SEMI-PRIMITIVE DRESS REQUIRED
A few days after signing up for a four-day militant anarchist training camp, I received an email from the organizers warning participants about the possibility of infiltration by members of the media. Don’t listen to them, don’t talk to them, report them immediately, the email said. Of course, media infiltration wasn’t just a possibility, it was a damn near certainty, because I was going to do it.
It was one month before the Republican National Convention, and the city of St. Paul was doing its best to prepare, hammering through a series of ordinances restricting protester access, arming the cops with Tasers and wirelessly networked helmet cams, and spot-welding manhole covers. After eight years of Bush, the anarchists were expected to be out in force.
A florescence of activist websites had appeared since the convention venue announcement in 2006, and it didn’t take long to find a link advertising a four-day training camp one and a half hours south of St. Paul. The setting was Harmony Park, a privately owned property on the western shore of Geneva Lake. The curriculum promised intensive workshops in direct action, blockading, and urban street tactics. Conditions were “semi-primitive,” and an email suggested I come prepared with bug spray and a tent.
As the day of departure approached I suffered my first crisis of confidence. What happens when a horde of anarchists discovers that you’re an impostor? Especially if they think you represent the same corporate media that’s forever lampooning them as hooligans and hippies? Surely they’d see at a glance that I wasn’t the havoc-hungry anarchist I was pretending to be.
That said, I could definitely identify with some of what the anarchists were complaining about. Like many Democrats, I did feel a certain disappointment at Obama’s (inevitable, we told ourselves) shift to the right in the key months leading up to the election. As well as a growing dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq, the miserable void of governmental leadership on the environment, our increasingly reactionary immigration policy, the shameless federal endorsement of torture, and so on, right up to the catastrophic dysfunction of the electoral system itself.
The training-camp website announced a car pool leaving for Harmony Park from downtown Minneapolis the day of my arrival, and I toyed with the idea of signing on. After all, it might be more convincing to arrive in a group. Then again, if you’re going to infiltrate an anarchist training camp, there’s a lot to be said for having your own wheels. You never know when you might need to split.
At the Minneapolis airport I made my way to the car-rental desk, where Steve, an efficient young clerk, took down my information and led me outside to inspect the vehicle. Steve wore khakis and a crisp blue button-down, and walking behind him I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of impression I was making in my grungy cargo shorts and ragged T—i.e., “my disguise.” My hair was at the long end of the cutting cycle, and my face was fuzzed by a week’s worth of unshaved stubble. Add to this the cheap cowboy hat and monster backpack and Steve probably had me pegged as a dubious character.
“You really want to risk going out there with no insurance at all?” he said, for the second or third time. “I’m just saying, God forbid something happens out there, with no insurance you’re going to have to pay for it.”
On the plane from New York I had skimmed through Days of War, Nights of Love, the definitive primer on modern-day anarchism, compiled by a shadowy anarchist think tank known as CrimethInc. The primer had warned me about guys like Steve. Fear was one of the system’s favorite tactics to keep the populace subjugated.
“I’m not trying to scare you,” Steve went on. “I just wouldn’t want you to find yourself in a bad situation.”
“I’ll risk it,” I said, flashing Steve my best anarchist smile.
Rural Minnesota is one of the most orderly places on earth. Rectilinear blocks of agriculture are bordered by roads so straight you could steer for hours using only your knees. The soil, goosing up corn for ethanol, looks as dark as wet coffee grounds. A dying town appears every ten miles or so, with a water tower bearing the town name and a bored kid on a dirt bike he outgrew two years ago. Every twenty miles a sudden orgy of chain restaurants and box stores erupts from the emptiness and then vanishes again in a weave of papery corn leaves.
The entrance to Harmony Park, just outside Geneva, a one-stoplight town with four closed stores on the corners, was marked by a big psychedelic sign showing a resplendent oak against a purple sky. A long washboarded road delivered me to the gate.
A figure motioned me to stop.
He looked young, maybe seventeen, with pale skin and puffy eyes and the beginning of a beard working its way down his jawline. He wore grungy black jeans, a thin gray T, and, despite the July heat, a ski hat. In his right hand he held a walkie-talkie.
“Ryou here frthe action camp?” he slurred. I told him I was. “Ryou media rrcop?” I told him I was neither. The kid pointed to a chain-link fence where four other cars were already parked. I thanked him and drove on.
As I was getting out of my car another guy with a walkie-talkie appeared. He looked older than the first kid, maybe late twenties, with a slight paunch and a full beard, and a little red camping cup hanging from a belt loop. He introduced himself as Rob and asked where I was coming from. I considered answering “San Francisco,” a more credible origin for an anarchist, somehow, and a city where I had, in fact, lived for several years, in case anyone wanted to quiz me about it. Instead I told him the truth. New York.
The compound took shape around the dirt driveway, which formed a big P. At the edge of a half-football-field-size lawn, someone had parked a green school bus with earth activist training permaculture demonstration bus painted in white block letters beneath the windows. The property ended at the edge of a lake, where five or six tents had been set up. A motionless wind turbine rose from a rock garden in the middle of the P’s loop, with a two-story wood house tucked against the edge. Just north of that, a campfire smoldered within a ring of oaks. Beyond it I could see another school bus, painted red and black, and, beyond that, what looked like a big wooden hangar.
More anarchists collected over the course of the afternoon, and other tents joined mine between the lake and the driveway. The hangar turned out to be a huge wooden stage, open at both ends. A vast American flag hung across the far end, lifting gently in the afternoon breeze. To one side of the hangar a low roof covered a makeshift kitchen. The school bus, I learned, belonged to a group called the Seeds of Peace, whose mandate entailed feeding the nation’s subversives (motto: “Eat First! Then Smash the State”). One of the Seeds—“Grumble,” folks called him—an ageless dude with a cauliflower nose and the unmistakable posture of a career dishwasher, was busy carrying stacks of plates from the kitchen to two tables that had been set up in front of the stage. Unsure of what else to do, I helped him with a tablecloth that looked like it had been used to clean a carburetor. When that was done he grumbled something and wandered off to stuff twigs into the base of a salvaged water heater.
I spent the rest of that first afternoon checking everyone out, and getting a feel for the place. Of the anarchists present, there were roughly three types. By far the largest faction was the younger kids, sullen runaways with lawn-mower haircuts and busted-down shoes, happy-go-lucky hobos with neckerchiefs and missing front teeth, wounded-looking dykes who spoke to their dogs in complete sentences, and the occasional confused Middlebury student. Many of them already seemed to know each other, and hung together in knots, exchanging stories about stupid judges and barbarous cops. Nose rings and tattoos abounded.
Then there were the doddering hippies, like Grumble and his colleague Gin (hard G), who looked like they’d been on the road since the ’60s. They were friendly in an abstract sort of way, as if they had seen so many youngsters come and go that they no longer recognized individual faces anymore. They were just doing their thing, not because they were rebelling, or even because they had a political ax to grind, but simply because that’s what they’d always done. Their mere presence made everyone else, whether they liked it or not, part of a lefty tradition, and as such subject to all prior critiques of that tradition. Grumble and his ilk were treated fondly, like fading uncles who sometimes mistook the closet for the front door.
By far the most endearing quality of this demographic was that they seemed to feel no need to constantly remind you how many times they’d been clubbed and tear-gassed. This tic was most common among the mid-level anarchists, those in their thirties and forties. It was also from this group that the rumors emerged. The protest would be riddled with black-clad provocateurs. The military was developing a new sonic weapon that loosened the bowels. And so on. They were volunteer firefighters and permaculture educators, midwives and outreach coordinators. They were too old to be in it for the fun, but young enough to still feel like they had something to prove. Whatever it was, they hadn’t managed to prove it to anyone else, so they spent most of their time trying to prove it to each other. Among themselves they seemed to have a tacit understanding that no one would call bullshit on anyone else. They were, to a man, superb whittlers.
I liked these people the best, simply because they were the least suspicious. So long as you showed interest, they literally didn’t care who you were. At the same time, they were also the most depressing, as their braggadocio seemed only to underscore their marginal status—not unusual in younger folks, but ever less attractive the older you get. Worst of all was their weird fascination with ex-military types like Veterans for Peace, the mere mention of whom, with their authentic military training and exotic short hair, made them gibber with excitement.
And then there was the kid at the gate, who seemed to belong to a group all his own. At one point that first afternoon he sidled up to me, eating cold beans from a can and wanting to know where I came from. He gave his name as Simon, although I later heard him answer to Elliott. Elliott had a weird way of talking, like a sixth-grader reading from a textbook during class. The intonation of his sentences seemed to bear no relation to their intended meaning. He mostly didn’t look at you when he spoke, but when he did, his eyes shining blue from the piggy swell of his eyelids, the effect was uncomfortably intimate.
I told him I came from New York. “Oh, so you drove all the way out here?” he said. I told him I flew. On a plane. “This is my big vacation this year,” I said, babbling like an idiot. And it occurred to me Elliott had probably never been on a plane. He studied me a second and nodded blankly, chewing cold beans. His thin T hung loosely from his shoulders. Something about the way he slurred and lolled his head reminded me of a thirteen-year-old girl. Had I been to the 2004 Republican convention? No. Had I gone to any anarchist book fairs? No. Did I know any “infoshops” in New York? No. If this was a test, I was failing spectacularly. Finally he asked what kind of work I did in New York. I told him I was unemployed at the moment, which was technically true, and then batted the question back at him.
“I don’t work,” he said, then corrected himself: “I work, but I don’t, like, have a job now. I mean, I like, just, like, working for food.” He looked at me to see how that went over, and I nodded. I wanted to ask where he lived, but I had the feeling he didn’t really “live” anywhere, and so settled for asking where he “stayed” instead. “I’m not talking about everywhere I live, and stuff like that, here,” he said, in his weird, wandery voice. “You never know who is, y’know… some sketchy people are going to be showing up and stuff, so….”
I figured I had a few minutes before he reported me to the top anarchist, if there was such a thing, and so oozed off to lose myself somewhere until the ax fell. You’d think it’d be easy losing yourself amid anarchists. After all, with no assigned hierarchy, and no established roles, a person could fit in anywhere. The problem is, when no one’s in charge, it’s hard to know what needs doing. And so when some bearded kid with a walkie-talkie ambled over to ask if anyone wanted gate duty, I quickly volunteered. The job description was simple, and one for which I was uniquely suited: stop all cars, question the occupants, keep out the media and the cops.
At 7:30 p.m. that night, a ragged bugle blast summoned everyone to the campfire circle for the welcome meeting. I took a spot on a log, still somewhat amazed that no one had called me out yet. A bunch of younger anarchists, perched like cliff birds on a picnic table across from me, suddenly shouted out a protest chant.
“Bin! Bin! Bin Laden! Al Qaeda is gonna win!”
They dissolved into laughter. “We’re joking,” one of them amended, when the laughter had subsided.
“No we’re not!” someone else called.
Eventually they settled down and a pert, well-spoken young woman in an elegant black dress with a face ravaged by sores stood up to make an announcement.
“Some of you might have noticed the chubby beagle over there,” she said brightly. “That is Sagan, or Rumpy Pumpkin Butt, or any other charming name—”
“Beagle Buns,” two others suggested.
“—that’s not, like, offensive or violent toward his being.” Sagan was unwell, the girl, who went by “Rain,” explained, and she begged us not to feed him human food. “He is a thief,” she warned. “He will liberate food from your area if you’re not watching it.”
It was probably here that I began to wonder whether people who named their dogs “Beagle Buns” could ever constitute a serious threat to the established order. I kept waiting for someone more credible to appear. Some part of me, I realized, wanted the threat to be real. Some part of me wanted the anarchist genius, the charismatic leader of a secret underground of free people. Someone to speak the truths we’re all too compromised to speak for ourselves. A Viggo Mortensen–like character. A pied piper of anarchy. Adored by his followers but eternally solitary, aloof. Where was he? Where was Viggo?
I stopped myself. Even the novice anarchist knew that invoking Viggo only played into the hands of the capitalists. Hollywood—the entire exchange economy, in fact, the CrimethInc primer said—was nothing more than an infinitely devious cycle of catharsis designed to sap us of our rebellious impulses the moment they arose. The wily capitalist hydra could repackage even the most subversive idea and sell it back to you at a profit, and furthermore leave you stripped of the impulse that gave rise to the idea in the first place. Consider Fight Club. A masterpiece of countersubversive co-optation.
This hankering for Viggo, then, was just a cognitive subroutine acquired from years of immersion in consumerist groupthink, and which automatically activated once a certain threshold of subversive thinking had been exceeded. The same critique, presumably, could be leveled at the left’s craving for Obama. Even as I sat there, anarchist paranoia quietly stealing my mind, the Secret Service was scrambling to accommodate his late-breaking intention to speak at the Mile High Stadium. In a mere three weeks, his triumphant face would be hovering there on a vast LED screen. And the crowd would roar. He would save us. He would deliver us from the debacle of Bush’s presidency. And at the same time, of course, absolve us of any need to ask ourselves what part we played in putting the idiot there in the first place. With Obama, we could just forget the whole thing and move on.
A true anarchist accepted no saviors, political or otherwise. Bush, Obama, Clinton—ultimately, they all served the status quo, which is why similar anarchist training camps were also under way in Denver, in preparation for the Democratic convention.
In the end, it wasn’t Viggo who stood up, but Rob. You couldn’t call him the leader of the group—the word was profane—but he seemed to be one of the organizers, anyway. With his hypervigilant eyebrows and protuberant belly, I had come to think of him as the camp’s version of Christopher Hitchens. Except more hair and less grooming.
“Is everybody here?” he said. “Can you hear me? Clap once!”
Everyone clapped again.
“Sweet!” Rob said.
We took turns giving our names and points of origin. Minneapolis was the most popular answer, followed shortly by “Nowhere” and “All over.” I was the only representative from New York, but there were other loners from Vegas and Philly.
The rest of the meeting was given over to scheduling issues, and an advisory that, as it turned out, we wouldn’t have the property entirely to ourselves this weekend. The following day a contingent of pagans would be trickling in. Everything behind the hangar was their land; everything in front was ours.
“We have a lot more in common than we do in differences,” Rob said, “so hopefully come the mock action on Sunday we’ll have four hundred extra people helping us blockade the camp.”
The mock action was the big finale. The chance for everyone to practice what they’d learned, and what we’d enact for real in one month’s time, on the streets of St. Paul. “Any other questions?” Rob said.
I did have one, actually, about showers, but wisely suppressed it.
WHEN STARHAWK GOT TASED IN SACRAMENTO
Birds sang, a rooster crowed, and I peeled my face from the yoga mat and shouldered off the drool. Camping out sounds like fun, but invariably you wake up feeling as if you’d spent the night in someone’s butt crack. On the plus side, I was feeling decidedly more anarchist, encased in a protective blur of smeared features, slewed hair, and clangorous body odor. My disguise was literally growing on me.
Training began at nine. There were two tracks: street-medic training and blockading. I’d selected the former, figuring my purposes were better suited to a slightly more passive role. Twelve of us gathered on the grass just east of the campfire circle. Our teacher introduced herself as Darla—licensed midwife, practicing herbalist, and EMT. Darla wore a quilted pink and black halter dress over a longer maroon one. She looked a sunbeaten forty-five, with matted blond hair and orchid tattoos ascending her shoulder. “For the purposes of this class,” Darla said, “I would just encourage everyone to assume that someone in this group is not who they say they are.”
I flicked my eye around the circle, scanning for telling details: mirrored sunglasses peeking from a shirt pocket; white skin where a big mustache used to be; doughnut chub. But everyone appeared more or less credible. The awkward homeschooled girl who came with her butch friend to protect her. The scrawny backpack kid who knew how to win hugs at the sexual-assault workshop. A likable ruffian who went by “Squeaky.” Dogman, the permaculture wizard. The tall guy with the neglected Mohawk whose mouth was always hanging open. And then two teaching assistants: Charles, the volunteer fireman with the dwarven mustache, Zippo-singed; and Sean, a ponytailed Robin Hood with a ratty feather distinguishing his lichen-encrusted cowboy hat.
Sean was a career anarchist, a serial citer of protests past. “We saw a lot of them in Sacramento in ’03,” he would say, in the midst of a briefing on Tasers. “I think that was ’03. I can’t remember. Starhawk got Tased in Sacramento, if that means anything to you.” Sean’s odor was profound: it had the depth and density of twenty-year-old wine. I kept seeing camp dogs run up to sniff him, and then step back like their minds had just been blown. Sean knew a lot about being a street medic, but I’ll wager those dogs learned more from him in that one sniff than
I learned all weekend.
We spent the morning reviewing BSI, LOC, ABC, and other medical acronyms. My mind wandered, and I spent much of the time watching the blockade group, learning to make lockboxes—the linchpin technology of a protest strategy based on obstruction. Linking arms across an intersection, for instance, can back up traffic for miles, but the cops can always pull protesters apart. Lockboxes—three feet of four-inch-diameter PVC tubing, basically, with a bolt through the middle (imagine a toothpick piercing the center of a drinking straw)—are designed to prevent that. Each protester bracelets their wrists with a short length of handcuff-caliber chain. The chain attaches to a carabiner, which is clipped to the bolt inside the tubing when the protester inserts an arm. When a series of protesters are connected this way, arm to arm, the cops can’t separate them without first dismantling the lockboxes.
I tried to imagine Grumble locking down in the middle of some St. Paul intersection. Here was the perception problem in a nutshell. Namely, most people are too troubled by what anarchists look like to actually hear what they’re saying. This was the nice thing about the CrimethInc primer. In the library quiet of the text, you could engage with the actual ideas. And while many weren’t exactly new, and many others bore the pebbly imprimatur of the summer roofs on which they were probably dreamed up, there was still a lot to like: the concern for the environment, for instance; the healthy skepticism of technology; the insistence on living each day fully and resisting the narcotizing effects of consumerism.… even the stoic determination to carry on when the struggle’s utopian goal—a society without hierarchy—was, for all practical purposes, and by the anarchists’ own admission, totally unrealistic.
Throughout the afternoon, sentences from the primer kept coming back to me. The assertion, for instance, that “our cultural silence about human mortality allows us to forget how much weight the individual moments of our lives carry”; or “If you sell your time away for money, doing something that is not itself rewarding for you, you are selling your life away.” The overall message seemed to be one of individual empowerment. It was a shame, in a way, that anarchists were so uninterested in helping anyone hear it. Then again, just try telling an anarchist his image is hurting his message, or that he might want to think about showering now and then. It wasn’t that anarchists hated showers (although they might, given that “cleanliness” itself was just another caprice of Madison Avenue, invented to sell soap); it was that the very idea of “image” was anathema to them. As was the idea of a political message. Because messages gave rise to movements, and movements invariably fell prey to infighting and co-optation. And so the cycle of discontent continued.
When the medic training broke for lunch, I found myself glancing around for Elliott, lest he ambush me again with his odd, insinuating questions. Later I noticed him sitting at a picnic table with Jeff, a self-proclaimed police weaponry geek, and TooSoon, the one Asian guy. An impostor, I figured, would avoid Elliott, so I sat down beside him instead.
Lunch was a dill-slathered chickpea salad and a miniature portion of blueberry pie.
“I ate my pie first, to smash the convention of the normal meal,” TooSoon joked. Jeff left to bus his dishes, and the conversation turned to smoking, the quitting of which somehow made pie more desirable. Elliott said he quit smoking a year ago, along with drinking and smoking weed.
“I was, like, one of those smoke-weed-every-ten-minutes type of people,” he drawled, letting his fork hang from his fingers. By this point we had been joined by Nanette, a merry, bustling woman in her sixties. Nanette and I, the elders of the table, gave Elliott a “been there” nod and kept eating.
“Another thing that helped me quit was being hungry,” he went on, “and living on the street, and, like, why would you smoke something that’s going to make you more hungry? It’s like…” He smiled and shook his head. I smiled, too. It was a damn good question. “I feel good now,” Elliott said. “My memory is coming back. It’s pretty nice.”
And so, a new interpretation of Elliott’s mysterious character began to emerge. The odd way he spoke, for instance, as if he was just learning the language. Maybe he really was.
Eventually he got around to asking what brought me to the RNC. I fed him a line about “the Obama show,” and the folly of placing all of one’s hope in one dude. I got an opaque nod in response. This puzzled me at first. It was only later that I realized that anarchists aren’t particularly interested in specific political critique, because even that constituted a form of engagement. And to what end? They knew the system was corrupt. In their view, energy spent carping about Obama would be much more profitably utilized building community.
To the outside observer, of course, Elliott’s blank look would be misinterpreted as inscrutability, if not plain stupidity. But this inscrutability, I was coming to realize, was the anarchists’ best defense. This was the flip side of the perception problem. While it was probably true that no showering person would ever take Elliott’s politics seriously, at the same time his very otherness ensured that his politics would never be compromised. He had inoculated himself against compromise with the very clothes on his back. The same went for Sean, and Grumble, and Rob, and even the saintly Rain, with her weeping sores. They had commandeered for themselves the one dingy corner of social geography that they could rest assured no one would ever try to wrest from them. The very term anarchy served as a shield against co-optation, the one thing they feared more than cops.
“A TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY MACGYVER”
It was early, maybe 7 a.m., an hour before breakfast. Most of the anarchists were still slumbering, including Elliott, who had thrown down his sleeping bag on the bare ground, about five yards from my tent. Rob and a few other organizers were gathered around the remains of last night’s fire, sipping coffee and listening to the embers pop. Somewhere in the distance a crop duster was already at work. Closer by, Grumble and Gin, following an ageless routine, silently went about preparing breakfast.
I collected a cup of coffee and wandered over to the campfire circle, where Rob was sleepily reviewing logistics with a big guy in a black T bearing the image of a beet and, beneath it, the words beet the system. He didn’t fall into any of the usual anarchist stereotypes. Portly, fortyish, he seemed to find immense humor in everything, including his fellow anarchists—the Falstaff of the bunch. Listening to the way Rob kept deferring to him, it gradually became evident that he was senior to Rob somehow, or at any rate carried more weight.
The logistical talk eventually gave way to lazy chatter about old TV shows. Beety (I never learned his real name) was recently laid up with a fractured leg, with little to divert him but old episodes of MacGyver and The A-Team, which NBC had re-released and put online.
“I think I watched two A-Team episodes, and ohhhhh!” Beety held his head and rocked to the side. “They’re just so terrible!”
“They went and helped the migrant farm workers in that one episode,” Rob pointed out, in The A-Team’s defense. Even Rob, it seemed, was susceptible to the Viggo syndrome—the allure of heroes.
Beety, on the other hand, was not. “I’m not saying they didn’t do some good things,” he said. “For money.” He chuckled. “They work for the highest paid!” The others nodded sadly, studying the embers, and the conversation stalled.
Rob was into a show called Burn Notice. “It’s kind of like a twenty-first-century MacGyver,” he said, to Beety’s enormous amusement. “He’s an ex-spy and he got burned so he got, like, cut from the agency and they took all his money and dumped him in Miami—”
“In Miami!” Beety blurted gleefully.
“He’s trying to figure out who burned him so he can, like, you know, whatever—”
“Oh, so it’s like The Fugitive!” Beety giggled.
“So, but he ends up helping all these people that have problems—”
“Oh, like Kung Fu!” Beety said.
“Yeah,” Rob said, soldiering on. “But he’s, um, you know, he’ll end up, like, not charging them so he’s, like, totally broke because this poor family needs help from this loan shark that’s trying to go after their house or whatever—”
“Oh, like in that Hulk episode!” Beety said, chortling now. “All these shows are the same—these fugitives are running from the law, helping people.”
I liked Beety. He seemed like the right guy to hit with a few questions I’d been carrying around. For instance, wasn’t there a more lasting contribution anarchism could make, besides rowdy protests, and the iconoclastic boosterism that, when you got right down to it, was no less vague than Obama’s message of “Hope”?
It was a fairly reporterly question but I was banking on Beety’s volubility.
“In order for that to be the case you have to assume that there’s something salvageable on a grand scale,” Beety said, shifting decisively into ideological mode, “and that the system ever worked for the people. And I don’t know that it ever did. I think that the systems that are gonna work are, I mean, we’re doing it.” He gestured at the camp. “We’re already creating the alternatives, the successful, positive alternatives, when we choose to govern ourselves, or when we choose to live in smaller groups instead of a three-million-person group. And to have government on a tiny scale.” He paused and considered, summoning, perhaps, more lines from the primer. For all I knew he was one of the authors.
“I wish the folks who were putting all their faith behind Obama being the second coming, I hope they’re right,” he said expansively, “and that everything’s just gonna be wonderful—”
“But he’s gonna get shot,” Rob interrupted. “He will be our Kennedy.”
“Well,” Beety said, sighing, “maybe that’s what they need.”
I waited a moment, and then asked if that would be a good thing.
“It’s always a good thing when a president gets shot,” Rob obliged.
“Jesus Christ!” Beety burbled, practically falling out of his chair. “Let that be the quote! Quote of the day! Jesus Christ.” He assumed the tone of a court prosecutor: “‘Did you or did you not say…’”
“You wanna say that again into my microphone?” a skinny anarchist I’ll call “Joe” said, extending a twig in Rob’s direction.
The conversation turned from the Kennedy assassination to Philip Roth and speculative fiction, and from there to a Superman thread that reimagined the man of steel as a communist. It was turning into an early morning anarchist coffee klatch, the talk veering wildly between high treason and low culture.
“How does that work?” Rob said, about the Superman thread. “Oh yeah, ’cause Superman was like, he was pro-government. It didn’t matter who the government was.” He paused, and reached under his shirt to scratch.
“Fuck Superman,” he said finally. “Fuck Spider-Man.…”
“There you go mouthin’ off again!” Beety said. “See, I don’t want that to be the quote in the paper.”
“What?” Rob said.
“‘Fuck Superman’? And ‘Fuck Spider-Man’?”
“At least Spiderman’s, like, working-class,” Joe observed. “And doesn’t have as much, like… well, he certainly has his ego, I guess.”
“First thing we gotta kill…” Rob stumbled to a halt.
Beety seemed to be waiting for the line, and when it came he pounced on it. “First thing we do,” he said, suddenly heedless of microphones, “we kill all the superheroes.”
LET’S HEAR IT FOR FASCISM.
I was beginning to get a sense of how exhausting it must be to be constantly on guard against a system perpetually bent on subverting you. Without the bracing mania of someone like the Unabomber, it wasn’t the sort of thing you could manage alone. Thus the need for community, and the rules that made it cohere. At anarchy camp, rules abounded, though most were unwritten. Assigning work at the camp was unacceptable, for instance. Cooking, dish duty, and security all had to be voluntary. Displays of leadership were likewise frowned upon. When Rob rose to speak at campfire circles, for instance, he did so apologetically, phrasing everything as a suggestion, which the anarchists were free to reject or endorse. (“He’s our leader!” Squeaky piped, at one meeting, to gusts of laughter.)
For a group that so valued freedom, there was actually a surprising degree of conformity, and by the time Sunday rolled around I was feeling acutely claustrophobic. At 7 a.m. I sat in my rental with the engine running, listening to NPR. It was a gray morning. A gnarly pair of Pumas moldered in the grass where the permaculture bus used to be parked, before leaving for another engagement. Across from me, an older anarchist faced the lake in a battered lawn chair. From his posture I could tell he was meditating, getting in touch with his deeper self. In the front seat of the Sentra, I mixed a cup of instant coffee and did the same. I’d survived three days of anarchy training camp. All that remained was the final exercise, the camp blockade.
Obama, the radio reported, was offering thousand-dollar tax breaks, paid for by the oil companies. I listened raptly. See, this was what I’d been missing. This connection. This ongoing dialogue with the rest of the country. The anarchists wanted no part of this dialogue. Without it, though, I felt marooned, confined to a remote rock on the political archipelago.
The primer, naturally, would have an answer for this. Of course you feel marooned, it would say. You are marooned. The whole point of the news is to keep you too distracted to ever realize that. It’s certainly not to inform you, because what’s the point of information if you never do anything about it? Listening to the radio isn’t a dialogue. In a dialogue, you talk back.
Back at the camp, the dogs were lapping water from tofu trays, and sometime during the night someone had hung the vast American flag upside down. Nearby, Rain sat in the front seat of her Jetta (packed with all her worldly belongings), applying medicine to her face, while Grumble and Gin pottered in the kitchen. Squelching an overpowering desire to return to the car and make for McDonald’s, I grabbed the bugle and summoned the anarchists to breakfast with a few unmelodious blats.
But a problem remained: last night as I slept the rest of the camp had divided themselves into affinity groups—action cells, basically—and it was too late to join any of them. Then I heard Rob telling someone he could use more people to play cops.
“Just go around and beat on people?” I said. It sounded perfect, the ideal way to vent my frustration. Rob handed me a rolled-up newspaper reinforced with duct tape to use as a baton, and Rain furnished me with an outsize silver badge. I was just getting a feel for my newfound authority when Rob said, “Oh, you have a car here, right? Would you mind us using your car as the transportation car?”
The question seemed casual, as if it had just occurred to him to ask, but I couldn’t help wonder: What if they were on to me? What if, instead of kicking me out, they asked to borrow my rental, knowing I couldn’t say no, and then dropped a cinder block on it in the mock action? I hesitated, fizzing with paranoia. With a pang I remembered I had declined insurance.
“Sure,” I said, handing him the keys.
Rob told me to park the car outside of the camp, where Gin, the delegate, would drive it in. Ten minutes later all the cops, plus Gin, gathered near the campfire to strategize. The plan, Rob said, was to conduct the delegate car through the main gate. The anarchists would probably try to blockade us, at which point Gin would break to the right, escape over the grass, and cut back through the rear entrance behind the house.
Gin went to fetch the car, and soon a general racket near the camp entrance let us know that the game was afoot. The anarchists had parked a pickup truck across the driveway, and were frantically unloading scrap metal from the back. We jogged out to meet them. My colleagues subdued a few, but most of the anarchists-enacting-anarchists retreated to a safe perimeter, where they stood jeering. Screams of “Medic!” could be heard in the morning air.
I began hauling the scrap metal out of the way. The delegate vehicle was slowly advancing and we had to clear a path. Suddenly the delegate vehicle swerved off the driveway and gunned it across the open lawn. Another car gave chase, and
I lit out after them, losing a shoe in the process.
Gin made for a gap in the trees but instead of cutting back into the camp he turned toward the exit that led to the cornfield. The other car followed as I went hollering in pursuit.
“Stop the vehicle! Stop the vehicle!”
It came to a halt in the middle of the rear exit, effectively blocking the path back to the convention center. I caught up just as the driver, a white male in his twenties, emerged from the driver’s-side door.
“Hands on the hood!” I shouted. He tried to run, but I embedded a hand in his sweatshirt and yanked him toward me. “Down!” I screamed, clobbering him with my baton. “Down! Down! You are down, boy!” Somewhere along the line I had acquired a Southern accent. “ZZZZT!” I said. “You are Tased! You are done!”
“Don’t Tase me, bro!” the anarchist yelped, and squirmed out of my grasp.
I let him go. I had bigger problems to worry about. Like delivering the delegate to the convention center. The anarchist’s car was blocking the way. I leaned in to check for keys, but the anarchist had taken them. The car was filthy, and stank like socks. I slipped it into neutral and put my shoulder to the frame and pushed it out of the gate and into the cornfield. At this point the delegate appeared, wondering what to do. I told him to return to his vehicle and follow my lead. I would clear a path to the convention center. If anyone tried to get in my way, I’d clobber them, it was that simple. The cop role, I was finding, suited me well.
Finally the delegate vehicle appeared behind me, and I began marching toward the convention center. I could hear shouting from elsewhere in the compound, but somehow I was completely alone. As we approached the final gate a lone anarchist appeared out of nowhere, carrying some sort of device. Before I could react, she launched the thing at the car, and an overripe banana bomb exploded on the hood.
“Hey, that’s my rental!” I shouted “Don’t hit the car, OK? We get the idea! In fact,” I said, recollecting myself, “drop the bananas, lady!”
When it was over, Elliott rinsed the mashed banana off my rental with a jug of “pepper spray.” My superior police work had won his respect at last. I never recovered my lost shoe, and abandoned the other in exchange for the grody Pumas. We ran the scenario through two more times. Amazingly, the rental emerged unscathed.
THE END OF THE CHARADE
One month later, on the first day of the RNC, I was sitting on a bench in a small park on the east side of St. Paul. The text crawl around the Minnesota Public Radio building advised that, owing to Hurricane Ike, only essential convention business would be conducted today. The weather was hot and clear, but still the city had that spooky, pre-storm feel. The streets were empty except for police cars and the occasional caravan of minivans bulging with cops in riot gear. Halfway down Seventh Street, Frank Sinatra’s disembodied voice could be heard echoing through the cool depths of a parking garage.
The night before, I’d crashed the big organizational meeting at anarchist HQ, a converted theater just south of St. Paul. The anarchists had divided the city into seven sectors, with different affinity groups assigned to each sector. After the usual laborious consensus process on the theater’s stifling upper floor, everyone agreed that blockading actions would commence sector-wide between 11 a.m. and noon. Three mobile groups, with names like the Nomadical Radicals and Santa’s Little Helpers, would rove between the sectors to keep the cops off balance. Assuming all the blockades were broken, whoever wasn’t arrested would regroup in sector seven for further actions of an unspecified nature.
I still hadn’t aligned myself with an affinity group, and so decided to tag along with the groups assigned to sector one. The park was the convergence point. I arrived on the early side, at 10:30. It was very quiet, except for a helicopter whapping somewhere. Around a dozen anarchists were already there, including the one on the bench next to me, a young white guy with a thin face half-hidden behind dark sunglasses and a black cap pulled low. He sat with a hunch, nursing the stub of a rolled cigarette.
“I hope enough people show up,” I said eventually.
“Enough for what?”
“For the blockade,” I said.
“The what?” the anarchist said.
That’s when I realized I had screwed up. With rumors of infiltrators everywhere, no real anarchist would mention the blockade, much less to someone outside his affinity group. To do so was a cardinal sin.
“I just hope enough people show up,” I said.
The silence resumed. More anarchists arrived, and one of them greeted my benchmate by name—Tim. A few minutes after our exchange he stood up with elaborate nonchalance and wandered over to another group of anarchists, sitting in a circle about fifteen feet distant. Behind me a column of mounted police appeared, clopping toward the convention center. They ignored us. “Random searches at MLK and Market,” one anarchist murmured, reading a text message.
Suddenly Tim and a rather large anarchist were standing in front of me like malevolent paparazzi, their cell phones raised at my face. It soon became obvious that they weren’t making phone calls.
“This for me?” I said, meaning the photo session. I tried to sound cool, but I was scared—on their turf, at their mercy. The anarchists from the other circle had turned to watch.
“Yep,” Tim said, sneering. “You’re a superstar.”
He kept his cell phone raised menacingly. Soon my image would be flashing out to the entire anarchist network. They would know me on sight, including everyone from the camp.
“I’m an uncredentialed journalist,” I said. “I’m just here to document the protest.”
“Who are you affiliated with?” Tim demanded. “What is your name?”
By this point the rest of the tribe had gathered around in a semicircle. I repeated what I said before. I was uncredentialed. No one had sent me.
“OK, so what’s your name?” Tim said.
“If I felt like there was the slightest chance for trust we might be able to talk, but right now I’m feeling a bit ganged up on,” I said.
Tim nodded sarcastically. “That’s a good line,” he said.
But it wasn’t clear what else he could do at this point. Violence was possible, but I could sense Tim wasn’t up to it. And driving me away like a mangy dog seemed beneath his dignity. Far better to let me remain, a visible outcast, a reminder to all that no one could be trusted, that isolation was the only answer, and that compromise was impossible. For them, my crime was a triumph. I could see it in the smirk on Tim’s face. More than outing an infiltrator, he had ratified a vision of the world bent on their destruction.
Tim wandered toward the other end of the park, and most of the others joined him. Occasionally one of them would glance my way. The sun hammered down. Time began to pass with excruciating slowness. I continued to linger stubbornly among them, an unperson. At one point I noticed Tim and another anarchist making for the row of Port-o-Lets at the edge of the park, and became convinced they planned to douse me in urine. Later, the big anarchist came up and stood behind me for about three minutes. Just standing there.
At 11:10, Elliott arrived on a black bicycle. He stopped and talked to Tim, and they both looked at me. Then he mounted up and started in my direction. I greeted him but he ignored me. “Delegates entering from Sixth and St. Peter,” he said to the three other anarchists nearby, and rode on.
ELLIOTT GOES DOWN.
At 12:07 the anarchists of sector one started chaining their wrists to the lockboxes, and the smell of vinegar filled the air (handkerchiefs soaked in vinegar and worn over the mouth and nose are believed to counteract the effects of tear gas). The thirty or so who had assembled split off into small groups. One unfurled a banner reading our dreams will never fit in their ballot boxes. Another group—a black bloc, in anarchist parlance—had attired themselves entirely in black, from their bike helmets to their combat boots, in homespun mimicry of cop riot gear.
At 12:30 someone announced that Kellogg and Jackson had been successfully blockaded, and a girl with a guitar began her own quiet rendition of “Froggy Went A-Courtin’”:
Whatcha gonna do when the cops are comin, uh huh.
Whatcha gonna do when the cops are comin, uh huh.
Whatcha gonna do when the cops are comin,
Gonna stand my ground, no I ain’t runnin, uh huh.
A few minutes later, a team of five, encumbered with lockboxes and the banner, jogged off in the direction of the I-94 exit ramp.
I followed another group toward the intersection of Seventh and Wall, trailed by an Al Jazeera camera crew. The anarchists stopped on the western corner. Four cops watched them from the opposite corner, but took no action, despite the incriminating materials the anarchists were carrying, and their obvious intent.
The traffic light clunked from red to green. Finally a battered blue Volvo squealed into the intersection and skidded to a halt. The anarchists on the corner raced to meet it and latched themselves to the fenders, stringing themselves across the intersection. But the intersection was too large for them. They simply didn’t have the numbers to bridge it, and cars continued to nose around them as they sat glumly on the asphalt. “Get out of the way, A-hole!” one driver shouted. “Stupid fucking Democrats!” someone else said.
The cops did nothing. They were bulked up with so much beat-down gear that they could afford to be generous. One of them approached the Volvo (the driver had shackled himself to the steering wheel) and said, “How ya doin’ in there? If you need anything, let us know, OK? We’ll help you out. Just give a tap on the window, OK?” The patronizing hospitality stopped just short of lasagna.
The cops proved less hospitable toward the black bloc. One street over they had them pinned against a brick wall, and pepper spray was in the air. A kid with a Mohawk trying to document the action with a video camera moved a step too close and was roughly wrestled to the pavement. He screamed in what sounded like real pain as the cops bound his arms behind him. “Stop resisting!” they said.
Within the next hour most of the blockades had been dismantled. I drifted toward sector seven, in the hopes of running into Elliott. I had seen him fleeting through the empty streets on his black bicycle, his thin T rippling and the dreadlock tube that had replaced his hat flying behind him like a wind sock. It was a shock, somehow, to see him in this urban environment, dwarfed by the towering buildings, the physical embodiment of all he derided.
The official anti-war march, ten thousand strong, had started by this point, and was clumping toward the convention center along a route heavily fortified by riot police. I had almost given up finding the anarchists again when I turned down Wabasha Street and saw a crowd of about a hundred and fifty of them surging before a phalanx of police cruisers. I was half a block away when something popped, something shattered, and I could feel some invisible restraint give way. A figure in black dashed up to a parked cruiser and smashed in the windshield with a crowbar. Another climbed on the roof and began jumping up and down like a kid on a king-size bed.
This is what most people think of when they hear “anarchy.” Anarchists and cops and journalists ran in every direction. There was no order, no sense, even, of where to look for danger. The mob had reached the outer perimeter of Republican territory, within a block of the convention center. Handsome Republican matrons with beautiful blond hair sat in patio restaurants, wondering, you could tell, if the low fence would protect them from the wild-eyed youths jogging by. At the corner of Sixth and St. Peter the nattily dressed proprietor of Heimie’s Haberdashery, a balding fellow in his early sixties, hailed a loyal customer amid the chaos. “How are ya! Good ta see ya!” he said. Anarchists darted like minnows, seeking some unspoken consensus. They had become distracted by their own violence. They had achieved a state where it seemed like anything could happen, but organization was impossible—an anarchist satori, although I think most experienced it as frustration. Did they command the violence or were they in flight from it? If anything could happen, how come nothing did?
At some point bike cops appeared, and began dogging the anarchists as they marched/fled. Whenever we passed a tour bus the anarchists stopped to blockade it, but then the bike cops would accelerate, whistles screaming, and the winding retreat would continue. Each confrontation left the anarchists visibly diminished. They summoned new cheers to boost their spirits. The cops’ spirits didn’t need boosting. They sang no songs. They eased up like sharks on either side of the fleeing group, hemming them in, herding them onward, letting their implacable silence and the crushing sun do the work.
This was endgame. By 2 p.m. a mere twenty or so anarchists remained. Elliott appeared at some point, riding side by side with the cops, nudging his bike against them as they rode, tempting confrontation. This is what it was all about, ultimately. Confronting the cops. Because even if cops weren’t personally responsible for the war in Iraq, or climate change, or rampant, mindless consumerism, or any other slow-motion disaster, they still embodied power in its rawest form. The anarchists’ deepest wish was to make this power manifest. And in those few moments, when Elliott and the cop he rode with wordlessly agreed to smash their bikes together, the world achieved an ecstatic clarity.