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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

Leaving Marks in a City of Glass

Groningen was a solidly bourgeois city, though the surrounding province is the poorest in Nederland and constitutes the country’s socialist belt.  Nonetheless, one noticed little sense of conflict, which was typical for a society that prided itself on compromise.  The city center was a well organized ballet of bicycles and buses, open air markets and cute little stores, student fraternities and restaurants. The few cars in circulation unfailingly came to a stop by the time a pedestrian put her foot down on the crosswalk.  Serene canals spiraled around the center, remnants of the city’s defense system from centuries before.  Groningen’s current defenses were less obvious, though they ruthlessly blocked the paths to insurrection and, like the ring of moats once had, shaped the city itself.  At the middle of everything were the shops.  The city guards were the advertisements, babbling to us incessantly from every wall.  The welfare state and the externalization of poverty allowed by neocolonialism meant that the wealth gap was minimal, and nearly all Groningen’s inhabitants were offered tidy lives of consumerism with all their needs apparently met.  The conscientious citizens could buy organic at the eco shop, or subsidize starving Third World peoples by purchasing their arts and crafts from the humanitarian store.  Progressives could join the Labor Party, dissidents could join the Socialist Party.  One could criticize this closed system, but the means to spread that critique were prohibited.  A soft but firm array of laws against postering, stickering, handing out flyers, and so forth meant that the public relations and advertising companies who could afford it were the only ones able to sculpt the mental landscape on a large scale.  It was a nearly perfect propaganda bubble.


Joop and I talked long and hard about how to reach out to people under these circumstances.  He was a methodical thinker.  A few minutes into any conversation he was likely to say, “So if I understand you correctly, your hypothesis is that…”  With the meager means before us, we proposed to change the surface of the world we lived in, allowing signs of the subterranean resistance to register in people’s consciousness.  There needed to be some counterinformation, an urgent writing on the wall, disputing the image of the world created by advertising and corporate news.  And the illegality of the medium itself would add to the message.  A stencil spraypainted on a wall is a sign that people are going outside the sanctioned channels to communicate, and that they are willing to break the law to do so.  It is a sign, however slight, of rejection and discontent.  Enough angry, subversive, critical writing on the wall attacks people’s illusions about the stability of the world they live in and the degree of democratic consensus.  The police view this from the other side, through the Broken Window theory: signs of disorder in the environment signify to people that disorderly behaviors are possible.

Wheatpasting posters and putting up stickers were two other media easy to use. Posters and sticker paper provided an attractive medium but the costs added up unless you could find a place to do free shopping or printing; however I think if anarchists gave up drinking, smoking, buying music, or any other vice, they would find it affordable. In Groningen, the authorities had made it illegal to walk around town with poster-paste, so the police don’t even have to catch you in the act to give you a ticket.  It seemed the safest time was early Sunday morning, when the cops were exhausted from a busy night, and there were plenty of other people on the street but most of them were drunk and bleary-eyed, unconcerned about what other people might be doing. We made one poster directed at the very consumerism that seemed to be the local population’s most debilitating pastime.  Bearing a photo either of an armed column of Zapatistas, a Pakistani mob trashing a McDonalds, or Nigerian militia members with a kidnapped European oilworker, the poster was framed with the words: “You shop for happiness while the victims of your consumption fight for freedom.”

Joop and I supposed another step was creating opportunities for new people to get involved.  Groningen was a university town and school was starting around then, so at the last minute some of us put together pamphlets and banners and tabled at the student orientation, pretending to be a university club.  From there we advertised a few events: a Food Not Bombs, a film screening, and a presentation.  A week later, a smattering of Groningen anarchists cooked up a meal under the aegis of Gratis Eten, Groningen’s Food Not Bombs.  From Laage der A, the city’s largest squat, we wheeled the food out to the Grote Markt on a bakfiets, and served free food to about a hundred people, standing out quite noticeably amidst the bustle of shopping.  There are lots of critiques and internal discussions regarding the Food Not Bombs tactic—serving free food in public—as a response to poverty: whether it recreates dynamics of charity, whether it is effective at getting new people involved and under what circumstances.  But in the center of a busy shopping district, the format offered different possibilities.  Here it was a minor interruption of capitalism, a demonstration of different economic relationships: that you can share things and enjoy public space for free.  It caught people’s attention.  Some seemed scared, others were attracted, and a few people even stayed and talked—about world hunger, capitalism, anarchy, and other topics that our presence and our flyers brought up.


A couple days later, a city-sponsored festival in the park was interrupted by a minor act of guerrilla theater. In the thoroughfare between two different venues, with no stage in sight, suddenly appeared people in costume, people growing coffee, going on strike, a soldier beating them down, George Bush greedily gathering the coffee and trying to sell it to the people in the crowd, the farmers putting on ski masks and fighting back. Then someone walked through the crowd that had gathered and passed out flyers announcing the upcoming screening of a film about resistance to globalization.  Meanwhile, someone playing his own role came up and informed us that we weren’t allowed to make a skit in the park, and he would call the police if we stayed there.  With all the people crowded around, there were all sorts of possibilities where the play could have gone from there!

Throughout this month, Joop was producing a documentary on journalism, examining the mythology of the press and critiquing their actual practice.  We were constantly having long, electrifying conversations on the topic while cutting out stencils or walking around the city.  Sometimes we talked a bit too much.  Early one Sunday morning, immersed in debate, we suddenly noticed that on the other side of the the storefront window, which we were redecorating, a man was approaching us at full speed.  We took off running just as the door opened and the shopkeeper burst out, cursing and yelling.  There might be bike cops or plainclothes cops around any corner here in the shopping district.  We took the first side street to throw the shopkeeper off our trail, and after getting out of sight of any witnesses we turned a corner and slowed to a walk.  I took off my outermost layer of clothing so I wouldn’t fit whatever description the zealous shopkeeper might be calling in to the police.  My heart was racing.  I wondered what would happen to me if I were arrested in another country.  Once we got far enough away to feel safe, Joop and I discussed what had gone wrong. The answer was simple: it was Shopping Sunday. The one Sunday of the month when stores were open, to encourage people to overcome their tradition of not buying things one day of the week, and to ease a transition to an American-style 24/7 consumer economy.  The shopkeeper was in his store because he was getting ready to open it for the day.  We doubled over laughing.  On the way back home we picked up where we left off in our conversation about journalism and communication.

For me it all came back to the question of isolation.  How do we break on through to the other side?  In the past months I had seen radical scenes in three different countries, each like a petri dish growing different strains of bacteria in a different solution.  What would come to seem an obvious conclusion was starting to occur to me: that the isolation that plagues the anarchist movement is not caused by internal factors.  So far I had seen anarchists exhibiting a huge range of behaviours from inclusive and friendly to hostile and cliquish.  These made some difference in terms of how accessible a particular group was, how comfortable I felt as a newcomer, and how good the group’s relations were with other pre-existing groups of different political stripes.  But in all places people still spoke of the same isolation and I noticed it myself.  Later, in southern Europe, where social life still thrived in the streets, I would see that the isolation was not as strong, though in some places it seemed to be growing.

This isolation is caused by the mass media and the social structure of capitalism.  Anarchists today are isolated because everyone today is isolated.  The difference is that most other people are not reaching outside their cliques to build relationships of solidarity and mutual aid.  The local bingo hall or church might draw a bigger crowd than the anarchist book club, but at the edge of that crowd lingers the same silent void.  Alienation is the condition we all share in common.  And while anarchists seeking to abolish capitalism have to overcome alienation and build strong communal relationships, the so-called anarchist ghetto, in the meantime, isn’t all bad.  Ghettos open space for autonomy.  They are cauldrons in which outcasts can brew their rebellions, or in which they can stew indefinitely, if they choose to remain complacent.  The Warsaw ghetto was the site of the greatest insurrection against Nazi power, and ghettos in the US are hotbeds of radical culture and anti-state sentiments.

Hopefully all anarchists realize that we will never be able to communicate our ideas through the mass media, nor should we want to use such an authoritarian technology that turns billions of people into spectators—recipients of what an elite group determines to be news—and invades their trustingly opened minds to transform them into a market for advertisers.  All the mass media, including the news media, are moralistic, and above all they tell stories.  The vast majority of stories they tell do not lead people to believe in a world of mutual aid, self-organization, horizontal networks, solidarity, or resistance to a system of deliberate and thoroughly constructed domination.  The manner they receive these stories does not train people to tell their own stories, to talk back, to investigate their world, to meet their neighbors, or to create a network of collective information.  It trains them only to be consumers.