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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

Storming the Ghetto

While many anarchists are trying to leave the ghetto, the wealthy are always trying to recolonize it.  They have the Midas Touch, and everything they possess becomes a dead thing.  But the ghettos to which they expel the outcasts and rebels stew and bubble with life.  Innovative, rejuvenating, they give birth to new cultures and feed resistance eternal.  Then the artists and hipsters move in, trying to capture that vitality, and then the investors, trying to profit from it, and they bring the police with them, and development, and death.  It happened to Hamburg’s Schanze and is advancing on St. Pauli; Berlin’s Kreuzberg was lost this way; and in Groningen the process is so far advanced that it has devoured its own history, leaving no sign that things were different once. In the US all the major cities have their own stories of vibrant ghettos lost to gentrification, with the added racial dimension of ongoing colonialism.

Even little Harrisonburg knows the score—at least those who care to remember do.  The black neighborhood used to be right next to the downtown, right along North Main Street. But in the 50s the town elite smelled the changing winds rising off the civil rights and black liberation movement.  Like hundreds of other towns and cities, they applied for federal urban renewal grants and bulldozed the entire black neighborhood in the name of fighting poverty.  The people were moved wholesale “up on the hill,” along with the Jewish cemetery, which was also uprooted.  The only business remaining in the original neighborhood after that act of ethnic cleansing is Kline’s Dairy Bar, a white-owned ice cream shop.  Now it’s all stores and restaurants.

Nowadays, the new black neighborhood is one of the poorest in the city, and by far the most heavily targeted by police.  I didn’t learn any of this until some friends and I started working with black activists from that neighborhood to start a Copwatch group.  Many of the residents supported our group and shared our understanding of the criminal justice system and the police as racist and controlling. Yet despite some commonalities, such cross-racial collaborations are rare. Usually the authorities need only rely on the racialized fear of crime to prevent these connections from ever occurring—I knew many white people who would never go up on the hill.


Coca-Colonization breeds resistance

It reminded me of a similar dynamic in an entirely different situation.  Miami, 2003, the protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas—“NAFTA on steroids.”  The Black Bloc had attacked the security fence surrounding the summit site, and was being steadily rolled back by police.  Files of crazed riot cops advanced and the anarchists, nerved by weeks of psychological warfare waged by the pigs and a few intense days of terrorism during the summit, kept backing down.  Our side would construct some hasty barricades and throw a few things to keep the cops honest, but it was all done in retreat.  Not that this was the worst idea; many people caught by the pigs were brutally beaten or repeatedly tasered, and some of those arrested were tortured or raped.  Intentionally, the police forced us back into the black neighborhood—the feared ghetto.  The all-white cops smirked from overpasses, commenting: “those black folks are going to tear you up!”

On the contrary, hundreds of neighbors leaned out of windows to give us raised fists, faces beaming as they watched us fight back, however meekly.  I thought of all the faces that were missing.  My friend Earl was from this neighborhood.  I met him in prison a year earlier, and he was still there, on drug charges.  We had also found common ground in our fight for dignity and survival against the prison system, and backed each other up several times. It seems that the strongest relationships of solidarity are to be found in the ghettos themselves, yet too often anarchists try to communicate with an imaginary, non-marginalized public whose opinions are created by the mass media.

As the day went on, police snatch squads directed by helicopter took their toll on the diminishing crowd and it became apparent to everyone that we were being hunted.  The ghetto was probably the safest spot for us.  Some people were invited to hide in the apartments of locals.  After a friend and I made an escape through a hole in the fence, a guy came up to us and offered to give us some of his clothes so that we could blend in.  Every other day of the year, this army of police was pointing its guns at them.  The cops had projected their racist fears onto us, and though their predictions did not come true, they weren’t without reason.  For centuries black people in the US and around the world have been brutalized and exploited to a degree few white people know.  Slavery still exists.  The wars of colonialism are still being fought.  One day, hopefully soon, there will be shit to pay.  All the people who stand on the side of the pigs, the prison wardens, and the bosses will have to answer.  If they go peacefully, they face at best a radical change in their place in society, which up until now has rested on the backs of others.  If they do not go peacefully, they still have to go, by whatever means necessary.  But there is no clear line in the sand.  Everyone knows where a cop stands, but what about the rest of us?  In the jails and the ghettos, people turn snitch, trading their dignity for privileges .  In Harrisonburg, college kids, without knowing it, stand on the graveyard of the black community, waiting in line to buy ice cream.