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News ::
The Next Train (english)
22 Oct 2003
Chapter from Anarchy in the Age of Dinosaurs, discussing travellers and anarchy.
The Next Train

“They’re lazy.” “They’re dirty.” “They steal and they’re untrustworthy.” “They’re parasites sucking up our resources.” We’ve all seen them. We all have an opinion about them. And most of us have let them sleep on our couches. We know all about travelers.

These are some common complaints anarchists settled in local communities have for their traveling brethren. When we look at these complaints, they unfortunately echo complaints from other places and other peoples. These are the same slurs and stereotypes that Eastern Europeans have against Gypsies, suburbanites have against inner city residents, unionists have against Mexican migrant workers and other immigrants, or that Germans have against Turkish guest workers.

Throughout recorded history there has been an antagonism between settled peoples and their nomadic neighbors. Part of this clash undoubtedly comes from the belief that when resources are scarce, rootless nomads will steal what settled peoples have worked for. Some argue that this tension stems from a jealousy that settled people have for people who appear to have more freedom and less constraints. Regardless of the roots of this conflict, the end result is the same: mistrust and hostility. Unfortunately many anarchists have fallen into this same trap of stereotyping and vilifying traveling folks. Yet anarchists have always traveled! Whether it was Bakunin (perhaps the original “traveling kid”) organizing the First Black International, or Emma Goldman barnstorming across the U.S., anarchists have long taken their ideas and projects on the road. Today, we continue to take our projects and politics with us wherever and however we go: hopping trains in small groups, on bicycle extravaganzas, in cramped vans full of band equipment, on standby flights, through book tours in soccer-mom vans, or by simply sticking out our thumbs. There are several reasons to travel that exist outside of a purely hedonistic, individual realm. Travel has political and cultural potential that can strengthen our communities, cross-pollinate ideas, and provide mutual aid.

Spreading Memes

Face-to-face contact is more meaningful than communication through television, telephone, the Internet, magazines, or books like this one. There is something amazing about meeting a person from another community and realizing you happen to share similar passions and projects. Travel brings us together. Now that anarchy is no longer solely the domain of dull book-fairs and college campuses, a dedicated segment of our communities has been spreading anarchist ideas across the country and world. These ideas, sometimes called “memes,” mutate and change, popping up in unexpected places and contexts.

Reclaim the Streets (RTS) was originally a product of anti-road protests in Britain that were attempting to save the countryside, including the battles for Twyford Down. As more and more urban activists got involved, the scope of the protests slowly transformed from being against particular roads to being against automobile culture in general. Tripods and other tactics that have been effective at stopping the construction of roads were deployed to block already existing highways in the middle of the London. What started as standard protests became something special. Impromptu street parties complete with music, puppets and direct action spread across England within a year, and in two years, the idea spread all the way to Finland. Within four years, the original RTS had transformed into a Global Day of Action (did you take the streets on November 30th, 1999? It was a Global Day of Action, too) with over ten thousand people in Nigeria’s oil capital of Port Harcourt taking to the streets singing, dancing, and bringing to a halt the offices of the murderous oil conglomerate Shell. Mutating as it crossed the Atlantic to the United States, the RTS phenomenon has spread from the highways of London to the subway stations of New York and the suburbs of Naperville, Illinois. A substantial part of this phenomenon was transmitted by people sharing their experiences with others through their travels. The meme of RTS transcended its initial context to become meaningful for people all across the world.

Travel opens up the possibility of not only learning about people, projects, and resistances in a particular geographical community, but allows travelers to actively be involved in that community. One of the first things that travelers can offer their hosts is to do household chores (like cleaning the dishes!) but they can do much more. With her, the traveler brings knowledge, passion, and skills: a whole lifetime of experiences and accounts from other places. Without jobs and other traditional time constraints, travelers can be the cultural and political “reinforcements” for the guerilla war in which we are currently engaged in North America. Instead of being a passive recipient of information, meeting face-to-face makes us active partners in a cultural dialogue. This is the basic premise of conferences, convergences, and encuentros. Successful events like Louisville’s Permanent Autonomous Zone (PAZ) conference brought together people from all across the country (and abroad) to share ideas, give trainings and workshops, trade patches, and stencils, make contacts and—yes—even have a good time.

In these exchanges, diversity is important: not only the racial or ethnic varieties, but also geographic. Anarchists in Kansas have their own version of anarchy, which has something in common with anarchy in Maine. To various degrees, they might have something to do with Bolivian or Korean anarchy. All of these geographic communities adapt anarchist practices to their own local environment. While similarities are certainly important, the differences are where the most interesting projects spring from. Local variation is what keeps culture alive and immediate, so that a single vision doesn’t crowd out innovations. Like dialects of a single language, the regional variations of anarchy make us more rich and colorful. Instead of a homogenous, by-the-book ideology, anarchy has made its home in thousands of communities, based on overlapping shared cultures, politics, and practices. These different anarchies don’t need to be unified, or have a uniform look. When a traveler originally from Chicago brings experiences to a temporary tree-sit encampment in the forests of Cascadian or a squatted farm in Brazil, they spread their own variation of the anarchist meme. Only time will show what happens next.

The More the Merrier

Having people come to your town from elsewhere increases morale. When anarchists swarmed to a Native American reservation in upstate New York from a half-dozen places to help protect Oneida families from being forcibly evicted from their homes, it was possible only because traveling culture is imbued with the desire to offer mutual aid. The families were surprised yet pleased at receiving help from strangers, while at the same time the anarchists were glad to become part of the community struggle, even if only temporarily. In this case, the struggle for autonomy would have been impossible without the dedication of the settled members of the community. The travelers used their “freedom” (free time and flexibility) to ensure the struggle was a success. In a rather different locale, the community gardens in the South Bronx, including the beloved Cabo Rojo, were sustained for months by travelers and anarchists from other places who built a micro-community along with their settled comrades on squatted ground. Convergences, demonstrations, and conferences have all provided the opportunities for people from different geographic communities to share and learn from each other. Traveling also has allowed groups in local struggles to expect help from unlikely allies despite geographic isolation. If a nationwide or international anarchist culture is ever to be observed, it will likely be in these sorts of interactions.

Authorities are rightly concerned by our ability to mobilize our fellows from geographic communities other than our own. In one particularly infamous Reclaim the Streets in Durham, North Carolina, the police sergeant was overheard claiming that the hundreds of anarchists there were from Eugene and San Francisco even though the protest was made up of mostly locals. The police were rightfully shocked by the participants’ ability to come together successfully and do whatever they wanted. Their only explanation was somehow that the “Seattle kids” had come to menace their precinct; they were completely unaware that they had anarchists living in their own backyard. Part of the success of this particular event was that the local folks were joined by other North Carolina anarchists, college activists, street kids, and some hardy travelers. While few local communities can stage events where they are not overwhelmed by police, traveling allows us to mobilize unexpected numbers of folks and keep the authorities off balance. This is the basic strength of the anti-globalization movement and is a tactic that can be useful in a variety of circumstances and struggles.

“Patience Makes the Hobo Strong”
—graffiti in trainyard catch-out spot, Waycross, Georgia

Borders are not only physical, they are mental. As long as we believe that we are citizens of particular countries, or limited to any single community, we are losing out. We should all travel! Whether it is across the country for an IMF demonstration, or across the city to meet up with a group we’ve just begun a new project with, travel is a very real way to connect to other people. Our solidarity shouldn’t be limited to people who happen to live in the same neighborhood or city.

Friendship is a great medium for passion: better than books, zines, or even the Internet. Unfortunately, many anarchists live in places far away from the scenes that will support their dreams and projects. Traveling and travelers can be a potential catalyst to allow people isolated by the chance of geography to see their projects grow and prosper without having to relocate. If anarchists ever hope to be more than a marginal force in the U.S., we must be able to reach even the loneliest corners of this huge country. Ironically, instead of “ruining” communities, travelers may be the best chance we have in building stronger local communities of resistance by sharing ideas, resources, and labor from different places.

Some naysayers will argue that travel is not radical, in and of itself. And this is true: a millionaire can jump on an airplane to Barbados and have an entire hotel to himself, just as a crustie in the U.S. can ride trains motivated solely by cheap escapism. The potential of travel lies in its relative freedoms: time to dedicate to projects, the ability to convey materials and information, flexibility in putting energy into new projects, supporting faraway comrades, the list continues on. Travel can also be used to combat isolation and to give us hope in an otherwise unwelcoming world. As any traveler knows, getting somewhere you’ve never been requires patience and dedication: let our collective roads all lead to anarchy.

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