What I would do with $55,000: Our need for accountability and our failure to realize opportunities and build movements

Posted by atrain

On May 2nd 2010, I received an email in my inbox calling for “solidarity” and “emergency donations” to pay the bail of 11 self-identified anarchists in Asheville, North Carolina. They were alleged to have smashed ATMs, bank windows and small shops in celebration of May 1, International Workers’ Day. The price to bail out each of the 11 who were arrested? $5,000.  As predictable as the paper-hawking of countless Communist factions at street demonstrations – anarchists locally and nationally got to work planning benefit events.  Arrestee benefits are something we are always able to pull together. Yet our inability to create effective momentum, organization, and lasting impact, especially during economic and ecological crisis, is exacerbated by the fact that our “movement” allows anyone to identify as an anarchist, go on “the attack,” and turn months of potential movement-building efforts into benefit shows and talks about their actions.

I became an anarchist in the late 1990s. Since then, I’ve seen countless projects and groups fall apart due to lacking the resources and organization.  Rarely do groups continue moving forward in a productive way.   I started to ask myself how anarchists here in Chicago could use $55,000 to build and strengthen our movement.  The numbers I use are obviously not exact. However, they point to the possibility of creating mass base movements instead of acting as an isolated political sect.

To strengthen our current movement, I would attempt to pay the rent of several existing anarchist and related projects for the year.  To strengthen formal organizations and social centers I would pay Biblioteca Popular $9,600 and Locked Out $12,000; the I.W.W and Lucy Parsons Worker’s Center would get $4,300. That would leave $29,100.  To strengthen community projects I would give Cop Watch $5,000 to buy new cameras, recorders, vests, and supplies for the communities that they organize in.

That would leave $24,100. I would use this money to address weaknesses in our movement, including our inability to effectively outreach and expand anarchist ideas outside of our circles. I would buy one industrial CD-R/DVD read and write drive for $1,000; a printing press for $5,000; and a screenprinting press for $8,000.  This leaves a remainder of $16,100.

Opportunities that would exist outside of this budget would include buying land or buildings instead of renting.  We could afford to operate a worker-managed bus program to combat the Chicago Transit Authority’s cuts and layoffs.  We could fund, for an entire year, direct action worker centers throughout the Midwest.  Most importantly, we could use the funds to build our capacity as organizers. We would finally have a chance to break out of being isolated militants.

This is all hypothetical, but remember that there is still $16,100 left.  How would you use it to build models of anarchist resistance?  

Chicago has made international headlines as being the most violent city in the United States.  Not only are we the most violent, we also have 70,000-75,000 foreclosed homes in Metro Chicago.   We also have the highest rates of foreclosure amongst small apartment owners, with Englewood ranking first, followed by Austin, West Englewood and then New City.  Chicago’s unemployment rate hit 11.6% (which doesn’t include those who have given up looking for work). For African-American youth, the unemployment rate is the same as the unemployment rate for the general populace during the Great Depression.  Do we even need to talk about the skyrocketing incarceration rate? It’s increased from 1.8 million in 2000 to 2.3 million in 2008.   Furthermore, the immigrant deportation rate has doubled over a ten year period and continues to increase.

As anarchists, members of our movement are the first to cry out to build barricades, occupy buildings or even pick up arms.  And yet, through labor organizing, I’ve seen workers who live in fear of writing their name on a petition for a list of demands.  Clearly, we have a ways to go. To believe that we can reach a system without bosses through isolated window-smashing and “attacks” against the state is foolish.  To believe that this system could defend itself against capitalists and fascists is absurd. While street fights in Greece have been very inspirational, they mainly appeal to our American love of good action movies and prime-time TV.  But the insurrection isn’t the only part of their movement.  We should not overlook the massive successes of Greek anarchists with organizing immigrants  (particularly Afghani immigrants) in labor and social struggles.

The common person works 20 to 50 hours a week and, with limited time, spreads the remainder between family, bill-paying and personal time.  Having the capacity to revolt against bosses, developers and landlords requires that we build our ability to organize and fight through continual work and dialogue with time- and money-stressed individuals.  Dialogue and continual work, whether formally or informally, has the capacity to build a culture of resistance.  But this method is only a revolutionary means, not an end.  Take the Republic Windows occupation.  During the struggle, Mexican-American workers stated that in Mexico, their union would occupy the factory when machinery was being moved.  Here in the U.S, when the equipment was being removed and production relocated, they stuck with methods that they knew would solve the problem.  This is important because it indicates that if you build a person’s capacity to self-organize, even using militant methods, that individual can defend their coworkers or community members – even in a new situation.   We see from this example that it can not only happen across neighborhoods or industries, but also across borders.

We have to be critical of our movement and how it relates to the working class in which people of color face the most obvious blow from capitalists.  Anarchists who put on ninja jammies and go on the attack in the “Berkeley” liberal town of Asheville demonstrate how cut off they are from working-class people.  At a time when families are being evicted and lack work or healthcare, we have to ask: Was it really advantageous for the alleged attack against small businesses in a liberal Southern city? Thousands of families are being evicted from their homes and our response was to break an ATM? VIVA!  Really? This is what we call a militant movement?

What we lack is continuous organization and participation in social struggle. This would allow us to analyze current political and economic conditions, learn from our mistakes, and build on past victories.  How does informality and disorganization limit our opportunities to grow? Many of us have been involved in some sort of grassroots activity as anarchists – from food programs to prisoner support; from anti-police work to labor activity.  Yet we’ve created no real “pull” or “mass” in society.  During the 1960s, all of these activities were necessary for the growth of the Black Panther Party.  But what we lack – and what they had — is a uniting theoretical message.  We must foster unity while working together to build a popular movement. This unity must come with accountability to each other.

To counter the email that I received, I’m putting a call out for “solidarity” with working class people and asking for “emergency funds” to build an anarchist movement.  This it to defend and aid those harmed most during this recession and by the state.  It’s time to be serious about anarchism.

While I understand that one of the anarchists arrested in Asheville lived in Chicago for three years, and that many recognize him as a comrade, we have to be critical of our actions and theories. We must strive to be reflective in our practice. No matter how close those people are to us, their actions as individuals are not necessarily in our interests as a movement.  I hope that this article challenges  anarchists to think about their approach (or lack of it) to movement-building, and to create productive ideas for new directions.

Categories: Four Star News and Views | 14 Comments

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14 thoughts on “What I would do with $55,000: Our need for accountability and our failure to realize opportunities and build movements

  1. great…

    • Allie

      Actually, this is disgusting. This text set the low-water mark for selling out those who were targeted–at random!!–by the state to discourage people from doing anything more confrontational than the sort of NGO infrastructural work extolled above. Even today, years later, it remains a terrible embarrassment.

  2. Brian

    Great stuff, at this point, actions like window smashing seem immune to criticism within the anarchist “movement”, it will take more articles like these to get other comrades to realize that criticizing petty vandalism is not the equivalent of advocating “doing nothing”. That being said, i do think there are situations where some “make total destroy” type actions are tactically sound, for example i dont think the administration in oakland would have ever charged oscar grant’s executioner without the riots, i suppose there is no way to prove it though.

  3. chiche

    Thanks for this great piece! It addresses issues that I constantly have with anarchism – and which lead me to not identify loudly as an anarchist.

    On one hand, it carries a huge potential for radical change and has been used effectively at different times and places. It seems to be the only theory to really allow for a real end to oppression and exploitation. It certainly is the only political project that can truly make me dream.

    But it seems that often, the way those who are most vocal about their anarchism carry out their actions is very destructive and force us to constantly be on the defensive. Not being careful about what we say or do not only is an issue because we end up spending all this time and energy defending actions against criticism from the mainstream (this is bound to happen, no matter what). Most importantly, it is a problem because it alienates those who could/should be the base of this movement. Hearing white college student anarchist men yell at black women working in a restaurant that they should be on the streets instead of siding with bosses because “you’re oppressed too” just makes me sick.

    Shifting our focus from punctual bursts of action to a long-term strategy of movement building and strengthening is crucial. This can be in part realized by grounding our actions in the pursuit of our long-term goal. It forces us to reconsider what is anarchist, what is not, and what is useful to address immediate needs and to build the movement. Looking at radical initiatives in the past that were led by people most in need (Black Panthers, Mujeres Libres…) we find “survival programs pending revolution” and the construction of alternative institutions. I think we need to rely on these examples from the past to build a successful movement today and for the future…

  4. Starlin

    I just got linked to this, and wanted to say it’s brilliant. I found myself nodding along while reading. This is a collection of thoughts I’ve had about the current kind of anarchism I’m surrounded with, here in Olympia, WA. Even though I do consider myself an anarchist, I feel completely estranged from working with people who express their political views through destructive acts that seem, more than anything, like childish outbursts. More than that, I hate how funds get diverted to it from grassroots projects that actually build community.
    I guess I’m basically saying that I agree with you, and that I’ve been waiting to hear or read something like this. Thank you!

  5. Love this post. Are you serious about trying to raise some money for anarchists projects? If so, email me.

  6. I agree with everything but your math.
    – $ 1,000
    – $ 5,000
    – $ 8,000

    != $16,100.
    It equals $10,100.

    Still, better to spend it on projects that will actually build a working-class anarchist movement, instead of sending the message that anarchy==chaos and destruction.

  7. Four Star Anarchist Organization. There is so much wrong with this article. Your theoretical analysis of revolution comes to a business plan, complete with investment strategies. Your political assessment of the Asheville may day event is merely an argument for local formal organizations couched in a false debate between organize or attack. This is sad and pathetic. There are arguments for formal organizing that don’t rely on using our comrades who’ve been traumatized by police. The most telling are paragraphs 10 and 11. You say, “We have to be critical of our movement and how it relates to the working class in which people of color face the most obvious blow from capitalists.” but this doesn’t relate to the next sentence which is supposed to be the main evidence for your miserable position. How does the event of Asheville’s premier tourist district getting trashed by people with masks harm working class people of color? How does it harm anarchists relationship to other working class people? Perhaps there’s an argument that uses evidence to prove it’s point, but you haven’t made it. Here’s an example: The May Day event in Asheville strengthens the relationship between one portion of the proletariat and another, specifically between the predominately young and white active minority and the predominately young and black active minority. The May Day event appears on a similar plane of meaning as “flash mobs” in Philadelphia. Which is to say there has been a media response of pure confusion and a police response of a need to discipline someone, make some one responsible.

    There are lots of lessons and critiques to make of the event, better perhaps from inside it, or through gossip. Each requires a certain intelligence that, unfortunately for blog readers galore, FSAO does not posses. FSAO makes no useful critique, you argue with a tiring voice for more of the same (whether or not you realize this, the insurrectional tendency in the US happened out of a critique of activism and pacification, quantitative logic and risk management). However, as frustrating as it is to hear leftists once again fail to see the proletariat right in front of its face, what is intolerable is your cute counter proposal: “I’m putting a call out for “solidarity” with working class people and asking for “emergency funds” to build an anarchist movement.” You want an anarchist movement? Support anarchists who take action. You want to express solidarity with working class people? Examine the global conditions of revolt and reverberate the sound of destroying commodities, interrupting production, and seizing space. Do you want to elaborate class struggle or do you want to pacify it?

  8. dennis

    you should have gave 5 thousand to ara!

  9. samuel walters

    “you should have gave 5 thousand to ara!”

    name 5 things ara has done in the last 5 years to deserve 5 G’s.

  10. ladylibertyslamp

    Wow what a great article! We will be reposting it on our blog, if that is okay, and probably add some images for the eyes.

    You have a great blog, we will also add you to our links!


    The LLL Collective

  11. Pingback: “What I would do with $55,000: Our need for accountability and our failure to realize opportunities and build movements” « Lady Liberty's Lamp

  12. dcdirectactionnews

    I believe in “every tool in the toolbox” and feel that the complaints raised would be valid if this was bail for CD where people intended to be arrested, or if people did not take reasonable precautions to defend themselves from arrest. A good reason NOT do engage in conventional civil disobediance is that fines fund the state, but this applies neither to all-out pacifists who refuse to pay fines, nor does it apply to people who carry out direct action with no intention of submitting to arrest and due planning to evade arrest or resist it by force.

    If people were arrested despite their best precautions, those of us who are not sitting in jail with them have no business telling them to stay in jail! When emergency requests for bail go out, we can contribute or not, but trashing prisoner support also trashes morale and can destroy a movement. One of the things that made the IRA so strong was their prisoner support. It consumed half their funds, but kept down snitching and made sure people were available to wield the arms the other half of their funds were used to buy.

    What does it do to the morale of soldiers to be told they will be left behind if wounded to prevent diverting other soldiers from that battle? Wars are lost because of the effects of shit like that on morale.

    Also, the longer we leave people in jail, the more likely they are to be tempted to snitch, as that also can get them out. While we all have an absolute obligation not to snitch even to avoid a life sentence or a death sentence, we must assume that not all of our warriors will stand unbroken under this kind of pressure. Better to get them out before they snitch than to have to punish them for it after the fact-or worse, let word get out that snitches escape unpunished.

    The way to avoid paying bail is to avoid being arrested in action, not to avoid direct action! If people are being arrested, the criticism should be of sloppy security, use of inadequate force for the target involved, or failure to make proper exfiltration plans for after the battle. The criticism should not be of people getting out of jail by any means that does not involve snitching. Remember, not everyone has arrest privilige.

  13. not impressed

    your analysis leaves a lot to be desired. if we can’t support each other during times of repression no movement of any kind will grow. as for the fetishizing of more “legitimate” identities. no one in their right mind would join a ‘movement’ with such weak ties that bind. if you don’t feel affinity then don’t offer support but poorly written and paternalistic chiding during times of heavy repression is bad form. affinities should consider bail potentialities yes- but don’t critique too harshly… ask not for whom the bell tolls. the next raid or street sweep might find that it tolls for thee.

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