Coffee, tea or anarchy?

Local anarchists come together for a six-hour struggle against the man

Radical youth: Riley works the door at the Anarchist Cafe.

Radical youth: Riley works the door at the Anarchist Cafe.

Photo By Dale Nelson

The few old-timers without barbs in their flesh, safety-pinned clothing or stylized haircuts stood out as iconoclasts among the crowd of a hundred or so youthful anarchists who gathered at Sacramento’s first Anarchist Cafe on February 26. The six-hour Washington Neighborhood Center gathering, billed as an event “for the exchange of anarchist ideas,” was heavy on fashion statements and, if not exactly light on politics, decidedly peaceful.

Rooftop and Melvis (except for guest speakers, the event was a first-name-only affair) spent the day tinkering on bikes in back of the building. Both seemed to prefer adjusting cables to being pinned down as anarchists. “I don’t really like labels,” Rooftop demurred, echoing an attitude shared by most of those questioned.

Back inside, anarchy prevailed—or, at least, talk of it did.

One of the first speakers was Harjit Gill, a young East Indian Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) organizer from the Bay Area who has been involved in efforts to obtain fair working conditions for truck drivers in the Modesto-Stockton area.

Gill said he appreciated the sense of community in the room, but he reminded his audience that the 250 truck drivers he represents, as well as “most average workers, are kind of put off by … my friends. By the way they look.” Nevertheless, he noted, when anarchists delivered food to picket lines during the recent strikes, even the most conservative drivers had been able to see past the costumes.

The predominant theme at the Anarchist Cafe was the struggle for unity against what speakers characterized as a police state.

Dean Johansson, a Sacramento civil-rights lawyer, said he had represented all 70 of those arrested during the June 2003 ministerial conference held in Sacramento—mostly on charges related to the city’s controversial parade ordinance. During his talk, he recalled the moment he became radicalized: It was at a 1980s Berkeley demonstration, he said, where someone next to him “got his head split open by the police.”

A former district attorney in Tulare County now in private practice, Johansson described some of his own experiences representing clients facing political charges. He also went to some pains to highlight the difference between what he characterized as practical rights vs. academic rights—in other words, what you can expect vs. what you are legally entitled to. As an example, he recounted being pulled over in Davis and being “triangulated” by officers out to find something irregular in his car. The situation, he said, changed immediately when his wife, alerted by a cell-phone call, arrived with a video camera.

“Nothing can combat the slide of our rights toward totalitarianism better than guerilla video,” said Johansson.

“Do not talk to the police,” he warned, emphasizing that simply because civil rights are spelled out in the Constitution, they cannot be taken for granted. “Police are trained to lie; they’re trained to exert dominance.”

Johansson nevertheless welcomed the police to the event, although he said they were undercover and unable to return his greeting, a line that has become a standard at such gatherings in recent years.Sacramento Police Department spokesman Justin Risley denied any such allegation. “That’s just not something we do,” he said in a phone interview. “The only time we would use undercover officers would be when any sort of criminal activity or plot was going on. I think it’s a real misunderstanding on the part of some people.”

The final speaker of the evening was Josh Harper, a 30-year-old animal-rights activist currently under federal indictment. His crime, he said, was a letter-writing and e-mail campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences that “caused so much financial damage it’s equivalent to terrorism.”

Harper spoke glowingly of animal-rights groups in England whose tenacity had put one company, Consort Kennels, out of business.

In another case, activists threw so many rocks at the house of the owner of Hillgrove Farm that his roof collapsed.

“Our allegiance needs to be to each other,” Harper said, warming to his theme and becoming animated. “For too long we have been bound by tactical dogmatism,” which has crippled the opposition to the “forces that are allied against us.”

Sacramento Food Not Bombs provided a free vegetarian lunch for anyone who dropped by, anarchist or not.

The following Wednesday, a handful of locals showed up for the weekly anarchy discussions at a Midtown pizza joint, where definitions and goals appeared to be the hot topics.

Ivan, a middle-aged Ukrainian who has been in Sacramento two weeks, described himself as an “anarcho-communist,” as opposed to an “anarcho-syndicalist.” Tioga, Chris and Megan said they were not necessarily anarchists but wanted to take part in a discussion that led to what Tioga called “a chance for community.”

“It’s more of the principle,” he emphasized. “We all want to be self-governed,” but he cautioned against universal self-government, complaining that “too many times I’ve had my toes stepped on” by the kind of people the state is charged with protecting the rest of us from.

Gordon, a recent arrival from Humboldt County, recounted his experiences with logging protesters who have assembled for the world’s largest arboreal demonstration. “We lose a lot,” he said, “but I’ve been blessed to be part of a functioning anarchist circle.” He felt the forest-defense effort was “legitimate anarchist resistance” to the power of capital and the state. “Just the fact that they sometimes win is enough,” he said.

Not everyone was as eager to share, at least with a journalist present. The group that handed out the weekly reading material refused to speak about its mission, instead handing out a pamphlet on how to avoid testifying before a grand jury. The group complained of a low turnout, called the meeting off and went home.