Yesterday, I was an anarchist
Platypus Review 4 | April—May 2008
“We think too small, like the frog at the bottom of the well. He thinks the sky is only as big as the top of the well. If he surfaced, he would have an entirely different view.”
I just turned thirty. Fifteen years on the Left—that’s half my lifetime now and what it means to me has changed consistently over the years: from punk rock kid with a mohawk and tattoos on my ribs and shoulders to a union leader with a mortgage and kid and the responsibility of thousands of workers on my shoulders. I often find myself thinking back to when my politics were just forming and how simple those days and those politics were. Things were clear: America was bad, veganism was good, pacifism was good, hierarchy was bad, jobs were for suckers and school was for sellouts, squats were a pure form of existence and love was meant to be free. Anarchism was clear, it was simple and we knew how the world should be. We reached for that world by forming small collectives, putting out zines or records, doing punk concerts where we preached to our fellow punks and complained about the world. Being an anarchist meant living and thinking as an anarchist more than it meant making anarchism a reality.
Most of my time as a young anarcho-punk I had a job; I was an apprentice painter. I worked in the same place my dad worked. After years on the same job sites with him, I was only making about two bucks less than him an hour. He had a bad back from years on the job, and no way to ever even think about retiring. I never thought about doing anything to make that job better paying and safer or providing for my future; I was too busy picketing fur stores and running a record distro for punks.
This all changed when my daughter was born; it became far more important to me to make my life better for Lexy and myself. I organized a union.
At first I tried putting in place lessons I learned from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which was very little. Mostly they had great slogans, signs, chants, songs… heck they even had IWW yo-yos and bike lights. But as a Wobbly, I didn’t know how to talk to my co-workers about fighting capitalism and making our jobs better. Five years as an anarchists prepared me for nothing when it came to the actual struggle. I never got another co-worker interested.
This was my first departure from being a straight-line American anarchist. I reached out to a mainstream union, the painters’ union, in order to help organize my co-workers. I was taught very little by the Painters Union, but I was able to become a union member, with health insurance and a decent life. But more importantly I was part of the mainstream of the US Labor Movement. For roughly two years I straddled an odd line: I was still an anarchist—in many ways still an anarchist punk doing things like Food Not Bombs and Copwatch—but I was focusing more and more on getting workers to organize against their bosses.
After a few years of being in the Painters Union, while maintaining all of my ties to the Baltimore Anarchists Scene, I was offered training from another US union to learn how to really organize workers. I’ll never forget that I was told, “you’d get a chance to organize like it was the 1920’s again, because we don’t care about the Labor Laws.” I jumped at this chance and left the comfort of the Baltimore Anarchists I had been a part of for seven years. At the time, I really thought I was going to learn a lot and then come back to the IWW.
That wasn’t to be the case. When I moved to Connecticut and later to California my ties were cut, and my ideology was no longer going to be formed by Angel who brought me into the anarcho-punk community or Flint Jones who brought me into the IWW. Those years shaped me, but it was my time in the wilderness, in the desert of southern California, where there were no leftists, that made me who I am.
It was the reality and the responsibility of organizing workers at tribal casinos that taught me that the black and white perspectives that are so common among anarchists are not simply based on ideological decisions, but rather decisions based on hopelessness or laziness. Ideology makes complex situations clear-cut, but the problem for me is this: the world we live in and organize in is not clear-cut. The simple days of Baltimore where just that, the simple days. The ideology of those days didn’t fit with the reality of struggle.
For three years I lived in California and didn’t see another anarchist, or, for that matter, another leftist. What I saw and lived with in California was a handful of non-ideological young union organizers. We were in a place where there was no history of the left, and no history of even liberalism or unions. We were left to make our own ideology and build our unions the way we thought made sense, from scratch, like it was the 1920’s all over again. Half jokingly, we called ourselves the “red guard of the union,” but the point was that in California, anarchism was no longer a vision I could use to move forward or view my life. I spent my days knocking on the doors of poor immigrants and working class white folks, talking to them about their lives. I saw that veganism didn’t matter and I dropped it. I saw that the police were not the problems, they were the tools of the problem, and so I ignored Copwatch. I saw that Food Not Bombs didn’t fix a problem, it was putting a band-aid on a hemophiliac and I ended my relationship with it. I saw that my punk tattoos hurt my relationships with workers rather than helped and I covered them up. I spent my nights with my fellow organizers/radicals/ revolutionaries/friends pushing ourselves by engaging in self-criticism. We sometimes called them “struggle sessions” because of how tough we were on each other. But it was this time that refined my vision of a new world and the way to get there.
In California, theory did not matter. In California, democracy and perfection did not matter. In California, three things mattered: 1. Did you push yourself? 2. Did you push your comrades? 3. Did you push workers?
Even in this, I continued to believe that I could make my new political insights merge with my version of anarchism: perhaps anarchism wasn’t about freedom, but about winning power for workers. After 12 years on the left and three in the deserts of California, I was coming back to a major city with my mind set: I was an anarchist, who believed that my goal was to build working class power and to do that by building working class organizations.
For my first two years in Chicago, I continued on the same path I had in California. I built my union and thought of myself as an anarchist. I was wrong.
A few months ago I started getting involved with group called “Finding Our Roots: Midwest Anarchist Organizing.” I sat through meetings with the folks that I thought would be on the same page as me. I heard proposals on “Tribal Sovereignty,” “Race and Anarchism,” “Bicycle Workshops,” “Democracy vs. Consensus,” there was nothing about organizing. To them anarchist organizing was about “us” as anarchists or it was about what “others” are or should be doing. They could only talk about the “others” in tribes or in races that weren’t represented; they could only talk about the way anarchists govern themselves and about the culture of the left through bikes or recycling or gardening.
I had come to believe that anarchism was about working class power, but the political concerns of these anarchists made me question this belief. I spent years like Mao’s frog at the bottom of a well. I stared up at the sky and saw something so small. I saw the world of the folks at “finding our roots.” My life made me jump out and see the world around. Our struggle is so big. We are so small and we have so much to do. I felt all alone as the ideology of half my life faded away.
The world is not black and white; the world that I am in, that I organize in is full of shades of gray. After 15 years on the left, I have emerged from the bottom of my well, and not only am I able to look at the whole world, I am comfortable seeing the dirt and the grime that has to accumulate under my fingernails.
“This, therefore, is a faded dream of the time when I went down into the dust and noise of the Eastern market-place, and with my brain and muscles, with sweat and constant thinking, made others see my visions coming true. All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. I did.” T.E. Lawrence.
I think this quote gets to the heart of what it means to be an organizer. It means to see the full capacity of your class, it means to have faith in yourself and those around you and lead them into a struggle. It means to place your heart and soul on the line. It means to work for the world that you want. It means to be dangerous and it means to have the responsibility of the world on your shoulders. Yesterday I was an anarchist; today I am an organizer. I am ready to lead the working class in a struggle and I am ok that the politics are less clear. |P