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Anarchists Gather--and It's Orderly


Say what you will, these anarchists are organized.

When the North American Anarchist Conference rolled into town Friday, the drill went like this: Line up outside the Elysian Park warehouse that houses the conference. Pony up the $25 admission fee. Take a name tag--blue for anarchists, red for the news media--and jot down your chosen nickname. (Among them are Christ, Kick, Ix, Geoffrey and Tim.) Read the sign itemizing the house rules (no alcohol, drugs, weapons or anything that would give the police a pretext to close things down).

Finally, you're in the door and ready to partake of a buffet of workshops and discussion groups, from legal training and "liberation pedagogy" to bike repair.

For months, city officials have been warning Los Angeles about this three-day conference, mindful of black-clad anarchists who smashed chain store windows during rowdy demonstrations in the Pacific Northwest.

Friday's gathering presented a self-consciously different image: one of a multifaceted, hyperintellectual, communitarian bunch. Not that some anarchists don't believe in political vandalism--some do--but they're eager to put out the message that, well, anarchists are people, too.

Anarchists are "full and complete human beings," said Leighton Woodhouse, a San Francisco union organizer and anarchist who plans to head for Los Angeles today.

He is one of a group of Bay Area anarchists who plan to spend the week, not breaking windows, but feeding homeless people near Staples Center.

That kind of public service helps balance out the vandalism, he said. "What we assess as one of the drawbacks of the movement is, we go into these cities, turn them into battle zones and don't do our housekeeping," Woodhouse said. "It's our obligation as anarchists to look after those communities that the state fails to look after."

The philosophy dates back hundreds of years and takes a variety of forms--from U.S. radical unions that helped win labor laws during the Gilded Age to anti-fascist brigades in the Spanish Civil War--but all strains of anarchism share a distrust of any form of hierarchy and obsession with group decision-making and decentralized organization.

In fact, as the heavily scheduled conference itinerary demonstrates, anarchists can be as obsessive about structure as some of the institutions they disdain.

Sam Smotherman, 27, of Whittier paraphrases an old Russian proverb: "Anarchism is the mother of order."

One of Smotherman's friends, Fullerton resident Matt Hart, pulled together with about a dozen other Southern California anarchists--from graduate students at Caltech to a Fullerton high school student--to organize the conference. They wanted to provide a place to discuss the movement, which has boomed since protests last fall at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle.

Organizers had expected as many as 1,000 anarchists, but fewer than 200 showed up the first day. Still, it was a lively tour through the movement.

On one wall inside the industrial/arts space that housed the conference were sheets with quotes from celebrated anarchists--Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist Noam Chomsky, turn-of-the-century radical Emma Goldman and Russian thinker Mikhail Bakunin. Next to those was a sheet for announcements, including this one: "Anybody who has any extra Black Block clothing (hoody, gloves, pants) please find SPAZZ. I am stupid and left mine behind in San Diego."

The space was littered with backpacks, sleeping bags, bagels and even stray Doritos. Many of the anarchists, who arrived from as far away as New York, are bunking down on the building's concrete floor. Occasionally, the chirping of a cell phone punctuated the otherwise anti-consumerist atmosphere.

In the main room, eight folding tables were covered with anarchist literature--from books you could pick up at Borders, such as death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal's latest, to more esoteric works, including "Deep Ecology and Anarchism" and mimeographed pamphlets titled "How to Fire Your Boss."

In a folding chair across the room sat Jeanne, who identified herself as a 50-ish teacher from Baldwin Hills but did not give her last name. She was chaperoning her 15-year-old daughter.

"I'm going to see what these people have to say," she said skeptically, admitting that she was nervous about potential violence during protests next week. "It's all well-intentioned, like so many other youth movements were"--but she added that she did not know if the young crowd understood how the world works.

Up in a steamy loft space one seminar was getting underway--a discussion of "Green" anarchism, an increasingly popular movement stressing a return to nature.

There was little discussion Friday of the more controversial face of anarchism--the window-smashing exhibited during protests in Seattle last fall, which anarchist groups said was an effort to protest multinational corporations.

Many anarchists, though, seem a little sick of the image. On Friday, one even went so far as to commiserate with the cops.

"The time people recognize the police is when they're beating people up. . . . The same thing happens with anarchists," said Lawrence, a 39-year-old contributing editor to the journal Anarchy who refused to give his last name. "Anarchists for the most part are very unobtrusive, quiet people. Then all of a sudden someone breaks a window and everyone's paying attention to them."

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