A desire to destroy the institutions that impose order underlies the actions of militant anarchists
Sunday, August 13, 2000 By Bryan Denson of The Oregonian staff
EUGENE -- To the anarchists at Third Avenue and Van Buren Street, it appeared the entire police department was dropping into the Whiteaker neighborhood at once. Officers came on mountain bikes, a motorcycle, a sport utility vehicle and on foot, blanketing the corner in blue that recent afternoon. It seemed an odd show of force given the target of their attention: a daily coffee klatch.
Nearly every morning for 18 months, sleepy-eyed anarchists have parked a wooden cart on the sidewalk to share free coffee and days-old pastries with the poor. Regulars at Cafe Anarquista sip strong organic java and loose the occasional rant against technology and the cops. A wooden fence rises behind them, a collage of graffiti and sun-faded fliers that encourage resistance to authority.
But on that recent day, there was no resistance, merely submission to a police force that has had its fill of the local revolutionaries. Officers assembled en masse, they later said, to thwart a spontaneous uprising. They accused coffee drinkers of blocking the sidewalk, issued $250 tickets to people who can barely scare up rent money, and rode off.
It was merely the latest brush between police and anarchists in Whiteaker, a Bohemian neighborhood in west-end Eugene. Radicals complain that they are being detained for as little as jaywalking so police can videotape their tattoos, clothing and patches. A wooden sign at Cafe Anarquista jokingly charts the intensity of the "police occupation." A dial toggles from "ominously quiet" to "omnipresent (carry rocks)" to "thoroughly agitated (fight back)."
City officials aren't laughing.
They blame the growing clan of anarchists for a series of sometimes-riotous street demonstrations over the past 14 months. It was a hometown fight until last fall, when a few of the local revolutionaries helped turn downtown Seattle into a Beirut of shattered storefronts, burning trash bins and spray-painted walls outside meetings of the World Trade Organization. The revolt took an ominous turn in June, when prosecutors accused two anarchists of trying to set fire to a gasoline tanker in Whiteaker.
Now anarchists are heading to the Democratic National Convention set to begin Monday in Los Angeles. Mayor Richard J. Riordan already has warned that police will "get tough" on troublemakers, although he acknowledged most protesters would be orderly.
"Unfortunately," he wrote in a recent Los Angeles Times commentary, "there will be other types of demonstrators -- a small but significant number of rogue demonstrators, anarchists whose sole intent is violent disruption."
Some of Eugene's most militant anarchists, sometimes called the "Black Bloc," wrote a retort. They told the mayor they wouldn't play by his rules and would rage against those killing the Earth for profit: "Our objective is not to target individuals, but instead the economic, state and religious institutions which enslave us."
The note ends, "See you in L.A."
And it seems they will. Some of Eugene's anarchists plan to attend the North American Anarchist Conference in Los Angeles this weekend. The event opens with three days of talks before some peel off to protest the DNC.
California state Sen. Tom Hayden, a Vietnam War activist accused of inciting demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, jetted to Oregon on Aug. 5 to discourage some of Eugene's anarchists from engaging in militant protests in Los Angeles. A Hayden spokesman declined to comment on the meeting.
Goal is to destroy, not reform
Clans of anarchists -- including growing strongholds in Eugene; Portland; Seattle; Vancouver, British Columbia; and the San Francisco Bay Area -- represent the most militant wing of an international movement opposed to the global economy.
But unlike their allies in the mass movement -- a much larger coalition of peaceful labor activists, environmentalists and human-rights workers -- hard-core anarchists have little interest in reforming capitalism. They want to destroy the institutions, such as government, that impose order on life.
Many of Eugene's anarchists advocate "green anarchy," a theory that suggests humans were better off before the advent of farming thousands of years ago. They argue that primitives who hunted and gathered their food enjoyed freedoms that modern humans, slaves to technology and the capitalist treadmill, do not.
But the Black Bloc's concessions to technology -- electricity, running water, public transport, the Internet and other urban amenities -- seem to contradict their politics. Why not live in the woods?
Steven Heslin, a 31-year-old anarchist, acknowledged the criticism one day recently at a coffeehouse by the Amtrak station. He and his cronies said there is no escaping the reaches of industrial society, even in the world's diminishing wilderness; theirs is a gradual retreat from technology, a revolt from inside the beast.
They aren't the first anti-capitalists to set up a resistance in the belly of the system they oppose. During the late 1800s, anarchists in Chicago instigated laborers to rebel against factory owners who resisted such reforms as the eight-hour workday. And in the Northwest in the early 1900s, the Wobblies called for an end to capitalism and the wage system.
Whiteaker's anarchists know the general public's not an easy sell on a utopia free of TVs and microwave dinners. They also know that most Americans' image of anarchists -- if they have one at all -- is of masked youths going berserk in the streets.
A new militancy
One morning last October, sitting in his tiny moss-covered co-op home in Whiteaker, former Berkeley hippie and anarchist author John Zerzan sipped instant coffee and recalled the day the tide changed in Eugene: On June 18, 1999, a routine protest against capitalism turned into a spontaneous riot of broken windows and flying rocks.
"I'd been waiting since the end of the '60s to see real opposition to the system," Zerzan said.
When Zerzan moved to Eugene in 1981, just a handful of locals advocated anarchism. But the 1999 riot and WTO demonstration illustrated a new militancy. In Seattle, anarchists -- including perhaps two dozen from Eugene -- rioted as police squared off with peaceful protesters. They left the downtown a clutter of trash, smoking garbage bins and broken glass.
While vandalism at the WTO gave Jay Leno some gags, it raised questions about why anyone would smash the window of a Gap store. So anarchists posted an Internet communique to explain: They struck Old Navy, Banana Republic and the Gap because owners relied on sweatshop labor and invested in logging of Northwest forests. They targeted Fidelity Investments because it was party to an oil project that would uproot residents of the Colombian cloud forest. And they hit Planet Hollywood "for being Planet Hollywood."
After returning home from WTO, Zerzan praised the young revolutionaries. And he noted he is not, as some suggest, a leader or -- he grimaced -- a guru. Theirs is a leaderless resistance.
Zerzan ducked out of his cottage after an interview with a "60 Minutes II" field crew one afternoon, leaving a panel of young anarchists in his living room. It seemed to please him when he hadn't recognized some of the young faces.
"Guerrilla gardens" The day after the Cafe Anarquista bust, a 6-foot-tall anarchist named Geneva Johnson hiked to a grassy lot next to West Side Foreign Auto and tiptoed into a garden. Her long skirt rode over a hodgepodge of tomatoes, squash, cabbage, mustard greens and chamomile.
The garden just appeared one morning, as if by elves, along with a pair of wooden benches etched with the word, "Think." It is one of several "guerrilla gardens" to take root in Eugene this summer on public and private property. Johnson, a 21-year-old Minnesotan who uses a different last name than her birth name, claimed not to know who "liberated" the lot.
Food yielded from guerrilla gardens often goes to Food Not Bombs, a loose collective of anarchists and other radicals. They protest poverty, violence and materialism by feeding vegan meals (those made without animal products) to hungry people, including themselves. They feed about 20 people -- and sometimes many more -- nearly every afternoon, free of charge, no questions asked.
"This is our vision for what things could be," said Johnson, who wants badly to show that anarchists are more than just window-smashers. "Cafe Anarquista should be happening all over town. Food Not Bombs should be happening all over town. . . . We don't want a revolution where everybody's starving and scared."
The neighborhood radicals have set up a complex support system. They take care of each other's children, teach skills such as knot-tying and self defense in their "Free Skool," and trade used clothes from a box on the corner. They provide "safe spaces" for battered women and run the local "Copwatch" program to videotape police-citizen interactions.
The Eugene resistance is almost exclusively Anglo, a mish-mash of radical environmentalists, feminists, philosophers, nomads and outlaws. Many live in Whiteaker, and their median age is perhaps 25. Most were raised in middle-class families, although some grew up poor. They stay fed with oddly contradictory jobs such as telemarketing. They are dreadlocked and tattooed, profane and sometimes profound. Mostly, they are disappointed.
Some have suffered the consequences of parents cast aside by the whims of industry. Others have fought relentless battles to save ancient trees from logging.
Many strike back at the system in subtle ways, although some of their methods sound less like politics than excuses for boorishness. They brag about dropping litter in wealthy neighborhoods and shoplifting from corporate chain stores.
End of negotiations It's hard to pinpoint the moment Eugene went from being a liberal college town to a hothouse for the revolution. The city of 133,000 has long been a drop zone for hippies, free thinkers and militants. In 1970, protesters torched the ROTC building on the University of Oregon campus.
But the nature of the revolt has changed, said Officer Jennifer Bills, who has worked in Whiteaker for four years. Police and activists used to negotiate terms of arrests before protests, but anarchists now rarely talk with police, she said.
Tensions came to a head in June, when two days of street demonstrations resulted in 63 arrests. Some Eugene residents complained that police -- firing beanbag rounds and pepper spray -- overreacted.
"It's not the anarchists we're afraid of, it's the police," Eugene resident Craig Miller testified at a June 27 public forum. However, Miller, 43, acknowledged "there's a lot of foolishness on both sides."
Later that hot night, a few anarchists took a table at the Pizza Research Center, analyzing the public forum. They agreed the June 18 demonstration -- brought to order by 100 officers from Eugene and two other agencies -- was overkill that merely inflamed the public. Which was more or less good news, said Robin Terranova: "The police are much better at radicalizing people than we are."
The conflict continues The day after police swept Cafe Anarquista, the regulars were back, hand-rolling cigarettes, drinking java out of Mason jars and petting "Riot," the striped cat.
A few hours later, police returned and tacked a notice of their own on the "free space" fence: Because of complaints from neighbors, officers would strictly enforce all sidewalk, roadway and trespass laws there beginning July 24.
The regulars showed up that Monday with cameras and a few reporters. Coffee was served, pastries eaten. But police didn't show. When they cleared out, sunshine fell on the free space fence.
And if you looked real close, you could read a bold slogan fading in the sun: "We're Not Leaving!"
You can reach Bryan Denson at 503-294-7614 or by e-mail at bryandenson at news.oregonian.com.
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