Distinct characteristics define each New York City neighborhood: art galleries pack Chelsea, SoHo is the place for sizzling fashion, and beatnik-wannabes and students crowd the East Village. The Lower East Side, however, is a hodgepodge. On the one hand, it has transformed from turn-of-the-century tenement housing bursting with immigrants, empty lots and dens of drug use to a neighborhood of choice. On the other hand, it's full of snotty trust fund kids who roam the streets on nocturnal weekend migrations from club hot spots like the Annex on Orchard Street to the Delancey on Delancey.
Still, like any surface scratched hard enough, the Lower East Side quickly exposes its seamier underbelly. Amid the bars like Cake Shop and Darkroom, that large American Apparel billboard, and exuberant rent rates, it houses a very loose network of what still might be called anarchists – that marginal, misunderstood subculture of lefty activists and political and cultural radicals.
On any given Sunday, between two and 15 of them sit around a table at the unofficial center for New York City radical activism and art, deep in the Lower East Side. They whip out knives and brandish sinister master plans. Slice and dice those vegetables! Feed the homeless! Under their spray-painted slogan, "Mash the Potatos, (yes it's misspelled) Smash the State," volunteers mutilate whole vegetables into tiny cubed pieces, and stir fry their way to a more ideal world – less hierarchy and government; more attention to the underprivileged. Later, they will load a cart full of flyers and meals (vegan only, of course) and roll it past the cafes and shops to the southwest side of Tompkins Square Park, where many of the homeless will leave their chess tables to eat lunch.
By sunset, the handouts have run out, and the activists pack up, back to headquarters, where within 24 hours, clamps, wrenches, and other tools of societal destruction appear in the basement of the building on Rivington Street between Clinton and Suffolk. Known as ABC No Rio, it is the nexus in the fight against capitalism and oil addiction. ABC No Rio, which earned its name from an "Abogado Notario" sign that hung on the building and peeled off leaving only "Abc No rio," is a self-described "venue for oppositional culture." It is home to galleries, concerts, print screen machines, a dark room, and provides space for community organizing. A soft-colored mural decorates the slender three-story building on Rivington's north side.
On a cold November night, a mechanic spreads subversion by teaching a handful of women to fix a flat tire. The following week, the spoke soldiers and banana-seat bicyclists she trained take to the streets. They wheel from their downtown den to the northern edge of Union Square, meeting between the street and the construction fence. Anywhere from a few dozen to a hundred bicyclists, anarchists, and environmentalists set out en masse. This clogs the roadways between 14th Street and Times Square, raising the ire of New York police. In what the activists call a "spontaneous act," every last Friday of every month, like clockwork, they claim the streets for non-polluting modes of transportation. That'll show the man!
To the west, on Allen St, is the revolution's bookstore, selling titles like Anarchy Alive!, Teaching Rebellion, and Time for Revolution, and providing the brain cells for a city-wide leftist movement. More than a hundred years since Emma Goldman roused rabble in Union Square, the anarchist bookstore supplies idealists and dreamers with pamphlets and literature that keep their political views alive.
Think again if the word "anarchist" brings to mind a scene of dirty crust punks: teenagers with metal-studded black jackets and skinny jeans with sewed-on band patches, mohawked youths who hang around Tompkins Square Park. It is not the drugged out and dumb or those who loiter on the steps of shops with ominous names like Search and Destroy and Andromeda on St. Marks Place. Okay, so maybe some of these characters are anarchists – there's no way to know conclusively since most are not coherent enough to explain themselves. The anarchists of New York City can't be defined by their collection of Crass and Aus-Rotten LPs, or their Molotov cocktails or Seattle '99 war stories.
Harder to fathom is the reality: young kids whose most terrifying weapons are bicycle spokes and carrot sticks.
Subversive is not the adjective that comes to mind inside ABC No Rio. There is no gang of punks barricading the doorway at No. 156, no squatters with their brown-bagged beer, no graffiti-marred exterior; no blasts of hard core music spewing out of the windows.
In a small room on the second floor, the members of Food Not Bombs arrive with wooden crates of vegetables and greens – their collective means of eroding the cruelties of capitalism.
It's difficult to explain Food Not Bombs and likely unfair to describe it as "anarchist." The Food Not Bombs organizer for the Bushwick chapter, who would not give his name, put it like this: "It's organized around anarchist principles. Everyone can participate," in an "even exchange." No leaders bark orders, no pressure on people to stay or go, and not a dime is spent on food since all of it is donated.
Nick, no last name, please, the first to arrive, says he's no anarchist, and in fact, holds no political affiliation. Later, Devra, another volunteer, explains that she is an anarchist but hates it when people tokenize her. Andy, who recently returned to the United States, sounded like he spent years in Copenhagen squatting. In fact, he was working for an architecture firm.
Around 1:30 p.m., they and the rest of the group trickled in, and in a bumpy choreography, handed out cutting boards and knives as everyone gathered around the large table and benches that eat up most of the floor space. At the height of the afternoon, around 10 of them were working the kitchen or the cutting boards. For the most part, the group looks like an NYU class: two lonesome guys surrounded by females.
For a couple of people, this was their first time at a Food Not Bombs gathering in New York City. Everyone, however, had previously been engaged with their home city's chapter since high school. Food Not Bombs appears on both coasts and in between: Miami, Denver, Salt Lake City, even in Hawaii. There are global chapters in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and elsewhere in the Americas. Each group operates slightly differently.
Lost eyes eventually fall on Leah. Although Food Not Bombs appoints no leaders, questions defaulted to her as the member with the most experience in the New York City chapter. Studying genetic counseling at Mt. Sinai, Leah has been participating in the organization for a year and a half, which, she said, is so long it's practically unheard of.
Nick explained that the majority of Food Not Bombers are 20-something college students. In the summer, as students migrate home, volunteer numbers drop. Anarchists or not, they are travelers. Everyone in the room had a story to share from a Food Not Bombs experience elsewhere. Rumors circulated of a mouse-infested kitchen somewhere in the South . . .
Kellie Quarton stir-fried the veggies in a large pan as potatoes and carrots cooked in the oven. The kitchen is cramped, lacks lighting, and the oven Kellie worked over was so small it belonged in a children's play house. Although donations were hearty today, the group can only cook so much on a stove top that barely fits two pans. No mice scuttle about here, perhaps thanks to Cookie Puss, the white-and-orange cat who roams ABC No Rio with a purr like a roach hiss and a lawn mower combined.
Between 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., the cooking wraps up and those who stuck around this long (about six) load the food pans into a white hand truck. From Rivington, three people steer the cart, eventually rolling it straight up Avenue B to Tompkins. Inside, a warm meal awaits those who otherwise might do without -- men in shabby gray overcoats who sleep on chess tables and drink to numb the pain.
In the mean time, the cart passes the blocks that once provided a haven to the poor and home to punk rockers and anarchist squatters. Now it is sprinkled with clothing boutiques, yuppie gourmet sandwich shops, and tattoo parlors for the rich. It's almost like the white cart is cutting through time, past the fašade of money and gentrification, and into the East Village and Lower East Side of the 1970s and 1980s. Although the Business Improvement District may not like to admit it, the East Village still has its homeless, amid the vintage stores, college students, and $11 martinis.
Once in Tompkins Square Park, the group unloads the truck near a row of benches on the southwest corner. The Food Not Bombs flag, with its raised purple fist gripping a carrot, hangs off the cart. Nick said there are regulars at Tompkins who await the group's truck, and a line quickly forms the second the tin foil wrapping leaves the food. When the weather is warm, some 30 or 40 people receive meals. In the winter, the number often drops to between one and five. Today is warm and the food disappears in a half hour.
Food Not Bombs began in 1980 as an extension of anti-nuclear activism (hence the name). With time, the anarchists, students, and travelers spread the group's seeds. Today Leah, Andy, Kelly, Amanda, and Devra take turns doling out the kale, potatoes, carrots, eggplant and onion stir-fry. Soon a couple walks by, saying they used to grow food in San Francisco for that city's chapter back in the '80s. It's amazing that with so little rigid structure and such minimal organization, Food Not Bombs managed to spread from Massachusetts into a global phenomenon. I note how surprising the group's longevity is. Andy was quick to retort: "It's sad that we've needed it for this long."
Most of the confusion over who is and who is not an anarchist arises from the comparisons today's adherents invite -- not with the downtown drunk punks but with historical incidents past. Goldman's impassioned speeches in the 1890s sometimes ended in unrest, or outright riots by seething crowds of the enraged and unemployed. One riot evoked these passionate words from a writer for the Chicago Daily under the headline, "Anarchy Runs Riot":
Anarchy stalked through Rivington, Delancey, and Allen streets, scowling at the police. Anarchy lifted up its voice . . . and urged hungry workingmen to use violence in the next conflict with the law.
The word itself might thus invite an association with chaos, havoc and ruin, but it really is simply the political belief that people should live without rulers. Anarchists consider any form of hierarchy or higher power oppressive. The Greek root of the word, anarchos, means "without authority." Although the topic is up for debate, the first modern anarchist was the 19th century French journalist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who wrote What is Property? Anarchists believe that a network of mutual aid – one person helping out another – can replace the inherently oppressive bureaucracies and systems of modern society.
New York City's riot of 1893 was one of the city's first introductions to anarchism, and when you spank the baby just out the womb, it screams. Fear rose up in the populace, the idea of these "unwashed masses" emerging from the Lower East Side bent crazy on economic equality scared police into a frenzy.
But scenes of anarchic mayhem are not sole province of 19th century revolutionaries. The 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle brought some 40,000 anti-globalization protesters to the northwestern city. When a block of about 100 anarchists arrived, their destructive actions overshadowed the pacifists sects. On November 30, 1999, known as N30, anarchists broke windows in Starbucks and other chains, looted cell phone stores, and slashed the tires of police squad cars. Police lobbed tear gas canisters at them and conducted numerous arrests.
Television video images of black-clad protesters spray-painting and setting fire to private property did no good for the potato-smashing faction of the movement. Nor did it encourage understanding of the many nuances to anarchist philosophy and practice. Just as a rising tide lifts all ships, the opposite is also true. As it happens, New York's anarchist movement these days is relatively peaceful, with a strong focus on ecological and economic activism. Community-based and self-sustaining projects have replaced bombs as the outlet for anarchists wielding extreme ideologies. Basically, feed the homeless, foment mass bike rides, read and hand out a lot of pamphlets, and engage in the occasional dumpster dive.
That same November night, Bill DiPaola and two Time's Up! volunteers sat bundled up at a table in the main room of ABC No Rio. The floors creaked, the walls were bare, and the heat was decidedly off. Neatly, the trio folded stacks of small yellow paper flyers printed with Time's Up!'s November calendar.
The flyers were to be distributed to bicycles around the city. No easy task, considering cycling's increasing popularity. According to NYC's Department of Transportation, commuter cycling increased 35 percent between 2007 and 2008 alone. Using a screen-line count, where the DOT tallies the number of bicycles passing through certain points around the five boroughs (four bridges, the Staten Island ferry, Hudson River Greenway and several Manhattan avenues), more than 22,000 bicycles were counted in one 12-hour period in 2008. In 1980, the year of the first screen-line, the number was a mere 6,600.
In 1987, seven years after the first screen-line, DiPaola founded Time's Up!, an environmental community group that hosts bicycle workshops and events with a goal of promoting eco-friendly commuting. DiPaola's black frazzled hair gives the sense that it has not been easy.There are usually more volunteers, he says, as he talks and folds the new Time's Up! Calendars, but it's the night before the 2008 Presidential election, and many of the politically conscious Time's Up! volunteers are tied up in pre-voting activities.
DiPaola and Time's Up! are hard to imagine as remnants of New York's colorful anarchist past. The group's focus has evolved since 1987 from performing do-gooder acts like planting community gardens to its current mission of pushing bicycles as a primary means of individual transportation.
The free bike repair workshops it offers promote bicycle visibility, advance enthusiasm for cycling and work to lessen car pollution by encouraging commuters to replace gas-guzzlers with two-wheelers. Past events include themed bike rides like the New Year's Eve Ride, the Riverside Ride, and the Prospect Park Ride. The group offers screenings of movies like Sicko and Still We Ride, a film about the mass bicyclists arrests in 2004 during the Republican National Convention. Time's Up! also hosted the NYC Bicycle Show, which highlighted bike shops, parts, and accessories.
Susan Lindell, a mechanic, was teaching the Monday night women-and-transgender's bike repair shop one night last fall. Demand has jumped so much that Time's Up! offers three workshops a week compared to only one four years ago, when she first became involved with the group. At least two or three people show up for every session, even in the dead of winter, when a night off from working in a mostly unheated space would probably be welcome.
Time's Up!, like Food Not Bombs, has no hierarchy and relies exclusively on volunteer labor. Its progressive activism, along with its implicit chiding of corporations and the oil industry, mirror anarchist beliefs. Time's Up! also promotes Critical Mass, a large, leaderless group bike ride. Like Time's Up!, Critical Mass lacks structure and hierarchy and uses bike rides to promote cycling culture. The group's work is hardly threatening, and yet the city's police force has had both groups on its watch list.
As Lindell strips the rubber off a tire frame, a handful of women look on. Her tactics bear little relation to Goldman's. Like many twenty-first century radicals of this ilk, Time's Up! focuses on eco-anarchism, without being as eco-anarchistic as Earth First!, a group with a more extreme approach.
The Freegans have no headquarters at ABC No Rio. Their only headquarters is online at freegan.info, a networking and events site for New York's dumpster divers. Freeganism is a term coined from the joining of "Free" and "Vegan". Hardcore Freegans disavow the use of currency and eating any food product derived from animals. They can be seen as a branch of eco-anarchism in that they think mass production creates too many products (waste) and encourages people to buy more than they need and to throw out too much of value. Freegans live off the trash of a wasteful, capitalist society. Freegan.info promotes trash tours, sewing workshops, movie screenings, and, like Time's Up!, bike shops. Their twist is, of course, using found bike parts to make your own two-wheeled transport.
On a recent February night, four Freegans showed up before an eager collegial audience. In NYU's sleek, futuristic Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, Alex Barnard, Adam Weissman, Wendy Scher, and Sowmya Reddy would seem out of place. However, like the Food Not Bombers, these four were college-aged, or, in the case of Weissman, looked college-aged, and fit in with the undergrad class.
The reps screened the Story of Stuff, from storyofstuff.com, a movie that uses stick figures to depict the history of consumption in the United States and the waste of the manufacturing process. The trash produced from factories, not to mention over-consumption, motivates Freegans to create as little litter themselves and to live off others' debris. One could say they're parasites with morals.
Not every Freegan is an anarchist, but both share the same anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist views. For the four reps flanked by the room's dozens of computers and students, it was not anarchy that converted them, but environmental concern. Yet, when pressed on the end point of Freeganism, Barnard finally said that the "ultimate goal is an anarchist society." Weissman, the most radical of the group (he hasn't paid for food in 14 years and lives rent-free but is not homeless), eventually espoused an anarcho-primitive view when he said he believed "society is a mistake." He hopes to use Freeganism as a means to collapse the economy (Scher was particularly giddy over the recent recession).
Freegans are the closest thing to hunter-gatherers one will find in New York City. The question for these environment nuts, is of course, why New York City then? One would imagine a place of rolling hills and apple orchards more fitting for those wishing to break free from economic shackles. Barnard prefers pastoral scenes, he said, but the city provides a face-to-face with global capitalism.
Even with all the publicity Freegans garner – they have appeared on the Tyra Banks show and in numerous newspaper articles on treasured trash finds from ipods to famous art -- Freegans are free to dismantle the economy, one discarded Whole Foods bagel at a time. Unlike other cities, Gotham doesn't deem it illegal for a person to rifle through a garbage bag.
The kids of Time's Up! and Food Not Bombs may seem like just a rag-tag team of upright citizens, but they still have their tussles with the New York police. In the months prior to the 2004 Republican National Convention, the NYPD began gathering information on activist groups like the ACLU, Indymedia, Critical Mass, and Time's Up!. Time's Up! planned a number of bike rides and events in the days leading to the August 30 event.
The NYPD compiled information on the proposed activities of oppositional groups into digests. Under federal court order these digests were made public. The Dec. 4, 2003 RNC Intelligence Update noted that "current intelligence suggests that bicycles may be used during 'direct action protests' during the August 2004 Republican National Convention."
The Feb. 6, 2004 "Key Findings" linked Time's Up! as a sponsor of the Critical Mass protest demonstration; and noted Time's Up! planned "Bike Blocs," a strategy of "stopping/slowing vehicular traffic" and "blocking intersections." Time's Up! was cited in almost every digest from June 17, 2004 to Aug. 31, 2004.
Actually, Bill DiPaola said the police left Time's Up! alone until "people came to bike rides." In other words, nearing the 2004 convention, when Critical Mass's attendance shot up. In the Aug. 2, 2004 intelligence report, the NYPD noted a July 30, 2004 Critical Mass ride had "approximately 1,500 persons...whereas the monthly scheduled event typically draws approximately 200 participants."
Police are always interested in environmental and animal activist groups and it's a "rocky road" if you're a real (read: effective) group, DiPaola added. There's no arguing Time's Up! is a "real" group.
DiPaola said--as the NYPD noted--that the Critical Mass gatherings, which Time's Up! supports, attract as many as several hundred riders regularly. In the beginning police cooperated with Critical Mass participants, even at times escorting riders through traffic. That stopped after Aug. 27, 2004 when "the Bike National Convention" drew 5,000 riders and the extreme indignation of the New York Police Department three days before the Republicans came to town.
According to the Aug. 28, 2007 7 a.m. RNC Intelligence Situation Report, Time's Up!'s bike riders "disrupted traffic and caused unrest;" news reports claimed bicyclists slowed down emergency vehicles. The event resulted in the arrests of more than 200 bicyclists that day on charges of disorderly conduct. Heightened police attention became the rule. The next Critical Mass event resulted in nine arrests as well as scores of bike confiscations (a federal judge later declared it illegal to confiscate the bike of a person not arrested).
Even a few dozen bicyclists can constitute a disruptive force. Critical Mass has no leaders or official organizers, and if things get unruly there is no one person to blame. In a 2006 lawsuit, City of New York v. Times' Up Inc., the city accused participants of running red lights and going against traffic on one-way streets. One particular issue of contention is "corking," where bicyclists block off traffic from crossing an intersection while the rest of the Critical Mass group traverses the road.
In the 2006 lawsuit, the city sought an injunction to prevent Critical Mass from meeting in Union Square without a parade permit, and to prevent Time's Up! from advertising the rides. The logic being that without the permit, Critical Mass was an illegal activity, and Time's Up! could not advertise this particular bicyclist meet-up anymore than it could advertise illegal narcotics or "escorts" of the Eliot Spitzer variety.
Justice Michael Stallman concluded that Critical Mass was a form of expressive association, and therefore a permit would act as a prior restraint on free speech, which is protected under the First Amendment. Also, since Time's Up! was not technically a sponsor, and Critical Mass not technically a parade, Justice Stallman ruled against the city.
The city's aggression against the pesky Critical Mass did not end there. On July 25, 2008, the tensions between Critical Mass bicyclers and the police exploded in a violent incident. Near Times Square, Christopher Long encountered trouble – head on – in the form of Officer Patrick Pogan.
Pogan charged Long with attempted assault, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. Video of the incident then surfaced, showing Pogan walking directly into Long's route. Long attempted to swerve away from the officer, who then purposefully moved in and violently knocked Long off his bicycle and off the street. Prosecutors dropped the charges against Long. For the incident and for the inaccuracies in his police report, Patrick Pogan was stripped of his badge and gun and confined to desk duties.
Reed Shelton, a self-proclaimed anarchist, leaned against his bike on the north side of Union Square, Halloween night, 2008. He said the Long-Pogan incident and "our right to assemble" inspired him to start riding with the group. Shelton's friend, Joseph Patti, enjoys the group bike ride because it's non-violent and an "outlet for frustration."
Like Shelton and Patti, some people who participate in Time's Up! and Critical Mass are anarchists. The leader-less bike ride could be called anarchist, but both Shelton and Patti disagreed with the label, since the group accepts people of all political affiliations. DiPaola said tagging Time's Up! as an anarchist group was "a media myth," perpetuated, perhaps, by the group's attendance at the Anarchist Bookfair.
The "media myth" possibly started not long after the August 2004 Republican convention. On Oct. 28, 2004 then Police Commissioner Ray Kelly wrote an opinion piece that ran in the New York Daily News. He blamed Critical Mass's turn to the dark side on a cycling fringe that hi-jacked the group and is "intent on disruption and on violating the law." DiPaola thinks Kelly's "anarchist" label was meant to sully the organization's image. "The police want a scapegoat," DiPaola said. And who better than "anarchists:" those shadowy, misunderstood, anti-social kids with a penchant for unguided hostility and criminal pursuits.
Although DiPaola identifies himself with the Green Party, there's no escaping the anarchist tinge on the organization. If he shies away from this label, it is only because he has become media savvy.
The problem with the media, DiPaola said, is that it works in sound-bites. Over years of handling reporters, DiPaola has learned to temper his language to fit the fast and easy sound-bite format, constantly throwing out phrases like "non-polluting transportation" and "we ARE traffic, not blocking traffic."
Another volunteer at ABC No Rio the night before the 2008 presidential election was Sarah Corning, who teaches environmentalism to children. She spoke of other Time's Up! attempts to garner positive media attention. When a camera-wielding reporter arrived at the left-wing radical Bluestockings bookstore, also in the Lower East side, volunteers scrambled to put on their Time's Up! shirts and stand in front of a row of bicycles.
Food Not Bombs has not had as much difficulty with authorities as Time's Up! has had. Its police encounters have been short and superficial. A few years ago, the NYPD would ticket the Food Not Bombers for allegedly taking up bench space with their backpacks. This discouraged people from volunteering again, and cut down their service towards the homeless. These days, the most the group could be accused of is hardly taking up two benches – backpacks and bodies included.
The Bushwick chapter of Food Not Bombs distributes its food at Bushwick Park, 1 p.m. every Thursday. Recently, a park supervisor "expressed displeasure" at their being at the park without a permit, said the chapter's organizer. Police cars parked nearby to "menace," the group, but, according to the organizer, the measure was ineffective. There was "nothing they could do," he said, because so many people came by for food. Eventually the issue just disappeared.
The NYPD aren't the only ones dampening the food parade: rumors have not been kind toward Food Not Bombs' New York chapter. Leah told the story everyone else knows by heart, about one dreary night (or was it day?), about 10 ( 20?) years ago, when a man with a knife (and perhaps a drug habit) stabbed his girlfriend to death in Tompkins Square Park. Somehow word got around that Food Not Bombs, always thankful for donations and on the lookout for free food, decided to put the woman's carcass to good use. One man even swears he found a lady's finger in the stew – with the ring still on it!
Or not. Food Not Bombs only cooks vegetarian meals.
One institution willing to lend a helping hand and an empty room to the anarchists is Judson Memorial Church. There, on April 11, 2009 the Anarchist Bookfair set up shop. Vendor's tables crowded the open room, as stained glass windows looked down upon the hundreds who attended to peruse the literature, participate in the skill shares and workshops, and watch the films and plays put on for the third annual event.
Time's Up! reps rubbed elbows with those from Food Not Bombs, whose table was near Bluestockings'. ABC No Rio was represented, as was the radical AK Press and Earth First!. Earth First! formed in the 1970s, and is the inspiration for many of the current eco-anarchist groups. (Earth First! is not scared of sending threatening letters to prevent logging and other environmentally destructive measures. Time's Up!, while not as "direct," can be viewed as descendant of these soil-friendly radicals.) Donation jars were set on several tables, representing a range of causes, including Books Through Bars (sending books to prisoners), the New School students arrested for occupying a school building in protest, and a planned renovation for ABC No Rio.
At the Bluestockings table, Aaron Dziga explains why the bookstore chose to participate in the fair: "We're a bunch of no good anarchists." Bluestockings is a volunteer-run store that also lends its space for activist meetings. Dziga said he loves books, and the store is a great place to "engage in discourse." Also, "the coffee's not bad."
Jack Bratich, a journalism professor at Rutgers, manned ABC No Rio's table. He explained that ABC is not "anarchist per se" but "anti-authoritarian." Bratich was there that Saturday to push ABC's zine library. Also, to "remind people we're around."
Fire to the Prisons, (which can be downloaded here) is a magazine created almost two years ago. It's run by one person, who asked to be identified only as the "Fire to the Prisons guy." Some 7,000 to 10,000 copies have circulated internationally. His goal that day, and for the magazine, he said, was to "provide direction for [people's] frustration."
"Our content is insurrectionary," he said, "we're not looking to organize," but to "creat[e] an accessible conflict." That conflict could be accessed for $2-to-$3 an issue.
Later in the afternoon, workshops at the Church and at New York University's student center ranged from the innocuous ("DIY New Media: Creating and Maintaining a Viable Internet Presence"), to the socialist ("Direct Action Labor Struggle and Rank n' File Social Change"), to downright street fighting ("Street Combat: Basics").
Although a gathering of bookworms seems unlikely to perk police interest, the idea of ideological radicals undergoing martial arts training &emdash; scenes of anarcho-ninjas flying down onto the city with a wave of fire and destruction &emdash; just might. Many people were weary of giving away their names at the bookfair, and with good reason. Police have a history of spying on radical/anarchist groups.
Dziga, the Bluestockings volunteer, said that the bookstore has experienced little interference from the police, though the occasional undercover cop wanders into the store. Dziga and a friend joked how occasionally the police seem to send in spies - noticeable because of their out-of-context dress, especially "slacks" - to check to see if there will be any "action" or "bombings" soon. Dziga said he and the other volunteers joke that the store is bugged, so during activist meetings, they make a point of mentioning how much they "love Disneyworld...America...[and] the FBI." They even encourage the feds, supposedly listening in on the meeting in that unmarked white van, to "kiss each other."
Problems arise not only from outside the anarchist community, but from within as well. The overall issue is that anarchism is about "pressing against a large thing [capitalist system] from within it," as Dziga said. Anarchists in New York City face the same obstacles as its other residents: finding affordable means to food, housing, and transportation. "In this city, it's hard to get by," Dziga said. In the anarchist community, it means there's "less time and energy" to pursue activism, putting "everyone on edge." Although Dziga's experience at Bluestockings has been "one of the easiest ever," with "no strife...and little grumbling," building consensus in a non-hierarchical environment still creates friction. "Egoism gets in the way of solidarity," Dziga said, and "personal issues in the way of collective power."
At times, anarchism can be less about activism and more a place to see or be seen. The Fire to the Prisons creator said he'd like it to be "less of a .... subculture" and more of a "struggle." He said the problem with formal organizations is that they can become exclusive. "I'm not interested in creating a new vanguard," he said. He is only interested in action.
Every revolution needs a headquarters, and ABC No Rio has served that purpose. The building was first squatted in 1980, and then, three years ago, the city offered to sell it for $1; with strings attached. The old building with soft mural facade has to be renovated, and soon.
The past three years have been a constant fundraiser for the proposed renovations. The construction is supported mostly through tax-deductible donations. A box at the ABC table at the Anarchist Bookfair took bills for the effort; the pamphlet they distributed had check boxes to mark donation amounts: $250, $500, $2500, $5000, or Other.
If everything goes as planned, the new building, designed by architect Paul Castrucci, will look less "urban" and more "jungle." Plants on the roof and exterior of the building, solar energy panels, and an underground water recycling system will meet the standards for LEED certification. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certificate signifies a building as "environmentally responsible," and a "high performance green building," according to the LEED website.
A nice honor for environmentalists - if they can afford it. Bratich said there have been "some bumps in the road." The economic crisis, Bratich said, is negatively affecting fundraising. "The city has kicked in a little bit," but "they're turning up the heat," on the renovation timeline. The estimated cost of greenifying ABC is $2.6 million. Of that, the effort has raised $400,000, or about fifteen percent.
Money aside, once construction begins, the doors close on ABC for a projected two to four years. "Contingency plans," Bratich said, were already made for "each individual collective," (like Food Not Bombs and Time's Up!) to find different spaces.
Time's Up!, for instance, just opened another bike workshop space in Brooklyn, under the Williamsburg Bridge. Books Through Bars moved not long after the city sold the building. Other groups are finding community spaces in Brooklyn in areas like Bushwick. Unlike in "previous decades," Bratich said, groups "are not so dependent" on being in one space for survival. "One hopes the movement can recompose."
That's good news for individual groups, but could be trouble for ABC No Rio. Two to four years is a long time for a building to be off the map in New York City, and Bratich wonders if people will return to the old den of radical activism if they've found newer, hipper places in Brooklyn.
Anarchists shouldn't rejoice for simply having space in which to conduct business. The advantage of a building like ABC is that it houses several organizations in one locale. Supposedly, a centralized location would unite the anarchist's efforts, or at least increase bonds and communication. However, it hasn't.
There's the the chance that after ABC No Rio undergoes the trouble of revamping the building, activists will no longer desire it as headquarters. If so, they not only lose a foothold in the Lowest East Side, but let slip yet another opportunity to forge healthier ties.
Without proper bonds, groups like Time's Up! and Food Not Bombs exist as silos of activism. They stand tall - but alone and separate. Their beliefs and philosophies echo within individual groups, but fail to resonate beyond themselves. Unfortunately, sowing the seeds of anarchy requires more sweat than distributing pamphlets on organization and preaching mutual aid.
Jennifer can be contacted at