By Jonny Gordon-Farleigh
I interviewed scott crow about his book Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy and the Common Ground Collective, how the Occupy movement has been both inspiring and challenging, and how today’s protestors are no longer looking to politicians for social change because of the self-realisation that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
STIR: At the beginning of your new book, Black Flags and Windmills, you quote June Jordan’s famous saying: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Do you think that more people are now beginning to look to themselves for social change rather than expecting it to be delivered by political elites, and thus avoiding the classic disappointments that come, as Cornel West recently put it, with the “appointments” of experts and political saviours?
scott crow: Well, I don’t think it is the first time ever but I think it is the first time in a long while. I hate to say this because I don’t like to go back to it, but it is probably the first time since the ‘60s and ‘70s where people feel that the policies have failed for long enough and that it affects them. There were huge movements for self determination/community control in the national liberation struggles of the ‘60s and even the anti-nuke movements of the ‘70s.
Since the turn of the millennium, there was a major uprising in the alternative globalisation movement of the late ‘90s and early-2000s that achieved the first international networked solidarity, but it subsided so quickly because of the events of September 11, 2001—it didn’t have time to fully develop. However, I think what is happening today across the globe are natural outgrowths of those movements. I think with the failure of the war on terror, the wars on the poor, the wars around the world, what happened in New Orleans, and the global financial collapse, it all represents failure after failure on behalf of governments, which has eroded the last vestiges of credibility that the state or corporations were going to help the common person. I think we have historically had resistance currents that have risen to the surface in crisis—also, there has been twenty years of anarchist organising and growth in the United States, and globally, there is lots of horizontal organising going on everywhere.
The thing is, I think people actually believe it again—that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, and I would add that our history is now. The best things didn’t happen in the past. They are happening now as we make them. I think that’s a crucial change in people’s attitudes. Because I think people still, in the United States, had finite hope in Obama, because [his election] was a historically important thing on one level. I was moved by it also, and I don’t care about electoral politics at all—but I was moved by the idea of what was happening, even though I have analysis about it. But I think the failures of business as usual just continued under his watch, and some things have increased like the invasion of privacy and the war on terror, and that’s why the ‘movement of movements’ has risen up in the Occupy Movements in the United States and worldwide.
It’s also cyclical where things come and go. Having been in political movements for over twenty years, I have seen things rise and fall. But I’ve just never seen anything on the scale that we’re seeing it now—and that’s inspiring.
S: One of the most overused images from the recent splurge of post-apocalyptic films —where the state and other large agencies are either incapable or unwilling to help— is the presentation of a helpless community that is unable to provide itself with essential services. Can you tell me in what ways the communities The Common Ground Collective worked with in post-Katrina New Orleans provided an inspiring counterpoint to this vision?
sc: By asking the question first: “What do you need for support? And how can we help you build your own power within a community? Block by block. Neighbourhood by neighbourhood. Community after community.” To say that people were helpless is not true. To say that people didn’t have resources would be true, but they had the skills, they had the knowledge, they had analysis about it, they just needed support to make that happen. And so Common Ground in New Orleans, in all its ways, was able to come in very under the radar to provide the support —but support with analysis in it. We were trying to provide support to build political power and self determination for these communities, not for our own political power.
The government couldn’t see it coming because they were so large and bureaucratic. We had horizontal organising but we also had networks we could rely on. We could be really efficient and flexible anywhere we went because we didn’t have huge hierarchies and overhead of administration. If somebody saw a need in a community, and asked the community if they wanted it, we started the project. Or if we saw a need like health care, we started it. We didn’t have to wait for a chain of command.
We just saw an opening where we could move in to these spaces. The original dream was to create these autonomous zones like the Zapatistas did, but we weren’t able to do that. But we were able to de-legitimize the state at every turn. It wasn’t just governments, though. We’re also talking about the Red Cross who had fundamental failings themselves, and needed to be held accountable, especially in those first few weeks afterwards. The fact that we wanted to treat people with dignity and respect, and to find them where they were at, is really important. Instead of seeing them as victims, we saw them as people who had gotten knocked off balance and we just picked them up and said, “Hey, let’s move on forward together.”
S: The guiding principle of your efforts was “solidarity not charity.” How does a group from the outside make sure it does not become a principled vanguard—however well-intentioned—by thinking it knows what is best for the community it is coming to support?
sc: I’d be lying if I said that we didn’t. I think that it’s a mixed bag—some things we did in deep solidarity; and some things we did were just charity band-aids. When people were starving, we didn’t just say, “Hey, we’ll feed you”. We also asked, “Why are you hungry? Is it because there is no quality education nearby? Are there no decent jobs nearby?” That’s solidarity: To say there is no food in your area, and not only because of the storm, but also because of the long, slow history of disasters that came decades before—of the neglect and abandonment of these communities. And so we said we’ll help you to provide your own local food security; we’ll provide close access to basic health care; and we’ll provide job training. These things are all steps towards alleviating poverty. But does that mean that we did that with every program we did? No. Some were absolute band-aids because the state failed to do what they were “supposed to do.” So, there were times when we just provided aid because it was necessary—you have to remember that there were life and death situations in the first few weeks and months and we simply had to do as much as we could do, because if we didn’t do it no one else would have.
All of this work met with different challenges, successes and even failures. You have to understand that at everything we undertook, even with the best intentions, we were often our own worst enemies. This, in addition to all of the surrounding crisis, combined with the bullying and overt threats from the state.
We started an organisation based on horizontal principles that I would argue is the largest anarchist-inspired organisation in modern U.S. history. We started with a few people who knew each other but grew so rapidly that we had to learn along the way. The politics that I want to talk about for one second are super important. Even though we inspired to be anarchist and horizontal in many ways, there was also much traditional organising that featured hierarchical structures. It was a mash-up of the two because of the tendencies that people came out of, the thoughts people had, and the skill levels we all possessed.
In the United States we have a very reactionary political nature and with very little practice in terms of anarchist practice. Anarchist ideas have only really risen to the surface again in the last ten to twleve years here—in the late ‘90s and at the turn of the millennium. Thus, there has not been a lot of experience at practice in long-term organisations and these things were working against us. Sure, we had a lot of failures along the way but we recognised that if we could consciously learn from them we could hopefully prevent other movements from repeating the same failures. There were some challenges that we could not get over because they were so large and because we grew so fast. However, there were many things where we could say, “We’re never going to do that again.” The point is, I don’t want to look through rose-coloured lenses, which suggests everything was perfect, but it wasn’t awful either. Movements always start to look better in hindsight through the rear-view mirror as you are leaving them.
S: The practice of horizontal decision-making has been given a much higher profile because of the Occupy movement, but as Marianne Maeckelbergh argues in the case of Occupy Wall Street, because of the “far greater disparity in terms of backgrounds, starting assumptions, aims and discursive styles” of those taking part in the general assemblies, it quickly became very complicated. This description seems to reverberate with your experience of the volunteers that arrived in New Orleans. How did you make sure the organisation maintained these values while also encouraging those who may be unaccustomed to the horizontal decision-making model to continue their involvement?
sc: We did it with mixed success. I think the Occupy Movement is a great comparative example because so many of the people involved are coming from different ideas. One difference to us, though, is that we had a large organisation and also a closed collective, whereas Occupy camps have large general assemblies. It also depended from week-to-week, or month-to-month, and even meeting-to-meeting, how well they were facilitated and how well the principles of unity were used within it, and how much experience the participants had before they arrived.
We could have two solid weeks of really good meetings and then have two weeks of really terrible meetings that were atrocious. It was always various tendencies of how to organize and always a tension that went back and forth in the organisation, but I would say ultimately, if you asked the 20,000 volunteers that were part of the Common Ground Collective in the first three and half years how horizontal it was or how well it functioned, their response depended on when that person came in and when they exited.
Now, as far as your question about allowing voices that don’t normally practice horizontal decision-making to take part, we didn’t. We had to marginalize them because of the crisis generally and then later because of the size of the organisation. You have to understand that when it was full-blown, we would have 5,000 people in any given week within the organisation. There could be 200 to 300 people at a meeting, 100 coordinators in the core collective, and 150 projects going on. Some of those acted like affinity groups and some of them functioned very well because there was a lot of practice and trust amongst the participants. Other groups were completely dysfunctional.
One thing we tried to do was create a vessel of common values and common culture. It didn’t always work well and the vessel blew apart continually, so we had to put the vessel back together. We also had to reinvent these core values and principles as the volunteers changed and as time moved on. One thing I have taken from that, and it is something that concerns Occupy, is that we have to change the way general assemblies operate. While general assemblies are good to share experiences they are not good as a meeting of common values. We need to break this up into smaller groups and find out what affinities people have with each other. One example, here at Occupy in Austin, Texas, is that some participants still want to vote for Ron Paul, some participants only care about student debt, and some participants only care about ending the Fed. While, they may have common values like everyone should have clean air and water, this is not enough to gather around. So, what if these people broke-off into their affinity groups where they really had a voice, and then we could start to work together with spoke-council models to find out how we want to resist the current systems and how we want to create new systems.
It is a continual problem in open groups where we have to reinvent the wheel about doing these things.
S: One idea this provokes is the difference between formal democracy and substantive democracy. Marianne Maeckelbergh speaks critically in her most recent piece about Occupy Wall Street, of the starting assumptions that many of the participants held (such as scarcity). So, we are starting from a huge legacy of capitalist logic and bringing it to a formally democratic organisation (general assembly). While, the alterglobalization movement has quite rightly focused on the ‘how’ of decision-making, it has also in some ways deemphasized the “what” of those decisions—what we are actually deciding about.
sc: I totally agree. What happens is that people mistake the process for “democracy” and they think that if they execute excellent process and everybody’s voice has been heard then it’s necessarily democratic. Well, this is just not true. On the other hand, all of this takes practice—in our daily lives we all have bosses, landlords, elected officials and corporations trying to sell us shit or tell us what to do. So, the point is democratic decision-making and participatory democracy takes practice.
I have been to more than 22 Occupy camps and it is a common theme that depends on the respective community and the level of involvement, interest and time working together they have all had. We ran into that in New Orleans but we also had the crisis, so really we had multiple crises. We sometimes had to force decisions through to make things happen and that was the most horrible experience because it would be undemocratic. Sometimes, though, we were talking about real life and death situations which matter more than everyone’s voices. But again it was difficult in general assemblies to make decisions with people who just walked off the streets having the same value as those who were there day after day for months. Giving weight to all of those voices didn’t necessarily make it more horizontal, more functional or democratic.
S: Did you find long-term activists accepted these pressures on the decision-making process?
sc: No. By some ideologues we were called the most unanarchist organisation there ever was! (laughs) If you look at my writings at the time, I issued several communiqués to address people’s questions and concerns. You talked about assumptions and many anarchists and anti-authoritarians brought huge amounts of assumptions about anarchism to Common Ground, and I found that to be as problematic, if not more so, than those who had no experience whatsoever. This was a problem because they would say, “You are not doing this right”; to which I would respond, “How many organisations have you been in and how many situations like this have you experienced?” The answer would be, “Never,” and I would say, “Well, how do you know if it’s right or not?” And we ended up cutting people off when things like this happened. An example of this is when a group of kids wanted to serve only vegan food. This was a noble and beautiful thing but the people who lived in Algiers weren’t vegan and it was their community we were in. So, these kids decided to go on strike against us because they considered us to be authoritarian. I should say, we didn’t stop them from serving vegan food but stopped them from serving only vegan food. And they didn’t have to be in the kitchen, there were plenty of other projects that needed attention!
S: Throughout Black Flags and Windmills you refer to the Zapatistas’ “living revolution” as a source of inspiration and experience. Your own approach reflects this prefigurative “everyday” politics. Do you think this “new impatience” for a better today is starting to replace the abstract promises of a better tomorrow?
sc: Absolutely. A couple examples of this are the fact that there are more worker-cooperatives in the world today than ever before; there are more indigenous groups taking back their lands since the creation of the modern nation-state. There are local food and local currency movements. That the banks, corporations, unilateral world governments such as the WTO are all too big to fail but yet fail governments constantly, are all indications of the fact that something is beginning to happen.
The fact that anarchism as a tendency, as an idea, as a philosophy, has gained so much ground in The United States, and I would also argue in Europe, more than it has for a long time, shows that people are hungry and waiting for openings like this happen.
I’m not sure how you’ve been politically organising in Europe, but here even when I first started to identify myself as an anarchist in the late ‘90s, and especially in Texas where I’m from, it was not cool. It was very outsider and very difficult to explain to people—and I am talking about people on the Left. Communism and Socialism was very easy to explain but to explain anarchism was really difficult, and to be an anarchist was almost a dirty word. If you look now, it is not like that anymore—there are mainstream articles about it. There are discussions about it and it has even been turned into a commodity at stores. These things show that people want to rely on themselves in cooperation without being consumers or voters. I think is really important and indicates that we are moving towards prefigurative projects.
Does it make all perfect today or tomorrow? No, because we still have reactionary culture and politics (as I mentioned earlier). Until we start to dream bigger futures and start to make strategies to move towards those futures, we will be stuck in a reactionary trap or only building in very small places.
I think one of the things that has happened in our movements is the extension of anarchist ideas, and this is small ‘a’ anarchism—I am not talking of every tendency of anarchism, where we are not building mass movements but rather movements of movements. This is very much like what we did in the alterglobalisation movement but much more clearly now. The Occupy groups around the United States (and possibly worldwide) reflect this: they are unified on some aspects but are really a movement of movements. This is a development that we’ve never had in this country before and now the next step is for us to ask, “What do we want a just and sustainable world to look like?” The point I always make is that while we can always resist capitalism until we really focus on building better worlds for all of us, we will always be fighting against the things that are chipping away at our lives. If we want people to leave capitalism then we have to create something better and show them. I don’t think that worker-cooperatives are the answer but they are step in that direction. I don’t have the answers but we have to start asking these questions. Then we can all think about our futures and begin to make them a reality.
S: This reminds me of the saying, “You make the path by walking it.”
sc: Definitely. I cannot say that enough. The beauty of a movement like the Zapatistas for me is the fact that you don’t have to have the answer. You just have to know that there is something better and strive for it—even if it is different than you originally imagined.
S: Lastly, during So We Stand’s recent Aviation Justice Tour, they said, “A healthy community is a radical thing.” As a long time activist, how would you describe a healthy community?
sc: On an individual level it is the ability to take care of yourself and to recognise that revolutionary paths take a long time. It is the maintenance of good relationships with others, access to health care, and healthy food. It is also the recognition that we don’t always have to resist. On a community level it would look like small, autonomous communities that are networked together for common good. These communities who have their own food security, their own energy sources, access to fresh water, and the ability for people to organise in ways that they want to because there is not one model that fits all. In other ways it could be the re-wilding of a place and the space for those who want to hunt and gather and live ferally, to do so without conflict over the natural world.
Basically, it would be communities built in cooperation—not perfect harmony but cooperation. The idea that we are raising children on the merit of cooperation not their own merits, that we take care of our elderly people, that we take care of the dirty work, of the trash that we generate, the things we create, and maintain the planet with truly sustainable practices beyond cheap oil. All of these things are small scale and it is really about scaling down everything we think we know about civilization. It also means the hard work of “policing” ourselves, where we know our neighbours and we follow guidelines instead of laws because we want to and it is mutually beneficial, and not because something or someone is going to force them upon us.
These are some of my ideas of a just future. It takes all of us to do this. No one is going to lead us out of this. We are going to have to do it ourselves.
scott crow is a community organizer, writer, strategist and speaker who advocates the philosophy and practices of anarchism for social, environmental, and economic aims.
He is the only son of a working class mother who started his political journey in the anti-apartheid, political prisoner and animals rights movements during the Reagan years. In the late ’80s he fronted two political electronic industrial bands and through the ’90s ran a successful antique/art cooperative business.
For over almost two decades he has continued to use his experience and ideas in co-founding and co-organizing numerous radical grassroots projects in Texas, including Treasure City Thrift, Radical Encuentro Camp, UPROAR (United People Resisting Oppression and Racism), Dirty South Earth First! and the Common Ground Collective, the largest anarchist influenced organization in modern U.S. history to date.
He is also author of Blag Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective