Practical Thoughts on Organizing for Small Town Anarchists and Anti-Authoritarians
Various thoughts and ideas on organizing in small towns.
Practical Thoughts on Organizing for Small Town Anarchists and Anti-Authoritarians
Everyone in the current anarchist milieu has lots of suggestions for those wishing to enter into the world of the anarchist movement, and in many ways this essay is no different. For many it’s either unionize this, burn down that, organize them, or photocopy this. There are those that say we should just simply drop out, to live off the crumbs of the current order, waiting for it to collapse, while others claim we need to follow a set of strict guidelines laid down by anarchists we have never met. Some say we need networks, other say federations, while others simply opt for affinity groups. Well, regardless of what the anarcho-pundits say, something has to be done about what we are doing to each other, ourselves, and our planet. However, for those living in small towns and wishing to engage in anarchist organizing, often times it‘s not easy, and if you are serious you might have to work to start completely from scratch and build something out of nothing. For many people this is a daunting task, and one that many people are not prepared for. Out of my own experiences in Modesto, I have written this essay in an attempt to give some advice to groups of young people stuck in the middle of no-where, but desperately want it to be the start of something.
As anarchism grows and expands, many young people burst into the movement with often no working collectives in their area, no seasoned experienced organizers around them for guidance, and often no idea how to get started in their communities and begin anarchist projects. Like many underground music scenes, older people often skip town to go on to other areas, and in affect leave behind the next generation of militants that are ready to take on the state and capital alone by themselves. Thus, the next generation often makes the same mistakes and mishaps that the earlier group did, and often times falters out of the movement after a quick amount of time. This “high turnover rate” hurts the movement in the sense that it not so often that people not only question the present order, but also are excited enough about it’s abolition that they wish to work to destroy and put something in it’s place. Thus, it is up to the more experienced of those in the current anarchist and anti-authoritarian milieu to provide advice and information relating to the creation of new and successful anarchist projects, collectives, and organizing.
The community will be your basis for organizing. Marxist-Leninists often concentrate on organizing around opposing the bad aspects of the given nation-state that they exist in, generally because this meets their ends: they wish to get rid of the current government and put a new “revolutionary government” in it’s place. While anarchists certainly engage in these same struggles, (actions against the war on Iraq, attacks on women’s rights, etc.), generally however anarchists find themselves in their day to day organizing work engaged in their own communities. This is because, we generally see the community, or communities within the community, that in a revolutionary context will make up the formations of a future society that we hope will be based upon mutual aid, self-management, and direct democracy. Anarchists also often articulate much better than other radicals how larger geo-political struggles connect on a local level. While the War in Iraq might seem like a huge far away event, and it is, groups like the Pittsburgh Organizing Groups bring the issues home by focusing the affects of such a war on their local community, and then doing something about it in a direct and tangible way. Anarchists are also able to draw these connections because of our un-bashfulness of our politics, and our opposition to the large political systems of statism, capital, and industrialism, and our daily interactions with city government, police, and the rest of the local power structure. For us the war just isn’t in Iraq, it’s on our block.
So if our communities are going to be the staging ground for our day to day organizing, and the setting stage for the class war, we have to get to know it first. What does your city look like, what are it’s origins? If one were to go to my hometown and walk around city hall, you’d think that Modesto was your ordinary run of the mill yuppie infested corporative city. However, if one were to go not but 3 minutes west, you would find run down communities, union halls, communities largely or working class people of color, homeless etc. If one digs into the past of the area that I live, you’d fine that the communities that make up my town largely started when rich white land owners started bringing in immigrant labor to work in the fields. In the 1960’s, central valley towns like Modesto became the staging ground for working class Latino organizing against town elites like the Gallos of Gallo Wine Company, and this is all part of the hidden underbelly of a city that lays just bellow the surface. This understanding is important, because it shows that beneath what appears to be a nice, happy, white area, is a structure that is largely held up by the exploitation and oppression of working class people, immigrants, and people of color..
But not every town will have agricultural roots, but there could be other proletarian forces of possible revolt hiding beneath the surfaces of capital’s monolith modern spectacle. When a group of 200 or so anarchists in Palo Alto held a Reclaim the Streets action, occupied the streets for hours, spray painted graffiti on corporate stores, looted goods for homeless people, and broke windows on corporate stores, support largely came from working class and poor people in the service industry. While rich yuppies and liberals looked on in horror, working service industry people understood that a militant movement of people willing to confront capitalism and stand against it’s values was something that was in their favor. Such a contradiction between a rich shopping area like in Palo Alto, and a largely poor workforce is something that any budding anarchist revolutionary should take notice.
Whether it’s a town with a history of labor struggles and immigrant organizing, or a town with a rich elite and a poor service industry workforce, a town with poor sections that are being gentrified, or a police force that is targeting a certain group of people, anarchists have to be in tune to what is going on where they live so they can actively take a militant and revolutionary role in organizing it. Anarchists also have to have an understanding of these situations, and understand which tactics will have the desired results, and when it is the best time to use them. Reading newspapers and looking for police shootings or strikes going on, talking to homeless people about problems with the police and city government, talking to communities of color about possible attacks from fascists or pigs, these are all things that will help you get started in thinking about what projects and organizing efforts you want to get involved in and work on in your town. But in order for your work to not fall into simple “activism”, (i.e. revolving around specific single issues), but actual revolutionary organizing, you’re going to have to work around issues and projects that seek to not only abolish the existing power structure, but also work an anti-authoritarian one in place.
Starting a Group
You’ve seen the polluting factories, you’ve talked the laboring workers, you’ve seen the mistreatment of the homeless, the brutal pigs, the pointless city council meetings, and you’re ready to start the class war, and break some hearts, laws, and windows. Chances are that you aren’t up to this task yourself, so you’re going to have to work to create a collective that will be able to engage in revolutionary organizing. Chances are you already know a couple people that might be interested in forming a collective that would put your politics into action.
But how to get people to join you? First of all decide how you want to bring people in. Perhaps you want to start with a simple project where people can come together and work on something that can evolve into a large collective or body of organizing work. A discussion group or Food Not Bombs chapter could be good for this. Perhaps you want to simply advertise a meeting along with a film showing and a free potluck. First off, you should at least make an attempt to see what other groups are out there. In many smaller cities, many closet radicals and non-liberals find themselves working with groups they don’t necessarily like, but with the lack of radical activity cling to because it’s the only game in town. Going to a Sierra Club meeting might be as bad as taking a bullet in the head, but maybe there’s an ex-Earth First!er hidden in their ranks. Maybe at the MECHA meeting at the college there’s some militant Zapatista supporters that would be interested in working with you. Maybe at the local union hall there’s an old Wobbly who gave up paying dues long ago, but can still quote Rocker with the best of them. They’re out there. Also, youth are attracted to these groups, and many of them hunger for doing something outside of holding signs once a month, and maybe they’ve even read things like, “Crimethinc”, and wonder why the last time at the big San Francisco protest, those people covered their faces with masks. There could also be youth involved in campus and high school clubs like Gay Straight Alliances and Animal Rights work that might be interested in joining you, wanting to break out of single issue reform work.
Construct a plan, a make a list of all the local groups in your area that you might want to approach. Come up with a flyer or mission statement. “Wishing to form Revolutionary Anarchist Collective in _____ for the purpose of organizing for capitalism’s and the state’s defeat”. Sit through the union meetings, the peace groups, the Gay and Lesbian get together, at the very least you’ll piss off some liberals and let them know that an anarchist is in their midst. Next, hit up those in your age group. Make up a flyer that promotes a meeting or event that you want people to come out to, and put them in high school lockers, and wheat paste them at key areas where kids will see them, (http://www.radio4all.org/aia/comm_postering.html). You can post up posters at the local college, in art galleries, bulletin boards, table at punk/hip hop shows. You should also be aware that if there are large communities in your town that speak or read things outside of English, you should find a way to translate your flyer or call out into another language to reach these people. Post up these posters in those communities, and have them state a collective that will tackle the issues that face that community, (police brutality, high rents, gentrification, etc), but also know that by stepping up to this task you will expected to be sincere. You can also plan your meeting to kick off your collective after a strike, protest, or demonstration, so possibly those that are interested in your event will come out of the wood work for the event you can flyer at.
So you have your meeting and film showing, vegan potluck, first Food Not Bombs or discussion meeting, and only 5 people show up, what do you do? This is fine, discuss with these people what you want to do, how you want to do it, and what projects do you want to do. You should have in mind some various projects and actions that people can agree on, will be a good easy thing to start with, and will also bring the group together. If you are working around the formation of a group that is put together for a single purpose, (doing a Food Not Bombs, starting an Indymedia center, etc), then your task will be based around seeing that goal completed. However, if your collective is more broad, if you want to organize in various ways within your community, while at the same time being a community pole of revolutionary anarchism, then your approach will be a lot different. This is where your knowledge of your community will come in. With you new collective mates, come up with various problems that capitalism and hierarchal systems are creating and manifesting in your community, and various struggles that you think you can engage in that will not only serve the purpose of exposing the system for what it is, but also give you a way to present your anarchist alternatives, but also to bring communities of oppressed people together in struggle and resistance against the various forces of social order. It is also important to understand how those various issues connect and feed off each other. Urban sprawl might be firstly environmentally devastating, but it also promotes businesses that exploit animals and non-unionized labor. Likewise, the privatization of public space might also be going hand in hand with police abuse of homeless and other oppressed groups. Various groups of people are attracted to issues from various angles, and various groups of people will put importance in various things. A farmer, single working mother, and young service industry worker might all be affected by urban sprawl, but they will all have a different view on it. If you want to organize around all of them, you’re going to have to think about how your politics are going to reach out to all of them. Think also about how you want to approach these issues without losing your radical focus, and also not talking over people’s heads.
Now that you’ve located some problems, environmental destruction, labor exploitation, rampant poverty, housing problems, police brutality, etc, now you need a way in which to proceed. Luckily the anarchist milieu is a prime tool box in which people can draw inspiration from. But before you run off with your spray paint and video camera in hand, you might want to consider first creating some atmosphere. Wheat paste, snickering, stencils, graffiti messages, tabling, handing out flyers in oppressed areas announcing your new group, creating a website, (you can do one from free with www.geocities.com), can all help to create a new air around your group, and the possibility for radical change. Such acts of small time artistic sabotage can also help to perhaps draw other people out of the wood work that may have missed the groups formation, and get them interested. Now, with people at least thinking about your issues every time read the stencil on the ground, the graffiti message on the wall, or the sweatpants poster on the pole, you can begin to formulate your modes of attack.
Establishing Yourself in the Community
So you’ve helped to organize a collective, and now you’ve got a pretty good idea on how you want to approach the rest of your community with you new revolutionary project. The next step in your organizing efforts should be to set up what NEFAC calls “Bread and Butter” work, (http://nefac.net/node/1111), which by this I mean to say projects and activities that can easily be done on a weekly basis, engage the collective within the community, and create relationships and spotlight to your anarchist politics and your organizing. This can take itself on in many forms, but generally we are talking about social programs and activities which involve social interaction, and projects which engage the collective within the community. This could include doing a Food Not Bombs feeding somewhere. Doing free clothing distribution in a poor area. Doing Copwatch in an area where police are known to be active. Instead of cooking FNB, doing a free groceries program. Doing literature distribution in a well traveled place. All of these things are, (largely), easy projects that can be engaged in on a week to week basis, easily done repeatedly, and also only require a few collective members to carry them out. These projects can also be messed together in various situations. In Modesto, our collective does an outdoor tabling/free literature Anarchist Café’, which includes free food, books for sale/to read, films, and other items. We also engage in Copwatch while in the downtown area, monitoring police while they engage with youths. On top of this, we also are able to organize and hand out flyers for events and benefit shows, and also talk to people about what anarchism is, on top of getting donations that help the collective function. The results have been more than positive. Besides the propaganda affect of people wearing our shirts, putting anti-police stickers on cop cars, and reading our literature, we also get people who come back regularly, knowing that we get in new pamphlets and literature, and update our “traveling info shop” regularly. Downtown youth also have a deep respect for us, and will come to use asking us to help them or document police interactions with young people in the downtown area. Youth in the area also know that we can be trusted upon for police complaint forms, or for access to footage that we shoot of police interactions with individuals. In one recent Copwatch exchange, one youth called another one over who had a bad interaction with the police and introduced me as, “This guy is cool, they’re against the police, and they’re here for us”. It is this type of organizing and solidarity which helps the anarchist collective become a focal point for class struggle in a set community. The organizing work also helps to include the community in the organizing process, handing them over the leadership skills that can help them do their own projects.
These projects, (to which these are only just a few ideas), put the anarchist collective right in the middle of the community, and require the collective to explain themselves to the community at large, and explain why they are doing what they are doing. Why are a bunch of youths feeding the homeless? Why do a bunch of young people want to document the police and their misconduct? What moved a bunch of people to organize free food giveaways for poor people? Suddenly you have an entire new relationship built with a community that is different than every church, every government program, and every charity. Homeless people don’t usually share the best dumpster tips with their “feeders” now do they, and poor people generally don’t have conversations with those helping them about forming unions huh?
Although touched upon before, literature and the use of propaganda is essential for the budding anarchist collective. Collectives should also work to create and work on their own flyers, pamphlets, and zines which relate to their own specific community issues. Flyers and information also needs to be on hand to give to people to explain your various projects. Either at Food Not Bombs, or during Copwatch, a simple flyer to the right person with proper contact info can help people understand what you are doing, and also provide a way towards greater networking and organizing. You can also look into making cheap business cards, and setting up a PO Box and voice mail for people to call. Also, as stated before, create a website, (for cheap or for free), to not only document the work you do, but to give people in the community a better reference to what you are about and the work that you do. The website will also serve to help other people in the movement know what you are doing, and how they can possibly incorporate what you are doing into their own organizing efforts.
Branching Out From Bread and Butter
Once the collective has situated itself in the community, and is gaining respect by those that it is working with among the oppressed, the collective can start branching out into other areas of struggle, and also start doing events and actions in conjunction with the greater anarchist movement. Branching out to other projects outside of the normal weekly organizing will help the collective try out new projects, and also try it’s hand in working in new communities.
The first step in branching out, is to keep your eyes open in your community. Racist graffiti propping up in the working class part of town? Newspaper abuzz about smog hitting an all time high? Overhear workers talking about unionizing? Perhaps it’s time for a community demonstration against racism and fascism, or a Critical Mass ride against cars, or time to organize a union ala IWW. Perhaps these short projects will just be that, short. They will run their course and you will walk away from them after the goal or task set out is completed. Perhaps they last longer, and you incorporate them into your regular organizing timeframe, (you include a monthly Critical Mass into your collective work). Or maybe you keep working and organizing around the issue on and off depending on what is happening with the issue. Whatever the case, the point is that you branch out and continue to branch out within the community and look for new avenues of struggle.
Another important way of expansion, is to organize events and direct actions based around what the rest of the movement is doing. Perhaps you decide to do a solidarity event with a political prisoner, or hold a benefit film showing for a certain community under attack. You could also decide to organize a direct action in conjunction with a large mobilization happening elsewhere. This can have many affects. Firstly, many small scale direct actions happening across globe gets the state off guard and shows solidarity, and also allows those not able to make it to the main mobilization a chance to engage in direct action on their home turf. It also shows others in small towns that direct action can happen anywhere. If it happened here, why not in your town?
Illegal Action Outside of Collective Setting
Most anarchist collectives will openly engage in a wide variety of semi-illegal actions, be they feeding people in a public park, or marching in an un-permitted march, however, largely anarchists collectives don’t, (and shouldn’t), connect themselves with acts of sabotage, direct action, and vandalism that members of a set collective may engage in. This is practical for security reasons, but the acts themselves also help to give a feeling of uncontrollable revolt, (to a certain degree).
While I have previously discussed the need for the creation of an atmosphere of revolt through graffiti and wheat paste, etc, it is important to keep this going, especially while the collective is involved in various campaigns, large scale projects, or on the verge of doing something big in the community. While such illegal small time actions may serve to help to increase the pressure, it can also help to push and engage various communities in an attempt to push them in more radical directions.
There is also the avenue of illegal protest open to people will to engage in class struggle, when no other avenues are open. For instance, during a period of class tension, or during some form of opposing forces, like a strike, a pro-life march on a women’s abortion center, etc, illegal action might be the only avenue open to those wishing to add their two cents. In the case of the strike, actions against the boss, (or possibly union leaders if they are going against the workers wishes), graffiti messages, posters pasted all over a certain area, windows broken in the right place, all could help to create a sense of elevated class struggle amongst those struggling, and perhaps push things in a more radical direction. While engaging in these activities, one should make sure to think long and hard about how the group that you are trying to support would feel about your actions, and if your actions will help them. If you come to the conclusion that they will help, and you can engage in them without fear of arrest, do so. Keep in mind, such actions should take place outside of the collective, and should be done by affinity groups of people who are bound together by trust, an agreement on tactics, and also an understanding of security culture. Also be aware of possible problems that may arise if the actions are pinned on you and your collective. I remember when some group of people vandalized a Army Bunker in Modesto, (which at the time I did not know even existed), and our group was blamed, (or at least had the finger pointed at us), by various people within the Peace and Justice Community. In the end, nothing happened, the people responsible for the action never got caught, and the liberals mostly just finger pointed and talked shit.
Dealing with the Left, and Hijacking Events
So, you have a regular organizing schedule. You also are involved in the community organizing various events, maybe even you’ve got a little media, chances are you are going to come into contact with leftists and liberals. Although you may agree on some of the same problems with these people, (corporate power, the Bush administration, ecological concerns, racism, etc), at the end of the day, these people are scared to death at the idea of social revolution. Like those in power, leftists and liberals by and large don’t think that humans have the ability to control and manage their own lives and communities, much less their own social struggles. Thus, the idea of anarchist principles such as a “diversity of tactics”, and decentralization are totally opposite to what these people want. Many liberals and leftists are also only interested in maintaining the small “peace” community that they have, which is largely based around seasoned old activists, and are apprehensive to the idea of branching out into community struggles which may involved the poor, people of color, or those that do not subscribe to a Ghanaian view of non-violence.
You may come into contact with liberals in various ways. You may know them, and ask them to join you at events that you are organizing, for instance, anti-war actions, etc. You may also ask to use their recourses, maybe they have a building that you can use, grants to give out, etc. They may also just straight up denounce you from the start. When Modesto Critical Mass started, we went to the Bike Coalition of Modesto to try and get the rank and file to check out the event. The rides created a lot of media, with Critical Mass pictures and articles on the front page of the local news, and we even got a TV spot on a local news station. The Bike Coalition, scared that all the work that they had struggled for, (which is still unknown), would be destroyed by rampaging bike riders, chanting dogmatic slogans and burning SUV’s, (we wish), issued statements and letters to the Modesto Bee against us. While the rank and file of the Bike Coalition told the leaders to shove it, and some did come out to CM, the Bike Coalition made it clear that they were interested in keeping their image of themselves separate from Critical Mass, and anything that was self-organized like Critical Mass was a complete threat to them. In the end, they ended up just looking stupid, and we ended up looking like innovators. We were laughing all along the way though, as media swarmed around us, in the end we were able to only organize about four good rides due to low turnout. While the turnout was so-so, the results were amazing. In this example, it is clear the kinds of relationships that anarchists should have with liberals and leftists, a rejection of the organizational hierarchy, but positive relationships with it’s various people, (largely rank and file), many of whom will become your supporters despite their leaders condemning you.
At some point in your organizing career, you might come to the conclusion that often times film showings, speakers, and other smaller educational events that we organize to hell for, and only get a small amount of people in the end, are not worth organizing. This may not be a problem, and perhaps even you can find a way to get large amounts of people to come out to your events. But, there are other options that many anarchists forget about. Earth Day festivals, celebrations of people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez, etc, all provide opportunities for a collective to come into an area that has the face of a political event, but obviously has no connection to actual social struggle, (especially if it’s put on by the city). This does not mean that you can’t do something to change that! Hijacking events can be one of the best ways in which anarchist collectives can take their politics to a new group of people, and also gain new interest into the work that they do. By hijacking events, I do not mean that you should make the event fall apart, destroy the hard work of well-meaning people, etc, what I mean is to somehow hijack the attention of the people there, and in many ways turn liberal events into a forum for radical thought.
In our city Earth Day is a favorite of ours, and for the past two years we have been organizing Earth First! Day. The process of getting a booth is actually quite easy, and for people who aren’t selling things, (or just asking for donations), the price is free or $5. Having a table full of radical literature, anarchists films, Food Not Bombs food, patch making area, and also street theater, in the middle of a totally boring and quais-liberal event is often like a lagoon in the middle of the desert. During the last Earth Day, we created a corporate sprawl monster that went around and made fun of eco-hurtful business and government entities that somehow thought that they someone “helped the earth”. Other instances of success included when we found out that a celebration of Cesar Chavez was happening, and we ended up tabling and serving food there. No-one bugged us about the $15 dollar fee, we got to talk to people and organized for an upcoming march against the Modesto Police Department for the murder of a young Latino man, and we also even got invited up to speak to the crowd by the event organizers! While these types of actions can be small, they help to show people that there is a stream of thought and action beyond representative democracy and the graveyard of capital. It also helps to put human face to the collective, and make further connections within the community.
Funding Your Operation
Chances are that even with all your scamming and stealing, you still going to have to pay for things. Either copies, supplies, new equipment, pictures, etc., it’s going to cost money. But how are you going to raise it? There are several ways, the first is to simply ask for donations when you table and do events. Having lots of free literature also makes people feel more interested in donating to you. You can also liberate shirts, and make shirts to sell. Vegan baked goods, stickers, buttons, all of these things are ideas that won’t cost you much money, (meaning if you have to give them away for free it’s alright), and will also help to spread you message and propaganda. Benefit shows are often another avenue to raise quick cash. Punk bands often are interested in playing shows, and many of them might even have a vague idea what the benefit would be for.
Going Outside of Your Comfort Zone
Often times many people in collectives do not get far beyond a simple project or campaign in their organizing because they simply are afraid to go out of their comfort zones. Talking to groups of people you are unfamiliar with, talking to new people you haven‘t met, simply calling other people on the phone about an event, all of these things are often intimidating, and scary to many people, but they are needed if you are going to go outside of the general anarchist community and reach out to a broad audience. You also need to get comfortable with your ideas, and be able to talk and discuss with people about them, and explain to people about why you believe the way you do. Are you able to explain what anarchy means to people? What are you going to say when someone ask, “But what will we do if there are no police? Who will take out the garbage?” If you can’t think of an answer, then you need to read up on history and theory and be prepared to answer questions. This does not mean that you have to be a mini-Noam Chomsky, ready to spit essays at the drop of a dime, but you need to at least be ready to answer the publics questions when asked.
Days of Kropotkin, Nights of Crimethinc
Within the current anarchist scene there seems to be a pull, or a distancing from the more lifestyle oriented aspects of the “Crimethinc” anarchism, (squatting, dumpstering, aspects of veganism, anarcho-punk, etc), for the more serious “class struggle anarchism” approach. While personally I have more problems with the Crimethinc lifestylism, for young collectives, there needs to be an understanding that both aspects can be brought together for the sake of greater organizing and fun, but a distinction must be made between real revolutionary activity and lifestylism.
By this I mean, it’s not a bad thing that you have a punk vest, but when you are handing out flyers in the community, maybe you should leave it at home and wear a plain shirt. It’s great to share dumpster tips with the homeless, but when you’re talking with a family who’s son just got shot by the police, maybe you’ll want to skip that conversation with them. I’m not saying that people should go around dressed like saints and yuppies, I am saying that people need to dress tactically. Just as the black blocer dresses to avoid detection, so must the young anarchist organizer avoid being pre-judged by his community.
At the same time, there’s no reason not to engage in things like squatting, dumpster diving, stenciling, etc, and all the silly and fun things that many anarchists level at “Crimethincers”. There’s also no reason we can’t move these things into the realm of class struggle. Why not squat and turn it into a social space, or a homeless drop in center? Why not use your dumpster surplus as a way to give food to various families, or a town in the community across the way to start their own Food Not Bombs? We should be rejecting the notion that lifestylism will change things by itself, not entirely everything that comes with lifestylism. In the end, it’s all about tactics. Squatting a house so you can store clothing for community distribution, dumpster diving to save money so you can afford gas to get to the protest tomorrow, scamming copies for the new student group that you are working with, these are all things that are lifestylist, but yet a part of the larger class struggle.
Where from Here?
You’ve come along way, now the question is, are you ready to take the next step? You’ve established yourself as a reliable group. You are out in the community regularly. You have regular publications, and people can get in touch with you. You are out in force, and when you all show up for events it turns the tide of the event. You have engaged in campaigns, and possibly won, or at least learned something. The only question left is where to go from here? This will have to be an organic process as you advance and update your tactics and organizing to greater confront the state and capital and win on your home turf.
Examples of solid, working anarchist groups: