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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

The Borderland

My last night in Denmark I sleep on a park bench in the borderland between anarchy and the state.  There is no clear boundary line.  A few dozen meters one way shoppers and commuters drive home and cops ticket people for crossing on red.  A dozen meters the other way people organize their own lives and property relationships hold little sway.  And there in the middle, in the falling darkness, my dreams pull the world into a black hole of such gravity the very particles of existence fly apart and reassemble themselves in impossible arrangements.  Time curls up on itself, the past marches back before my eyes and the future turns around and presents itself in hindsight, the possible and the definite trade masks and mannerisms.  Choices and their consequences mingle with lucid omens, impossible desires, and suppressed regrets.

Drops of moisture fall on my cheek.  I open my eyes.  It’s raining.

The park bench is hard, but I needed it this night.  A jogger runs by in the pre-dawn glow.  Behind him is a lake.  In the lingering surreality of dreaming he seems like some underworld messenger, the boatman on the River Styx.  Off to one side is a low grumble. I realize it’s the morning traffic of København, Denmark’s capital city. On the other side there is no evidence of automobiles or commuters. Only trees and tranquility and the dim outline of houses through the fog. That is Christiania.

This far north, this time of the year, it never gets dark for long.  If the sky is still colorless, it must be early.  More importantly, it’s starting to rain, and I have miles to go before I sleep.  Kilometers, I remind myself, and roll out of my sleeping bag.

Christiania may be the most populated, established manifestation of anarchy I have experienced.  It comprises an entire neighborhood in the city of  København, and it has been squatted and autonomous since 1971.  It used to be a military fort, but the government abandoned it and now Christiania holds nearly a thousand people building a life outside of capitalism and the state.  I first heard about Christiania from some articles on the internet, and received the news with the same dull pleasure anarchists always feel when we read that anarchy is actually possible, in some faraway land or distant time.  I almost didn’t come, except that I was following a little sign, the coincidence of meeting some Danish punks in Berlin who drew me a map showing the way to some friends I could stay with there.  København lies several hundred kilometers from Berlin, which is a long way by bicycle, through shadowed forests in Brandenburg, over the rolling, golden hills of Mecklenburg-Vorpormmern, a ferry ride across the Ostsee, a long lonely bridge over dark waters to Vordingborg, short trees and squat cottages in Sjaelland…But I am here in Europe to learn about things like Christiania.  Ultimately, it is revolution I am interested in. Not the shrines of revolutions past, but the seeds for revolution now, in the 21st century, when no sane person believes in revolution.  When capitalism is destroying the planet; when genocide, racism and colonialism have continued for 500 years and counting despite all the ostensible solutions offered by the state; when the privileged countries the rest of the world are supposed to emulate are a wasteland of alienation and psychopharmaceuticals.  Now, when revolution is least realistic and most necessary.  There is nothing especially romantic happening in Europe, and in fact the historians of the state are attempting to write the ending of the autonomous movement and all other possibilities of bringing political revolt to the streets of this continent, while many anarchists themselves are concurring that history has moved on, that the age of squats, clandestine groups, streetfighting on May Day, is fading.  But I think that the anarchists where I come from have a lot to learn from desperate attempts, especially in countries that, like the US, have no culture left besides that of the Market.

I had spent the last six years of my life in little ole Harrisonburg, Virginia, through the heady days of the antiglobalization movement—the protests and the struggles that seemed to be uniting the world against capitalism and the US empire—and then the deadening stupor of the War on Terror.

We had some successes, there in the Shenandoah Valley.  Set up an infoshop, an anarchist social center. The authorities shut it down, we opened another one.  Started the clichéd Food Not Bombs group to serve free food to the homeless population, and to enjoy a communal meal ourselves.  Organized the first ever Virginia Anarchist Gathering, a Copwatch group, a prisoner support group.  Some friends started a permaculture farm nearby with a Community Supported Agriculture program.  It was pretty good, considering there were just a few of us.  But we never could quite extend beyond that wall of isolation that seems to suffocate the anarchist movement in the US.  And the whole time I had to sacrifice my wanderlust, my desire to see the world and learn new languages, in order to keep up with my weekly commitments.  When there’s only ten anarchists in a town, it’s hard to take vacations.  The stress mounts up.  Best friends move away, others go complacent and try to turn the struggle into a social club with a radical façade.  And the state is so powerful, eventually it becomes more attractive to create a perfected anarchist space, attacking the imperfections of your friends rather than attacking your bosses and governors.  You become your own worse enemy. People prove themselves to be more valiant on internet blogs and local gossip circles than in the street, and those you trusted to watch your back end up sticking a knife in it.

Sometimes, in order to find your community, you have to find yourself first, and in order to clearly see the struggle you’re involved in, you have to look at it with new eyes, comparing it with a completely different situation in order to see what’s possible and what’s necessary. Sometimes, there’s nothing to do but move on and hope you’ve left some seeds behind. For me, this journey was a long time in coming, not only in terms of the dead end local activism had wedged itself into, but also in how long I’d been looking forward to a chance to go travelling.  I had been working as a taxi driver two years to save up money for a yearlong trip.  I spent it all to self-publish a book I’d written, but somehow the shoelace DIY distribution operation pulled through and I made the money back just in time.  My first stop was Berlin.

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