Mark Andersen has been D.C.’s leading grassroots political activist/organizer for the past 20 years. Here, he offers guidance for young activists and also shatters the illusions that underpin much “radical” political activity.
Mark Andersen is the co-author of Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital (Akashic, 2003). He is outreach coordinator for Emmaus Services for the Aging, an advocacy group that assists inner-city seniors in Washington, D.C. He remains active with Positive Force D.C., Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, Women’s Advocates to Terminate Sexism (WATTS), as well as with the parish council and justice & service committee of St. Aloysius Catholic Church. He lives in Washington, D.C.
About the Author
Mark Anderson is the co-author of Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital (Akashic, 2003). Anderson is the outreach coordinator for Emmaus Services for the Aging, and he remains active with Positive Force DC, Helping Individual Prostitues Survive, and Women's Advocates to Terminate Sexism (WATTS). He lives in Washington, D.C.
Read an Excerpt
All the PowerRevolution Without Illusion
By Mark Andersen
Akashic BooksISBN: 1-888451-72-6
IntroductionTHE BURNING SKY
"When you're young Have no illusion And no disillusion." -The Alarm
A certain amount of arrogance is probably necessary in order to write any book. After all, the action assumes that the writer thinks to have a story-and the skill sufficient to convey it-worth killing trees over! This is perhaps especially true of a book like this, claiming to offer advice about a topic as lofty as "revolution."
Ironically, these pages are intended as a loving corrective to a familiar arrogance: the hubris that would-be activists/radicals/revolutionaries (choose your term) tend to have about topics like "the system," "the people," and so on.
The shortcomings of so much "radical" activity became painfully obvious to me in the process of writing Dance of Days, a narrative history of the D.C. punk underground. Never mind anyone else's arrogance; I saw all too clearly my own blindness.
So often I/we seemed to think that simply screaming about the world's injustices, seeking a transcendent moment, or cutting ourselves off from mainstream society would somehow magically change the system. This can be an appealingly romantic notion, but it is not likely to succeed.
Legendary community organizer Saul Alinksy perhaps said it best in 1971 in Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for RealisticRadicals, speaking of then-fiery '60s activists: "Today's young revolutionaries have no illusions about the system, but plenty of illusions about the way to change our world."
To accept the wisdom of these words is not to somehow disavow the power of punk, or the value of college activism, or even the importance of some '60s-era experiments Alinksy so rightly skewered. Many of those stands were a place to start from, not an ending. Of course, the potential in any human or community is never completely realized; all cry out for continued growth. A central, inspirational part of the D.C. punk story was its effort to stretch past narrow, even elitist, subcultural radicalism. In Dance of Days, I urged punks to persist in this process, to take the idealism and DIY creativity nourished in our narrow terrain into a broader community.
I still believe in this. In some ways, my own life is a testament to this endeavor. Punk has been my main inspiration for almost thirty years. In 1985, I helped cofound Positive Force DC, a punk activist collective. I lived in the PF communal house from 1987 to 2000, participating in an often chaotic yet deeply rewarding experiment in intentional living and radical democracy. Two decades later, I still remain active in the all-volunteer group, having organized literally dozens of benefit or free concerts, protests, and educational events, as well as the State of the Union benefit compilation CD with Dischord Records.
From the very beginning, however, punk pushed me past narrow bounds toward a broader engagement. I have participated in a multitude of campus, community, and, more recently, church groups on issues ranging from union organizing, U.S. foreign policy in Central America, South Africa, and the Middle East, the nuclear arms race, abortion, sexual assault, human rights, affordable housing, racial justice, the environment, homelessness, and animal rights.
I have worked on local and national election campaigns, while also engaging in civil disobedience and direct action. I have served meals to homeless people, tutored inner-city kids, assembled safe needle kits for intravenous drug users, distributed condoms to street sex workers, and volunteered extensively with a free clinic. I have been employed by a U.S. Senator, the Montana State University Women's Resource Center and Political Science Department, the Washington Peace Center, the Arlington Food Cooperative, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Beyond this, I have served on the board of directors of the Washington Free Clinic, Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, Student Action Corps for Animals, Punk Voter, and Pax Christi Metro D.C., as well as with the parish council and the justice & service committee of St. Aloysius Church.
Ironically enough, however-given my punk proclivities-my main work has been with senior citizens. Since 1989, I have done outreach, advocacy, and community organizing with Emmaus Services for the Aging, a small nonprofit in a low-income, largely African-American neighborhood called Shaw. In the process, I have scrubbed toilets; battled landlords, cockroaches, and bureaucrats; brought seniors to medical appointments, holiday parties, and protests; delivered groceries and hot meals; coordinated volunteers and oral history projects; moved furniture; installed air conditioners; fixed vacuum cleaners; and much, much more.
In addition, I have drawn Positive Force deeply into this direct work with low-income, inner-city elderly, building bridges between two extremely disparate communities. This partnership, in turn, has helped to create the Arthur S. Flemming Center, a cooperative project of Emmaus, Positive Force, and about ten other diverse nonprofit organizations.
This center includes a radical infoshop, an independent media center, a domestic violence prevention group, a religious anarchist bookstore and furniture exchange, a senior activist network, an interfaith alliance, a peace center, a computer resource provider, a books-to-prisoners project, an art gallery, a community library, and a performance/meeting space. This wildly eclectic mix of direct service, arts, education, and organizing is indicative of the cross-cultural, multi-issue approach I endorse.
"No more ghettoes," howled the Texas punk group Really Red back in the early 1980s, and I took them at their word. We cannot afford to stand apart, or to be aloof. Somehow radicals must reach out, to learn and to teach, to protest and to serve. Balance, not purity, is the standard to which we should aspire. We must engage the world, not hide from it or scorn it; all while not unduly compromising ourselves-often the hardest part of the equation.
Indeed, the difficulty in carrying through this open-ended challenge seems part of why we often prefer the safety and satisfaction of our illusions more than actual growth. I know this tendency as much as anyone; it is surely as human as the drive toward idealism or self-seeking. On its own, this wouldn't tend to bother me much, certainly not enough to try to write a book about it. However, I fear that our illusions tend to prevent us from achieving the very thing we say that we want: a more just and equal world.
This is tragic. After all, tens of thousands of people-mostly children-die needlessly every day from simple want of sufficient nutrition or the most basic of medicines; all in a world of plenty where others nearly drown in consumer excess. This gap between the rich and the poor in our world grows daily.
At the same time, our own nation has become the hyper-power, the undisputed Rome of our day. The dangers of this immense might have become evermore apparent with angry cries for vengeance after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. While such attacks were perhaps predictable, they have shocked a North American public once secure in its seeming invulnerability.
In some ways, this trauma represented a "teachable moment" for the United States. So far this possibility seems mostly unrealized. Instead, as worrisome ripples have spread through our collective psyche, the selected-not-elected George W. Bush has made a power grab. Using the grief of our often shortsighted, self-centered nation, he is threatening not just our civil liberties, but the stability of the entire world with his imperiously unilateral search for "security."
Under the convenient banner of a "war on terror," Bush is drowning cries for food, shelter, medicine, jobs, and education under an avalanche of Top Gun posturing, tax cuts for the rich, and macho military might. His astonishing arms build-up is the nuclear-armed tip of a global iceberg: an arms race that steals food from the mouths of the hungry as surely as any thief, killing even in moments when the bombs are not falling.
As our national arrogance wastes global sympathy felt after the brutal attacks-and, no doubt, breeds more terrorism-we lose sight of a more insidious threat all around us: our environment being consumed in a mad, mass rush for commodities and fossil fuels.
The California-based punk band Bad Religion has put it well: "I see my ancestors spend with careless abandon, assuming eternal supply." Humanity's reach may well exceed its grasp, as the steady spread of genetic engineering, nuclear power and weaponry, cloning, and other disturbing technology suggest.
Beyond this, the extinction of this planet's species is running at a frightening and unprecedented rate, as the rain forests shrink under human onslaught. Meanwhile, the population continues to boom.
The burning sky is no longer simply some metaphor that UK punk pioneers the Jam thought up to symbolize the money-hungry, ideal-disdaining "real world." Now it is physical reality as global warming seemingly ratchets up the temperature, promising massive new dislocation and suffering. According to a 2004 study done for the journal Nature, more than a million species may be extinguished in the near future, the largest single burst of extinction in recorded history.
Worries have spread to unexpected corners of North American society. A secret inquiry commissioned by the Pentagon has suggested that a worst case scenario of global catastrophe costing millions of lives in wars and natural disasters is possible within twenty years. The London Observer reported on February 22, 2004 that, according to the study, "Abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop nuclear [weapons] to defend and secure dwindling food, water, and energy supplies." This threat to global stability could vastly eclipse that of terrorism, some experts argue.
Revolution, then, is not a luxury. No, a fundamental change in our world's values, structures, and relationships, reaching to the roots of the system-thus, "radical" in the sense suggested by civil rights icon Ella Baker-is essential.
The only other option, really, is to simply accept the carnage described above as inevitable. Maybe some folks can do that. But while fully aware of all my human frailty, I can't, not without dying myself in some very real way.
In order to live, I need to be a part of the solution. This is something I have known about myself ever since first hearing bands like the Clash, MC5, Avengers, and X-Ray Spex in the late '70s. At the risk of sounding arrogant or blinkered, for me it really is just that simple.
At the same time, I can't settle for an illusion. This means I need the courage to keep testing my beliefs to be sure that I am staying true to my aim. Sometimes illusions can have the power to exalt. After all, had I not been a bit deluded about the amount of work involved in Positive Force, Dance of Days, the Flemming Center, or any of my other many projects through the years, I might well have never started them.
More often, however, I see illusions as the would-be revolutionary's worst enemy. Most common is the mirage that change will come quickly. We believe fervently, naïvely; as if our mere belief could make it so!
When "the revolution" fails to appear on schedule, we often turn cynical, even fatalistic, dismissing any attempt toward change as doomed. More quietly, we may accept compromises that make a lie of our original intent. Or, perhaps most sadly of all, our stance can become a security blanket-not so different than any of the religious faiths that we might disdain-sustaining us but offering no real benefit to the world in need.
This is why I think the warnings that precede this chapter from Henry Miller and the Alarm are so crucial, for illusion is the parent of disillusion, the deadly enemy of change. It generates the cellophane coating of irony that is spread across so many of our supposedly alternative communities. Beyond this, disillusion nourishes the fatalism that infects so much of our society-often the very sectors that could be incubators for the seeds of transformation.
As noted earlier, I am no stranger to illusion. To some degree, this book was written for me. Standing at what might reasonably be the mid-point of my life, with "youth activism" behind me, but hopefully decades of engagement to come, I am writing in part to reflect on my past.
With an acute awareness of how swiftly our lives flee from us, I am straining for lessons to guide me in the time remaining, to fuel and direct my future work, that it may be more effective. However small a contribution any of us make, I want mine to be as significant as I can muster; thus the need to learn from the past in order to move into the possible.
My only real qualification as author of this book is my own life. I have drawn on more than two decades of activism in punk and student communities; on Native American reservations and in the inner-city; in secular and church circles; with teen prostitutes and African-American elderly; in centers of power (Capitol Hill, Embassy Row) and on the margins (Central America, the Middle East).
In the end, working on this book has helped me find clues on how to live, how we might create a world where all can flourish. For me, therefore, it is already a success.
I also hope that these words might prove useful for you, the reader. At its best, this book can be part of a vital, ongoing conversation that might bring us closer to some truths.
Of course, the punk skeptic in me knows that possibly everything that I have just told you is wrong. After all, my own activism has coincided with a dramatic shift to the right in this country, from the Carter years through the long, disheartening Reagan/Bush era to our current imperial moment of King George II.
What right, then, do I have to speak? I'm not sure. Do I really know anything with real certainty? No, but I try to do the best I can with what I've got. In the end, like Martin Luther King, Jr., I do believe we each must speak-the time demands no less of us.
One result of stepping to meet this challenge is the "anti-manifesto" which you now hold in your hands, created out of an odd mix of urgency and contradiction. Turning off the road well-traveled, it begins with the hard questions, the doubts. Sometimes it seems like radicals escape one matrix of half-truths and self-deception simply to embed ourselves in another. This is why I sometimes put quotation marks around words like "revolution" or "the system." These markers are there simply to encourage a certain critical distance. While they can represent something profoundly important, such words also can be used so loosely as to prevent genuine thought; as to be almost meaningless, maybe worse than meaningless.
There is no better way to turn people off to one's message than using rabid rhetoric. Such empty words are an unparalleled medium for spreading what I would call "radical illusions," the lazy, self-serving chimeras that discredit our movements and prevent us from achieving our goals.
Still, what may seem to be simple jargon or rhetoric can also carry essential meaning. Maybe these terms are not to be abandoned, just used more sparingly, with greater precision, given more clear definition. In a way, this is part of why I have written this book-to define and reclaim such words. In so doing, I hope to advance the struggle to make these ideals real.
As already mentioned, in certain ways this book picks up where Dance of Days left off. Much of it addresses how inherently narrow subcultural forms of activism (punk, student, and beyond) might grow to connect with other communities to build a movement for broad, fundamental social transformation.
To accomplish this, we need to affirm and build on our existing strengths. At the same time, we must challenge assumptions rampant in radical communities that tend to keep us self-satisfied but often ineffectual.
In Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy (Free Press, 2001), author Noreena Hertz notes a sharp decline in belief in traditional party politics and elections among the nations of the industrialized West. The United States stands as a prime example of this phenomenon. Given the subservience of even the supposed "party of the people"-the Democrats-to corporate financing and their agendas, growing voter apathy is understandable.
But if the Democratic Party seems to have sold its soul for campaign donations, while failing to adequately reach out to those in need, let us not complain too loudly. How often are we North American radicals really stretching ourselves toward the dispossessed of this nation? We seem all too caught up in our subcultural tribalism, our rhetorical radicalism, our glamorous causes. I fear that the common people of this country are as much strangers to us as to any politician.
Excerpted from All the Power by Mark Andersen Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
|Intro: The Burning Sky||1|
|Here Comes the Argument||15|
|Our Little Tribe has Always Been||33|
|Back to School Days||55|
|Identity is the Crisis||73|
|The Good Ship Lifestyle||119|
|Don't Mind Throwing a Brick||141|
|The American in me||167|
|Lovers of the People||189|
|Long Distance Runner||215|
|Art Credits and Commentary||232|