Fifteen years ago today, on February 2nd, 2002, I became an anarchist. I was nineteen, living in NYC, and I attended the World Economic Forum protests. I knew the anarchists by reputation only — they wore all black and they smashed things. They were going to wear masks in defiance of NYC’s anti-mask laws. I wanted to know why, so I approached a man with his face obscured by a black bandanna.
“What’s anarchism?” I asked.
“Well, we hate capitalism and the state.” He was very forthcoming, which I appreciated.
“What do you all do about it?”
“We build up alternative institutions without hierarchy while attacking and interfering with the existing, oppressive ones we despise.”
“Oh,” I said. I pondered this for a moment, but honestly only a moment. “Do you have an extra mask?”
* * *
A few months later, I dropped out of college to ride freight trains and go to protests — it was the style at the time, you understand. We broke into abandoned houses to sleep in puppy piles and we faced overt surveillance from the feds while we met in public parks to plot zombies-against-war marches. We ate trash and shoplifted and loved one another fiercely and everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
The anthem of that summer was the album Reinventing Axl Rose by Against Me. After we were mass-arrested in DC, all of us John Does who refused to identify ourselves to police sang “Baby I’m An Anarchist” at the top of our lungs to irritate our captors and keep our spirits high as we resisted being separated, named, and charged by the system.
Some years later, the woman who wrote that album wrote another song, “I Was A Teenage Anarchist.” Well, Laura Jane Grace, so was I. Fifteen years later, I still am.
* * *
My politics have changed dramatically in the intervening almost-half-my-life, to be sure. But the core of it remains the same: I desire a world without coercive hierarchy and I believe the way to reach for that world is by individually and collectively acting directly on our desires and enabling others to do the same.
There’s some cliche I heard as a kid: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you’ve got no heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re old, you’ve got no brain.” If that’s true, I’m the Tin Woodsman and the Scarecrow both because I ain’t either and never have been. But the core idea — that your politics settle away from radicalism as you age — is fascinating. It’s possible that it’s happening to me, but on a different scale than liberal/conservative.
Throughout most of my twenties, I identified more with green anarchism than red: that is to say, my focus was ecology and I’d have been more likely to call myself an individualist anarchist than an anarchist communist though I likely would have told you that was a false dichotomy. Now, I suppose, I’m on the other side of that still-false dichotomy. I swapped out the green-and-black enamel star on my black hoodie for a red-and-black enamel star on my black dress coat.
I have a love for chaos, still, that will never leave me. But I’m also a lot more excited about organization.
* * *
I don’t really know what teenage anarchist me would make of mid-thirties anarchist me. I do a lot of things I thought I’d never do: I work for money and shop at box stores and pay my taxes. I prefer owning nice things when I can. I avoid breaking the law unless the law needs breaking. This last November I had to hire people to help me make buttons — though I tied my own wage to theirs and donated any profits above labor costs to avoid exploiting anyone. I write about politics more often than I go into the streets. I hang out with liberals and I don’t, by default, distrust people who don’t circle their A’s. I understand the value of compromise, in personal relationships and political coalitions both.
But I don’t really care what teenage anarchist me would think, if I’m being honest. I’m not an anarchist for the sake of old-me. I’m not an anarchist simply out of habit, but out of deep and ever-deepening conviction.
While on the surface, there are things about me that have calmed down, anti-authoritarianism and a pro-collective spirit have sunk deeper into me over the years. The difference between teenage anarchist me and adult anarchist me is the difference between the goth garb I wore in high school and the one I wear now: as a teenager, I was trying on a persona and a costume. As an adult, it’s that I’ve found the clothes and ideas that suit me.
Rebellion has taken hold of my heart. It is no longer a costume, nor a poise. I’m not trying to impress anyone anymore by how radical I am. It’s just that, at this point, I simply cannot understand the idea that someone else would be in charge of me. I simply cannot understand that one would attempt to wield economic or political power over others.
* * *
I assume I’m in it for life at this point, but I’m no longer going to say I’m certain. That is to say, I no longer tell myself I’m certain in order to cement the idea in.
I think a lot of people get tattoos related to political identity in order to keep future-them from betraying that identity — veganism, straight edge, anarchism, what-have-you. It’s a precarious sort of “certainty,” and we all know drunks who laugh about their straight edge tattoos. Maybe one day I’ll laugh about the word “sedition” tattooed across my knuckles. I doubt it, but stranger things have happened.
* * *
I can’t always understand or empathize with people for whom anarchism was a phase. I try, but it’s not easy.
It’s possible that I got lucky, in that I wasn’t exposed to anarchism socially but came upon it politically. I was never a punk in high school, just a weirdo, so I was never exposed to anarchism through music or through social pressure. I chose anarchism after flirting noncommittally first with libertarianism (but quickly grew aware that corporations would run everything) and then social democracy and the green party (but the spark just wasn’t there).
I’ve found, however, that fewer people “sell out” or abandon anarchy altogether than I assumed when I was younger. I’ve found that most people don’t embrace a different political framework (state communism or liberalism, let’s say) as much as they step back from political engagement. The only part that was a “phase” for most people was the active involvement in protests and their affiliated social circles. Which makes sense to me: we’ve all got our lives to lead.
When I was nineteen, I was an anarchist and that was all I was and it consumed my entire being. I’m thirty-four now, and I’m also a writer and a geek and a musician and a thousand other things. I’m capable of getting as much emotional fulfillment from learning to craft a short story as I am from organizing a demonstration. I have as many friends who write novels or make weird costumes as I do friends who live and breath political change.
That, more than anything, is to what I attribute my ability to stay in the game to the degree that I’ve been able to. Stepping outside the A-team social scene, outside the echo chamber, is what keeps me grounded. Of course, sci-fi nerd culture is its own echo chamber too, because echo chambers are what humans make when we hang out with other humans — we’re social creatures, and our ideas influence one another’s. It’s just good to get out of one chamber and into another for awhile.
* * *
That first summer was magic. I mean that literally. Never before had I experienced such emotion, nor such power. We could do anything. We were going to change the world.
We were wrong, of course, and though we had a hand in stopping the neoliberal consensus of free trade, the world went on largely as it did before we took our queer bodies to the wheel.
But we were right, too. We changed our own worlds, each of us. We were stubborn, pretentious little shits who thought we could do anything we wanted and that the world owed us to change… and we were right on both counts and it worked. For long moments at a time, we became free.
I’ve got no regrets about teenage anarchist me. I did things I wouldn’t do now and I also accumulated all the trauma I’m still reeling from, but I’m not sorry. The only regret I’ll cop to is that one time, in Oakland all those years ago, after our freight-trains-verus-hitchhiking race down the coast from Portland, when everyone was giving one another stick-and-poke tattoos that said “up the punx” in cursive on our necks behind our ears… my only regret is that I should have gotten that tattoo. I didn’t, because I thought I might regret it.
* * *
I don’t want to be a rebel anymore. I feel older than I should, already, and I’ve got all the conflict trauma I need. I don’t want to be outside of society and I try not to be when I can. I just want to write novels and make jewelry and love my friends.
But I can’t stand to live in a world of oppression and not do anything about it. I can’t stand to be ruled by capitalism, the state, or patriarchy. I can’t stand my complicity in a white supremacist, colonialist society. I can’t stand to have a boot on my neck or my boot on someone else’s.
Some of my friends of all ages are in it for the fight, and I respect that, and I used to be. Me, I just want to win already. I want to live in comparative peace in a world of horizontalism where it doesn’t make me a rebel to think that I’m the one who is in charge of me.