How many anarchists did it take to organize the recent Southern California Anarchist Conference? No one is really sure. Not even the organizers. Yes, the idea of a conference for anarchists sounds like a punch line waiting to happen. Anarchists find that troubling. “The mainstream recognition of anarchism is chaos and breaking stuff,” says Sara Galindo, sounding exasperated. “We have to redefine it time and time again.”
Galindo and others involved in planning the conference sit in front of the Library for Social Studies and Research in South Central Los Angeles. Technically, the conference is taking place inside the library, but the important discussions occur outside, on the sidewalk.
A handsome 20-something man elaborates on Galindo’s thoughts. “Blowing stuff up is what people think of when they think of anarchy,” says the man, who introduces himself as D’Angelo but declines to give his last name. “Busting a window, I don’t consider it violence. Bombing a baby — that’s violence. The Anarchist Cookbook is not a book anarchists live by. Yes, there’s bomb-making equipment in that book. But this government makes bombs. They make bombs for profit.”
Proponents of anarchy believe that no human being should dominate another. The ideal society is decentralized, with no coercive rulers, no hierarchies, and everybody equal. Anarchy is a great refusal to follow authority.
“We don’t plan to overthrow the U.S. government in 10 years,” Galindo says. “The core of it is changing relationships. With the people we meet on the street. The people we ride the bus with.”
As D’Angelo says, “We don’t want to overthrow the state only to become the state. Not just the U.S. government, but all governments are the problem. It’s not some monster living on the hillside. It’s people.”
A conundrum about anarchy is finding a way to gain momentum as a movement, despite the belief of its members that no single, dominant belief should prevail.
Nevertheless, anarchism is a workable system, D’Angelo says. “Take street tribes, or what the mainstream calls gangs. Some of the ways they organize is anarchistic. We’ve been conditioned to follow authority. Schools are run by bells. They have fences. There’s environmental racism. These institutions are built like society is built. We need to build parallel systems and institutions.”
“If you ask 10 different people, you’ll get 10 different approaches to anarchy,” says Colleen Flynn, a lawyer who discovered anarchy in law school.
The collective that organized the anarchist conference has no president, no vice president, no secretary, no treasurer and no name. Asked how big the collective is, one of its members, Ralf Camacho, thinks for a moment and says, “There’s no set number.”
Members met at Camacho’s house to hash out details for the conference: issues they wanted to discuss; who contacted whom; which speakers were invited; who photocopied the programs. Disagreements were not settled by voting, because anarchists believe that voting divides a group into a majority and minority, which is contrary to the anarchist spirit. Instead, organizers talked stuff out until everybody was on the same page.
Camacho believes that man’s true nature is to be cooperative rather than competitive or selfish. “If it hadn’t been for early man operating on principles of cooperation and mutuality, we wouldn’t be here at all,” he says.
In the collective, no single person is in charge. Each contributes according to his or her abilities. Duties are not set in stone. For instance, the people who drew the fliers would not be expected to draw them next time unless they felt like it.
“I was in charge of providing security, but we don’t call it that,” Camacho explains. “We call it harmony battalions.”
In his day job, Camacho manages security for bars and clubs. “Where I work, there’s hierarchy, and it’s messed up. There is a lot of resentment and animosity. In collectives, where everyone is equal, things run smoother. Especially if there’s not a profit motive, where you’ll do anything or everything to make money. Wouldn’t you guys agree?”
“The activist Ashanti Omowali said anarchy is like playing jazz,” says D’Angelo, shifting in his wheelchair. “It’s about improvising.”
D’Angelo goes inside to play chess and Galindo returns with a plate of vegan soy tacos balanced on a clipboard. “With this event, it may look sloppy — ”
“It’s not sloppy!” Flynn interrupts. She swats Galindo with a pamphlet detailing the day’s itinerary.
By now it is late afternoon. The “Resist the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh” session is running late. A few people who thought they were attending an Anarcha-Feminism workshop are actually in the media/cop-watch seminar. A Native American woman gives an enthusiastic, digressive and impromptu speech about her struggles, and proclaims, “We’re going go back to life before Columbus,” to thundering applause.
Then the Black Riders Liberation Party marches in, arms folded, with the black berets, black combat boots, and the stern expressions of their Black Panther predecessors. A young lady named Comrade Laa-Laa reads a prepared statement about the “United Snakes of America” and the “wicked FBI.”
“We have stopped more gang-army violence with our survival programs than the racist U.S. government’s mass incarceration ‘solution’ but have been rewarded with updated Ges … Ges … I don’t know that word,” she says.
“Gestapo,” whispers her friend.
A guy raises his hand.
“As far as resistance, do you see the violent or aggressive side as self-defense or as a tactic?” he asks.
“No,” Comrade Laa-Laa says. Her hoop earrings smack her cheeks as she talks. “We believe in pure self-defense. You feel me? We’re not going to brutalize on our own community. You feel me? That goes to the point I was making to the other brother about confrontational politics. It works very well.”
“Can anybody become a Panther?” someone asks.
Comrade Laa-Laa says, “To answer your question, all in all, yes.”
In the corner, one man’s hand shoots up. “Do you have a question,” Comrade Laa-Laa asks.
“No. It’s a salute.”
At this point, the schedule pretty much comes off the rails, but somehow everything the anarchists needed to get done is done by the end. When it comes time for the organizing collective for closing remarks, some people cannot be found. They’ve decided to go home.