The former Black Panther Party member started his talk by saying, "All power to the People." The members of the non-hierarchical leftist discussion circle sat in polite silence. But the Panther raised his eyebrows as if someone had committed a faux pas and repeated, slowly, "All power to the People." The group chanted, "All power to the People."
This wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I first went to visit the Manhattan performance/discussion space ABC No Rio, but that is in no way the fault of the Rio organizers. I was misinformed by anarchists.
It began with a visit to the New York Libertarian Book Club's annual anarchist forum. For readers who are not interested in political theory: The libertarians are the ones who wear ties and have books with Adam Smith on the cover; the anarchists are the ones who wear black and have books with snapping chains and rioting workers on the cover. A gathering of the "anarchist community" was announced for a few weeks later, to be held in the space called ABC No Rio.
Figuring an anarchist mixer was likely to include a lot of punker women who listen to the Sex Pistols, I decided to go. Unfortunately, the anarchists failed to get organized (insert joke here) because the anarchist setting up the event had a conflict with his Industrial Workers of the World meeting.
I heard about the schedule conflict from one of the ABC No Rio managers (not an anarchist herself) when I went there. She explained that the real goal of the anarchist who had planned the gathering—formerly known as Dan Tranquility but now just called Dan—is to turn the skinhead movement in a Red-anarchist direction instead of a fascist-racist direction, which led me to wonder what all the skinheads really have in common anyway. "Is it just the haircuts?" I asked. "There are the boots, too," I was told—and a loyalty to the working class, supposedly.
I decided to come back again sometime, and the next meeting—of the leftist regulars, not anarchists—was a discussion of the Philadelphia radical group MOVE, whose plight resembled the Branch Davidians'. Living in a cult-like group, they claimed they wanted to be left alone with their guns and their rhetoric, but they were eventually bulldozed and later bombed by Philadelphia police. Now some former Black Panthers, among others, are trying to stop the execution of an imprisoned MOVE member.
I commented to the Rio manager that greater respect for property rights and the right to bear arms might have kept the government from attacking either MOVE or the Davidians. I observed that the Black Panthers were always fond of the right to bear arms.
During the discussion, a disheveled character looking a bit like Charles Manson entered—the second (and more convincing) Manson look-alike of the evening. For readers who are not interested in political theory: The difference between libertarians and leftists is that libertarians would probably throw a twitching mystery street person out of a meeting almost as soon as he entered, while the leftists seat him next to the featured speaker.
As the Panther explained that MOVE had dogs and rats in their headquarters but hardly deserved to be bombed for it, the mystery street person said, "They had cows on the roof, so they blew 'em up!" The Panther told the street person that he was getting increasingly impatient because the government sends people to disrupt political meetings in just this way (remember the 1970s FBI operation COWintelPro). The street person spent much of the rest of the meeting with his hands over his mouth, as if restraining a violent case of Tourette's syndrome.
After the discussion, the Rio manager expressed concern to the Panther that there is someone writing for leftist magazines in New York, claiming to be a former Panther, who now supports the radical anti-Castro group Alpha 66. The Rio manager hopes to expose him as a fake Panther, presumably on the grounds that any real Panther would certainly consider Castro an ally in the International Struggle. I countered with the story of writer Karl Hess, supporter in turn of Barry Goldwater, the Panther-affiliated Peace and Freedom Party, and libertarianism. She agreed left and right aren't always the most useful political categories.
That's a point I might get a chance to make again sometime at ABC No Rio. They have a discussion of free trade coming up, and I'm hoping I'll still be welcome after this article.
Todd Seavey is a writer in New York City.