Occupy Boston takes a page from the radical underground

The Anarchist's Playbook
By LIZ PELLY  |  October 12, 2011


Just hours after his men finished wiping the Greenway's manicured gardens with the bellies, knees, and faces of Occupy Boston last Tuesday, the BPD top cop attempted to create dissent by blaming a familiar bogeyman: the "anarchists."

BPD Commissioner Ed Davis told the BostonHerald on Tuesday that he had no problem with the real protesters. "The [Occupation] group that was here for the first 10 days was working very closely with us," he said, "but they warned us yesterday morning that a new group, the anarchists, wanted to take control."

Occupy Boston scoffed at that statement — suggesting that the BPD was using a loaded term to turn public opinion against a nonviolent movement. "Any 'anarchists' who tried to disrupt the peaceful protests were BPD plants," the group tweeted from its official @occupy_boston account. "Our anarchists linked arms and sang songs. Peacefully."

In fact, the Occupy movement is deeply rooted in anarchist traditions and values. Many of the national Occupy movement's organizational tools — the lengthy general assemblies, the finger-waggling exercises in consensus-building, the free food and clothing available throughout camp — come from anarchist models of direct action, horizontal organizing, and gift economies.

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In Boston specifically, Occupy draws on the experiences of the local direct-action activist community: the anarchists and DIY enthusiasts who have long organized non-hierarchically in collective houses and radical book shops. The current occupation in Dewey Square is ultimately providing a national stage for a fringe population that has espoused these anti-corporate ideals for years. But suddenly — as the protesters chanted to the BPD on Sunday night — "the whole world is watching."

Zaina (the activists interviewed asked that we not use their last names) is a 20-year-old BU student who volunteers in Occupy Boston's food tent. She's also a veteran of Food Not Bombs, an international grassroots network of independent groups that serve free vegetarian meals to all comers. Using mostly salvaged food, Food Not Bombs, like Occupy, is distinctly anti-capitalist. Before the Occupation, FNB's focus was on providing two meals a week — one in Central Square, one in Boston Common — mostly to homeless people and traveling kids. Now, Zaina and other FNB regulars work alongside other Occupy volunteers, serving food around the clock to the camp's residents and visitors; they've already fed hundreds.

In the next tent over from food, the "Really Really Free Market" offers a space where anyone can drop off unwanted items (mostly clothing) and/or pick up something they need — for free. It's based on the radical anarchist concept of a "gift economy." In stark contrast to market economies, there's no expectation of direct compensation for giving. Local collective houses organized RRFMs in Allston's Ringer Park throughout this past summer.

But the influence of anarchist culture on the Occupation goes beyond the notion of a free exchange of goods and services. For good or ill, the interminable, self-involved "general assemblies" — something often picked out as a weakness of the Occupy movement — also have their roots in the anarchist underground. It's called "horizontal organizing," decision-making without a command hierarchy or a leader.

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