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Free radicals
How the Bl(A)ck Tea Society breathed new life into anarchism

Over two hundred years ago, the people of Boston sparked a war. A war of resistance against tyranny. A revolution. A conflict against the oppression of a foreign master and the domination of corporate power.... We intend to finish the American Revolution. We intend to carry this torch. The ringing of revolution was sparked in Boston before; we will do it again.

The Bl(A)ck Tea Society’s first call-to-action, September 18, 2003

LIKE PILGRIMS, they looked at society with the eyes of children: society was absurd," Norman Mailer wrote of the countercultural army that protested the 1968 Democratic National Convention. To them, he continued, "every emperor who went down the path was naked and they handed flowers to policemen." To the Bl(A)ck Tea Society, the anti-corporate, anti-war, anti-authoritarian group formed solely to protest the 2004 Democratic National Convention, society was not absurd, but oppressive. Every emperor who went down the path was a corporate whore, and they gave the finger to policemen.

The now-defunct Bl(A)ck Tea Society (BTS) — a play on Sam Adams’s tea-dumping Sons of Liberty, with a parenthetical capital "A," the closest typeset representation of the anarchy symbol — had come together to rage against the unwanted "invasion" of the DNC. An ad hoc coalition of libertarians, Greens, Marxists, anarchists, and other strains of like-minded activists, nearly all between the ages of 15 and 30, they were united in their distaste for conglomerates, hierarchies, slumlords, liberals, bosses, wars, and government. They looked at cops and saw capitalism’s henchmen. They passed the Gap and thought "sweatshop labor." They picked up the phone and wondered if it was tapped. To them, the ruling class was the Empire, the Democratic Party "one spoke" of "the wheel of oppression," the DNC a lavish ball thrown for the elite at the expense of the poor. And, presumably, they still do.

So who were these angry young radicals — and what did they contribute to the American tradition of dissent? Defying all expectations — the BTS’s included — the hundreds of protesters who descended on Boston for the DNC were somehow muted, and yet the BTS, in the end, declared victory. On what possible grounds?

I first read about the BTS in February, when the group hosted a workshop-style "resistance consulta" in Boston for like-minded dissidents planning to protest the DNC; later, New York Newsday reported that NYPD plainclothesmen traveled to Boston and infiltrated the consulta (as activists refer to such retreat-like powwows). Then, in April, Cambridge police arrested eight Homes Not Jails activists for breaking-and-entering and possession of burglary tools at an abandoned gas station in Lafayette Square. The detained activists claimed to be beautifying the derelict building and planting trees, but at least four of them belonged to the BTS; the Cambridge Chronicle suggested that city officials had targeted the anti-government organization. And in early May, they were booted from the MIT campus; when they showed up for their weekly scheduled meeting, they were greeted by four cops (two Cambridge police, the MIT campus-police chief, and one "plainclothed agent," according to the BTS’s Web site) who barred them from entering the classroom they’d reserved.

In April, the Boston Herald published an article labeling the BTS an anarchist "cell," a term typically associated with terrorists. The story noted that, in Philadelphia, at the 2000 Republican National Convention, radical protesters had used "urine- and acid-filled Super Soaker guns on police," then alleged that the anti-authoritarian BTS could attract similar anarchist extremists like the Earth Liberation Front, who are "known to wear full riot gear, lock themselves to buildings, use slingshots to shoot flames, bleach and feces, and call in bomb threats."

If there were poop-shooting, fire-slinging, pee-spraying anarchists in this town, I wanted to hang out with them. I attended my first BTS meeting on May 19.

The bl(a)ck tea Society wasn’t hostile to the media — core member Frank Little made a point of calling journalists "our friends" — but the organization was understandably wary of strangers. After all, becoming the face of the opposition poses certain risks — namely, jail. Before the 2000 Republican National Convention, undercover cops had insinuated themselves into activist conclaves and pre-emptively arrested many protest coordinators on trumped-up conspiracy charges. So the BTS had to assume anyone could be a cop. The aging metal-head who looked like he’d be more at ease playing guitar in an Iron Maiden cover band than attending a political rally? Undercover. The Hulk Hogan impersonator in the Hooters T-shirt and pot-leaf bandanna pedaling behind bicycle activists? Obviously an imposter. The dark-haired twentysomething who claimed to be a writer working on a feature story (that’d be me), but had yet to produce the article? Could be a cop, too.

Besides, the media thrive on conflict — on dramatic tension — and have been known to distort the facts to fit their black-and-white template. So the BTS had good reason to be paranoid.

Formed in July 2003, the BTS originally conceived itself as a kind of welcoming committee for protesters trekking to Boston for the DNC. Within the group, there were no overt hierarchies, no designated leaders, no one spokesperson. They reached decisions about everything — from flier designs to Web-site postings — through consensus. Twenty to 30 people regularly convened for meetings, some showing up only once, others drifting in and out.

But before long, the BTS had drawn up a "three-pronged plan" to resist the DNC. Prong one involved providing refuge for fellow dissidents. To that end, it rented a "Convergence Center," in Copley Square’s Community Church of Boston, where protesters could nap, eat, leave their kids, and hang out during the four-day convention. Secondly, the group planned a "Really REALLY Democratic Bazaar," an open-air market on Boston Common that would demonstrate the BTS’s "visions of a better world" through an assortment of performers, games, and displays.

The third "prong" was the most controversial. Disenchanted with the predictable bullhorn-ranting and centralized tactics that are all too easy for police to contain and control, the BTS encouraged fellow radicals to undertake what it believed to be the next step in street dissent: "massive decentralized direct actions," a citywide fusillade of autonomous protests occurring in manifold locations throughout the day. Members chose Thursday, July 29, as the "Day of Action" because of its historical precedent: the riots of the 1968 Democratic National Convention had erupted on nomination day.

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Issue Date: August 13 - 19, 2004
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