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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

Homage to Barcelona

Sometimes it seems like all Europe is heating up this summer.   After Sarkozy won the elections in France, another tide of protests and riots swept across that country, at times uniting the youth in the banlieues who had rioted in 2005 with the anarchists, students, and workers who had rioted against the CPE, the labor deregulation, in 2006.  There were more major riots in Denmark, with blockades erected once more in the streets of København, after authorities made moves to demolish an old building on the outskirts of Christiania, clearly a practice move in preparation for the real thing, their plan to evict the “free state” of Christiania itself.  The Love Kills group from Craiova put on a feminist festival, and they and other anarchists from Romania organized a black bloc to attack the fascists who were protesting the Gay Pride parade in Bucureşti.  A number of groups in Ukraina and Russia, including my friends in Kyiv, organized a No Border camp near Uzhgorod, in the Carpathian part of Ukraina, and three hundred people from seventeen countries participated.

Some time later, antifascists from Ukraina and Russia converged on Kyiv to take action against a planned nazi rally.  In the train station they found and beat up an infamous Russian nazi blogger.  Little did they know, the blogger was under surveillance by Ukrainian intelligence agents, and they assigned a tail to follow the antifascists, who went around the city beating up a few other known boneheads.  The antifas noticed the spy following them making phone calls, and—thinking he was another nazi—beat him up too and stole his cellphone.  The hunt was on.  A few of the dozen antifascists escaped, but most were rounded up in the following hours by cops and intelligence agents.  They were beaten badly, and subsequently tortured.  The authorities released the Russians, not wanting to create a diplomatic incident, but charged a few of the Ukrainians.  Fortunately, thanks to a strong support campaign and good fundraising, they got off with light sentences.

In Greece, there were massive riots in a dozen prisons throughout the country, starting on 23 April, the same day I was arrested.  The riots began in solidarity with the anarchist bankrobber Giannis Dimitrakis, after he had been beaten by prison guards.  Anarchists on the street also protested in solidarity outside the prison.  Dimitrakis was a member of Thieves in Black, an anarchist group that had stolen hundreds of thousands of euros.  In 2005, three Greek anarchists arrested in connection with several petrol-bombings spent over a year in prison as suspected members of Thieves in Black before they were released and declared innocent.  But in early 2006, Dimitrakis was apprehended during a shootout directly after the robbery of the Central Bank in Athena by the Thieves in Black.  The other members escaped, and Dimitrakis refused to name them.  Petros, from Athena, wrote me about the situation:

“The last two weeks the situation has gone a bit wild in athens (in thessaloniki too but in smaller scale).  Three police stations in athens were attacked (the one in exarchia where all the police cars and motorbikes were completely burned and cocktails were thrown at the entrance, the second one in the area of Nea Ionia where the police cars and the station were shot with a machine gun as well as a grenade was thrown and the third in the area of Zografou where a few cocktails caused minor damages to police cars), cocktails were also thrown in the headquarters of the riot police and a cop who was guarding the president of the superior court was attacked and removed of his equipment. A police station was also attacked in thessaloniki. At the same time, as a response from inside, an insurrection started in the prison of giannis dimitrakis as well as to other prisons in greece with the prisoners taking over the prisons for 3-4 days . Of course the media and the ministry of public order didn’t know what to do or say….but all the newspapers, tv channels etc. are openly talking about city guerrillas and refer to exarchia as “an area taken over by anarchists, and where the government has no control of, or as a state within a state”.”

And in Thessaloniki around 20 August, African immigrants and anarchists rioted for several nights after police killed a Nigerian immigrant and the media reported the immigrant had killed himself.

The protests against the G8 in Heiligendamm, Germany, was for many anti-capitalists the big event of the summer.  People had been preparing for two years.  The previous year, the G8—the Group of 8 conference of the eight leading states and their lackeys—met in St. Petersburg, protected from protest by the might of the Russian police state, which preventively arrested a good third of the activists, including a friend from Kyiv.  This year, they had to meet in a more democratic country, so they convened the summit in an isolated resort that could easily be locked down by the security forces.

Some of the protest organizers started writing on the internet that their riots might be the start of the revolution, and I winced a little at the naiveté and eurocentrism.  Nonetheless the protests had the attention of the movements—and police forces—throughout Europe.  We all waited to see how the famed organizational skills of the German anticapitalists would pair off against the intimidating competence of the German police.  The preparation was marked by a high degree of tactical seriousness and complexity.  I fear this came with a sacrifice of emphasis on strategy.  Granted, organizers certainly debated strategy, but in the end they were afraid to try anything new.  Parts of the movement seem addicted to counterprotests, and though other options, such as decentralized protest plans, were discussed, the focus was always on disrupting the G8 conference.  There is nothing wrong with this goal, but Germany in particular offered several exciting possibilities for action beyond simply reacting to a summit.

A sticker against highspeed trainline construction in the Basque country.

A sticker against highspeed trainline construction in the Basque country.

The summit itself could not be shut down, with all the police and military there protecting it, although protestors could ruin their party and make opposition to the world’s leaders obvious.  And this success would boost the morale in the movement and generate energy most likely to get funneled into the next mass mobilization.  From what I witnessed, in a few places the protest organizing drained from the local movements, and in other places new groups were formed and new people were involved and initiated.  More than once—in Greece and Spain—I had visiting Germans tell me not to go to some other event—a talk on the prison system, an antirepression meeting, a social center meeting—even that those other events should not have been scheduled at those times, because the G8 info-event happening at the same time was more important.

There were some more serious problems with G8 outreach, though thankfully the Dissent Network—the main anti-authoritarian grouping taking part in the counterprotest—had the grace to put some of these criticisms on their website.  One came from a Palestinian grassroots activist who had been approached by organizers of the G8 infotour, and who took offense from the reportback written by the European delegation about the tour to Israel/Palestine.  “After a lengthy account of meetings with Israeli groups, praising their deep understanding for veganism and animal rights, you start to voice your opinions about the Palestinian struggle,” said the criticism from the Anti-Apartheid Wall campaign.  In the reportback the G8 activists claimed they were unable to find anarchist, communist, and grassroots groups in Palestine, even though they had met with a grassroots group—the one authoring the criticism—and there were quite a few communist groups in Palestine.  The reportback wrote off the Palestinian resistance as institutional, ignoring the very basis of the intifada, which was grassroots and spontaneous. With a very eurocentric attitude, the anti-G8 activists claimed that the Palestinian resistance did not have a global analysis, apparently because they did not prioritize the same global issues like the G8 summit.

The delegation apparently also criticized the Palestinians for refusing to work with Israeli groups who do not recognize the right of return for Palestinian refugees or who support Israeli settlements on the West Bank.  The criticism ended by saying the infotour delegates from Europe came to teach and not to listen, and rebuked: “Your report is an extreme example of the degree to which colonialism and racism is not only a system of institutions that exploit, expel and occupy all over the world but how deeply it is rooted within the consciousness of many that pretend to combat it.”  The criticism noted in passing that anarchism has never been strong in Palestine, and I’m sure that as long as its primary representatives continue to hold the eurocentric and neocolonial outlooks that we tolerate in our movement, it never will be.

Despite some serious problems, the counterprotest model has proven several times that when we organize with a high dose of creativity and dedication, we can still overcome the police in limited moments, capture the attention of the world, and give thousands of new people their first taste of directly fighting back.  But one wonders what future weaknesses such a limited model is building into the movement.  More than once, when we have managed to tear the gates down or push past the police, we stand there, mouths open, hesitating, because we cannot imagine going forward, carrying our attack to the elites themselves.  If this is our primary model for struggle, it fosters a dependence on the powerful to plan events to which we respond, and a preference for fighting the police rather than the elites or the social order they are protecting.

Let the NGOs march outside of G8 meetings begging for scraps and complying with the riot police—what if groups across Europe had conferred and debated and coordinated with the same dedication and fervor not for a mass mobilization in Heiligendamm but for decentralized actions in every town and city where anticapitalists existed?  The police ability to repress and control this wave of protests would be stretched thin, while the actions would enter directly into the consciousness of a great many more people—and without the reinterpretation of the mass media.  The information campaign leading up to it would educate people not on why the G8 is bad and how it can be protested but on why capitalism is bad and how folks can fight it or create alternatives locally.  The sense of global solidarity that one central protest can bring would still be built up during the preparation as people held conferences like those that occurred in France, Poland, and Germany leading up to the June protests.  These conferences would enable people from different cities to share ideas on effective and innovative actions, pool resources, and debate strategies—but without having to agree on one centralized strategy.

Unless people took this approach seriously, it would end up like most other anarchist calls for decentralized waves of action—something small is done by the couple groups who put out the call and a few other especially bold cities, but most other groups are hesitant to take the initiative and organize an action because they don’t see other people doing the same thing.  There is no momentum for them to join and take strength from, as there is in a mass mobilization.  But surely the organizers who prepared so thoroughly for the massive Heiligendamm protests could think up solutions to this inertia, for example by holding preparatory conferences where everyone could get together and breathe in that intoxicating sense of impending action, or an organizational structure that secured commitments from groups in different cities to carry out actions and that provided a central communication point for them to share ideas and resources.  They could even nurture a friendly competitive spirit by giving stolen champagne bottles to the collectives that organized The Most Creative Event, The Biggest Reclaim the Streets Action, The Greatest Act of Expropriation, The Best Autonomous Space, The Most Cop Cars Set On Fire, etc.

Another possibility would have been to let the politicians have their resort town to discuss global capitalism, and instead organize a mass mobilization in another city—it would be crucial that there were a large local anarchist presence, perhaps in Hamburg or Berlin—to Abolish Capitalism for a Week within a certain neighborhood, to resurrect that most potent of anarchist strategies and declare a commune, an autonomous zone.  With a year of preparation talking to neighbors, learning about people’s desires and boundaries, finding space for the hordes of out-of-towners to fit in without upsetting the locals, and then holding a mobilization of ten thousand anarchists; such an action would have near impunity to destroy banks and tear down all the advertising, rob from and even evict the chain stores that the locals don’t like,  provide DIY entertainment, free health care, free food—this would mean that some anarchists, perhaps those coming from the Mediterranean, would have to deal with cooking meat in addition to the usual vegan fare, as people probably would not appreciate anarchy if it also meant the imposition of veganism.  Thousands of police would still have to go to the G8 summit site as a necessary security expenditure, both to satisfy their habitual paranoia and to control the counterprotest of the progressives and socialists.  Thus there would be fewer police to control the real action, and it would be on terrain chosen by the anarchists, not terrain chosen by police experts for its defensive qualities.  Another advantage is that the skills we would develop in such a protest would be much more useful in this unfolding revolution than the range of skills needed in the typical counterprotest.  And ideally the results would last much longer.

Hopefully one day we’ll see more creative approaches like this, but for now we’re stuck with the counterprotests, and the results aren’t all that bad.  When successful, these protests do spread images of discontent and ungovernability, they can provide another opportunity for burned-out old-timers to see the collective strength of the movement, and they give newcomers an opportunity for combat and an initiation ritual, a meaningful experience.  In the end the protestors at Heiligendam did quite well, about as well as could be expected, given that they faced off against the focused might of the German police.  Despite the pacifying efforts of the big NGOs, on the major day of protest several thousand people took part in what the police described as some of the worst rioting in Germany in years.

It turns out, however, the police account was largely exaggerated, and the cops had utilized their pull in the media to justify their infamously paranoid and heavy handed security preparations.  They wanted to show that their harsh measures were desperately needed, because these were dangerous rioters who injured hundreds of the brave cops.  Apparently other segments in the elite were not at all pleased by how this maneuver set the tone for and overshadowed the coming summit just to satisfy the public relations interests of the police: instead of symbolic handshakes sealing bullshit deals on poverty and greenhouse gas reduction, the front page showed the riots.  Consequently, in the following weeks the corporate media included a number of denunciations of police exaggerations, showing how contradictions among the elite can benefit and be exploited by radicals.

Nonetheless, the riots were not altogether small, and they provided a satisfying opportunity for those participating in them.  Many people who had worked on organizing the protests felt this day was not the best for a riot, raising the question of how to construct strategy without controlling the participation of all the protestors.  The following day, unfortunately, was an agricultural protest organized with a largely pacifist character, so the cops were able to sweep up nearly everyone whom they thought was involved with the previous day’s festivities, while the demo organizers yelled at people trying to prevent the arrests, because self-defense and solidarity were “provoking the police.”  From there on out it got better, and the organizers of the immigrant demo the next day helped keep the march tight and prevented the police from arresting anyone, which is especially good considering the crowd included a number of undocumented people.

The rest of the week was filled with hours-long meetings, reconnaissance, planning, and the building of affinity groups.  The protestors worked out ways to balance the strategy so that people were able to choose from a range of confrontation levels without endangering or suppressing the other people involved.  Affinity groups that were blocking a road, throwing stones at police, carrying out hit and run attacks with molotovs, or trying to sneak past the police and get closer to the conference site all had different needs and operated best in different situations.  By talking it out, they could organize those different situations together, across the different zones where the actions would take place, and decide which approaches were complementary, which were not, and how much space each group needed from the others.

12d Octubre 2008

Barcelona anarchists and antifascists clash with riot police protecting a fascist demo on Columbus Day, known there as the Day of Spanishness.

Ten to fifteen thousand people cooperated in this way in an attempt to seal off and physically shut down the conference. Using blockades, lockdowns, barriers, and roving attacks, they repeatedly blocked the roads leading to the conference site, preventing journalists, translators and service workers from entering, and preventing delegates from leaving.  A car with the Russian delegation was damaged, and the Japanese Prime Minister’s family was unable to take a nice little outing along the coast.  For a short while the sea route was even closed off when some activists came in on rubber boats.

In Spain it was also an active summer.  Multiple acts of sabotage and arsons occurred across the peninsula, targeting the construction of the TAV—the new highspeed train line that the state was extending into Catalunya and the Basque country.  The night of 8 July, two police vans were torched in Terrassa, Barcelona, in solidarity with Gabriel Pombo Da Silva, an anarchist prisoner who had escaped from Spain and was now locked up in Germany.  The media covered up the incident but a group calling itself the Célula Xosé Tarrio claimed responsibility in a communique distributed at infopoints in Barcelona.  The same night in Manresa, the courthouse was attacked with paintbombs in solidarity with Juan Sorroche, an Italian anarchist whom the Spanish police had helped to arrest on trumped up accusations of belonging to a terrorist group.  His friend Nuria had only just been released on bail after months in Soto Real, a high security prison in Madrid.  In Navarra in July about a dozen people were arrested and given heavy charges for resisting the eviction and demolition of a village—carried out in the name of progress, no doubt.  Somebody hacked the website of the Ministry of Housing, so the only thing on the site was a popular anti-gentrification slogan.  On 13 August, masked saboteurs in Euskadi, the Basque country, attacked police vehicles, courthouses, and banks as part of the ongoing independence struggle.

After the surprise evictions at Miquel Angel in Barcelona, a wave of vandalism and sabotage targeted real estate companies.  One protest was left to roam freely through the streets, perhaps because it occurred in Sants, a neighborhood known for its strong popular support for the squatters, the anarchists, and the leftist Catalan independentistas.  The march was able to rub right up against one of the real estate offices in the neighborhood.  People in masks soon began redecorating the exterior.  Some men in business suits who apparently worked there actually came running to try to stop it, yelling “Nooooooo!” like in a movie.  Naturally they got a faceful of spraypaint.  In the middle of July in Sants, several activists locked themselves to the top of a crane in a construction site for the TAV, temporarily halting construction.  They were protesting against the devastating construction project, and also against the impending eviction of Can Vies, a ten-year-old squat bordering the site.

The movement here still had teeth, and it was in for the long haul.  With an extra dose of perseverance, people kept printing their newspapers, broadcasting their radio shows, organizing cabarets and book discussions, and when their spaces got evicted, they recovered what they could and found another place to occupy.  There were, after all, 150,000 vacant dwellings in Barcelona, and though local capital was rapidly mummifying the city and the government and police were expanding the legal basis of their dictatorial powers, the movement would not run out of room any time soon.  However the energy did seem to dwindle.  The state was playing a game of exhaustion and gradually winning.  Where a few years before the slogan was “un desalojo, una occupación,” one eviction, one occupation, the reality was now perhaps two evictions, one occupation.  Just in the few months since I had come, the number of squatted social centers in the city had declined noticeably.  By July, the Info Usurpa, the weekly bulletin listing all the squat events in the city, shrank from three to two pages.  A few years ago, there had been 800 squats in the city; at the beginning of this year, nearly 300; and at the end of the year only about 200 would remain.  There were about one hundred new occupations that year, which was impressive, but not enough to outweigh the nearly 200 evictions that occurred in the same period.

Our front door with a new mural.

Our front door with a new mural.

A few of the better known, well established squats were shut down in this time.  CSO Toxics and La Opera in Llobregat, Dynamo in Salut, Miquel Angel in Sants, Miles de Vivienda in Barceloneta, Can Massol in the hills outside Barcelona.  A wave of evictions had also swept Madrid in recent months, claiming la Ramona, la Perrera, el Milano, la Facultad Okupada y Autogestionada, until only a few squatted social centers remained, and some of these, such as La Alarma, were given eviction orders.

On the 4th of July, exactly one year after I arrived in Europe, and a couple weeks after I would have returned to the States if my life were still my own, RuinAmalia got its eviction orders.  We had one month to remove our things, and the police were authorized to evict in the first two weeks of October.  Of course, the police would probably come whenever they chose, and might prefer not to come when we expected it; so after the first month there was little certainty as to how much more time we had.  The courts were closed in August, but starting in September there was a growing risk.  Maybe they would try to surprise us with an early eviction, or maybe they would wait to see what resistance we mounted in October, and then just sit back and wait for us to tire of the state of siege and relax our guard.  In the meantime, we had to go on with living, to keep the social center open for the summer, and try to build more support.  I had gotten involved in Kilombo, the library, and even though we only had a few months left we started putting out flyers and getting more people to come by and check out our books before it was time to put them in boxes and find the library a new home.

Finding myself a new home wouldn’t be as easy.  I missed Virginia.  There was no substitute for long, flowing conversations or just comfortable silence with childhood friends.  And the smell of the air on a warm summer night there was like nothing else.  But I couldn’t waste years of my life waiting.  I was developing a soft spot for the city I could not leave, and a fierce affinity for the people I had found in trying times.  Together we could beat this frame-up, this attempt at repression, and push the struggle forward.  In the end, home is where you make a stand.  Everything else is just real estate.

Some people tried to convince me not to go to unpermitted protests or take part in illegal actions, fearing that I would be arrested again, that the 30,000 euros would be lost, and I would be sent back to prison.  They thought that, after RuinAmalia, I should let other people break open a new house and wait a few weeks for the chance of a surprise eviction to diminish before moving in.  But life itself is illegal if it refuses the boundaries imposed by governments and markets.  One of the strengths of the movement in Barcelona was its defiant illegality, and it was not possible to fully participate without taking part in that illegality.  It was enough that every two weeks I had to get a new stamp in my provisional liberty card—which I had to carry around with me at all times; that I had to wait for trial for a year, two years, maybe more; and that to leave the EU visa territory I needed permission from the judge, and even then it wasn’t certain if the border guards would let me back in; and that the state was threatening me with three to six years in prison.  I could not also neutralize myself, for however long I had to wait, and play the part of a good citizen—or rather, a good illegal resident—until the state deigned to absolve me.

In the end I decided I would rather be free in prison than imprisoned on the streets, and my friends accepted that.  For now, my home was here, with them, and we would fight side by side—against evictions, against court cases, against the daily pressures of capitalism.  As soon as that winter it would become apparent that the authorities had failed to break the back of the movement.  We would have a new house in a new neighborhood, and a community garden; the number of squats in the city would be growing again, and many of the new social centers would evidence a reborn tenacity.  The entire city would stir with sympathy for striking bus drivers and an anticapitalist bank robber, and a financial crisis would undermine people’s faith in the system.  But we didn’t know any of this yet.  This future would only be ours if we kept reaching for it.

In the meantime, I wrapped myself in warm memories from the year gone by.  I had not found any simple answers to the questions of overcoming isolation, surviving repression, building solidarity, and spreading revolutionary ideas and actions; but I had not expected any.  It was more appropriate that I was sewing myself a patchwork quilt of stories and experiences.  Scenes of black-clad youth lounging outside a social center—their social center—which they will go to war to defend.  Babies and wizened elders playing together on an autonomous campground during the 74th year of an anarchist gathering.  Brave, secret scenes in the East, of clandestine actions behind the backs of the fascists and the secret police.  The tock tock of a lone hammer before the Greek Parliament.  Turning soil in the gentle rain on a mountain farm in Italy.  Walls covered in subversive posters.  Letters of encouragement from people I hardly knew, held up against the glass in Modelo prison.  A protest banner thrown over the heads of bewildered riot police, into the eager hands of a crowd swelling forward to rescue us.

It’s another blue, Mediterranean day as I settle down in my chair at the top of RuinAmalia to decide whether I’m going to pen a letter to a friend locked up in Maryland, or to start typing out my first article in Spanish, for an anarchist newspaper here.  And there’s a flyer to draft with Juan, to alert the neighborhood of the impending eviction, and link our struggle to their rising rents.  The library needs cleaning, I have a design for a stencil I want to finish up, and some research to do for a book, and on and on.  There are plenty of little tasks to distract me from thinking of impossible futures and rewards that seem too far away to be reached in any lifetime I can imagine.

I have a friend who tells me that to find hope we need the courage to be hopeless.  It’s a quote from somewhere.  And I look back at the little things.  The to-do list in front of me, the blue sweep of sky and a tight horizon of crooked roofs forested with TV antennas; behind them the shadows of construction cranes leering over this ugly, wonderful city.  There are a dozen little projects I dream about starting whenever I get back to the States, and a dozen more projects begging for my attention here.  As much as my thoughts are drawn to the uncertain future, what I am searching for is all around me, just below the surface.  In the silence you can hear it: a heartbeat rooted so strongly in the moment it has the force to survive a thousand moments more.  It is the sound of persistence and dignity, of strength and vulnerability; the sound of life.  One day we will see what lies on the other side of the prison walls, but first we must find comfort in the journey.

Because whatever the outcome of these trials the repression will never end, not in any timeline that can fit in a single book, and the travels too will go on forever, into still unexplored corners of a world that is seismically reinventing itself, tumbling down our prisons and our utopias alike.

THE END.

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