Chapel Hill News: Anarchists Take Root

(originally published in the Chapel Hill News)
CARRBORO – Pass any papered utility pole from Carrboro to downtown Chapel Hill, and you’ll see traces of their presence: The anarchists are everywhere.”You cannot avoid us. Even if you don’t like us, you know we’re there because our posters are [expletive] everywhere,” said self-proclaimed anarchist and Carrboro resident Neal Richards.Flip through a Merriam-Webster’s dictionary for the term “anarchist,” and you’ll find a person who rebels against authority. Delve deeper into the history of Anarchism and you’ll find a political philosophy far more complex than the idealistic, fringe group today’s anarchists are often dismissed as being. 

Anarchism grew out of the 19th century French revolt against the bourgeoisie. Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin, a 19th century Russian revolutionary, coined the term that describes the local community’s philosophy: collectivist anarchism.

“Today, increasingly, anarchism provides people with tools to critique the current practices of politics and offers a vision for an alternative form of politics that is more locally-based, more horizontal,” said Michal Osterweil, an anthropologist who graduated from UNC and based her thesis on social movements.

“In the United States and in Latin America in particular,” she said, “anarchists are trying to enact political interventions at a local scale rather than trying to organize [in a] massive union, party style.”

Richards concurred. “Because we want a society where people solve problems collectively on a grassroots, community level, we take action in ways that reflect that desire,” he said.

Anarchists describe it as “Direct Action.”

The Really, Really Free Market held on the Carrboro Town Commons the first Saturday of every month is an energetic protest against capitalism and an example of an alternative known as a “Gift economy.”

A hybrid of a flea market, yard sale and community center, the Really, Really Free Market is just that – free. The community comes together to provide mutual aid through food, clothes, items, or skill-shares. Town government resisted the event because free food was being served without insurance until an anonymous donor covered insurance costs. It also dropped a permit fee for holding the market on town property. Last year, the market celebrated its fifth anniversary.

Richards calls the market a “big victory” for the anarchist community.

“That was hundreds of people taking a conscious form of direct action, occupying a piece of land to say, ‘We are not going to have to pay to use this piece of land to share with each other,'” he said. “In a town like Carrboro, you can really have a big effect. It’s a town where people are willing to take risks and be smart about it.”

Anarchism recently made international headlines when an underground, Italian anarchist movement took credit for a slew of embassy bombings in Italy in December. But locally, the anarchists of Chapel Hill and Carrboro walk openly among politicians, students, and educators. That, however, does not exempt the community from criticism.

“Anarchists have a long and proud history, that we do not deny, of fostering criminal activity,” Richards said. “We are not pacifists. We believe in self-defense and going on the offensive to attack the institutions that are trying to oppress us. That’s anarchism.”

When the Greenbridge condominium project was built amid the historically black Northside neighborhood, it was the target of vandalism and bomb threats. Fingers were pointed at several suspect groups who challenged the development, including the anarchist community.

Neither the Chapel Hill nor the Carrboro police department could tie any specific incident to local anarchists.

“We’ll see the graffiti from time to time, but we’ve had no direct interaction with any sort of anarchists or trouble with their ideas or movements,” said Carrboro Police Sgt. Chris Atack.

Richards said the Greenbridge development angered many. “The entire neighborhood hated that project. It could have been anybody,” he said.

However, the project’s successful completion was a failure for the anarchist community, as well as church groups, student-led groups like United with the Northside Community-NOW, and “even white, liberal professors at UNC who prioritized their reputation over taking a controversial public stance.,” he said. “There was a lack of community organizing.”

State conference

The proverbial anarchist flag was staked last April when the first-ever state conference on “self-determination, mutual aid, and resistance” was planned.

Organizers held the two-day conference, dubbed “NC Rising,” on UNC’s campus. It featured workshops and panels on subjects such as independent media to radical cartography. Its success spawned a sequel held in Asheville.

Last November, anarchists organized what may become another local tradition: the Anarchist Book Fair. The event drew local politicians, merchants, students, and parents who brought their children. Nineteen vendors distributed literature under the anarchism umbrella on causes such as veganism and mountaintop mining.

Anarchist Lydia Theia represented West Franklin Street’s Internationalist Bookstore at the fair.

“When an anarchist community starts to have a lot of different people, age groups, different [sub] communities, then you have a healthy community,” she said. “That’s starting to happen here.