The strange smell in DC

Washington DC was almost my shortest stop but also the North American city where I have spent the most time because I'd visited it repeatedly in 2004/5.  On the tour I didn't actually stay in Washington at all, rather we drove over from Baltimore which is only an hour or so away.  DC is one of the strangest cities I've ever been in and my stop there (at the National Conference of Organised Resistance) was in itself strange for an odd reason I reported at the time and which caused a bit of a row online.  In the interest of preserving the historical record I've let the original unaltered text at the end of this updated blog.

Washington DC was one of those cities I never expected to visit yet circumstances conspired to bring me to the city repeatedly in 2004/5.  My then wife had landed a nine month contract there and we were trying to maintain a transatlantic relationship that involved me spending all my holidays flying across the atlantic every couple of months for a 10 days at a time.  Made all the more difficult as there was no direct flight from Ireland to DC so flying both there and back involved getting on/off a transatlantic flight and then transferring to a internal US one.  As you can tell from the use of 'then wife' this didn't last, a year of doing the same to and from southern Ontario followed by me moving there for some months.  As detailed elsewhere the end of our relationship was what had given me the time and indeed the need to do the speaking tour.  In retrospect it all seems a bit doomed to failure but hey that's the benefit of hindsight and we certainly tried.

The traveling to and from DC situation was not helped by the fact that I seem to have been on the Selectee list in 2004/5 as on every single internal flight I was 'randomly' selected for the special searches.  On one occasion the check in person was kind enough to point out the SS letters added to my boarding card which told security to run extra checks on me.  I'd guess I must have been 'randomly' selected on about 10 out of 10 internal flights in that period, I suspect because the Irish secret police were providing information on anti-war activists to the US Embassy.  In particular as there seemed a reasonable chance I might end up moving to the US this made me a little paranoid and inclined not to be too visible on my visits although after the second I reacted against this and did a meeting on the Irish anti-war meeting in Baltimore.  The odd thing was that in the 2007/8 period I wasn't 'randomly' selected at all (although my bag did vanish on the short hop from Buffalo to Boston).  Apparently they trimmed the list way down in late 2006 because they had so many people on it that it was causing a headache for the searchers.

So all together I must have spent 5 weeks in DC over a nine month period that took in all the climates including a bitterly cold 6am wake up in December to catch a flight to Vermont when it was -10 in Washington and -28 in Vermont.  I spent my time there walking semi-randomly around the city and visiting the endless free museums of the Smithsonian that fringe the mall and are also found in other areas of the city.  Even the Zoo is free and with a pretty impressive collection of inmates including Panda and Komodo dragon.

The city is weird because it has a small fancy core that runs a couple of blocks from the central long green mall which runs from Capitol Hill to the Lincoln memorial. And then, a few blocks out it has block after block of poor, mostly black districts. This is a byproduct of the weird status of the small patch of land it is built on, the District of Columbia was created to be separete from the surrounding states so that the capital would not be in any one state. Few of the high earners that work in the area around the mall actually live (or pay tax) in DC itself, they live in suburbs in the surrounding states. The population almost doubles on a working day! Which means that city infrastructure and education is chronically under funded, it has some of the worst education results in the whole of the US. The enormous wealth divide also requires lots of cops and results in high crime rates, DC was the 'murder capital' for a period (but then lots of the cities I visited claimed that honor at one point or another). In the wake of Martin Luther King's murder in 1968 DC like many other cities exploded. In DC there was 3 days of rioting that at time approached to within a few blocks of the White House and in which 13,000 National Guard were deployed to suppress the angry population.

The museums are pretty outstanding in particular the Museum of the American Indian which opened during the period I was visiting.  Most of the floors are taken up with modern cultural information and art exhibitions but the top floor is historical.  As you approach the end of it there is a vast floor to ceiling glass cabinet filled with weapons that had been used to defend Native American rights.  Where the person who used the weapon is known the item is labelled with their name.  The are arranged chronologically so you start with weapons that include captured Spanish flintlocks, helmets and swords from the 1600's.  As I moved down, as was no doubt intended, I wondered where the history would stop, Native American struggles are still ongoing in the US and across the border as First Nation's in Canada. I was more than a little astounded to see that the collection went all the way up to the M16's used in the 1970's Pine Ridge events when the FBI attacked the American Indian Movement in a 71 day siege.  I was told when visiting in 2008 that this element of the exhibition was toned down shortly afterwards. Leonard Peltier of AIM remains in prison to this day at a result of one such battle at Pine Ridge another illustration like that of Jaan Laman whom I met in Walpole that the US punishes their political prisoners long after they would have been released elsewhere.

(I've lots more background to write on DC but I want to get all the blogs updated by the second anniversary so maybe I'll return to this in the future).

In 2008 we had realised I would be in DC around the time of the National Conference of Organised Resistance, a pretty major gathering of the animal rights end of US anarchism.  So we managed to get my talk included as one of the sessions.  As I had been traveling down through the North east the fact that we were going to this had attracted a lot of comments about the nasty smell that hung around the conference from so many unwashed bodies.  I had presumed this was a sectarian exaggeration.

A couple of people had come down from New York to Baltimore for the conference and we drove across together with Flint to the American university from Baltimore on what was a warmish morning, passing the enormous Morman cathedral that was built to deliberately dominate a section of the beltway.  The American University is in the suburbs so there was a certain amount of wandering around before we found the right route and parked across the road from the main entrance.

NCOR was big, similar in scale if somewhat smaller than the annual London anarchist bookfair.  As with the London bookfair there is space for stalls from various organisations and a number of meeting rooms.  Quite quickly after arrival I started to run into people who'd been at my meetings elsewhere and as I continued to tour I'd run into people who had been at NCOR.  This wasn't always good, my NEFAC comrades were having a pretty critical discussion over coffee of 'Getting Free' by James Herod whom I had met in Boston only to realise that he was actually just sitting behind us and had obviously overheard it.  James session was one of the few I attended and he said some nice stuff about me when I asked a question so I always feel a little bit bad about that incident.  We do however have some significant political differences, he seems to reject most of the practical work I consider essential to building the movement in favour of somehow leap fogging to a pre-revolutionary situation where setting up of neighboorhood councils becomes a possibility.  The paper he gave is on his website.

It was James session that I referred to in the original blog when I wrote "One of the meetings I attended had around 150 people at it and I found that by the mid way point the smell was actually irritating the back of my throat."  It turned out the warnings I hard received about the smell of NCOR were accurate rather than being simply sectarian, indeed on my next stop at a fairly elite university I heard that some of the students who had gone up for NCOR had stopped washing for the week beforehand in preperation for it.  It was seriously unpleasant to be stuck in a room with so many anti-social lifestylist fashionista's slumming it to earn cred for the few days of the conference.

The other and related nutty aspect I commented on at the time was the people going around sporting I Love the Bicycle bomber stickers.  This was in reference to the 'bombing' of the marine recruitment kiosk in Time Square a few days previously by persons unknown but suspected at the time to be anarchists.  This reflected the generally dreadful level of political discussion at the sessions I attended, symptomatic of a section of the movement that was quite divorced from the concerns of the general population and for whom revolutionary politics were a matter of posture rather than program.  We had an ongoing discussion throughout the weekend whether or not the level of politics was so low as to make any intervention at NCOR a waste of time.  I was of the opinion that was the wrong approach as at least a sizeable minority of the attendees were not fashionistas and the sheer size of the gathering meant that this amounted to some hundreds of people.  I would say though that while I would encourage people getting interested in anarchism to attend the London or Dublin anarchist bookfairs this would not have been the case with NCOR where the overall balance of the event could leave you with a pretty negative impression of the movement as a while.  The NCOR organisers wound things up after this event saying "We feel that the net impact on local activists involved in the conference organizing has been negative. NCOR has drained energy from other worthwhile projects, damaged relationships and broken community bonds."

We had been told it was too late to put my session into the program that was circulated to everyone (no idea if this was true or down to sectarianism, it was quite possibly true) but we did get a room and we advertised it through giving out flyers.  In the end just short of 30 people attended which although not huge was reasonable and the talk seemed to go down well as quite different  to what else was on offer that weekend.  I'm pretty sure this is where I made contact with James, one of the organisers of the 'All Power to the Imagination' conference I spoke at in Sarasota, Florida a few weeks later.

On what I think was the second day of the conference we left early to do a very small private meeting on anarchist organisation downstairs in a library in DC.  I've no idea whereabouts, from what I remember we were driving around for a while trying to locate the place.

Original blog text published at the time follows

My meeting in Washington DC coincided with the NCOR conference, a big mostly anarchist gathering at the American University. I had been warned in the other cities that it had a reputation as a particularly pungent event, a warning I found to be correct.

It basically attracts the more life-stylist end of the movement in considerable numbers including large numbers that have developed an ideological opposition to washing. One of the meetings I attended had around 150 people at it and I found that by the mid way point the smell was actually irritating the back of my throat.

To be far only 40-60% of the attendees fall into this category but it does provide a particularly direct example of a section of the movement unable to communicate with anyone outside their own ranks. The level of politics in the questions being asked at that session was also shockingly low. Plus more than one idiot was wandering around with a 'I heart the bicycle bomber' sticker.

We'd been told it was too late to get onto the program when we were organising the tour but in the event we were able to get a room to hold the talk and advertised it via flyers produced that morning. So just short of 30 people did attend and the talk seemed to be strongly appreciated.

A major problem for the sensible end of the movement is how to relate to the politics and the majority of the people who turn up for this sort of event. Just because there is such an extreme alienation from mainstream society as to make people dysfunctional isn't a reason to shrug your shoulders and ignore it but its easy to understand the comments I'd picked up elsewhere in the tour when I mentioned I'd be going there.

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )



 Read the accounts of the 44 stops of the speaking tour

Comments

So there is a rather crazy

So there is a rather crazy thread on infoshop news all about this blog posting and it is the most popular article on the site with 190 views despite the fact I obly turned on the views counter around 2 weeks after posting it (you need to be logged in to see the views count and the contact the author link under articles). The thread is at http://www.infoshop.org/inews/article.php?story=20080331122158608 - I'm not going to reply there as I think its rather too dramatic (and I've bad previous experience with replies posted there being deleted) But it this blog really sectarian? Or is it just pointing out a pretty obvious problem that is a barrier to the movement growing. I didn't mention it but an amusing addition is that at the Fredicksburg date the organizer mentioned that his friends at the university in preparation for NCOR give up washing a week or more beforehand.

You were warned! :) These

You were warned! :) These folks are very taxing.. but many are close enough to our politics to spend the time working with them (and we have/do.. especially us newer people). Others I don't even consider to be working in the same movement. The most extreme are straight up reactionary.

  


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