metroactive
News, music, movies & restaurants from the editors of the Silicon Valley's #1 weekly newspaper.
Serving San Jose, Palo Alto, Los Gatos, Campbell, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Fremont & nearby cities.

Columns
05.12.10

home | metro santa cruz index | currents


Phaedra
Photograph by Curtis Cartier
QUIET NONRIOT: A moment of meditation at Saturday's 'Anarchy, Compassion and Spirituality' class put on by Free Skool.

Free to Be Me

Are there good anarchists and bad anarchists?

By Curtis Cartier


ONE WEEK after masked so-called anarchists vandalized 18 businesses and a police car in downtown Santa Cruz during a May 1 street party, another group of anarchists is meeting a few blocks away from the scene. The setting is the sunlit patio of the The Abbey Coffee, Art and Music Lounge on Highland Street, and calling the meeting to order is John Malkin, author, journalist, radio host and self-described Buddhist anarchist.

Not everyone in the group shares Malkin's beliefs. Of the 25 old and young men and women occupying the circle of wood and wrought-iron chairs, only a handful use the actual A-word to describe their political leanings. One woman says she's a humanist, a young man calls himself a Christian activist and two people just say they're "confused."

Malkin, a handsome, soft-spoken 46-year-old with short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, says he discovered anarchism through punk rock music and a stay at a Catholic Worker House in Australia. His meeting, run under the volunteer-oriented "Free Skool Santa Cruz" program, is called "Anarchy, Compassion and Spirituality," and any perceived contradiction in the title is not wasted on the teacher.

"People are very surprised when you use 'compassion' and 'anarchy' in the same sentence," says Malkin after leading the group in the first of three silent meditation sessions and launching a deferential and far-reaching debate among the attendees. "Anarchy is rooted in striving to be free. This takes cooperation, and it's hard to cooperate with people using force."

It would be easy to conclude that the group of politely deliberating individuals at the meeting are "good anarchists" and the masked, crowbar-wielding vandals of the May 1 riot "bad anarchists." But it's more complicated than that. Wes Modes, the owner of the SubRosa anarchist infoshop on Pacific Avenue and a lightning rod in the riot's aftermath, simultaneously condemns and defends the use of force in the "fight against oppression," for example. Echoing statements issued on the SubRosa website, the stout, curly-haired activist criticizes the effectiveness of damaging family-owned businesses like Dell Williams and Velvet Underground. He also denies the collective played any role in the vandalism. But he stops short of denouncing it outright. "On the one hand I can see why people would be driven to violence in places like Guatemala where you had death squads coming through towns. I don't know about mom and pop stores in Santa Cruz, though," he says at the meeting. "If you practice violent means you end up with a violent world."

Steve Schnaar, a mechanic at the Bike Church, a collectively run bicycle repair shop, calls breaking windows "useless" and says anarchists should only use force when defending life against immediate threats. Indeed, the three-hour discussion does little to identify the exact point at which a notorious philosophy earns itself infamy. But the muddy picture that emerges of Santa Cruz's anarchists seems to back up the notion that labeling the entire population as criminals in response to the acts of a few is unfair to both the anarchists—most of whom are peaceable—and to a public that longs for actual culprits to be exposed and punished.

"It's certainly been an interesting atmosphere since last weekend," Malkin says with a smile. "I think a lot of us have been thinking about what happened and where it fits with our beliefs."


A World Without Authority

Webster's Dictionary defines anarchism as: "a political theory holding all forms of governmental authority to be unnecessary and undesirable and advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups." Perhaps the only political doctrine that can claim as much in common with communism as it can with libertarianism, it's a complex theory with roots in the philosophies of ancient Greece and China.

For most people, the first image of anarchists that comes to mind is of black-clad, gas-canister-hurling protesters like those at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle or at the more recent G20 summits in Washington, London and Pittsburgh. These "black blocs" of disguised activists wreaking havoc are exactly what Santa Cruzans saw firsthand on May 1 and in videos. Footage shot by UCSC student Prescott Watson shows vandals dressed head-to-toe in black, using chairs, rocks and crowbars to smash windows at the Rittenhouse Building and Urban Outfitters.

"They were people completely in black bloc," says Watson, explaining his now widely circulated footage. "They were just anonymous figures."

The tactic apparently worked, as no one seems to know who they are. Wes Modes says he hasn't the faintest idea. Neither the Santa Cruz police who responded to the scene nor the FBI agents who inherited the investigation less than 48 hours later will hypothesize on the record, and no established anarchist group has claimed responsibility.

The two men arrested the night of the riot, Jimi Hayes and Thomas Williams, also seem to be dead ends, as neither was wearing the black disguises worn by the organized vandals. Instead, both have been described by SCPD spokesman Zach Friend as intoxicated individuals that may have gotten "caught up" in watching the mayhem and decided to join.

Among anarchists, rumors that the vandals were everything from bored teenagers to enraged immigrants to police officers themselves are bandied about. And history would suggest that given the FBI has yet to arrest anyone in connection with the 2008 firebombings of two UCSC researchers' homes, both claimed by Animal Liberation Front operatives, Santa Cruzans may never know who was under the black masks.


Radical Thoroughfare

There are indeed anarchists who view the May Day vandalism as fully justified. One such individual, a 19-year-old transient from Portland who goes by "Rags," can often be found begging for change and food downtown or hanging out at SubRosa. Asked if he supports vandalism in order to spread anarchy, he says he's "fine with it." "Places like Urban Outfitters, they deserve to have their windows smashed," he says. "This kind of thing happens every May Day. People shouldn't be surprised. I just hope it woke people up that their corporate greed isn't welcome."

Nonetheless, anarchist violence and those who support it are relatively rare in comparison to previous eras. Today anarchists break down into a myriad of different subsets based usually on their motivations and long-term goals.

According to Wikipedia, collectivist anarchists, for example, vie for a world where small production-based collectives frame society, anarcho-primitivists call for a return to hunter-gatherer communities and Christian anarchists hold that all earthly governments are a sham. As radicals, the groups often intermingle both socially and in organized marches with animal rights and environmental activists.

For many Santa Cruzans, it's an easy leap to link the May Day vandalism with the 2008 firebombings and the sabotage of construction equipment by eco-activists in Scotts Valley and at UCSC last year.

Detective Dave Pawlak of the Santa Cruz Police Department investigated each of the latter incidents and says that defining the profile of a dangerous activist is easier said than done. He also says Santa Cruz is located on a radical "thoroughfare" that runs from Southern California through Berkeley, Eugene, Portland and up to Seattle.

"You can't put these people into a mold," says Pawlak. "You can have young people that are taught by Mom and Dad and you can have older people that are Mom and Dad."

Capt. Chuck Tilby, a 32-year veteran of the Eugene Police Department, agrees that both violent and nonviolent anarchists come in all shapes. He also says the anarchists on the East Coast differ from those on the West.

"On the East Coast, the anarchists are often tied to the labor movement. That's not the case here. The West Coast seems to have the most active anarchist communities when it comes to elevating protest activities to criminal levels," he says, "You saw this in Eugene in the mid-'90s and it got popular around the county after WTO. You can't lump nonviolent protesters with the bad guys, however. One size does not fit all. These guys are often hijacking legitimate social protests and making it something it wasn't intended to be."


A Teaching Moment

As Malkin's compassionate anarchy meeting winds down, Mia Duquet, a longtime Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation employee who came curious but skeptical about the philosophy, hasn't changed her opinion that taking government out of society's equation is "too idealistic."

"What happened on May 1 reverberated and now the city is hiring eight new police officers that it can't afford," she says, referring to a recent announcement by Santa Cruz Mayor Mike Rotkin that, because of recent gang violence and the May Day riot, and despite an estimated budget gap of $3 million to $4 million, the city will spend another $1 million boosting its force. "This could cause layoffs in departments like Parks and Rec. So when it starts affecting my family, I get concerned."

Modes, Malkin and other anarchists also concede that inspiring a city to hire more police officers is counterintuitive to anarchism's widespread tenet of self-policing. Malkin, in fact, uses the upcoming hirings as a prime example of the benefits of nonviolent activism.

"There is an inclination to want to force change," he says. "The most violent word in the English language is 'should.' And telling people they should or shouldn't do something, whether by governments or activists, can be coercive and cause harm."

For Modes, who still faces questions from FBI agents over the May Day incident, an upcoming court hearing over his role in an unsanctioned New Year's Eve parade and what he says are daily death threats from angry residents, "shitstorm 2010," as he's called it on his Facebook page, will continue for some time to come. For business owners like Diane Towns of Velvet Underground and the vast majority of Santa Cruzans who have strongly condemned the destruction and the philosophy it's been attached to, no amount of peaceful anarchist marches or courteous debates will erase the stain that the black-clad vandals left on the town and their cause anytime soon.

But for Malkin—and, he hopes, for some of the more open-minded residents—May Day's destruction has created an opportunity to teach people about the other side of anarchy. "Before May first, I don't think you would have been calling me to talk about anarchy," he says. "There's always a positive side."


Send letters to the editor here.