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In the ruins of New Orleans

California activist and anarchist Kirsten Brydum traveled the states, full of young ideas on how capitalism might be replaced with something kinder. Her journey ended in the 9th Ward.

January 31, 2009|Richard Fausset

NEW ORLEANS — Kirsten Brydum pedaled away from the Howlin' Wolf club into the darkness of another American city that she didn't know very well. It was 1:30 a.m.

She rode a black cruiser bicycle with a basket on the back, borrowed from friends of friends. In nearly every city she had visited on her 2-month-road trip, it seemed someone was willing to lend her an old bike.

The Rebirth Brass Band was on the bill that night. Brydum, 25, had danced for a while outside the club in her flip-flops. She thought that the bouncer would eventually let her in for free, and that suited her in more ways than one. She believed, passionately, that people would one day reject a basic mechanism of free-market societies: the exchange of goods and services for money.

She arrived in New Orleans in late September with a rail pass, a little red notebook and a head full of ideas about the oppressive forces of capitalism and government, and how they might be replaced with something better. The road trip was partly a rite of passage in the grand tradition of Jack Kerouac -- an adventure to mark her recent graduation from college in San Francisco. But she also hoped to report on the small, scattered outposts where fellow radicals had established alternatives to mainstream culture.

It would all end in New Orleans, four miles from the Howlin' Wolf, in a forlorn and out-of-the-way block in the 9th Ward.

More than three years after Hurricane Katrina, its homes remained battered and abandoned, its lots choked with debris and roof-high weeds. To many Americans, this kind of New Orleans neighborhood has come to symbolize a near-criminal lack of government presence.

Brydum might have seen the block as the kind of place where an autonomous, post-capitalist movement might flourish.

But it is unclear if she saw it at all.

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She had some cash saved from waiting tables; her mom helped with some of the travel expenses. Brydum and an old boyfriend drew up the list of places she would visit: alternative health centers, collectivist punk communes, anarchist bookstores and "guerrilla gardens" planted by activists on land they do not own. Her plan was to document on a website what she found, allowing radicals to share ideas and strengthen tiny institutions that she believed would "prefigure a world without capitalism."

On July 30, she flew to New York City, where she met her boyfriend, John Viola. In an e-mail to friends and family, she rhapsodized about their four days of "romance and resistance."

Viola, a Bay Area attorney, met Brydum when he agreed to take on her 2004 criminal case. She and a few dozen others had been arrested at a San Francisco biotechnology and anti-globalization protest. By the time he got involved, the activists had been jailed for a couple of days, and the stress was beginning to show.

"And there was Kirsten, just super rock solid," recalled Viola, 38. "Like a lot of people, I just immediately fell for her."

She was small and fine-boned, with long hair and brown eyes. After he won her release, they would see each other at the same parties, the same protests. In March, they met at an impromptu procession through the streets of the Mission District that had started at the Anarchist Cafe, on Potrero Avenue.

"I was in the back with Kirsten, and people in cars kept coming up to us and saying, 'What's the procession for?' " Viola recalled.

"It's for fun," Brydum would tell them, smiling.

She grew up middle class in Van Nuys -- sweet-tempered, well-liked, a good student. But from an early age, she questioned accepted wisdom.

At her Catholic elementary school, she challenged the religious dogma; her ideas, she later joked, got her branded "a third-grade heretic." At Birmingham High School, she gravitated toward the punk-rock kids, the black-clad, the ravers and the seekers.

At the now-defunct New College of California, where she earned her bachelor's degree, she immersed herself in contrarian thinkers, particularly the anarchists: Emma Goldman, imprisoned by U.S. authorities for opposing the draft in 1917; David Graeber, the anthropologist who studied the egalitarian communities of northwest Madagascar; and Hakim Bey, a scholar who extolled history's "pirate utopias," which operated beyond the grasp of governments.

Central to her thinking: "She didn't believe that we lived in a world of scarcity," Viola said. "That scarcity was a myth that was used to keep people divided. And so if resources and goods are taken care of and shared equitably, then there's enough for everybody."

In San Francisco, she put the idea into practice. She helped found a series of fine-dining events. Patrons were not required to pay. In Dolores Park, she cofounded a "Really Really Free Market," where people gathered to give things away.

"Because there is enough for everyone," the slogan read. "Because sharing is more fulfilling than owning."

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