From Dog Section Press by Kim Kelly
When the hot revolution summer of 2020 broke, it had already been a couple of years since the media finally wore itself out trying to understand the extremely simple concept of antifascism (or ANTIFA in boneheaded parlance) while government officials serenely continued their program of surveillance, harassment, and persecution of radical activists (as well as countless Black and Brown people) unabated. “ANITFA” still came up as a talking point any time a Republican was upset about literally anything, but by and large, the news cycle had moved onto greener pastures. The elite media and ruling class were focused on tearing down the few vaguely progressive members of Congress, demonising the Black Lives Matter movement, and cosying up to the killer cops that gently patrolled their own gated communities – in other words, business as usual. So, it is still difficult to put into words the feeling of waking up to the news one day that the President of the so-called United States of America was angrily ranting about … anarchists.
And what’s more, as the days went on, various politicians, media pundits, and Lord knows how many social media addicts were working overtime to kick up a flurry of opinions about these mysterious, violent and assuredly evil creatures, specifically blaming them for the national unrest that erupted after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black people since this country’s cursed beginning. By blaming anarchists as the sole architects of this necessary and righteous peoples’ rebellion against a racist system anchored by state-sanctioned murder, these fiends were not only erasing the legitimate rage and demands of a Black-led liberation movement, while erasing Black anarchists wholecloth, but they were happily perpetuating the flawed and dangerous stereotype of anarchists as mindless agents of chaos that’s been used to target them as well as thousands of other radicals for centuries.
To be clear, it’s never been a good time to be an anarchist here. To be anything other than a wealthy, white, male, heterosexual cisgender citizen is to be seen as less than human; embracing any politic that mounts an emphatic challenge to that status quo already paints a target on one’s back, let alone pursuing one like anarchism, which seeks the destruction of the entire wretched system. This is a nation built on genocide and stolen from indigenous people, whose own holistic, often horizontal systems of self-government were later plumbed for inspiration by European thinkers (including Karl Marx, who was fascinated by the Iroquois peoples’ “stateless” society). It was built by enslaved African captives and their descendants, who were stolen from their homes, forced to labour for white supremacist gain and brutalized and murdered with impunity – a violently coercive, oppressive condition that continues today in the modern-day plantations of the American prison industrial complex. Under the auspices of the county’s unbroken theocratic hetero-patriarchal regime, women have always been silenced, subjugated and abused, as have trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people. Throughout the centuries, the immigrant workers and their families whose labour have long kept this dysfunctional state running have been demonised, dehumanised, discriminated against, and tormented by the government and its racist, xenophobic civilian fan club since the moment of their arrival.
But despite the hostile environment that greeted them, those new residents have brought with them new ideas and cultural practices that have shaped the rotten culture of this country in positive ways, including crucial revolutionary ideologies like anarchism. During its 19th and early 20th century heyday, anarchism had become a major political force, with deep ties to a strong labour movement and thousands of dedicated adherents who commanded the close attention of the press and struck fear into the dead hearts of the ruling elite. This was the era that gave us towering anarchist figures like Lucy and Albert Parsons, Emma Goldman, Voltairine De Cleyre, Leon Czolgosz, Johann Most, Luigi Galleani, and Lizzy Holmes – not all of whom were born in the U.S. but who made a massive impact on its people. Sadly, that vibrant period of revolutionary words and deeds was met with violent resistance from the state, who threw its considerable might into burying those promising stirrings – often literally. The farcical trials and shameful executions of the Haymarket Martyrs and of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti heralded the beginning of this dark era of anti-anarchist sentiment.
The state also launched a coordinated assault on the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) members and the attempted breakup of the organisation itself as part of its broader war on organised labour and the working class (in a precursor to the tactics it would employ half a century later during its COINTELPRO program and persecution of the Black Panthers and other Black Liberation groups). This was no fringe effort by the Gilded Age version of today’s right-wing conservative ghouls, either: this attack on the left came straight from the top and found support in every branch of government. That period between 1919 and 1920 now known as the First Red Scare was preceded by the passage of the Anarchist Exclusion Act of 1918, and the Department of Justice’s Palmer Raids led to the arrests and/or deportations of over 3,000 people, most of them Eastern European or Italian immigrants, many of them labour organisers, and some of whom were anarchists like Goldman who, alongside Alexander Berkman and 249 other radicals, was expelled to Russia.
Things never got much better for American anarchists, even after the First (and then Second) Red Scare ran its course and the mainstream labour movement’s radical roots were squashed, its power shrunk by government policy and a lack of vision. We were relegated back to the fringe, popping up only as boogeymen or caricatures when we popped up at all; as the mainstream political discourse meandered along its soul-sucking neoliberal, hyper-capitalist, bloodthirsty imperialist path, anarchists quietly worked on creating our own networks and supporting our communities, utilising the shadows to build power from below. Anarchists briefly dominated headlines in the 1990s when the Battle of Seattle WTO protests and various militant environmental and animal liberation activism efforts drew attention, but it wasn’t until the Occupy movement and its horizontal, anti-capitalist organising message swept the globe in 2011 that American anarchism really found itself back in the spotlight (whether or not it wanted the attention is another matter entirely). When 2015 saw the rise of Trumpism and its attendant white supremacism, white nationalism, and outright fascism (as well an explosion of fascist street gangs and militias), it necessitated an increased antifascist response; given the close relationship between anarchism and antifascism, it only stands to reason that more anarchists and a greater public interest in anarchism wouldn’t be far behind.
So, of course there were anarchists out in the streets of Minneapolis and New Orleans and Philadelphia protesting the theft of yet another Black life – why wouldn’t there be? But the laser focus on them and their actions gave the establishment a convenient smokescreen with which to dismiss the protestors’ demands and brush aside calls to defund – or, preferably, abolish – the police. They used the anarchist bogeyman as a foil, painting the uprising as the work of a few troublemakers instead of a huge, multiracial working-class movement that was sick and tired of playing nice. If they were forced to acknowledge the true character of the 2020 rebellion, they may realise just how precarious their grip on power truly is, and how many more of us there are. As our anarchist forebears have shown in the past, all it takes is a spark.
That brings us to now, the spring of 2021, on the eve of a new regime that has already proven itself to be just as hostile towards anarchists and the radical left more broadly as its repulsive predecessor. Joe Biden and his lackeys will be no friends to the left, let alone those of us who fly the black flag and scorn liberal reform and electoral cynicism. He probably won’t tweet about us as much, though, which I suppose is one miniscule consolation.
While public outreach and education is crucial, especially now in an age of rampant misinformation, it’s good to remember that for a very, very long time, we’ve done some of our best work in the shadows.
Kim Kelly is an anarchist writer, author, and organiser based in Philadelphia.
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