Tobie Castle is one of the last to arrive at Chuco's on Sunday morning. The 17-year-old self-proclaimed socialist/anarchist street punk came from East L.A. to Inglewood with a comrade for the sixth meeting of the Free Association of Anarchists.
He's spring-loaded in a black leather jacket, black boots, jeans and a blue bandanna under a Suicidal Tendencies baseball cap. “If it wasn't for us working-class people, you wouldn't have your schools and prisons and institutions and churches,” he says to a comrade. “We are the ones who bleed and sweat to give you a nice building. But do we get a thank you? No! All we get is dirt and pushed.”
Chuco's is a temple of revolution, a community center, decorated in graffiti. A small spray-painted poster is almost invisible in the collage of Krylon murals dominating the pale-green cinder-block walls: Justice 4 Oscar G. The fallen comrade's eyes speak out from beyond. The big banner near the ceiling encapsulates the philosophy succinctly: College Prep, Not Prison Prep.
The community center houses Free L.A. High School, a state-accredited learning institution where uprise is at the top of the curriculum. The school teaches public advocacy along with the usual subjects to 16- to 24-year-olds coming out of prison, jails or juvenile halls or who have been pushed out of other schools or expelled from entire districts.
Founding Free Association of Anarchists members Miguel, Frank and Richard have already set up folding chairs and a table for the meeting. Taking visual cues from Che and Fidel, the early-20-somethings look like anarchists, or at least socialists, understated and working-class, with a little Melrose flavor in the mix.
The association is made up of freely associated magma oozing up from the underclass. Forced to the surface by social pressure, they are divided from the mainstream by ideology and genealogy. They have formed organically in a pressure cooker, motivated by an understanding of life on the bottom and a communal vision for the free world that subtracts government from the equation.
Tobie and a few other stragglers shuffle in and take a seat: a cute girl in a black studded leather jacket named Linda, a tall guy named Matt from Michigan and a teacher named Omar from the LAUSD.
Oddly, none of the eight people at the meeting is talking about blowing up cars or storming City Hall. They've read the right books and armed themselves with an arsenal of old ideas. They have a plan to unleash on society a weapon of mass collective organization.
After some throat-clearing, the pencils come out and it's down to business. Miguel gives an update on the agenda: fundraising, nonprofit status, sponsorship, event planning … and they need some volunteers.
A clean-cut young guy named Breino is thinking of investing in a raffle and looking into grants.
Richard, with a shaved head, Fidel Castro beard and cap with a red star, will be off parole in two weeks. He wants to talk about the other groups they're aligning themselves with: the Southern California Immigration Coalition, the Homeless and Hunger Crisis Coalition, the Prison Industrial Complex Coalition.
Frank is scruffy and intense; he calls himself an indigenous Mexican person and wants to talk about a group they're supporting, Angeles sin Fronteras, a nonprofit based in Calexico and Mexicali that works with deportees.
When the meeting breaks up, the real conversation begins. There is a sense of urgency. The common thread is the historic grief of transgenerational poverty. It's the glue that binds them and the fire that fuels the crusade, though each has an individual voice.
Miguel doesn't like labels and has distaste for America's values and historical legacy. “In capitalism you get all other forms of oppressive power structures, ideas of hierarchy … of one person being in charge,” he says. “We're here to organize people so they can do things for themselves instead of relying on the police, the state and systems that have no idea of our conditions and the way we live.”
Frank is tightly wound but openhearted. “When you become politically and socially aware and learn to become a compassionate person, you're free,” he says. “You understand life, you become free. I wanna give people the tools to ignore the media … ignore all the lack of compassion that they've received over their lives.”
Richard is reserved and reduces things to the essential elements: “It's actually very common sense. If someone's hungry, do you feel that they should eat, or do you feel that they need to work first and then eat? If they're hungry now, then why not eat? We have the surplus food.”
Though a few generations removed from racial oppression, Matt from Michigan is at home with the Free Association of Anarchists. “Here in L.A., white people are a tiny minority and they tend to be the richest minority,” says Matt, the only white guy at the meeting. “Change is not going to come from rich people. Change is going to come mostly from people who are stepped on most from the system.”
Omar the LAUSD teacher is a revolutionary anarchical communist. “School textbooks are published by big business,” he says. “They have corporate and economic interests in portraying truth and history a certain way. People's lived experience doesn't accord with that.”
Linda is tentative. She's not an anarchist, at least not yet. “The way we were brought up was to think that some people are born in that way. They're privileged. They don't have to work or go to school or struggle. Everything is given to them. I figured, why not have that for everyone else?”
After the meeting, Tobie is inspired, running on fumes of youthful omnipotence. “My generation — I'm sorry to say this — the vast majority are blinded sheep who are only following a certain political way that they see as perfect,” he says. “I'm just a street punk. That's all I am. Just a street punk who has a very wide-open mind.
“I may not be the smartest kid in class, but I am the most politically aware in my school. Yes, I am an anarchist, but I am not an anarchist who is going to blow up your car or bomb your school. No, no, no, no. I believe that violence is a method but only to be used as a last, last resort — once the debating doesn't work, once the marches don't work and the government uses violence on us first.”