A year ago, the Russian Federal Security Service—the FSB—initiated a wave of repression, arresting and brutally torturing anarchists in order to force them to sign false statements admitting to participating in a supposed terrorist group invented by the Russian authorities. The ensuing crackdowns put tremendous pressure on anarchists around Russia; you can learn more about the cases and solidarity efforts here. Today, a young Russian anarchist died in an attack on the FSB headquarters in Arkhangelsk. Below, we present a rough translation of the initial report from Russian anarchists, including the young man’s personal claim of responsibility.
As we have previously emphasized, we don’t believe that individual attacks on specific authority figures will suffice to abolish the institutional power of the state and capitalism. But the Russian state has left precious few alternatives for those who desire a means of bringing about positive change. At the conclusion of a week that has seen a tremendous upswing in authoritarian repression and fascist violence around the world, from Pittsburgh to Brazil, it is time for us to discuss how we can collectively respond to the escalating violence of the state and its fascist supporters.
It also bears mentioning that the FSB is directly descended from the KGB, showing the continuity of oppression between state socialism and capitalism.
We respectfully bid farewell to this young man who took a stand against repression, torture, and deceit, doing the best he could with the few options that were available to him. Let’s organize together to give people like him a reason to live. Please go to the support page for those targeted by the FSB operation.
At 8:52 am, at the entrance to the FSB Directorate for the Arkhangelsk Region, an explosion took place. The anarchist rebel, Zhlobitsky Mikhail Vasilyevich, also known on the app Telegram as Valerian Panov, blew himself up. This is the first case of anarchists carrying out such an attack on the FSB in 19 years; the previous attack was organized in 1999 at the reception of the FSB in Moscow by the New Revolutionary Alternative organization.
The comrade died as a result of the explosion, also causing injuries of varying severity to three officers of the FSB.
Seven minutes before the explosion, Valerian left a message in one of the anarchist chats via Telegram, in which he described the reasons for his action:
Comrades, now in the FSB building in Arkhangelsk there will be a terrorist attack, the responsibility for which I take upon myself. The reasons are clear to you. Since the FSB fabricates cases and tortures people, I decided to go for it. Most likely, I will die because of the explosion, because I have initiated the charge directly by pressing the button attached to the bomb cover. Therefore, you are requested to spread information about the terrorist attack: who committed it and what the reasons were.
Well, sort of like everything. I wish you to go unswervingly and uncompromisingly towards our goal. Light to you, the future of anarchist communism!
We bow our heads before the heroism of our comrade. We were not acquainted in person, but through communication, he left an impression of himself as an intelligent and well-prepared person who was not apathetic, who aspired to go beyond the swamp of the official opposition struggle that is now mainstream.
We are sorry that he had no other choice, no way to do more damage to the enemy with less harm to himself.
Yet be that as it may, he lived as he thought was right, and died as a hero in the struggle for our common ideals.
As the Kurds say—Şehid namirin! Heroes do not die!
In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, fascist proponent of dictatorship and mass killings, has won the election. Who needs a military coup when you use voting to accomplish exactly the same thing? We’ve already explored in detail how the left and centrist parties paved the way for this. From Brazil to France, parties across the political spectrum have lost all pretense of offering any solution to social problems other than escalating state violence. In this context, it’s not surprising that politicians who explicitly represent the police and military are coming to power, as they have become the linchpin of the state itself.
Our hearts go out to our comrades in Brazil, who have already experienced a tremendous amount of state repression and capitalist violence—and will now face far worse. Perhaps the immediate resistance that greeted the election of Donald Trump can serve as a useful reference point. Yet because of the specific ways Brazil is on the receiving end of colonialist violence, the wave of nationalism that has already crested in the United States and Europe will involve considerably more brutal violence there. We call on everyone around the world to prepare to mobilize in solidarity with those who are targeted in the attacks that Bolsonaro has promised to carry out.
As anarchists, we don’t believe that elections grant legitimacy to any ruling party. No election could legitimize police violence, homophobia, racism, or misogyny in our eyes, nor prisons, borders, or the destruction of the natural world on which everyone’s survival depends. No vote could give a mandate to anyone who wants to dominate others. Majority rule is as repugnant to us as dictatorship: both make coercion the fundamental basis of politics.
The important question is not how to improve democracy; fundamentally, democracy is a means of legitimizing governments so that people will accept their impositions, no matter how tyrannical and oppressive those may be. The important question is how to defend each other from the violence of the state; how to find ways to meet our needs that don’t depend on unanimity or coercion; how to collaborate and coexist rather than competing for power. As more and more oppressive regimes take power around the world, we have to have done with our illusions about “good” democratic government and organize to protect each other by any means necessary.
The opposite of fascism is not democracy. The opposition of fascism is freedom; it is solidarity; it is direct action; it is resistance. But it is not democracy. Democracy, yet again, has been the mechanism that brought fascists to power.
Over the past several months, our comrades in Brazil, Greece, and Germany have all published translations of From Democracy to Freedom, our analysis of the common threads that connect democracy and dictatorship. We offer those translations here—in case the Brazilian group’s site unexpectedly goes offline—along with an English translation of the epilogue to the German translation. Our comrades in Germany are also organizing public presentations about the book.
For more on why the democratic movements of 2010-2014 reached an impasse, enabling far-right groups to appropriate their rhetoric and seize the initiative, read this analysis we published ahead of the Swedish elections last month.
Epilogue from the German Publishers
Before this book was published, we presented discussions about democracy together with comrades from the US and Slovenia in autonomous centers around Germany. Although none of the texts in From Democracy to Freedom explicitly deals with the situation in Germany, that does not mean that we have not had quite similar experiences—on the contrary.
A few weeks before the federal election in 2017, a propaganda truck was driving around on behalf of the Bundestag, the German federal parliament. They were distributing baseball caps and candies featuring the Bundesadler, the coat of arms of the Weimar Republic (which is back in service to today’s German government), as well as propaganda films for students about parliamentary democracy. The organizers emphasized how democratic Germany is. This sort of advertising offensive was obviously necessary for a system that has good reason to fear for its own legitimacy.
All parties represented in the Bundestag claim that democracy as one of their central issues. The SPD wants to risk trying more democracy, like Willy Brandt said; the Green party wants to expand democracy; the Left just wants more democracy; Christian Democrats want to strengthen democracy; liberals want to revive democracy; and the racist, neo-fascist AfD presents itself as a party for direct democracy. The entry of the AfD into parliament confirms once again that advocacy for direct democracy is hardly a guarantee of emancipatory politics.
Whatever we do, whatever we demand, we should always make sure to emphasize why we are struggling, so as to protect our ideas and rhetoric from appropriation by conservative or fascist groups who fight for the exact opposite of what we are fighting for.
Those who pursue initiatives for “more” or “real” democracy like to present themselves as courageous or even revolutionary fighters against the prevailing political order—when in fact, they only want another kind of representation. Conferences with names such as “Democracy Needs Movement” are an example of this development. As people who express ourselves uncompromisingly against any form of democracy, we nevertheless spoke there; people raised their eyebrows at us because our positions and goals cannot be implemented in the context of a better democracy.
For many, it is impossible to imagine that there could be anything else. This is one of the problems with democracy: it narrows down what we can imagine.
In anti-capitalist struggles in Berlin, we met people who appeared to believe that making signs with their hands during meetings represented the epitome of revolutionary behavior. Some people told us that the methods of communication and decision-making should take priority over the results. Some didn’t see it as a problem that their chosen form of decision-making resulted in the permanent obstruction of any meaningful form of activity.
All this, because for the first time in their lives, they understood themselves as an important part of an apparatus. We were expected not to destroy this feeling of finally getting it right. We did it anyway.
We tried to adapt to the proposed rules of “non-violent activists” in order to be able to cooperate with them. In the process of making decisions with them, we used the right of veto to block a decision that seemed intolerable to us. We discovered that our veto was less important than other people’s veto. In the end, we had to discuss whether there could be a veto against our veto.
Once again, we saw that the official methods of decision-making only last as long as they serve the interests of those who introduced them.
When we were part of the discussions preparing the blockading actions at the G20 summit, we decided to be strategic: we sat in different positions in the meetings, we split up into different working groups. We did this to prevent worse attempts at manipulation, to block authoritarian attempts to control the process from the very beginning, to influence the discourse. Doing this, we learned something about our own power potential—and it scared us. We saw that we could play this game too: we knew the mechanisms and we could play the same tricks. We knew how and when to formulate a question if we wanted to be the ones who determine how the discussion would go—how to fix the order of the points on the agenda—when to set the start time of a meeting. Sometimes we were not just afraid of ourselves, but also disgusted—because on the way to overthrowing all authority, we were tempted simply to seek to get our own piece of the cake.
This experience gives us all the more reason to be critical of the democratic framework.
We have not only encountered the debate about democracy in practical struggles on the street. We can also find it in a few theoretical texts from German-speaking countries. We can recommend two such publications here:
A secret children’s book passed from hand to hand, invisible to the market. After a decade and a half, we’re finally offering a zine version of The Secret World of Duvbo, the companion to our other children’s book, The Secret World of Terijian. This is a story about the furtive outlets we create for the parts of ourselves that do not fit into our ordinary lives—about the potential for transformation hidden within seemingly staid and conservative communities—about how the courage of one can become the courage of all.
This story has followed a long and winding path to reach your hands. The plot line was conceived in São Paulo, Brazil in early 2000. The first draft was composed at the end of January 2002, at Demonbox, a now-defunct collective house in Stockholm that, incidentally, was also the original European publisher of Days of Love, Nights of War. It was written as a gift for Arwin, who was born the following May in the real-life neighborhood of Duvbo.
In 2004, after publishing several books for sale on the market, we wanted to make a book that would only be available through gift economics. We printed a few thousand copies of The Secret World of Duvbo and gave them away to friends, lovers, and charming strangers over the following years.
Traveling in Minnesota in 2006, we discovered a new CrimethInc. cell that had composed a sequel, The Secret World of Terijian. In 2007, we published it in the same format as The Secret World of Duvbo, selling it as a fundraiser for defendants accused of earth and animal liberation. Within two years, the authors were themselves imprisoned on such charges and we had to raise funds for them as well. By then, most of the print run of The Secret World of Duvbo was long gone.
In 2018, we saw copies of the 2004 printing of The Secret World of Duvbo selling online for $125 and up, shipping and tax not included. We had eluded both the market and the internet for 14 years, but they were finally catching up to us. We prepared this edition to make sure that the text can still reach you outside the exchange economy, if no longer in the context of personal interaction that gave the original printing its special power. May we meet someday as friends, nonetheless.
Burn every toy store and replace them with playgrounds,
-CrimethInc. Children’s Crusade
The Secret World of Duvbo
A magical story about a perfectly ordinary world
I wanted to write the most perfect story for you, so you would know how excited we all are for you to join us. I went around with a blank notebook for weeks, trying to work out the perfect first line for a perfect story. Finally, since I couldn’t come up with it, I moved on to trying to work out the perfect second line. I went through every line that way, right up to the last one, without any success. And then it hit me: I had written a perfect story, after all, but since this is not a perfect world, the story couldn’t join me here—it was waiting in another universe, the one where everything is perfect, even me.
To solve this problem, I had to sit down and write you an imperfect story, so at least you would have something to read. If nothing else, I think I’ve succeeded in doing that. By the time this reaches you, it will have been waiting for years; but all the same, late as it is to say this—welcome here!
Duvbo was a sleepy town in the world that is just like our world in every respect except that it is the one in which stories like this one take place. It wasn’t particularly close to or far from any other towns, and although people came in and out sometimes, life in Duvbo centered around what was going on in Duvbo, which generally wasn’t much at all. The residents didn’t seem to think much about this, but if someone had asked them, they probably would have answered that this was the way they preferred it.
If you were to take a walk around Duvbo on a sunny afternoon, you would pass through neighborhoods of modest houses, a few to a street, trees shading the well-trimmed grass behind white picket fences. Whatever path you took, you would be bound to come eventually to the center of town, where there were a street of shops, a street of civic buildings, and a central square where they intersected. It was a large enough town that a small child could get lost in it, but not so large that he would not quickly be found and returned home.
In this town there lived one mayor, four policemen, six firefighters, three mail carriers, four hundred and twelve assorted other workers, some retired, and their one hundred and nineteen children, most of whom attended the one school, which was staffed by nine teachers, including a particular Ms. Darroway, who taught mathematics. In addition to all these inhabitants, there were two especially grumpy retired army officers, who don’t come into the story until later, and one especially shy, especially sensitive boy, Titus, who will be the hero of this tale.
All in all, then, there were five hundred and fifty seven residents of Duvbo; you should try to remember this number, in case it becomes important later on.
Let’s start with Titus: he was a tousle-headed little fellow, perhaps a little shorter than his classmates, given to daydreaming and distraction but no more preoccupied than any other child his age. He wasn’t a boy to stand out in a crowd, but on closer inspection you might notice him—he would be the one near the edge of the group, looking one direction while everyone else was looking the other. Truth be told, he paid more attention to his surroundings than adults gave him credit for, and sometimes noticed things no one else did.
The mayor was a great big ostentatious man given to flaunting extravagantly ordinary ties and delivering long-winded speeches about nothing in particular, and Titus only saw him on special occasions like the county fair or the Christmas parade at the end of autumn. He didn’t see too much of the police officers, either, and though police officers in other towns are known for doing quite horrid things, these four weren’t really a bad sort. The firefighters would come to his school once a year to ramble through a presentation about fire safety and prevention, but as far as Titus could tell, there were never any fires in Duvbo for them to put out.
The mail carriers were more interesting to the boy, or at least one of them was. Every day on his way back from school, Titus would pass her coming down the driveway from his house, having just dropped the mail in the mail slot; as soon as he had passed her, so she wouldn’t see him do it, he would run up the front steps and fling open the door to see what had arrived. Nothing ever had, of course, except for bills and other confusing, humdrum things that set his parents to muttering; but all the same, it seemed to Titus that a mail carrier ought to bring important packages, magical invitations, parcels that would open to reveal hidden entrances to other worlds or at least maps to buried treasure. So every afternoon, just in case, he was there, fingers crossed, to check the mail—and every afternoon it was the same: bills and advertisements.
As you’ve probably already guessed, Ms. Darroway was Titus’s mathematics teacher, and he sat in her classes many long hours every week daydreaming and counting down the minutes until he and the mail would arrive on that doorstep. She was a stern, strict, unlaughing woman, and would always catch him with his head in the clouds and chastise him in front of his classmates. Still, his mind would wander, and he couldn’t help following it out those windows, across the placid fields around Duvbo, over the hills and far away into wild jungles where women and men with painted skin rode winged fish up black rivers to abandoned cities at the feet of towering mountains… sometimes when the bell rang to release him, he was almost sorry to come back to his seat, even though he knew it was time to run home to see if the package he longed for had finally arrived.
Through the course of this tale, you may sometimes wonder where Titus’s parents were; the answer is, of course, that they were there, somewhere in the background, like many people’s parents are these days. Titus was not so lucky as to have parents who knew how lucky they were to share their lives with him, and he had to work a lot of things out on his own. This is the story of how he did, and of how much of a difference it made for everyone.
Weeks and weeks of hopeful afternoons added up to months with still nothing special in the mailbox. At Titus’s young age, that seemed like an impossibly long time for nothing special to happen, and he began to fear that something was wrong in the world; but everyone around him carried on in such a nonchalant manner, and with so little visible desire for Something Special to arrive in the mail or from any other direction, that some days he wondered if something was simply wrong in himself that he should want such a thing. If he had been a braver boy, he thought to himself in a tone of accusation, he would have asked the mailwoman if strange packages from exotic lands didn’t show up on at least some doorsteps, sometimes; but he was at that age when boys become too self-conscious to ask such things aloud, even if a part of them still shouts the question silently.
He should not have been so quick to criticize himself, for as it would turn out, he would demonstrate great bravery and initiative when the time came. But he had no way of knowing this, yet, and went about thinking of himself as something of a coward, hoping for an opportunity to prove his courage with the same mounting impatience with which he awaited the arrival of something magical in the post.
This impatience led him to do something that parents tell their children Never To Do Under Any Circumstances, the sort of thing they certainly do not want little boys doing in the stories their children read—so if you’ve gotten this far, you can consider yourself lucky. Fed up with a life in which nothing ever happened, Titus began secretly staying awake until everyone else in the house was asleep, and then—this is the really controversial part—sneaking out of the house to take walks in the witching hour of the night. Each night he would wait until he heard the low rumble of his father’s snoring, then the quieter whistle of air between his sleeping mother’s lips, and, after counting breathlessly to one hundred, would hold the pillow over the window latch to muffle the sound as he unlocked it. Then he would open the window just wide enough to slip his body out, and lower himself carefully to the ground a few feet below, trembling as he did in the thrill of doing something so frightening and forbidden. Some nights he would step on a twig as he reached the ground, and freeze in terror for minutes until he was sure he hadn’t awakened his parents; he began to check the area under his window for sticks in the afternoon, after the latest disappointing batch of bills had arrived.
On the first few outings, he didn’t stray far from the house—it was enough just to stand in the dim streetlight in the front yard, looking at the dark forms of trees that loomed overhead and savoring the chill air on his face. After a week of this, though, he had built up enough courage for a short expedition down the street, and then another. The whole world looked so different at night—everything that was familiar in daylight became, in the still starlight and emptiness of sleeping Duvbo, spooky and nearly magical. Squinting at the silhouettes of street signs made blank by the blackness, almost swallowed up by the silence in which his footsteps boomed, Titus felt like the last human being on earth—or the first.
Parents and other adults forget this as the years pass, but you know it well, I’m sure: children’s lives are electrified by secret adventures like this, given their true form and meaning by moments no one else witnesses. Already Titus was daydreaming less about the afternoon mail and more about what he would do later in the evening while the city slept; and every day in class a taciturn, tired Ms. Darroway would snap him out of his reveries with a sharp word or a rap on the wrist.
One night, flushed with a growing confidence from weeks of these expeditions, Titus crossed a line. This evening, when he arrived at the edge of the neighborhood he knew, he didn’t turn back, but paused—and then, mustering all of his little boy’s bravado, walked forward, onto a street he could not recognize in the darkness. Every step was a terror, at first: he laid his feet down as if the pavement might give way beneath them, or the whole town suddenly be transformed into thick and impassable jungle. As successive steps revealed these fears to be unfounded, he shook himself, tried to relax a little, and returned to his usual pace. It was a little like walking with your eyes closed, which, if you’ve never done it, you should try some time: he expected to hit disaster at any moment, and shuddered sometimes despite himself, but the disaster did not come, and if he didn’t think about it too hard, it was as easy as anything to keep moving.
Soon, he began to feel free and sure of himself in a way he hadn’t before in the few long years of his young life. Here he was, out in a fairyland no one else ever saw, navigating it with the fearlessness and finesse of a true explorer; if those sleeping civilians only knew! He rounded corners and set off down new lanes like a pirate captain swaggering onto the beach of a newly discovered island. Finally, he decided it was time to return to his bed.
And then, with a dread that ran as deep as his elation had soared high, he realized he was lost. He hadn’t kept track of every turn as he should have—and in the dim of the streetlamps, all the landmarks he had haphazardly picked out looked the same. He took one familiar-looking road, but it led to no others he remembered; he turned back, and tried another, only to have second thoughts—and, upon trying to retrace his steps, lost track of his path altogether.
Looking on from above, as it were, we can see that Titus had not strayed more than a few streets from his neighborhood; but from where he stood, in the murk of moonless night, it seemed home might as well be a thousand miles away. He wanted to sit down and cry, but he knew he was in such deep trouble that he couldn’t afford to waste a moment. Bravely, he walked on, deeper and deeper into the maze of his own confusion, hoping now against hope that he might stumble upon something he recognized—Duvbo was not such a big town, after all. Still, nothing of the sort appeared, for what seemed like hours and hours and miles and miles, and he was in the final stages of panic when he was startled by something altogether extraordinary and unexpected.
At the far end of the street he was passing on his left, he made out a glimmering distinctly different from the light the sparsely scattered streetlamps cast. It glowed, red and golden, and flickered as if with movement, or shadows. This was such a wild development that for a moment little Titus forgot all about his predicament: he had to see what it was, whatever the consequences. A lifetime of private fantasy had prepared him for this moment, and although his imagination conjured nightmares and well as wonders out of the light ahead of him, he turned and crept up the sidewalk towards it all the same.
As he proceeded, the street grew wider, and he saw that there was an open space ahead of him, in which he could make out the silhouettes of trees above and the texture of grass below. He also made out something else: figures, spinning and whirling around a great fire. The fierce light stretched their forms and magnified their proportions, made them appear unreal and enormous. This was beyond out of the ordinary—it was positively beyond belief, and Titus whirled internally at the shock and wonder of seeing with his own eyes, in monotonous Duvbo, a scene the like of which he had only dimly imagined in his mind. He froze, dizzy, torn between running forward and running away—but it was a choice he did not have to make.
In the very next instant, the great bonfire went out with a whoosh of sparks, and the figures disappeared in all directions, melting into the darkness. Titus leaped into the bushes behind him, but it was unnecessary—nothing and no one reappeared, and soon the stillness settled back in and resumed its air of permanence. Something else happened, too: Titus discerned the first glimmers of pink in the sky overhead—the sun was preparing to rise.
As it got lighter, the street came into focus, and Titus suddenly realized where he was: this was the central square of Duvbo! He could make his way home from here, if he followed the street past the fire station. There was no sign anywhere of the fire or the feral dancers, and he crept carefully out of his hiding place and across the cool grass, morning dew dampening his shoes, to start back.
He hurried through neighborhoods that once again took on an entirely different character, the rosy first light falling on familiar roofs and hedges as the dreams of slumbering families drew to a close. He was drained and out of breath, yet still shaking with adrenaline and awe from his discovery, when he slipped back in through his bedroom window and pulled it shut behind him, almost too distracted to muffle the latch. A few minutes later, as he lay in bed, heart racing, attempting to feign sleep, his mother came in to rouse him for school. It was as amazing to him as everything else had been that night that she didn’t notice anything unusual.
Titus spent the next day in a confused combination of exhaustion and exhilaration. It was impossible to think about anything but what he had seen, what it could have been, what he should do the coming night, and at the same time his brain was so foggy, his eyelids so heavy, his body so worn out that it was all he could do to stay awake in class. Ms. Darroway seemed particularly short-tempered and weary herself, and gave him no quarter whenever his head drooped to one side. Poor Titus pinched himself and kicked his feet against each other, trying to keep up at least a veneer of attentiveness, but with his mind swirling with dervish dancers and sleep deprivation it did little good. Finally, after five hundred years of mathematics and dour reprimands crammed into fifty-five minutes, class was over.
There was nothing special in the mail, of course, so Titus set himself to the task of killing the hours until his parents were asleep. What was it he had witnessed, after all, he wondered? Did witches visit Duvbo? Was it haunted by ghosts? Had he almost interrupted a gathering of bandits? Were there even bandits, or witches, or ghosts anywhere, anymore, in this age? The one conclusion he came to again and again was that, whatever the danger and however great his fears, he had to go investigate further that night.
But when the moment came, and his mother switched off the light in his room, he plunged instantly into sleep—long before his parents even retired to their room. He was simply too exhausted to stay awake any longer.
The next evening, of course, he was wide awake and electrified with anticipation. After he heard the first whistle of his sleeping mother’s breath he was barely able to restrain himself while he counted, as fast as possible, to one hundred. On the final number he bolted upright and threw open the window latch with scarcely any muffling at all, and hopped down to the ground, which he had carefully picked clear of twigs that afternoon.
Once on the street outside, apprehension set back in. What would happen if they caught him, whoever or whatever they were? What if they were unfriendly? They were certainly otherworldly, at least of another world than Duvbo. He couldn’t know what to expect from them, couldn’t begin to imagine. But there was no way around it: he would have to be careful, and find out what he could. He wrapped his scarf over his mouth and nose as an impromptu mask, more as a charm against his own fears than anything else, and set out.
He had carefully charted the route from his house to the central square that afternoon, so there was no chance he would get lost again; all the same, it was a very different walk in the darkness. The uncertainty of what awaited him ahead coupled with the gloom of the streets around him made the trek fearsome indeed. Had he been older and more what adults call “mature,” he might have reasoned himself out of it, or at least waited to return with reporters and a camera crew; but he was young, and innocently impetuous, and ready for magic.
And it was waiting for him. Drawing close to the central square again, he once more made out a light in the center, beneath the trees. It was less bright, and flickered less wildly; soon he saw that the figures around it were not dancing, now, but gathered in a great circle of seated silhouettes. In the middle, before the bonfire, one towering figure stood, moving its arms in powerful sweeping gestures. All backs were to him, so Titus moved in closer.
The standing figure was draped in a complete bearskin, the fur hanging in strips around the arms, the shadow of the open jaws obscuring the face within. And she was speaking: when Titus heard her words, he recognized it as a woman’s voice, one that sounded almost familiar, and yet at the same time was unlike anything he had heard before. Her tone was so clear and strong that it carried through the square and resonated in his chest, but it had a softness and a warmth that only deepened his impression of its strength. It was a story she was telling, a story like the ones he made up in mathematics class, but fleshed out with even more imaginative details and fantastic settings than his own: men tattooed maps to mysterious portals on their children’s skin, women traveled on subterranean streams to the inner space at the core of the earth, flew there in the zero gravity to a hidden moon floating within. He listened, entranced, and crept closer, despite himself.
The speaker concluded her tale with a line of eerie poetry, and then turned sharply in Titus’s direction: “And now,” she pronounced, “it is time for us to hear a story from our new guest.”
Titus jerked to his feet and stumbled backward, but before he could get any farther a pair of hands seized him from either side and bore him to the center of the circle. Little Titus stood there before the great fire, surrounded by dark forms in outlandish costumes, and froze like an animal under a searchlight. Impulsively, he tightened the scarf around his face, but there was no getting around it: he was caught. “Go on,” another figure urged him, in a tone of voice he could not decipher: “a story.”
Titus opened his mouth, and began to speak: haltingly at first, but then, discovering a voice of his own that he had never had cause to engage, he told, with mounting confidence, one of his own stories from his daydreams. He narrated for dear life, adding clever digressions and extravagant descriptions, hoping the shadowy circle would not be disappointed and have him flayed or burned alive.
At the end of his story, there was a silence. He looked, fearful, around the circle, but could not see the eyes of the ones watching him, could not imagine what would happen next—and then, all at once, there erupted from all hands a great applauding, and from all throats a great cheering, and in the next instant, as had happened two nights before, the fire went out in an explosion of sparks and all the figures disappeared abruptly into the darkness.
The following day Titus was as exhausted as he had been two days earlier, and as perplexed and excited. He sat in mathematics class, eyes pointed at the blackboard but unfocused, and reflected on his discovery. He had uncovered a fabulous mystery, a secret side of Duvbo that no one knew of but himself; it was amazing that such an exotic company would gather in the heart of such an ordinary, even dreary, place. Where were they coming from? What drew them here? He had the strange feeling that the pieces of the puzzle were right in front of him, but he couldn’t put it together. He resolved, head blurry with fatigue, to let himself catch up on rest that night, so he could be in top condition to investigate further the following evening. At that moment, Ms. Darroway wrenched him from his reverie with a sharp word. She looked as tired as he felt.
The night after, he was there again, making his way into the main square in the middle of the night, scarf around his face and heart pounding in his chest. Again it was different: now there was no central fire, but the area was lit by torches on the trees; some of the figures were playing instruments, sweet-voiced silver wind instruments and belligerent booming box-drums and great strange stringed things stroked with two-pronged bows, while the others spun and twirled and leaped in trailing scarlet gowns and elaborately layered veils and elegant black capes. It was a masked ball.
Still apprehensive, Titus paused at the edge of the torchlight, but one of the dancers saw him and, as she passed by, seized his hand and pulled him into the dance. He had never danced like this before; growing up in Duvbo, he had hardly ever danced at all. Now they were all clasped in concentric circles. They sped above the ground, feet barely brushing it, clutching each others’ hands lest they hurtle out into space, momentum pulling the circles ever wider as they spun faster and faster. In the center of the action, Titus now made out the imposing woman from his previous visit: the bearskin was gone, replaced by a wrap of dozens of multicolored scarves, but it was unmistakably her. She held hands with no one, but stamped out her own dance, kicking her legs high over every head and swinging her arms like the wings of a fierce bird of prey; the scarves retraced her movements in the air behind her in slow motion, following like a shadow dancer in her footsteps.
All in an instant, the dance shifted, and each participant took a partner. Titus was chosen by a young woman with a brightly painted face, who lifted him up high in the air above her; then the music paused for an instant, and the partners switched. Now Titus was passed to an impossibly tall, long-legged man—no, he must be wearing stilts!—and now, at another sudden pause, to a pair in matching costumes, and then to another partner, and another. The song grew rowdier, faster, more forceful and irresistible; it seemed to be emanating from his own pounding heart.
Suddenly, Titus was arm in arm with the woman in the scarves. The rest of the world seemed the fall away to a great distance, and even the deafening music became remote, manifesting itself instead as the inexorable rhythm of their bodies. She was clearly possessed of a superhuman strength, and as her companion, it was communicated to him: Titus found he could leap high in the air, spin in circles, lose himself in movement in a way he never had before. The musicians struck a high, drawn-out note which brought the world back into focus for a second as he spun to face his partner, and then again cut all the sound for a second’s pause: and in that instant, looking into her eyes, he recognized exactly who this woman was—it was Ms. Darroway.
Another dancer seized him, and she disappeared behind him into the throng before he could react. Now, looking around, he saw others he could recognize in the torchlight, despite their disguises: there atop the stilts was the fireman who did the yearly fire safety presentations, and there behind a veil was an older student from the school, and there—that was even the woman who brought the mail to his doorstep every afternoon! This was far stranger than any strangers’ carnival could have been. And once again, in the instant he formed that thought, all the torches came down, the square was plunged into darkness, and Titus found himself absolutely alone in the hour before dawn.
The next day was a Saturday, so Titus had the chance to fall asleep when he slipped back into bed, and he slept late—later than he ever had before. His parents didn’t notice; they went out early to do something, and so when he woke up, muscles sore and feet raw from the dancing, head still groggy from a week of little sleep, he found he was alone in the house. He dressed slowly and then stepped out onto the front porch.
It was nearly noon. Duvbo looked exactly the same as it had every Saturday morning for as long as he could remember, but he saw it with different eyes. As old men passed walking their dogs, or mothers with their children, he wondered which ones had been with him in the dance the night before, which ones shared the secret he now possessed as well. Now every passer-by was a potential conspirator, a might-be fly-by-night reveler or story-spinner; it was as if trap doors waited around every corner and under every bush, all leading right out of reality as he had known it. Titus’s world, once no bigger than the small town from which he had pined for deliverance, now expanded around him in every direction.
When Monday found him back in mathematics class, he concentrated for the very first time on really paying attention, and fixed his eyes on Ms. Darroway’s. They were indeed the eyes of the woman who had told that dazzling story and danced that magnificent dance, though here they were somewhat tired and distant. He winked at her, as he had wanted, walking on the clouds of his new discovery, to try winking at everyone he had met since his last adventure, in case they too were in on the secret. She gave no indication she had noticed anything: either she hadn’t recognized him, or it was a secret not to be referred to outside the gatherings. Titus was comfortable with that. He would see her and their companions in surreptitious adventures later that night at the square, after everyone else was asleep.
Months passed. Through a strange process of attraction, an invisible magnetism, or perhaps simply as the inevitable result of living in a town in which Nothing Ever Happened, every week brought a few more wanderers to the secret gatherings. All were absolutely astonished to discover that they were not the only ones who had harbored unspoken longings for Something To Happen, that fellow dreamers had lurked in the ranks of the polite and restrained citizens surrounding them.
The night assemblies were everything these unconfessed outsiders had dreamed of, and more—they were the very opposite of life in Duvbo: witches’ sabbats in which everything savage and beautiful, every wild impulse stifled by decorum in daily town life, was given free reign in a symphony of creativity and abandon. The conspirators juggled, walked through, and swallowed fire, erected fantastic stages and performed life-sized puppet shows, lay naked but for their masks in the moon’s rays upon the grass and composed their own constellations out of the stars in the sky. They lived for these hours, they counted down the minutes through weary mornings and tedious afternoons and uneventful evenings to the nights when they could give expression to their secret selves, when they would be possessed spirits again. As little Titus had discovered early on, no one ever spoke aloud of the meetings, or alluded to them in any gesture or sign—in fact, as it turned out, he was the only one perceptive enough to have recognized any of his fellow revelers by their daytime personas—but for all who participated, these nights dominated everything, invisibly.
And so something else was happening, in a town where no one could remember ever seeing any change at all. It was a very slight thing, something an outsider would have missed entirely and that the residents did not notice because it appeared too gradually, but all the same, it was true: an air of mystery now hung in the streets, and however placid and simple everything appeared in Duvbo, there was always something beneath the surface, like a fluttering just outside the corner of your eye. This was not all: all those sleepless nights had started to show on certain faces. In every office and classroom, in the supermarket and the synagogue and the fire department and at the post office, the watchful observer could pick out the dark circles under eyes, the drooping eyelids, the drowsy sluggishness of bodies that have not had enough rest. Nothing like this had appeared in Duvbo before, either, and so no citizen could yet articulate a question about it to himself, let alone aloud; but the scene was set.
As smart as you are, you’ve probably guessed that a tension like this could not remain unresolved forever. But there was nothing yet to light the fuse; so things continued like this for a few more months, and all that time, every week brought more people to the night gatherings.
Summer came and passed; Halloween arrived. By this time, it seemed that nearly the whole population of Duvbo was meeting at the central square at midnight. Anticipation among the conspirators was great, and preparations in the nights leading up to it had been extensive. That evening, after an early dinner, parents dressed their children up in matching plastic costumes modeled after television personalities—Titus was a cartoon character from a Saturday morning show, at his mother’s insistence—and walked them neatly around the block, collecting little sweets from the baskets that every household had dutifully provided. Then the adults hurried their children home, took the sweets from them to be rationed out one a day over the following weeks, and quickly set about the business of putting them and then themselves to bed. As soon as each one was sure the others were asleep, windows were slipped open, clothes hurriedly slipped on, and fathers, daughters, mothers, and sons slipped out into the night to assemble, disguised beyond each other’s powers of recognition, in the town square.
There the wildest, most enchanted carnival yet unfolded. Red-skinned devils, tails swinging, muscles flexing, prowled between the legs of great dragons and Trojan horses bulging with Greek soldiers; zombies and vampires and skeletons danced to rhythms beaten out on bones by ghosts; eagles flew overhead. It was as if the earth itself had opened up and revealed a fairy kingdom within; the throng stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see through the torch-dotted darkness. Although there were so many present that it appeared practically the entire populace was in attendance, each individual still felt that he or she was getting away with something that Duvbo would never and could never countenance.
In fact, if an outside observer had been there to witness the nights’ antics, and had carefully counted all the people in the crowd, the total would have come to exactly five hundred and fifty five. Who was there and who was not there were about to become very significant, though only two people knew this was coming—and they were the ones who knew least of all what was going on.
The next day Titus, like everyone else, was exhausted beyond words. In every class every body sagged, students’ and teachers’ alike. Ms. Darroway droned listlessly through her lecture, scarcely bothering to scold the students whose heads lolled on their shoulders and chests. After school, the boy practically staggered home—to find something new and unexpected had, once again, taken place.
These days, he only checked the mail out of habit, in unthinking faithfulness to a routine he no longer regarded with any serious optimism—his longings for adventure and escape were fulfilled by the nights’ activities, anyway. But there, just dropped off by the drowsy mail woman, was a letter unlike any other that had ever arrived on his doorstep. It wasn’t a bill, and it wasn’t an advertisement, either, as far as Titus could tell. It seemed to be an announcement: it was a single sheet of thick paper, folded in half and taped shut, with ominous lettering on the front that read simply FELLOW CITIZENS OF DUVBO. In an instant Titus was awake again, nearly bursting with curiosity. This was the first unexpected thing that had ever appeared during daylight hours—could it be that the secret world was about to erupt into being around the clock? As curious as he was, he knew the daytime rules still applied, and they dictated that he wait to find out what this message might be until his parents came home and opened it themselves.
It seemed an eternity before his mother and father were both home from work, and then Titus had to wait all the way through the usual silent proceedings of dinner. Finally, when the boy was at his wits’ end, his father drew out the mail to go through the dismal daily process of paying bills and balancing accounts. He dealt with every bill at length, reading every invoice and receipt twice and perusing all the fine print with a magnifying glass to be sure not to miss anything, making notes on his clipboard as he went, before he came to the announcement. Titus held his breath. “Oh, you open it, honey,” his father sighed, passing it to the boy’s mother: “it’s nothing important.”
She did, and peered at it for some time, until Titus could restrain himself no longer. “What does it say, mom?” he ventured, trying to sound nonchalant.
“It’s some of kind of public notice, I think,” said his puzzled mother. “It requests our attendance at a meeting tonight of ‘All Concerned Citizens of Duvbo,’ at the town council building. It doesn’t say much more than that.”
His father grumbled about always having to go to meetings and how the last thing he needed was another one but he figured they had better go anyway since you can’t risk looking bad in the eyes of the community, and all the same what a chore it all was, wasn’t it. “Can I come, too?” queried Titus, in his most courteous voice.
“I don’t think this is the sort of thing for young boys like you,” she answered definitively, and that was the end of the matter. So of course, well-practiced prowler that he was by now, Titus sneaked out and followed his parents at a careful distance when they left an hour later to attend the meeting.
The town council building was one of the oldest in Duvbo, and correspondingly dour and stuffy, like a bitter old man clinging too tightly to tradition. Inside, the adults sat stiffly in rows of uncomfortable chairs, backs straight and aching, hands folded in their laps, in much the same way that a decade and a half of schooling had taught each of them to when they were younger. Virtually every grown person in the town was there: the firefighters were seated near the front, Titus’s mail deliverer just behind them, and in the center were all nine teachers, including Ms. Darroway—taciturn as she was in class, and still wearing the same grey dress. There was a dry, awkward silence in the room, broken occasionally by the hiss of a nervous whisper, or the screech of a moving chair as an embarrassed man arrived late. Hidden in a bush to escape detection, Titus looked on through a window from outside.
At precisely eight o’clock, two stern, grim middle-aged men stood up from their chairs and advanced to the podium in the front of the room. One of them took his place at it while the other stood behind him, casting vaguely menacing and judgmental looks around the audience at random.
“It has come to our attention,” began the first of the two retired army officers, for that of course was who these men were, as you may remember from the beginning of the story, “from certain sources we need not divulge, that Duvbo has become a fallen town, a den of iniquity, a place where evil has taken hold. We have summoned you to this meeting because, as you well know, it is your duty as Responsible Citizens to root out all blemishes and stains, all Unacceptable Behavior, from the precious soil of our community, and steps must be taken immediately to do this before our beloved heritage of Honor and Morality is lost forever.”
The second man stepped to the podium and replaced the first, and the first in turn took on his role of glaring at the audience. “Back in our day, in the Service, we ran a tight ship, as they say, so I believe you’ll all agree when I say that we are the right men for the task of cleaning up Duvbo. What you must do is report to us any inconsistencies, any foul Deviations you are aware of, beginning tonight, at this moment. Well then, who’s first?”—and he joined the other in glaring.
Titus craned his neck to see the faces of the adults throughout the room. They were all casting furtive glances about, guilt writ large on every face, each practically wondering aloud who the wrongdoers were but secretly cringing lest his own culpability be uncovered. Months of living in secret had subtly, inexorably bred into all of them the sense that they had something to hide, and now that the question of evil had been broached, those feelings rose to the surface. Every citizen felt the officers must be talking about him, and looked around to see what he could expect if they were. Who could be trusted here? Who was a part of their secret intrigue, and who was a spy waiting to catch them in it? Could fellow conspirators even be trusted, now that the pressure was on? None of them had needed to consider such questions before. The officers might have been bluffing, might have been referring to a boy who had copied his friend’s homework or a driver who had run a stop sign; but the reception of their claims—as if everyone knew exactly what they were asking about—was so suspicious that now there was no going back. No one spoke, or even dared cough; the tension became unbearable. Finally the mayor came hesitantly forward.
“Good men,” he began, deferentially, “of course we are all very honored as well as outstandingly fortunate to have you put your services at our disposal to expose and eliminate this—er, contagion—in our midst. I move that each citizen goes home to make a full report of all the suspicious activities and criminal behavior he is aware of, so when we reconvene in a week to address this matter further, we will have some reference material for, uh, reference in pursuing this matter, arhum, further.” He straightened his tie, twice, and attempted to compose his face into an ingratiating expression while maintaining the dignity befitting a dignitary.
“All right then,” growled the second army officer, with a look that snarled Consider Yourselves Lucky, “we’ll meet again in a week, and you’d all better have some evidence by then of what’s going on and who’s to blame. Remember, citizens,” he thundered in a concluding tone that made Titus’s skin crawl, “in the war of good against evil, right against wrong, tradition against corruption, you are either one of us, or you are against us. There is no middle ground to muddle around in. See you in a week, with your reports, and God Bless You all. Oh, and policemen—” he snapped, singling them out, “keep your eyes especially open this week. This is supposed to be your department.” He turned, and, with his fellow ex-officer behind, stomped out the door.
Every citizen of Duvbo woke up the next day feeling hunted, guilty. The time-engrained habits of concealment, the exhaustion that attended such double lives, these now felt like bodily indictments—if they had nothing to be ashamed of, why had they been hiding? And if what they were doing was healthy and right, why were they exhausted all the time? Forced now to assess their nighttime activities by daytime standards, they found they could not translate between the two contexts, could not justify themselves. Each felt he could never explain what he had been doing to those who had not been a part of it; in the meeting room of the town council building, with those two men glaring at them, some had even wondered if they were indeed monsters in disguise, if their nightly pursuits proved they were in fact evil. So while it might seem surprising to an outsider that the citizens of this little town could so easily be turned against themselves and one another, it was not actually so unusual, after all.
For the following week, daytime Duvbo crackled with rumors and suspicion. Everyone went about with a great show of righteous outrage at the discovery of possible illicit influences in their precious community, and gossip abounded as to who might be responsible. All mature citizens were too well-mannered to refer to anyone by name, but insinuations proliferated: the residents of each street spoke of other streets, “bad neighborhoods,” just as the employees at each company spoke of the bad sorts that might be found in less honest lines of work, just as, at the end of the day, husbands and wives spoke in hushed tones of the bad influences of other families. Everyone was anxious, above all, to direct attention away from themselves, since each person was sure that, were their own nocturnal activities to come to light, their fellow citizens would give no quarter in the rush to attribute guilt and deflect suspicion.
By night, the gatherings still took place, but in decreased numbers, and there was a tension in the air that had never been there before. In denial about the measures being taken in the daylight world, afraid to speak aloud about the situation but unable to shake the burden from their minds, the conspirators who did show up threw themselves all the harder into their invented ceremonies and flights of fancy, but to less and less avail: a dark cloud hung over every moment of abandon, every step of each dance. At least here, in open if anonymous admission of their guilt, people did not look at each other with hostile or judgmental eyes; but each morning as they passed their fellow citizens on the street, things were decidedly different. When once they had looked on passers-by, like Titus did that Saturday morning, with a sense of joy and companionship, wondering if they too were secret revelers, they now regarded all others with fear, lest they be judges waiting to pass sentence upon them, or former comrades who would turn them in to save their own skins.
At the next town meeting, every adult arrived with a complete report. Some brought big sheaves of papers under their arms, others great folders divided into sections according to arbitrary systems of categorization, others thick notebooks with every possible infraction of public morals and tastes that had come to their attention noted and annotated. They sat, heavy testimonials in their laps, backs ramrod straight, lips tight, faces blank masks, looking neither to the left nor the right, and waited for the proceedings to begin. No one was late this time, and at the appointed hour, the mayor, anxious to maintain the image of responsible authority, arose to officiate. From their seats at the front of the room, the two ex-officers regarded him with expressions of acid impatience; Titus, too, looked on from his post in the bush.
“Fellow concerned citizens,” the mayor began, and cleared his throat as if to command attention, in a room already empty of all distractions: “we are gathered here to show our concern about, our commitment to, our deep-seated feelings for the continuity of our proud tradition of greatness and purity in this town which we all so know and love, the name of which you know as well as I, fair Duvbo. I hope you’ll join me in these trying times in holding out a light of hope to the future—“ and he went on, and on, and on in this style for some time, before one of the ex-officers cut in and demanded he get down to business.
The mayor summoned the first citizen to the podium to make her report—the roster was arranged in alphabetical order, so it was Anna Abelard, the retired grocer. She shuffled through a veritable mountain of loose papers, and approached the stand with her eyes on the floor. Anna had a gentle heart, and much as she knew what was expected of her, she hadn’t been able to bring herself to specify any names or risk endangering anyone else, so her entire account was a string of abstractions and ambiguous references to unspecified people and events. For the purposes of the ex-officers’ inquisition, it was absolutely useless, but they let her stumble through it for a good half hour, presumably because they could tell this was even more mortifying for her than it was exasperating for them. Time seemed to grind to an even slower pace than it kept in mathematics class.
Then without warning, without asking permission, someone stood up from the audience. It was Ms. Darroway. Her face was lined with years of little sleep, the dark circles under her eyes were heavier than ever, but the air of elderly irritation she affected during the day dropped away and her bearing here was suddenly as imposing as it was when she presided over storytelling circles in the witching hour. “This is foolishness, and you know it,” she stated plainly. “Let Anna be—she obviously doesn’t have anything to tell you. If you’re so certain there is wickedness in our town now, why don’t you tell us where it is?”
Both former military men shot to their feet in indignation. “Hold your tongue, schoolteacher!” shouted the first. “This is an important meeting, not to be interrupted by idle questions! You should know from your own profession better than to talk out of turn!”
“So tell us where it is,” she insisted, calmly.
“I’ll tell you where it is,” yelled the other, “it’s in teachers like you who set bad examples! How are our children supposed to grow up with a proper respect for rules and authority with women like you for role models?” He stepped back to address the audience in general. “And it’s in all of you who let the moral fabric of this town fray and unravel! It’s written on every face in this room, the secrecy in your movements, those mysterious bloodshot eyes, the indifference you show to important matters like this! We may not know what’s going on yet, but mark our words—we’ll find out!” He stomped out of the room in a rage, his henchman close behind.
At the mention of bloodshot eyes, everyone in the room had flinched despite themselves. They looked around, and it was true: on practically every face was this sign of guilt, the evidence of a double life. So the game was almost up: the two self-appointed detectives knew nothing yet, but they knew where to start looking, and it was only a matter of time before they would uncover the truth about Duvbo. The townsfolk trembled, gazing at one other in fear—for however many of them were involved, it only put each one at greater risk if they could not trust each other—and hurriedly began filing out the door to head home. Only the mayor remained behind, wringing his hands at the scene his citizens had caused and yearning for the simpler days when his greatest concern had been which tie to wear for the Christmas parade.
That night, five hundred and fifty five conspirators sneaked out their bedroom windows, one by one, each going to greater pains than ever not to wake the others from their sleep. They crept through dark streets thick with the shadows of their sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, neighbors, and coworkers, doing everything to avoid detection until they arrived, in disguise, at the main square. Here, a great bonfire burned, and Ms. Darroway, clad in her magnificent bearskin, was already leading a discussion of what was to be done.
Tensions were high and accusations flew. Some held that the gatherings had to be suspended until a safer time; others, speaking eloquently of the freedom and energy they prized in these moments, believed they could continue to take place, but at more prudent intervals; still others argued that it was foolish and irresponsible to think of gathering this way ever again, that it endangered everyone too much. All agreed, if nothing else, that the good old days had come to a close, and dark times descended in their stead.
“But what are we supposed to do, if we can’t come together here anymore?” demanded an impassioned young woman no one recognized as a local real estate agent, clad in a scintillating dress of green sequins and wild feathers. “All of us went wandering and discovered this midnight carnival because life without it was too vacant to bear! We can’t simply go back to those barren lives, can we? I almost feel as if I’d rather die!”
“I wish I could tell you there was another choice, dearie!” said Anna, the retired grocer, sadly, from behind her silver veil. “But I think we have to let it go. That’s the way life is. There was a life for me before I found my way here, you know, and there will be a life after, for all of us, though it may not be what we’d prefer.”
“We don’t have to let it go unless we choose to,” countered Ms. Darroway, hotly. “We decide what risks are worth taking, we decide what we give up and what we keep. That’s how we made this secret society for ourselves, and if we suspend or dissolve it, it should only be because we believe in doing so, not because we think we are the victims of fate. Make your decision for yourself.”
“That’s easy for you to say, perhaps!” It was Titus’s father. Titus himself looked on, his face concealed as usual by his trusty scarf, in unnoticed mortification. “Some of us have children. We have to think about their future, about making this a healthy environment for young people! We’re not at liberty like you must be to make decisions for ourselves alone. In fact, when you make your decisions, they affect the rest of us as well! What if you and people like you keep coming out here, causing trouble for all of us? How are we supposed to raise our children in a town where things like this go on?”
Little Titus wanted to demand how children like himself were supposed to grow up in a world without magic, without dances and costumes and fairytales, but he was afraid to speak up, afraid too of being recognized by his parents. “You’d have us give up our lives all over again!” shouted an angry figure from the shadows, a fireman by day. “What did you start coming here for, anyway?”
“Who are you to risk our lives for us, and our children’s lives?” retorted another enraged parent, and real quarrelling broke out. Everyone tried to shout louder than everyone else, and for many minutes the chaos spiraled out of control—until a sudden realization choked the words in every throat: the townsfolk had lost track of time and dawn was already breaking. In a panic, they scattered everywhere, leaving the square in such a hurry that they forgot the care they had always taken before not to leave any evidence of their gatherings.
The next morning, while doing his rounds, one of the policemen came upon the still-smoldering remains of the fire in the center of the town square. He tried to pass it nonchalantly, stifling a shiver of fear as he realized how careless he and the others had been, but then he caught sight of another citizen at the far end of the street. If he was caught deliberately ignoring such obvious evidence of unusual activity, it would be taken as a sign of complicity; he put his whistle between his teeth and sounded the alarm.
The report of his finding spread like wildfire, and the responding outcry was immediate and intense. Word passed from mouth to ear to mouth around the town in a matter of hours, and an emergency meeting of All Concerned Citizens of Duvbo was called for that evening. All afternoon speculations circulated as to what outlaws or fiends might have been doing in the very heart of Duvbo the night before, and how they could be captured and brought to justice; everyone fought to outdo each other in shows of righteous indignation.
This time the mayor did not even make a show of administering the meeting. The two former officers had set themselves up at a tall table in the front, from which they glowered at everyone else as they filed in. This was the tensest atmosphere yet: hostility hung in the air like an electric charge, and while no one dared make eye contact with anyone else, condemning glances were cast like darts all around the room.
“As spokesperson for the emergency panel that has been established to handle this situation, I call this meeting to order,” began the first ex-officer. “Obviously you are all well aware now of how real the threat we warned you of is, so I trust we will not have to bear any more interruptions tonight”—he cast a withering look at Ms. Darroway—“and will be free to get down to the business of cleaning up this town.”
“Clearly, the undesirable elements, the subverters, are meeting by night, plotting heaven knows what sickening disgraces and crimes,” continued the other man at the table. “Police chief—”
“Yes sir,” responded the haggard-eyed chief of police.
“You’ll need to extend your patrols to cover every hour of the night in addition to the standard daytime schedule, starting this evening, so the monsters can be brought to justice and their plans foiled.”
There was a long, uncomfortable pause. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir,” responded the police chief, and one of his men nodded. “My men will need at least one good night’s sleep to be ready for a shift change like that. We can get the patrols in effect by tomorrow night, but that’s the soonest. I’m sorry.”
“Well, lock your doors tonight then, fellow citizens!” roared the first ex-officer, and it sounded more like a threat than a warning. “This will be the last night any funny business takes place in this town! And tomorrow we’ll meet here, at the same time, to discuss some other Big Changes that are going to be made around this place.”
After midnight, only the bravest few dared to congregate for a final time. Ms. Darroway was there, and the woman who delivered the mail to Titus’ house, and the young lady in the green sequins, as well as a few others, including the police chief who had bought them one more night to bid a melancholy farewell to each other and the world they had created. Titus was there, too, of course; his parents had indeed locked and barred the doors of his house, but they hadn’t thought yet to do the same with the windows. Spirits were lower there at that moment than they had ever been before in Duvbo, day or night. No one spoke; they simply sat in a circle around the small, struggling fire, staring into its dwindling flames, lost in their own thoughts.
Finally the woman in green broke the silence. “It’s just so sad, so unendurably sad,” she began, haltingly, “to discover what you spent your whole life longing for, to find that it was within you all along, and to explore it, to find out how much bigger and wilder it is than you’d ever imagined, and even share it with others, only to lose it, all of it, because of their fears.”
“Because of our fears,” the sorrowful police chief broke in. “Because of our fears. And there’s nothing we can do, however much we want it, however much it breaks our hearts.”
Ms. Darroway, still tall and proud even in this bleak moment, remained silent. Titus looked at her in horror and dismay: it was unthinkable to him that this powerful woman, who was practically a supernatural being in his eyes, might become, again, a mere math teacher, a woman who had to lecture and reprimand indifferent students all day as an actual life’s work rather than an alibi. Just as he had once before, on the first night he ventured outside his neighborhood, he gathered his courage—and spoke up.
“Is there really nothing we can do?” demanded the boy. “Aren’t we giving up too easily? Are you sure there isn’t something we haven’t thought of yet?”
“But what could that be?” asked his mailwoman, who still didn’t know that he had once believed so fervently that she could bring him an invitation to another world.
“Well, let’s think!” Titus furrowed his young brow. “if this is our last night together, and tomorrow we will never be able to meet again, well, at least we are free and together now. That’s something.”
“Yes, go on,” encouraged Ms. Darroway, quietly. “What can we do with that?”
“If we’re still free now, and we don’t want to lose that, and we know we’ll lose it tomorrow”—Titus pondered this, but there seemed no other way around it—“then I guess the only hope for us is that tomorrow doesn’t come.”
“And that’s impossible,” said the policeman. “The sun will rise in just a few hours, and then I’ll be just a policeman, nothing more, for the rest of my life.”
Titus was much younger than the others, though, and not as resigned to the inevitable as they were. “Who says it’s impossible?” he replied, surprised at his own voice. “I believed that it was impossible that you could be anything more than a policeman, before I stumbled into the dance here that first night. All we need is some magic to stop the sun from rising, and this world will be ours forever, as it has been only for a few hours at a time until now.”
“Magic? Yes, that’s what we’d need,” sighed the woman in green. “It’s too bad it’s only in our stories. We could use it in real life tonight!”
“Maybe we can!” said Titus, standing up. “What we need is a magical dance, a ceremony to stop the sun. Will you join me in making one?”
The others were silent; the hope in the little boy’s voice only saddened them more. But finally Ms. Darroway spoke up. “It’s true that when I came upon my first night gathering in Duvbo, years ago, when there were fewer people meeting than we are here tonight, I felt as though I’d found something magical,” she began. “It was like a miracle, something so totally different from everything I’d known that it seemed to defy the very laws of nature. If that’s what we’d need to discover again, tonight, for this story to have a happy ending, perhaps we shouldn’t despair yet, since it has already happened to each of us once.” She looked around at the others, her eyes bright in the firelight. “I’m ready to dance with the young man, unless any of you have a better idea. Even if it is our last night here, it’s better we spend in on our feet than at our own funeral.”
The others slowly rose and joined Titus on their feet. Titus seized a great burning branch from the fire, and lifted it high over his head, waving it defiantly towards the east. Ms. Darroway did the same, and the others followed. One of the firemen began to beat out a quiet rhythm on the one drum that remained with them, and the dancers began stamping their left feet, then their right. Titus took the towering woman’s hand, and they began spinning.
As they had so many times before, they left the world of solid things and gravity, and entered the world of energy and motion. The stars in the night sky, the red glow of firelight on the trees, the grass and shadows underfoot became a blurred background against which their bodies sailed, crisscrossed by the streaks of white light their torches left in the air. The rhythm intensified and accelerated. Their feet were flying over the soil, barely touching down long enough to push off again, their hearts pounded with the drums—their hearts were like drums themselves, inside them, urging them on. The others too were whirling now, coming in and out of their vision like comets, trailed by the afterimages of their torches, wild animals set free for a moment from fear and inertia and weight itself.
But they knew they had to break out of everything, to leave the world they had known entirely, so they danced harder and faster. Harder, so the drummer feared his thumbs might fly off; faster, so dizziness welled up in them in almost unendurable waves; harder, so they thought their bones would break and their fingers snap away; faster, until it seemed that their feet and hands and muscles themselves were fire, that they danced as only fire can dance through burning leaves. They danced as though mad, as though animated by demons or angels; leaping into flight, they kicked against the ground so hard it seemed the force must stop the earth’s rotation, must halt it dead in space.
They were so caught up in their dance, so absolutely possessed and entranced, that they didn’t even notice the light creeping into the sky in the east. They didn’t notice the first bird calls, as the breeze lifted the branches of the trees overhead; they didn’t notice the red clouds burning away to reveal the first ray of sunlight shining over the horizon; they didn’t even notice as the sun crept up, over the hills, and morning began. There they spun and flew and twirled, the torches shooting out sparks around them, sweat raining down upon the grass from their bodies, eyes rolled back in their heads; they were oblivious to all but the magical world of the dance. This is how their fellow townspeople found them that morning.
And a strange thing happened. As the first early risers filtered out into the streets, and saw their companions from previous nights of abandon here in the sunlight, leaping without shame in the same unchained motion they too had savored, one by one they came forward and joined them. They, too, began to dance as if it were still night, as if they were wearing masks that hid their identities, as if no one were watching—as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Slowly all Duvbo assembled in that square, as they had so many midnights before, but now with no camouflage or subterfuge; all, that is, of course, except the two retired army officers, who had the sense to get out of town immediately and never come back.
The schools and offices were empty that day, and the next day as well; and no one in Duvbo ever had to sit up straight and quiet, or struggle silently with boredom, or cast a suspicious eye on a neighbor again. Some say you can still find the townspeople there, that life in that village is a continuous festival that knows no beginning or end; others say Duvbo is a hidden and wandering town, that it appears for moments or hours in every city across the world, unexpected and unpredictable, and one day it will emerge everywhere at once. Still others insist that the whole thing is just a myth, or a bedtime story to be told to little children without being believed; but at your wise age, little one, I’m sure you know better than to believe the ones who speak like that.
…like all children are born to smuggle in the end of the world with no one qualified to herd them…
From Victor Jara to Public Enemy, music has played a pivotal role in countless cultures of resistance. A large proportion of those who participated in the anarchist movement between 1978 and 2010 were part of the punk counterculture at some point; indeed, many were first exposed to anarchist ideas via punk. This may have been merely circumstantial: perhaps the same traits that made people seek out anarchism also predisposed them to enjoy aggressive, independently produced music. But one could also argue that music that pushes aesthetic and cultural boundaries can open up listeners to a wider spectrum of possibility in other spheres of life as well.
Yet just as anarchism was coming into its own in the US around the turn of the century, radical activity in the domestic punk scene began a nosedive. Now that it is no longer possible to depend on the punk1 subculture as an incubator for anarchists, we should set out to understand how and why it served that role for thirty years.
Preface: When Punk Was a Recruiting Ground for Anarchy
“People talk about ‘preaching to the converted’—well who fucking converted them?”
-Penny Rimbaud of Crass
There are countless reasons not to tie the fate of a revolutionary movement to the fortunes of a music scene. Coming into anarchism via punk, people tended to approach anarchist activity in the same way they would participate in a youth subculture. This contributed to an anarchist milieu characterized by consumerism rather than initiative, a focus on identity rather than dynamic change, activities limited to the leisure time of the participants, ideological conflicts that boil down to disputes over taste, and an orientation towards youth that made the movement largely irrelevant upon the onset of adulthood.
Yet during the decades of global reaction that followed the 1960s, the punk underground was one of the chief catalysts of the renaissance of anarchism. Were it not for punk, anti-capitalists in many parts of the world might still be choosing between stale brands of authoritarian socialism.
Granted, the average punk show was as dominated by patriarchy as a college classroom. All the hierarchies, economics, and power dynamics of capitalist society were present in microcosm. And anarchism was not the only creed that utilized this soapbox: countless ideologies competed in the punk milieu, from Neo-Nazism to Christianity and Krishna “consciousness.” But all this only makes it more striking that anarchist ideas fared so well, considering that they gained less purchase in other circles at the time.
We can attribute that success to structural factors. Many years before internet access became widespread, the do-it-yourself punk scene offered a rare model for horizontal and participatory activity. Organizing their own affairs in decentralized networks, participants experienced firsthand the benefits of leaderless autonomy. Once you’ve booked a tour yourself, sidestepping the monopoly of profiteering venues, record labels, and tour promoters, it’s not hard to imagine organizing other aspects of your life in a similar way. At the same time, in a youth culture founded on opposition to authority, there were fewer built-in mechanisms to suppress radical ideas.
It’s also possible that anarchist values took root in the punk scene precisely because they were so marginalized elsewhere: in an era when radical ideas were pushed to the periphery, peripheral subcultures teemed with them. This can create a feedback loop that keeps those ideas marginal, as they are not associated with popular or successful initiatives. The romanticization of obscurity and failure that made punk hospitable terrain for revolutionary ideals in the 1980s did not encourage their new partisans to fight to win outside the punk ghetto.
But the self-imposed exile of the punk community was also an effective defense mechanism through an era of capitalist cooptation. The punk scene helped keep anarchist ideas alive between the 1970s and the 21st century in the same way that monasteries preserved science and literature through the Dark Ages. Although the demands and influence of the capitalist economy recreated the same power imbalances and materialism that punks had hoped to escape—limiting the punk critique of capitalism to a variant of the liberal maxim “buy local”—the anti-capitalist DIY underground displayed a remarkable resilience. In a cycle that became familiar, each generation expanded until profit-driven record labels skimmed the most popular apolitical bands off the top, setting the stage for a return to grassroots independence and experimentation. So the punk scene provided the music industry a free testing and development site for new bands and trends, but this process also served to cleanse it of parasites.
Far from MTV talent scouts, competing independent labels, and alternative consumerism, you could find something beautiful and free at the heart of the DIY underground. At best, it was a space in which the roles of protagonist and audience became interchangeable and the dictates of the dominant culture were shaken off.
Let’s contrast this with the models of anarchist activity that are currently in vogue. While political activism often focuses on matters outside the daily lives of the participants, and thus tends to cost more energy than it generates, DIY punk was basically pleasure-oriented, offering activities that were fulfilling in and of themselves. Although this might appear frivolous, sociality and affirmation are as essential as food or housing. In some parts of the world, the punk scene was significantly more working class and underclass than much of the current anarchist milieu; this may indicate that it provided for real needs, rather than catering to the middle class propensity for abstraction. In contrast to protests, which are often criticized as reactive, at its best punk emphasized creativity, demonstrating a concrete alternative. It was youth-oriented, yes; but as youth are among the most potentially rebellious and open to new ideas, this could be seen as an advantage. In focusing on self-expression, it enabled participants to build their confidence and experience in low-risk efforts, while producing a great deal of artwork that doubled as outreach material; as a decentralized cultural movement, it reproduced itself organically rather than through institutional efforts.
Were we to attempt to invent a cultural counterpart to contemporary activism that could replenish energy and propagate anarchist values among young people, we could do worse. Meme culture alone has considerably less to recommend it.
Anarchists often complained that in actuality, the punk scene was full of people with no regard for anarchist values. Unfortunately, if you want to introduce new people to anarchism, you’re going to have to deal with a lot of people who are not anarchists. This is especially true in the United States, in which so few people grow up with any exposure to radical ideas at all. In Italy, by contrast, anarchist punks could say “Punk equals anarchy plus guitars and drums; anything less is just submission.”
There’s a lot to be said for operating in diverse environments, in which the ideas of individuals and the culture that connects them are still evolving. Because the punk scene was not beholden to any rigid ideological framework, it offered a more fertile space for experimentation than many more explicitly radical milieus. Had this lesson been applied elsewhere—had anarchists initiated influential projects in other politically diverse, horizontal, network-based milieus—anarchist ideas might have spread further afield.
Though critics often accused the punk scene of being nothing more than a playpen for privileged First World consumers, punk has been integral in the resurgence of anarchist ideas far outside the US and Europe. While punk arguably originated in Britain and the US, a great proportion of the activity of the global punk underground took place in Latin America and the Pacific rim, not to mention South Africa, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and the former Soviet bloc. In many of those nations, punk is still more overtly associated with radical politics than it has been in the United States; punk was especially instrumental in revitalizing anarchism in contexts in which there was no radical alternative to Marxist hegemony. It would be instructive to examine why punk took root in nations like Brazil, Malaysia, and the Philippines but not India or most Arabic-speaking nations, and study how this correlates with the spread of anarchist ideas over the past thirty years.
Punk and Resistance: A Trajectory
The first major wave of politicized punk can probably be traced to the British band Crass, which drew on Dadaism and other avant-garde traditions to fashion early punk rock into a form of cultural agitprop. Decades later, a visitor to Britain could find small circles of middle-aged anarcho-punks who had been politicized by Crass still participating in the same independent music underground and resuming the same arguments about The Clash whenever they got drunk.
In the United States, over a decade later, the DIY underground of the mid-1990s contributed to an increase in animal rights activism and helped pave the way for the anti-globalization movement. Magazines such as Profane Existence introduced radical perspectives on everything from feminism to firearms; DIY communities developed in which everyone wrote a zine, played in a band, or hosted basement shows; even in the most macho scenes, every band addressed the audience between songs—if only, in some cases, to urge people to dance more violently.
On the eve of the debut of the anti-globalization movement,2 hundreds of punks gathered in Philadelphia late in April 1999 for Millions for Mumia, a march to deter the state of Pennsylvania from executing Mumia Abu-Jamal. For many, it was the first time they had traveled out of town for a protest; likewise, though no major conflict took place with the police, it was the first time most of them had assembled publicly in black masks and sweatshirts. This moment, in which politicized punks realized that there were enough of them to constitute a social force, set the stage for everything that came after; a year later, many of the participants fought shoulder to shoulder at the demonstrations against the IMF/World Bank meeting of April 2000 in Washington, DC. The night following the march, a standing-room-only crowd assembled at Stalag 13, a local DIY venue, to see His Hero Is Gone; there was a feeling in the air that there was no real distinction between subcultural identity and political activity. That same year, the Primate Freedom Tour achieved a synthesis of punk music and radical activism, using a series of shows around the country to promote regional demonstrations against laboratories experimenting on primates.
The DIY boom of the mid-1990s fed into the momentum of the anti-globalization movement. Those who had been in or around punk bands already understood how an affinity group worked; operating in decentralized networks and coordinating autonomous actions came naturally. It was easy for people who routinely traveled across the country to engage in rowdy subcultural events to shift to traveling across the country to participate in rowdy anti-capitalist demonstrations. So-called “summit-hopping” offered many of the same inducements as punk—risk, excitement, togetherness, opportunities to be creative and oppose injustice—along with the additional attraction of feeling that you were on the front lines of history.
In the period leading up to this explosion of political activity, punk music and culture had become more experimental as punks sought to match daring aesthetics to radical rhetoric. There had always been a tension in punk between the folk art aspects of the craft—three-chord musical progressions and hand-drawn layouts—and the desire to innovate and challenge. As the subculture offered participants broader conceptions of what could be possible, they began to play music and make demands that strained against the limitations of the medium. On one hand, innovative music could make radical ideas more compelling: following an unfamiliar yet exhilarating experience, a listener might be more likely to believe that an entirely different world was possible. On the other hand, this experimentation contributed to the fragmentation of the punk subculture, as traditions were abandoned and the standards for musicianship and creativity reached prohibitive heights.
Volatile phenomena eventually break into their constituent elements and stabilize. The Swedish band Refused, for example, who had combined hardcore, techno, jazz, and classical music on their final album, split asunder in 1998, and the members went on to form much more traditional bands according to their individual tastes—none of which were nearly as interesting as Refused. Once there was an anarchist movement for the most politicized punks to join, a similar process occurred within the punk scene. Until 1999, politicized punks tended to stick around the DIY underground, as there was usually no larger revolutionary milieu to move on to; playing music and writing zines were seen as political activity, despite the narrow horizons of the subculture. All that changed after the 1999 WTO protests, which kicked off an era of non-stop demonstrations and political organizing. Most of the people who were serious about their politics shifted focus away from the punk scene. Meanwhile, the people who were involved in punk only for music and fashion remained, and led a reaction against political engagement of all kinds. While others focused on anarchist convergences, black blocs, and accountability processes, the reactionaries were the ones still booking shows and recording albums, and they set the tone for an apolitical and musically conservative 21st century punk scene.
Between 1998 and 2002, nearly every band that had helped to politicize the punk underground broke up, and many influential magazines ceased publication. By May 2002, when Boston anarchists staged the Festival del Pueblo, a rupture had developed between the aesthetic and political elements in the subculture, evident in tensions between punks who only attended for the shows and anarchists striving to establish a revolutionary movement. To name a single example, the person who had booked the His Hero Is Gone show after Millions for Mumia and later played a role in anarchist organizing against the Republican National Convention of 2000 came to perform with his band, but headed home afterwards rather than attending the demonstration scheduled for the following day.
A few years later, the split between punk and anarchism was complete. Even Against Me, the progenitors of the folk punk reaction to the stagnation of the anarcho-punk scene, had deserted the DIY movement and eschewed their former anarchist politics. From Ashes Rise, who had been colleagues of the uncompromisingly independent His Hero Is Gone, signed to a larger record label and recorded a final album with songs about nuclear war—a regression to 1980s nostalgia all the more absurd in the midst of the Iraq war—before breaking up. Punk—at least for that generation—had reached the end of its trajectory as a force for social change.
Technology, Legitimacy, and Accessibility
Let’s return to the resurgence of folk punk shortly after the turn of the century. His Hero Is Gone had been one of the first DIY bands to shift from single speaker cabinets to full stacks, and within a few years every band that wished to be taken seriously had done the same. This led to an arms race and a sort of aesthetic inflation: no volume was loud enough, no recording powerful enough, no gear expensive enough.3 Folk punk was a reaction to this: an accessible, cheap, self-consciously unrefined format. Yet it never achieved the popularity of gear-based punk; tellingly, the flagship band Against Me shifted to standard rock instrumentation in the course of their shift to corporate careerism.
Similarly, one might ask why, out of all the formats that flourished in the DIY underground, there were never any traveling drama troupes. On the face of it, theater would be the perfect medium for independent performers with limited access to resources. A drama troupe could travel without expensive equipment or need of a large vehicle; performances could take place practically anywhere. Dario Fo, the Living Theater… radical theater has had a rich history in every other nation and era. Puppet shows were practically a cliché on the DIY circuit—so why not drama?
This indicates a lingering materialism in DIY culture. Equipment, be it a shoddy cardboard puppet stage or ten thousand dollars’ worth of amplifiers, conferred the legitimacy that both performers and audiences longed for. “Look,” working class dropouts could say to themselves, gesturing at a rusty van full of gear that cost them years of wages, “we’re a real band!”
In capitalist society, activities are invested with meaning primarily through the marketplace and the media. Rock music was originally a working class art form that came to be cultivated by capitalists as a cash crop; the meaning people find in it is real enough, but it is generated through forces largely beyond their control. Rock stars are important precisely because not everyone can be one. Paradoxically, punks took up the rock format as a way of asserting their own importance, even in the process of rebelling against the corporations that introduced them to it.
One could read the rise and fall of DIY punk as the historical “hiccup” during which record-releasing and printing technology first became accessible to the general public. Crass was one of the first bands to release their own records; this was exciting because they were using technology that had been largely unavailable to the working class. Within a couple decades, however, this development was rendered moot by technological advances and oversaturation. Once anyone could release a record, it wasn’t meaningful anymore—it wasn’t “real” in the sense that everything on television is “real” while our lives feel unreal and insignificant.
The punk scene had been founded on the tensions created by limited access to the musical means of production; with the arrival of technologies that extended this access to everyone, its structures collapsed. The internet replaced painstakingly built distribution networks and zine cultures with the offhand immediacy of music downloading and blogs; some of this took place in genuinely decentralized structures, but more of it was based in corporate counterfeits such as myspace.com. The proliferation of the latter was particularly ironic in that the DIY underground had been a testing area for the sort of network-based systems that the internet universalized.
When every band of middle-class teenagers could have their own webpage and home recording studio, the ensuing disenchantment revealed how banal the promise of rock stardom had been in the first place. In some ways, it is healthy to be divested of one’s illusions, especially the ones instilled by one’s enemies. On the other hand, if nothing takes their place, this only drains the world of meaning even further—and pure nihilism helps maintain the status quo.
Punk had been exciting because, in contrast to corporate rock, it offered a relatively unmediated experience: one could meet one’s favorite musicians, dance and interact outside the prescriptions of a repressive society, even form one’s own band and remake the subculture itself. Thousands of people attended Black Flag shows because they offered a genuinely different experience than anything corporate capitalism had to offer. But once the internet made every band into its own promotions agency and youtube.com made it possible for everyone to appear on the equivalent of MTV, independent music was no less mediated than corporate music, and no less vapid.
Learning from Punk
Punk’s long run as a breeding ground for anarchism shows how much we stand to gain from social activities that are pleasurable and creative. In nurturing organic cultural currents, we can create social movements that do not depend on any one institution but are naturally self-reproducing. Ideally, they should be subversive while not immediately provoking repression—it’s important that the lines be drawn, but participants must have enough time to go through an evolutionary process before the police break out their batons. A sustainable space that nurtures long-term communities of resistance can ultimately contribute more to militant struggle than the sort of impatient insurrectionism that starts with confrontation rather than building to it.
As much as punk has been dismissed as insular, the success of anarcho-punk demonstrates how effective it can be for anarchists to invest themselves in ongoing outreach in a milieu of a manageable scale. All the better if it is a politically diverse space in which debate and dynamic change can occur and new people can encounter radical ideas.
At the same time, it is crippling for a social movement aimed at transforming the whole of life to be associated with a single subculture. Learning from years of anarchist organizing rooted in the punk scene, we can see the importance of creating spaces that bring people from many backgrounds together on an equal footing. Likewise, we can learn from the factors that both produced and crippled punk, such as the love-hate relationship with rock stardom. Channeling desires fostered by capitalist society into resistance movements can produce swift growth, but also fatal flaws that only come to light over time.
Today, in the anarchist movement, we sometimes miss the Dionysian spirit that characterized the hardcore punk underground at its high point: the collective, embodied experience of dangerous freedom. This is how punk can inspire us in our anarchist experiments of today and tomorrow: as a transformative outlet for rage and grief and joy, a positive model for togetherness and self-determination in our social relations, an example of how the destructive urge can also be creative—and vice versa.
The term “punk” has been used to describe a broad range of phenomena over the past four and a half decades. In this analysis, it refers to the social and cultural networks associated with the do-it-yourself underground, not to any particular musical style or fashion. ↩
On June 18, 1999, a global day of action coinciding with the 25th G8 summit, London was shut down by a Reclaim the Streets “Carnival Against Capitalism” that resulted in massive rioting. The independent news coverage of this event presaged the Indymedia network that was formed during the historic demonstrations against the WTO summit in Seattle five months later, and heralded a new era of anti-capitalist organizing. ↩
Anyone familiar with the inner workings of the music industry knows that few venues, fewer labels, and almost no musicians make money on their efforts. So where does all the money go? Perhaps to the gear manufacturers. One can find innumerable used amplifiers for sale that “never left the basement”—as usual, capitalists sell us impossible dreams, then cash in on our attempts to realize them. ↩
Starting in 1996, CrimethInc. released some of the most passionate and provocative music in the hardcore punk underground—bands like Catharsis, Zegota, and Trial. For the sake of posterity, in a grudging concession to the platforms of Web 2.0, we’ve uploaded the majority of these albums to a bandcamp page, where you can download them for free (though we won’t refuse donations). Please help us keep this chapter of our cultural heritage in living memory.
The do-it-yourself punk scene from which these bands emerged brought together the desperation and rage of the disenfranchised in a generative primordial froth. In the beginning, the riots erupting from these concerts pitted the participants against each other, as at the notorious Catharsis shows with Gehenna in Reno in 1997 and with Point of No Return in Belo Horizonte in 2000, both of which ended in mass violence. Later, this force was turned against the ruling order, as in the uncontrollable march following the Anti-Flag show after the 2005 presidential inauguration.
For more perspective on the relationship between hardcore punk and anarchism, read “Music as a Weapon,” which originally appeared in issue 7 of our journal Rolling Thunder.
Some of you will notice that this collection is not complete. Albums by Gehenna, Timebomb, Filastine, and Test Their Logik are already available through their respective Bandcamps. We are still seeking several other CrimethInc. releases in internet-ready formats, including all of the Inside Front compilations. If you have the ability to supply us with lossless files (FLAC/WAV) of any of these albums, as well as large (>1400px) JPGs of the album covers, please send them to us.
We’ve mailed out all 150,000 copies of the English printing of To Change Everything, our introduction to anarchism. In case that’s not enough, our tireless designers have prepared an imposed PDF version so you can print them out and distribute them wherever you are. Please help us keep this project in circulation over the years to come! Thanks again to everyone who helped us fund the original printing.
In our zine library, you can download online viewing versions and PDFs imposed for printing, in black-and-white and in color.
Altogether, over 240,000 print copies of To Change Everything are circulating now in over 30 languages, including more than 30,000 copies in German, 16,000 copies in Portuguese, and an additional 10,000 in English for the UK. Print runs of 1000 or more have appeared in Québecois French, Slovenian, and other less common tongues; versions in Arabic and Farsi were distributed along the Balkan route during the so-called “migrant crisis” of 2015; to our knowledge, it may be the only anarchist text printed in Maltese.
Having accomplished the goals we initially set for To Change Everything, we’ll put our energy and resources towards our next projects. If you are outraged that we are not making another printing of it ourselves, and you have access to considerable financial resources, please contact us and offer your assistance!
When Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina in September, flooding countless towns and temporarily turning the city of Wilmington into an island, anarchists involved with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief and other grassroots projects swung immediately into action. Dozens of anarchists provided resources and relief work to residents of countless cities, towns, and rural settlements in over a dozen counties, spanning a great deal of the eastern part of the state. In the following accounts, participants describe their experiences and the obstacles they encountered along the way. As Hurricane Michael threatens to hit the same areas impacted by Hurricane Florence and climate change catalyzed by global capitalism generates increasingly destructive “natural” disasters, it’s more important than ever to understand disaster response as part of our collective efforts towards liberation.
I. Disaster Is the Status Quo
Anonymous, October 7
Where I live was mostly spared from the immediate effects of Hurricane Florence. While I was safe in my home, reports began to pour in about the increasing damage out east. Dramatic pictures of historic storm surge plastered the headlines alongside reports of people needing immediate rescue. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew taught us that the damage during the hurricane itself is only the beginning. Some parts of North Carolina received six months of rain in two to four days—historic record-breaking quantities of water. As the storm surge receded, the rain from across the whole state made its way east down the river basins to flood the areas that had already been hit hardest by the initial impact of the hurricane.
If we wanted to intervene, we had only a short window of time. In a few days, the floodwaters and the response from the Department of Transportation would block access to the worst-hit areas. It would take time for the disaster relief organizations to establish control of the effort, and the state needed time to cement control via their apparatuses.
Some friends and I had spoken in advance about what we might do to help out. We got back together the morning after the storm made landfall to discuss our options and lay plans. Other comrades were already in eastern NC on their way to Wilmington, where they had secured a space in which to base their operations.
The hurricane hit some of the poorest counties in North Carolina hard. Some of us had deep connections to those places. We decided to visit the more rural areas. It was likely that these counties would receive less attention than the well-known towns. We talked about what the residents’ needs might be and how we could prepare to help.
Eastern North Carolina has a few features that take newcomers by surprise. First, it’s flat for miles upon miles. The coastal plain was once dominated by the long-leaf pine savanna, an awe-inducing and amazingly diverse ecosystem that capitalist development has reduced to about 2% of its historical range via logging and fire suppression (since these ecosystems require wildfires to sustain themselves). Second, a good portion of eastern North Carolina smells like hog waste. There’s a good reason for this: it’s because there is hog waste everywhere. North Carolina has one of the world’s biggest hog industries. Along with massive chicken, turkey, and tobacco farming and similar enterprises, this has reduced one of the most diverse ecosystems on the continent to hundreds of square miles of industrial agriculture.
It’s estimated that there are approximately three times as many hogs as people in North Carolina. The vast majority of them are concentrated in the eastern and southeastern coastal plain. These hogs are shipped around the state to various processing facilities, including the biggest slaughterhouse in the world. Owned by Smithfield and located in Tar Heel, NC, it kills about 32,000 hogs daily—roughly the same number as the student body of UNC Chapel Hill, an affluent university in the center of the state.
The hogs’ waste is stored in gigantic retention ponds. There are approximately 4000 of these. Through complex capitalist acrobatics, the hog farmers are often trapped in rental contracts to the effect that one of the only aspects of their operations that they own is the hog waste. When the ponds threaten to overflow, the farmers often spray waste over their crop fields in order to avoid violations. This literally covers some of the poorest counties in hog waste. Flash floods, hurricanes, and similar events empty these ponds for the farmers, washing untreated waste downriver and causing massive ecological damage. A breach in one of these ponds is often followed by massive marine life die-offs, closures of water access due to toxicity, and well-water contamination, among other long-term consequences.
As we traveled east, the landscape grew more and more ominous. Gloomy skies gave way to heavy winds and intermittent rains. We followed flooded and closed roads around small towns without electrical power. Fallen trees lay across wrecked houses and power lines. Here and there, an abandoned car hinted at a dire story; out-of-place objects were littered around us. In one dramatic scene, we came upon agricultural storage tanks, some thirty feet high, that had been thrown across the road and rolled into adjacent fields.
When we arrived at the coastal town where we were staying, we saw even more damage. The storm surge had inflicted the highest water level in their history. Standing water crept throughout the streets of town; docks were torn apart; pieces of houses littered the streets. Boats were perched sideways atop the docks, perhaps having experienced a better fate than the boats now only slightly above the water.
After removing a fell tree from a house in the town, we drove around the county to see how we could help. Most of the residents hadn’t yet returned from the mandatory evacuation, so the already sparsely populated county felt even more abandoned. We chatted with some people who were just coming back home to their trailer park and passed along some water and food to them. The floodwaters blocked access to many of the regions we attempted to visit, but we also had many comforting interactions with residents of the county who were going around checking on each other, delivering supplies, and providing aid wherever people needed it.
As was widely reported, police and emergency crews from all around America came to eastern North Carolina as part of the larger relief effort. The relief efforts were staged in central locations, often near courthouses and jails. At first, we hoped that the people at these staging areas could help us learn how to plug into local efforts.
We went to a small town center and presented ourselves to the first person we saw—a cop from New York City, as it turned out. He cut short our introduction, warning us that there was a strict curfew in effect and that we needed to be on the watch for looters. He emphasized how dangerous the area was, insisting that these looters posed a serious threat. We gleaned no useful information about the needs of those who had been hit by the storm; our efforts definitely did not feel welcome. To me, it was clear that his role was to orchestrate the relief effort according to a prescribed agenda, so people in need would remain disempowered and criminalized.
Nevertheless, as the day went on, we found ways to help out. We delivered food to farmworkers whose employer had abandoned them without food or any idea as to when work might resume. We checked on people whose loved ones had not heard from them. We cleared trees from roads in the flooded neighborhoods to which people were beginning to return.
Then we stopped by the disaster relief center in New Bern. New Bern was hit particularly hard by the storm surge, which crested at over ten feet. We asked around for information and direction. Someone pointed us to the police sergeant who was overseeing the effort. When we explained what we were doing and asked if he knew where we could plug into relief efforts, his first question was “What kind of people are you trying to help?” We repeated ourselves, emphasizing that we were there to assist anyone who was in need of help as a consequence of the storm.
He knew were we could plug in, he told us. His wife owned a bar downtown that had experienced some flood damage, and he tried to assign us to help her clean it out. We politely declined. Then he sent us to a neighborhood fifteen minutes away that he said had been hit really hard, with instructions to tell anyone who asked that he had sent us in order that we would be perceived as possessing some legitimacy.
He sent us to a country club. It was true: their golf course, private lake, and large front lawns had taken quite a bit of damage from fallen trees. Yet in this neighborhood, there were many companies that specialized in relief work already clearing trees and working on home repairs. When the sergeant told us to go to this neighborhood fifteen minutes away, streets just three blocks from the relief center were blocked by fallen trees and lined with homes with standing water in them. There were no relief teams there to help them, no companies working overtime. People had just begun to come back to their homes; they were searching for a warm meal before picking up the pieces of their lives.
Some of the ways that the damage from natural disasters impacts poor people are obvious. Poorer neighborhoods are often built in areas that are more susceptible to disaster; the homes of the poor often aren’t in good enough condition to withstand a storm. Other ways that natural disasters impact poor people are subtle. For example, when police are positioned as the ones who conduct disaster relief efforts, this empowers them to utilize natural disasters as opportunities to target the marginalized and vulnerable.
We’ve become accustomed to hearing stories about gigantic amounts of food, water, and supplies not reaching the people who need them most. This is no accident. Rather, it is the completely avoidable consequence of an approach to disaster relief that serves capitalism at every turn. If that were the whole story—a cold and calculated approach to maximizing profit during disaster—it would be a horror, but this is not all there is to say about the ethos of the state. In addition to aiming to facilitate exploitation, representatives of the state also utilize disasters to hatefully eliminate unwanted portions of society. Every interaction we had with the police showcased how their role, as representative of the system they serve, was to ensure that undesired persons did not receive the help they desperately needed and to reinforce the systems and myths that have been constructed to block people from solving their problems without the state. In view of this, the amount of money that has traded hands in the weeks following Hurricane Florence is maddening.
Over the following weeks, we heard story after story about insurance money not coming through due to fine print (such as flood damage being covered, but not in case of a hurricane), or the payouts amounting to a fraction of the costs people were dealing with. As we tore molding insulation and ductwork out from under flooded houses, we heard how people were forced to work extra hours to make up the time they had missed due to the hurricane. We patched a damaged roof belonging to a man whose son was a roofer; the son had been making too much money due to the hurricane to come and patch his own father’s leaking home. A group of people who were accused of looting a store in Wilmington were arrested and displayed as trophies by local police even after the store requested that the police not press charges against them. In South Carolina, police drove a van containing two prisoners into rising floodwaters and lost control. They climbed out to await rescue on the roof while their prisoners drowned beneath their feet.
Many farmworkers, subject to precarious conditions in worker camps, endured considerable suffering. Farm owners, who are legally obligated to feed their workers, abandoned hundreds of them behind flooded roads without food or water.
We delivered supplies to some of these people. They told us stories about how they had been treated. Some had been told that if they weren’t present when the owner returned, they would lose their jobs, which would put their legal status in jeopardy. They were in limbo without food, water, or work, with their legal status tied to absent employers. In one case, we gave aid to a large group of women living in an abandoned building owned by their employer, who had cut off the power and left them with no supplies and no assurance of when he would return. These employers put their workers in incredibly dangerous situations without the basic supplies necessary for survival. When we delivered food and water to people who hadn’t had food for many days, they told us that we needed to be careful to visit only when their employers were away, because their employers didn’t want us helping them.
When one river crested days after the initial storm, a building inhabited by some of these workers flooded dramatically. They called 911 and requested a rescue, but no one came. It turned out that the landowner had called and canceled the emergency response, saying that the workers were fine. They stayed on their roof as the floodwaters overtook their housing, continuing to call for help with no response.
While coal ash full of arsenic, untreated wastewater, and hog sewage seeped down the waterways into the ocean, people were trying to get back on their feet. When farm work resumed, the crops were so damaged that in some cases workers could only make a fraction of their previous earnings on the few days of work they were offered. Farmworkers were pulling rotten sweet potatoes out of knee-deep polluted river mud for 40 cents a bucket, or leave their worksites in search of other opportunities. Residents queued up for home repair work that insurance refused to cover. Temperatures reached 90 degrees in an unseasonable warm spell while the insulation and air conditioning in flooded homes grew deadly black mold. Mosquitoes made the front-page news in many counties due to their massive breeding success, thanks to the record-breaking rainfall. People screamed at each other over how resources were distributed. Radicals were pushed out of relief spaces or ordered to pretend to be apolitical volunteers by organizations that aimed to control the relief narrative. Right-wing militants paraded in heavily armed anti-looting patrols to great patriotic fanfare.
All of this was avoidable. The state deals a death sentence to the people and landscapes it exploits. Massive amounts of wealth are centralized via these disasters. As catastrophes create the illusion of a blank slate for capitalists to reinvent reality according to a more profitable blueprint, the people who are attempting to put their lives back together are dealt a volley of hardships. Many people were still in the process of recovering from hurricane Matthew two years prior when Florence destroyed whatever progress they had managed to make.
This continues as supplies rot, guarded out of reach of those who need them most. These disasters will be in effect for years after their initial impact. Like Katrina and every storm before it, the damage Hurricane Florence caused will be quantified as a dollar amount, leaving out all the other forms of harm inflicted on people and animals. When you see the effects of Florence reduced to a billion-dollar price tag, remember—those billions are exactly what made it such a disaster in the first place.
II. The Anarchists Showed up First
Anonymous, September 27
We were sitting in our driveway in Wilmington, NC when a truck with a kayak strapped to the roof pulled up. The power had come back on just a few minutes earlier; it was the Sunday after the hurricane hit. Someone from the truck walked up and asked if [redacted] was here. I introduced myself and they told me that my friend hadn’t heard from me and was worried; they had stopped by on their way to make sure I was OK. The people in the truck introduced themselves as Mutual Aid Disaster Relief; they gave us a box of food and other supplies and asked if we needed anything else.
I was happy to see new faces after days of isolation without electricity, and even more so to meet people who were comrades as well. Before they left, we planned to meet the following day to start organizing a response to the destruction inflicted by Hurricane Florence. Not long after the truck pulled away, my neighbor came running out to flag down a cop car that was flying down our residential street in order to ask for updates. They learned very little. I pointed out that it was the anarchists who showed up first to check on us, whereas they had to flag down the cop, who had no intention of checking on any of us. Later on, some comrades came back to crash with us and plan for the following weeks.
The next day, we split up into crews. Some of us went to the space we were going to be working out of; others went to scout the neighborhoods to see who needed help with repairs, cleanup, tree removal, and the like. Florence had devastated some of the most already marginalized communities: whole bedroom ceilings had collapsed, leaving everything exposed and soaking wet; roofs had been torn off the tops of the trailers as if by a can opener; trees were impaled through houses; there were loose hanging electrical wires and downed telephone poles all over town.
We saw a considerable number of DHS and Border Patrol vehicles driving around. ICE was sure to be around as well. We notified local residents and distributed the number for the legal hotline, as well as cleaning up and starting to make connections with people throughout the city to learn who needed help and who else would be interested in helping. We regrouped afterwards to talk about the next steps. Our staging space was a small school located in the lower-income part of town, owned by the city but run by liberals. It was out of commission due to the hurricane; in the beginning, they welcomed us gladly.
Later on, another crew joined us, driving a box truck to and from the airport to pick up supplies that were being flown in from Virginia and parts of North Carolina that had not been hit by the worst parts of the hurricane. We were the first group of people—before any government agency or NGO—to arrange for supplies to be flown in and air-dropped for distribution to those who survived the hurricane. This aroused the suspicions of some military and police officials, who were perplexed and embarrassed that a bunch of strange-looking people were already responding to the disaster before anyone even knew when to expect FEMA or other state organizations to show up.
We began distributing supplies throughout the community as soon as our space was open. From the beginning, we ran according to the principles of mutual aid and gift economics: take what you need, offer what you can share, volunteer if you’re able. We shared food, water, medical supplies, hygiene products, soap, household cleaning supplies, clothes, blankets, shoes, baby formula, and diapers; trained first responders and EMTs were there to offer medical assistance. We also set up a table offering zines sent to us by Occupied Southwest Distro, covering topics including anarchism, mutual aid, policing, capitalism, prison abolition, feminism, disaster relief, responding to trauma, police violence, consent, and security culture; some recounted previous Mutual Aid Disaster Response experiences from prior emergencies, such as Hurricane Harvey. In addition to all this, there was also a phone charging station and a lounge area.
The first day our space was open, we distributed food throughout the community, sent crews out to other parts of town, and picked up supplies from the airport. We were already meeting people who offered to volunteer alongside us.
The next day, people from the community who’d visited the day before to get supplies showed up to volunteer. The distribution was already essentially self-managed by members of the community. This enabled us to focus more on the logistics of flying in supplies, and reaching out to other communities that were more isolated or located in the city’s blind spots. Every day added 100-200 people to the previous day’s numbers; by the third day, we served 400 or 500 people at the space, plus the crews traveling out to provide aid to people who were unable to get there. We reached many elderly and disabled folks this way, and brought food, water, and other supplies directly to many families who were unable to find transportation to us. We also had been helping with house repairs, providing tarps for roofs that were exposed, and cleaning up debris and fallen trees from homes.
Already the project was growing and thriving, practically running itself. Every day, I would see people come up unsure of who we were and what was going on at this school that had been turned into a space for the community. Often they were visibly upset, in need of help, dragging their feet towards the door, asking us if we had anything to eat. Of course we did—”Come right on in!” They would leave with bags of supplies and smiles on their faces.
Many members of the mostly Black and Latino/Latina communities were also interested in the zine table. I can still see the huge smile that greeted me as I said, “Those are great choices!” to the elderly woman who had selected titles including “Everybody Hates the Police,” “Life Without Law,” and “Learning From Ferguson.” But by the time the zine table was half empty, some of the liberals had also taken notice of the zines, as well. They didn’t read “What Anarchists Have Been Saying for Years, and What Liberals need to start Hearing” or “Accomplices Not Allies”—they just raised their eyebrows at the critiques of police. I soon noticed them passing the zines around to each other and staring at me; I guessed they were making phone calls to their superiors.
Within a few hours, some of the liberals that had been shadowing us and the community members who were taking the literature asked us not to distribute it, describing it as “divisive” and “too political.” We were asked to “keep politics out of it”—they told us that the facility was on good standing with the local police. We pointed out a strange dynamic that was emerging in the space: liberal, white staff members were the ones asking us to keep politics out of it, while Black community members would converse with us about the zines and talk about their experiences with police and city officials. The staff members were not happy with us pointing out this dynamic and stated that they were not racist. No one had accused them of racism.
This was the first sign of trouble, but we continued to bring in supplies, clean up debris and felled trees, and repair houses. We removed the zines to avoid drama, because we felt it was more important to have the space to be there for the community no matter what. But over the following days, people came up to me to ask for more zines, and we began to discuss other projects we could do in the community on a more long-term basis.
Community members warned us of what was to come. Soon, there would be visits from news crews—even Mayor Bill Saffo finally showed up a week and a half later for a photo shoot. We also started to notice an increase in attention from the local police, who would drive their patrol cars around the space periodically throughout the day and night. This was the same police force responsible for murdering two black men and a young white woman with a mental illness—the same police force that had purchased a brand new L-RAD device for “announcements” and introduced training for “peace officers” that thrilled the local liberal career activists.
For two weeks, the community came together to hold it down. We became good friends and met a lot of wonderful people throughout the city. I had people coming up to me after reading our literature saying, “I never knew I was an anarchist.” Intriguing conversations followed about our experiences, our aspirations, our goals. More and more people showed up to volunteer and help.
But what started with the principle of “everything for everyone” soon turned into rationing, as the liberal staff members peering over the shoulders of the community volunteers endeavored to spread paranoia about potential thieves and parasites who were supposedly coming in and taking way too much. In fact, we were continually getting in more and more supplies—why should we begin rationing when every day we ended up with more stuff than we had started with? We were traveling out to other towns and cities in the more rural parts of the state, like Lumberton, where the large indigenous community was hit hard with severe flooding, while still trying to recover from the previous hurricane, Hurricane Matthew.
As more and more volunteers came, more supplies were air dropped in, and comrades from all over came to help out, we all became both exhausted by and excited about the work we were doing. But one day, unexpectedly, we were informed that we would have to vacate the space by the following morning at 8 am so they could open the school as a daycare for children whose parents were out of work as a result of the disaster. We were all sad to have to leave so soon and without warning, especially since the staff had originally agreed that we would receive at least two days’ notice before we needed to pack up. But we understood that it was important for the kids to have a place to go. Besides, they told us, the school would still be open as a space for people to obtain food and supplies, and the outreach crews would still do supply runs and cleanups and repairs; we just had to vacate the back rooms where volunteers from out of state had been staying and holding meetings.
We packed our things and were gone before morning, seeking another space to use for storage and to house volunteers. However, visiting and conversing with some of the new staff members two days later, we discovered that they never intended to use the space for a daycare; they told us that the back rooms were just occupied by the staff that was doing the “managing.” Now the distribution utilized a ticket system and rationed food; we saw a huge news crew outside, and a trailer belonging to a massive non-profit organization offering medical services to fill the vacuum that opened up when we were told to leave. The staff had become increasingly unfriendly and passive-aggressive. It was clear that the real reason we had been told to leave had nothing to do with offering assistance or a space for children. It was about our physical appearance and political beliefs, and the fact that we were building relationships in the community and that the community was coming together for itself, without the help of outside government or NGO assistance—or the liberal staff members.
Although we lost the first space, we’re still operating, while searching for a new space. We’re still here; we will be here doing Mutual Aid Disaster Relief as long as it’s necessary. We’ll continue proving to people that this is possible—that we don’t have to wait for the state to come to our aid—that we are the ones who keep us safe.
We continue to work together to rebuild and strengthen our communities. We’ve already built lots of valuable relationships in the process.
III. Through the Eye of the Storm
An interview with MouseMouse from Blue Ridge Autonomous Defense, working under the umbrella of Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, September 24.
What have you been doing, and where?
We’ve been doing a lot. Wellness checks in flooded areas using kayaks. Supply scheming and pick up and drop offs as a street team. Bringing supplies directly to impacted folks and communities. Basic first aid and harm reduction. Interfacing with community members and discussing disaster politics. Supply distribution center organizing. Hot food delivery.
We were in Washington, NC when Florence hit. We worked out of there for a day. Then we moved through the eye of the storm, through its back wall, into Wilmington. I was in Wilmington for seven days working in North Wilmington neighborhoods such as Love Grove as well as trailer parks near Military Cutoff Road. Then I moved up to Lumberton, NC along with another member of my group to assist in the indigenous-led relief efforts being organized in that community.
Describe your motivation and past experience with this kind of work.
My motivation for doing this work is multi-faceted. Capitalism’s insatiable desire for profit and new markets means that climate change and its associated extreme weather events will not stop, but only increase. So the need for autonomous, anarchist-led efforts will also increase as we struggle to meet the needs of impacted and devastated communities.
In addition, I recognize that there are very few opportunities in which the state will totally vacate territory, and natural disasters are one of them. This gives us unprecedented opportunity to build new methods of community organization in the ruins of the existing order. We can claim space and show that a new world is possible by reaching people in new ways.
And finally, as an anarchist, I want to practice mutual aid. I want to stand in solidarity with those targeted by the state, against the state.
This was the first time I’ve done anything like this. However, my group has a focus on street medic and community defense work using small teams. This disaster tested all of the skills we have been honing. It demonstrated that through praxis, we can shape the theory that guides us.
Can you share any lessons for the future?
One of the biggest lessons I learned from this experience is that regional networks involving organizations, affinity groups, and individuals can be utilized in emergencies to meet the needs of our communities. The logistical and operational push before and following this storm has been mind-blowing. In the first days following the storm, we were able to do things that even the state was unable, or unwilling, to do—and we did that by never separating our politics from our efforts.
The need for realistic planning and continuous preparation was also important. It would be easy to create a situation in which you too become a person in need in the middle of the disaster. Any sort of complacent act or careless planning could put you there.
Having appropriate supplies and vehicles is necessary, as well as being able to make longer-term commitments. Showing up as a group that can only commit a day or two or three to efforts drains resources and does not allow for the necessary long-term interaction and commitment required to build trust and community.
Looking forward, we can use the lessons from this response, along with other disasters, to refine the theory behind disaster relief and mutual aid in the age of extreme weather, resource exploitation, and mass extinction. We can say with confidence that we do truly keep each other safe, and that with a little bravery, the new world we hold in our hearts can take root in this world, as our collective future.
Last week, millions watched the dramatic hearings pitting Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh against Christine Blasey Ford, who courageously narrated her experience of being sexually assaulted by him decades ago. Once again, Americans were confronted with the brazen entitlement of the male power establishment. The hearings stirred up traumatic memories for countless survivors, ratcheted up partisan tensions, and catalyzed furious responses from feminists and progressives in view of the implications of the court shifting further to the right. With Roe v. Wade hanging in the balance, critics point out the horrifying irony of an unrepentant sexual predator potentially casting the deciding vote to block abortion access to millions of women and others across the country.
We applaud the courage of Christine Blasey Ford and everyone who has supported her through this ordeal. We don’t want to see Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, either. But should any man be able to wield that much power over the lives of millions?
What if the Trump administration manages to find a judge with the same views, but with no history of sexual assault? Would that render the confirmation process legitimate and their decisions of the Supreme Court beyond question? Should people of conscience accept the sovereignty of a nine-person elite over the most intimate spheres of their lives?
If you don’t think so either, you may already be an anarchist.
What does it look like to resist the nexus of rape culture and far-right power that Kavanaugh represents? The usual suspects propose the conventional solutions: calling representatives, canvassing for Democrats, taking to the streets to hold signs indicating our displeasure. But even if these efforts forestall Kavanaugh’s nomination this time around, they won’t disrupt the relations of power in which hundreds of millions are held hostage to the machinations of a small, mostly male elite. A victory against this particular nominee would only reset the clock; eventually, Trump will force through a new candidate who will rule the same way Kavanaugh intends to. And even if Trump is impeached or a Democrat is elected and a progressive nominee is sworn in—we’re still in the same place we started, vulnerable to the whims of a judicial aristocracy and alienated from our own power and potential. We need an approach that challenges the foundations of the system that put us in this situation in the first place.
Meanwhile, progressive critics such as Amy Goodman have demanded an FBI investigation as a way to give official weight to Ford’s testimony and hopefully discredit Kavanaugh as a candidate. Goodman points out, reasonably, that Trump’s claim to be in favor of law enforcement while hesitating to order the FBI to look into Kavanaugh’s sexual misconduct reveals his hypocrisy. This logic positions progressives and feminists as the honest proponents of law enforcement—and police as protectors of women. Have we learned nothing from decades of rape crisis organizers explaining how the police and courts so often serve to retraumatize survivors, putting them on trial rather than those who attacked them? Can we ignore the feminists of color from INCITE to Angela Davis who call on us to remember that police and prisons do not stop rape but rather intensify poverty, racism, and injustice?
Democrats are trying to recast themselves as the real “law and order” candidates. This is not so much a change in strategy as a revealing of their true colors. Between the blue of “blue states” and the blue of “blue lives matter,” it’s only a matter of tone, not content.
In TV newsrooms and around water coolers across the country, the discussions about this case have focused on how “believable” or “credible” Ford’s testimony is versus that of Kavanaugh. Taking this approach, we become an entire nation of judges and juries, debating evidence and scrutinizing witnesses, choosing whose experience to legitimize and whose to reject. This adversarial framework has always benefitted those who wield privilege and hold institutionalized power. Even if we rule in favor of Ford, we are reproducing the logic of a legal system based in patriarchal notions of truth, judgment, and objectivity, a way of understanding reality that has always suppressed the voices and experiences of the marginalized, preserving the conditions that enable powerful men to sexually abuse others with impunity.
Unfortunately, calls for FBI investigations reinforce this logic and legitimize the murderous regime of surveillance, policing, and prisons as a means of obtaining justice rather than a source of harm. Rejecting the rape culture that Kavanaugh and his supporters represent necessarily means rejecting the patriarchal institutions through which they wield power. If we legitimize any of those institutions in the course of trying to be pragmatic in our efforts to discredit specific officials, we will only undercut our efforts: one step forward, two steps back.
This has broader implications for how we address rape culture in general. When we reduce the issue of sexual violence to the question of whether specific men have committed sexual assault or abuse, we frame these as crimes carried out in a vacuum by deviant individuals. As a result, entertainment corporations and government agencies can pretend to solve the problem by finding men who do not have sexual assaults on their record rather than addressing the misogynistic dynamics and power imbalances that are inherent in government, the workplace, and society at large. This confuses the social question of addressing sexual violence with the matter of finding candidates and nominees who can present a clean résumé; should they later turn out to also be implicated in doing harm, they can be replaced, just as the electoral system replaces politicians every few years without ever giving the rest of us self-determination.
Rape, abuse, and other forms of violence are a systemic problem within our society, not a matter of individual deviance. We need a way of addressing rape culture that cuts to the root.
Are there other ways that we can think about how to respond to the threat that a judge like Kavanaugh poses to our bodies and communities?
As anarchists, we reject the idea that judges or politicians deserve the authority to determine the course of our lives. Rather than only trying to pressure leaders to vote one way or the other in a winner-take-all system that reduces us to spectators in the decisions that affect us, we propose solutions based in direct action: taking power back into our hands by enacting our needs and solving our problems ourselves, without representatives.
As long as legislators and judges can determine the scope of our reproductive options, our bodies and lives will be subject to the shifting winds of politics rather than our own immediate needs and values. Instead of validating their authority by limiting ourselves to calling for better legislators and judges, we should organize to secure and defend the means to make decisions regarding what we do with our bodies regardless of what courts or legislators decree.
In practice, this could mean networking with health workers who have the necessary skills, and sharing them widely; stockpiling and manufacturing the supplies we need for all sorts of health care; defending spaces where we can operate our own clinics; fundraising resources to secure access to health care and birth control options for all, regardless of ability to pay; and developing models for reproductive autonomy that draw on past precedents but address our current problems. We can do our best to render the decisions of would-be patriarchs like Kavanaugh irrelevant.
All this has already happened before. For example, from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, the Jane network, a vast clandestine effort centered in Chicago, provided illegal abortions to thousands of women. The fact that abortion was already accessible to so many women was a major factor in compelling the US court system to finally legalize abortion access in order to be able to regulate it. The most effective way to pressure the authorities to permit us access to the resources and care that we need is to present them with a fait accompli. Unfortunately, when it comes to standing up to elites like the Supreme Court and the police who enforce its decisions, there are no shortcuts.
We can extend the logic of direct action to every area in which a right-wing Supreme Court might inflict harm, from environmental destruction to indigenous sovereignty to labor organizing. All of the rights we have today are derived from the grassroots struggles of ordinary people who came before us, not from the wisdom or generosity of powerful officials.
FBI investigations and court processes will not end sexual violence or bring healing to survivors. To strike at the root causes that enable the Kavanaughs of the world to do harm, we have to tear up patriarchy and toxic masculinity by the roots. This involves a process of ongoing education around sexuality, consent, and relationships, developing strategies to intervene when we see violence of any kind in our communities, creating culture that models alternative visions of gender and intimacy, and reimagining justice as restorative and transformative rather than adversarial.
We can see how pervasive the problem is when we look at the narratives that underpin support for Kavanaugh. Leading up to the hearings, supporters focused on portraying Kavanaugh as a devoted family man. As multiple allegations of sexual assault surfaced, many commentators framed the question as a contradiction between Kavanaugh the loving husband and father and Kavanaugh the callous rapist, implying that these roles are mutually exclusive. Yet gendered violence continues at epidemic levels within proper heterosexual families; shocking rates of spousal rape and domestic violence permeate American marriages, while statistics on child sexual abuse indicate that family members make up a substantial proportion of abusers. Bill Cosby, the archetypical television husband and father, was recently sentenced to prison for drugging and sexually assaulting numerous women. The false assumption that a history of sexual assault is somehow incompatible with adhering to the conventions of heterosexual family life reflects the persistence of patriarchal norms and homophobia, as well as a refusal to honestly address the extent of gendered violence in our society.
No Supreme Court could solve this problem, even if it consisted of the nine wisest and gentlest people in the world. When it comes to social change, there’s no substitute for widespread grassroots action.
Some American feminists have drawn parallels between the Kavanaugh case and the #NotHim movement in Brazil, in which women are rallying against a Trump-esque misogynist politician running for president.
The struggle of Brazilian feminists to resist the extreme-right threat deserves our attention and support. Yet as anarchists, we can take that model further in responding to the Kavanaugh nomination. Rather than Not Him, we can assert Not Anyone—no man, rapist or not, deserves the power to decide the reproductive options for millions of women and others. Perhaps the more appropriate slogan for the struggle against patriarchy and the Supreme Court would be the rallying cry of Argentina’s 2002 rebellion: “Que se vayan todos!”—get rid of all of them. They all must go.
The sooner we can do this—the more we can delegitimize the authority of Supreme Courts to shape our lives, and the more powerful and creative we can make our our alternatives—the less we will have to fear from the Trumps and Kavanaughs of the world. Let’s build a society that enables everyone to engage in genuine self-determination—in which no man can decide what all of us may do with our bodies—in which no state can take away our power to shape our future.