Report: To Change Everything U.S. Tour

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by b. traven
Dec 28th, 2015

Last month, we concluded the To Change Everything US tour, bringing together anarchists from Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and North America to compare notes on the uprisings and social movements of the past decade. In the course of 65 days, we presented 59 events in 57 towns, speaking with well over 2000 people altogether. To hear an audio recording from one of the presentations, tune in to episode 44 of the Ex-Worker Podcast.

Many people have seen the booklet and video we are distributing on the theme To Change Everything; we wanted to follow up by initiating intercontinental conversations about strategy and liberation. In the digital age, it is more important than ever to meet and debate and form bonds in person. If you met us on this trip, please stay in touch and help brainstorm what we should do together next.

We had a wonderful tour. For those of us from the US as well as overseas, it is instructive to take in the entire country in a single continuous trip. It gives you the lay of the land. Here is what we saw.

What We Saw

The good news is that plenty of people around the United States are newly interested in anarchism. Most of our events were better attended than anyone anticipated, drawing crowds of more than a hundred in a few cases. In the Midwest, for example, not known for being a hotbed of radicalism, we were surprised how many people wanted to talk revolution, especially in cities within a day’s drive of St. Louis, Missouri. This is the generation radicalized by the Ferguson protests. Even as state repression intensifies and survival gets more difficult, that creates windows of opportunity.

At the same time, it seems that the forms of infrastructure and organization that would enable people to follow through on this interest are largely missing. In Washington, DC, once an epicenter of anarchist activity, after we spoke to a full room, many people asked how they could get involved with local in anarchist groups—and none of the longtime locals in attendance knew what to tell them. Over and over, in perhaps a dozen cities, we heard that our event was perhaps the largest gathering of anarchists their community had seen for years. This is not good news. Rather than waxing nostalgic about the structures of the past, we urge our comrades across the US to experiment with new ways to bring people together.

Having to articulate our experiences and critiques on a nightly basis in dialogue with a wide range of people enabled us to learn from others and to refine and clarify our own views. In addition to introducing the basic tenets of anarchism, our talks focused on the distinction between democracy and autonomy, the pitfalls of organizing around demands, and how nationalism, fascism, and militarization are spreading in response to the same crises that anarchists hope to address. That last subject proved especially timely, as our tour coincided with the so-called “migrant crisis” in Europe, itself brought about by borders and nationalism. Additionally, on the northeast and northwest coasts, a comrade from the group that published Para Cambiar Todo in Argentina joined us. She concentrated on the ways that the gains of the Argentinean revolution of 2001 have been reintegrated into the prevailing order there, to encourage critical thinking about how to resist the processes of cooptation.

Different threads from our presentation resonated in different parts of the country. In the northeast, where some of our events were booked by members of the Black Rose Anarchist Federation, the discussions often focused on basic strategic questions, as comrades coming from a background of activism or labor organizing struggled to understand our critique of demand-centered organizing. Elsewhere, attendees were more focused on how to respond to the spread of nationalism and how to act in solidarity with targeted populations. Occasionally, we got to debate supporters of Syriza or leftist movements in Argentina—proponents of a reformism for which the prospects seem to be increasingly bleak.

This was an ambitious tour. The last comparable anarchist speaking tour of the US was probably in 2010, when our Greek comrades came to present We Are an Image from the Future. We hope that our efforts will inspire others to go further in similar ventures. The tour gave us an invaluable chance to get perspective on our immediate struggles, to engage in collective critical reflection on the challenges ahead, and to start new friendships that will continue to inspire us for a long time to come.

Along the way, we saw the coastline on all four sides of the continental US, three of the Great Lakes, Niagara Falls, and several deserts and canyons. We climbed mountains and swam in a dozen lakes, rivers, and oceans. We got lost in Mexico and wandered downtown Los Angeles on Halloween night with nowhere to sleep. We held correspondence between Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman in our hands at the Labadie Collection, the largest archive of anarchist material in North America. We visited Goldman’s grave and the graves of other comrades at Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago, and the memorial near the site of the Haymarket massacre. We deplored the aesthetics of Las Vegas and the gentrification of the Albany Bulb in Berkeley. We saw llamas, skunks, sea lions, coyotes, snakes, turtles, elk, deer, rabbits, raccoons, and thousand-year-old Redwoods. We argued in six languages. On some days, we paid visits to as many as four towns, with a different activity scheduled in each of them. We had a lot of adventures.

Thanks to Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness and Hayes Auto Service for help with transportation, and the generous individual who loaned us a minivan while we replaced the transmission in our own disabled vehicle—not to mention countless other comrades who organized events for us, fed us, housed us, raised funds to help cover our expenses, mailed things that we had forgotten, and shared their insights and enthusiasm with us. Above all, we are grateful to all the courageous people who risk their freedom and sometimes their lives in pursuit of liberation.

Here follow a few stories from some of the places we visited, recounted in seven different voices.

In Baltimore, we saw traces of the riots sparked by the police murder of Freddie Gray in April 2015.

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space in Manhattan.

New York, New York

As soon as we arrived in the Big Apple, we went and gave a presentation on overseas occupation movements at the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space on the ground floor of Manhattan’s notorious See Squat. Afterwards, we squatted a disused apartment in Brooklyn, where we stayed for the duration of our stay in New York City. Gentrification is sweeping the world, washing away radical social centers and squatting movements everywhere—and New York has been one of the worst hit. See Squat itself is marooned in a bourgeois wasteland of expensive eateries, literally reduced to a museum marking what once was. That’s exactly what we were warning against in our discussion of the uses and pitfalls of focusing on infrastructure. But for a few days, gentrification be damned, we lived the dream—complete with the roaring subway right outside our rent-free front window.

There is such a thing as American exceptionalism. Americans are certain that however bad things are in the US, they must be worse elsewhere. This notion of America as the promised land is deeply engrained in the American psyche. Over and over, we heard audiences explain that the resistance movements we were describing in other parts of the world are inspiring, but that people won’t revolt like that in the United States because they have it easy—they’re seduced by material comforts and middle-class apathy. This was dramatized for us at our first presentation in New York, when a woman stood up to express solidarity with our squatting struggles in Eastern Europe, and to ask how to help. She said that people don’t have it bad enough yet in the US to be ready to fight back. To put that in perspective, she was an unemployed middle-aged HIV-positive African-American woman whose housing project was being evicted. Maybe the problem is not that people don’t have it bad enough here, but the idea that it must be worse elsewhere.

The following night, we had a packed event at the Base in Brooklyn. Thanks to all our comrades there, for the fancy letter-pressed posters and everything else.


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