The drums of Providence

The Providence, Rhode island talk was held in the D.A.R.E. community centre ( ) and attended by just under 30 people. Providence is something of a college town and home to Brown, one of the Ivy League universities.

Providence is the third biggest city in New England and although the city itself only has a population of 170,000 its estimated that their are about 1.6 million in the urban conurbation around it which extends into Massachusetts. The population figures for a lot of US cities are tricky in a similar way as the figure often given is just that the area covered by the city government and does not include suburbs that are towns with their own governments. Because the way public services like Education are locally funded there is a large incentive in particular for wealthy suburbs to split off and form their own towns leaving the generally poorer inner city areas a much smaller tax income and consequently a decaying public education system etc.

Providence is part of the smallest of the US states, Rhode Island, founded in 1636 by religious exile from Massachusetts. The original inhabitants were the Narragansett who co-existed with the settlers up until 'King Philips War' when some warriors joined the anti-settler coalition of with the Wampanoags. After some initial success they were driven back to their palisaded fort in the swamps which was stormed with many men, women and children being killed and the remainder being driven into the swamp (and starvation) in the dead of winter.

Because of their long existence close to the early settlements and their willingness to accept both Africans and European fleeing those settlements into their ranks later attempts by the surviving Narragansett to demand citizenship were threatened with only being given the citizenship rights of African-American's. The Narragansett argued "Because, when your ancestors stole the negro from Africa and brought him amongst us and made a slave of him, we extended him the hand of friendship, and permitted his blood to be mingled with ours, are we to be called negroes? And to be told that we may be made negro citizens? We claim that while one drop of Indian blood remains in our veins, we are entitled to the rights and privileges guaranteed by your ancestors to ours by solemn treaty, which without a breach of faith you cannot violate." (from wikipedia)

Ever since reading 'The Many Headed Hydra' a few years back I've been very interested in the absorption of African and European settlers who escaped the early settlements. The Africans were of course mostly people who had been enslaved and forcibly transported across the ocean. Many of the Europeans were 'indentured' meaningin order to flee poverty at home they had sold themselves to the colony (normally for a period of seven years) in return for their passage and the promise of land at the end. Other's were the victims of transportation for political or 'criminal' offences. The Many Headed Hydra argues that the Atlantic triangle saw the creation of a early proletariat which brought together not only the African, European and some Native Americans of the 'New World' but which contacted with and exchanged experiences with rebels back in Europe and some of the pirates who fought the African leg of the slave trade.

I ran into some of these stories of co-operation spontaneously as I travelled (see the Richmond Virginia interview for instance which includes a segment on how French revolutionaries aided a planned slave revolt) but as I add to these entries months after I passed through places I'm reading up on any possible such connections via wikipedia and other sources. In any case the question of how the settlers came into posession of the land, particularly on the early colonies of the east coast is illuminating. As is whatever later radical history I can easily incorporate. I reckon I might as well share this reading as I update even if the factual basis is easy for anyone to dig for.

The organizers of the meeting were involved in the (new) Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Last year the Providence IWW gained notoriety after a police attack on a solidarity march they had organized resulted in one of the IWW members having her leg broken.

I used the opportunity of my stay to record a 50 minutes audio interview with the organizers that touched on SDS, the IWW and the US elections. In the course of it I realized that I could theme the interviews I want to do under 'The Other America' and publish them on as a counter point to the saturation coverage of the elections in the Irish media. Eventually I was to do 17 of these interviews all of which are linked from this site under the audio tag. In Providence I did an interview with Senia and Mark in Providence Rhode Island they talk about Students for Democratic Society, the IWW, anarcho-feminism in Puerto Rico and the US primaries. The audio is at

The night after the public meeting there was a potluck attended by a dozen or so of the more active local anarchists at which we had a discussion about the purpose of anarchist political organizations in addition to anarchist involvement in popular struggles. A general point I've already come across again and again from anarchists involved in popular struggles is that they don't see what additional value there would be in an anarchist political organization and fear that it would simply reduce the amount of time they have available.

I said my experience in the WSM was pretty much the opposite, even if this seemed counter intuitive as my involvement in the WSM meant both that I didn't feel I personally had to be at every organizing meeting of ever campaign and that even in specific struggles I was involved in it made it possible to take a break through getting another member to fill the slot I'd leave vacant.

The following morning I took part in a SDS protest at Brown university which was demanding the freezing of university fees and that the finance process should be an open rather than secret one. Around 50 SDS members gathered at 10-am and marched around the campus with drums and other instruments while the board meeting was in progress. It has snowed the previous day and the sound of the drums and the chants in the streets was enough to dislodge the thawing piles of snow on the roofs of some of the buildings resulting in some impressive avalanches. A regional SDS gathering was being held that day on the campus.

Providence was also the first stop that I ran into the fall out of rows between various factions of anarchists. In this case there had been a major split in the local IWW with the people hosting the meeting being one side of the argument. This seemed to have resulted in the other side delibretely holding another event at the same time elsewhere in the town, I think on community gardening. It's odd blundering into this sort of dispute and hearing the different sides of it when you have nothing really to go on besides what your hearing. In this case some of the other 'side' attended the Portland meeting a couple of days later where they spontaneously assured me the clash of meetings had been accidental or at least nothing to do with me.

Most of the conflicts I came across seemed largely to have arisen from disputes that while real were things that could have been sorted out at the start but instead which had been allowed to fester over time. In general this is a danger of all organising where a high level of commitment is required, it can make it very difficult not to get caught up in an escalating cycle of disagreement that does no one any good. The internet tends not to help as it makes it so much more likely for the people involved to bump into each other (online) and for the cycle to kick back into life again.

I'd traveled to Providence via the commuter train from Boston. An interesting aspect of the journey was it was the first point at which I ran across the Iraq war in that the seats behind me were two young men who had just returned from different units in Iraq. Their exchange of experiences focused on their fear of something they called 'Camel Spiders' which I later discovered as the genius Solifugae and so neither a spider or a scorpion but closely related to both. One of them repeated stories (which are apparently common) of them being able to leap up and disembowel camels. They are apparently also credited with paralysising sleeping people and then eating large chunks of their flesh so they awaken with mysterious gaping wounds.

Oh for those who don't get it the title of this piece is a reference to a H.P. Lovecraft short story. Lovecraft was a 1930's horror writer from the area. More than a few of his stories have nasty racist under and overtones but if you can manage to ignore that they are pretty creepy in the other sense as well.

Extensively added to Jan 5th 2008

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )


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