At Anarchist Book Fair, history, literature and low-key activism
From Seattle Times
The typical media stereotype of a Seattle anarchist is a young person wearing black, smashing windows at a May Day march and screaming at nearby journalists and police officers.
But the Anarchist Book Fair at Washington Hall last Saturday felt more like being among hundreds of Quakers, most of whom just happened to be wearing black.
The fair brought a convivial atmosphere to the 1908 building on 14th Avenue and Fir Street in the Central District, with trays of rice and beans for attendees; tables stacked with books for sale; and talks by scholars and activists about anarchist history, radical-left movements in Syria and Bolivia, and protests against animal-research labs. There was a surprising amount of hugging.
When boxes of books needed to be carried, people jumped up to volunteer. The same happened when somebody suggested moving chairs to a cooler room for a talk about prisons. The upstairs balcony hosted a child-care center where a young boy cruised around on sneakers with wheels and a young girl, watched over by a young woman, shot arrows from a tiny wooden crossbow at a pink target taped to the back of a black folding chair.
Almost a decade old, the fair was held for several years at the Vera Project in Seattle Center. This was the first year at Washington Hall, which one participant said seemed like a better fit, with more visibility and proximity to economically diverse parts of the city.
Almost nobody at the fair would speak on the record, saying they either mistrusted mainstream newspapers like The Seattle Times or worried about putting themselves on the law-enforcement map. “Oh,” one participant groused, “I bet some people think: ‘Anarchists aren’t organized enough to read a book, and they think they’re going to pull off a book fair?’ ”
The one exception was Mark Cook, who doesn’t call himself an anarchist. Cook is a former Black Panther and member of the George Jackson Brigade, which bombed supermarkets, robbed banks and engineered jailbreaks for far-left causes in the 1970s.
Cook co-founded the first incarcerated chapter of the Black Panther Party and was at the fair to talk about prisons in a panel discussion. He said he’d recently returned from Hong Kong, where he was invited to talk with former (and maybe future) political prisoners about how to organize behind bars.
“I don’t consider myself an anarchist,” he said and smiled, “but I seem to hang out with them a lot.”
The people who wouldn’t share their names said they came from a broad swath of anarchist traditions. Some are more interested in ecology, others in economics. “Anarchism,” one young woman said, “doesn’t mean ‘no rules.’ It means ‘no rulers.’ ”
Jesus Christ, another attendee said, was one of the first famous anarchists, “because he said the people are more important than the state.” In the Bible, she added, Jesus smashed money-changers’ tables in a temple — which she compared to the infamous Seattle May Day of 2012, when an anarchist march smashed the windows of banks and businesses downtown.
The event highlighted the history of anarchism in the U.S. and the Northwest, from the Industrial Workers of the World, which had a stronghold among Scandinavian immigrants working in the timber industry during the early 1900s, to Dorothy Day, a famous Catholic anarchist. (A residence for homeless women in the Leschi neighborhood is named after her.)
These days, anarchist (or anarch-ish) organizations are all over the place — Left Bank Books is a 43-year-old, anarchist-run bookstore at Pike Place Market, Food Not Bombs has been cooking meals for anyone who wants food for decades and several anarchist-oriented housing cooperatives exist across the city, like the Emma Goldman Finishing School on Beacon Hill, where tenants share wages from their day jobs.
On the main floor of Washington Hall, dozens of publishers from around the country sold literature: a pamphlet by late novelist Roberto Bolaño titled “Leave Everything, Again,” for example, and a book of poetry titled “We Are Nothing and So Can You,” by UC Berkeley and Stanford University professor Jasper Bernes. (Some sample lines: “basically, you have three choices: jail, mall, museum … jail + museum = university; mall + jail = airport; mall + jail + museum = home sweet home.”)
On other tables, fliers advertised letter-writing campaigns to prisoners and a 5K fundraising run for the Anarchist Black Cross.
Around 6 p.m., as the Anarchist Book Fair was scheduled to close, Washington Hall looked like an ant hive. Old people and young people, some wearing colorful shirts and some wearing black, streamed out the front doors carrying boxes of unsold books to volunteers’ cars. Then they streamed back in to pick up some more.