The Problem With Anarchy

In 1989 the annual anarchist convention (I think maybe they called it a “gathering” rather than a convention, but whatever) was held in San Francisco. I attended it, but nobody wanted to talk to me or even sit next to me, most likely because I had a shaved head (the result of a rather drunken decision at a Lookouts show in Ukiah a few days earlier). There were a lot of problems with nazi skinheads at the time and I suspect I was being mistaken for one.

At the end of the gathering, it was an anarchist tradition to have a riot of sorts, and everyone trooped over to Berkeley to stage it there. I decided not to be part of it, but did go up to Telegraph Avenue to see how it would play out. Al, the copy shop manager described here, played a crucial if unsung role in the early days of Lookout magazine and Lookout Records by providing us with dirt cheap and sometimes free xeroxing. All those cute (if by cute you mean homemade and cheap) 7″ covers you might have seen on the early Lookout releases came out of Al’s shop, and so did nearly every copy of Lookout magazine up until we switched to newsprint. This article may have appeared as a Punk Planet column, and I’m pretty certain it was also published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser.

I was hanging around passing the time of day with my friend Al when a Berkeley cop walked in the front door.

Al’s been a legit businessman for years, but he’s had a checkered enough past that you’d expect him to at least flinch slightly at the close proximity of uniformed authority.  But the visitor got the same broad smile that Al greets everyone with.  Well, almost everyone; there’s this nasty old lady who comes in almost every day and invariably tries to weasel out of paying.  Al has been known to be less than completely friendly with her.

“Are you the manager here?” the cop wanted to know.

“Yes I am,” Al assured him.

“Well, we’re advising all the merchants in the Telegraph Avenue area that a group of anarchists are planning a march through here this afternoon.  It’s possible there might be some violence or property damage, so you might want to take appropriate precautions.”

“Today?  You serious?”

“We can’t be sure, of course, but this group has a reputation for violence and pointless vandalism.  Apparently it’s an annual event with them, in a different city each year.  It’s an offshoot of the anarchist convention they’re having over in San Francisco.  Have you heard about that?”

“I seen something about it on TV yesterday.  Why are they coming here?”

The cop sighed.  “Doesn’t everybody?  It’s supposed to be something about the homeless.  Here, this is a pamphlet they put out telling about their plans.  Anyway, I’ve got a bunch more stores to cover, so consider yourself warned, and good luck.”

“Oh man, I got a date to go to the race track this afternoon with this new woman I just met,” Al moaned.

“You also got about $5000 worth of plate glass wrapped around this place,” I pointed out.  Al’s shop is one of those modern mall-type constructions; two of the walls were nothing but glass.

“Don’t tell me about that; it cost me three hundred bucks just to replace that one door where the burglars got in.”  He picked up the pamphlet the cop had left.  “You ever heard of these guys before?”

As a matter of fact, I had.  I’d already read the pamphlet a few days earlier, over at the anarchy convention, which I’d haphazardly and half-heartedly attended.  Actually, “attended” seems to imply participation; all I’d really done was hang around and gawk at people and gossip with the ones I knew.

The march, or “Day Of Action,” as it was billed was supposed to be secret, so it struck me as kind of funny that here were the cops handing out copies of the plans.  Well, send some anarchists to organize things, what do you expect?

Telegraph Avenue has already had a couple riots this year.  Many merchants have revived the 1960s practice of keeping large sheets of plywood in the store to mount over the front windows at the first sign of trouble.  With the amount of glass in his shop, though, that wasn’t a realistic option for Al.

“What are you going to do?” I asked.

“I’m going home and get me a baseball bat, and if any of those clowns get near here I’m gonna chase their asses right back where they came from.”

The first night I ever laid eyes on Telegraph Avenue, back in June of 1968, I walked right into a full-scale riot.  Cars and buildings were burned, tear gas was everywhere, hardly a window was left unbroken except for a couple places like Cody’s Bookstore, whose owner was considered sympathetic to the radicals.  That riot went on for three nights, and there was another one just like it two months later.

The citizens of Berkeley were understandably upset, but they were by no means unanimous in their disapproval of their rioters.  A lot of them blamed the cops for using excessive force, and there was a certain built-in sympathy for the long-hairs who frequented the Avenue because they were identified with the antiwar movement.

Times have changed a great deal in Berkeley.  Many of the 60s radicals are now part of the city government.  A few are even on the police force.  Berkeley cops no longer tear gas crowds of innocent bystanders or make club-swinging charges into the first available group of people.  Although I’ve heard complaints from street people and from the new generation of radicals that inhabits Telegraph, my own dealings with Berkeley police in recent years (not that they’ve been all that numerous) have been reasonably pleasant (even the time I got a speeding ticket).

And though Berkeley is still beset with typical urban problems like homelessness, drug wars, greedy businessmen, and the pervasive spread of yuppiedom, most people who live there are pretty happy with their city.  There’s a climate of tolerance and an encouragement of diversity that has disappeared from most other Bay Area communities, if in fact it ever existed.

So why were the “anarchists” coming to smash up this relatively benign environment?  The answer could be found in their pamphlet, in the section about what might happen to you if you’re arrested: “Berkeley is one of the most liberal and progressive cities in America.  You’ll probably get released on your own recognizance, and they might even end up dropping all the charges against you.”

I pointed this out to Al when he asked me why they weren’t demonstrating in San Francisco or Oakland, where the cops were really bad.  “Or Richmond.  They think they’re bad, I’d like to see them come marching down to Richmond.  Those police be standing at the city limits and just start shooting.”

Al is a product of Richmond, down by the projects, where selling hubbas is the primary source of income, and life expectancy for a black male like himself is something like half that of a white San Franciscan.  He’s one of the few who made it out.  When I first met him a few years ago, he was still struggling with the language barrier; in his new job on Telegraph Avenue he was dealing mainly with white middle class college students who might as well have come from another planet.

But Al was nothing if not smart, and adaptable.  Four years later he was running the shop, and taking his pay in the form of a percentage of the profits.  So he wasn’t about to let any rioters bust out the windows even if they weren’t literally his windows.

I had some errands to run, so I told Al I’d be back in a while.  Out on the Avenue the boards were already going up and the police were everywhere.  They were especially concentrated around the Berkeley Inn, a one-time hotel, which was supposed to be the protesters’ target.  Their stated plan was to seize the building and offer it to the homeless as a shelter.  What they apparently didn’t bother to find out was that the city of Berkeley is currently renovating the hotel for low-income housing.

It was near there that I ran into my brother, who is always good for a sarcastic comment or two, especially when it comes to broad targets like anarchist conventions (“Did they elect new officers?”) and organized chaos.  We stood against a wall trading quips while we awaited the appointed hour at which the riot was to get underway.

It was a long wait, since anarchists are late for everything. And when the mighty people’s revolutionary army finally hove into sight, it looked pretty pathetic. You had maybe a couple hundred people, mostly dressed in black, many of them with bandanas over their faces and helmets on their heads. Another couple hundred spectators trailed behind them.

They marched around the Avenue and the campus for about an hour, with the cops keeping their distance.  For a while it looked as if nothing would happen, but finally one valiant protester struck the first blow for freedom by  picking up a trash can and throwing it into the side of an A-C Transit bus.  Somebody else smashed the front window of the bank and his partner decorated the damage with a spray painted anarchy symbol.  The parade continued to wander about, tipping over all the trash cans as it went.  I was filled with a flush of excitement thinking about how wonderful it will be after the revolution when we can all throw our trash right in the streets without being oppressed by the state-controlled garbage collection system.

Then things got really exciting. A big Coca-Cola truck came rolling down Haste street. A black guy was driving it.  Somebody sent a brick through the windshield.  The driver jumped out and ran, and the revolutionaries had seized control of their first enemy vehicle.  They rolled it out into an intersection and started smashing it up.  They busted open the doors and took out all the soda pop.  A great victory for the people!  What an inspiring sight to see these brave warriors milling about, guzzling their liberated soft drinks!

Their energy redoubled by this successful skirmish, the people’s forces moved back toward Telegraph Avenue itself.  The bourgeois tie-dye and incense vendors had already packed up their tables and moved out, so the mob’s fury was visited on other symbols of the oppressor.  SMASH!!! went the window of a computer game store!  KABLAMMM!!! went the window of the Shakespeare Book Company!!!  A dozen more trash cans fell victim to the people’s righteous wrath!!!  The entire fascist-corporate-state apparatus teetered on the brink of total collapse!!!

But victory was short-lived.  The uniformed, helmeted, truncheon-wielding lackeys of the ruling class now made their move, forcing the freedom fighters back from their hard-won turf.  Bottles and rocks went flying as the crowd retreated, but there was no denying that the tide was turning in favor of the police.

Then a funny thing happened.  A lot of local people who had been standing around watching started cheering for the cops.  They were even pointing out to the cops where the rioters were hiding.

I recognized some of them.  One, in particular, a guy named Che, I’d seen on the Avenue for almost twenty years.  In fact I remembered the summer he first showed up, like thousands of other kids did during those years, with nothing but a blanket and maybe a hash pipe.  I’d seen him at all the riots and demonstrations, and I never figured him for a cop-lover or a young Republican type.  But he his friends were furious, screaming things like, “Get the hell out of our town you goddam spoiled brats.  We live here.  Go mess up your own city,” and some less printable insults.

He had their number, though; hardly any of the rioters were from Berkeley, and virtually all of them were middle or upper middle class white kids.  You could easily picture them calling up their parents back in Shaker Heights or Westchester County and saying, “Mom, I’m tired of smashing the state, could you send me plane fare home, and I need money for a new leather jacket, too.”

Eventually the cops managed to clear Telegraph Avenue, with remarkable restraint, considering that they were being bombarded with bottles and cans from the looted Coca-Cola truck.  Still, although the prevailing crowd sentiment was pro-police, there were a few old-time Berkeley radicals on the scene screaming about police brutality.  My favorite was a rotund (“bovine” was my brother’s description) woman who waddled out of the Cafe Mediterraneum, caffelatte in hand, to scream “Fascist!” at a cop who’d just dodged two bottles, only to get hit in the chest with the third.

Another guy, looking to be in his 40s or 50s, a sideways tuft of greyish-white hair adorning the sides of his otherwise naked head, stood on the corner declaiming in a loud voice about how this shocking police violence was just part and parcel of the oppressive capitalist system.  For some reason which escapes me now, I tried to reason with him.  I told him to look at what was going on through the eyes of my friend Al, who through hard work and determination had made it out of an environment more hellish than most white radicals can comprehend.

“Well, he’s just part of the petit bourgeoisie, then,” was his answer.

I was very tempted to run down the block and get Al to listen to this guy explain why getting a job and moving out of the ghetto had made him a collaborator who was betraying his own people and deserved to get his windows smashed.

“I don’t know what it is about white people,” Al once told me.  “They got a theory about everything, even if it don’t make no sense at all, and then when something comes along that makes their theory look totally ridiculous, they never say, ‘Boy, I sure was wrong about that;’ they just make up another theory that’s even crazier than the first one.”

And speaking of theories, anarchy is a prime one.  It’s got a built-in appeal to anyone who’s ever labored under the constraints of a bureaucratic, incompetent, and corrupt government.  Any reasonably mature person can say, “I don’t need someone to tell me not to rob, murder, rape or pillage, and I sure don’t need someone telling me what I can or can’t drink or smoke or who I can or can’t have sex with.”

But it’s one of those theories that looks a lot better on paper than in practice.  It’s understandable why its greatest appeal would be to the more privileged segments of society, insulated by money and social position against many of the injustices men visit on one another.  To a white college student, for example, the government can be viewed as that oppressive institution that forbids him to smoke pot and sends police to his door to make him turn down his stereo.  A black student, on the other hand, at least one with any sense of history, knows that it was government police and troops who made it possible for him to attend many of this country’s universities, to have the right to vote, even to be free from slavery.

Nor is it just about race; an AFDC mother, regardless of skin color, may have to subsist on the most meager of crumbs from the corporate table, but without a government to enforce tax collections and income redistribution, she wouldn’t even have that.  Restrictions against pollution and destruction of the environment are pathetically inadequate and badly enforced, but think what Louisiana-Pacific or Maxxam would be doing if there were no regulation at all.

Point this out to a card-carrying anarchist, and he or she will likely mumble something to the effect that everything will sort itself out for the better after the revolution.  But in the meantime, would-be revolutionaries might bear in mind that there are five billion people on this planet that need to be fed, sheltered, and clothed, and if they don’t want governments involved in it, perhaps they should start figuring out how it is going to get done.

Sure, anarchy is a great idea.  The noted communist Mr. Karl Marx thought so too, despite a certain amount of bad press he’s gotten over the years. The only question is how do we get from here to there without wiping out half the human race in the process?

People, even those who have to work for a living, are not inherently stupid. They can figure out that they don’t have much to gain from a bunch of kids coming into their town and smashing things up for a day.  All it means for them is more work, picking up the trash, replacing the glass, getting their insurance rates raised.  Yeah, more petty capitalist crap, right?

OK, you tell them that, and while you’re at it, explain to them how else they’re supposed to support themselves and their families. One of the main reasons the revolutionary movement over the past couple decades has never amounted to much is that it’s been largely the product of a privileged class who have a barely concealed contempt for the vast majority of working people.  You want them on your side, you better show them how you can make their life easier, not harder.  And if you don’t get them on your side, there’s always someone like Hitler ready to make them an offer.

Or as Stikky once observed, “Anarchy?  We already tried that once, and look what we ended up with.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.