Infrastructure, Transience and the Death of Anarchist Organizing in Small Town America
By Greg Wells
THE COLLEGIATE EPIDEMIC
For over five plus years, I have worked diligently in collectives and coalitions, in groups diverse and homogenous, old and young. My hometown of Richmond, Virginia is a collapsed industrial town of 200,000 striving for an identity in this age of technological wizardry and cutthroat corporate competition. Richmond is also home to an urban inner-city arts college that serves as a focal point for thousands of predominantly middle class youth from all corners of Virginia and beyond.
Within this context, six of us came together from three separate living situations in June 1999 to plant the seeds of what is most likely the first attempt at an explicitly anarchist based collective household in Richmond’s history. The very earliest roots of an anti-authoritarian past in our city date to the late eighties. Accordingly, when I say we are starting from scratch, I mean it. In our brief time in existence, we have witnessed a new consciousness appear within our community on the importance of establishing this very important form of challenging the acceptable societal norms of what defines a family living situation. We feel we are a family in the truest sense of the word. We share, we struggle, we challenge and push one another to greater heights then we ever would have imagined just two short years ago. By the time you read this, Richmond may have as many as four of these beautifully inspiring households, all striving together and as individuals to reclaim our future from those who seek to destroy it.
In my time here in Richmond, I have watched dozens, if not hundreds of individuals zoom in and out of the local anarchist community with the rapidity of the ever-changing seasons. Unlike major urban areas like New York City or the San Francisco Bay Area, those of us who live in America’s many forgotten towns rely largely upon the efforts of a small base of college-enrolled radicals. We depend heavily upon these transplants for everything from regularly scheduled programs such as Food Not Bombs’ weekly meal sharing to mobilization and networking tasks. Unfortunately, it is extraordinarily rare to find a student of any ilk, anarchist or otherwise, make the leap from their transient existence to a full-time commitment to this rapidly decaying town.
For years now, a minute handful of Richmond anarchists have feverishly sought for some lasting sense of stability. We have been fighting a frustrating but diligent battle to create and establish a sustainable infrastructure. Without infrastructure we are little more than another clique of individuals with common interests who occasionally get together to hang out at a bar. The importance of infrastructure is reflected in our need and desire to move beyond our closed meetings in living rooms or at the university, as well as our desire to build for tomorrow as opposed to reflecting too heavily upon our movement’s failures of yesteryear. This is the fuel that drives our quest to break free from our comfort zone and lay all of our posturing and half-fulfilled promises to waste.
In the past year and a half since the anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist movement’s explosive public debut in Seattle, I have watched with extreme interest the rise and fall of the heavily college-based anti-globalization movement; and when I say fall of, I mean with an overbearing thud. The Richmond Anti-Globalization Network, has gone from mass meetings and video presentations of 50-75 in the spring of 2000, just before the DC A16 protests, to its current stagnant state, where curious onlookers outnumber actual working members of the organization at weekly meetings. In my travels I have observed time and again this same pattern playing out in college towns across the country.
This whole process has revealed that the overwhelming majority of the new student radicals are almost exclusively interested in the party, not in toppling the beast we are up against. If we were to win today, there would be no more quarterly confrontations with the bad guys. No more overblown stories of being viciously assaulted with water hoses and rubber bullets. No more props for who has the best stories. The sheer lunacy of this is too much to handle. Are these folks too short on memory to recall what happened to a popular student uprising at UNAM in Mexico just last year where over 1,000 students were arrested and brutalized for defending their basic right to a free education? Do they have no working knowledge of what happens today to anti-government dissidents throughout the global South?!
In these communities, there is little formal capacity to seriously plan how to combat our collective enemy. While thousands of campus activists are aimlessly roaming the modern-day hobo circuit from Asheville to Berkeley to Portland to Philadelphia, hopes of establishing any serious threat to the United States government or to capitalism are becoming terribly remote. The precise moment that the Black Panthers became the single greatest threat to national security in the United States was not a product of their police patrols in Oakland, did not result from their audacity to publicly display firearms, or even the standoff at the California State Capitol in Sacramento. Nope, not even that boldest of statements made the pigs feel the least bit threatened.
The moment the Panthers began serving impoverished children free breakfasts and combating sickle cell anemia in their own community was the day they became public enemy number one and the most legitimate threat to the US government.
This is the power that sends fear up and down the spine of the machine, the power of everyday citizens taking control of their own lives, their own communities and their own future. Just think, the Panthers had over 200 chapters of brilliant and exuberant young minds who were building and creating a better world out of the rubble that was America in 1968 and they were systematically wiped out less then five years after their inception. As anarchists faced with the technologically savvy systems of police surveillance and repression becoming common today, we’ve got our work cut out for us every bit as much as any previous movement in American history. If we don’t get real busy real quick building alternatives which will replace the system that destroys us, we will only continue to destroy ourselves.
THE PHILADELPHIA EQUATION
During the months of April through October of last year, the collective house I live in hosted approximately one hundred houseguests. On solo hitch hiking excursions, group train hoping expeditions and week long getaways, they poured into our home with tales of new found hope and optimism sprung from the new mass protest movement. We had somehow, someway, become an intricate link in the web of Eastern Seaboard anarchist destinations. Nearly every one of our guests was either coming from or going to our neighbor four hours to the north, Philadelphia. In recent years, through a steady stream of mass rallies and Mumia Abu Jamal notoriety, the city of Philadelphia has become ground zero for the suddenly swelling anarchist movement on the East Coast. After last summer’s Republikkkan National Convention, scores of vagabond youth decided to call Philly their new home. New squats rapidly opened in the radical hotbed of West Philadelphia. New faces appeared on the streets and at meetings with each passing week, and all is jolly and well, or is it?
With the mass migration of up-and-coming anarchists to Philadelphia, a very deep wound is being ripped into the heart of our movement nationally, namely the slow death of the small town radical undercurrent.
The departure of any prominent individual member of the Richmond anarchist community has a monumental impact on not only our ability to carry their abandoned weight, but also on our mental psyche, not to mention the more obvious problems posed by the lack of creativity, vision and zeal to create and build anew in a town where there is little history of resistance to draw upon. It takes character, originality and years of devotion to a town such as Richmond to even begin to scratch the surface of the confrontation we are faced with daily. If we want to be perceived as serious, then let’s be serious.
Philadelphia has an anarchist movement that is rich with over a century of continuous struggle and sustenance. Their anarchist bookstore, the Wooden Shoe, is the longest running in North America. They have collectively-owned community spaces and homes established through a land trust. They have a strong squatting movement, a worthy anarchist publication in the Defenestrator and innovative and thoughtful minds pushing in a thousand different directions. Do they really need you to leave Wheeling, West Virginia and set back the tiny radical movement there back for years just so you can play soccer and show up at a token protest every three months? I don’t think so. You owe it to yourself, your community and most importantly our future as a movement to build and struggle and grow right where you are. Sixteen years ago last May, the city of Philadelphia bombed a neighborhood not too far from the current central nerve center of the West Philadelphia anarchist community. It wouldn’t take much for this to occur once again, and cripple us in a manner almost as devastating as the manner you will by moving to Philadelphia.
Greg authors the zine Complete Control.