At Finding our Roots, Chicago

The river running through downtown Chicago

The Chicago meeting took place Saturday 19th April as part of the 'Finding our roots' conference at the Roosevelt University.  This was the second Finding our Roots conference and was on the topic of  “Anarchist Organizing in the Midwest.”  The trip from Lansing to Chicago was the only one I made south of the border by Amtrak train – or rather partly by bus from Lansing to the nearest active station and then by train.  

The bus trip from Lansing to the train station was uneventful but the Amtrak arrived over an hour late.  Apparently Amtrak passenger trains get a lower priority than some of the freight trains that use the same lines which mean they are frequently delayed as time table clashes result in the passenger trains having to pull into a siding to let the freight trains use the section of track!  So the trains are not only generally considerably more expensive than the buses (which is the case almost everywhere in the world) but are also slower and less reliable (which is generally not the case elsewhere.)  I did take another couple of trains (Boston to Providence, Miami to Lake Worth and San Jose to Oakland) but these involved short hops on commuter trains.

The train trip itself was uneventful except when at one station one of a pair of brothers got off the train and failed to get back on again before he departed.  The remaining brother then had lots of mobile phone calls with others in the family, over hearing these I found out he'd got off without his jacket which contained his mobile phone and all his money.  Being stranded on what was still a cold time of the year without a ticket, money or even a jacket a hundred or more miles from your destination did not strike me a being much fun but hopefully something for sorted out for him in the end.

Chicago is the one city in the mid-west that does not appear to be in decline and the last kilometers of approach were through an industrial landscape of smokestacks that changed to warehouses as we got closer to the city.  My 'contact' was a NEFAC member, BMJ, who was involved in putting on the 'Finding our Roots' conference and had managed to get my talk onto the schedule.  The only problem was that to get to Chicago in time I had to complete the other mid-west stops at a much faster rate than normal, which meant by the time I hit Chicago I was more than a little worn out.

Chicago itself was surprisingly beautiful. I had expected it to be grim but then I knew nothing about it apart from having been stuck overnight at the airport due to a snowstorm some years before.  On that occasion I was stuck in an airport hotel in an industrial estate with no winter gear when there was 2 foot of snow outside and the only reachable places were a Hooters and an Australian themed steakhouse.  I'd chosen the steakhouse.

Chicago is the third biggest city in the US with nearly 3 million in the city and almost 10 million in the metropolitan area.  It fronts onto Lake Michigan and its location arose because this was a good portage point onto the Mississippi watershed even though the Mississippi itself is hundreds of miles to the west.  If fact it's only a 17-foot high ridge that stops the great lakes flowing into the river that leads down to the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico.  I think up to the end of the last ice age this was precisely the route taken by the great lakes, the ‘new’ exit to the ocean, the St Lawrence Seaway exiting though Quebec was rapidly carved out as a single cataclysmic event at the end of the ice age as the land rose once the burden of billions of tones of ice melted.

It's reckoned the name Chicago is a French rendering of the word for wild leek in the Miami-Illinois language, now considered extinct, as there are no fluent native speakers. By the time of the cities foundation the Miami had been replaced in the region by the Potawotmis, a useful reminder of the danger of simply referring to the 'original inhabitants' of any patch of land on the earth.

In the run up to and during the British – American war of 1812 some Potawotmis had taken up arms against the settlers but many remained neutral until November of 1812 when the Illinois territorial governor ordered the neutral tribes attacked.  This resulted in most taking up arms with Tecumseh and the British in a war that continued into 1813.  In 1816 the land Chicago is on was signed over in the Treaty of St Louis allowing the founding of Chicago in 1833.  1848 saw the opening of the railway and the canal through Chicago, which linked the Great Lakes with the Mississippi via a handful of canal, locks. I'm pretty sure I saw the canal or the river that connects to it running through the center of the city.  And obviously I'd arrived at the railway station.  Both turned Chicago into a major transport hub leading to the rapid growth and industralisation of the city so that by 1890 its population had reached one million.

For anarchists Chicago is best known as the site of the Haymarket riot of 4th May 1886 when police attacking a rally of striking workers were shot at and bombed, in the ensuing conflict seven cops and an unknown number of workers were killed.  Eight anarchists were put on trial for the deaths with four eventually being executed and one killing himself in prison prior to execution.  The rally was in support of the strikes that had begun on the 1st of May for an 8-hour day.  Police had attacked one set of strikers on May 3rd, killing six workers, the May 4th rally had been called to protest this.  Mayday became an international workers day to commemorate the Chicago martyrs and to re-build the struggle for the eight-hour day.  A statue of a policeman was built on the site but was repeatedly vandalized and blown up twice resulting in its removal to inside the police academy.

On arrival BMJ met me off the train and we headed back to her apartment where I dumped my stuff and met the fascinatingly flat-faced cat (somewhere out there is video of the two of us sharing a tender moment) and then to Cafe Central, a nearby Puerto Rican restaurant. There I got, as a takeaway, one of the best meals of the whole tour, a stew of goat on the bone and potatoes.  It was so good that the vegetarian BMJ decided she could eat the potatoes I was unable to finish.  After a decent walk through I think a Russian migrant district we caught a bus to the 'New World Resource Center' infoshop that was the pre-conference meet up point.  When stopped off to pick up some beers en route, the guy behind the counter made some joke about checking my ID.  BMJ has reminded me that one six pack was Negro Modelo, a great Mexican dark beer I had previously sampled in Chiapas in 1996 and Washington DC in 2004.  The other was a local beer, 312 Urban Wheat by Goose Island, which BMJ assures me is the best Chicago has to offer.  I like unfiltered cloudy wheat beers so if ones available I'm pretty sure to go for it.

The infoshop had the usual pre-conference buzz as people drifted in and out.  I got to meet some of the other conference organisers and also had the foulest beer I have ever sampled.  I can't remember the name but the taste was not that far from what I would imagine would happen if someone added half a bottle of nail polish to a bad lager.  For the first time in my life I didn’t finish it. I also took a picture of some anarchist cookies.

Anarchist biscuits


At the infoshop I also met another (ex) anarchist I knew of from the Internet, the somewhat infamous CH.  CH has a reputation for being snarky but I found him charming, He unnecessarly bribed me with pizza the following night if I'd say in my blog entry that he was a sweet heart.  Actually I was so exhausted leaving Chicago that this was pretty much all I was up to blogging at the time, something he expressed his disappointment with (as has BMJ).  So I had to return to extend this entry in particular - hope this word count satisfies – it’s a new record!

CH had been doing some training with student sweatshop activists and had unleashed one of them at the pre-conference meet up with pledge cards.  They were to persuade a targeted number of people to sign these which pledged that the signer would turn up for the migrant Mayday march planned for that year.  This was the point at which the difference between activism in Ireland (which is very often sloppy and based around 'it will be all right on the night') contrasted the most with the micro-management North American version where people have to be managed in all sorts of ways to make sure they turn out.

Back in Ontario one of the biggest disagreements we had in the process for getting Common Cause going was over whether it was reasonable to expect those taking on the role of a local or regional secretary to have to ring every member to remind them of every meeting.  Apparently this is quite common in North American organisations whereas from an Irish context it seemed to be completely letting members off the hook, keeping track of when a meeting was being a very minimal question of individual responsibility.

CH was sort of outing himself at the conference as having broken with anarchism and had published a critical essay on it on a  student marxist groups website.  If you google 'Yesterday I Was an Anarchist' you'll find the essay as although its been removed from a couple of the sites it was originally posted to it was re-posted to some forums. It's obviously intended as a piece of provocation, right from the opening Mao quote, but its well written and makes some good points for all that.  In it he had a somewhat unfair go at the conference organisers that reflected rows he'd had with them in the process of organising it. The article had been published without their knowledge in advance of the conference and they'd only become aware of it towards the end or after it which apparently cause some bad feeling after I left town. He wrote
"A few months ago I started getting involved with group called "Finding Our Roots: Midwest Anarchist Organizing." I sat through meetings with the folks that I thought would be on the same page as me. I heard proposals on "Tribal Sovereignty," "Race and Anarchism," "Bicycle Workshops," "Democracy vs. Consensus," there was nothing about organizing. To them anarchist organizing was about "us" as anarchists or it was about what "others" are or should be doing. They could only talk about the "others" in tribes or in races that weren't represented; they could only talk about the way anarchists govern themselves and about the culture of the left through bikes or recycling or gardening."

On one level this is quite a good critique of both a tendency in American anarchism and of the influence of these ideas on the movement as a whole.  On the other hand the whole essay tries to generalise from his experiences to create a 'typical anarchist' that he can then break from.  The problem being that he doesn't really acknowledge that it is own past views he is breaking from rather than a truly universal set of anarchist beliefs.  This is acknowledged in an oblique way in the title but otherwise it seems various anarchists (some named) stuffed his head with bad ideas, which he only cleared by what is almost described as a meditation session in the "desert of southern California."  I think I saw something like this in Oliver Stone's 'The Doors’; his story also involves Native Americans although in a somewhat different role.

The paragraph quoted on the conference illustrates the problem with the methodology of the article as its based on the debating technique of attacking the weakest link through selecting the more risible sections of the conference rather than a truly typical selection or the full program.  That would have required including 'Law and Organizing' or 'Organizing for Environmental Justice and Public Transit' for instance to present a more typical pictures of an anarchist event which in order to keep everyone on board mixed a broad range of issues, methods and even lifestyle choices together regardless of how much of a coherent whole this presented.  The problem with this debating technique is that it doesn’t actually get those with the opposed point of view to re-consider their position as they can see through it.  It may swing the middle ground but not on a terribly useful basis.

I am perhaps being a little harsh here (again the essay is worth reading) but I've probably read a few too many 'resignation from the movement' letters at this point in my life. There is a certain sameness to the themes of 'revealed truth' and 'prophet in the wilderness' they are too often based around which I find at odds with the spirit of collective development of ideas and winning support for new initiatives through sustained effort and education.  All too often they are also based on seizing marginal moments and unimportant asides and plonking them down center stage to magnify the break the author wishes to make with their former comrades.

Although at the conference I was unaware of the existence of the article CH did seem to seize on any of the typical oddities you find around big North American anarchist stuff and magnify and exaggerate it into being typical of the conference as a whole. This did seem a little odd at the time as the vast majority of people I talked to seemed to be pretty sensible and certainly in comparison with NCOR the wingnut tendency was tiny to non-existent.

There was also an amusing dynamic between him and BMJ who was using the conference to initiate the formation of a new anarchist group in the city.  Despite his proclaimed post anarchism CH wanted in to this but BMJ was obviously not keen, expressing the worry that he was just interested in using it to recruit a layer of activist organisers for UNITE-HERE to chew up and spit out.  CH insisted he wasn't as anarchists made crap organisers etc, and so it went on. It hindsight it does seem a little inconsistent to be publically going post-anarchist and at the same time seeking to part of the formation of an anarchist group but as it's been said 'consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds', whatever that means! It has to be said though that of all the anarchist movement drama's I passed through in the course of my trip this was by far the most well conducted one.

At the conference CH presented a talk that was based around a DVD of the successful UNITE-HERE struggle in the Chicago hotel industry which had won large double digit pay increases.  He rightly considers this an important example of a union fighting and winning an offensive battle at a time when unions are associated with losing defensive battles.  

Not all the hotels though had settled, just down the street from the conference venue there are still pickets on the Congress Hotel some five years after the other hotels have settled.  Their is a UNITE HERE website about the strike it currently features an image of Obama with a strike placard and a quote from him reading "I will be back on that picket line as President of the United States."  I’m not sure it would be wise to hold your breadth while waiting for that to happen.  Strangely enough given his connections with Chicago and the time I was there I don’t remember any conversations about Obama, but that may just be my memory playing tricks.

The DVD is quite an effective presentation of how the union built grassroots leadership in what had been a relatively demoralised and weakly organised local.  The two main strategies were to build workers confidence through a serious of escalating events that started small (e.g. getting lots of workers out leafleting conferences demanding a pay increase to New York levels) but built over time to all out strike.  The other was to identify and recruit a huge number of natural grassroots leaders so that every small section would have someone on the committee (which I think ended up numbering around 160).

At this level the strategy is both common sense and attractive, on the negative side some of the training and methodology CH spoke of in the presentation and over the weekend struck me as quite manipulative and cult like.  Organisers are encouraged to get rank and file leaders to open up, to reveal what drives them and organisers are encouraged to remember at least one such fact about each rank and file leader and use this to keep them motivated.  While no doubt this helps win victories and maintain mass participation it seems likely in some cases people will not only be burnt out but left feeling used and manipulated.

The defense of these methods appears to be that none of this matters providing you win.  As CH puts it in the essay all that matters for organisers are the questions "1. Did you push yourself? 2. Did you push your comrades? 3. Did you push workers? "

Now one generally interesting aspect of this phase of the tour was that it was not unusual to find myself meeting with someone one night who had very little time for the people or group I had met with the previous night, week or month. I was passing through a set of people who had very strongly opposed views on the questions of anarchism and union organization and who also had quite hostile views of each other.  To my mind the hostility is quite unfortunate, if perhaps understandable, as there is quite a body of experience across these different perspectives.  If I'd been remaining in North America I'd certainly be trying to get a conference on workplace organising together to bring these quite different voices together in a way that these debates could be had in a constructive educational manner rather than through online and real world sniping.

The main section of the conference was at the Roosevelt University, which is on the lakeshore in central Chicago.  Or rather across the road from the Grant Park.  It's an impressive stone building with a wide staircase ascending to the first floor where the conference mostly took place.
View from Roosevelt University
The conference organisers had identified three central questions ahead of the conference for people submitting proposals.  These were
– How do we organize ourselves as anarchists?
– How can we organize across diverse communities and political tendencies?
- What does it mean to organize locally – as communities, as cities, as a region?

In advance of the conference I'd been exchanging emails with BMJ the suitability of my standard talk and had written "the 'Building a popular anarchism' talk itself is pretty much all about successful anarchist organizing within larger social movement.  In terms of concerns that might be raised its not particularly focused on the WSM (and platformism isn't even mentioned) but more of an account of the growth of anarchism in Ireland because of successful involvement in a string of social movements over a 10 year period.  I can honestly say its probably exactly what they are looking for .."

We'd initially been discussing doing a different talk but this was felt to be too internally focused.  The blurb I'd submitted on this was
Organizing 1 in a 1,000 - the need to go beyond affinity groups
The growth of anarchism in recent years has been dominated by the idea that affinity groups, loosely networked together are enough.  Andrew Flood looks at what this idea is popular and why it is not the complete answer when it comes to overthrowing capital and the state.  He argues instead that anarchists need to build organizations this side of the revolution that aims to involve at least 1 in a 1000 people.

This was somewhat similar to the sort of stuff I’d talked about in some of the private talks I was also doing as I traveled around and also of course based on an article I'd already written for Red & Black Revolution on the network form of organisation.  In the end though it turned out the standard public talk fitted better with what the organizers had intended.

I'd guess there was somewhere over 200 participants in all at the conference.  On the first morning I attended some (I arrived late) of the session on "Organising and the Law" and found this a lot more interesting than I'd expected from the title. My own talk was after lunch on the first day of the conference and was attended by 54 people - I did a headcount near the start.  As with a lot of the other meetings I used my laptop to record the audio and I think this is the audio I will use to put online as a record of what was said.  It's placement at what is in effect the beginning of the last quarter of the tour means its probably well practiced without the delivery having become routine to the point of boring that I fear a couple of the later stops might have suffered from.

After this I spent some time wandering around the hall to look at some of the stalls and talk to the people staffing them.  They were a mixed bunch from people organising against a highway extension to the artist Susan Simensky Bietila who was promoting the Drawing Resistance traveling political art show.  There are details of this at but be warned that at the time of writing the site has been hacked and entering via the home page will result in a 'porn storm' of pop up pages.

The day closed with the 'Anarchist Organizing Plenary’, which was a panel of four or five people including CH and myself. My inclusion was a little awkward, as the other participants had been selected on the basis of being local community or union organizers – that is of concrete experience of local mass organising (often based on paid work as organisers).  My own experience was not only of far away but also unpaid and focused much more on political and social movement organising.  In what was naturally an anecdote driven session this made my examples obscure so I mostly kept my mouth shut and let the others do the talking.

The only real public controversy of the session was when someone in the back of the audience had a poorly thought out attack on the class focused nature of much of the discussion which ended up sounding like he was saying he was privileged so why would he bother with such issues. Apparently the chair was also passed a note during it demanding to know "why there was a panel exclusively comprised of white men," I understand that was not the original intention but as usual with panal type events some of the planned speakers had been unable to make it. Under the category of weird there were couple of Crimethinc kids who insisted on clowning around at out feet, hanging stuff off CH's feet if I remember correctly - I saw a few people telling them off afterwards!  In the aftermath it also became an issue that we were stuck on the stage at one end of the room, the following day at the final sessions it was decided that was a bad set up and those speakers were moved to a more conventional anarchist placement among a circle on the floor which included speakers and audience on a more level basis.

An amusing aside at the conference that day was a clash I observed that neatly illustrated the difficulties that surround politics of identity.  At the particular moment I was traveling trans gender identity politics were on the up within the North American anarchist scene.  One could be cynical and say that this gave white males the ability to identify as oppressed through nothing more extreme than donning a dress but obviously there are deeper and more serious issues at stake.  One of the standard 'controversies' that arises surrounds the standard division of public toilets into male and female.  Again obviously there is a real issue here but the rather less than brilliant way this was dealt with was to cover up the gender labels on the toilet door.  The consequence of this was that women in traditional Islamic dress found themselves suddenly sharing toilets with men (including me). It wasn't helped by the fact that there was also some sort of music recital on in the building so not everyone using the toilets was at the conference. I wasn't privy to the discussions of which oppression trumped which but it did seem to be a particularly poorly thought out DIY solution.

On day 2 first thing in the morning I attended CH's session described above and then the 'Magonismo, Zapatismo, and Solidarity with Mexico' session which used a set of images of 1910’s period Mexican revolutionaries as a route to talk about the Zapatista 'Other Campaign.' After this was what I remember as a very good lunch - the catering had been handled by getting huge quantities of food from an Indian restaurant. While Indian food is about the best food you can get in Britain with the exception of this lunch my experience of Indian food in North America was disappointing.

After lunch was the key point of BMJ's weekend, the 'Forming a Chicago Anarcho-Communist Collective' session.  The blurb for this session defined it as "a workshop and discussion for the creation of an Anarchist Communist collective in the Chicago-land area. The discussion is intended for those who are specifically interested in working class struggle centered on the communist tradition of Anarchism. The collective is NOT a synthesis organization; meaning that the members hope to work with people have similar methods, goals, and theoretical ideals. This means developing an effective accountable organization and working with different communities in the class struggle."

This session consisted of an overly technical introduction followed by some cantankerous wrangling as to whether such a group was needed.  Given the workshop description above it was a little hard to work out why people who disagreed with the very idea would have turned up but apparently this was because it only took that form quite late in the day and originally there had been some talk of setting up a network as well. Things may also have been complicated by the rows that had taken part in the process of organising the conference, which resulted in some people feeling they needed to be there to defend their activity. Eventually someone had the brainwave of suggesting we divide into two groups.  One comprised of those who thought such a group was a good idea would move on to discuss the technicalities of its formation.  The other for people who didn't could discuss why it wasn't a good idea.  Needless to say group two didn't really hang around to meet while group one began the process to the formation of the Four Star Anarchist Organization based around the statement.

Platformism defined at Finding our Roots

The closing panel of the conference, “Looking Back, Organizing Forward” featured an older generation of activists from the 60's including the author James Herod whom I had already met in Boston and at NCOR in Washington DC. They came down really hard against identity politics, saying it had disorganised and even destroyed much of the movement in the 1960's.  What was interesting was that there was no real response to them, I presume because the whole 'learn from our elders' reason for asking them somewhat silenced those who could not have agreed with that perspective.

Overall this struck me as one of the problems of 'Finding our Roots' and indeed many of my experiences of discussion in North America.  One sensed or was even aware of major disagreement in the room but these were seldom expressed in the actual sessions.  And where they were they tended to be expressed badly, by which I mean in a manner that was at the same time overly aggressive and depoliticised.  A position might be critiqued but it was seldom that an alternative position would be argued for.

After the conference was closed CH made me the offer I couldn't refuse, a pizza meal in return for me describing him as a sweetheart in this blog.  I reckon there are at least three levels of humor to this.  Firstly to establish that my favors can be bought cheaply.  Secondly because to those who don't know him but come across him online CH can be something of an ogre, he certainly is up for the prize of most contrasted with reality online persona.  And thirdly his outlier position on unions within the anarchist movement in the region meant that a lot of the people hosting the stops before and after Chicago don't get on with him at all.    By outlier I don't mean he's the only Chicago anarchist working with UNITE HERE or other unions but his advocacy of workplace organisation through becoming a paid organiser as a complete alternative to building the anarchist movement is pretty much out on it's own.  Despite this I think it is a useful pole to have in the debate.

The pizza was excellent. I will not say whether Chicago, Boston or New York had the best for surely I will return to each some day. We consumed it with some fine wine back at BMJ's place, she said she regularly gets bottles from a relative who gets freebies but who does not drink.

Over the weekend BMJ had been talking me about her art project which is to turn the photos taken by US military veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan into paintings.  The process is long and painstaking as it involves a lot of work with the veterans in determining which image to use and what the particular meaning of a chosen photo has to them. She talked of a couple of examples and I again experienced that curious clash of perspectives I mention in the Pittsburg blog in terms of who I would tend to identify with in such images.  Before I left she very kindly gave me a print of hers from an earlier period of Murray Bookchin.  I've got this on the wall of my room at home.  And videoed me with her cat so that she could be said to have completed some homework assignment for her course.

The next morning I set off for the trip to my next stop, Minneapolis / St Paul's.  I was on the underground system when I remembered that I couldn't remember which stop was the train station where I was to catch the bus.  As I hate asking directions (foolish male pride) I decided to wing it and got off at a stop I thought might be the right one.  Fortunately I realised this was stupid before exiting the turnstiles and asked one of the stations workers who told me it was the next stop.  And that the stop wasn't actually at the station but some way down the street from it.  An odd way to organise an underground, in my opinion, but I guess at the time of construction each many have belonged to competing companies and the free market had sorted this out in its normal infallible way.

Masssively updated Jan 28 2008

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )

More on Finding our Roots

For the complete index of blog entries on the tour, links to interviews etc see


Well I can say Andrew that I

Well I can say Andrew that I certainly hope you expand on this piece. There was so much to say about "finding our roots." Particularly about how much of a sweethheart I am.

Well it took a while but your

Well it took a while but your update is above


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