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LOCAL Commentary :: Miscellaneous

Virginia Anarchist Gathering reportback

From October 20 to 23, 2005, the Rising Up Collective of Harrisonburg hosted the first ever Virginia Anarchist Gathering. The purpose of the conference was to share ideas and build skills and networks among anarchists in the Virginia area.
(includes important info on police surveillance)
A Report-back from the first Virginia Anarchist Gathering
(these being the opinions of one of the Gathering’s organizers)

From October 20 to 23, 2005, the Rising Up Collective of Harrisonburg hosted the first ever Virginia Anarchist Gathering. The purpose of the conference was to share ideas and build skills and networks among anarchists in the Virginia area.

Organizing
The idea to host a Virginia Anarchist Gathering came up in May or June, at a meeting of the Rising Up Collective, a small group of anarchists and anti-authoritarians engaged in a variety of projects in Harrisonburg, Virginia. A working group formed to brainstorm a vision for the conference, which they presented to other anti-authoritarians from across Virginia in late June at the People United activist gathering. The working group used the loose network formed at that presentation to coordinate logistical support for the Anarchist Gathering. Activists in other cities helped publicize the Gathering, or gather food and other materials, in their areas, while Rising Up organizers made field trips to other cities to distribute flyers and spread the word. Additionally, organizers publicized the Gathering and solicited workshops over a website they created, and with announcements posted on local Indymedia sites, or in radical publications such as Fifth Estate. The logistical tasks necessary for the Anarchist Gathering were divided and organizers volunteered to coordinate each particular area—Housing, Publicity, Fundraising, Food, Childcare, Transportation, Registration & Website.

At weekly meetings, coordinators updated the group on their work and sought feedback, and then the group as a whole discussed and decided other matters, such as the schedule of the conference, venues and other logistics, workshops, and so on. Early on, we made a list of workshops we wanted to see covered, and contacted activists capable of presenting these workshops, or found members of the group willing to facilitate them. A major chore for the group was to come up with policies about security culture (keeping everyone safe from the cops during the gathering), anti-oppression (creating safe spaces and coming up with ways to address racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist or classist behaviors), and drugs and alcohol. The policies are still up on our website, www.signalfire.org/VAG

We conducted each meeting with a facilitator, note-taker, and vibes-watcher, with these positions rotating from one meeting to the next, and each meeting ended with a feelings check for people to express how they felt, give criticisms, or address grievances. The feelings checks helped the group survive the stress inevitably generated by all the work to be done. With a core group of about ten activists, we put the conference together with just four months of work. Virginia, and Harrisonburg in particular, doesn’t have much fo a history of anarchist activity or networking, so we had to build everything from scratch, and also realize an ambitious vision for the conference. Some of us were interested not only in jump-starting anarchist networks across Virginia, but also revolutionizing how anarchists use conferences. Nearly half of the activists who put the conference together had never been involved in explicitly anarchist organizing before, and their involvement has increased their interest and sense of belonging in the anarchist movement.

In the lead-up to the Anarchist Gathering, we used contacts in the local media, cultivated from past experiences of activist projects in Harrisonburg, and got ourselves good coverage and publicity, including a fair article in the local paper, and a one hour live interview on a major radio station, exposing many people in the area to the anarchist movement, without the typical filters used to paint anarchists with the usual stereotypes. Ahead of time, we planned strategically, to minimize our vulnerabilities from potentially bad media exposure. In the end, the small conservative media proved much fairer than major liberal media would have been.

The Conference
The conference started on Thursday, October 20, with registration and a DIY (do-it-yourself) skillshare in the afternoon. Unfortunately, though we had gotten prior suggestions to make the conference longer than just a weekend to allow for more activities and more time for participants to get to know one another, almost no one from out-of-town came until later on Friday. Because of this, the workshops received the central emphasis of the Gathering, while we had wanted skill-building activities, community activities, and social time to take a leading role. The skillshare was very small and sedate, and mostly involved us organizers sitting around and wondering if anyone would come. The evening’s event, Anarchy 101 on the campus of James Madison University, was much better. Thirty people attended, mostly students who had heard about it and wanted to learn more about anarchism. The presenters did a good job of relating anarchist history, theory, and practice, and most students stayed for two hours of discussion and had good things to say at the end (including: “until now, I thought anarchists weren’t intelligent, but now I can see you’ve really thought it out?).

On Friday morning a small group of people went hiking. Harrisonburg is in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley, surrounded on both sides by mountains, and we envisioned the hiking as a good way to relax and allow strangers at the conference to get to know one another. Every Friday afternoon in Harrisonburg, Food Not Bombs cooks and serves a meal, and we incorporated this into the Gathering, inviting out-of-towners to help cook, eat, or participate in a literature distro. Afterwards, we had an opening circle for people to introduce themselves, although perhaps this happened too quickly and didn’t allow enough time to break the ice. That night we had more social time—a show featuring local and out-of-town folk and indy rock bands.

On Saturday, we had workshops at the Broad St. Mennonite Church. The church belongs to a fairly progressive congregation, and it’s located in the middle of one of Harrisonburg’s older working class neighborhoods—we had most of our daytime events there. There were fourteen workshops on Saturday and Sunday, happening three at a time, with half an hour in between them. They were Trans Liberation: Becoming Effective Allies; Anti-Prison Organizing; Treating Medical Emergencies in the Field; an Anarchist People of Color circle; Anti-Racism for White Folks; Self-Defense for Activists; Communal Justice in Indigenous Societies; The Eight Biggest Challenges to Sustaining Anarchist Collectives; Starting a Radical Social Center; Security Culture; the Menstruation Liberation Front; Grupo Allavio: Direct Action and Counterinformation in Argentina; The Dialectic of Capital Accumulation and Popular Liberation Struggles; and Revolutionary Strategy. All the workshops I saw were well done, and many had an important emphasis on thinking strategically. For Saturday afternoon we planned several community service activities for people to take part in—either collecting and distributing supplies and Spanish-language materials to migrant laborers at near-by apple camps, or helping Harrisonburg Copwatch complete a survey on community perceptions and interactions with the police in a neighborhood targeted for intensive patrolling. In planning these community service projects, we were inspired by “Fix Shit Up? actions planned by anarchists at past protests, particularly the anti-G8 protest in Georgia or the Republican National Convention protest in New York City. During this time, folks also had the option of going on a tour of Radical Roots, a local permaculture/sustainable ag farm run by anarchists who have actually created something tangible and sustaining.

On Saturday night, we planned direct-action-skills games, and a campfire/drum circle, though the latter got cancelled. About half the people at the conference stayed out in the cold for the games, which was promising. Conference organizers had devised the games as a way of practicing potentially useful direct action skills—moving as a bloc, unarresting fellow protestors, surveillance, etc.—and instilling the Gathering with a seriousness and a sense of the importance of building the skills to make our movement more capably militant. The first game, in which some of us volunteered to be cops on bikes and on foot, while everyone else was an anarchist bloc attempting to elude the police and move from one part of the city to another, made for good physical exercise but descended into silliness, at least in part because of the rawness of the game. Afterwards, we came up with ways to make the game more realistic, should anyone try to play it again in the future. The next game was unarresting, and we got some good practice figuring out how to keep the “cops? from snatching targeted members of our group. After that we practiced some group formations and movements. Most people were ready to quit by midnight, before we were able to get a whole lot of practice in, and unfortunately most participants went out to drink and party rather than to get sleep before Sunday’s workshops.

For Sunday morning we had planned a Virginia Anarchist Gathering meeting, to get feedback and discuss who, if anyone, would host the next Gathering in a year. Unfortunately, most everyone slept in and the meeting did not happen. People were so late, the first workshops of the day, scheduled to start at 11am, had to be pushed back, and still few enough people came that one workshop in each of the two slots that day had to be cancelled for lack of attendance. The Gathering ended that afternoon, but most people had already left before the end of the last workshop.

In some ways the Gathering was successful, and in other ways left much to be desired. Seventy people came, fifty of them from out-of-town (across Virginia, DC, Baltimore, and West Virginia), which was impressive given a number of factors (lack of prior networks, Harrisonburg not being a major city, etc.). We provided housing for everyone and served two free meals a day, and hosted a number of good workshops. We also used all the people coming into town to give needed help to local organizing projects, through the community service activities. Ultimately, we possibly set in motion an ongoing network for anarchists in and around Virginia. And hopefully, our failures will lead to useful lessons for the anarchist movement.

Lessons
1. As you’ve probably gathered from the last few paragraphs, one of my major criticisms of the Gathering is a lack of seriousness among many anarchists today. I think many anarchists, especially white anarchists, have yet to acknowledge the existence of a social war that surrounds them. Revolution means war against the state, and a lack of revolution means constant war by the state against oppressed peoples. Many of us white anarchists prioritize having fun, and such an attitude means when it comes down to it, we will probably avoid revolutionary struggle in favor of posturing. I know many revolutionaries of color who are drawn to Maoism, not because they are authoritarian, but because Mao was serious. Anarchists need to prove that we too are serious. That so many people were unable to give up drinking for just one weekend makes me skeptical as to our chances. Additionally, Gathering organizers announced multiple times that we would appreciate feedback forms (feedback questionnaires had been included in everyone’s registration packet) but in the end I think only one person ever took the time to fill this out and give it to us. A shortage of especially men volunteering to cook or help us with other logistics also indicates a lack of seriousness, although we the organizers could have done a much better job of communicating our needs.

2. Related to the question of seriousness is a problem that arose during one of the direct action games. The game was “Moving as a Bloc,? and the purpose was for a group of about twenty people to move through the city from Point A to Point B, while five “cops? tried to stop them. If a certain number of cops stood in front of them, the way was considered blocked. The main purpose of the game was to figure out and practice effective decision-making strategies to guide the movement of the group. One person suggested that, among other roles, there be a leader appointed by the group to make split-second calls when needed. Before that person finished speaking, other participants booed him and countered with such slogans as “Anarchy means no leaders.? Others launched into lengthy polemic speeches. This was the only time during the entire Gathering I saw such disrespectful communication. The group eventually decided to adopt some form of consensus decision-making using delegates from smaller affinity groups. Something about this confuses me. The experience of democratic states shows that “delegates? or representatives are no less authoritarian than a single leader. To take it from another angle, while organizing the Gathering we divided tasks under different coordinators. The overall vision of the Gathering was consensed on as a group, but when it came to specific logistical details regarding publicity, as publicity coordinator I alone made the decision. Was that authoritarian, as long as my decisions were in the spirit of the group’s vision? Similarly, if a group uses consensus to agree on an objective, and distributes tasks (scouts, communications, movement leader) to people trusted as having certain skills, is it authoritarian for a person elected as movement leader to decide whether the group turns left or right at a certain intersection, when going towards a goal set by the entire group? Even when any member of the group can choose not to follow the directions (thus exercising a “block?), because the “leader? has no coercive authority, and is thus not actually a leader in the authoritarian sense? Some of us joked afterwards that everyone would have been fine with the suggestion if the person had called for a “movement coordinator? instead of a “movement leader.? The spirit of consensus is best served by different processes in different situations. I wonder if anyone noticed how poorly delegate meetings worked in this situation, or if they were more concerned about preserving a certain cultural purity than actually being effective. Every single time the group stopped to hold a meeting, those participants who were the cops were able to surround them. They would have lost the game many times, but instead they simply chose to stop following the rules (“fuck rules,? said one) and just run past the cops (who, if real, would have had weapons and handcuffs), effectively sabotaging the game, and obstructing their own learning process. The fact that so few people realized the total lunacy of holding meetings in a combat situation suggests to me that most white anarchists simply plan on avoiding combat situations.

3. Like so many other anarchist events, the Virginia Anarchist Gathering was not the most welcoming place for newcomers. All of us anarchists need to get better at leaving our cliques, opening up social spaces, and meeting strangers. One of the most important parts of anarchist events is to build relationships, to found networks on, and base our work in. Continuing to be insular and clique-ish won’t help us much. Though I could pretend to have the excuse of being busy all weekend, this is one of the things I have a lot of trouble with personally—just going up to strangers and getting to know them. It falls mostly on the organizers to create a welcoming atmosphere, but since we are busy and stressed out with logistics, that’s something other folks attending the conference could help us with—making sure that no one is sitting alone or unwelcome. At one point on Saturday, I spotted S., a new friend whom I had invited to the Gathering. He was excited about it, but since he has never participated in the anarchist movement before I was surprised to see him actually show up at the church. When I talked to him, he had been there just fifteen minutes, but he was angry and already about to leave. He said no one there was friendly, no one had said hello to him, and he didn’t feel welcome. S. is black, in his thirties, and identifies more with a hip-hop culture than with punk or any other culture evident in the white segments of the anarchist movement. I introduced him to some people and hung out with him for a while, and he ended up having a good time, but had come so close to leaving with a deservedly horrible impression of the anarchist movement. To a lesser extent, older activists and non-punk activists I spoke with also felt excluded. So just remember a time when you were in a different cultural space, remember the last time you felt totally out of place (at a church service? at the gym?), and realize how noticeable culture is when you’re in a foreign one. Then, next time you’re at an anarchist event, do a better job of welcoming in strangers.

4. Related to this problem of culture is the unfortunate fact that the Virginia Anarchist Gathering lacked the diversity that our movement needs. The vast majority of participants were young white people. The conference organizers tried to encourage anarchists of color to attend in a few ways. We gave people of color priority in accepting and scheduling workshops, and gave prominent space to an Anarchist People of Color circle. In doing so we took shit from several white anarchists and environmentalists, most of whom it seems did not end up attending the Gathering, though we patiently explained to each of them the need for those policies, and how they did not amount to “reverse racism.? We also pushed the Gathering back two weekends so it would not coincide with the APOC conference in Houston. And we made most gathering spaces alcohol-free, since the presence and abuse of alcohol has often been a reason indigenous activists have not participated in an event, given the history of alcohol as a tool for oppression. To enable lower-income people to attend, we offered travel scholarships and put the registration fee on a voluntary sliding scale from $0-20. But in the end, measures like this are not the most effective at including anti-authoritarians of color into mostly white anarchist events, for a number of reasons. As long as it is still a white culture at anarchist events (see the previous paragraph) and we don’t welcome outsiders and open up spaces for other cultures, our events are likely to stay pretty homogenous. Also, effective cross-cultural outreach can’t happen on a statewide level. In Harrisonburg, we were hoping local groups across the state would do good outreach in their own areas to invite activists of color, but the networks were not yet in place to coordinate this, and I think in most localities around here white anarchists just don’t have those relationships yet. If we’re not including anti-authoritarians of color in our own local organizing, and being effective allies for their organizing, then most likely very few radical people of color will come to what in the end are “our? events.

5. We tried to employ a good usage of security culture for the Virginia Anarchist Gathering, and I think we did a decent job. We also learned some things about police surveillance that should be of interest to the entire anarchist movement. To start with, our security policy asked people not to talk about any past or planned illegal actions in any Gathering spaces, and not to have any illegal drugs or paraphernalia in any Gathering spaces, because it simply was not safe to do so, given an expected increase in police attention. We banned law enforcement and military intelligence personnel from the Gathering, and also asked people not to speculate about police infiltration and undercover agents for the following reason. In an open Gathering it’s impossible to stop police surveillance. If there is an obvious undercover, that agent’s purpose is intimidation, not spying. Creating a paranoid atmosphere cripples our work, and can make newcomers or those without the proper punk fashions feel like everyone thinks they’re cops. In the past, police have deliberately tried to paint legitimate activists as infiltrators by spreading rumours.

Shortly after the Gathering started, police approached two organizers putting up a sign. They told them to take down the sign, demonstrated a knowledge of the Gathering, and joked that they would come by when they were off duty. At around the same time, conference organizers who were also involved in starting an anarchist club at James Madison University found out from student organization staff at the university that state police had contacted JMU police asking for information on the Virginia Anarchist Gathering (part of which was held on JMU). Early on in the Gathering there was some obvious police surveillance by police cruisers driving by, or stopping and watching. We began to keep a police log (writing down car numbers, etc.), and conduct surreptitious counter-surveillance. We tried to do so in a very calm manner to avoid creating an atmosphere of fear. Shortly, overt police surveillance stopped, though we had some indications the police switched to unmarked cars. At the opening circle on Friday, we shared this information with conference participants, and also told everyone the Harrisonburg police were typically laid back about such things and we didn’t expect any trouble. After the Gathering, we found out from a sympathetic JMU employee more information about the state police investigation. They had asked for names of organizers and also mentioned that the Virginia Anarchist Gathering had been “flagged? by Homeland Security, suggesting both that intelligence and counterintelligence against the anarchist movement is on the government’s counter-terrorism to-do list, and that to some extent these activities are being coordinated on a national scale. Terrorism-related subpoenas and Joint Terrorism Task Forces have been used in recent times against anarchists across the country. We should begin sharing this information more effectively to keep ourselves appraised of government activity designed to repress us.
 
 


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