From Empty Hands by Spencer Beswick
Against All Domination at Anarchist Gatherings (1986-89)
A series of annual gatherings from 1986 to 1989 revitalized the anarchist movement and built the infrastructure for national and continental coordination. I will share more writing about this in the future, but I wanted to share a quick anecdote about the debates over food and animal liberation at these convergences. They offer a window into the evolving values and ethical norms of the anarchist movement at the time. Anarchists developed a commitment to fighting all forms of oppression, hierarchy, and domination—including of other species—rather than solely focusing on capitalism and the state.
The first national convergence was held in Chicago in 1986 to commemorate the centennial of the Haymarket Affair. Several hundred people from across the country attended a few days of workshops and a major demonstration. Tensions at the gathering reflected the political and ethical debates taking place within the anarchist movement around the question of animal liberation. Although there is a long history of vegetarian anarchism, this became a major concern in the late twentieth century.
The Chicago organizers served a non-vegetarian friendly (and certainly non-vegan) meal at the major Saturday banquet. This, some attendees felt, was no accidental oversight. Rather, it happened because (as one attendee later reflected) “they don’t like vegetarians.” Tensions rose, fueled by both ethical concerns and hunger. An impromptu demonstration ensued in which, a participant describes, “the street theater crowd from San Francisco began milling around the middle of the room on all fours, mooing and clucking and being herded by a vegan speechifier with an imaginary whip” who then proceeded to “slaughter” the “cows.”
Although the demonstration was largely received in good humor, an associated group handed out incendiary flyers attacking “anarcho-beef people.” The distribution of this flyer provoked strong negative reactions against “preachy vegans” and for a moment it appeared that a physical fight might actually break out. Tensions soon calmed, however—or at least, much of the anger was redirected towards an argument around anti-Semitic flyers distributed by another attendee. (The latter is a story for another time.)
The next annual anarchist gathering, in Minneapolis in 1987, was a crucial step in the path towards a national anarchist network. It was organized with the intention of coordinating the de-centralized movement and laying the groundwork for a national organization. Unlike the previous convergence, which was organized mostly by older folks in a group called “Some Chicago Anarchists,” this one was put on by younger people who were more immersed in the growing anarchist milieu (including its ethical debates).
The Minneapolis crew framed the convergence around “Building the Movement.” While they hosted a wide range of workshops, including anarcho-punk DIY staples like how to dumpster food and brew your own beer, the focus was on facilitating strategic conversations and building the infrastructure for a coordinated national movement. Thus, throughout the gathering there was a “movement building track” of strategic discussions and meetings.
Part of this focus on building the movement entailed avoiding the unnecessary, distracting conflicts of the previous year’s gathering. For one, the organizers vowed to avoid the previous year’s arguments around food by simply serving all vegetarian meals. Of course, this was based in large part around an ethical commitment to animal liberation, but one key participant shared in a recent interview with me that it was also a conscious decision to avoid unnecessary drama and dissension.
The banquet was catered by a vegetarian workers’ cooperative called the New Riverside Cafe. This was specifically noted in a pre-convergence mass mailing to anarchists across the country. It seems that the organizers meant to be clear from the beginning that the meat-headed (sorry) mistakes of Chicago would not be repeated. There would be no protestors pretending to be mooing cows, no near fist fights over burgers.
In part because of its superior organization (including around the question of food), the Minneapolis gathering was a smashing success. It laid the groundwork for the next two annual meetings, in Toronto (‘88) and San Francisco (’89), which set the scene for the anarchist movement in the 1990s.
(Sources for the Chicago gathering come from the zine “Mob Action Against the State: Haymarket Remembered… An Anarchist Convention.”)