Anarchists say smears were way out of order


By Lincoln Anderson

Before and during the Republican National Convention, the major media stoked fears of anarchists descending on New York bent on wreaking havoc.

“Anarchists Hot for Mayhem” was the headline on a Daily News article reporting that “50 of the country’s leading anarchists” each accompanied by “50 followers” would be in town for the convention.

“Finest Prep for Anarchy,” read the headline on a New York Post article that included descriptions of three “high-profile, radical” activists.

ABC’s “Nightline” showed photos of two dozen targeted individuals — perhaps some of the same “50 leading anarchists” mentioned by the Daily News — describing them in the words of police, as “troublesome, even dangerous, anarchists who infiltrate other groups of demonstrators and then try to provoke violence.” Many of these individuals are from New York and at least four can be found at Union Sq. on a regular basis.

While these stories may have sold newspapers and served a purpose by portraying the protesters in a negative light, some of their subjects are now saying they and their political belief have been given a bad name. They readily admit being anarchists, but say they don’t advocate violence. Adding to the mounting legal bill the city may likely face over the handling of R.N.C. protester arrests, some of these individuals are now considering defamation lawsuits against the New York Police Department for encouraging smears of them by feeding the information to the media.

Similar to the Iraqi “death cards” depicting Saddam Hussein and his generals and ministers, the N.Y.P.D. allegedly compiled photos of dozens of individuals for surveillance in connection with the R.N.C. The Police Department did not respond by press time to The Villager’s queries regarding this list and photo dossier.

“Some of the people in these police intelligence photographs obtained by ABC News have been under surveillance for 18 months,” Ted Koppel intoned in a voice over as 24 of the photos were shown on the Aug. 31 segment, “Vote 2004: Protecting the Republican Convention.”

Brad Will, 34, a veteran former East Village squatter and activist now living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said he was disturbed to hear from friends that his photo was among those shown on “Nightline.” In addition, he said, a waiter friend of his at an East Village restaurant, reported that while taking an order on Aug. 30 she noticed some detectives at a table flipping through photos, one of which was Will’s.

“She said, ‘Watch out, they’re following you,’ ” Will said. “It made me nervous.

“I’m planning on launching some kind of lawsuit, defamation of character. They put my photo on ‘Nightline,’ ” he said. “I never hurt anyone in my life. There are no cases pending against me. I’m a journalist now, I don’t want my career to be ruined. I don’t want to lose my job — I just started working at a health food store in the East Village.”

Will videotaped the convention protests for Indymedia, doing his best to avoid arrest, though he did get pepper-sprayed during the arrests of 500 to 600 protesters during a “street party” march on 16th St. on Aug. 31.

“The police were targeting people with cameras,” he said. “They got me on the side of my face and shoulder.”

Like others identified as potentially violent anarchists, Will doesn’t deny having been arrested before. He’s been collared about seven times, but like others on the N.Y.P.D.’s “Top 50” R.N.C. protesters list, he said these arrests were for nonviolent civil disobedience, mostly for sitting down in community gardens to block bulldozers, then getting grabbed by police.

“Very violent arrests,” he deadpanned. He was also arrested for sneaking into the former E. Fifth St. Squat when it was being demolished in 1996 and for participating in Reclaim the Streets events, “anti-capitalist” actions temporarily “taking back” public space by dropping flower planters in the street and staging dance parties.

“Pretty violent,” Will again said sarcastically.

To Will, anarchy means “anti-authoritarian,” “anti-oppression,” “self-rule,” “local control” and, ideally, no government. He contributed a chapter on community gardens to a book on global movements, “We Are Everywhere,” in which he identified himself as an anarchist.

“I’m not ashamed of having a political opinion, of having hope for the future,” he said.

Eric Laursen, 44, is a member of the A 31 Action Coalition, the group that called for a day of nonviolent civil disobedience on Aug. 31. He said he was watching “Nightline” later that night and started paying attention after noticing photos of Will and Lisa Fithian, a well-known activist, flash by on the screen. He failed to see his own photo, though was later told it was shown.

“I had not been charged with any crime at the time those photos were shown,” said Laursen, who identifies as an anarchist. “I haven’t since. It inferred we incited violence. That’s out-and-out character assassination. This was to intimidate us, to vilify us in the eyes of the public. I want to know how did ‘Nightline’ get these photos? Were they passed under a table?

“I’m wondering if I should be suing someone,” he said, adding he and others are exploring legal options. A freelance financial journalist living in Hell’s Kitchen, Laursen said he, too, is concerned about harm to his career as a result of being branded an inciter of violence.

They called for a day of civil disobedience, he said, because they felt the city had hamstrung the United for Peace and Justice rally through the permit process to deny them Central Park. A 31 planned to set up “free speech zones” near the convention, but everything was to be nonviolent. Police preempted most of A 31’s planned sit-ins and die-ins by making 1,200 arrests that day, often using large orange nets to sweep in the protesters.

David Solnit, a Bay Area activist who attends protest actions dressed as Robin Hood, heard his photo was on “Nightline.”

“Most of us are fairly pissed [about this],” he said. “I’m a puppeteer and I do nonviolent direct action training. I want to overthrow the system — but most of us are nonviolent.”

Referring to the “Nightline” segment that described the individuals shown as infiltrating groups to provoke violence, Solnit said, “We’re not infiltrating groups — we’re part of a coalition.”

Solnit said he’s been arrested at sit-in protests against war and for clean water and housing. He was arrested for protesting during the R.N.C. and said he at least met some interesting people while incarcerated at Pier 57.

“I got to talk to 100 incredible men,” he said, “Catholic priests from Honduras and a guest of a delegate from the G.O.P. Convention who was arrested who was wearing loafers and slacks.”

Unlike others, Solnit chooses not to call himself an anarchist.

“The label has a lot of baggage with it,” he noted. “Anarchism, for the last 150 years they’ve tried to use the term to scare people.”

The New York Post identified Miriam “Starhawk” Simos, Fithian and Canadian activist Jaggi Singh as “high-profile members of the radical protest movement” who were meeting before the convention to map out a potentially disruptive strategy.

Starhawk, a West Coast Wiccan, or witch, was more amused than anything at being branded a notorious anarchist.

“We were in New York to train people in civil disobedience, which is a long-standing American tradition,” she said. “We show people how to deescalate when dealing with police or angry townspeople.”

Starhawk was arrested during the R.N.C. for blocking the intersection at Herald Sq. while performing a pagan ritual in which seeds were spread on a blanket as an offering to the spirits of the earth.

“If all they could portray as dangerous people coming to town are me and Jaggi and Lisa, they were searching pretty hard,” Starhawk laughed. “They’ve got a 53-year-old woman who’s been preaching nonviolence for 25 years, and Lisa, a union organizer, and Jaggi, who wasn’t even coming to New York. Truly, if these are the most dangerous anarchists in America, people should feel pretty safe.”

While the protesters claim they never intended to shut down the R.N.C., Starhawk, who wrote a book, “How We Shut Down the W.T.O.,” said Seattle was different.

“It deserved to be shut down,” she said. “We shut it down, nonviolently. There were people breaking windows, but we weren’t doing it. There were probably 50 that broke windows, but there were 60,000 people in the streets that prevented the delegates from getting to the W.T.O.”

Fithian, 43, of Austin, Tex., is a member of RANT, or Root Activist Network of Trainers, a coalition member of U.F.P.J. Fithian trains people in civil disobedience and direct action.

“Much of my practice is based on anarchist ideas and principles,” she said.

A veteran of world economic summit protests, she said, “I’ve probably been to more of them than anybody,” rattling off locations, “Seattle, Prague, Genoa, Cancun, Miami, Quebec….”

“It’s basically like slander,” she said of the Post article and “Nightline” segment. “They’re trying to undermine our ability to do our work.”

For her, she said, anarchism is peaceful, summed up by the motto: “Act as you will but harm none.”

There haven’t been many anarchist societies to use as guides, she said, save for the short-lived anarchist government in Spain in the 1930s.

“Anarchism is not well understood — the media portrays it as chaos, violence, out of control. Anarchism is the new war on communism, the new war on drugs.”

Fithian said there is one anarchist faction — really more of a movement or tactic — the Black Bloc, which does engage in property damage, “because they feel money is the only thing these corporations will listen to.” They often will lock arms and wear black masks at protests. However, she said she personally doesn’t advocate breaking windows.

Members of the Black Bloc were accused by police of burning a papier mache dragon while passing Madison Sq. Garden during the big Aug. 29 U.F.P.J. march. But Fithian said it’s the police who represent more of a threat of violence than the anarchists.

“They have the tasers, stun guns, sticks,” she said.

According to the Daily News, Singh “allegedly catapulted teddy bears soaked with gasoline at police at the Quebec G-20 protest in 2001, according to N.Y.P.D. reports.”

“He wasn’t anywhere near the catapults, and the teddy bears weren’t gas-soaked,” said Starhawk. The Post showed a figure it identified as Singh being instructed on using a gun by a radical Black Panther named Toure. In an e-mail statement, Singh said he doesn’t know the man and that the photo is a fake.

Some activists said the Daily News out-Posted the Post for sensationalist coverage of the protesters. Starhawk and others have also raised doubts about the Daily News’ report of an alleged anarchist Web site that instructed protesters to get gunpowder on themselves, then stand next to police dogs in subways to shut down the trains.

“Apparently this came from a high school chat room,” she said, “and the police just used it.”

(Asked about this Web site, a police spokesperson said the N.Y.P.D. doesn’t make things up or “plant things.”)

As well as maligned in the press, there were reports of other anarchists being followed, to the point of harassment. Cindy Rosin, 28, who was an active member of the No R.N.C. Clearinghouse meetings at St. Mark’s Church to organize convention protests, said she assumes she was shown on “Nightline,” though didn’t see the segment.

“I’m guessing that I was, based on the police surveillance I experienced,” she said. (However, Fithian was the only woman shown.) Rosin said she’s not talking publicly about the alleged harassment right now and may take legal action. However, other activists said in one instance Rosin was riding the subway when two agents sat on either side of her and, in an intimidating manner, told her everything she had done for the last several days.

A teacher living in Queens, Rosin also describes herself as an anarchist.

“For me, it’s about creating the world you want to live in, rather than waiting for it to happen,” she said. “Creating gardens, feeding each other, teaching each other, just taking care of each other.”

Tim Doody, another leader of A 31 — though anarchist groups don’t formally have leaders — said his photo was on “Nightline,” and, like Rosin, that he was followed. A writing teacher at Long Island University, he lives on Ninth St. between Fifth and Sixth Aves. In the past, he has protested against the city’s use of Brazilian tropical rainforest wood for its benches and the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian walkway. He said his building superintendent told him that four days before the convention law enforcement agents had asked about him.

“They were questioning people in my building about me — and about my partner,” he said. “And they told people not to tell anyone that they were questioning people about me.”

In addition, Doody said, he was followed, heckled by agents and, in one instance, tailed by a car from an organizing meeting in Red Hook, Brooklyn, to his home by agents who kept flashing their high beams at him.

“It was a very tense week,” he said. “I’m still so paranoid that when I step out on my stoop, I look both ways.”

While many nonanarchists have only a vague understanding of anarchism, anarchists themselves offer differing conceptions of it. Some trace its roots as far back as the origins of Taoism and Buddhism. In the 1880s, the anarchist Working People’s Association in Chicago was the leading proponent of the May Day movement for the eight-hour workday. In 1901, a self-proclaimed anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, assassinated President William McKinley, unleashing a wave of anti-anarchist sentiment in the U.S. Emma Goldman was an icon of American anarchism and feminism in the early 20th century. In 1920, Italian-American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested outside Boston, charged with robbing and killing a shoe factory paymaster and his guard. Their radical politics were a focus of the trial; they were executed in 1927. Fast forward to the 1970s and the Sex Pistols’ punk anthem, “Anarchy in the U.K.,” which saw Johnny Rotten sing, “Don’t know what I want but/I know how to get it/I wanna destroy the passerby/’cause I wanna be anarchy!”

While the link between Tao and punk may not be too apparent, an Aug. 23 teach-in at St. Mark’s Church entitled “What Is Anarchism?” attempted to provide a clearer picture of the many faces of anarchism. David Graeber, a Yale professor of anthropology, who joined Starhawk in the teach-in, sees anarchy basically as the new Marxism.

In addition to the eight-hour workday, anarchists are responsible for Planned Parenthood, Graeber noted. From the 1870s to World War I, anarchism was the main revolutionary movement. After the war and Russian Revolution, “suddenly Marxism seemed a lot more realistic,” Graeber said. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, Soviet communist fell soon after and anarchism suddenly started to see a resurgence. Anti-globalization became one of its main causes.

“As soon as we have a world of peace, anarchism pops right back,” noted Graeber, himself an anarchist. “Most pacifists are anarchists. Gandhi is halfway to being an anarchist. Most Americans are halfway to being anarchists in their hearts. Most Americans don’t really like politicians, think that they’re corrupt and lining their pockets.

“We want to annoy [the powers that be] a lot and make their lives difficult,” he continued. “Events like Seattle, everyone talks about a few windows broken. But they perfected effective methods of nonviolent civil disobedience that shut down a major conference. All the people who would have been Marxists 20 years ago are anarchists. This is the new revolutionary movement — and governments really take it personally.”

So what exactly would an anarchist America look like?

“It wouldn’t be the United States of America,” Graeber said. “It would be an interlocking confederacy. It would be all sorts of things, groups of professionals and syndicates — people might belong to seven or eight.”

What if a foreign power decided to attack?

“It would be harder to conquer a noncentralized country,” Graeber contended, “because you’ve got to do every single community or town out there.”

The No Police State Coalition, a group that has been holding regular speak-outs in Union Sq. for more than a year, was listed by the Daily News among “potentially violent groups identified by the N.Y.P.D.” “Fringe group of anarchists, suspected of planning to spark violence,” the News said of the coalition. During its segment on potentially violent anarchists, “Nightline” showed photos of four of its members, Geoffrey Blank, Joel Meyers, Dennis Griggs and Bob “Loanshark Bob” Marion.

“I’m not an anarchist at all. I consider myself a socialist,” said coalition co-founder Blank, 30. “I think government isn’t inherently bad, it’s who controls the government.” Blank said he is neither a pacifist, in that he will defend himself if attacked. He and his cohorts use an amplified megaphone — but without a permit — three times a week at Union Sq., holding forth on a variety of topics.

“When the Daily News story broke, I was shocked, but not surprised,” he said.

Blank was arrested a few days before and once during the R.N.C. “The goal was to get me off the streets,” he said. “The first time, I hadn’t even used the bullhorn for 15 or 20 minutes. Someone else was using it.

Blank, who lives in Brooklyn, said he was followed by police fairly constantly for two or three weeks before the convention.

“They would ring my bell at night,” he said. “My friend told me they were checking to see if I was home.”

Meyers is a hardcore East Village Marxist, Griggs believes U.S. presidents are descended from the English royal family and Hitler and Marion has affiliated with neo-Nazis and espouses a theory of “povercide” — that the poor are being killed through poverty — to all who will listen. Marion recently won a settlement from the city for being locked up in Bellevue and injected with tranquilizers after he went on a povercide rant when his appointment for a circumcision was cancelled.

However, John Penley, an East Village activist, who has observed Meyers and Marion around Tompkins Sq. for years said they are “more loudmouths than anything.” But one source said Blank is quite capable of “starting a riot.”

“This was a whole planned propaganda strategy by the Police Department just to scare people away, to keep numbers down and demonize protesters,” Penley said, “to justify the massive violation of people’s rights during the convention.”

So what do local elected officials think of anarchists’ goal of eliminating all government? Councilmember Margarita Lopez, for one, said she’s not sure it would work.

“It’s a little difficult to run business without some structure,” she said. “The word ‘anarchy’ comes to mind…. It’s a wonderful idea.”

On second thought, Lopez said, “It looks like the Republican Party — less government, power to the people; though at the same time Bush is the same guy who says you don’t have the right to choose or who you can marry…. I just realized,” she said, “perhaps the president is an anarchist.”

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