It was late November 1999, and there was a buzz among activists organizing the protest against the World Trade Organization in Seattle: “The Eugene anarchists are coming, the Eugene anarchists are coming!”
The thousands of protesters, ranging from animal rights activists to labor union representatives, were either apprehensive or excited about the prospect of Eugene anarchists introducing violence into the protest.
Eugene-based anarchist writer John Zerzan remembers thinking the hype was silly.
“We were just there to see what was going on,” he said. “We didn’t have any big plans.”
But as the protest reached its zenith, network television cameras filmed black-clad protesters, some who claimed to be anarchists, as they broke windows at a Starbucks Coffee and kicked down the “N-I-K-E” letters of the NikeTown Seattle facade.
Someone said the anarchists were from Eugene, and a national image was born. Eugene had became known across the country as a hotbed for anarchism.
In many ways, that image is accurate. Area anarchists say that Eugene certainly doesn’t have the biggest anarchist community in the country, but they contend Eugene is a hub of anarchist activity and thought in the Pacific Northwest.
And many say Eugene’s anarchist community is growing.
“Anarchy is definitely growing,” said Zak, a self-proclaimed anarchist who didn’t want to give his last name. “It’s pretty much taking over progressive issues in general.”
Most Eugene anarchists say they dream of a highly decentralized world rid of oppression or authoritarianism. They believe people can govern themselves at a local level and that government and police are either irrelevant or oppressive. They rail against capitalism, consumerism, sexism and technology, though many anarchists extensively use the Internet to organize protests.
Anarchists commonly use phrases such as “the system” and “patriarchy” when they say civilization has gone horribly wrong, and say that only a revolution and fundamental change in world structures could make the world a better place.
The most radical anarchists believe that opposing police and government in street rumbles is the best way to work toward a decentralized utopia. On the other end of the anarchist philosophical spectrum, many anarchists are more passive and believe that anarchism is the inevitable end to natural human evolution. Most anarchists fall somewhere between these two extremes.
Reflecting this division within the anarchist community, Eugene anarchist activity is Janus-faced. Headline-grabbing violent protests counterbalance peaceful organizations and programs aimed at cultivating strong community ties.
Riots in the streets
The first direct-action protest that put Eugene anarchism in the spotlight was the vandalism of NikeTown Eugene in November 1998, when a handful of anarchists trashed the inside of the store.
The anarchist community had been developing in the Whiteaker area for a few years before the vandalism, and anarchists were beginning to make their presence known.
The NikeTown attack ” was a step forward,” Zerzan said. “It was beginning to be announced that something was going on.”
In June 1999, an anarchist rally in downtown turned into a five-hour riot of vandalism, looting and defying police. Then came the World Trade Organization protest, when Eugene anarchists participated in the first of a worldwide series of massive protests against international institutions.
On April 24, 2000, about 100 protesters, many of them anarchists, took to the streets to protest the imprisonment of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is on death row for killing a police officer. Last June, a re-enactment of the 1999 protest-turned-riot led to a large protest and the arrest of more than 60 people, including two anarchists who were convicted of arson.
Area anarchists say these protests are vital to their community because they bring attention to anarchist ideas, as well as help anarchists make connections with other activists.
“For a lot of people, it’s the first time defying authority for a moral conviction,” anarchist Marshall Kirkpatrick said. “Making that step is a real meaningful opportunity for some people. It’s one thing for someone to have a philosophical opinion of the world, and it’s another to put your safety on the line as many of us do.”
Kirkpatrick and other anarchists expect more large-scale protests this year in Eugene and throughout the world.
“This movement is really going to be big, starting this year,” Zerzan said. “It’s just going to make Seattle and all that look pretty small.”
Such massive protests have made their mark in the Eugene community, specifically in police policy. Since the Eugene Police Department was caught off-guard by the June 1999 riot, the department and the Police Commission have analyzed and altered crowd-control tactics and use-of-force policies.
Within the Whiteaker neighborhood, anarchist slogans are often spray-painted on walls, and the EPD Public Safety station in the area has been vandalized numerous times. But police are hesitant to attribute these crimes to anarchists, stating that copycat vandals might be to blame.
“Anarchist stuff is really a non-issue,” said EPD officer Richard Bremer, the Whiteaker Public Safety Station manager. “They’re here. We co-exist, and everybody goes about their business.”
But anarchists generally disagree, saying they are often targeted by police. Eugene anarchists have actively participated in the Independent Police Review Project, a community organization that area activists founded last summer as a forum for complaints about the EPD.
Free food, radical thought
Between protests, anarchists try to cultivate a community ambiance in the Whiteaker area through projects offering free food and radical thought. Eugene anarchism often takes on a social feel more than a revolutionary one.
Organizers of Eugene’s version of Food Not Bombs cook and serve free, vegan meals at the Washington-Jefferson Park every day at 4 p.m., except Mondays. Food Not Bombs, a nationwide program, was founded in 1980 in Boston to protest hunger and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Until recently, one could see dozens of people every morning at West Third Avenue and Van Buren Street drinking coffee and socializing at an event dubbed “CafŽ Anarquista.” This activity has lagged recently because some organizers moved out of the area and because of bad weather. Though mostly non-confrontational, CafŽ Anarquista organizers had a run-in with the EPD last summer when several people were ticketed for blocking the sidewalk.
At the same location, The Shamrock Info-Shop, which opened in December, is an anarchist hangout with a full kitchen and a library of radical literature.
“Its intent is to extend the amount of literature to the public,” said Cheryl Reinhart, who owns the 60-year-old house where the Info-Shop is located. “It’s a really important thing for our neighborhood because Whiteaker doesn’t have one place to gather where people don’t have to pay for something.”
Reinhart, who doesn’t consider herself an anarchist, hopes the Info-Shop will become the hub for another ongoing Whiteaker project called Free Skool, which is organized by various community members and offers grassroots clinics on topics ranging from wilderness survival to flu immunizations.
Also, the Subversive Pillow Theatre, an activist-organized weekly showing of radical films and videos, might move from the Grower’s Market Building at 454 Willamette St. to the Info-Shop.
On the airwaves, Radio Free Cascadia broadcasts from the Whiteaker area, and television shows Cascadia Alive! and Anarchist Forum air on cable access.
Dreams of re
Despite all this activity, there is a sense of cynicism and hopelessness among many Eugene anarchists. Few anarchists expect
to see a sweeping revolution in America during their lifetimes.
“There used to be more idealism and optimism,” Zerzan said, describing the ’60s activist movement when he was first introduced to radical thought. “Today, somebody will ask even the people willing to fight in the streets if they think they’ll win, and they’ll say ‘no.'”
This cynicism is understandable. Every major American institution, from police to government, directly stands in the way of the anarchist cause.
Still, some anarchists, such as Zerzan, are optimistic that some type of change will occur.
“Who knows, maybe we won’t get anywhere,” Zerzan said. “But I think there’s a worldwide movement starting, and we’re going to see how bad people think things are, how badly they want freedom and health, life and authenticity.”
There is also an understanding among many anarchists that a new form of protest is needed to accompany or replace the mass street protests the world has seen during the past two years.
“Unfortunately, police in this town and others have figured out how to stop street protests,” said an area anarchist using the pseudonym Amanda West.
West said new tactics should be devised that would rally the larger community around the anarchist cause.
“Mass change isn’t going to come from a bunch of black-clad kids in Whiteaker,” she said. “I don’t think the world is going to change tomorrow. Nobody knows what is going to happen, but I do have great hope that something will happen.”