The following conversation between myself, Aaron Lakoff, and Sharmeen Khan is from issue 21 of the Upping the Ante journal, and can be found for free online at https://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/21-the-long-memory-is-the-most-radical-idea.
In addition to the centennial remembrances for the Winnipeg General Strike and the memorial for Rosa Luxemburg, many activists are gearing up for reflections of the 20th anniversary of the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO). For those who began anti-capitalist organizing during that time, there are many questions around mass mobilizations, public education, and proving that “another world is possible.” What are the reflections and thoughts of activists who mobilized during that time to where we are right now?
Below is an edited transcription of a panel held at the 2019 Montréal Anarchist Bookfair, titled “From ‘Another World is Possible’ to the Possible End of the World: Anarchistic Reflections on 1999-2019.” What follows are the reflections of three longtime organizers on 20 years of organizing, fighting back, and their appraisal of the state of the Left today.
Cindy Milstein has long engaged in anarchist organizing, contemporary social movements, and collective spaces. Cindy is author of Anarchism and Its Aspirations, co-author of Paths Toward Utopia: Graphic Explorations of Everyday Anarchism, and editor of the anthologies Taking Sides: Revolutionary Solidarity and the Poverty of Liberalism, Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief, and the forthcoming Deciding for Ourselves: The Promise of Direct Democracy. Over the past couple of years, they have focused on doing support for people facing state repression and co-organizing the Institute for Advanced Troublemaking’s Anarchist Summer School (more info found here: advancedtroublemaking.wordpress.com). Cindy is also honoured, when called on, to offer death doula, and grief care.
Aaron Lakoff is an award-winning independent journalist, media-maker, and community organizer based in Montréal, Canada. His work combines a passion for popular education, social justice, and artistic expression. He has filed radio and written reports from several countries, including Haïti, Palestine, Mexico, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and across North America. When he isn’t working, Aaron is often keeping himself busy as the producer of two of his podcasts:(changingonthefly.ca) and (rebelbeatradio.com).
Sharmeen Khan is a socialist-feminist organizer currently organizing with No One Is Illegal-Toronto. She is one of the founding editors of Upping the Anti and has contributed writing to publications such as Briarpatch Magazine, Shameless Magazine, and most recently a book of collected essays titled Settler City Limits. She is also a facilitator and currently coordinates Tools for Change, a Toronto-based collective that offers hard skills training in organizing and activism.
Cindy: This panel is in honour of the 20th anniversary of the Montréal Anarchist Bookfair. It’s a huge achievement in the anarchist world if anything lasts this long. And I also want to acknowledge that we’re on stolen land that continues to be stolen, and so much has been lost in Montréal in the past 20 years, and 200 years, and many hundreds of years before that. Now, while the three of us discuss, I’d like to encourge you all to reflect on what the past 20 years has meant. What has shifted and where are we at now?
Aaron: I’ll try to describe a little bit of the history of the bookfair in relation to other events happening at that time. I have been coming to the bookfair for 17 years. What I’ll be talking about is specific to Montréal. I moved here in the summer of 2002, around the time of the anti-globalization movement, and it was really exciting. I was not in Seattle for the 1999 protests, but I definitely remember the feeling post-Seattle of, “We’re winning! We shut down the WTO! Anything is possible! Another world is possible!” Many inspiring events happened after that. In 2000 in Toronto, there was the Queen’s Park riot, which was mostly people on welfare and homeless people rioting because of then Ontario Premier Mike Harris’ cuts to welfare. In 2001, I went to the massive protests in Québec City against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which was another incredible moment of convergence of labour, anarchist, socialist, environmental, and Indigenous movements. The feeling of international solidarity was strong because those were the politics that were being put forward at the time. These were powerful moments in public resistance, and we need to be learning from them, especially with the Ford government in power in Ontario and the Legault government in power in Québec.
In 2002, I moved to Montréal. When I came here, I almost immediately shifted my politics from Marxist-Lenninist to anarchist. I became an anarchist because the organizing that inspired me the most was being done by anarchists in Montréal. There was a vibrant anarchist housing movement through the Convergence des Luttes Anticapitalistes (CLAC), which still exists today. There were also a lot of anarchists involved in migrant justice struggles. In 2002, a large section of the Algerian community was targeted for deportations, and there was a massive organizing moment that involved a lot of direct action by people who were undocumented and were supported by anarchists. Seeing that, I was like, “I’m in love. Where can I sign up?”
A major outcome of the Seattle protests against the WTO was the Indymedia movement in Montréal. It included the website indymedia.org, but also had collectives springing up all around the world. We had the Centres des Médias Alternatifs du Québec (CMAQ), which is the local encapsulation; that was a really important legacy. In the anarchist movement we’ve actually moved pretty far away from creating media, so I want to come back to that later in my presentation.
My first Montréal Anarchist Bookfair was in 2003, and that was also the year that the Iraq War started. The bookfair opened with this incredibly powerful panel called, “Anarchists Against the War,” and it included local anarchists, mostly women, from Montréal with direct frontline solidarity experience: people who had gone to Iraq or Palestine with the International Solidarity Movement and were bringing that spirit of anarchist internationalism that has been part of our movements for centuries. There was an effort to try and do the same thing in Iraq, although the level of violence there made it untenable. There was a really strong sense of anarchist internationalism that I don’t see as much today, and there are reasons for that, like a return to more locally-focused struggles. It was often said in the Palestinian solidarity movement that Canadians working in solidarity with Palestinians while ignoring Indigenous struggles at home would be like Israelis in Tel Aviv organizing in solidarity with Indigenous nations here while ignoring the plight of the Palestinians. Working to decolonize in your own backyard and prioritizing that before spending lots of money on airfare to go overseas and engage in struggle seems like a wise choice. But it could be said that today we lack a lot of capacity and, even worse, a lack of analysis, to meaningfully engage in international struggles.
In those years there was also a post-bookfair demo. It was incredible because the sentiment was “we’re thousands of anarchists from all over North America all in the same place. Let’s fuck shit up!” So, for two years after the bookfair, CLAC Logement organized an anarchist tour of Westmount, which is one of the richest neighbourhoods in Canada. Being with hundreds or thousands of anarchists, walking by mansions chanting, “Capitalism? No thanks! We’ll burn your fucking banks!” felt incredible. But there were also mass arrests, which was hard, especially for folks from out of town.
Another really incredible feature at the bookfair during those years was the autonomous media room, which is linked to the Indymedia movement. Every year at the bookfair, CKUT radio––which is still a thriving community radio station in Montréal––would organize an autonomous media room and a full day of workshops. They used to cover everything from silk screening to doing live FM broadcasts, and they would also teach security culture skills, such as how to encrypt emails.
I’ll jump ahead a little bit. The year 2010 was a huge one for the anarchist movement in Canada. We called it Fuck 2010 or Riot 2010 because there were three major events that happened in different cities in Canada: the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, which were massively contested and resisted by Indigenous communities out there, and in the summer, the G7 and G20 meetings happened in Huntsville and Toronto, respectively. These events became big focal points at the bookfair that year.
Two years later the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair occured during the incredibly inspiring Quebec Student Strike. The Jean Charest provincial government had just passed a special law to ban protests, and we were like, “Oh, did you know that there are thousands of anarchists coming to town this weekend?! Ohhh, snap!” and fierce rioting lit up the night. That was such a beautiful demo, to share that moment of intense militant resistance with our out-of- town comrades.
I’m rushing through things, but I’ll discuss a couple of things that are lacking and a couple of proposals. I think that today we have a diminished sense of internationalism, at least in the local anarchist scene. There are some exceptions to that, such as Rojava solidarity, but sometimes all too often as anarchists, we tend to cherry pick which international struggles we want to get involved in. I think it’s really important for us to get our hands dirty sometimes and lend our solidarity to movements that are a bit messier, a bit more complicated.
It’s crucial to build up an anarchist communication infrastructure again, as we’ve lost so much indie media. Instead, there has been a really disturbing turn towards social media wherein people think, “We’re all doing indie media because we’re sharing stuff on Facebook.” We all know the pitfalls of that. As anarchists, we need to engage with these technologies while at the same time trying to draw people away from them because they’re corporate monoliths and they’re not secure. I’m not saying we should try to revive communication methods we used in the 1970s and 1980s, but we need to think through how we are producing anarchist media and how we are building on that tradition that came out of Seattle and that moment.
Sharmeen: Perhaps I am the Muslim, woman-of-colour version of Aaron. I’m a little more Marxist though, and a little older, but we’ve had similar trajectories with various mobilizations and share a common passion for community media, which has been central to my activism for over 20 years. These moments of reflection are strange. I wonder if it was weird for people involved in the anti-war and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s to talk about those struggles 20 years later. Those events were so powerful that decades later we still look to them for inspiration. In thinking about the protests against the WTO, International Monetary Fund (IMF), or World Bank, even if those events felt so big, there seems to be some sort of amnesia around where we were 20 years ago. A lot of younger activists I speak to haven’t heard about the WTO protests in Seattle. I don’t know if we’re just trying to romanticize something more significant than it was or if this is just capitalist history taking over our consciousness and erasing those important moments.
My entry into radical politics started as a question to a teacher, asking if he knew if there was a way I could become white. I grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan. It was a very segregated city and my family were new immigrants living in a white suburb, which was also separated from the Indigenous communities in that city. My teacher was a really nervous white man and he told me, “This guy Malcolm X has some cool things to say about racism, so you should read that.” Malcolm X’s life was not my lived experience at all, but he had an articulation of white supremacy, imperialism, and colonization that resonated with me. I realized this was not the way our community should be, and it led me down the road of making zines, starting a Food Not Bombs chapter in Regina, and going to loud punk shows. I knew immediately I wanted to be a communist. So I had to join this four-person Communist Party of Canada local. My mom would drop me off, as a 17-year-old, to this house of old men, and I was like “No, mom! We’re just going to read, you know, Lenin!” That was my entry until I moved on to things that seemed a little more relevant.
I’ve occupied various spaces under the umbrella of anti- capitalism. In Regina you had to take radical politics where it was found, so there wasn’t a huge anarchist scene when I was growing up. The communist scene was mostly old professors. But my entry into activism at that time was when the anti-globalization movement was just starting. As Aaron mentioned, parts of that movement were huge international solidarity movements, not only in terms of people thinking about sweatshops and where our clothes are made, but also solidarity work with movements in East Timor, Mexico, and Burma. We did panels on different military dictatorships that Canada and the US were collaborating with, and we were trying to talk about international capitalism and its ties to state-sponsored terrorism. We were talking about state-sponsored terrorism before September 11, linking military interventions to international financial agreements. Those conversations were very central to entering politics at that time, and I’m grateful for that because I don’t think that level of education around how economics, capitalism, and international trade agreements exists in the same way.
Growing up and becoming radicalized in Regina, you had to centralize Indigenous struggle, and there was a really strong presence of Indigenous organizers in the city. In terms of “another world is possible,” I started learning about decolonization at a very early age, and at a time that I don’t think it was often talked about. My family settled in Canada as a result of a partition in South Asia, and I began to notice that we had partition in Regina and in all of Canada: the systemic separateness of settler colonialism. And so I wanted to bring my experiences of colonization and talk to other people about their experiences to create links.
In thinking of international solidarity, another important experience was when I went on a youth delegation to Cuba in 1997 for an international gathering. We did a volunteer brigade, and we repaired a school with very little materials (this was the 1990s and the embargo was in full effect). I actually learned first hand about how US imperialism impacted a country on the ground. The initiative was tied to this gathering called the World Festival of Youth and Students, which is kind of like “Commie-palooza.” During that time, there was a lot of talk about the convergence on the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in 1997 in Vancouver and then the WTO, IMF, and World Bank. All those discussions were happening there in Havana.
My first big mass mobilization was during 1997 when we all went to Vancouver for the APEC summit. The controversy of “Peppergate” happened there, where then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, when famously asked by Nardwar the Human Serviette about the use of pepper spray on protesters, said, “I don’t know what you mean by pepper, I put pepper on my plate.” It was the first time I saw police and state response in that way, in terms of mass arrests, and also the first time I actually learned about and engaged with direct action. I remember seeing it on TV during the Oka crisis, but to see the state response first hand is quite a radicalizing experience.
Last year at the Steve Bannon protest in Toronto, many activists were pepper sprayed for the first time, and what I found strange was that many people did not know how to respond or treat those who were sprayed. I don’t mean to make light of it, but to engage in direct action, you know you were putting your body at risk. I was shocked that many people did not know how to treat those injured when just a few years ago, there were weekly street medic trainings. There was an awareness and discussion during those years on what to expect, and we had community medics and legal observers. To some extent we still have these things, but more seemed at stake then because you expected or knew the state would react with intense chemical abuse. Given what I experienced during the G20, many people did not find these trainings very useful because the tactics of the state have changed. So that’s a question I wanted to bring up: when legal and police tactics change, do our tactics change as well?
I want to finish by talking about two main areas that I have been really committed to. One is anti-capitalist activist media. I like to draw from Himani Bannerji who talks about the power of naming. Using Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and understanding of power, she talks about the power of naming, not just in terms of identity, but in terms of revealing relationships of power and exploitation. This has been the foundation of my media work not only to raise peoples’ consciousness, but also to document all the different strategies and choices we made, all the risks we took, what failed and what didn’t. I was really active with radio, and then in 2005 I helped found Upping the Anti. We just had our 14-year anniversary. It’s a lot of thankless work especially when it’s for documenting movement work, and you have no interest in making money or profit from it. I really appreciate these spaces because I think we all honour the amount of labour that goes into it.
Another really important part of the work I’ve been engaged in is facilitation and activist training. In 2012, I went to Philadelphia a bunch of times to train as a facilitator with Training for Change and Ruckus Society. When we enter politics, we’re not given a manual: there are manuals, but they don’t really speak to the places where we operate. Guerilla Warfare? Great book, but I can’t really apply it to where I am in Toronto. I don’t believe in a protracted peoples’ war, so I’ll just leave it on the bookshelf. Training is, then, the peoples’ manual: it’s how we share skills, how we build confidence, and how we are able to talk about failure in real ways and build on it. Training has opened up the world for me; it makes me think about popular education, consciousness raising, and building fires of passion.
In terms of dealing with despair, one of the things that really helped me was becoming more of an internationalist. The state is very disempowering, and they want it to be that way. They want you to feel too scared to do anything. But working with multi- generational folks who put their bodies on the line is really helpful in breaking through those feelings. I have relationships all over the world, and every so often I will call them up and have one-on-one conversations with people who are doing good work. This has really sustained me and has helped me deal with despair. Things may be very frantic, but if you can talk to people around the world who are doing good work, it is a way to keep going. In hearing about good work being done in other cities, you can see the bigger picture and look beyond local shitty dynamics. For me, to call someone in Berlin or in Beirut who is organizing around Syria is a small part of internationalism. My fight includes them and really helps me work through that despair.
Cindy: It’s weird to think that 20 years have passed and some of it seems so fresh. My heart is so fucking broken about how much we’ve lost. So I’m going to focus on what we’ve lost, which is not to say that we’ve lost because we’re stupid, or because we’re not good at what we do, or because we don’t have compelling ideas or good intentions, but because the world itself is losing a lot right now.
I titled this panel to include the idea of “the possible end of the world” because to me it’s a really striking thing for humans to think about their own extinction as a species. That is not a small loss! Someone came up to me earlier today, while I was tabling for AK Press, to talk about despair. They were saying that a lot of their friends are just like, “The world’s not going to be around for more than 15 or 20 years, so what’s the point? I might as well just try to have fun in my own life,” and “It’s too hard to struggle, it’s too hard to be radical, it takes too much out of you.” It does.
Twenty years ago, people didn’t feel despair like this. It’s palpable and it’s real, and I think we need to stop pretending it’s not happening. I hate upbeat, posi memes such as “It’s alright! Everything’s fine! Have a good time! I just wanna feel good!” People turn to those because we feel like we’re all going to collapse from not being able to breathe due to how much despair we feel, so I’m compassionate toward those who think they need those sentiments. In contrast, those of us who were around 20 years ago had a sense that “We can win!” I remember going to gigantic convergences with tens of thousands of anarchists and banners hanging off balconies five or six stories above, with a feeling of “revolution” in the air, and you really thought it was almost possible.
We need to ask, “How do we grapple with despair?” We have to be honest, name it, and work from that in our organizing. This means talking about our losses and grieving together. We can take care of each other and create community, love, and care.
I also want to touch on the shifts in how we understand anarchism and anarchist communities. There has been a shift toward fewer people identifying as anarchists but still engaging in anarchistic movements, struggles, or projects such as mutual aid projects or mutual aid disaster relief happening in the United States. That’s a good thing, when it involves anarchistic ethics and practices. But at the same time, I think we are failing. In the past, especially over the last few months, it has been so awful to be an anarchist. Anarchists are being so awful to each other. Toxic anarchism is a real thing. I’ve been in Montréal for the past few months and part of the bookfair collective this year, and this is not a criticism against anyone specific, but people don’t stay on the bookfair collective in part because all we hear are complaints. No one is given the benefit of the doubt. These days, some anarchists are doing things like doxxing each other, weaponizing identity to destroy each other, and sometimes even beating each other up. We’re hurt, sad people; this is a hard time. Period. Social media also accentuates horrible forms of communication. I think we’re being really bad anarchists. And that breaks my heart.
On the one hand, we are winning in the sense that more people are using anarchistic forms of organization. They have to because when your whole city is erased by a flood or fire, of course the police, the state, or capitalism aren’t going to do shit. So what do people do? They look around and say, “Let’s take care of each other.” On the other hand, anarchists used to be much more reciprocal and have a sense of collective freedom, and it wasn’t so much, “Me, me, me.” Now it’s like, “If I don’t get my way all the time, if I don’t have every little thing I need, I can’t be in a space!” I don’t want to romanticize the past, but in some of the moments from 20 years ago, there would be tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people in the street being so generous to each other. All the slogans were about collective freedom, collective winning, for people, for the world. And now it’s like, “I want to make sure my friends and I are okay,” which is understandable because it’s a really hard world, but that’s not what freedom looks like; that simply mirrors capitalism.
Given these and other palpable shifts with the public and electoral rise of fascism, a lot more people have become politicized again, including over the sentiment, “We have to punch Nazis.” Not that I think it’s a bad idea to punch Nazis per se, but unfortunately you can’t punch fascism away. That’s not a strategy to get rid of white supremacy; it is a tactic. The recent tactic of throwing a milkshake all over a white supremacist is, to my mind, far more imaginative and creative, harking back to the creativity that was in abundance 20 years ago. It also seems much more effective, since it humiliates them, plus the person throwing the milkshake potentially doesn’t get in as much trouble for doing it.
Relatedly, there seems to be a shift toward a more intense machismo, which elevates and even glorifies beating the shit out of fascists. In a beautiful contrast to this renewed machismo, there has been a widespread #MeToo movement, for lack of a better term, within the anarchist community, mostly asserted by Black, Indigenous, people of colour, queer, feminist, and femme people. If we are going to get rid of fascism, we must show people how to care for each other. There’s this resurgence of people and projects within anarchism that have to do with harm reduction, transformative justice, collective care, mutual aid, and so on. Alas, it’s still largely the same people having to do that again; it’s highly gendered.
In other words, there is still a power structure within anarchism wherein, unfortunately, largely cis-white males dominate. They’re not bad people, and like most anarchists, they are doing phenomenal work. But who are the ones who still put in the 5 million hours of labour to take care of each other and then get diminished as people or have their projects ignored or made invisible?
I want to end on what we’ve lost. Over the past 20 years, the number of projects that the three of us have been a part of that are no longer here is astonishing. There used to be so much more media, so many more anarchist spaces. I was part of so many other anarchist schools and giant conferences and gatherings, and we would meet up regularly at numerous convergences. It wasn’t just people jet-setting around. I met tens of thousands of people during that time period, most of whom I still know now. We need to re-create those webs and infrastructures of social relations, which in turn both sustain and nourish us for the long haul.
For instance, I did solidarity work for Defend J20 Resistance, for the the folks who were arrested at Trump’s inauguration two and a half years ago. Some 220 people were arrested due to state violence, but also because J20 was a largely unstrategic, untactical, and untrained action among people who didn’t know each other and in some cases only randomly showed up to participate. What broke my heart about that moment was that there used to be weeklong convergences beforehand to train people on knowing their rights, ensure that laywers, paralegals, and medics were on hand, and prepare a strategy, tactics, getaways, and scouting. I could go on and on. Why have we lost this infrastructure? And what are we going to do about that? I love the slogan “diversity of tactics,” but what about a diversity of strategy? What is our strategy for mutual aid and care? Even if we only have 20 years left, I want those to be the best quality of life for as many people as possible instead of us tearing each other apart.
I’m not despairing of anarchism. I believe in anarchism. But I’m having a hard time believing in anarchists. We can’t keep things going; we can’t keep care going. I had a personal health scare last week and went back to Michigan, my home base, and I was hanging out with some of my queer anarchist friends and they all concurred, “I’m scared, as an anarchist, of getting sick or getting older. I’m going to die alone because who the hell is going to have my back?” I don’t want to continue like this for the next 20 years. The profundity of loss that could happen in the next 20 years is hard to comprehend, so more than ever we need to love and care for each other in anarchistic ways.
I think we need to start re-creating community because it has been stolen from us in cities like this through, say, gentrification and capitalism. With this year’s bookfair, there are a lot of things that may be wrong, but the collective tried really hard to bring in elements of what care would look like and fill that hole in our lives, including setting up a grief room, which should be in every space we have. We need spaces to visualize what we are losing; we need to grieve and do it in ways that remind us there’s mutual aid. That creates community. That’s one way we counter despair: being more intentional about creating collectivity that fills the hole in our lives.
(photo by Cindy Milstein, taken at the Jewish History Museum in so-called Tucson, AZ, in January 2020)