An Anarchist Book Fair was held, Saturday March 22, 2014, at the Crucible in West Oakland. It was a well attended event replete with food trucks and carnival games. The large American Anarchist movement is a by-product of an international Anarchist movement with roots in the UK. The event featured speakers, panels, books, and propaganda. Although I was circuitously invited I am reviewing this event and the phenomenon from the outside.
I was informed about the book fair by Lisa Tiny Gray of Poor Magazine. Tiny is a well known organizer with a project called Homefullness in deep East Oakland. A conversation with her revealed that she was also an afterthought for organizers of the event. She accepted the last minute offer to sit on a panel on gentrification in exchange for the ability for her organization to table. Her organization does a lot of work on very little money, the book fair draws large crowds, that crowd spends money. She also thought it was inauthentic that an event that wants to explore gentrification as a part of its focus would not include local people who organize around and suffer from the effects of gentrification in their lived reality. She thought that as a West Oakland arts activist I might be interested in being a part of the panel on gentrification. She was right and I thought to force it into a busy Saturday.
I pulled up to the Crucible and could not find a parking space within a three block radius despite the number of cyclist and walkers in attendance. From the outside I noticed the lack of color in the crowd. I considered parking three to four blocks away and walking back but something stopped me. I did not feel welcome and my circuitous invite was not enough to make me brave yet another face of invasion in a space that seems to be melting before my eyes. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and the visual of the faire spoke to me. I happened to see someone I knew and entrusted them to get me some pictures. As I sat double parked outside and reviewed the shots of the interior — I was engulfed by a sadness tinged with resignation. Even the face of struggle in West Oakland does not reflect the community that should be at the forefront of resistance to being usurped by rabid development. It is reminiscent of the issues that shredded the Oakland Occupy Movement and colored the organization or lack thereof of the Oakland rebellions sparked by the death of Oscar Grant. Oakland has become an invigorated site for Anarchist action and organizing.
I spoke with Tiny after the event to get an inside impression of the fair. She reported back to me that the event ended up being a session of quasi gentrifiers making themselves feel good about gentrification. I too have had my share of sitting on panels where the aim seems to be to make us fuzzy about an invasion and our own pending doom.
Anarchy is not a concept with which I claim total familiarity. I understand the concept in theory but theory and practice are not always the same. I went looking for the roots and intentions of anarchy to find a context for my feelings of dis-ease and my inability to cross the threshold of the event held in West Oakland. This first annual fair held in Oakland was held at Humanist Hall and was followed by a punk concert. A critique of the culture of modern anarchism is that it has become more of a cultural, i.e. punk, neopunk, metal culture, than a political theory in practice. Some observe that since movements organize around cultures that the culture of the anarchy movement is not welcoming to and therefore not inclusive of people of color. The fact that many radical groups that espouse white supremacist view also embrace forms of anarchy could also be a deterrent to building solidarity with groups of color. These critiques must be balanced against my observation that Emory Douglas of the Black Panther Party presented in a panel at the Oakland event and that the Black Panther Party has participated in the Book fair since the event was held in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. However I have to add that failure to exclude is not the same as inclusion and that memories of cointelpro also inform the alliances that groups of color choose to make.
The fact is diversity has been a problem for the modern American Anarchist movement and that may be attributed in part to the connection with anarchy and punk culture. When viewed as a culture as opposed to a political ideology one can understand how certain demographics within a diffused movement could overwhelm other elements of a concept. Given the movements outward perception of being a young, white, anti establishment, anti everything, punk movement, charges of lack of diversity and recent clashes with native organizers, one looks at the West Oakland event and wonders what it imagines it has to do with the daily struggles of the people in the surrounding area. So that there is no confusion I am speaking about those who have been in this area struggling for equity long before the property value skyrocketed and the area became a hotbed of development by distance investors with no ties to the community they now own.
The complete lack of substantial inclusion of local groups and activist is troubling. The inability for organizers of the faire to find them is curious and adds to the feeling of invisibility that seems to attend the experience of being a part of a population that is being systematically replaced/displaced. Below are some thoughts from an anarchist on anarchy, its intentions ideologically, its current challenges, and its struggles with diversity:
“Solidarity, mutual aid, collective liberation, autonomy, empowerment, anti-hierarchy, anti-oppression, diversity, creativity–these are the social values I think of when I hear the word anarchy.” http://ac.home.xs4all.nl/global/discussie/moving.htm
“However, the definition that the global power structure is trying to pin upon us encompasses chaos, privilege, unaccountability, vanguardism, terrorism, conformity, nihilism, naivety and rugged individualism.” http://ac.home.xs4all.nl/global/discussie/moving.htm
Noam Chomsky is someone I get. He is a self described anarcho-syndicalist, it is his definition of anarchy that informs my observations. I find a synergy in his definition and the purpose of many activist groups are concerned with equity or more directly inequity in marginalized spaces such as West Oakland. I linked the article cited because of his definition of both anarchy and his analysis of the Tea Party Movement which adopts an anti-government stance to dismantle public institutions in favor of privatization. I think that what helps me resonate with Chomsky is my familiarity and agreement with the ends he envisions. My problem perhaps does not lie in a critique of a theory of Anarchy but rather with my observation of the way it presented itself in West Oakland.
Chomsky offers, “Well, I think the best characterization that I know is given by one of the leading thinkers and activists in the modern anarcho-syndicalist world, Rudolf Rocker, who described anarchism in general as not a specific set of beliefs that provides particular answers to all the questions that can arise, but rather what he called ‘a general tendency in the history of humanity’ which aims to inquire into the nature of social, economic, political structures to detect structures of hierarchy and domination and to challenge them to demonstrate their legitimacy. They are not self-justified and if they cannot defend their legitimacy on some plausible grounds then to dismantle them and reconstruct them from below. And to do this in the context of the existing society, developing alternative institutions that are more free and more just in the hope of moving on to a world of free associations of workers’ communities controlling their own institutions, their own fate in association with one another of various kinds of federal arrangements and so on. That is the basic thrust of anarchism. Altogether it is myview and of anarcho-syndicalism in particular which is designed for complex industrial societies.”
So what I have come to understand about anarchy does not make me an opponent. However a part of what bothers me about gentrification itself is the wholesale overwriting of what was in a community before it was discovered. I dislike the fact that developers without consciousness about the impact of their development on community intentionally and with purpose from a distance rearrange the complexion and culture of a neighborhood for financial gain. I am troubled by the lack of voice and access traditional residents have in the processes that determine their quality of life. I am concerned with the colonial aspects of gentrification and the forced migrations of communities of color. I am wary of armies who march in the names of people not included in their battle plans. And I am weary of the invisibility conferred upon people who have put years into trying to transform and enliven beleaguered neighborhoods before they were discovered by folks who have not traditionally supported the thriving of these spaces.
“If we are to succeed, it is imperative that we become a movement of and for diverse, self-organized communities, each with its own organic culture. Accordingly, I think it would benefit us to view mass mobilizations as opportunities to strengthen and forge new alliances; and to view mass actions as collective expressions of our community based resistance, utilizing non-hierarchical decision-making structures which enable communities–whether defined by region, identity, or interests–to coordinate with one another, while maintaining their unique cultural.” autonomy.http://ac.home.xs4all.nl/global/discussie/moving.htm
To the hundreds of people who felt so comfortable in West Oakland, those who brought their beliefs in a fair and just social sphere, those who sincerely see themselves as change agents, and even the punk culture population growing in West Oakland who claim to practice some form of anarchy, what is it you want here in West Oakland? Are you a part of the problem for those with a demonstrated dedication to this area who are finding it increasing difficult to continue to live and work in West Oakland? Or are you looking for ways in which to address the systemically embedded problems that are invisible issues in conversations of gentrification and redevelopment of densely occupied areas of people of color? Are your struggles aligned with ours? Where do you see the interest of the areas organizers and yours as intersecting? Where is the dialogue that includes them, and what came before you, and does it matter to you? If the interest of those who were committed to pushing back against the marginalizing effects of gentrification are of no interest to you then why and how is this a field of action for you?
Are we in the same struggle? Is there a place for the traditional activist in areas in which you organize in your schema of community building? Are you serious when you say you can’t find them in West Oakland? #30
Historical origins of The Black Flag (partial)
“The black flag represents the absence of a flag, and thus stands in opposition to the very notion of nation-states. In that light, the flag can be seen as a rejection of the concept of representation, or the idea that any person or institution can adequately represent a group of individuals. Modern anarchism has a shared ancestry with – amongst other ideologies –socialism, a movement strongly associated with the red flag. As anarchism became more and more distinct from socialism in the 1880s, it adopted the black flag in an attempt to differentiate itself. Some anarchists at the time, such as Peter Kropotkin, preferred to continue using the red flag rather than adopt the black. Both the black and red flags first gained notoriety for their use by Buccaneers, who were pirates of French origin operating in the West Indies. The black flag (later the “Jolly Roger“) was displayed, or ‘run up’ the mast, first as an indication that the lives of the crew would be spared if they surrendered. If the crew resisted, the red flag would then be displayed to indicate that the offer of amnesty had been withdrawn; no prisoners would be taken (see also Jolly Roger/Pirate flag below).
Subsequent usage (partial)
During the French Revolution, the red flag was adopted by the Jacobin Club, whose members controlled the insurrectionary Paris Commune during the assault on the Tuileries, the September Massacres, and throughout the Reign of Terror. In 1831, the black flag was displayed as an emblem of protest during the first Canut revolt, an uprising of silk workers in Lyon; it was also flown in the 1840s during hunger riots, as a symbol of the desperation of the starving urban poor. It first became associated with anarchism in the 1880s. The French anarchist paper, Le Drapeau Noir (“The Black Flag“), which existed until 1882, is one of the first published references to use black as an anarchist color. Black International was the name of a London anarchist group founded in July 1881. Louise Michel, participant in the Paris Commune of 1871, flew the black flag on March 9, 1883, during demonstration of the unemployed in Paris, France. An open air meeting of the unemployed was broken up by the police and around 500 demonstrators, with Michel at the front carrying a black flag and shouting “Bread, work, or lead!” marched off towards the Boulevard Saint-Germain. The crowd pillaged three baker’s shops before the police attacked. Michel was arrested and sentenced to six years solitary confinement. Public pressure soon forced the granting of an amnesty. According to Michel, the “black flag is the flag of strikes and the flag of those who are hungry.” The black flag soon made its way to America. On November 27, 1884, the black flag was displayed in Chicago at an Anarchist demonstration. According to the English Language newspaper of the Chicago anarchists, it was “the fearful symbol of hunger, misery and death.” “ a