Tag Archives: anarchism

The Lessons “War in the Neighborhood” Could Have Taught Us at Occupy

000 introductionThe struggles we find ourselves in –for justice, equality, and a democracy worthy of the name– are not new. Yet we’re endlessly forming new groups, writing new charters, experimenting with new tactics as though we were the first people ever to struggle against injustice.

Driving across North America in the past year, we were struck by the profound lack of institutional memory in radical communities wherever we went. People doing work that was important, even essential, could often tell us nothing about what their organization had been like 10 years ago, if it had existed at all.

The left leaves few records and most of these are hagiographies–saintly accounts of the lives of larger-than-life heroic figures that read more like myths than histories. It is a rare book that transcends this shallow style and speaks frankly about the painful difficulties encountered by social movements. That kind of book is full of important lessons for us. ”War in the Neighborhood’ is that kind of book.

I wish I’d had a chance to read it before walking into that Occupy camp, 5 years ago. It would have saved me a lot of headache. Here’s why.

000 too much like everyone else

1: You aren’t the first people to take public space

‘War in the Neighborhood’ is partially about the struggle to protect the public’s right to use Tompkins Square Park. One of those uses, dating to before the struggle, is as the site of a tent city for the homeless. In the course of the struggle to preserve the park as a place to drink and hang out, conflicts with the cops made it an unsafe place to sleep.

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Confrontations between cops and activists would raise the emotional temperature of the park, but while the activists could go home, many of the people living in the tent city were home – and had nowhere to go when the cops came to work out their frustrations.

000 homeless already lived there

“Reclaiming” urban space is always more complicated than it looks. In North America particularly, that space is always colonized land. In a more immediate sense, the space is often being used by people who don’t want to see it ‘reclaimed’. During the era of the Occupy camps, we dropped into that park without any notion of this. We were bringing media and police attention to a space that homeless people had been living in quietly for years.

000 homelessness is a problem of capitalism

I wish we’d all known a little bit more about past struggles like ours, and known ahead of time that we needed to be mindful of the needs of the folks already living in the park. They are capable of doing their own very powerful organizing if they choose, organizing we could have supported if we had treated them with respect.

 

 

2: The police are not your friends

Alright, there are plenty of people who know this, and I can hear them into the peanut gallery rolling their eyes at the obvious point and congratulating themselves on how on-point their politics are. Good for you.

000 the cops are not your friends

The trouble is, not everyone knows this, and vague denunciations of authority from angry punks do not always persuade the larger group. The police are tricky, and they know how to present a friendly face as well as their real one. In ‘War in the Neighborhood’, we see the cops put pressure on squatters by offering them a deal. The squatters, divided by the proposal, eventually accept. Needless to say, they are betrayed by the police.

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Some of the people at Occupy knew better than to waste time talking to the cops, but many did not. The police could make little demands about where we put our tents or how we hung our tarps, and sow division without working very hard– these petty demands caused us to turn against each other. They were going to evict us eventually either way but the conflict over whether or not to comply with these petty demands created real conflict between us.

The police are not all billy clubs and tear gas. They will make little helpful gestures to win your trust. At one Occupy march, I remember them sharing bottled water with us. But by then we were wise – “Ew, cop water,” was how one friend put it. Earlier we had not always been so savvy. The police’s polite request to ‘liaise’ (read: pump us for information) or offers to protect our marches (read: control and contain our protests) convinced some people that they were on our side. When they swept into the camp in the middle of the night, tore down our tents and brutalized one of our friends, they made it perfectly clear whose friends they were.

I wish we had all known well enough to be on the same page, and understood the role of the police in suppressing resistance.

 

000 cop in our head

3: Outside organizations will try to control your politics

The left is full of self-appointed leaders and self-anointed messiahs. Academics, vanguard parties, one-man black blocs and all kinds of people whose analysis is so pure that they get high on the fumes. These people will show up at your movement and tell you where it’s going, what path it’ll take to get there, and what kind of clothes you should wear for your media appearances. What they won’t do, generally, is the dishes – or anything else useful.

000 outside politics

This isn’t so much a problem of ideology as of personality. Some people know how to be humble, pull together as a team and do their share of every kind of work. Some people are so convinced of their special genius that they think they are making the most important possible contributions by telling everyone else what to do and think.

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‘War in the Neighborhood’ shows us both kinds of people. Luna, a member of the RCP, becomes one of the most persistent and dedicated squatters. An angry anarchist denounces her participation and the squat as a whole because they are, presumably, guilty by association. Eventually, Luna herself leaves the party over its homophobic views and controlling nature.

000 luna and rcp

When Occupy enjoyed its brief historical moment, plenty of groups wanted to control it. They showed up with their critiques, their literature, sometimes even with printed t-shirts. They would try to change the way Occupy was governed, or how it framed its messaging. Some were a problem, but others weren’t. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter so much what group they were from. What mattered was how willing they were to set their personal politics aside and work for the collective good of the group, instead of trying to co-opt it to serve their own purposes.

It can be a lot to keep track of, especially for folks who are new to activism. But I wish I’d known then what I know now – people show you how much you can trust them based on how respectful and committed their participation is.

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4: But you never know who your best comrades will turn out to be…

…but you can find out, easily enough! People vote with their time and energy. Look to see who’s putting in the work and who’s standing around talking shit. In ‘War in the Neighborhood’, we see a variety of people, including communists, ex-cons, teenage anarchists, people with active addictions and the homeless prove to be the best of comrades.

That is not always intuitive. It is easy to be drawn to the most articulate people, or the ones who seem to have the most support in the group. You can be taken in by people’s charms or by the appearance of experience. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter how articulate someone is, how experienced they are, or how great their analysis is, if they can’t put their own agenda aside and work as part of a team.

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At Occupy I definitely had a preference for people who shared my politics and cultural values most closely. But I learned in time that I valued the friendships of all kinds of people – liberals, social democrats, other anarchists and even 9/11 truthers (thanfully, those guys came around).

Of course, we were working inside an anarchist framework, with a set of anarchist assumptions. Over time, I watched a lot of those folks evolve into the best anarchists I know. But I think this point holds true no matter what the ideology of your group. If people focus on the work, it doesn’t matter where they’re coming from. You’re headed the same way.

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5: Holding space may be the only thing you agree on

This is a much less universal lesson than some of the others, but I think that you can apply it pretty broadly. Groups form around particular issues, and people may not agree on much else. Holding space was at the centre of the Occupy movement’s politics, and applies equally to the struggles for public space and homes depicted in ‘War in the Neighbourhood’.
000 tea party

Rules are a recurring theme for ‘War in the Neighborhood’. Should this squat be drug free? Should we negotiate with the cops? Are we prepared to tolerate sexism? In different ways these questions are all part of the bigger question: “How will we make this space our own?” and “What is this space for?” But while everyone agrees with ‘making this space our own’, they can’t even agree what that looks like.

000 disputes

At my Occupy camp, and I suspect at many others, the problem was worse, if anything. Should we march? Should we build the camp? Should we make signs? Should we make dinner? Again, holding the park was just about the one thing we all agreed was necessary.

This was a real shock to me. I arrived thinking that people would more or less be there for the same reason I was – tired of the growing power of the rich and ready to hold them to account. The reality was not so simple. I wish I had been able to better anticipate that.

 

6: People whose help you might hope for will sit on the sidelines and criticize

There were some people who were not so ready to accept the riot of ideas and ideology on display at Occupy. I couldn’t believe them. I was putting aside a lot of my own ideas about how the world should work out of some abstracted sense of the common good. Why couldn’t they do the same?

000 sideline criticism

People have agendas. They look at social movements and they ask themselves if these social movements serve those agendas. Then they decide if they are going to participate, criticize, or both. If your revolution doesn’t look like it’s going to serve their purposes, don’t expect to see them frying tofu in the kitchen tent.

“War in the Neighborhood” shows us that people have different reasons for wanting you to fail. Maybe they don’t like some of your members. Perhaps they disagree with your group’s tactics. Maybe they didn’t get their way in your group and so they left.

Sometimes people who should be comrades simply aren’t. It’s easy to take that personally, but you shouldn’t. It happens every time. All you can do is to keep doing your best to be honest, persistent and fair.
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7: There are no easy answers

Maybe I should have known this one before Occupy started. I thought I knew it, really. I thought I knew that things were so close to hopeless that it would take a change in world conditions to create an opportunity for change. But then in Occupy I saw that opportunity.

In a way, all social struggles have the potential to make us feel like everything has changed. ‘War in the Neighborhood’ shows impossible victories – people taking over abandoned buildings, neighborhood people fighting back against police violence, homeless people winning the right to maintain a tent city in Tompkins Square Park.

But even when all the rules of normal life seem to be inverted, there are no easy answers. You can fight like hell and do everything right only to watch it all fall apart because of some unhappy accident. We are still learning, all of us struggling to build a better world. I don’t think anyone has all the answers. But if we could get better at telling stories about what went right – and what went disastrously wrong – we might not be quite so completely doomed to repeat our history forever.

 

wordless visually stunning

 

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Ad Astra Re-releases War In the Neighborhood by Seth Tobocman

Ad Astra Comix is thrilled to announce the forthcoming release of ‘War in the Neighborhood’ by Seth Tobocman. Pre-ordering for the graphic novel began August 23 and will continue for one month on the crowdfunding website, Indiegogo.

WITN spec pic

‘War in the Neighborhood’, first published in 1999, tells the story of New York City’s Lower East Side during the late 80s and early 90s, a period of rapid change.

Although gentrification is now unraveling communities from Atlanta to Seattle, what happened in the Lower East Side was one of the earliest modern examples. Artists, people of colour, migrants, radicals, squatters, the homeless and regular working class people all called this crowded area full of abandoned buildings home.

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Though no one book could ever hope to tell the entire story, ‘War in the Neighborhood’ contains a full cast of artists, anarchists, dog-walkers and ex-prisoners as they fight to build a future for themselves before greedy developers literally burn it out from under them.

Modern readers familiar with the history of internet-age social movements like Occupy Wall Street will be surprised how much they recognize in these stories. Gendered violence, police brutality, factional fights and hostile news media all come together to paint a very familiar picture.

Instructive as it is for activists, ‘War in the Neighborhood’ is above all a feeling, human portrait of life in a troubled time. As neighborhood residents fight the police, the cold and each other to make space for themselves, our own hopes for affordable housing, community, and safe space are reflected on the page. In an era of market crashes and rigged elections, we recognize our own struggle to build something that lasts in a world intent on tearing us down.

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Keeping the Faith – “Wobblies! A Graphic History” and 100 Years of Labour Martyrs

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Title: Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World
Contributors: Mike Alewitz, Seth Tobocman, Sue Coe, Sabrina Jones
Edited: Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman
Published: Verso Books, 2005
Length:
306 Pages

 

“Happy May Day, friends and fellow workers!”

It is hard to imagine these words would once have been enough to land the speaker in a cramped jail cell, crammed with dozens of fellow workers like so many salty, tinned fish. ‘Wobblies!’ chronicles the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World from a promising start in Chicago. We are taken through several major strikes and biographies of bohemians and revolutionaries by the comic’s several contributors. Curiously, what unites many of these tales is the suffering of their subjects.

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A ghoulish portrait of organizer Frank Little’s murderers.

Perhaps there is nothing surprising in this. There is a peculiar allure to martyrdom. Saints, mystics and secular heroes of humanity the world over have been canonized by their suffering long before any state or patriarch could place the laurels on their bloodied brows. Hagiography, the genre of saints’ biographies, owes much of its enduring popularity to stories of the suffering of those early Christians.   In a modern context, today is a commemoration of the deaths of the Haymarket Martyrs, Chicago anarchists who went to the gallows for a crime none had committed. “Wobblies” continues in this tradition.

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Famed “hobo doctor” Ben Reitman wasn’t even a wobbly, but that didn’t stop the San Diego thugs that did this to him.

In its entirety, the book is a collection of short narratives surrounding major events in the history of the IWW. It begins with a detailed recounting of their founding convention, rich in historical personages such as perennial Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs and Haymarket widow (and ass-kicking anarchist heroine) Lucy Parsons. From there, it outlines several major strikes, particularly those associated with the Western Federation of Miners, and the textile strikes in Lawrence and Paterson, a high watermark for union organizing under the IWW banner. This is followed by more strike accounts, then biographical sketches of the highly eclectic bunch of radicals who swelled the ranks of the IWW during its heyday and kept its memory alive through long decades of irrelevance. It ends with two modern episodes. The first details the life of environmentalist and Wobbly Judy Bari, while the second recounts a port strike in Jefferson, Indiana.

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Calling life in the mines “hard” would be a tragic understatement.

Nothing in this critique is meant to belittle the value of the struggles, or the bravery of participants. These are struggles that shaped the lives of generations of Americans by putting a pressure on state and capital alike. The fights found between these pages paved the way for the eight hour day, for wage increases and safety regulations. But they also fell short of the ultimate goal; a society in which the wealth of society is shared equally amongst those who produce it.

These vignettes are a mixture of victory, defeat and sentimental reminisce. Shot through all of them are scenes of agony, of sometimes lethal suffering. Martyrdom is an old and popular theme in heroic narrative, and echoes from Calvary to Tahrir. Looking at these graphic re-tellings, it is impossible not to be reminded of paintings of saints caged in cells, pierced by arrows. They are ennobled, it would seem, by their suffering.

Two graphic depictions of martyrdom: LEFT: Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of holy Christian death, among other things. RIGHT: martyrs of the Egyptian Revolution are depicted in the cartoon "The Massacre of Maspero" The text reads: 'I died as a martyr on October 6, in a tank.' (the war with Israel) / 'I died as a martyr on October 9, under a tank.' (Courtesy of CartoonMovement.org)
Two graphic depictions of martyrdom: LEFT: Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of holy Christian death, among other things. RIGHT: martyrs of the Egyptian Revolution are depicted in the cartoon “The Massacre of Maspero” The text reads: ‘I died as a martyr on October 6, in a tank.’ (the war with Israel) / ‘I died as a martyr on October 9, under a tank.’ (Courtesy of CartoonMovement.org)

 

The success of the Lawrence strikers came at a high cost.
The success of the Lawrence strikers came at a high cost.

So it is for the workers in the pages of “Wobblies!” They are shot, beaten, jailed, defamed, tortured, bombed, ridiculed and betrayed. The outcome of the struggle is secondary to these latter-day passion plays, showcasing the divine agony of the downtrodden. Anguish is often compounded by anguish, with strikers blamed for the deaths of other strikers.

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Big Bill Haywood addresses the founding convention of the IWW

There are courage and beauty both in the struggles of IWW organizers and members. Their suffering is a credit to their devotion. But it is their vision that matters most to the future, not their pain. They were not shot so our eyes could blear at the mention of their memory. Not for nothing are the words associated with Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organize!”

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In other words, the image of Frank Little that captures our imagination is not his battered corpse hanging from a Montana Bridge, but of the cantankerous old bastard hobbling around America on two crutches. With one leg and one eye, Little walked farther and saw more in the name of industrial struggle than many activists could imagine today. As he is said to have remarked “All we’re gonna need from now on is guts!”

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It is fitting, then, that the image of Judi Bari that concludes her story is not one of the car bomb that took her legs, but of Bari fiddling. It would be too easy to dwell on the pain of these Wobblies, to accept the tacit coupling of corporal agony and moral ecstasy. But on this May Day, and every day, we have to remember that this is not why blood was shed. This is not why bones were broken.   Our antecedents suffered not so that we could romanticize them,  but so that we could follow their lead.  The general strike is our best hope, and it will take one big union to get there.

judibari
There’s hope for us yet.

Tintin: Breaking Free of Class-Only Politics

By Hugh Goldring | @ooHugh

“The Adventures of Tintin: Breaking Free” is a comic about class war. If that doesn’t sound quite like Tintin’s typical adventures through Orientalist portrayals of the 1930s, there’s a reason why.

Published under the pseudonym J. Daniels, ‘Breaking Free’ expropriates Hergé’s classic images of the reporter turned adventurer and remakes him as the central protagonist of a general strike. Featuring a cast of familiar faces in entirely unfamiliar roles, ‘Breaking Free’ is as much a blueprint towards revolution as it is an exercise in wishful thinking.

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Title: Breaking Free / The Adventures of Tintin
Author: ‘J. Daniels’
Illustrator: ‘J. Daniels’
Original Release: February, 1992
Published: Attack Intl (UK)
Other Spec’s: Softcover, 176 pages, black and white interior.
Of central interest is that, for a comic about class war, ‘Breaking Free’ has a lot to say about other struggles: the fighting proletariat are not all gruff blue-collar blokes in flat caps, though there’s no shortage of them here. But the story teems with the diversity of the systemically oppressed: housewives tired of devalued housework, lesbians running away from intolerant homes and elderly being driven out of their communities by gentrification. The idea that all our struggles are connected is intimately threaded through the narrative of the general strike, driving the strike on by recognizing that all are allies in the fight.

Before the strike begins, Tintin and his uncle (a transformed Captain Haddock) head out to take in a football match. In the crowd outside, a fascist is selling a newspaper. As this excerpt shows, this is no crude caricature of a fascist. Employing language about safety and economic security, the fascist organizer plays on the worst fears of the working class. But the Captain is no stranger to solidarity, and makes the left-wing argument very ably: black or white, it’s us against the bosses.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

The Captain aptly deconstructs the notion of a ‘white’ race in simple terms, demanding to know which sort of immigrant the fascist descends from. In the sincerity of its depiction of fascism and nuance of the Captain’s arguments, the comic treats the issue of race seriously. Certainly more can be said on the tendency of white men to dominate within even progressive social movements, but at least it addresses the issue seriously.

The question of women’s roles in the struggle also crops up, as in this excerpt, and gets a broader showing than race. Tintin treats Mary as little more than a domestic servant, prompting a well deserved dressing down.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

Mary emphasizes that she’s neither swayed by lesbians nor middle class feminists, debunking those chauvinistic myths about feminism by speaking from her own experience. Rather than be easily persuaded, Tintin flies off the handle, and needs time to cool off before coming around to understanding her point of view.

In just a few short pages, the comic covers domestic work, working class feminism and sexual assault. These are not abstract problems for academics to write endlessly on – they are issues affecting left-wing organizing in the 21st century. Tintin later puts in his time as a babysitter so that some of the women can get out to the strike meetings.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

Although Tintin wises up about feminism quick enough, he still has some internalized homophobia to deal with. Rather than coddling him, his squatter neighbour Nicky puts it to him very frankly. Tintin is just as guilty of breaking society’s rules, and all Nicky asks is that he live and let live. If his acceptance seems to come a little too easily when she forces him to admit that homophobia is one more way the rich divide us, Tintin is not completely reformed.

But Tintin learns, albeit slowly. When Nicky and the rest of a queer contingent at the strike are hassled by a protester who quickly resorts to homophobic slurs, Tintin turns up out of the crowd to tell him off.

Breaking Free of Ignorance

The point the comic is making is twofold – first, that gay and lesbian people have as much of a stake in the class struggle as anyone else. Fairly elementary stuff, all told. But the more radical insistence is on visibility – not only are they welcome, but their banner demonstrates public support of the strike, reflecting both diversity and solidarity.

Granted that the origins of many liberation movements are in fact decades older, Breaking Free came out in 1992, at a time when intersectionality was still working to get a foothold in leftist organizing, particularly within the realm of labour. It is a great read for anyone involved or interested in progressive organizing.