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(en) US, Virginia Anarchist Gathering reportback

Date Sun, 06 Nov 2005 11:18:53 +0200


A Report-back from the first Virginia Anarchist Gathering
(these being the opinions of one of the Gathering's organizers)
From October 20 to 23, 2005, the Rising Up Collective of
Harrisonburg hosted the first ever Virginia Anarchist Gathering. The
purpose of the conference was to share ideas and build skills and
networks among anarchists in the Virginia area.
> Organizing
The idea to host a Virginia Anarchist Gathering came up in May or
June, at a meeting of the Rising Up Collective, a small group of
anarchists and anti-authoritarians engaged in a variety of projects in
Harrisonburg, Virginia. A working group formed to brainstorm a
vision for the conference, which they presented to other
anti-authoritarians from across Virginia in late June at the People
United activist gathering. The working group used the loose network
formed at that presentation to coordinate logistical support for the
Anarchist Gathering. Activists in other cities helped publicize the
Gathering, or gather food and other materials, in their areas, while
Rising Up organizers made field trips to other cities to distribute
flyers and spread the word. Additionally, organizers publicized the
Gathering and solicited workshops over a website they created, and
with announcements posted on local Indymedia sites, or in radical
publications such as Fifth Estate. The logistical tasks necessary for
the Anarchist Gathering were divided and organizers volunteered to
coordinate each particular area—Housing, Publicity, Fundraising,
Food, Childcare, Transportation, Registration & Website.

At weekly meetings, coordinators updated the group on their work
and sought feedback, and then the group as a whole discussed and
decided other matters, such as the schedule of the conference,
venues and other logistics, workshops, and so on. Early on, we made
a list of workshops we wanted to see covered, and contacted activists
capable of presenting these workshops, or found members of the
group willing to facilitate them. A major chore for the group was to
come up with policies about security culture (keeping everyone safe
from the cops during the gathering), anti-oppression (creating safe
spaces and coming up with ways to address racist, sexist,
homophobic, transphobic, ableist or classist behaviors), and drugs
and alcohol. The policies are still up on our website,
www.signalfire.org/VAG

We conducted each meeting with a facilitator, note-taker, and
vibes-watcher, with these positions rotating from one meeting to the
next, and each meeting ended with a feelings check for people to
express how they felt, give criticisms, or address grievances. The
feelings checks helped the group survive the stress inevitably
generated by all the work to be done. With a core group of about ten
activists, we put the conference together with just four months of
work. Virginia, and Harrisonburg in particular, doesn’t have
much fo a history of anarchist activity or networking, so we had to
build everything from scratch, and also realize an ambitious vision
for the conference. Some of us were interested not only in
jump-starting anarchist networks across Virginia, but also
revolutionizing how anarchists use conferences. Nearly half of the
activists who put the conference together had never been involved in
explicitly anarchist organizing before, and their involvement has
increased their interest and sense of belonging in the anarchist
movement.

In the lead-up to the Anarchist Gathering, we used contacts in the
local media, cultivated from past experiences of activist projects in
Harrisonburg, and got ourselves good coverage and publicity,
including a fair article in the local paper, and a one hour live
interview on a major radio station, exposing many people in the area
to the anarchist movement, without the typical filters used to paint
anarchists with the usual stereotypes. Ahead of time, we planned
strategically, to minimize our vulnerabilities from potentially bad
media exposure. In the end, the small conservative media proved
much fairer than major liberal media would have been.

The Conference
The conference started on Thursday, October 20, with registration
and a DIY (do-it-yourself) skillshare in the afternoon. Unfortunately,
though we had gotten prior suggestions to make the conference
longer than just a weekend to allow for more activities and more
time for participants to get to know one another, almost no one from
out-of-town came until later on Friday. Because of this, the
workshops received the central emphasis of the Gathering, while we
had wanted skill-building activities, community activities, and social
time to take a leading role. The skillshare was very small and sedate,
and mostly involved us organizers sitting around and wondering if
anyone would come. The evening’s event, Anarchy 101 on the
campus of James Madison University, was much better. Thirty
people attended, mostly students who had heard about it and wanted
to learn more about anarchism. The presenters did a good job of
relating anarchist history, theory, and practice, and most students
stayed for two hours of discussion and had good things to say at the
end (including: “until now, I thought anarchists weren’t
intelligent, but now I can see you’ve really thought it out”).

On Friday morning a small group of people went hiking.
Harrisonburg is in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley, surrounded
on both sides by mountains, and we envisioned the hiking as a good
way to relax and allow strangers at the conference to get to know
one another. Every Friday afternoon in Harrisonburg, Food Not
Bombs cooks and serves a meal, and we incorporated this into the
Gathering, inviting out-of-towners to help cook, eat, or participate in
a literature distro. Afterwards, we had an opening circle for people to
introduce themselves, although perhaps this happened too quickly
and didn’t allow enough time to break the ice. That night we had
more social time—a show featuring local and out-of-town folk
and indy rock bands.

On Saturday, we had workshops at the Broad St. Mennonite Church.
The church belongs to a fairly progressive congregation, and it’s
located in the middle of one of Harrisonburg’s older working
class neighborhoods—we had most of our daytime events there.
There were fourteen workshops on Saturday and Sunday, happening
three at a time, with half an hour in between them. They were Trans
Liberation: Becoming Effective Allies; Anti-Prison Organizing;
Treating Medical Emergencies in the Field; an Anarchist People of
Color circle; Anti-Racism for White Folks; Self-Defense for
Activists; Communal Justice in Indigenous Societies; The Eight
Biggest Challenges to Sustaining Anarchist Collectives; Starting a
Radical Social Center; Security Culture; the Menstruation Liberation
Front; Grupo Allavio: Direct Action and Counterinformation in
Argentina; The Dialectic of Capital Accumulation and Popular
Liberation Struggles; and Revolutionary Strategy. All the workshops
I saw were well done, and many had an important emphasis on
thinking strategically. For Saturday afternoon we planned several
community service activities for people to take part in—either
collecting and distributing supplies and Spanish-language materials
to migrant laborers at near-by apple camps, or helping Harrisonburg
Copwatch complete a survey on community perceptions and
interactions with the police in a neighborhood targeted for intensive
patrolling. In planning these community service projects, we were
inspired by “Fix Shit Up” actions planned by anarchists at
past protests, particularly the anti-G8 protest in Georgia or the
Republican National Convention protest in New York City. During
this time, folks also had the option of going on a tour of Radical
Roots, a local permaculture/sustainable ag farm run by anarchists
who have actually created something tangible and sustaining.

On Saturday night, we planned direct-action-skills games, and a
campfire/drum circle, though the latter got cancelled. About half the
people at the conference stayed out in the cold for the games, which
was promising. Conference organizers had devised the games as a
way of practicing potentially useful direct action skills—moving as
a bloc, unarresting fellow protestors, surveillance, etc.—and
instilling the Gathering with a seriousness and a sense of the
importance of building the skills to make our movement more
capably militant. The first game, in which some of us volunteered to
be cops on bikes and on foot, while everyone else was an anarchist
bloc attempting to elude the police and move from one part of the
city to another, made for good physical exercise but descended into
silliness, at least in part because of the rawness of the game.
Afterwards, we came up with ways to make the game more realistic,
should anyone try to play it again in the future. The next game was
unarresting, and we got some good practice figuring out how to keep
the “cops” from snatching targeted members of our group.
After that we practiced some group formations and movements.
Most people were ready to quit by midnight, before we were able to
get a whole lot of practice in, and unfortunately most participants
went out to drink and party rather than to get sleep before
Sunday’s workshops.

For Sunday morning we had planned a Virginia Anarchist Gathering
meeting, to get feedback and discuss who, if anyone, would host the
next Gathering in a year. Unfortunately, most everyone slept in and
the meeting did not happen. People were so late, the first workshops
of the day, scheduled to start at 11am, had to be pushed back, and
still few enough people came that one workshop in each of the two
slots that day had to be cancelled for lack of attendance. The
Gathering ended that afternoon, but most people had already left
before the end of the last workshop.

In some ways the Gathering was successful, and in other ways left
much to be desired. Seventy people came, fifty of them from
out-of-town (across Virginia, DC, Baltimore, and West Virginia),
which was impressive given a number of factors (lack of prior
networks, Harrisonburg not being a major city, etc.). We provided
housing for everyone and served two free meals a day, and hosted a
number of good workshops. We also used all the people coming into
town to give needed help to local organizing projects, through the
community service activities. Ultimately, we possibly set in motion
an ongoing network for anarchists in and around Virginia. And
hopefully, our failures will lead to useful lessons for the anarchist
movement.

Lessons
1. As you’ve probably gathered from the last few paragraphs,
one of my major criticisms of the Gathering is a lack of seriousness
among many anarchists today. I think many anarchists, especially
white anarchists, have yet to acknowledge the existence of a social
war that surrounds them. Revolution means war against the state,
and a lack of revolution means constant war by the state against
oppressed peoples. Many of us white anarchists prioritize having fun,
and such an attitude means when it comes down to it, we will
probably avoid revolutionary struggle in favor of posturing. I know
many revolutionaries of color who are drawn to Maoism, not
because they are authoritarian, but because Mao was serious.
Anarchists need to prove that we too are serious. That so many
people were unable to give up drinking for just one weekend makes
me skeptical as to our chances. Additionally, Gathering organizers
announced multiple times that we would appreciate feedback forms
(feedback questionnaires had been included in everyone’s
registration packet) but in the end I think only one person ever took
the time to fill this out and give it to us. A shortage of especially men
volunteering to cook or help us with other logistics also indicates a
lack of seriousness, although we the organizers could have done a
much better job of communicating our needs.

2. Related to the question of seriousness is a problem that arose
during one of the direct action games. The game was “Moving
as a Bloc,” and the purpose was for a group of about twenty
people to move through the city from Point A to Point B, while five
“cops” tried to stop them. If a certain number of cops stood
in front of them, the way was considered blocked. The main purpose
of the game was to figure out and practice effective decision-making
strategies to guide the movement of the group. One person
suggested that, among other roles, there be a leader appointed by the
group to make split-second calls when needed. Before that person
finished speaking, other participants booed him and countered with
such slogans as “Anarchy means no leaders.” Others
launched into lengthy polemic speeches. This was the only time
during the entire Gathering I saw such disrespectful communication.
The group eventually decided to adopt some form of consensus
decision-making using delegates from smaller affinity groups.
Something about this confuses me. The experience of democratic
states shows that “delegates” or representatives are no less
authoritarian than a single leader. To take it from another angle,
while organizing the Gathering we divided tasks under different
coordinators. The overall vision of the Gathering was consensed on
as a group, but when it came to specific logistical details regarding
publicity, as publicity coordinator I alone made the decision. Was
that authoritarian, as long as my decisions were in the spirit of the
group’s vision? Similarly, if a group uses consensus to agree on
an objective, and distributes tasks (scouts, communications,
movement leader) to people trusted as having certain skills, is it
authoritarian for a person elected as movement leader to decide
whether the group turns left or right at a certain intersection, when
going towards a goal set by the entire group? Even when any
member of the group can choose not to follow the directions (thus
exercising a “block”), because the “leader” has no
coercive authority, and is thus not actually a leader in the
authoritarian sense? Some of us joked afterwards that everyone
would have been fine with the suggestion if the person had called for
a “movement coordinator” instead of a “movement
leader.” The spirit of consensus is best served by different
processes in different situations. I wonder if anyone noticed how
poorly delegate meetings worked in this situation, or if they were
more concerned about preserving a certain cultural purity than
actually being effective. Every single time the group stopped to hold
a meeting, those participants who were the cops were able to
surround them. They would have lost the game many times, but
instead they simply chose to stop following the rules (“fuck
rules,” said one) and just run past the cops (who, if real, would
have had weapons and handcuffs), effectively sabotaging the game,
and obstructing their own learning process. The fact that so few
people realized the total lunacy of holding meetings in a combat
situation suggests to me that most white anarchists simply plan on
avoiding combat situations.

3. Like so many other anarchist events, the Virginia Anarchist
Gathering was not the most welcoming place for newcomers. All of
us anarchists need to get better at leaving our cliques, opening up
social spaces, and meeting strangers. One of the most important
parts of anarchist events is to build relationships, to found networks
on, and base our work in. Continuing to be insular and clique-ish
won’t help us much. Though I could pretend to have the excuse
of being busy all weekend, this is one of the things I have a lot of
trouble with personally—just going up to strangers and getting to
know them. It falls mostly on the organizers to create a welcoming
atmosphere, but since we are busy and stressed out with logistics,
that’s something other folks attending the conference could help
us with—making sure that no one is sitting alone or unwelcome.
At one point on Saturday, I spotted S., a new friend whom I had
invited to the Gathering. He was excited about it, but since he has
never participated in the anarchist movement before I was surprised
to see him actually show up at the church. When I talked to him, he
had been there just fifteen minutes, but he was angry and already
about to leave. He said no one there was friendly, no one had said
hello to him, and he didn’t feel welcome. S. is black, in his
thirties, and identifies more with a hip-hop culture than with punk or
any other culture evident in the white segments of the anarchist
movement. I introduced him to some people and hung out with him
for a while, and he ended up having a good time, but had come so
close to leaving with a deservedly horrible impression of the
anarchist movement. To a lesser extent, older activists and
non-punk activists I spoke with also felt excluded. So just remember
a time when you were in a different cultural space, remember the
last time you felt totally out of place (at a church service? at the
gym?), and realize how noticeable culture is when you’re in a
foreign one. Then, next time you’re at an anarchist event, do a
better job of welcoming in strangers.

4. Related to this problem of culture is the unfortunate fact that the
Virginia Anarchist Gathering lacked the diversity that our movement
needs. The vast majority of participants were young white people.
The conference organizers tried to encourage anarchists of color to
attend in a few ways. We gave people of color priority in accepting
and scheduling workshops, and gave prominent space to an
Anarchist People of Color circle. In doing so we took shit from
several white anarchists and environmentalists, most of whom it
seems did not end up attending the Gathering, though we patiently
explained to each of them the need for those policies, and how they
did not amount to “reverse racism.” We also pushed the
Gathering back two weekends so it would not coincide with the
APOC conference in Houston. And we made most gathering spaces
alcohol-free, since the presence and abuse of alcohol has often been
a reason indigenous activists have not participated in an event, given
the history of alcohol as a tool for oppression. To enable
lower-income people to attend, we offered travel scholarships and
put the registration fee on a voluntary sliding scale from $0-20. But
in the end, measures like this are not the most effective at including
anti-authoritarians of color into mostly white anarchist events, for a
number of reasons. As long as it is still a white culture at anarchist
events (see the previous paragraph) and we don’t welcome
outsiders and open up spaces for other cultures, our events are likely
to stay pretty homogenous. Also, effective cross-cultural outreach
can’t happen on a statewide level. In Harrisonburg, we were
hoping local groups across the state would do good outreach in their
own areas to invite activists of color, but the networks were not yet
in place to coordinate this, and I think in most localities around here
white anarchists just don’t have those relationships yet. If
we’re not including anti-authoritarians of color in our own local
organizing, and being effective allies for their organizing, then most
likely very few radical people of color will come to what in the end
are “our” events.

5. We tried to employ a good usage of security culture for the
Virginia Anarchist Gathering, and I think we did a decent job. We
also learned some things about police surveillance that should be of
interest to the entire anarchist movement. To start with, our security
policy asked people not to talk about any past or planned illegal
actions in any Gathering spaces, and not to have any illegal drugs or
paraphernalia in any Gathering spaces, because it simply was not
safe to do so, given an expected increase in police attention. We
banned law enforcement and military intelligence personnel from the
Gathering, and also asked people not to speculate about police
infiltration and undercover agents for the following reason. In an
open Gathering it’s impossible to stop police surveillance. If
there is an obvious undercover, that agent’s purpose is
intimidation, not spying. Creating a paranoid atmosphere cripples
our work, and can make newcomers or those without the proper
punk fashions feel like everyone thinks they’re cops. In the past,
police have deliberately tried to paint legitimate activists as
infiltrators by spreading rumours.

Shortly after the Gathering started, police approached two organizers
putting up a sign. They told them to take down the sign,
demonstrated a knowledge of the Gathering, and joked that they
would come by when they were off duty. At around the same time,
conference organizers who were also involved in starting an
anarchist club at James Madison University found out from student
organization staff at the university that state police had contacted
JMU police asking for information on the Virginia Anarchist
Gathering (part of which was held on JMU). Early on in the
Gathering there was some obvious police surveillance by police
cruisers driving by, or stopping and watching. We began to keep a
police log (writing down car numbers, etc.), and conduct
surreptitious counter-surveillance. We tried to do so in a very calm
manner to avoid creating an atmosphere of fear. Shortly, overt police
surveillance stopped, though we had some indications the police
switched to unmarked cars. At the opening circle on Friday, we
shared this information with conference participants, and also told
everyone the Harrisonburg police were typically laid back about such
things and we didn’t expect any trouble. After the Gathering, we
found out from a sympathetic JMU employee more information
about the state police investigation. They had asked for names of
organizers and also mentioned that the Virginia Anarchist Gathering
had been “flagged” by Homeland Security, suggesting both
that intelligence and counterintelligence against the anarchist
movement is on the government’s counter-terrorism to-do list,
and that to some extent these activities are being coordinated on a
national scale. Terrorism-related subpoenas and Joint Terrorism
Task Forces have been used in recent times against anarchists
across the country. We should begin sharing this information more
effectively to keep ourselves appraised of government activity
designed to repress us.

Related

* http://www.signalfire.org/VAG
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