"Fighting against amnesia"
Movement Histories of Another Politics
In part, capitalism and oppression rule through what we call "the social organization of forgetting," which is based on the annihilation of our social and historical memories . . . . This social organization of forgetting is crucial to the way in which social power works in our society. We no longer remember the past struggles that won us the social gains, social programs, and human rights that we now often take for granted.
Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile
At one point during my conversation with Clare Bayard, she beautifully laid out the essential basis for any discussion of movements and radical politics. As an organizer and educator with the Catalyst Project in San Francisco, Bayard assists activist groups all over the United States with political education and organizational development. Based on her experience, she has a finely honed appreciation for history-telling and a grounded understanding of how rarely it happens, even in movement spaces. "I'm always trying to fight against this historical amnesia of 'this is just the moment that exists by itself,'" Bayard explained.
This sort of amnesia-an experience of the present detached from the past-is pervasive in North America, common in schools, politics, and media. As activist-scholars Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile suggest, systematic forgetting is deeply connected to the organization and administration of power in our society. Given this, it's not terribly surprising that movements-and writings about them-are frequently afflicted by historical amnesia. Resisting forgetting is rarely easy, even for those of us engaged in collective struggles for justice and dignity. Remembering requires conscious, dedicated work.
This chapter is an effort to fight against amnesia. Over the last decade, there has been a lot of talk about the "new radicalism" or the "new anarchism."1 While I don't deny that there is a quality of newness to recent anti-authoritarian activity, the backstory is much more complicated. Another politics bears the imprints of many previous political experiences and traditions. It has also been importantly shaped by the more recent convergence of a variety of radical politics and broader-based movements. To properly understand the contemporary anti-authoritarian current, then, we have to look at the histories that have produced it and continue to animate it.
There isn't a linear story to tell here. When it comes to movements, there rarely is. I've found that a more useful way to understand the histories leading into the anti-authoritarian current is to trace influential strands of politics and struggle.2 These strands weave in and out, often intertwining in unexpected ways and sometimes temporarily receding from view. In this chapter, I sketch a brief history of the more significant, longer running strands that have shaped another politics. In looking closely at these, we can see how past movements have catalyzed and carried constellations of ideas and practices that are still widely used by activists today. With this sketch in hand, I then turn to three particularly crucial strands that have converged in recent decades: anti-racist feminism, prison abolitionism, and anarchism. This convergence, in my view, has laid the basis for what is emerging as another politics in the United States and Canada, shaping its development through movements and mobilizations from the early 2000s into the present.
Many movements and lineages of struggle have created visions of social transformation and revolutionary strategies to achieve those visions. What has historically distinguished anti-authoritarian politics is its determination to fight colonialism, capitalism, and the state-form (and, over time, other systems of oppression) while putting liberatory visions into practice. This two-part orientation, the combined "against" and "beyond" that I discuss more in the following chapters, is the anti-authoritarian kernel that has been nourished through many seasons of struggle.
We should begin with Indigenous resistance to European colonization. Anti-authoritarian politics, in significant but mostly unexplored ways, strongly resonates with certain lineages of anti-colonial struggle across the globe. Such resistance is over five hundred years old, stretching from the Arawak peoples' efforts to survive after the invasion led by Christopher Columbus to eighteenth-century fugitive African slave communities in what is now Brazil to contemporary struggles of the Ogoni in Nigeria and the Kanien'kehaka (Mohawks) across Ontario, Quebec, and New York.3 Many Indigenous peoples have sustained forms of social organization without-and, at times, against-state structures and capitalist relations, and some continue to do so.4 While non-Indigenous movements have historically had an uneasy relationship with this strand of resistance, it has impacted them nonetheless, especially in Canada and in some regions of the United States. More than any other lineage of resistance in North America, Indigenous struggles for self-determination have consistently challenged the territorial control of nation-states, offered a living alternative to private property, and foregrounded colonialism as an ongoing system of domination.
We can trace another strand from abolitionism, the movement to abolish slavery and free slaves of African descent. Abolitionism grew out of the efforts of enslaved Black people to resist slaveholders and slaveholder institutions throughout the Americas. In the late eighteenth century, it emerged more coherently as a movement through the diligent efforts of Black and white anti-slavery activists. In North America, abolitionists organized speaking tours and conventions, published newspapers and pamphlets, and assisted with direct action initiatives such as the Underground Railroad. Their efforts also inspired a wave of groundbreaking feminist political activity. Drawing on Christianity, the radical wing of the abolitionist movement combined commitments to confronting slaveholding forces, enacting values of racial equality, and overturning the white supremacist social order. Ultimately, the movement managed to spark a civil war with impacts that still echo into the present.5 Abolitionism also helped to inaugurate a tradition of Black freedom struggle that has carried powerfully through subsequent movements and steadily highlighted race as a key social fault line.6 As well, it has left an enduring legacy of morally charged radicalism oriented toward egalitarian principles rather than seemingly fixed realities of oppression.
We can trace yet another strand from nineteenth-century Europe, where working-class movements emerged on an unprecedented scale. Growing out of labor struggles, these movements created the context for a socialist milieu with a vibrant patchwork of organizations, campaigns, and publications. Radicals in this milieu were united by the goal of achieving a society beyond capitalism, but they differed on how to get there. Indeed, the second part of the nineteenth century saw major debates around this question among socialist revolutionaries, most famously between Karl Marx and the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. While many in the developing Marxist tendency looked to seize state power as an instrument to create an egalitarian society, anarchists aimed to abolish state power and develop nonstate ways of organizing societies. "The marxians argue that only dictatorship-theirs, of course-can establish the people's freedom," wrote Bakunin. However, "no dictatorship can have any aim other than lasting as long as it can . . . : freedom can be conjured only by freedom, that is to say, by uprising by the entire people and by free organization of the toiling masses from the bottom up."7 This stance, fundamental to anarchism, is a prefigurative one: the means (popular struggle and deeply democratic organization) must be consistent with the ends (a free and egalitarian society). It has had a lasting influence.
Another important source of debate in the socialist milieu had to do with the centrality of capitalism and class. Many socialists argued that capitalism is the primary system of social domination and that all other forms of oppression have developed from it. Some socialist dissidents challenged this idea, suggesting that forms of oppression based on race and gender have their own autonomous logics even as they dynamically interact with capitalism. During the first part of the twentieth century, these debates concerned what were frequently known as the "National Question," the "Negro Question," and the "Woman Question" among communists, though they often went by other terms among unaffiliated socialists and anarchists. At times, they created spaces for innovative forms of anti-capitalist organizing and thinking against patriarchy and racism. For the most part, however, these were unresolved debates in the socialist milieu, including its anti-authoritarian wing. They would come up again and again in subsequent upsurges of struggle, and continue to remain central today.8
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were times of massive strikes, widespread organizing in factories and communities, regular street clashes between workers and police, and growing revolutionary sentiments. In the midst of all this, anarchism emerged as an important political current in working-class movements. What distinguished anarchists from other radicals in these movements was their opposition to capitalism, landlordism, and the state as fundamental forms of domination, as well as their commitment to self-management, mutual aid, and social equality. Anarchism quickly developed a global character. Propelled by migration and circulations of struggle, it came to flourish not only in Europe but also in the Americas, Asia, Australia, and, to a limited extent, Africa. This era's anarchist politics and movements, at their best, represented a nonstatist form of socialism rooted in working-class and peasant communities. They generated a political strand that has woven through many subsequent anti-authoritarian efforts.9
During the first decades of the twentieth century, this politics found something of a home in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a militant labor union active in the United States and Canada. Founded in 1905, the IWW organized expansively, developing campaigns among textile workers in Massachusetts and New Jersey, teamsters in British Columbia, lumber workers in the northwestern and the southeastern United States, miners in Nevada and northern Ontario, and many others. Through this work, the IWW crafted new forms of bottom-up organizing, particularly among those whom other unions considered "unorganizable." And they sought to enact their values-democracy, equality, and solidarity-in the form of their organizing efforts, whether by resisting racial segregation and anti-immigrant sentiments, organizing women workers, or insisting on direct democracy and direct action.10 In line with this, radicals in IWW described one of their core aims as building "the new society in the shell of the old."11 This continues to be an influential prefigurative formulation.
The IWW declined significantly as it faced state repression during World War I and as many radicals gravitated into Communist parties during the 1920s and 1930s. By the 1940s and 1950s, however, a new anarchist-influenced current was emerging. Inspired by the Christian radical Leo Tolstoy and the Indian anti-colonial leader Mohandas Gandhi, small circles of faith-based activists combined elements of anarchism and socialism with a deep commitment to nonviolence, known as pacifism. They built organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the War Resisters League (WRL). They also formulated a prefigurative politics based on living and acting in accordance with their radical values. As part of this, they used the tactic of civil disobedience (intentionally breaking laws to show that they are unjust) and a Quaker decision-making practice called "consensus" (making decisions through collective deliberation and unanimous consent).
While the United States and its allies faced off with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, these small groups of radical pacifists steadfastly resisted militarism and helped lay the basis for the much broader peace movement that began to emerge in the late 1950s. Drawing on the legacy of abolitionism, some of these activists also helped to shape a new upsurge in the Black freedom struggle that would eventually become known as the civil rights movement. Although they had participated in struggles against racial segregation beginning in the early 1940s, white and Black organizers from FOR and the WRL played especially crucial roles in advising African American community activists in Montgomery, Alabama, when these activists launched a landmark boycott campaign to desegregate buses in 1955. In the following years, radical pacifists ran influential nonviolence workshops throughout the southern United States and assisted in developing the strategies that would come to define the movement.12
As much as civil rights movement activists adopted practices from radical pacifism, they also reinvented them. This was especially true in the wing of the movement associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Growing out of the wave of southern student sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters, SNCC was founded in 1960 by mostly young African Americans with assistance from two older Black radicals, FOR activist James Lawson and longtime community organizer Ella Baker. SNCC grew into an organizational center for anti-racist direct action and community organizing across the South during the first part of the sixties.
Part of what distinguished SNCC from other leading civil rights organizations was its commitment to a kind of participatory democratic practice and nonhierarchical organizational culture. Early on, Baker described this as an "inclination toward group-centered leadership, rather than toward a leader-centered group pattern of organization."13 Instead of relying on charismatic leaders, SNCC activists tried to organize in ways that rested on broad, egalitarian participation and collective problem-solving and decision-making. With SNCC, this was no lofty political commitment; it grew out of the experiences of organizers working to build unity and power in Black communities under the constant threat of racist violence.
SNCC also worked to enact a transformative culture, often known as the "beloved community," in which people organized together in racially integrated groups on a basis of equality and respect. In their efforts, they attempted to challenge and change social relations of white supremacy, particularly racial segregation. While there were real limitations on how much SNCC activists could achieve given the tremendous historical weight of racism, they made an enormous contribution to organizing Black communities in the South and to undermining white supremacy. They also offered, by example, a revolutionary vision of how people could relate with one another, individually and collectively. SNCC, along with others in the civil rights movement, inspired and galvanized people across the United States and north of the border as well.14
The Third World Explosion
As the Black freedom movement erupted in the United States, a wave of anti-colonial resistance was radiating across the Third World. This wave grew out of liberation movements that won national independence in Latin America during the nineteenth century and in Asia and Africa during the twentieth century. These movements, from Bolivia to India, developed new forms of revolutionary struggle and consciousness, often drawing on-and reshaping-socialist politics.15 In the period following World War II, these efforts accelerated and spread. By the early 1960s, the world was on fire: the Vietnamese resisted French and then U.S. military occupations, the Cubans overthrew a U.S. puppet dictatorship, and the people of Angola fought Portuguese colonial rule, among many other struggles. In these circumstances, recently decolonized countries and anti-colonial movements crafted a set of politics and sensibilities of Third World liberation that circulated widely.16
Black freedom struggles in North America and anti-colonial struggles in the Third World, mutually influencing each other, propelled racism and colonialism onto the center stage. This confluence significantly catalyzed the movements of the period known as "the sixties" (really, the late 1950s through the mid-1970s). As part of this, revolutionaries across the globe combined elements of socialism, anti-racism, and anti-colonialism into a more generalized form of anti-imperialism that became a leading political orientation on the left.17 This orientation was very generative politically, but it also had problems. One was that it associated effectiveness and militancy with hierarchical, highly masculinized forms of organization. Pushing aside the nonhierarchical practices and culture that SNCC had developed, this association deeply influenced the central leadership structure that many revolutionary organizations came to use.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) played a key role in honing and popularizing this anti-imperialist orientation and its organizational prescriptions. Launched in 1966 in Oakland, California, the BPP combined confrontational challenges with state authorities, organizing in African American communities, and the development of needs-based counterinstitutions. As their popularity grew, BPP chapters sprang up all over the United States. With their success, the BPP also faced intense state surveillance, harassment, and violence, which compounded the already-strong tendency toward centralization in the organization.18 It is a testament to their courage and vision that they managed to sustain a powerful prefigurative dimension in their work while contending with this targeted disruption.19
Ashanti Alston, who was active in the BPP and then in the underground Black Liberation Army, described this dimension in his experiences:
It [the BPP] gave me, and a whole lot of us, a way to start transforming our lives into what we envisioned a revolutionary life would be-one in combat against this system, and at the same time, [one focused on] creating the kind of new society that we wanted. That's pretty much what we were doing. The free breakfast programs, the free clothing programs, the free clinics was also our way of getting people to envision, in the richest country in the world, the possibility that all of this could be, should be, must be free. And that was heavy stuff. And I know them programs, way more than our guns, was what attracted so many especially Black people to the Party.
These programs, carried out by dedicated Panther volunteers, provided free meals, clothes, and healthcare in Black communities across the United States. And they weren't simply social services; building on longstanding African American traditions of mutual aid and echoing the IWW, the Panthers called them "survival programs pending revolution."20 These programs met immediate popular needs, challenged social relations of scarcity and subordination, and laid infrastructure for a new society. At the same time, the BPP created a context for people to reimagine and transform themselves.21 As Alston recalled, there were broad discussions in the BPP about "the new man" and "the new woman," as well as efforts to develop common expectations about how people should treat one another. "In a way," he pointed out, "we were augmenting Black cultural, even religious, traditions of 'brother/sister,' and the survival/liberatory aspects of Black communal church."These were crucial contributions.
Taking inspiration from the BPP, activists in the United States and Canada launched Asian, Black, Chicano, First Nations and American Indian, poor white, Puerto Rican, Québécois, and other liberation movements.22 In various ways, they drew on the BPP model to build organizations oriented to both fighting the system and serving their communities. Together, their efforts transformed social relations of white supremacy, which many activists understood as deeply connected to capitalism, while also foregrounding the importance of struggles by racially oppressed people. As well, these movements developed a collective revolutionary imagination and concrete relationships of solidarity that linked struggles from Havana to Harlem, Algiers to Montreal, Beijing to Oakland, Hanoi to Toronto.23
Liberation Movements Multiply
These anti-racist movements created a context for the emergence of other liberation struggles in the United States and Canada.24 The civil rights movement, particularly the wing associated with SNCC, was especially crucial in catalyzing the student movement. Starting in the early 1960s, leading white student activists began looking to southern organizing as a source of inspiration. In the United States, many of these activists joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In Canada, many were or became involved in, first, the Student Union for Peace Action and, later, groups affiliated with the Canadian Union of Students and Students for a Democratic University.
Through experiences of campus occupations, activist conferences, and community organizing experiments, student activists worked to create their own participatory democratic practices in which everyone had a say in decisions. Growing out of their vision of a more thoroughly democratic society and their understanding of the movement in the southern United States, these activists also developed collective sensibilities that favored embodying their values in their work and relationships. And as student radicals helped to launch the movement against the war in Vietnam, they brought these practices and sensibilities with them.
By the late 1960s, such prefigurative commitments were widespread in the New Left, as the convergence of sixties movements is often called. In 1969, former SDS president Greg Calvert posed a question on the minds of many young radicals: "What are the embryonic forms of revolutionary society which must be created, however embryonically, as we work?"25 Activists across North America developed answers to this question through all sorts of practical experiments, including institutions such as food co-ops and underground newspapers, revolutionary formations such as collectives and national organizations, new ways of organizing daily life such as housing co-ops and intentional communities, and countercultural values that emphasized freedom, self-determination, and cooperation.26
There were also strains in the New Left. Activists grappled with combining efficacy and liberatory aspirations in the face of daunting challenges of strategy and direction. Some, in the search for effectiveness, turned to Leninist forms of politics and organization with very limited space for prefigurative concerns.27 In the late 1960s, this turn took one or another of two main forms. Some radicals, through groups such as I Wor Kuen, the October League, and En Lutte, chose to focus on building revolutionary parties through mass organizing.28 Others, through groups such as the Black Liberation Army, the Front de libération du Québec, and the Weather Underground, turned to forms of armed struggle in the hopes of advancing further waves of mass movement.29 The BPP, SDS, and other groups experienced splits along these and related lines.30
Both orientations-party-building and armed struggle-grew out of activists' dedication to social transformation and shared desires for more seriousness and organization. They had substantial impacts as well. The party-builders contributed to organizing work in communities and workplaces, and the armed groups managed to create instability for governing institutions. But these orientations also had real limitations. Indeed, while debates between the two camps were often bitter, they shared striking similarities: they were based on troubling vanguardist revolutionary models, they frequently romanticized anti-imperialist movements in the Third World, and they often formulaically sought to import forms of organization and strategy from elsewhere. Most importantly, both orientations became more and more disconnected from the societies in which they struggled, and neither managed to build the revolutionary movements that they wanted. In their successes and their failures, however, they posed a key question: How can radicals, as small minorities in North America, take action that meaningfully moves toward large-scale social transformation? This question remains pressing.
The women's liberation movement developed out of another problem in the New Left: its failure to live up to its stated commitment to egalitarianism.31 One of the most striking ways this manifested was that, in New Left groups, men dominated highly valued leadership roles while women were frequently relegated to less-valued secretarial and caregiving work. Inspired by the Black freedom struggle, predominately white women activists started consciousness-raising groups to discuss these kinds of experiences of oppression in not only left organizations but also society more generally. These efforts blossomed by the late 1960s into a movement that named its enemy as patriarchy and began to develop a shared feminist politics. Activists in the movement created bookstores, publications, and organizations. They turned violence against women into a political issue, and built rape crisis centers and women's shelters. They also targeted institutions perpetuating and profiting from patriarchy, such as beauty pageants, bridal fairs, and even Wall Street.
Many in the radical wing of the women's liberation movement worked against the cultures and organizational models that they had experienced in other movements. They challenged dominant ideas of leadership, decision-making, and organizing, and began developing nonhierarchical approaches. Working in small groups, they built relationships with one another through shared experiences and used informal kinds of consensus to make collective decisions. They also introduced new ways of thinking about what counts as politics. With the slogan "the personal is political," feminist activists claimed what were previously considered private, everyday experiences in women's lives (sex, child-raising, housework) as arenas for collective action. The movement thus challenged not only patriarchal relations, but also many prevailing assumptions on the left.
These efforts, while groundbreaking, had their problems too. Sometimes opposition to hierarchies in the movement manifested as feminists "trashing" (publicly denouncing) those who took on leadership roles or who were designated as leaders by the media. Other times it manifested as a general rejection of formal structure and organization, a practice that frequently contributed to informal leadership cliques rather than equal participation in organizing.32 And even as feminist activists brought a new quality of attention to the ways in which power relations are reproduced in movements, many who were white and class-privileged overlooked how they were implicated in relations of race and class. Women of color feminists, as I discuss further below, pushed at these limitations and sparked crucial movement debates. As the women's liberation movement wrestled with these challenges, activists insisted on bringing their values and aspirations into their lives. This is a vital legacy.33
Like the women's liberation movement, the gay and lesbian movement was nourished by a broader context of liberation struggles. Although there were earlier sparks in San Francisco and elsewhere, a widely acknowledged initial flashpoint for this movement was the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969, when Black and Puerto Rican drag queens, lesbians, and gay street people physically resisted a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar. Riots continued for several nights afterward.34 In the aftermath, people radicalized by these events joined with gay and lesbian activists influenced by their experiences in other liberation movements. Together, they formed the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which aimed to transform heterosexist relations and other systems of oppression. The GLF model quickly spread across the United States and Canada as activists formed similar groups along with publications, social clubs, and cultural institutions. In significant ways, they struggled for self-determined public spaces like bars, bathhouses, and streets. As well, gay and lesbian activists disrupted and demonstrated against a whole range of institutions that sustained heterosexism, such as the American Psychiatric Association with its listing of homosexuality as a mental illness.
The gay and lesbian movement faced some challenges similar to those of the women's liberation movement. In particular, activists struggled with internal hierarchies of race, gender, and class, and these dynamics motivated autonomous lesbian and people of color organizing efforts. Nevertheless, the politics that the movement developed were uniquely transformative. They challenged conventional gender roles, notions of family, and ways of relating sexually. Many lesbians also combined these politics with those they were encountering and creating in the women's liberation movement to challenge what they saw as patriarchy buttressed by "compulsory heterosexuality."35 In fighting these forms of domination, the movement opened up new possibilities for gender, sexuality, kinship, and political action. It laid the basis for an explosion of trans and queer identities, communities, and practices that many radicals are continuing to explore and expand today.36
The liberation movements of the 1960s created new possibilities, posed new questions, and activated new collectivities. Even as the pace of movement activity began to slow in the United States and Canada by the mid-1970s, activists were building on these very recent and powerful experiences. In doing so, they developed innovative radical initiatives that drew on some of the best features of previous movements while trying to move past their problems. Indeed, the three major movement strands that have converged in the contemporary anti-authoritarian current have their beginnings in this period.
The first of these strands is usually known as anti-racist or women of color feminism. This politics had roots in earlier movement experiences, particularly the overlap between abolitionism and nineteenth-century feminism and, in the early twentieth century, feminist or woman-oriented efforts within anti-racist struggles. It bloomed in the liberation movements of the 1960s and came into its own in the 1970s and 1980s. And although this politics took many routes, they all started in a similar place: radical women of color, many of them lesbians, criticizing the ways in which existing movements failed to account for their experiences of oppression. In the United States, these discussions often began in broader, mixed-gender organizations, such as SNCC, the BPP, the National Welfare Rights Organization, and the Young Lords, in which women of color sometimes created their own caucuses. In both Canada and the United States, they also happened within the frequently white-dominated spaces of the women's liberation movement, including women's centers, International Women's Day events, and more informal groups.
While radical women of color never completely left these mixed contexts, many launched autonomous formations. During the 1970s, activists in the United States started organizations such as the Third World Women's Alliance, Women of All Red Nations, and the National Black Feminist Organization. In the Canadian context, autonomous organizing blossomed in the 1980s with groups such as the Black Women's Collective and the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women. In these and other initiatives, radical women of color engaged in activism related to health and reproductive rights, interpersonal and police violence, anti-poverty and labor organizing, and immigrant rights, among other issues. Coming together in groups, conferences, publishing collectives, and social scenes, these activists began creating shared politics grounded in their lives and struggles. Through these collaborations, they also constructed the category "women of color" as a new, radical political identity.37
The Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist group in Boston, offered one of the most influential articulations of these emerging women of color feminist ideas in a 1977 statement. They wrote, "We are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking."38 This "integrated analysis," which subsequent efforts have developed further, suggests that the ways that women of color simultaneously experience systems of oppression illuminate the interconnections among these power relations in everyone's lives. In other words, social relations of capitalism, racism, patriarchy, and heterosexism operate with and through each other-they are "interlocking." Following from this, truly revolutionary politics is necessarily a multilayered fight against oppression.39
This form of analysis has circulated widely over the last few decades. Partly, this is thanks to a cohort of women of color feminist scholars and others who have struggled to make space for these ideas in frequently hostile academic contexts. Drawing on early movement conceptions, these scholars' writing, teaching, and organizing efforts have elaborated what has come to be called an "intersectional" analysis.40 Many students have become familiar with this through the "race, class, gender" trio in humanities and social sciences classes.41 By various names, this integrated analysis has permeated many activist contexts too, although often more rhetorically than practically. It is now commonplace for radical groups to indicate their commitments to "fighting all systems of oppression," and many draw on vocabulary from women of color feminism to talk about power.
Anti-racist feminist efforts have also crafted vital prefigurative ideas and practices. Here, again, the Combahee River Collective offered an evocative framework: "In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. Many reactionary and destructive acts have been done in the name of achieving 'correct' political goals. As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics. We believe in collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society."42 This gets at one invaluable contribution of women of color feminism: a desire for a way of doing politics that doesn't treat people as objects or instruments-a politics that doesn't "mess people over" in its own name. With this desire, many radical women of color have tried to hold a space for a politics based in love, a politics through which we all can become more whole human beings.43 These aspects of women of color feminism have become much more widespread over the years and have strongly influenced the anti-authoritarian current.
These aspects also resonate with other formulations of prefigurative politics. The ways in which women of color activists have enacted them, however, have offered an important innovation. This is because women of color feminist organizing has developed, in theory and practice, a specific understanding of coalition and difference. In this understanding, coalition is neither about setting aside differences nor about understanding differences as necessarily pitting people against one other. Instead, women of color feminists have put forward a model of coalition that is about working across differences: acknowledging how we are situated in systems of oppression and exploitation, building bridges from where we stand in order to fight for a better world, and indicating transformative ways for people to relate with one another.44 Activists generated this model through early women of color organizations, such as the Coalition of Visible Minority Women in Toronto, which brought together women coming from diverse backgrounds.45 Radical women of color also honed this model through participation in often uneasy collaborative efforts with men and white women, such as the series of mid-1970s defense campaigns in the United States for Joan Little and other women of color facing criminal trials for using lethal force to protect themselves from sexual violence.46 This model of coalition has thus been central to women of color feminism, which has, in turn, introduced it into broader movement contexts.
Over the last decade, one of the most crucial conduits for circulating these politics has been the organization INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. Now with chapters and affiliates across the United States, INCITE! grew out of a 2000 conference at the University of California, Santa Cruz called "The Color of Violence: Violence Against Women of Color." Initially intended as an intervention in the anti-violence against women movement, the organization has since blossomed into a vital space for further developing integrated analysis and practice.47
Through conferences, publications, and collaborative organizing efforts, INCITE! has connected more university-based thinking around intersectionality with community-based work. Groups connected to INCITE!, as part of this process, have introduced important new modes of struggle against oppression. For example, the Brooklyn-based INCITE! affiliate Sista II Sista pioneered community organizing methods focused on young working-class women of color, including collective forms of leadership development, political education through storytelling, and public interventions in interpersonal and state violence.48 Meanwhile, INCITE! has also articulated an influential critique of what they call the "nonprofit industrial complex"-the circuit of state funding, foundations, and nonprofit organizations-as containing and undermining radical movements. As part of this, individuals and organizations involved with INCITE! have begun to explore alternatives to these forms of funding and organization.49 I describe this in more detail in chapter 5.
Along with other radical women of color activists and initiatives, INCITE! has helped to elaborate a set of politics and practices based on an intersectional analysis that includes an oppositional stance toward capitalism and the state, especially state violence against women of color. These politics and practices have had a wide influence across movements, including reproductive justice organizing, the immigrant rights movement, anti-violence organizing, radical queer activism, domestic worker organizing, and the occupy movement.50 As I discuss in the next chapter, women of color feminism has also significantly shaped how many in the anti-authoritarian current think about power relations and organizing.51
A second crucial strand leading from the 1970s into the contemporary anti-authoritarian current is prison abolitionism, a set of politics aimed at the complete elimination of institutions of incarceration. In significant ways, this strand grew from the movement for the abolition of slavery as well as other mobilizations against racialized social control. The long Black freedom struggle has consistently challenged white supremacist institutions of confinement, from slave ships to prisons, and put forward powerful visions of a post-abolitionist society.52 As well, this strand draws on groundbreaking socialist (particularly anarchist) contributions in the early twentieth century that identified prisons as mechanisms for silencing dissidents and maintaining class relations in capitalist societies.53
While these earlier experiences provided important resources, the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s were really the crucible that formed prison abolitionist politics. Amid the explosion of liberation movements, this period saw the widespread radicalization of prisoners, particularly incarcerated people of color. Current and former prisoners, such as George Jackson, Malcolm X, and Eldridge Cleaver, came to play leading roles in Black liberation politics especially. As governments responded to movement successes with repression, more and more radicals found themselves behind bars. Movement-based defense campaigns for leaders facing or serving prison time became commonplace.
In these circumstances, prisoners started organizing, built organizations, and engaged in mass collective actions. Perhaps the most high-profile of these actions was the rebellion at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York in 1971, during which prisoners forged an alliance that took over the prison for five days before being bloodily quashed by police. The events at Attica quickly became a compelling symbol, inspiring waves of subsequent uprisings and strikes. Across the border in Canada, a major focus of attention was Millhaven Maximum Security Prison in southern Ontario, where prisoners staged a hunger strike in 1976 that quickly spread nationally and mobilized supporters on the outside.54
A broad prison abolitionist politics emerged from this confluence of struggles and events during the 1970s. It brought together prisoner organizing efforts, revolutionary formations, prisoner support campaigns, radical pacifist initiatives, and feminist collectives. In 1976, the Prison Research Education Action Project (PREAP), an abolitionist collective, offered a sharpened version of these politics in their Instead of Prisons handbook. "The oppressive situation of prisoners," they asserted, "can only be relieved by abolishing the cage and, with it, the notion of punishment."55 Toward this end, PREAP put forward an ambitious "three-pronged abolitionist ideology: (1) Economic and social justice for all, (2) concern for all victims and (3) rather than punishment, reconciliation in a caring community."56 This ideology, they believed, would be the basis for building wider alliances and, ultimately, a prison abolitionist movement. It would take years more for this to fully happen.
During the 1980s, prison abolitionism mostly faded from view as "law and order" politics initiated by ruling elites strategically shifted prevailing public discussions about crime and punishment. The so-called "war on drugs"-with longer prison sentences, vast new prison construction, and huge injections of government funding into policing-transformed the landscape of criminal justice in the United States and, more recently, in Canada. This transformation, still in progress, has led to skyrocketing rates of incarceration, which disproportionately affect racialized communities, poor people, and those who don't fit within dominant gender norms.57
In opposition to this expanding carceral system, small networks of dedicated activists inside and outside prisons carried on organizing. Some came together around publishing projects that spanned prison walls, such as Bulldozer/Prison News Service in Canada and Prison Legal News in the United States.58 Others focused on supporting political prisoners, many of them serving decades-long sentences for their movement activities in the 1960s and 1970s.59 Still others developed campaigns to change particularly oppressive conditions inside prisons, such as prolonged forms of isolation, pervasive sexual assault, and lack of access to adequate health care. Radicals involved in these initiatives nurtured prison abolitionist visions.60
The 1990s saw the emergence of a movement against what activists increasingly called the prison industrial complex (PIC), the interlocking set of institutions and social relations based on surveillance, policing, and imprisonment.<B>61</B>This movement blossomed out of enduring prison activist networks of the 1980s, efforts to end the death penalty in the United States, and rapidly growing organizing against police violence in communities of color.62 In 1998, the radical edge of this movement came together at an ambitious abolitionist conference in Berkeley, California, called Critical Resistance (CR), which subsequently led to the founding of an organization of the same name.63 Since then, individuals and groups affiliated with and inspired by CR have played a vital role in the movement against the PIC, whether through CR chapters in places such as Oakland or New Orleans or through organizations such as End the Prison Industrial Complex in Kingston, Ontario.64
CR and allied groups have revitalized and reinvented prison abolitionist politics in North America. Mobilizing the broader analysis of the PIC, they have expanded abolitionism to target not only prisons, but also other institutions of incarceration, including immigrant detention centers and youth correctional facilities.65 As well, they have elaborated a longstanding radical critique of policing as a form of social control, especially in low-income communities of color. And drawing on women of color feminism, they have developed a sophisticated understanding of carceral institutions within the broader arrangement of power in our society. As CR writes, "The PIC depends upon the oppressive systems of racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia. It includes human rights violations, the death penalty, industry and labor issues, policing, courts, media, community powerlessness, the imprisonment of political prisoners, and the elimination of dissent."66 And in turn, they argue, the PIC is crucial for maintaining existing relations of exploitation and oppression. This new generation of prison abolitionists proclaims that just, safe, and healthy communities are only possible in a world without cages and cops.67
These anti-PIC organizers are refashioning at least two key abolitionist approaches.68 The first is a strategic framework based not on reforming institutions of incarceration, but getting rid of them altogether. In the words of CR, "Our goal is not to improve the system even further, but to shrink the system into non-existence."69 For many organizers, this means fighting construction of prisons and other detention facilities and helping incarcerated people get out and stay out. Secondly, abolitionists have begun to imagine and enact, in necessarily limited ways, a world beyond punishment and prisons. A central question here is the one posed by writer and activist Victoria Law: "How do we keep our communities and ourselves safe without relying on the police?"70 Motivated through collaboration with anti-racist feminists in the anti-violence against women movement, abolitionists have started to explore alternatives to state-based strategies for dealing with violence in communities and interpersonal relationships.71 As I suggest in chapter 5, this prefigurative approach has opened small but significant spaces for organizations and communities to work on reducing harm and resolving conflict without resorting to cops and courts.
Self-consciously drawing on the struggle against slavery, CR and allied groups have created a political context in which "abolitionist" has become a much more widely used radical identification. The politics associated with this identification fundamentally challenges the legitimacy of the state to regulate, police, and punish people. In this way, it has opened into a critique of all forms of state violence and their deep interconnections with gender, race, and class relations.72 At the same time, this politics has provoked activists and organizers across North America to imagine and build organizations, institutions, and ways of relating that aren't oriented around the state.73 In these ways, abolitionists have played a crucial role in the anti-authoritarian current as they have begun to construct a broadly anti-statist politics with anti-capitalist undertones, grounded in community-based racial justice struggles and, increasingly, feminist and queer organizing.74
The other major movement strand that has converged in the contemporary anti-authoritarian current is anarchism. This is a reconfigured anarchism, however. While it draws on the broad anarchist tradition, it owes just as much to the values-based actions of radical pacifists of the 1950s, the direct action and participatory democracy of SNCC, the confrontational ethos of the New Left, and the transformative ideas and organizing practices of the women's and gay liberation movements. These influences produced something that wasn't altogether new but also wasn't entirely the same as the anarchist politics popular much earlier in the twentieth century.
Starting in the late 1970s, the nonviolent direct action movement, sometimes known as the "anti-nuke movement," played a pivotal role in this reconfiguration. Emerging through mobilizations against nuclear power and the nuclear arms race, this movement explicitly drew on a model of confrontational nonviolence from the southern Black freedom movement and the nonhierarchical practices and sensibilities of feminism. The movement took its name from its main tactic: large-scale civil disobedience organized through "affinity groups," a form derived from the anarchist movement in Spain in which five to fifteen people work together collectively. For deliberation and coordination among these groups, activists in the movement developed the model of the "spokescouncil," composed of delegates from affinity groups. For making decisions, they used a kind of formalized consensus process that they called "feminist process."
Well into the 1980s, movement activists organized large blockades and protests against nuclear power facilities. Through their actions, they helped swing public sentiment against nuclear energy, but their more long-lasting contribution was the bundle of politics and practices that they fused together. In this bundle, civil disobedience became closely linked with affinity groups and consensus, all within a feminist-influenced anti-authoritarian politics that aimed for nonviolent revolution. Prefigurative politics was also essential to this bundle. Through trainings for unlearning oppressive behavior, counterinstitutions such as co-ops, and directly democratic organizing practices, activists explicitly saw themselves as building forms of organization and community that prefigured a new society.75
Movements in the 1980s and 1990s added to this bundle. During the 1980s, queers and allies launched groups such as ACT UP and AIDS Action Now! that used a direct action approach in grassroots struggles for AIDS funding, research, and treatment. They combined this approach with queer sensibilities and a dramatic sense of urgency about the AIDS epidemic as not simply a health matter, but a social and political crisis. In this context of struggle, they crafted a distinct style of militant confrontation through images, slogans, occupations, and street protests that grabbed media attention and won consistent victories. They also developed a prefigurative politics of sexuality and health, opening spaces for people collectively to create new relations and practices of desire, expression, and care. While much (but not all) of this direct action AIDS activism subsided in the 1990s, its contributions have continued to reverberate through subsequent direct action organizing and radical queer activism.76
At the same time, something crucial was going on in forests on the West Coast. The radical wing of the environmental movement, represented by Earth First! (EF!) and already a decade old in 1990, was beginning to develop a political perspective that combined environmentalism with social justice. EF! activist Judi Bari, a working-class mother and former union organizer, was leading the way in the midst of a growing campaign to save two-thousand-year-old trees in the Headwaters Forest in Northern California.77 Drawing on lessons from the nonviolent direct action movement, the Headwaters EF!ers organized a broad-based campaign that involved large-scale civil disobedience actions and community organizing, including creating alliances with loggers through the IWW. The Headwaters experience inspired many and, by the mid-1990s, EF! groups were engaged in confrontational campaigns across Canada and the United States. In often remote wilderness areas, tight-knit groups of EF! activists further fused consensus decision-making, affinity groups, and direct action as they used their bodies to protect ecosystems. Through these experiences, EF!ers nourished a strongly prefigurative movement culture based on working together collectively, sharing resources equitably, challenging power relations, and supporting one another through repeated arrests.78
The bundle of ideas and practices welded together through these movement experiences influenced and was influenced by the anarchism of this period. Indeed, anarchists were deeply involved in all of these movements, just as these movements introduced many people to anarchist politics. By the early 1990s, many activists understood anarchism-or radical activism more generally-to mean this bundle, along with a commitment to egalitarianism, mutual aid, and freedom as well as a far-reaching critique of domination.79 The glue that largely held it all together was a shared counterculture and template of activities. The mostly young people involved in 1990s anarchism were connected through a series of predominantly white and middle-class subcultural scenes, often rooted in punk rock. They set up local Food Not Bombs groups, supported U.S. political prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, engaged in confrontational direct action, worked to inject art and imagination into activism, organized large gatherings, and developed a network of bookstores and political spaces known as infoshops.80
This period also saw important attempts to break out of the anarchist subcultural milieu and build broader movements. Anarchist publications such as The Blast! in Minneapolis intentionally tried to move beyond punk scenes and connect with community-based struggles. The U.S.-based Love and Rage anarchist network, which started in 1989 and solidified into a formal membership organization in 1993, began to identify strategic priorities, wrestled with key political questions around white supremacy, and attempted to construct a continental revolutionary anarchist federation. Anarchists also organized two groundbreaking Active Resistance conferences-in Chicago in 1996 and Toronto in 1998-that explicitly foregrounded themes such as community organizing and movement-building. All of these efforts, in different yet overlapping ways, tried to develop anarchism in the United States and Canada into a more intentional orientation toward popular struggles.81
Meanwhile, movements were growing elsewhere that would come to further reconfigure North American anarchism. A revolt against neoliberalism was brewing, especially in the global South. Building on legacies of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, this started in the 1980s with widespread popular mobilizations against austerity measures mandated by the International Monetary Fund. By the early 1990s, meetings of neoliberal institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) faced massive protests from Bangalore to Berlin.82 Then, on January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation stepped onto the world stage by seizing seven cities in Chiapas. "Ya basta!" ("Enough!"), they said in opposition to the Mexican government and neoliberalism. Bringing together aspects of left radicalism and Indigenous Mayan traditions, the Zapatistas offered an autonomous politics based on listening and dialogue, building democratic power from below, and creating self-governing communities.83
The Zapatistas also facilitated transnational connections among movements. In 1996 and 1998, they sponsored face-to-face global encuentros (encounters) that served as key meeting points for what was to become the global justice movement. The second of these led to the formation of the Peoples' Global Action (PGA) network. The PGA brought together massive movements in the global South, such as the Landless Workers' Movement in Brazil and the Karnataka State Farmer's Movement in India, along with generally smaller organizations in the North, to develop horizontal links in the struggle against neoliberalism. This network was a key node through which an emerging anti-capitalist current in the global justice movement was able to engage in discussion and planning. The PGA hallmarks, developed through early conferences, came to define this anti-capitalism in anti-authoritarian terms. They included a rejection of "all forms and systems of domination and discrimination," "a confrontational attitude," "a call to direct action," and "an organisational philosophy based on decentralisation and autonomy."84
As the new millennium approached, anarchism in the North and autonomous movements in the South were increasingly connected. In the United States and Canada, anarchist-influenced activists were deeply inspired by the Zapatistas and were some of the first to work with the PGA. Following the example of their European counterparts, many began organizing around the PGA's calls for "global days of action" involving coordinated international protests against institutions of neoliberalism. And though there were previous summit protests, it was the week of successful protests against the 1999 WTO ministerial in Seattle that grabbed significant attention. Anarchists played leading roles in planning and coordinating the mass blockades and street battles in Seattle, combining the bundle of direct action tactics, consensus decision-making, and affinity groups with the politics circulating through the PGA.85
In the wake of the successful disruption of the Seattle ministerial, this enhanced bundle of practices and politics came to characterize an anti-capitalist current in North America. Bringing together veterans of 1990s anarchism and newer radicals, this current rapidly carried movement coalitions and momentum into other demonstrations against major summits and meetings. The next few years saw showdowns between protestors and police from Los Angeles to Quebec City, and North American activists also traveled to mobilizations at major summits elsewhere in the world.86
Through the global justice movement, thousands of people participated in anti-authoritarian approaches and politics. At the same time, this cycle of struggle provided opportunities for activists to wrestle with their own limitations in the context of a growing movement. Longtime radical and writer Elizabeth Martinez raised some of these with her widely circulated essay "Where Was the Color in Seattle?"87 This critical intervention and subsequent ones fostered widespread discussion. While the conversations were most visible around the racial composition of summit mobilizations, they opened up a range of crucial issues: how to understand the relation between global justice mobilizing and community-based organizing; how to build strategic and broad-based movements in Canada and the United States and link them to other movements across the globe; and how to confront hierarchies of race, gender, class, age, and experience as they were being reproduced in movement spaces.88
As activists influenced by anarchism grappled with these issues, some began to develop more complex political approaches. These combined anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist politics with an orientation toward organizing to build popular power and broad-based movements.89 Even as the global justice movement waned in the early 2000s, many activists took these increasingly sophisticated politics with them into other struggles and movements. Indeed, some of the most successful anti-authoritarian projects and formations today come from this strand. One example is the network of No One Is Illegal collectives across Canada, which works to challenge borders by organizing with migrant communities in their struggles with the Canadian state. No One Is Illegal collectives ground their efforts in an anti-capitalist, anti-colonial politics, emphasizing the connections between migrants from the global South and Indigenous peoples in North America. Their work, as I discuss further below, is impressive.
Since the late 1970s, anarchism in the United States and Canada has functioned as a carrying case for a growing bundle of ideas and practices. These include a rejection of social relations based on domination, a commitment to enacting liberatory visions in the here and now, and a set of nonhierarchical organizing approaches, direct action tactics, and alternative institutional models. Activists continue to develop and make use of this bundle in a wide variety of movements. Anarchism, in this way, is a live political strand in North America, influencing how many activists and organizers understand the state and capitalism-and fight for alternatives.
Digging in after September 11, 2001
Anti-racist feminism, prison abolitionism, and anarchism have significantly contributed to contemporary anti-authoritarian organizing and politics. Although still distinct, these strands have been major routes through which people have come to participate in the anti-authoritarian current, and they have also offered overlapping sets of movement experiences and radical ideas that have laid the basis for another politics. Since the early 2000s, these politics have developed through further waves of movement and mobilization.
This recent history is framed by the events of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the U.S. government declared an open-ended "war on terror" and, with the collaboration of the Canadian government and other allies, invaded Afghanistan. Less than a year and a half later, the U.S. government launched a war of occupation in Iraq. During this period, activists of many political stripes, anti-authoritarians among them, leapt into anti-war organizing, especially to mobilize for what became marches of historically unprecedented sizes in the first months of 2003.
Many anti-authoritarians sought to carry energy and organizing models from the global justice movement into the anti-war movement, but this was surprisingly difficult. One reason for this was the sudden rightward shift in the political climate; in response, most unions and other progressive organizations retreated from confrontational protests, breaking the coalitional efforts that had made the global justice movement so dynamic. Many activists also struggled to make sense of what was happening, since there had previously been only limited discussion about imperialism in the mostly white sections of the global justice movement. Speaking about this in a 2004 interview, San Francisco organizer Clare Bayard observed, "This hole reflected a weak spot around understanding world histories of colonialism, white supremacy in relation to European and U.S. economic and political development, and the relationship between self-determination struggles by colonized peoples and the fight against global capitalist entities."90 While anti-imperialist analysis eventually became more widespread among anti-authoritarians, its initial absence hamstrung organizing efforts.
Organizationally, the anti-war movement also presented a challenging situation. At its height, the movement was dominated by, on the one side, sectarian organizations that aggressively claimed the mantle of anti-imperialism and, on the other side, broad peace coalitions that shied away from discussing imperialism or using confrontational tactics.91 In this context, anti-authoritarians largely concentrated on supporting soldiers who refused to fight, struggling against military recruitment in schools, and using direct action to disrupt institutions linked to war-making. They also created organizations within the anti-war movement, such as Bloquez l'empire / Block the Empire in Montreal, Direct Action to Stop the War in San Francisco, and the Pittsburgh Organizing Group. Through these efforts, they tried to foster political approaches based on the power of ordinary people to undermine militarism.
The anti-war movement never completely disappeared. By 2005, however, it had significantly shrunk. In the United States, the protests against the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City were arguably the last gasp of hope for carrying the momentum of the global justice movement into a large-scale anti-war movement. While the demonstrations there were massive, the movement wasn't substantially reinvigorated. Since then, anti-war initiatives have carried on. Examples include the long-running movement publication War Times, the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War, and support efforts for GI resisters such as the War Resisters Support Campaign (in Canada) and Courage to Resist (in the United States), all of which have involved anti-authoritarians. National organizations and local activist groups have also continued. But while hardworking, all of these initiatives have remained fairly small.92
The middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century was a bleak time for the left. Amidst the "war on terror," national politics in both Canada and the United States moved decisively to the right. Neoliberalism was in full swing and inequality grew, gains of previous left movements were aggressively rolled back, immigrant and racialized communities faced intensified attacks, institutions of imprisonment and detention dramatically expanded, and climate change was distressingly evident yet largely ignored by policymakers. In 2005, the U.S. government also launched a campaign of repression, dubbed the "green scare," against environmental activists allegedly involved in the sabotage efforts of the Earth Liberation Front; this had a chilling effect on some sections of the anti-authoritarian current.93 In these circumstances, most struggles were defensive, and activists grappled with marginalization, demoralization, and exhaustion.
While the global justice and anti-war movements had ebbed, they left behind layers of committed anti-authoritarian organizers with experience and skills. During this difficult time, many of them dug into longer-term initiatives. Building on earlier discussions, they focused on organizing to develop popular power and broad-based movements. Many of the organizations profiled in this book were born or nourished through these efforts: INCITE! affiliates, Critical Resistance chapters and other abolitionist groups, No One Is Illegal collectives, campus-based chapters of the new Students for a Democratic Society, base-building organizations such as Young Workers United in San Francisco, the Anti-Poverty Committee in Vancouver and other economic justice groups, radical collectives such as Another Politics Is Possible in New York City, and dozens more initiatives. In a period of reaction, anti-authoritarians fought hard, sometimes won victories, and steadily sustained a space for radical ideas linked to grassroots struggles. These experiences generated many hard-earned organizing lessons.
Learning through Crisis and Confrontation
Some of the most important learning experiences of this period came out of instances of large-scale crisis and confrontation. One of these was Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and its aftermath on the Gulf Coast, particularly in New Orleans. As with many so-called natural disasters, the real catastrophe of Katrina grew out of ongoing disasters of poverty, racism, and other forms of structural violence and inequality, combined with a tremendously destructive storm. The outcome was a devastated city, a collapse of essential services, and tens of thousands of displaced residents. Those people hardest hit were overwhelming poor and Black. Meanwhile, the state was quickly present as a repressive force (in the form of police and military forces) and miserably inadequate as a force for relief.
Radicals from New Orleans and elsewhere attempted to organize and build in this context. As I discuss in more detail in chapter 5, the city was host to a whole range of grassroots relief and reconstruction efforts, and several were distinctly anti-authoritarian. Local INCITE! and Critical Resistance groups stepped up their organizing to challenge intensified racist policing, fight ongoing displacement under the guise of reconstruction, and relate to the survival needs of primarily low-income people of color. At the same time, a small crew of radicals launched the Common Ground (CG) collective, which quickly began coordinating volunteers to distribute supplies, clean up toxic areas, and provide medical services. Thousands of predominantly white activists came from all over the continent to participate in CG's efforts.
Given the influx of white activists into predominantly Black neighborhoods, there were predictable tensions that emerged around race and accountability, among other issues. After spending several months in New Orleans, anti-racist organizer Ingrid Chapman summed these up well: "Many white middle-class folks started projects without establishing any system of accountability to the people the projects impacted and/or sought to serve."94 Although there were efforts to confront these problems, they were never fully resolved. Through post-Katrina work, however, a significant cross-section of activists and organizers gained new skills in responding to popular needs, learned lessons about the challenges of building community-based organizations, and developed deeper understandings of the intense realities of capitalism, racism, and disaster.95
The extraordinary U.S. immigrant rights mobilizations of 2006 offered another learning experience. Amid growing anti-immigrant sentiment and open organizing by racist border vigilantes, Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner proposed a bill in late 2005 that included provisions for further militarizing the U.S.-Mexico border, substantially raising penalties for undocumented immigrants, and criminalizing anyone found to be helping them. In response, immigrants and supporters began organizing protest marches that, in many cases, also involved sizeable work stoppages and school walkouts. The first of these, in Chicago, involved at least one hundred thousand people, and more and more actions rapidly unfolded across the United States, culminating with coordinated marches in two hundred cities on May 1, called "A Day Without Immigrants." Altogether, more than five million people, the vast majority of them Latino/a, participated in these actions over a two-month period. In effect, this was a general strike against the Sensenbrenner bill, which subsequently floundered.96
These mobilizations catalyzed a combative wave of organizing propelled primarily by young Latino/a activists. As right-wing lawmakers have proposed and sometimes passed draconian anti-immigrant measures in Arizona and other states in recent years, they have been met with this wave of resistance, which links activist organizations and dense social networks in immigrant communities. Dramatic civil disobedience actions by undocumented activists, such as the "No Papers No Fear" bus tour across the southern United States in 2012, have demonstrated the growing audacity and power of this movement. And anti-authoritarian organizers and groups have participated in much of this organizing, especially in California and the U.S. Southwest. In the process, they have been learning key lessons about border regimes and racism, as well as the capacities of people outside of self-identified activist communities to organize and fight back.97
These are lessons anti-authoritarians have been learning in Canada too, where migrant justice struggles, generally smaller than those in the United States, have ratcheted up over the last several years. Initiated in Montreal in the early 2000s, No One Is Illegal (NOII) spread to other major cities and began engaging in aggressive campaigns against deportations. In 2003, NOII-Montreal collaborated with other organizations in launching the Solidarity Across Borders (SAB) network around a set of far-reaching demands, including regularization for all undocumented immigrants. In a major undertaking in 2005 that raised the bar for migrant justice organizing nationally, SAB coordinated a 120-mile march from Montreal to Ottawa to build support for its demands. Two years later, NOII-Vancouver's ongoing organizing sparked a high-profile fight in support of Laibar Singh, a paralyzed refugee from India. In a stunning December 2007 action, some two thousand people, largely South Asian, blockaded the Vancouver International Airport to stop Singh's impending deportation. And starting with an "Education not Deportation" campaign in 2006, NOII-Toronto launched a multi-year fight for Toronto to become a "solidarity city" where all people can access city services regardless of immigration status. Organizing across sectors and services, they finally won in 2013.98
In the Canadian context, there has also been a surge of Indigenous land struggles that have profoundly affected the anti-authoritarian current. Since the early 2000s, the Secwepemc people have resisted the expansion of a ski resort on their lands in south-central British Columbia, with Vancouver-based activists offering ongoing support.99 In 2006, people from Six Nations, a confederacy of First Nations also known as the Iroquois, set up a blockade to prevent a suburban development on their land in southwestern Ontario. For nearly a month, hundreds of people, including a contingent of non-Indigenous activists, regularly participated in the occupation. Struggles at Six Nations, sometimes quite confrontational, have continued since.100 Recent years have also seen sustained Indigenous resistance in Ontario and Quebec to resource extraction, government interference in community decision-making, and infringements on territorial sovereignty.101 As well, Indigenous communities in British Columbia have been steadfastly fighting proposed construction of the Northern Gateway Pipeline, which would transport oil from the Alberta tar sands through their traditional territories.102
All of this flared up dramatically in late 2012 when the governing party of Canada proposed a sweeping set of bills aimed at restructuring governance and rights of First Nations. Sparked by Indigenous women activists in Saskatoon and fueled by social media, a movement calling itself Idle No More rose up in opposition. Over a two-month period, Indigenous people and allies organized hundreds of educational events, protests, ceremonies, marches, and road and railway blockades across North America.103
Idle No More and recent land struggles have produced widespread public discussion and controversy in Canada. Many non-Indigenous anti-authoritarians have been involved in these efforts through groups such as the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement. Activists have been especially impacted by Indigenous assertions of sovereignty that call the state into question. As I explain in the next chapter, these experiences have significantly shaped how anti-authoritarians in the Canadian context understand colonialism and self-determination, and have also opened up important discussions about solidarity organizing.
The situation in the U.S. context is different. Certainly, there are distinguished histories of Indigenous struggle, including recent collaborations with non-Indigenous anti-authoritarians. For sixteen months in 1998-99, radical environmentalists built an inspiring coalition with Native American communities and others to resist highway construction through Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota territory near Minneapolis; together, they held their ground in what was called the "Minnehaha Free State."104 Since the mid-1990s, settler activists have taken stints living with Dineh families in northeast Arizona to support their resistance to relocation as the Peabody Coal Company seeks access to the coal reserves beneath their land.105 Still, colonial relations are heavily obscured in the United States and, as a result, anti-colonial struggle remains fairly abstract for most non-Indigenous anti-authoritarians. But many activists are learning lessons from south of the border, as Indigenous movements in countries such as Mexico and Bolivia are gaining ground. Increasingly, activists are looking north too, first toward the mobilization in Vancouver against the 2010 Winter Olympics, which brought together thousands of activists under the slogan "No Olympics on Stolen Land," and more recently toward Idle No More.106
The last few years have seen more and more fast-moving mobilizations. Many of these have emanated from movements with strong participation from anti-authoritarians or have made extensive use of anti-authoritarian ideas and practices. One example is the rapidly growing climate justice movement, which brings together campaigns and organizations engaged in struggles around global climate change. After a downturn in radical environmental organizing in the early 2000s, a newer generation of anti-authoritarians has taken up the tradition of Earth First! with slogans such as "system change, not climate change." This movement particularly took off in the lead up to the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, as activists in a number of North American cities began organizing to build popular consciousness and put pressure on policymakers and energy companies. Some activists also traveled to the Copenhagen conference for a week of direct action protests.
This organizing led to new initiatives. Through coalitions such as the Mobilization for Climate Justice West in the San Francisco Bay Area, activists have worked to foreground communities, often racialized and poor, experiencing the major consequences of a carbon-based economy. Struggles against oil refining in Richmond, California, mountaintop removal coal mining in southern Appalachia, and oil extraction on traditional Indigenous territories in Alberta have thus emerged as frontline fights. Since 2011, the climate justice movement has also held a series of well-attended activist conferences and civil disobedience actions in Ottawa and Washington, D.C. Drawing considerable media coverage, these convergences have brought thousands of new activists together and developed a constituency for the movement, especially on university campuses. Meanwhile, activists in the radical wing of the movement have built the Rising Tide North America network, which has dozens of local chapters. The climate justice movement has received increased attention in recent years with protests and Earth First!-style blockades against the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline, and the construction of the Keystone Pipeline, running from the Alberta tar sands to Texas. Together, these efforts suggest a possible renewal of direct action environmentalism.107
Another example of recently reinvigorated resistance is the movement against the PIC, in which abolitionists have played a central role. Since 2010, there have been historic hunger strikes involving thousands of prisoners in Georgia and California, and smaller numbers in other states, protesting their conditions of confinement. Activists associated with CR have offered consistent support to these efforts, often working with families of hunger strikers and other prisoner activists. Abolitionists have also spearheaded campaigns against prison construction, most recently through initiatives such as Decarcerate PA (Pennsylvania) and Californians United for a Responsible Budget. Combining community organizing and creative protests, these broad-based efforts aim to pressure state lawmakers to shift spending priorities away from prisons and jails and toward communities. In Canada, the government's closure of farms at six prisons in 2010 led to direct action protests with substantial community support in Kingston, Ontario. There have also been more and more activities across Canada associated with Prisoners' Justice Day, August 10, supporting prisoners' struggles and commemorating people who have died in prison.
This movement has also been at the center of mobilizations against racist police violence, particularly police murders of people of color. In 2008, a Montreal police officer killed Honduran immigrant Fredy Villanueva, catalyzing riots and then more sustained organizing through activist groups such as Montréal-Nord Républik. Similarly, the 2009 murder of African American man Oscar Grant by a transit cop in Oakland led to a series of riots and a surge of anti-police organizing that would come to decisively influence Occupy Oakland. The 2012 Florida killing of Black youth Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, though Zimmerman was not a police officer, was consistent with this longstanding pattern of racist criminalization and violence. In response, activists organized dozens of rallies, marches, and vigils across North America. Although episodic, these struggles tap into a wellspring of outrage against the criminal justice system, especially among poor and working-class racialized people. As I mentioned earlier, over the last several years there has also been significant growth in experiments with community-based alternatives to cops and courts. These efforts demonstrate the widening reach of abolitionism. Together with ongoing organizing against prisons and policing, they signal an increasingly radical movement.108
To date, perhaps the most widespread use of anti-authoritarian ideas and practices has been within the occupy movement. Launched in September 2011 in New York City, occupy was initially the scheme of an assortment of anarchists and other activists, some with experience from the global justice movement. In the midst of a global economic crisis, they sought to turn critical attention to Wall Street, which they saw as symbolizing inequality and immiseration. With recent experience protesting city budget cuts in the "Bloombergville" tent city and a widely-circulated communiqué from the radical magazine Adbusters, these activists set up the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) encampment in Zuccotti Park near Wall Street. They also began using and popularizing many of the practices associated with anarchism, including directly democratic decision-making in general assemblies, alternative institutions such as camp-based kitchens and clinics, and confrontational direct actions including disruptive street marches and bank occupations.
OWS activists were riding a movement wave. Indeed, if the global justice movement was born with the Zapatistas, the occupy movement grew out of the Arab Spring of 2011. Starting in Tunisia, this was the blossoming of popular struggles against dictatorships (often U.S. client regimes) in North Africa and West Asia. The most spectacular was the sustained occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo by tens-and sometimes hundreds-of thousands of determined protestors in opposition to the Hosni Mubarak regime, which they eventually overthrew. This occupation, in early 2011, also played a mutually inspirational role with the occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol by thousands protesting Governor Scott Walker's proposed legislation limiting collective bargaining rights for unions. And these initial actions inspired the rapid growth of movements in many other countries, such as Spain and Chile, occupying central public spaces with protest encampments. Beyond a shared set of tactics, the threads linking these movements are commitments to direct democracy, criticisms of existing political and economic systems, impatience with traditional party-based politics, and audacious willingness to engage in mass action.109
When OWS activists set up their encampment, they were building on all of this. What surprised nearly everyone, occupiers included, is that they managed to hold Zuccotti Park for two months and to develop such broad support. Inviting participation from "the 99 percent" and naming the enemy as "the 1 percent," OWS tapped a deep reservoir of public outrage about inequality and initiated a long-suppressed discussion about class. They also catalyzed a movement, as activists in hundreds of other cities, inspired by what was happening in New York, set up their own occupy encampments with general assembly models from OWS that they largely learned about through social media. These encampments brought together a wide range of people, including longtime radicals, newly politicized activists, houseless people, organizers from established left organizations, curious bystanders, and people with far-fetched ideas looking for an audience.
Not surprisingly, most occupy encampments experienced a lot of chaos and conflict. However, they also opened a broad organizing space from which occupiers launched all sorts of creative initiatives. In addition to sustaining mass meals and tent cities, most occupy encampments engaged in frequent street protests and many allied with ongoing struggles, in some cases joining union picket lines, marches against police violence, and other efforts. Taking this further, occupiers in cities such as Atlanta, Minneapolis, Portland, and Rochester began organizing to physically resist housing evictions of local residents. In a strategically brilliant move, Occupy Baltimore teamed up with the Black-led Baltimore Algebra Project to occupy the proposed site for a youth jail, starkly calling into question state funding priorities. And capturing the imagination of the movement, Occupy Oakland organized a one-day "general strike" on November 2, 2011, that saw some thirty thousand people participate in work stoppages, street demonstrations, and a successful blockade of the port. In the movement's largest coordinated action, occupy encampments all along the West Coast organized a daylong blockade of ports the following month.
All of this activity, as in other moments of upsurge, created opportunities for activists to grapple with limitations and develop new capacities. The People of Color Caucus of OWS played a crucial early role in this process, raising challenges around racism and other systems of oppression in a predominantly white and often male-dominated context. Their work was motivated by the conviction, as caucus member Manissa McCleave Maharawal recounts, that "OWS absolutely needed to prefigure a world in which oppression within the movement, as well as racial justice as connected to economic justice outside of the movement, was an integral part of the analysis."110 Linked to this, the occupy movement also saw discussions about how to relate with the police, enact anti-colonial principles, balance meeting survival needs with organizing, ensure safety and accountability in movement spaces, and work in alliance with more established organizations. Some of these rich discussions continue.
While most of the occupy encampments were evicted by early 2012, their energy has carried into other initiatives. These include Occupy Our Homes, a network that grew out of anti-eviction organizing in various cities; Strike Debt, a campaign of resistance to all forms of debt; and Occupy Sandy, a grassroots relief effort that OWS activists launched in the 2012 aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. More generally, the occupy movement touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in North America, introducing many to anti-authoritarian politics and practices. The encampments generated broad layers of newly-politicized activists and renewed discussions about organizing and movement-building.111
The occupy movement also contributed to a continental atmosphere of upsurge. Shortly after the encampments ended, tens of thousands of students in Quebec waged a remarkably determined six-month strike against tuition hikes. Rooted in a longer history of student mobilizations in Quebec, the strike was significantly propelled by a student association that had grown out of the global justice movement experience. With this history as well as inspiration drawn from more recent upsurges, the student movement's effectiveness was built on direct democracy in general assemblies and combative direct action, both within a broad organizing strategy. The students in Quebec, in a sense, deepened and extended some of the best aspects of the anti-authoritarian current.112 This bodes well as more mobilizations erupt and people continue to use and refine anti-authoritarian ideas and practices. If 2001 marks a time when anti-authoritarian organizers began digging in, perhaps 2011 marks a shift into widened and accelerated struggles.
The anti-authoritarian current, like nearly all movement-based radical tendencies, has grown out of dense political lineages and histories of struggle. Three strands in particular have increasingly intertwined in this current as it has developed through movement experiences since the early 2000s. Anti-racist feminism provides a set of politics and practices for understanding interrelated systems of oppression and exploitation, linking interpersonal and systemic forms of domination, and elaborating intersectional strategies for social transformation. Prison abolitionism contributes an analysis connecting state violence and dominant social relations, a nonreformist approach to strategy, and experiments aimed at reducing harm and resolving conflict without resorting to the state. And reconfigured anarchism supplies nonhierarchical practices, prefigurative values, and a confrontational orientation.
Another politics bears the imprints of all of these strands, as well as others. It is important, however, not to exaggerate the connections or coherence among them. These strands are distinct and, at times, in tension with one another. Indeed, they have different, if overlapping, political vocabularies and approaches. As a result, there are crucial unsettled questions among them that come up again and again in movements: How do we understand the primary systemic forces we seek to transform? Where exactly do healing and individual change fit into organizing efforts to challenge these systemic forces? How can we most productively manifest our visions through our organizing work? What kinds of organizations are the most useful for advancing our fights? How should we judge the effectiveness of our struggles? What is the role of militant confrontation in our movements? As I discuss in the following chapters, debates around these and other questions are ongoing.
Despite differences, these strands are substantially converging. As anti-authoritarians, most of us come out of one or more of these radical lineages. We braid them together as we work collectively and build relationships across politics, campaigns, and movements: anarchist labor organizers draw on analytical frameworks from women of color feminism, radical queer activists use community-based models for dealing with violence developed by anti-racist feminists and prison abolitionists, and migrant justice activists build on anarchist organizing methods. In this convergence, the development of the anti-authoritarian current is moving in two directions. On the one hand, deep political affinities across these strands are enabling relations among them. On the other hand, these relations are creating the basis for shared politics. I turn to these now.
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