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Illustration by Tracey Snelling

Rage Against the Machine

The millennium marks the return of anarchy

By James MacKinnon

OVER THE WIRE comes a report of an anarchist punching a police officer in the face, "repeatedly," during a street protest in Philadelphia. I imagine that little clot of information exploding outward through the endless fractals of the Information Age. I picture it reaching the suburban dinnertime conversations of a hundred million American Beauty households, and if I listen closely, I can hear America tut-tutting.

But then, there is something shocking about some punk putting one up in a cop's face. In a culture that can absorb, without flinching, the fact that certain individuals can afford to order takeout for the world's poorest billion without losing their seats in the Billionaire's Club, punching a cop remains a genuine shock. If you make an effort to understand it, your internal pop-psychologist kicks in: I'm getting the sense that you're angry. More than likely, you give in to an almost gut-level feeling that this is very, very wrong: In America, One Does Not Punch an Officer of the Law.

Sitting in a shady urban park, I bring this up with Closet Punk ("I'm kind of a punk, but I'm in the closet"). He has been sitting cross-legged with an almost Gandhian stillness, but now he stands and begins to act out the climax of a 1999 protest in Montreal, when riot police sealed death-penalty protesters in an alley before they had even begun to march.

"You could just feel this panic building," he recalls. "Suddenly they ran at us--a totally unprovoked police charge."

As people scrambled to escape up a single-file staircase, the cops closed the gap. Closet Punk mimes the way a baton to the face knocked his friend down onto the bike she was pushing. He stepped in as a human shield, felt the jarring pain of a truncheon to the thigh, then managed with one hand to grab the officer's weapon.

"I just looked him in the eye and . . ."

He gropes for a way to describe the complexity of an epiphany. "The state is going to crush you if it doesn't agree with you," he says finally.

THE PROTEST in Montreal ended when the police destroyed the activists' signs, then allowed them to leave, two by two, like animals off Noah's ark. And so, in Closet Punk's world, news of people striking back against police has a much different effect than it does on a person watching the nightly news and thinking that all these balaclavas and bandanas have grown a little stale.

In 1969, Carl Oglesby wrote about the effect in The New Left Reader: "The policeman's riot club functions like a magic wand, under whose hard caress the banal soul grows vivid and the nameless recover their authenticity." Closet Punk wraps up his story of cops and rebels. "That was really like a life-changing thing for me," he says, then laughs lightly. "It's ironic. They've unwittingly created a radical anarchist."

Anarchist. (Pause; roll of timpani, clash of cymbals.) Yes, the capital-A Anarchist is back, and he's wearing a big black gas mask and breathing like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. He's cursing the hippies and climbing the walls of the gated community. He's throwing bricks and lighting fires, and when he rolls out at midnight in his long black car, you'd better believe that he'll have Jesus in the trunk. This is an all-points bulletin, and in Anytown, America, good citizens are scrambling to hide the booze and lock up their daughters.

That's the easy definition. Taking a truer measure of anarchy is puzzlingly difficult, as David Samuels found when he reported on the infamous radicals of Eugene, Ore., for Harper's magazine. Samuels concluded, in concerned tones, that the anarchists suffer "the absolutist psychology of children whose parents split up or sold out or otherwise succumbed to the instability inherent in modern marriage."

However wrong or right about his sample study, Samuels was opening a historical wound. Lenin himself declared anarchism an "infantile disorder" (best cured, added Trotsky, with an "iron broom"), and critics ever since have suggested that anarchists, as one historian put it, "project onto the State all the hatred they felt for parental authority."

It is just as easy, of course, to explain a person's faith in authority through the psychology of a child with a burden in his pants. If only anarchists suffer such Freudian analysis, it's because journalists are conditioned to expect tight limits on public behavior, argues Jason McQuinn, an anarchist for 30 years and editor of Anarchy magazine. "Rather than taking into the light the idea that there are some people who believe they can change power in a structural way," he says, "mainstream media wants to believe that these people are in some way acting out their sickness." To many, that will sound paranoid, like the complaint of a nudist who just doesn't get why the rules are against her.

But, like the nudist, the anarchist is just so different that you're all too prone to stare at the obvious. At best, you might try to guess what makes her tick. There are a lot of gaps to jump before you finally think: Maybe this person makes sense.

IF YOU WANT to stare into an anarchist den, you might start on Earl Street, in a mixed neighborhood of Toronto. The building itself is Romanesque Italian, rising in stone and stained glass. This is Our Lady of Lourdes, a Jesuit parish, and the place of worship of poet, author, and professor Albert Moritz.

Moritz is an anarchist and Catholic, or as he puts it, "a Catholic among anarchists, and an anarchist among Catholics." It's a difficult and deeply personal balance that Moritz describes as a refusal to reject any influence that resonates with his sense of humanity. "I'm a palimpsest," he says. "My life is a matter of maintaining contradictions and attempting reconciliations."

Anarchists like Moritz are easier guides into what might be called "the anarchist conversation" than, say, a vegan squatter who goes by the single name "Kronstadt." As Moritz would be the first to declare, though, "easy" does not mean "more legitimate." It's a question of starting points, and the anarchists interviewed for this story--including a warehouse worker, a youth-care advocate, a "boss," and a computer coder--start somewhere nearer to the house-in-the-suburbs, 2.5-child norm than my (fictional) Kronstadt. Moritz, for example, recommends anarchism as, to begin with, a way "to lighten up your thought."

In its immediate impression, anarchism is the intellectual equivalent of the place the socks go when they vanish from the laundry. Consider, for example, the disappearance of outrage. Earlier this year, The Filth and the Fury--a documentary about the seminal punk band the Sex Pistols--hit audiences with an opening collage of 1970s Britain. Pneumatic models hawk vacuums on TV; black-tie swells drive past squalid housing projects; the Queen looks as if she smells something nasty that she can't possibly mention. It's a setup, designed to make sure you understand that, once upon a time, it made sense to scream, like Johnny Rotten, "Anarchy! Get pissed! Destroy!"

What might strike the viewer, though, is that nothing much has changed. Imagine a collage for the year 2000: virtual fly-fishing, "doggie day-care," the cult of Oprah, 2 million in prison in the USA, the greatest gap between rich and poor in living memory. Somehow, though, all that punk rage seems passé. Are these just "different times"? Or do the same forces that virtually prohibit ripped jeans (so '80s!) also convince us that anger's uncool?

OUTRAGE fell from fashion, so much so that even our most visible radical groups--like Earth First!, the Ruckus Society, and the Direct Action Network--seem restrained. Most have settled into media-savvy campaigns of nonviolent direct action (many of their members, it has to be noted, are anarchists). But within the anarchist conversation, outrage is a warming fire around which to debate the unmentionable questions. Right now, a new consensus is attracting a limited following, best known through the Black Bloc street radicals that believe corporate media to be a monster that isn't worth feeding, that property damage isn't violence unless living things are wounded, and that enduring police violence may be the same as accepting it.

Without this debate, people like Albert Moritz would condemn the Black Bloc anarchists out of hand. Within the debate, he refuses to rebuke them. "I wish them well," he says. In fact, Moritz, the good Catholic, refuses to reject even the possibility of a morally defensible offensive attack on the police.

"These are real questions," he says. "After the Second World War, the United States was perhaps the chief enforcer of the notion in the Nuremberg trials that you are demanded to adhere to a higher standard than the laws and ideals of the country that you happen to be in, the organization that governs that country, or the military body that gives you orders. You were held guilty unto death if you didn't dissent from them unto a higher standard. But, within our own political discourse, it's usually considered absolutely verboten to invoke that same principle."

The submerged conversation that connects people like Moritz to a teenager building a fiery barricade out of a Dumpster is the reason anarchism, and not only "the anarchist," creates such a furor each time it rises near the mainstream. To government and corporate authorities, no good can come if Jo Coffeecup discovers that this thing called "anarchism" is like an ongoing talk-radio program where the unspoken is always the topic of the day.

YOU'RE listening to Circle A Radio, folks, and the question today is "Are there times when it's OK to attack the police?" We've got Caleb Williams on the line from Boise. Hi, Caleb.

Hello out there, I just want to say that I love your show. . . .

You can almost hear the truncheons thumping on the riot shields, the stern murmurs in the White House, the family counselors helping parents figure out if their children are hanging out with anarchists.

"I sometimes have the feeling that many of these people suspect there is a kind of Berlin-Wall-in-1988 quality to the supposedly massive satisfaction and confidence of the late capitalist system," says Moritz. "They react with rage because there is some fear behind it."

We are slowly circling the anarchist beast, but there's no other way to approach a 200-year-old philosophy that is still absent from most political science reading lists. Its "experts" reject the term, and insist that if their words aren't fixed and true, then that's exactly the truth they're shooting for.

"The first anarchist was the first person who felt the oppression of another and rebelled against it," writes Peter Marshall in his hefty history of anarchy, Demanding the Impossible. In effect, anarchism lays claim to the root of grassroots.

A few things can be said for certain about anarchist philosophy. Anarchists reject the legitimacy of external government, political authority, corporate power, hierarchy, and domination. They believe that, through social rebellion, society can become a voluntary association of free and equal individuals. "Mind your own business" has been an anarchist motto, but the emphasis on equality separates the anarchist from any free marketeer. Anarchism imagines the maximum individual freedom that is compatible with freedom for all others, and it is along this line that anarchists fiercely debate and divide. There's an old joke: "What do you get if you lock two anarchists in a room? Three splinter groups."

The movement that emerged with the "Battle in Seattle" has been publicly linked to anarchism, says Cindy Milstein, a faculty member at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont, but the association isn't as strong as it should be. "I have never seen a movement that included so many anarchists, whether they were dressed all in black or not," she says.

"The direct action part of it--from the affinity groups to the puppeteers to independent media--has either been strongly influenced by anarchism or is initiated by anarchists."

The new movement building out of Seattle is at least "proto-anarchist." It is radically decentralized, largely leaderless, tolerant of a wide range of expression--and ready to party whenever power takes a tumble.

These are essential elements of anarchist history. The Zapatistas in Mexico are anarchistic: sovereign, self-governing, structured without hierarchy, intensely local, and in direct confrontation with government and corporate power. Green politics, with its rejection of leader-worship and centralized power, borrows heavily from the concept that "anarchy is order" (the root of the "circle A" symbol).

At a time when nuclear holocaust seemed only a matter of time, punk rock urged us to ruin this doomed world and see what emerged--an echo of anarchist Michael Bakunin's 1842 statement, "The urge to destroy is also a creative urge."

THE NEW LEFT of the 1960s argued for decentralization and direct democracy, and against the power of the police, the state, the military, and even "the tyranny of culture." From self-governing communes to yippie sloganeers ("Revolution for the Hell of it!"), a largely unrecognized anarchism bored deep into Americana. The Black Panthers resembled current radical anarchists in their dual commitment to self-defense against police and "active community" in the form of free medical clinics and food services. And anarchism was at the heart of the 1968 riots and general strike that brought France to the brink of revolution at a time when, like now, the word seemed ridiculously naive.

The Situationists--radical critics who formed an anarchist resistance to consumer society--fought police from behind barricades, believing that their sudden glimpse beyond the spectacle of the commercial glut had created a mindshift that state and commerce could never again co-opt.

Anarchism has also had its peace: the anti-nuclear movement was deeply inspired by Gandhi, who had studied the pacifist anarchist Leo Tolstoy, who admired history's first self-declared anarchist, the French revolutionary Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. It has had its brief and requisite fame: anarchism is linked to the assassination of U.S. President William McKinley, and in 1892, popular anarchists Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman conspired to attempt the murder of Henry Clay Frick, chair of Carnegie Steel. (Frick's use of Pinkerton strikebreakers had resulted in the death of 10 workers and three guards.) Anarchists can also claim at least one historic foresight: they denounced communism before it could even be called a movement. Back through time the anarchist reels. Back to Jesus ("The first anarchist society was that of the apostles," wrote one anarchist thinker); back to Lao Tzu, who argued that, to the free person who gives others their freedom, "what room is there left for government?"

"When you offer people a chance to create their own lives, it's incredibly powerful," says Milstein. "The ideas are strong enough that people will come to them."

IF ANARCHISM is resonating throughout the new politics, it is in large part because there is just so much to resist: Britney Spears and Tommy Hilfiger, e-commerce and media mergers, tweedledum politics and police-sanctioned protest. The traditional left has produced Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, while the right enjoys an exclusive claim on freedom, responsibility, and individuality.

The physicist's term "potential energy" seems a good description of the times, and anarchism is the wrecking ball waiting to swing.

If history is any measure, though, it is the anarchist and anarchism that will be misunderstood, denounced, and driven again into their deep underground. One anarchist, writing for the Independent Media Center at the outset of the early-August protests in Philadelphia, predicted an impending storm. "The media simultaneously demonizes and discredits the protesters, turning them from citizens with legitimate concerns that aren't being heard into an unruly mob with no cause that wants to find any excuse to trash buildings and beat up cops. Then, the general public is willing to look the other way as police invade civil rights."

Just days later, Philly Police Commissioner John Timoney, himself jostled during protests surrounding the Republican National Convention, called for a crackdown. "Somebody who has nationwide jurisdiction has got to look into these groups," he said. "I intend on raising this issue with federal authorities."

Closet Punk can already feel the heat. He asked to be named only by his graffiti tag; he works on a politically sensitive inner-city project and worries that city officials could use the weight of his label--anarchist--to shut down the operation. "It's a philosophy that's really undergone a lot of oppression over the past 100 years," he says.

He hopes, without expectation, that the public will come to see beyond the balaclava. Closet Punk has become an anarchist advocate; most recently, he's organized a reading circle that meets in a public park. They're checking out Goldman and Chomsky, and the gentle Peter Kropotkin is coming up on the list. It's an interesting image: 10 allies of the dreaded Black Bloc reading, as Oscar Wilde put it, "a man with a soul of that beautiful white Christ."

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From the October 19-25, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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