One day last week, two people went jogging in a park in South Seattle. On their way back to their car, they were approached by two FBI agents who asked about last year's May Day protests. As you probably remember, May Day 2012 turned briefly chaotic when some demonstrators in Black Bloc clothes broke from the crowd to smash downtown windows and throw balloons filled with pink pigment at storefronts. (Among the casualties: windows at Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Niketown, and Forever 21, and one door of a federal courthouse.)
The joggers told the agents they had nothing to say, got in their car, and drove away. About 20 minutes later, the agents reportedly turned up at their home. Nobody answered the door.
Over the next few days, federal agents asking similar questions showed up at people's houses, schools, and workplaces, as well as at least one nonprofit (which serves homeless youth on Capitol Hill). According to sources—all of whom asked to remain anonymous—the agents drove SUVs, talked in a chatty manner, and dressed in Northwest business casual: jeans, plaid shirts, polar fleece. "Honestly," one source said, "at first I thought they were salesmen—maybe from a lawn service."
The FBI declined to comment on anything specific. Spokesperson Ayn Dietrich said, "We do all kinds of routine activities throughout the state on a given day."
The agents reportedly wanted to talk about May Day 2012 and, sometimes, the whereabouts of certain individuals. Law-enforcement officers, of course, are in the business of investigating crimes, not the business of trying to make people nervous about attending future protests. But the FBI agents' conspicuous arrival—indiscreetly showing up where people work, sleep, and exercise—just before May Day 2013 does not feel entirely coincidental.
In the United States, May Day has its roots in a famous 1886 Chicago protest—the Haymarket Affair—to standardize the eight-hour workday. After a bomb was supposedly thrown, Chicago police opened fire and killed several activists and (accidentally) several cops. (A subsequent trial failed to identify the bomber, but several activists were hanged anyway.) The holiday spread throughout the world, and in 1955, the Catholic Church dedicated May 1 to Saint Joseph the Worker.
After last year's May Day in Seattle, politicians, cops, journalists, and citizens hastened to dismiss the window-smashers as "idiots" and "thugs" whose acts were ill-informed and meaningless. We still don't know who those window-smashing demonstrators were. Some might have been idiots, some might have been esteemed scholars. It isn't hard to imagine former Yale associate professor David Graeber being among them—an anarchist activist and cofounder of Occupy Wall Street who has taken part in Black Bloc actions. He documents those experiments in a new book called The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement, published by Spiegel & Grau.
Either way, those few chaotic moments on May Day 2012 in Seattle probably achieved more than the window-smashers could've hoped for. The demonstrations kicked open a yearlong, citywide debate about protest and targeted property damage, anarchism and the Occupy movement. They also instigated a series of early-morning raids on "known" anarchists (as described in sealed search warrants later obtained by The Stranger), some of whom were already under surveillance by the FBI. A few people who weren't even in Seattle on May Day were jailed for months—including stints in solitary confinement—for refusing, Bartleby-like, to answer questions about other people's political beliefs. (In Herman Melville's story, Bartleby's quiet refusal to comply—his infamous "I would prefer not to"—also lands him in prison.)
Last year's window-smashing also opened a debate about how far the long arm of the law should be permitted to reach. Who among us, a year ago, would have argued that it was correct—or knew it was even legally possible—for federal agents to imprison people because they might know anarchists or might know people who might know something about a busted door?
Though The Democracy Project doesn't mention Seattle's protest last year, Graeber's rigorous but plainspoken book answers several of the questions that have been roiling Seattle in the past year. He combines decades of scholarship with on-the-ground experience as an activist, elegantly weaving together three major themes.
One: A firsthand account of the origins and progress of the Occupy movement, including explanations of its sometimes-mystifying-from-the-outside way of operating, such as its refusal to issue demands and its insistence on operating "horizontally" (consensus-based decision making, the people's mic, etc.) instead of developing a top-down leadership structure.
Two: A history of democracy, with special emphasis on the United States and the founding fathers, whose idea of "democracy" (many of them thought it was dangerous) is not our idea of "democracy" (which we profess to love so much, we use it as a pretext to invade other countries).
Three: A clearheaded discussion of "direct democracy" and anarchism.
Graeber became seriously interested in anarchism during 1990 fieldwork in an area of Madagascar where the state had basically shrunk to nothing. As he puts it in The Democracy Project:
If you propose the idea of anarchism to a roomful of ordinary people, someone will almost inevitably object: but of course we can't eliminate the police. If we do, people will simply start killing one another. To most, this seems simple common sense. The odd thing about this prediction is that it can be empirically tested; in fact, it frequently has been empirically tested. And it turns out to be false. True, there are one or two cases like Somalia, where the state broke down when people were already in the midst of a bloody civil war, and warlords did not immediately stop killing each other when it happened... But in most cases, as I myself observed in parts of rural Madagascar, very little happens... The police disappear, people stop paying taxes, otherwise they pretty much carry on as they had before. Certainly they do not break into a Hobbesian "war of all on all."
Because real-life functional anarchism is so unremarkable, Graeber says, we hardly think of it at all. In fact, while doing his Madagascar fieldwork, it took him some time to realize that he was living in a place where the state had disappeared. When he returned 20 years later, "the police had returned, taxes were once again being collected, but everyone also felt that violent crime had increased dramatically."
The question, he says, isn't whether a horizontally organized society—that is, one in which people have developed the social muscles to sort out their differences without resorting to guns and prisons—would work. It's why we tend to assume it'd look like Lord of the Flies, Mad Max, or some other pop-fiction parody. "The historical experience of what actually does happen in crisis situations," he writes, "demonstrates that even those who have not grown up in a culture of participatory democracy, if you take away their guns or ability to call their lawyers, can suddenly become extremely reasonable. This is all anarchists are really proposing to do."
It's exciting to read an intelligent person thinking about these ideas in a nonhistrionic way that is based on verifiable evidence, rational argument, and experience, instead of the ridiculous clichés of (a) "anarchists are idiots," or (b) "anyone who isn't an anarchist is an idiot." It's time to think about these issues a little more seriously. The Democracy Project hasn't shown up a moment too soon.
The Occupy movement, for all of its dramatic moments and strong emotions, was another excellent chance to think about—and experiment with—anarchist-inflected ways of group decision making.
Occupy's horizontal mode of organizing was hard-won. As Graeber reports, activists from the creaky Workers World Party tried to hijack Occupy's first "meeting" at Bowling Green Park—announced by, but not in any way organized by, Adbusters magazine—and turn it into a pro-WWP rally.
Graeber made a crack to one of the WWP leaders: "'Hey,' I said to him when he passed my way, 'you know, maybe you shouldn't advertise a General Assembly if you're not actually going to hold one.' I may have put it in a less polite way." The leader suggested that if Graeber didn't like it, he should leave. Which he did. Several other "horizontals" defected as well: young Wobblies, Japanese global- justice activists, anarchists. They held a general meeting, came up with a rough structure and process, and broke into working groups to think about tactics, outreach, and the other basic infrastructure of a protest.
And that was it. A few people sorting out a demonstration against Wall Street in a horizontal way had just kicked off a social movement that was about to go internationally viral.
Two months later, the Council on Foreign Relations would report that Occupy protests against "corporate greed and wealth inequality" had spread to 900 cities around the world. At the very least, the phenomenon guaranteed the reelection of President Barack Obama against the 1 percent caricature of Mitt Romney, and allowed him to explicitly talk about wealth inequality. Much more significantly, Graeber argues, it changed millions of people's ideas about what is politically and socially possible if they quit waiting to be told what to do and organize themselves. The message—"We are the 99 percent"—was strong. But the power of the spontaneous self-organization, without a central committee or blueprint, was even stronger. The question isn't "Where did Occupy go?" It's "How did such a radical experiment, forged on arguably the best-financed and best-policed acre on the planet, even get off the ground?"
Of course, consensus decision making can look both silly and tedious. In The Democracy Project, Graeber argues this is simply because we're not in the habit of collective decision making. We usually do it badly. That kind of process can be done well, efficiently, and entertainingly, but if it's ever going to work, we're going to have to practice.
The Democracy Project covers a lot of other ground: funny as well as chilling anecdotes from Occupy ("Another [woman] screamed and called the policeman fondling her a pervert, whereupon he and his fellow officers dragged her behind police lines and broke her wrists"); an analysis of how politicians and journalists attempted to ignore, discredit, intimidate, and co-opt what remained a stubbornly independent movement; and a tactical field guide for how to deal with police, reporters, and other demonstrators.
Graeber also talks about his experience with Black Bloc protests, including one in London in 2010 shortly before Occupy started. He got involved with a group called UK Uncut, which was indignant that the government's 2010 austerity plan—triple student fees, slash benefits to the sick and ill, close youth centers—would have been totally unnecessary if the government had bothered to collect billions of pounds in back taxes from large campaign contributors, including banks and cell-phone companies.
UK Uncut held classes and gave medical treatment in the lobbies of those businesses, and also decided to vandalize a few to draw attention to its cause. A few demonstrators, including Graeber, took some paint balloons—similar to the ones used last May Day—to Fortnum & Mason, which prided itself on selling the world's most expensive tea and biscuits and, according to Graeber, "had also somehow managed to avoid paying £40 million in taxes."
I arrived just as riot cops were sealing off the entryways and the last occupiers who didn't want to risk arrest were preparing to jump off the department store's vast marquee into the arms of surrounding protesters. The Black Bloc assembled, and after unleashing our few remaining balloons, we linked arms to hold off an advancing line of riot cops trying to clear the street so they could begin mass arrests. A few weeks later, in New York, my legs were still etched with welts and scrapes from being kicked in the shins on that occasion. (I remember thinking at the time that I now understood why ancient warriors wore greaves—if there are two opposing lines of shield-bearing warriors facing each other, the most obvious thing to do is to kick your opponent in the shins.)
So there you have it—your Black Bloc anarchist who used to teach at Yale and now teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and lectures at the London School of Economics.
In the past month, the Seattle Police Department and downtown businesses have vowed to prevent this year's May Day march from making a similar impression to last year's. A few weeks ago, interim Seattle police chief Jim Pugel already preordained a confrontation on KIRO News: "It is inevitable that we are going to have to use force. It is inevitable that police are going to have to detain people." A few days ago, the Puget Sound Business Journal reported that members of a downtown business association "will have staffers at the police special operations command post on May 1." Police and business owners are working together to make sure nothing happens.
And, of course, the FBI has been making the rounds, letting suspected activists know that no matter how strenuously our local talking heads try to dismiss them, their actions are all too significant.