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Free radicals (continued)

Related stories

Resisting compromise: For all the Democratic organizers' well-laid plans, protesters managed to engage delegates directly and even to escape their cage. By Margaret Doris.

Dissenters' lament: As the Democratic National Convention heads to town, with its usual posse of protesters, Boston is preparing for the worst. By David S. Bernstein.

Thursday, July 29. During the afternoon of the Day of Action, John Kerry’s nomination day, the anarchists march and march and march. A sweaty storm of flapping bandannas, pumping fists, and thumping drums, they stomp along the streets of Boston, through Back Bay and the Financial District, down Chinatown’s Kneeland Street, and past City Hall Plaza. They clamor through wealthy shopping districts, past businessmen in expensive suits, teenage jocks in Red Sox hats, grandmotherly women in pineapple-patterned shirts. All along the route, they chant, "Police state: shut it down!" In the Financial District, they scream, "Banks are thieves!" At boutique customers, they yell, "The bombs are dropping! Stop your fucking shopping!"

Mo Rocca, Daily Show correspondent and VH-1 talking head, is walking down Newbury Street when the raucous gang passes. "For anarchists, they’re awfully disorganized," he deadpans.

The BTS technically holds the permit for the "No Blood for Oil" parade, but only a few members, including Elly, Emma, and Evan, join the march. Earlier in the day, there was a Critical Mass event; about 100 cyclists rode through Downtown Boston, disrupting traffic. No one was arrested, so many of the riders are now here. Along with some kids, Ben from Ohio dons a pirate costume; they wave a black flag, modeled after a pirate ship’s mast, that bears an anarchy symbol and a skull and crossbones made of a wrench and a slingshot.

Policemen and photographers line the sidewalks. A police helicopter hovers above. As the feisty anarcho-mob floods Canal Street near the FleetCenter, a dozen soldiers appear on an elevated highway, peering down like archers guarding a medieval castle. "Get the soldiers off the streets!" demand the protesters. The soldiers stare. A middle-aged woman with a megaphone heckles them. They keep staring.

Then a bandanna-masked protester lights a two-faced effigy of Kerry and Bush. The cops don’t stop him. Photographers surround the fire. People push and shove. A girl tosses an American flag onto the fiery pile; she and the igniter dance wildly, like in a scene from Lord of the Flies. As the heap smokes, Sander Hicks, founder of the independent publishing house Soft Skull Press, tosses a copy of the controversial Bush biography Fortunate Son onto the ashes. Within minutes, a phalanx of riot cops files in, plastic handcuffs looped on their black uniforms and wooden batons in hand. They face the crowd.

At some point, things break loose. A wiry kid has been arrested, dragged off by his arms, but no one knows why. And so people run. They chant, "Let him go! Let him go!" Bodies encircle policemen. Someone hollers, "Police riot!" Shutters snap, elbows fly. A policeman in sunglasses tells a surging throng of photographers, pirates, and protesters to push back: "I have to pull my officers out, so just give us some room." A second later, a cop’s navy-blue hat flies off his head. He lunges for the 28-year-old protester he thinks snatched it — a kid from Quincy everyone knows as Nick, who ends up thrown to the ground, hauled away in handcuffs, and charged with assault and battery on a public official. A third kid, an 18-year-old from Jamaica Plain, gets caught up in the mess and is escorted away, a yellow paper scrap from the National Lawyers Guild clenched in his teeth. His charge is disturbing the peace.

(As it turns out, the first person arrested was one of the pirates, who wore a papier-mâché pirate’s hook over his right hand. The police will later insist that the hook looked like a fake Molotov cocktail, and will charge the 18-year-old with possession of a hoax device.)

Later, after everything’s calmed and the anti-war march heads back to Boston Common for a rally, Ben comes over. Apparently, his pirate gang had to ask the cops for directions to the march. "We left late," he laughs. "So we saw these cops and we were like, ‘Hey there, which way to the protest?’ They were like, ‘You’re anarchists — we can’t tell you what to do.’ But then they laughed and gave us directions anyway."

As for the decentralized actions, posts on Boston’s Indymedia Web site, an online activists’ clearinghouse, testify that two protesters who unfurled an anarchist banner in the West Virginia delegates’ section at the FleetCenter were escorted away by police, but not arrested. By the Marriott Hotel Long Wharf, where the Arizona delegation stayed, protesters tried to prevent delegates from boarding buses, in a street-theater representation of the Department of Homeland Security stopping immigrants from crossing the border. Across the river, in Cambridge, four people rushed into a Gap on Mass Ave; according to Cambridge police, they spray-painted mannequins and turned over displays. Funny thing: vandals hit the same Gap in 2001, drawing anarchy symbols and the phrase MUST CRUSH CAPITALISM on its windows.

Meanwhile, back on Boston Common, Evan Greer takes the stage and starts singing about tear gas.


Wednesday, August 4. Two weeks ago, BTS members scheduled their final meeting for tonight, despite concerns that some protesters might still be in the slammer. But no one is; the three demonstrators who did get arrested on the Day of Action last Thursday, none of whom shows up this evening, were all bailed out the same day. Mike and Shane, the two men everyone believed were cops, aren’t here, either. But 21 others are, including Elly, Frank, Brian, Tania, Mothra, Will, Emma, and Evan.

The last-ever BTS meeting is unlike any other: no police-go-home spiel, no insistence that the reporter in the room doesn’t take notes, no icebreaker introductions. Instead, it’s like a wrap party: Emma passes around chocolate; Elly distributes hand-outs covering outstanding issues (fixing a broken doorknob at the Community Church, a letter from the restaurant below the Convergence Center alleging that protesters ate from the trash in front of patrons). But the most important issue at hand is perhaps the group’s gravest yet: whether to kill the Bl(A)ck Tea Society or to keep it alive.

Many propose that the group should die — that was the original plan, after all. But some argue that the BTS received so much press that its "brand name" (as someone actually calls it) shouldn’t be abandoned. Others despise this argument; attracting media attention, they say, was supposed to be a means to an end, not the end in itself. And so someone suggests that they take a cue from the Earth Liberation Front — an underground group that functions as a press office for people who destroy economic targets but don’t harm people — and turn the Bl(A)ck Tea Society essentially into a publicity group. That way, anonymous affinity groups could perform individual actions relating to electoral politics all over the country and claim them in BTS’s name. It’s meant as a joke, really, but some people don’t like it. Everything’s so tense that people start trickling out before the meeting’s through, including me. For the first time that I’ve witnessed, the Bl(A)ck Tea Society isn’t achieving consensus easily.

In the end, however, a decision is reached: the Bl(A)ck Tea Society is finished. The anti-corporate, anti-war, anti-authoritarian organization may not have completed the American Revolution, or even dismantled the machines at all the local Starbucks, but the group did show that radical dreams haven’t died. In the process, with decentralized direct action, they incubated a new dissident tactic based on unpredictability and randomness that future protesters can build upon and refine.

"Their demand for all-accelerated entrance into twentieth-century Utopia," Norman Mailer wrote of ’60s radicals the Yippies, "was nonetheless equal to straight madness for the Average Good American, since his liberated expression might not be an outpouring of love, but the burning of his neighbor’s barn."

Or, in the Bl(A)ck Tea Society’s case, the trashing of his neighbor’s Gap.

Camille Dodero can be reached at cdodero[a]phx.com

page 5 

Issue Date: August 13 - 19, 2004
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