Over the past several years, anarchism–a leftist political ideology that calls for the elimination of the state and capitalism and the implementation of a system of self-governance based on mutual aid and cooperation–has had a fair amount of influence on left-based organizing efforts in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While it is easy to dismiss the organizing of individuals and groups who identify as anarchist as being woefully inadequate when it comes to developing anything that can remotely approach the level of being able to challenge the state, anarchism has had an influence.
From motivating people to get involved in activism through punk rock music to helping to informing how people make sense of the world, anarchism has influenced a wide variety of activism over the past several years, particularly among high school and college age youth. Grand Rapids anarchists have organized to distribute food to the homeless, to protest against the Iraq War, to educate people via movie showings, discussions, etc, and to protest the Republican National Convention (RNC). From 2005-2008, anarchists were involved in running two different collective bookstores and libraries–Sabo’s and The Bloom Collective.
In the spirit of our recent looks at the history of anti-war organizing against the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War, what follows is an overview of anarchist organizing in Grand Rapids. As with those histories, the focus of this piece will be on what happened during the Bush years. While one of the first political events I attended was an anti-police brutality march in downtown Grand Rapids organized by folks involved with the Anarchist Black Cross in the mid-1990s, it wasn’t until 2003 that anarchism could really be described as visible in Grand Rapids. It was around this time that leaflets attributed to a group, ALIGHT, could be found and anarchist graffiti was frequently seen around town.
The following history is organized by group or project, roughly in chronological order. Feel free to skip around and skip ahead as needed.
It is also worth noting that this is just one history of many that could be written on the period. It is heavily based on articles published on MediaMouse.org and information gleaned from the Internet, participants, or personal experience. If folks have more information, feel free to leave a comment.
ALIGHT was an anti-capitalist group that formed in 2004 out of the perceived need to move beyond anti-war organizing to address what the group viewed as the root problem, capitalism. While not explicitly anarchist, the group’s initial statement–distributed as a poster and placed around town–was clearly inspired by anarchist movements:
“We take our inspiration from the Zapatista uprising against NAFTA, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty fighting for housing for all, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan challenging patriarchy, the Black Network of Community Organizers fighting police brutality, and all the antiauthoritarian movements of the past and present and see in these movements the potential for change and the roots of a new world. History shows us that through direct action people have the power to defeat even seemingly invincible power structures and that it is social movements, not the electoral games of the elites, that can change the world.”
The group argued that many of the problems that the United States faces–from poverty to “the militarization of our communities and our borders”–are rooted in the system of capitalism. The group specifically sought to challenge capitalism by being:
“…a group that makes overthrowing capitalism its long-term goal while remaining pragmatic about its possibilities. We believe that through organized direct action we can achieve concrete gains in our everyday lives within the system of capitalism, while using these short-term gains as a way of building the long-term capacity to challenge capitalism and bring about systemic change. We do not believe that there is much to gain by adopting a strategy entirely dependent on the idea of “working within the system.” History has repeatedly shown us that the system is stacked against us and that its architects are adept at accommodating and neutralizing those who seek change on its terrain. Instead, we believe that by building strong networks of resistance emphasizing community and sustainability–networks that enable and empower individuals to come together in solidarity and build alternatives to capitalism and a capacity to challenge it–we can be successful in changing our world.”
Much of ALIGHT’s initial propaganda focused on presenting its analysis and motivating people to get involved. To that end, it distributed posters and pamphlets around town at events such as the Eastown Street Fair. However, the group never actually met. While it produced a small number of well-written statements and posters, the group never involved more than a few people and disappeared before doing anything substantial.
CONFRONTING EMPIRE: WINTER AND SPRING 2005
Confronting Empire was a group formed in late 2004 to organize primarily against the Iraq War. The group organized only two events: a protest on the second anniversary of the United States’ invasion of Iraq and a protest outside of President George W. Bush’s commencement speech at Calvin College. Confronting Empire was never explicitly anarchist, but a number of people who identified as anarchist played a key role in the group. The group drew heavily from the local punk scene for its members, many of whom had no previous involvement in organized activism.
At the protest against the second anniversary of the Iraq War, a large number of participants–many from Confronting Empire–participated in a “radical anti-imperialist marching band.” The group was led by a banner reading “US Out of Iraq” and was flanked by banners reading “Capitalism Kills” and “End US Imperialism.” A number of participants carried red and black anarchist flags, wore bandanas over their faces, and chanted loudly. It was a substantial shift from past anti-war protests that tended to be dominated by an older and more polite crowd. An example would be the group leading an anti-war march through Woodland Mall following the downtown protest.
Confronting Empire faded out in the spring of 2005 following the Bush protest at Calvin due both to a lack of interest and internal problems.
FOOD NOT BOMBS: WINTER 2005
At the same time Confronting Empire formed, many of the same people were involved in a local chapter of Food Not Bombs. Food Not Bombs is an anarchist project that spread across the United States (and to some extent the world) in the 1980s and 1990s that distributes food–usually discarded food that would otherwise go uneaten–to homeless and low-income people. While the name is political and designed to ask questions about the relationship between spending on military needs versus social needs, the Grand Rapids Food Not Bombs group simply prepared vegan food and served into anyone that wanted in downtown Grand Rapids. Over its five-month existence, the group served food on Saturday afternoons at the corner of Division and Wealthy, Division and Cherry, and Heartside Park.
Food Not Bombs ended in the spring of 2005. Throughout its existence, it had a number of problems including its failure to identify the specific needs of the local homeless meeting, infrequent cooking and serving (only once every two weeks), lack of consistency (sometimes there would be a couple dozen people cooking and other times four or five), and difficulties in forming a “group” to deal with the various problems or enhance the effectiveness of the project.
It’s also worth noting that there was also a Food Not Bombs group in Grand Rapids in the mid to late 1990s.
THE MOSAIC / SABO’S INFOSHOP: SUMMER/FALL 2005
Sabo’s was an infoshop–a radical collective space offering anti-capitalist literature and a space for events–that was located on Fulton Street in Grand Rapids. It was housed in a building that was also known as THE MOSAIC Cooperative. Sabo’s was organized by the Grand Rapids branch of the Industrial Workers of the World. It offered a variety of books and other literature for sale, including a section of free material. The space closed after a short while due to internal and external problems faced by the collective (i.e. rent, landlord, group dynamics, etc).
THE INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD: WINTER 2006 TO THE PRESENT
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)–a storied anti-capitalist labor union that began in the early 1900s–has survived in some capacity since that time, albeit with substantially fewer members than in its heyday. Over the years, the group has maintained some presence in Grand Rapids, even at one point having an “IWW Print Shop” in Eastown that produced leaflets and newspapers for various leftist projects. However, for much of its existence the union has done relatively little actual union organizing, focusing instead on solidarity efforts.
In 2006/2007, this change, with the Grand Rapids IWW undertaking an effort to organize Starbucks. Starbucks had been targeted nationally for its poor treatment of baristas and low wages, a campaign that led to lawsuits in New York City between Starbucks and members of the IWW’s Starbucks Workers Union.
In Grand Rapids, the effort focused on the East Grand Rapids location, although leafleting and other actions (including an international day of protest in 2008) took place at various locations. The efforts led to nationwide visibility for the Grand Rapids union. In response to the organizing, Starbucks launched an aggressive anti-union campaign, leading to sanctions from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Eventually, the company fired a union organizer. This prompted more protests as well as further legal action, including a MIOHSA case and another NLRB case.
ACTIVATE: SPRING 2006 TO DECEMBER 2008
In 2008, ACTIVATE–which always had strong anarchist leanings–became an explicitly anarchist group, describing itself as “an anarchist and anti-authoritarian group organizing.” For the group, this built on two years of organizing using anarchist principles including collective decision making, decentralized protest, and direct action.
Over its more than two years of organizing, ACTIVATE focused primarily on anti-war organizing. It was arguably one of the most successful anti-war groups active in opposing the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Unlike other groups, ACTIVATE organized a number of well-attended protests and sought to use those protests to increase the effectiveness of the anti-war movement in Grand Rapids. From protests against President Bush that drew over 1,000 people to smaller events, it focused on organized events that had clear demands–usually the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. troops and contractors from Iraq–and presented an uncompromising message in the media. It further tried to take its message to those who actually had the power to bring about its demands and focused on strategic targets (such as military recruiting). For example, in 2007 it targeted U.S. Representative Vern Ehlers for his role in supporting the occupation of Iraq. The group led a march of 200+ people to his home and attempted to get Ehlers to sign a pledge that he would stop funding the war and call for the immediate end to the war. This forced Ehlers to be publicly accountable for his support for the war for the first time in years. During the Spring and Summer of 2007, the group continued to focus on Ehlers, while presenting a radical critique of the war even as other anti-war organizing efforts in town were dominated by middle-of-the-road Democrats.
In 2008, the group shifted focus, putting its effort on using the interest around the presidential to advance a radical critique of the electoral process. It released a statement that was highly critical of the US elections titled “Our Dreams Will Never Fit In Their Ballot Boxes.” In part, the group wrote:
“Unfortunately, if we stop and think about it–it’s pretty unlikely that one candidate is going to bring about a major change in society. In a world plagued by systemic problems–war, poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia–it is unlikely that a candidate is going to address any of these issues. And, deep down, we know they won’t. For decades–despite the millions of dollars and hours spent on the presidential elections–things have been getting progressively worse. Yet, every four years we do the same thing, we reduce our politics–and what we hold in our hearts–into a choice between two–maybe three–candidates for president.
We’ve put an extraordinary amount of energy into elections. We’ve put our faith and energy into checking boxes and pulling levers, reducing our idea of political involvement to just voting. However, the inefficiency of voting is clear. We can vote once, twice, maybe three times a year–but we can organize within our communities and act anytime–anywhere. Moreover, as a tactic that is relied on almost exclusively-voting has not been particularly successful. The history of social struggle in the United States teaches us that major victories-from the labor movement to the Civil Rights movement-were won in the streets, not at the ballot box. We’ve forgotten the innumerable and creative ways that we can change the world and in the process have forgotten that voting by itself is not activism. Radical change comes from struggle, organizing, and movement building-it comes from the grassroots, not from politicians.
This year, it’s time to break out of the ballot box. Let’s push ourselves in new directions. But first, let’s be clear that we’re not telling you not to vote–and we’re not telling you to vote, either. Instead, we’re asking you–as an individual, as part of a community, as part of an activist group, or as someone who just has a hunch that things need to change drastically–to think about how we can transform ourselves, our communities, and our world for the better. With so much focus on the elections, how can we encourage folks to get involved beyond simply voting? Can we strategically use popular movements to pressure candidates and demand more? How can we build a new world? Is it even possible for our current system to incorporate all of our ideas for change–and do we even want it to?”
Aside from distributing this statement in poster and pamphlet form, the group was heavily involved in organizing protests against the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC). The group issued a nationally circulated call to action to shutdown the RNC, but more than that, it used the RNC as an outreach locally to advance a radical critique of representative democracy and to promote an awareness of the history of recent anti-capitalist protest. The group delivered several presentations outlining this history and plans for the RNC protests, organized consultas, and tried to use the RNC to get people excited locally in using grassroots organizing to fundamentally change society.
The group also criticized Barack Obama’s positions on Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which were largely accepted uncritically by the anti-war movement locally and nationally. When the presidential candidates visited Grand Rapids, ACTIVATE challenged them, either by holding loud protests outside of their appearances (McCain) or distributing hundreds of leaflets (Obama).
The group–recognizing the fact that many people saw it as unofficial “leaders” of the anti-war movement in Grand Rapids–also sought to increase the capacity of others to organize and take action against the war. To this end, it released a series of “how to” guides on a variety of topics from organizing protests to working with the media. The group also held an “activist boot camp” at which they held a variety of workshops to help people learn how to organize. Along with these, it also published a piece critical the idea that anti-war groups (and radical groups more generally), need to tone down their politics and tactics to gain “good” media coverage.
ACTIVATE was an affiliate of the national Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) for over two years, but it eventually left the organization over political and tactical differences with the organization.
Their website is still online at ACTIVATEGR.ORG, if you are interested in seeing the kind of stuff they worked on. Unlike many other anti-war groups in Grand Rapids, ACTIVATE was able to attract the participation of people of a wide variety of ages, although it was particularly adept at reaching a younger crowd than had previously been involved.
THE BLOOM COLLECTIVE: SUMMER 2007 TO THE PRESENT
The Bloom Collective is an infoshop and lending library located at 1134 Wealthy Street in Grand Rapids. It was the first project in Grand Rapids that really formed as an anarchist collective. The group adopted a formal decision-making process and developed a series of policies to outline how it would make decisions on a variety of issues. All of this helped the group open a storefront where it offers a lending library featuring books, zines, documentaries, and other materials focusing on social change.
The Bloom Collective has hosted a number of events, including regular documentary showings on a wide variety of topics, workshops, and even classes.
Like any collective project–especially an infoshop–it has had a variety of ups and downs over the past two years, but it’s still open and is a good place to find out what is going on in Grand Rapids.
REALLY, REALLY FREE MARKETS: SUMMER 2008 TO THE PRESENT
The first “Really, Really Free Market” in Grand Rapids was organized by The Bloom Collective in July of 2008. While not explicitly anarchists, “Really, Really Free Markets”–essentially flea markets where everything is free–is an example of anarchism in action. Those attending the market are encouraged to take what they need and share what they don’t need, ultimately providing for the needs of everyone in attendance.
Following the first “Really, Really Free Market” in July of 2008, the task of coordinating the markets was undertaken by a different group of folks. That project eventually turned into a new group called “Good Morning Revolution.” More information is available on their website at http://goodmorningrevolutiongr.wordpress.com/
All of the markets that have been held have attracted a large number of folks, although they have yet to move far beyond the activist milieu from which they arose.