to offer a few thoughts about the following questions: How have we seen discourses about anarchism deployed in the past year? What is the relevance of anarchism to communities of color? What is the relationship between anger, direct action and the imagination?
To begin, some thoughts on the practices of anarchism:
Anarchism could be seen as a historical tendency that strives against all forms of oppression to create personal and social freedom through the development of a classless society. Many anarchists believe that wealth and work should be distributed and shared according to need and ability. In practice, anarchists have gravitated toward decentralized collectives and worker/buyer cooperatives. Most anarchists oppose the nation-state, seeing all state power - armies, police forces, judiciaries, and laws - as violent and coercive, and thus, an illegitimate form of social existence.
Historically, anarchist ideals and movements prefigured Marxist and communist revolutions in China and in Russia. In the US during the 19th century, anarchists were at the helm of the labor movement that brought the 8-hour workday and ended child labor. Anarchists fought in the Spanish Civil War, opposing Franco before World War II, and long before the U.S. intervened in the struggle against fascism. In more recent times, anarchists, anti-authoritarians, and autonomists organized workers in 1970s Italy outside bureaucratic trade unions to lead illegal wildcat strikes. "We Want Everything!" was their call to action.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, in the US, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, autonomists and anarchists opened squats to reclaim property from capitalism, challenged oppressive manifestations like patriarchy and heterosexism in personal and familial relationships, supported and created queer radical movements and actions, and coordinated massive shutdowns against global financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization, for their roles in structuring and maintaining neo-colonial relationships between the global North and global South.
What are the general principles of anarchism? Horizontalism and anti-hierarchical organizing, for starters. A critique of domination, capitalism and the state more broadly. Relationships of mutual aid through association, federation or affinity are structures that have been put to practice toward these ideals. The priorities of communication and consent. The very notion of possibility and potentiality. However, a quick look at popular discussions about anarchism, or more specifically, "the anarchists," in the past year would not reveal any of these concerns as central to anarchists principles and modes of organizing or direct action.
On July 8th, a jury gave the verdict of "involuntary manslaughter" to former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, who in January 2009 shot and killed an unarmed, 22-year-old Black man, Oscar Grant. Mehserle, who is white, shot Grant in the back as he lay on his face on the train platform. Grant bled to death in plain sight of his friends and strangers, with his hands in cuffs. His last moments were recorded on cell phone cameras and broadcast worldwide. The following week, Oakland exploded in grief and anger. More than 100 people - mainly young people of color - were swept up and arrested during these protests and riots by police and National Guard. These officers held guns to their backs while they, like Grant, lay with their stomachs on the cold pavement, hands tied behind their backs. In the months following, Oakland’s District Attorney declined to pursue legal action against almost all of them due, ostensibly, to lack of evidence or cause for arrest.
The verdict of this high-profile trial in July this year came after weeks of tense preparations in Oakland. Businesses like Men's Wearhouse and the long line of corporate banks in Downtown Oakland cynically plastered their storefronts with images of Grant in the hopes it would keep protesters at bay and their commodities safe. City-funded non-profits publicly sided with Oakland police to denounce supposed “white anarchist outsiders,” and police set up hotlines dedicated for community members to snitch on “anarchist activities.” Even some groups on the left joined in, allowing the mainstream media and police to set the tone and define the agenda of the post-verdict protests. Their priorities were clear: All protests and protesters must be controlled at all times, both by the police and by the hierarchical, non-profit “social justice” organizations that mitigate the damages of police brutality. By no means should youth of color be seen by the world appearing dangerously angry, uncontrollable, or even more threatening still - as self-determined and active agents damaging the symbols of business-as-usual, and rioting over the murder of their peer.
So on the night of the verdict, mainstream media, community leaders, and police fell into lock-step. Police snipers stationed on building rooftops trained their guns on the protesters, who were crushed into the space of a couple city blocks by an army of 6 different police forces. Non-profit-sanctioned leaders given the mic at the city hall square denounced the “violence” of window-smashing, leaving uncriticized the force of the state and the inadequacy of the judicial system that couldn’t bring Oscar Grant back, or provide his family relief, or keep other young Black men safe. To “keep the peace,” a majority of politicians, non-profit leaders, police spokespeople, and the mainstream media openly and flagrantly lied. They created a narrative of unthreatening instigators and their inevitable arrest. Suddenly, the young black and brown protesters who formed the majority of active participants at the protest were transformed into white anarchist outsiders. The majority were transformed into the minority. The same City Attorney that had months earlier pushed and signed an injunction permitting police to profile and restrict the movements of youth suspected of knowing "gang members" now claimed the police sided with civil rights and were protecting young people of color from devious white suburban anarchists who didn't belong on "Oakland turf."
The rhetoric around the Mehserle riots, both before and after the verdict, is a clear example of an uncritical buy-in to circulating discourses that demonize actions (even imagined actions) that fall outside the purview of organizations defined by their tax exempt status. This is beside the point that not all direct actions are anarchist. Sensitive to the ways that local media, politicians, the police and other groups trumpeted warnings about the inevitability of riot prior to the verdict, seems to paint a picture of anti-anarchist groups calling for the very riot they opposed.
In an article published the evening of the Mehserle riot, the police chief reported 75 percent of the rioters were from outside of Oakland, well before it was possible to have processed all the arrestees from the night of the verdict. Having been witnesses to the end of that riot, we can say there were plenty of young folks of color—if color is the bar by which Oakland residency is measured.
The obvious question is then: whose interest does it serve to construct and circulate these figures and the real or imagined boundaries that determine whether or not someone has the right to express their rage about an unjust system? An anarchist person of color and Oakland resident troubled this category stating, "As a queer, I have never felt like an insider." Who, indeed, feels like an insider in a community, a country, a culture that murders Oscar Grant, jails Black lesbians for self defense against queer bashers (like in the case of the New Jersey 4), and allows people to die in emergency rooms from neglect? Perhaps standing outside, if this is where we are pushed, offers a unique vantage point to consider new directions.
While anarchists are not beyond critique, the blanket circulation of a "white anarchist outsider" has been seriously unproductive. The knee-jerk blame of this largely imagined group has been troubling to us and other anarchists of color. Uncritically buying into these accusations and denouncing anarchism as inherently white and as a foreign and invading force robs people of color, at the Meserhle riots for example, of their decisions to be present for their own reasons and of the possibility of identifying as anarchists. (Not to mention forcing all white protesters into the category of anarchist, regardless of their actual politics). We are doing a disservice to not only our own ancestors, like Lucy Parsons, and our own organic modes of relating to one another but, we also obscure our own vision and sabotage the opportunities afforded to us by our anger. What could be a productive rage against the authority of the administration to use cops to beat and arrest us when we are liberating our universities, our streets (and mansions maybe?) is instead preempted by narrating moments of creativity as threatening and beyond the scope of authorized political protest.
The question nags at us: in a world worth building, are we - anarchists - not authors too? The anger that animates our analysis should, as often as possible, be oriented towards our survival, new homes and illuminations.
The radical imagination has always been central to black politics in the struggle towards liberation throughout American history. A comrade from Anarchist People Of Color (APOC) in New York pointed out that the history of black leadership, for example, has been vulnerable to murder, infiltration and cooptation and that, if nothing else, the horizontalism of anarchism offers an alternative situation where silencing key players is nearly impossible because there are none. The leaderless multitude is situated to collaborate, not to receive orders from removable figures. Nina Simone's prayer in "let us learn how to love ourselves first," held beside Max Stirner's statement that "society uses you, you use association" is an outline for a political orientation that begins with a definition of our humanity, our grievability, and works outward from this necessary ground. If we think of the imagination as a material force, as anthropologist David Graeber suggests, how might that change the way we mark the beginnings of our interventions and their scale?
There are many moments in the past year to be critical of. Those of you who participated in the UC Berkeley take-over of Wheeler Hall last year might remember that moment when, during a political disagreement, someone called out in the dark, "the decision made itself." Or another strange moment where a voice insisting that we all signed on to a pact of solidarity by entering the building together couldn't answer the question: what is solidarity? Have we a shared definition? The intervention an anarchist orientation can make to these situations is one that prioritizes informed consent, consensus based decisions, an interrogation of terms, and the prioritization of effective communication. Direct action should never sacrifice these principles and it doesn't have to. Wheeler, in spite of collective criticism, was an inspiring moment that showed us what we, in our own time, might be capable of. Queer theorist Jose Munoz writes, "Astonishment helps one surpass the limitations of an alienating presentness and allows one to see a different time and place." If we put readiness and care alongside the methods of imagination and risk that animate direct action, how much bigger can we dream? How much more involvement could we accommodate? What could we win?
The state needs outside agitators to obscure the actuality of residents in revolt. It needs an ambiguous and misunderstood threat to legitimize its call for containment. With more than a dozen police agencies called into Oakland on the night of the verdict, it would seem the only outside agitators were the ones in uniform. The “white anarchist outsider” discourse allowed state and non-profit interests in Oakland to continue to criminalize its own people under the incongruous banner of protection.
What do we need in order to live and work with more clarity? How can we define our bodies, our collaborations, and our thoughts beyond the revisions of the state? If direct action be among the tools we take up, let us keep in mind that it is “the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.” Living in answer to our desires necessitates that we prioritize strategizing and building the conditions of our release, centering our unimaginable love and our impossible selves.
Puck Lo is a graduate student at UC Berkeley. Her organizing interests draw from Anarchist People of Color (APOC) and prison-industrial-complex abolitionist politics, as well as radical queer and counter-globalization movements.
Ianna Hawkins Owen is a graduate student in African Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley. Her politics are inspired by APOC and movements in art.