Smashy Smashy sits down with Dan, a veteran anarchist community organizer, to talk about the work he’s been doing lately with Anarchist People of Color (APOC) and the Native Resistance Network.
Dan lives in New York City and works part-time as a tech for a construction firm. Smashy Smashy caught up with Dan at the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair. To read our full coverage of the bookfair – click here.
Smashy: Hey Dan, thanks for making the time to talk with us. What kinds of things have you worked on?
Dan: I used to be in Direct Action Network in the early 2000s. I was unemployed then, so I got a shit ton of work done, but that runs out.
I’ve done a bunch of Palestine solidarity work. There were a bunch of people who went in there in 2003, and I was kind of the person on the phone with the people over there, asking them what they needed and getting reports out for them. Posting shit on the web. It was pretty crazy because you’re dealing with people you can’t see who you know are somewhere really intense. I’d get phone calls at like 4am from people who had just been beat up by the Israeli Police.
Now I’m working with a group called Native Resistance. It was started by three Native women who got a bunch of people together to work on Native issues during Occupy Wall Street. We tried to have the meetings in the common spaces at Occupy Wall Street, and that didn’t really work. We learned that we had to be really intentional about who we work with or people will come in who don’t really understand the issues and aren’t respectful to the people in the group.
So now we have our meetings in ABC No Rio, a community space in the Lower East Side that’s been around for twenty years. They’ve been really welcoming to us. They have weekly punk shows, a print shop and graphics studio, a computer lab. They do a lot of community stuff, especially around the arts. So we get space from them all the time, and it’s nice because it’s private, and we need to be really intentional about who we let in. It’s a group of Native people and allies, and I’m there as an ally.
Native Resistance is a good group of people, in their twenties up to their sixties and seventies. So we deal with a lot of different issues than your typical anarchist punk crowd where everybody’s in their twenties, and nobody’s had kids or really been involved in anything outside of their scene. Right now we do mostly educational work, but we’d like to work toward doing actions.
Smashy: Have you ever considered doing paid activist or organizing work?
Dan: No, it’s kind of a conscious choice not to. If you start doing this work for a job, you end up in the NGO world, and I don’t really know how to navigate that world. I know people that can do their own stuff within organizations that aren’t horizontal, but it’s not something I want to spend a lot of time on and be miserable about and get stuck in. I try to maintain enough hours so that I can pay rent and do what I want on the side.
Smashy: You helped facilitate the workshop yesterday about organizing with Anarchist People of Color (APOC), a movement you’ve been closely involved with since its founding in Detroit in 2003. Can you talk a little bit about how you’ve seen that movement evolve?
Dan: Well, the APOC scenes now are different than the ones that preceded the Detroit conference. When it started, it was people who were already political and were already anarchists and wanted their own space because they couldn’t talk about what they wanted to talk about in scenes that were mostly white middle-class people. That’s why APOC is around. Same thing as why a women’s group or an LGBTQ group would start.
There was a lot of tension about whether or not to make it a national group with points of unity, and all that kind of shit – I don’t really like that idea. Everybody has different opinions about what’s important, nobody was really coming from a common background. Except that we’re all anarchists, but all of our personal backgrounds were different.
In New York, there’s probably been four or five different waves of APOC that have happened. It’s really interesting to me. People are starting from square one and are getting their introduction to what politics means in the United States and their sense of what an “anarchist” is from their involvement in the group. It’s a good space – I know a lot of people who wouldn’t even be in politics anymore if APOC weren’t around. A lot of people come into these really alienating scenes, and they’re like everybody on the left is an asshole. Even APOC scenes can be really alienating, but at least there’s a chance that I can be treated like a person in this space, you know?
Smashy: Right on, so how does being an anarchist inform the organizing work that you do?
Dan: Right now, I really like working with Native Resistance – it’s like half anarchists. Not everybody’s an anarchist – it’s good. The anarchists that are in the group aren’t pushing our agenda.
We’re actually coming up with a mission statement, and one of the things that everybody is agreeing on is that we should be anti-capitalist, and that’s anarchist. And the other thing is questioning the role of the state, and nobody seems to have a problem with that. Which is great because some people are socialists. We have to write it in a way that isn’t like “fuck everything.” They trusted me to write it, which is cool – but I can’t say “smash the state” or anything like that.
To me, “anarchist” means horizontal organizing. It means everything that’s not the state. I’m closest to being a syndicalist – I do believe in organization, and people stepping up to be leaders. A lot of people who identify as anarchists don’t seem to want to take on responsibilities.
I think a lot of it is that I’m going to be 45 – I’m from a different generation. A lot of anarchists are in college or in their twenties, and they have a different idea of what responsibility means. I see more people dropping the ball and not even feeling sorry about it. The flakiness thing – I see more of that these days.
Also, the technology available to us is so different. Even compared to ten years ago. Like, I didn’t grow up with the Internet. I don’t even use social media, but I get the benefits third-hand. Everybody’s always talking about the next big thing.
Smashy: Have you seen people leave the anarchist movement?
Dan: Yeah, sure. A lot of people go to grad school. One person in APOC said, “the most anti-revolutionary thing a person can do is go to grad school.” And I don’t necessarily believe that, but it does take people out for a long time, and they don’t always come back.
I mean, some people go from being in the black bloc to being Maoists, but a lot of that I see as anarchists not addressing their shit, and there being too many political groups that don’t have political discussions.
There are people coming into APOC who’ve never had a political discussion. Back in 2000, everything was political – we were always asking, what kind of anarchist are you? There were all these questions about what’s our relationship to the other political groups. These discussions weren’t always productive, but they happened all the time and were on people’s minds.
People in New York seem to just separate and not have any cross-over. There’s lots of events that 20 people go to, but nothing that everybody puts aside their differences for to rally around together.
I know somebody who works in prisons, advocating for better conditions, and some anarchists give her a hard time for working toward reform instead of revolutionary change. But, it’s like, prison abolition is what we work toward, but it’s not going to happen tomorrow.
Smashy: You’ve been coming up here to the Montreal Anarchist Book Fair for years now. What is it about the book fair that keeps you coming back?
Dan: Well, the Montreal Book Fair used to have a lot of cross-over from people working on stuff from throughout the Northeast and Canada, and they’ve always had really good discussions about imperialism.
In New York, if I mention settler colonialism, a lot of people aren’t even going to know what that means. There’s all these radical political affiliations that don’t have that as a cornerstone of their political ideals. It’s really problematic that the fact that there’s all these people who used to live here and we benefit from their displacement isn’t part of the conversation.
People don’t realize that they’re also settlers and they repeat the same dynamics as the Founding Fathers. They organize like conquistadors competing for the attention of the masses. It’s one of the really frustrating things to observe. Yes, we are settlers, and we need to speak about our different issues in ways that respect that.
Smashy: How do you see the intersection of patriarchy and white supremacy playing out in the work you do?
Dan: A lot of the tensions within APOC have to do with that. There are still guys taking up a lot of the space. And, women who support the guy who’s taking up all the space just because he’s saying the right shit about hetero patriarchy.
If people don’t recognize the hypocrisy of the space, then it gets into really fucked up personal dynamics. There’s a lot of personalities involved in activism. If you don’t have those political discussions, you’re not going to recognize what’s happening right in front of you. The APOC space has language that’s similar but slightly different. The emphasis is on different things. That’s really important, you get the chance to learn about different stuff depending on the group you’re in.
Smashy: For sure, but Anarchy doesn’t mean that everybody does the same thing or talks exactly the same amount as everybody else – what do you think the role of leadership is in all this stuff?
Dan: I think one good thing about anarchism is that you don’t have to have a president all the time. The leadership role is changed. If somebody has expertise, they talk more, and you really need that sometimes because people don’t always know what the fuck they’re talking about.
Like I was organizing the Anarchist Book Fair in New York, and I had to play the leadership role in insisting that they provide child care. That’s a leadership role – to call people out on stuff.
It isn’t that you’re “higher” than other people. It’s about stepping up. In Native Resistance Network, we don’t really have a structure – we have a circle of trust among people who’ve been working together for a year and a half now and can work autonomously as individuals or small groups and still do right by the larger group.
We recently had to kick somebody out. Interestingly, the people who we’ve had to kick out have been Native people. One for being sexist. One for being unaccountable about the messages that she was putting out there. Another for being an alcoholic. There are so many issues that you have to grapple with just to work with people.
Smashy: What thoughts do you have for people interested in working as an ally like you do?
Dan: One thing that I’m noticing a lot is people making suggestions for Native communities instead of recognizing that these communities have existed for a long time and would probably be okay if given the right kinds of support.
That’s why I like INCITE!, and their book “The Color of Violence.” Incite is a group of radical women of color who work with communities around the U.S. to figure out how to solve their own problems without State intervention and is developing models that could potentially work for everyone without using State resources.
Andrea Smith of Incite! is a really good source for transformative justice. We’ve been talking about putting together a Native Women’s led grassroots conference in New York in the next couple of years and inviting her.
Smashy: What’s the biggest thing that keeps you involved in movement work, especially since you aren’t getting paid and it can be so frustrating?
Dan: Well, the way that things are going now, in my lifetime, there might not be any breathable air.
Back in the seventies, there were cartoons on TV about how we needed to do stuff about the environment. By the nineties, that was all gone – and the messages were all about how good industrialism was. And, now, there’s freak storms almost every month.
In New York, it’s really expensive and most people don’t make a shit ton of money. Just to pay rent, people work two or three jobs. I have enough time to work on stuff, and I know where to look for information and good people to work with.
Smashy: What kinds of progress have you seen come out of the Anarchist movement in the last couple decades?
Dan: One big thing I’ve seen is the increased emphasis on people working together. A lot of the anarchists who went to grad school are now working with communities on collective decision-making.
That’s a pretty huge deal given how fucked up NGOs are. And the majority of NGOs are still really patriarchal, but I see a lot of groups that have a lot more respect for the people that they’re working with, and I think a lot of that comes from the Global Justice Movement.
Occupy Wall Street wouldn’t have happened without the Global Justice movement. So many of the people who did the research and provided the knowledge were from the earlier movement. So, no, we haven’t smashed the state, but at least, the state can’t hide behind the same kind of propaganda that it used to.
Smashy: What do you see in the movement today that excites you and makes you feel hopeful?
Dan: For me, the conversation about settler colonialism is really important. If you actually take to heart that you’re not from the land that you’re on, it turns a lot of shit upside down. I also find a lot of strength in the Native communities I work with.
What inspires me most is the thought that something big is going to happen. It might not come from us. Like, the earth might just do something that changes the geopolitical structure. It’s really hard to tell. But, whatever happens, people are going to survive the end of the world. And, when it does, if we haven’t been working for a better thing, and we don’t have tools for making things different, we’re just to re-create the same power structures, and they’ll be just as unsustainable.
Smashy: What do you think the biggest challenges are to connecting with most white Americans?
Dan: Gun control is a really interesting thing – people are so fixated on their guns and the black president. That’s problematic. And media’s a distraction. Even Facebook.
Smashy: How did you get into politics?
Dan: I grew up in a middle class neighborhood in Jersey that was mostly white. As a kid I had the feeling that things weren’t right, but I didn’t have access to resources to really understand what was going on. There’s no info shop in the suburbs of central Jersey, haha. If you’re curious about something, you have to ask somebody before you can find the answer. My parents provided the standard answers – you go to college, you get a job, you get a pension. But that world is all falling apart. It’s almost like I’m waiting for all this stuff to fall apart.
But that frustration with the world falling apart leads to really fucked up crime. There was an event just a couple weeks ago where there was a random shooting of a black gay man just a couple blocks down from the Stonewall where the famous standoff happened. You hear crazy stories about people killing their families or holding a store hostage. Back when I was in college, kids wanted to do something to “stick it to the man” because they knew instinctively that the State was fucked up, but there was no anarchist scene that was talking to them about politics. But the skin heads were, so people became skin heads. That’s one of the failures of anarchism, not the philosophy, but the people, not stepping in and connecting with people.
I was a punk when i was a kid, but the closet thing to radicalism I saw was people protesting against the Iraq war or anti-nuke stuff or some environmental stuff, but nothing I really related to. In part, because I was a brown person trying to navigate a white world. Villanova, where I went to college, only had a tiny percentage of people of color – they were either playing sports or in the math department. I grew up around the white community, and all the little things that were kind of questionable to me started making more sense as I got to school and started reading more and connecting more with people who were radical.
Assimilation is a difficult issue. We have conversations about it in Native Resistance, and how it affects the communities that we work with. Some of them have casinos, and that’s how they feed themselves. They don’t tend to be the people that we work with, but there’s a whole issue about who speaks for the Native communities. like the other month, this group of Lakota grandmothers came through and this guy who was with them kept talking about “half breeds,” and that was really problematic for our group, a lot of whom are mixed. It’s really, really complicated stuff.
Smashy: Thanks for your time, can we run this interview with your full name?
Dan: I’d rather you didn’t. All this crazy shit that’s going on. They just assassinated some guy who’s connected to the Boston marathon bombing just because he was “radicalized.”
You can talk about anarchists being radicalized. It’s a next step for anybody who has any political identification that isn’t Democrat or Republican to be considered “radicalized.”
I work with a person who’s nephew got wrapped up in one on of those domestic terrorism cases – almost all of them involve entrapment. Maybe the Boston bombers were provoked by the FBI – they whole story is really sketchy. It’s a really scary thing for any radical or activist.