Anarchy: Maybe it’s not what you think

The word “anarchy” invokes thoughts of riots, mayhem, chaos—but Reno’s anarchists say they’re more about peace, cooperation and individual freedom

“Resist and Destroy is not about causing chaos and starting riots. We are about destroying the pitiful system we are ruled by today and creating a better alternative.”

—Atheos, Resist and Destroy Coalition of Reno

These guys look the part. Young punks with signs and a black flag passed out fliers on Reno’s Riverwalk in downtown.

“Abolish capitalism.”

“Smash the state.”

“It is only after you have lost everything that you are free to do anything.”

A small band of self-described anarchists called the Resist and Destroy Coalition took to the streets of Reno only about three times this year. Then, things kind of fell apart, says 22-year-old Stephen.

“We had a group kind of going,” Stephen said. “But the police were really sarcastic, and people viewed it as a joke. We were just trying to open up people’s eyes to see that there’s literature out there, people like Chomsky with great writings. Everyone got really discouraged, though.”

“To be governed is to be kept under surveillance, inspected, spied upon, bossed, law-ridden, regulated, penned in …”

—Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, 1929

Mention the word “anarchy” to an adolescent male, and his eyes may light up. Anarchists look cool. They start fires and break stuff. They like to fight, to hassle cops, to mess with parking meters. We know this because the media tells us this.

But when it’s all said and done, the “mosh pit mayhem” side of anarchy shows, at best, an immature grasp of anarchist principles. At worst, it’s a political ruse used to discredit an otherwise thoughtful philosophical movement.

Though some of his friends are into graffiti and destruction of property, Stephen says that this behavior isn’t really a function of anarchy.

“That’s more of a youthful destruction,” he says, quoting the anarcho-punk band Crass: “ ‘Anarchy, violence, chaos—you mindless jerks, you’re just talking about the way the system works.’ Violence is the way the system works. [The government] keeps you in fear. Most anarchists go against that. They believe in change through knowledge.”

Stephen visited the RN&R office recently, hair styled into two symmetrical spikes, with a nose ring and a T-shirt with the circle-A anarchy sign printed over a quote from 19th century Scotch-German anarchist writer John Henry Mackay. Stephen looks like the kind of person that police might hassle downtown. In fact, he says police do hassle him for everything from curfew violations (though he’s 22) to loitering for sitting on a park bench.

But Stephen expresses his thoughts intelligently, and he’s read plenty of political books and zines—accepting nothing at face value, but thoughtfully questioning the implications of various points of view. He purchases reading material through the AK Press,, or at the Anarchist Book Collective on Haight Street in San Francisco. He reads books on anarchism, Marxism, fascism and the American prison industry.

“You’ve got to understand all kinds of government,” he says. “You’ve got to find a medium. The state is feeding you stuff and [the editor of an anarchist zine] might be feeding you stuff. People need to stop reading things and copying it, and start reading things and developing their own opinions.”

Stephen grew up in Reno. By the time he graduated from high school, he had attended Reno, McQueen, Hug, Washoe High, Independence, two schools in Sacramento and Spring Creek in Elko. He calls himself a troubled kid. But through early punk band influences, he started to believe that society could be better.

“It’d be nice if everyone could live together in peace and equality—no gods, no masters—but to achieve that is where the problem comes in,” he says. “Through chaos? Through peace? It gets borderline.”

A form of anarchy where everyone works together is described in Resist and Destroy’s eight-page zine: “We must keep our communities small enough for each person within that community to play an important part in keeping that community alive. We must replace hierarchy with self-determination.”

“Most protesters are what might be called feel-good anarchists. They don’t see much point in vandalizing Starbucks. Though they chant about resistance, they’d rather give a hug than smash a window. They talk endlessly about solidarity and obsessively worry that they might somehow be unconsciously perpetuating evil ‘power relationships.’ “

—Franklin Foer, The New Republic

This is anarchy as portrayed by the Chicago Tribune after protests this summer at the G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy: “The anarchists, unusually well organized for advocates of disorder, grouped under the banner of the Black Bloc, wearing black clothing, black masks and black helmets. They threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at police and smashed symbols of capitalism such as automated teller machines.”

The violence was contagious, news reports agreed. At the end of G-8, $20 million in property damage was reported. But all may not have been as it seemed, says John Johnson, the Reno publisher of a zine called Imagine: A Journal of Anarchism.

“It seemed so transparent that these alleged anarchists weren’t anarchists at all,” he says. “So I laughed it off. But then I talked to people who believed every word they were told.”

Johnson attributes the so-called anarchist violence at events like G-8 to either “naïve kids who didn’t know any better” or “government plants.”

The Resist & Destroy Coalition youths look the part of scary punk anarchists. But after three public awareness protests, the group kind of fell apart, says one member, who advocates change through “knowledge"—without breaking stuff.

Photo By David Robert

“If you read far enough down in the stories—and not all of these accounts made it into the newspaper—you’ll read quotes from observers who said they saw anarchists escorted in near peaceful protesters to start something,” Johnson said. “That was universal in every report. It’s a typical tactic of government to discredit a group by having its own provocateurs start something and then blame it on violent, ignorant protestors.”

An 18-year-old Black Bloc anarchist interviewed for a story online at says he experienced cop infiltrators first-hand during a small San Diego protest: “It was so obvious. These beefy, football-player types with their brand new Nike boots—most Black Bloc types are pierced, tattooed, skinny vegan kids. We eventually just outed them by walking alongside them with signs that had arrows and read, ‘Cops.’ These were the same guys hogging the TV cameras and shouting off the ‘pigs.’ “

Typecasting thousands of peaceful anti-globalization activists as violent, scary anarchists makes gaining public support easier for officials.

“It’s very convenient for the government to have anarchism,” Johnson says. “If it didn’t have anarchism, it would have to invent it.”

“Voting democracy, as anarchists point out, simply allows a majority to impose its will on a minority and is not necessarily participatory or direct. [Anarchists] continue the process of negotiation until all participants achieve consensus, until everyone—not merely a majority—has arrived at a viable decision. Anarchy proper usually works out to mean excruciatingly interminable meetings, rather than the mayhem the word evokes in most American imaginations.”

—Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams

The definition of anarchy varies with your perspective. If you’re writing a high school government textbook, you might pitch anarchy like the authors of Consent of the Governed: A Study of American Government: “The corrupt form of democracy is anarchy, which means ‘rule by no one.’ Anarchy is, therefore, not a form of government. Instead, it is a period of disorder often described as ‘mob rule.’ “

The Columbia Encyclopedia isn’t quite as dismissive: “Anarchism [is the] theory that equality and justice are to be sought through the abolition of the state and the substitution of free agreements between individuals.”

Other than an isolated person or group here and there, anarchy never really caught on in the United States, says Richard Davies, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. Davies specializes in 20th century U.S. politics.

“There is very little in the way of an anarchist tradition in America,” Davies says. “Though Thomas Paine had anarchist tendencies that you can see in Common Sense.”

Other short-lived examples of anarchism in America are tied to the labor movement or to utopian colonies. In the 1870s, the “Molly Maguires” protested working conditions in the Pennsylvania coalmines. These protesters were often labeled “anarchists.”

“That was a dirty word,” Davies says. But much of the violence that took place during protests was later attributed to the mine’s managers. “So they could blame the violence on the anarchists.”

The Chicago Haymarket riot in 1886 and the assassination of President McKinley in 1901 caused frightened lawmakers to forbid anarchists to enter the United States. In contrast, the individuals who raised a ruckus two years ago in Seattle and this year in Italy are tied, Davies says, to many different groups with many different agendas.

“What they’re protesting, as far as I can tell, is international trade, globalization, the consequences of the technology that you and I are using right now,” he says. He hasn’t heard much about “anarchist” groups in Reno.

“These young kids, I’m not sure what they’re up to,” Davies says. “But they’re not tying themselves to any major political tradition.”

The New Left movement of the 1960s may have incorporated the term anarchy, but these folks were largely just anti-establishment, in Davies’ view.

“The New Left was made up mostly of the sons and daughters of the upper middle class,” Davies says. “Most are working for IBM now. They didn’t want to destroy the government. They just wanted it to do something different. They were anti-war, anti-big business. The government was seen as an enemy, but it just needed reform—it didn’t need to be destroyed.”

“A government therefore is the most dangerous organization possible, especially when it is entrusted with military power.”

—Leo Tolstoy, 1900

It’s kind of a double life. John Johnson spends 40 hours a week behind a desk working for a large, profitable corporation. In his spare time, he puts out an anarchist journal “published irregularly” from his home a short drive from Reno.

Then again, it’s not really such a double life. Johnson, 34, says that he incorporates anarchism into everything he does. That includes a respectful attitude toward the animals that share the planet (he’s a vegan) and his house. “I am not their master,” he says. “They are not glorified knickknacks that I acquired.”

At his “day job,” Johnson writes in his most recent 68-page zine, he is “the boss of three to five people.”

“However, I don’t act like their boss. … I’ve quit referring to my assistant as ‘my assistant.’ Instead, he’s my partner.”

Though he believes government is corrupt and non-inclusive, Johnson doesn’t predict the end of the state anytime soon. Change through violence, he argues, isn’t acceptable for an anarchist, since a show of force implies an inherent power hierarchy.

“Anybody who uses intimidation or violence to further his views, that person should be participating in government,” Johnson says. “That’s how government works.”

For Johnson, the basic tenets of anarchy are simple. Individuals shouldn’t be forced to participate in anything they don’t believe in. Individuals should be free to do what makes them happy as long as they don’t hurt anyone.

“That’s it,” he says.

But that’s not exactly the first thing people think of when the political philosophy comes up in casual conversation.

“Anarchism has become so distorted that it no longer has any meaning other than nihilistic, negative and violent,” Johnson says.

In fact, Johnson and other like-minded anarchists are thinking that the word used to define what they believe may need changing.

“My vote is for ‘volunteerism,’ as opposed to ‘anarchism,’ “ he says. “It’s a positive name. Anarchy is defined by what it’s not. I’d rather be defined by what I am. I believe all associations should be voluntary.”

How does a college-educated professional become an anarchist? Johnson, a former Democrat, attributes his personal policy change to Bill Clinton.

“I voted for Clinton in 1992, and I had a lot of hope,” he says. “I’d become politically aware during the Reagan years. I thought it would all change if only we had a Democrat in office—no more corporations running the country, running the Pentagon, determining energy policy.”

It was pretty clear after Clinton took office, Johnson says, that nothing had really changed. He was disheartened. He began subscribing to publications that mentioned anarchism, including The Match, published since 1969. Johnson began corresponding with Match publisher Fred Woodward.

“I asked all the same naïve questions that people now ask me,” Johnson says. “What do you do with murderers? Do you open the jails? Who plows the roads in winter?”

So, with anarchism, who does plow the roads in winter?

Anarchist communities, through discussion and debate, would solve these problems on an individual basis.

“As you read more about it, the answers are obvious,” Johnson says. “It’s the simplicity that’s attractive. Government is complex. People don’t feel a part of it. They don’t feel like they can do anything.”

“When 2-year-olds have to be drugged into societal compliance, 6-year-olds gun down schoolmates and 40 to 50 million require psychoactive drugs to ward off serious depression, where are we heading?”

—John Zerzan, Anarchists Are Going to Eat Your Children & Other Myths, Misinformation & Misunderstanding

Much of the material distributed at Reno’s Resist & Destroy Coalition gatherings seemed to have originated in Eugene, Ore., where an anarchist subculture appears to be flourishing. In 1999, many purported anarchists from the Eugene community attended World Bank protests in Seattle. Some argued that destruction of property—a Starbucks window, a McDonald’s sign—is a defensible tactic anarchist tactic since government has yet to be abolished.

Writer John Zerzan of Eugene pushes for the end of the high-tech world as we know it. He’s read the 35,000-word Unabomber Manifesto and has corresponded and met with imprisoned Ted Kaczynski. Zerzan advocates something called anarcho-primitivism, a return to prehistoric times when, he says, everything was much better.

Johnson argues that Zerzan’s ideas are thoroughly unrealistic.

“It’s a pipe dream,” Johnson says. “It’ll never happen. ‘Anarcho-primitivism.’ Anyone who has to hyphenate his belief system is automatically suspect.”

Then again, given the volunteer aspect of anarchy, Johnson says that the Eugene community should be free to believe what they want.

“So if that’s what they believe, go do it—if you want to live in caves, go live in caves,” Johnson says.

Though the Resist & Destroy youths borrow from the works of Zerzan, Stephen says he hasn’t visited Eugene. Most of the Eugene literature came to Reno via punk bands that were passing through. It’s interesting enough as reading material, but Stephen doesn’t agree with everything he reads. The 22-year-old was just laid off from a Reno gaming equipment manufacturer but thinks he might have already found a new job. He hasn’t considered going to college.

Stephen says he believes that people could be capable of self-government where citizens wouldn’t get paid to perform tasks and wouldn’t get billed by others for goods or services received. In such a society, he says, you’d become a doctor because you wanted to be a doctor. And hopefully, somebody would want to become a doctor.

“Because we need doctors,” he says. “Otherwise if I fell down and broke my arm, I’d be screwed.”

Then Stephen points out another possible flaw in this utopian scheme.

“Selfishness gets in the way,” he says. “Why would I want to go to school for six years to be a doctor when someone else with no school gets the same as me?”

That’s why it’s hard, Stephen says, to live the philosophy.

“I wouldn’t be able to go down to 7-Eleven. To really be an anarchist, you’d have to sleep on the streets, not buy anything.”

Most people [read: parents] think of the whole anarchy movement, he says, as an expression of youthful rebellion.

“It’s kind of viewed as something you’ll grow out of," Stephen says. "Something you’ll give up and commit to other people’s ways."