On the last day of March 2008 I crossed the border from Canada to the US on a freezing early spring day and boarded a plane at Buffalo. A few hours late I emerged into the +30c temperatures of Miami. This was the start of the final and longest phase of my speaking tour which was to take my through Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon and California. Two years and one day have passed since the Miami meeting and its time to update that blog with what I can recall. I'm leaving the original blog untouched at the end of this update as it was one of the few written at the time with any substance.
Florida was the most randomly organised of any of the stops. Once we'd announced the start of the north east part of the tour back in February and I'd indicated a willingness to go anywhere a few cities could be lined up I'd gotten an email from someone in Florida interested in putting this together. It was only at the end of the Florida leg in Gainesville they I met him and discovered he was a student on a Crimethinc email list to which my email had been posted and in fact didn't really know any of those who hosted the tour or even much about anarchism. Now it wasn't quite that haphazard, I'd found out about the Sarasota conference in Washington DC and by the time I arrived had direct contact with most of the other hosts around Florida. But I was well prepared for things to go wrong, comforted by the fact that if this was going to happen in fine warm weather rather than the sub freezing tempertures of most of the stops to date.
I was met at the airport by Yaniv. It took a little while to locate each other as I recall and then a little bit longer for him to work out where exactly he'd parked the car. But that worked out we headed down to Miami where I was staying with Patrick at the Black Mangrove at the edge of Little Haiti. The Black Mangrove was a developing radical bookshop type project based at that moment in time out of the apartment Patrick lived in. It was a single floor bungalow with a reasonable amount of space around it (considering its location) and so was suitable for out door meetings and social events as well as carrying a basic stock of books in the front of the two rooms. Melissa, Pablo and Muhammed were the others I remember from the group which was largely based around the colleges around Miami.
Patrick was the only one living in the space and as he never ate there the stove was in use as a place to pile stuff on. This was an issue the day he went to work when I hit the familiar problem of the American suburb, where can you actually walk to. It turned out to be not so bad, the main street a couple of blocks down was lined with run down hotels but when I walked down a good bit I came across a McDonalds. As that wasn't really what I wanted for breakfast I kept looking and spotted a fillng station that had a hatch at one end decorated with paintings of food. Arriving over at that the large Haitian women within told me to go around through the shop and once inside I discovered that was a small counter with enough room for maybe three people, she had a cramped kitchen between this and the hatch. But I got a great breakfast of some sort of Haitian sausages and grits with strong coffee.
It was already a hot day, and I remember two other things from the walk. The first was coming across a historic plague that marked the location of Miami's first school, built in 1926! Miami is a vast city considering how recently it was founded, it really only exists where it does because of the airline. The other was a guy in a giant mobile phone outfit outside a mini mall trying to draw the attention of passing traffic in what looked like an uncomfortably hot costume. He was there all day, every day.
Another morning while driving with Patrick we stopped off at the Duncun donuts that was his regular breakfast stop and being a bit sleepy I made the mistake of simply answering 'yes' when asked if I wanted sugar in my coffee. This I discovered on tasting means they dump half a dozen spoonfuls into the over large container giving you something that is far more like a soda or milkshake then anything with even a passing resemblance to coffee. I longed for the small and concerntrated black Haitian coffee of the previous day.
Sadly the Black Mangrove no longer appears to exist it had just gone public around the time of my visit. In a post to infoshop.org just after I left they describe the nature of the project as "The Black Mangrove Collective has been active for a few months now and we're working hard to open a Social Center/Coffeehouse/Bookstore where radical ideas can be exchanged and new projects can be nurtured. Many folks equate Miami with reactionary Cubans and the FTAA fiasco, but thus far we've had a warm reception in an emerging and growing radical community." From their Facebook page it seems to have existed for a little over a year afterwards before people moved on to other projects
The evening I arrived there was a fundraiser for Take Back the Land, a direct action orientated housing initiative which a bit over a year previously had organised a six month occupation of a vacant lot and the construction of a shanty town there which housed around 150 people at one point or another of its existence. Max Rameau had just released a book detailing the experience entitled Take Back The Land: Land, Gentrification And The Umoja Village Shantytown in fact I think the fundraiser might have been doubling as a launch party. In any case shortly after I arrived they decided they needed some soft drinks for the social (they already has some kegs of beer) and I set off with Yaniv and Muhammed to fetch some. They were feeling a bit mischivious with the result that we actually ended up driving over the causeway into the fancy part of Miami (Miami beach) to go to a bar that made some fancy microbrew leaving poor Patrick with setting up for the social. I'm pretty sure this was Abbey brewing which also no longer appears to exist, I remember drinking a small but very strong dark brown ale, most probably Brother Dan's Double.
Back at the social the rest of the night was spent on Budwiser (out of those kegs I mentioned) and talking in the warm Miami night. I'm pretty sure this was the Miami night two British DJ's turned up at who were in town for some competition and were surprized to discover that they were at a radical anarchist type space. As with the people in the north east who I had told I was going to Miami they imagined it as something of a desert for the left. Also from that party I remember an old guy from the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party trying to sell their paper. I actually felt sorry enough for him (imagine being a Maoist in Miami of all places and doing a paper sale at a party amoung people dancing and drinking) that I bought a copy and then truer to form started a long discussion as to why I thought the model of selling rather than giving away left papers was redundant. He countered with some standard positions around the fact that people were willing to pay for something demonstrated some level of support (or in my case pity) but that way we managed to have a reasonable conversation about technical aspects of organisation rather than a screaming row about Maoism.
Now the picture of Miami as a difficult place to organise in was not inaccurate. The Miami cops had pretty much rioted during the Free Trade Area of the America's summit there in November 2003. I'd talked to people up north who had travelled to this and been chased miles by hyped up cops or who had hid out in warehouses from where they could hear the cops beating people they had caught on the streets outside. A week or so before my arrival a New Yorker who was new in town had designed a flyer for another social event which used an image of Che, that had not gone down well with the owner of the premises the event was to be in who was shouting about how Che had killed his father. But it also seemed the case that those on the left who had lived in the city for a while and understood where the boundaries existed were involved in a number of very interesting concrete organisation projects.
Patrick was working for Jobs with Justice, specifically in organising Trailer Parks to resist the process whereby the land they were on was being bought and the residents evicted to make room for the development of Condo's. Because the trailers themselves tended to be impossible to move without falling apart after a few years on site and very little compensation was paid this meant that often people who had used their saving to retire to a Florida trailer park were being thrown out on the streets. Of course the point I was arriving in Miami was the point at which the sub-prime mortgage crisis had exploded in the states and by then this had escalated into the end of cheap credit for construction companies which meant the Miami skyline was now dotted with half built and now abandoned condo towers. Driving around Miami with Patrick was the point at which I realised this crisis was going to be a good deal deeper than the previous ones I'd seen in my life.
Patrick brought me around a number of the other radical NGO / Neighboorhood center type places. One of his coworkers, was a Chicano organiser said he initally didn't much like the Irish as being from Chicago he'd mostly come across them as cops who brutalised his community. But Patick had been working on him and he gave me a Jobs with Justice t-shirt that travalled with me until I left it behind at my Humboldt county stop in northern California. We'd a pretty interesting exchange about the way community politics was racialised in the US and I think republican politics back in Ireland. One of the most interesting aspects of the Miami left was that it was much more multi ethnic then the left and anarchist movement I came across elsewhere in the US with the possible exception of California.
Miami itself is sometimes described as the capitol of Central and South America because it is a huge economic gateway with that regions and a destination for migrants. One of the long lasting struggles that was occurring (and continues) was that of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a "community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida." Through boycotts directed at fast food chains in particular they were trying to raise the piece rates for agriculture workers. While I was in Miami their battle with Burger King was coming to a successful conclusion. My insignificant role while I was passing through was as a new face in town to pop into the Burger King world headquarters near the airport to see if they had put on extra security as a result of some misinformation that had been fed to a spy in the CIW. The CIW was also of interest to me because of the obvious possibility that some of the 4,000 workers involved come from the Zapatista communities of (Mayan) Chiapas. Certainly from solidarity workers down there I've heard that many of the children who lived in the community I visited back in the 1990's later migrated to the US in the search for work as young adults. Unfortunately I never got the chance to explore that question while in Florida but perhaps if I had I wouldn't be able to reveal the answer anyway?
We also visited PowerU and the Miami Workers Centre, two visits that had a lasting influence on me in terms of thinking about anarchism and neighboorhod organising and what the next logical steps for the WSM back in Ireland might be in that regard. Writing two years later I'm reluctant to go into a lot of details as not only will I get the facts wrong but I'll get each of them mixed up with the other. So with that disclaimer both are walk in shop fronts spaces on major streets in marginalised black communities in Miami that work on selected local and city wide neighboorhood struggles. PowerU is in Overtown and describes its "mission is to organize low-income communities directly impacted by institutional oppression by utilizing leadership development, promoting self-determination, and building community power to create an equitable and just society. We work with low-income residents, women, and youth of color who want to organize of social change. Our membership is approximately 80% women, 86% African-American, 10% Haitian/Caribbean, and 4% Latino." The Miami Workers Centre is in Liberty City. In both places people took the time to have quite long conversations about organising in Miami and the nature of the centers. They are not a model that could be directly transplanted to the Irish context as there are significant differences but they do seem to be useful examples of how local neighboorhood organisations can be built on a sustained basis without falling into electoralism or other common pitfalls.
Another place I visited in Miami which had more of the traditional image of an anarchist center was the Firefly - an arts center / 'punk house' / infoshop which is in the downtown area, just over one of the causeways from Miami beach if I remember right. This is a large crumbling house and courtyard down a side street which provides a radical library, art and music space as well as being home to a good few people, dogs and somewhat battered old vans. It was also where we did the private discussion with local anarchists that I held in many of the cities I stopped off on. This was pretty tailored from city to city according to who the crowd were. In this case we held it out the back with the inhabitants of the house and mostly talked, as I recall, about what local anarchist activity had been and the drawbacks of existing in the counter culture. I'm pretty sure we also taked a bit about the organisational consequences of the habit many North American anarchists have of moving from city to city every couple of years. Someone there produced a green coconut he had got off a local tree for me which I drank, one of the random experiences I'm glad I got in during the tour.
We also went to the Labour Studies department at the Florida International University one lunchtime (pictured at top of article). They were under funding threat and had called a lunchtime meet up on the lawn outside their building to which all the organisations they had been working with sent people. This was pretty impressive as around one hundred people turned out to show support (the food was good too). Apart from the political end two other things fascinated me about the visit. The first was the hurricine shelters dotted around the campus, basically huge bunkers for taking shelter in if a storm rapidly hit. The second was the multi story car parks whose presence did not relieve a big shortage of parking spaces to the extent that drivers would line up alongside the entrance doors and follow people back to their cars to get their spaces as they pulled out. Miami does have some public transport, a coastal light rail and city buses but the city buses even at the relatively central main road running alongside little Haiti were very infrequent, I suspect they are no real option for getting around. Another college we briefly visited had a 'keep out of the water' sign by a lake outside the canteen. Apparantly there not just to stop drunken students drowning but also because there were alligators in the lake that might mistake such students for their next meal.
Patrick brought me for a drive one evening down around Miami beach tourist area. I hadn't realised the scale of the art deco area of the beach, three or four long parallel streets with a huge percentage of the buildings being the original ones. The trip over the causeway and back had a couple additional features, the mansions os the super rich (with accompanying mega yachts) that occupy the small islands and peninsulas of the beach side of the lagoon and further down the many cranes of Miami port that line the horizon. Possibly that evening we went to a gig at Churchill's Pub a large music / art venue in Little Haiti next to a radical record store / coffee shop. There was a pretty good Jazz band playing (I think I may have some video somewhere) and something on out the back that involved an old guy with a beard dressed as a druid or something similar. But what I remember most was the pitchers of Guinness that they served. I can say with great certainty that serving Guinness into a pitcher when its 30C does not really present it at its best. When you pour it from the pitcher into the glasses you end up with warm flat black stuff with no head. Don't like!
A lot of the material covered in this blog was also contained in the interview I did with Patrick at the Black Mangrove during the visit. This section was all written as recalled two years later in March 2010, the original entry written at the time is below.
Original blog entry text
We had the Miami meeting last night at the Black Mangrove collective and it was the first outdoor meeting. For some reason all the NE meetings were in doors. We'd a packed house (or rather packed space behind the house) with around 35 people and from talking to people afterwards people found it useful. For quite a few people at the meeting this was their first detailed exposure to anarchism and a couple told me they were going to go away and look up stuff in a lot more detail. In terms of feeling the tour this worthwhile this is the best sort of feedback I can get.
I've had a very interesting few days in Miami and spent hours and hours looking around the city, visiting radical non-profits and other organizations and attending various radical events. A lot of people in the NE said stuff to me when I told them I was heading along here along of the lines of Miami being a bit of a political desert, what I've actually found is a movement that although small is very healthy and with a lot of great work being done. There is a very strong sense of potential here and the next few years could be interesting.
Briefly here are some of the stuff I visited, thanks to everyone who took time out to talk to a visitor from a distant land. PowerU and the Miami Workers Centre, two radical non-profits involved in housing and other struggles in the African American areas of the city Jobs with Justice, another radical non profit this time focused more on the work side of the work, community organizing spectrum. Recently however they have been organising trailor parks which are threatened by property speculation. The land the park is on is worth far more than the income and residents are being evicted resulting in them losing their mobile homes.
Take Back the Land, a direct action orientated housing initiative which a bit over a year back organised a six month occupation of a vacant lot and the construction of a shanty town there which housed around 150 people at one point or another of its existence.
Firefly - a 'punk house' / infoshop which provides a radical library, art and music space in the downtown area.
Black Mangrove Collective who brought me down here, run a book service and are working towards opening a anti-authoritarian bookshop/coffee shop / social space.
While there I also attended a lunchtime gathering at the Labour Studies department at Florida International University. The existence of the department is threatened by budget cuts and an impressive range of community organisations and unions, including all those listed, had gathered to show support for them.
I've done an audio interview with Patrick of Black Mangrove which touches on many of these struggle and can be found at http://www.indymedia.ie/attachments/apr2008/miami.mp3
Incidentally I've realised that indymedia.ie sound files are being podcast the the iTunes store which means if you subscribe to the other free shows there you can subscribe to that stream and automatically get new content downloaded. In the last couple of months 80% of that content has been these interviews.
more accounts of the North American speaking tour