Prosecutors Say A Woman Who Went Undercover With An “Anarchist Extremist Group” Will Testify At Inauguration Protest Trials

by Zoe Tillman, via BuzzFeed News

In the next round of trials against people charged with rioting during President Donald Trump’s inauguration, federal prosecutors want to put a witness on the stand under an alias who spent two years undercover with “an anarchist extremist group” in New York.

Prosecutors said in court papers filed March 2 that the witness, referred to as “Julie McMahon,” is no longer working undercover, but they warned that revealing her identity could jeopardize ongoing “covert operations” and also put her security at risk. McMahon will testify about the use of the “black bloc” tactic during protests on Jan. 20, 2017, according to the government.

There are 59 people still facing criminal charges in connection with the mass arrests in Washington, DC, during anti-Trump demonstrations on Inauguration Day. Following the full acquittal last year of the first six defendants to go to trial, the US attorney’s office announced in January that it would drop charges against 129 of the 188 remaining defendants.

The prosecution told the court at the time that it planned to focus its efforts on defendants who allegedly engaged in “identifiable acts of destruction, violence, or other assaultive conduct,” participated in planning violence and destruction, or who knowingly participated in what’s known as “black bloc” tactics in order to aid violence and destruction.

The next trial is scheduled to begin on March 26, although four of the five defendants have asked to delay the trial for various reasons, including personal conflicts and difficulties going through all of the evidence in time. The government is opposing the request.

The government plans to call “Julie McMahon” to testify about the “black bloc” tactic, according to its latest filing. A black bloc is commonly described as a group of protesters who wear all black clothing, along with black masks or other gear that makes it harder to identify them as individuals. The government’s theory in the Inauguration Day cases is that the defendants conspired to participate in a black bloc to make harder for police to identify individuals who engaged in violence and property destruction.

The government has said the Jan. 20 demonstrations caused more than $100,000 in property damage across downtown Washington. Throughout the protests, individuals would run out, break the windows of stores and cars, and then rejoin the crowd. Most of the remaining 59 defendants face at least eight criminal counts — one felony count of inciting a riot, two misdemeanor counts of engaging in a riot and conspiracy to riot, and five felony counts of property destruction.

The government said in its latest court filing that it intends to call “Julie McMahon” to testify about how a black bloc typically works, and how she believes it was used on Jan. 20, including the clothing demonstrators wore, objects that were later found on the scene — including crowbars and other weapons — and the use of “marshals, scouts, and medics.”

“Ms. McMahon will further opine that, in her training and experience, the ‘black bloc’ tactic is only used when individuals within the group intend to engage in acts of violence and destruction, and that the ‘black bloc’ tactic is a known term within the anarchist movement,” prosecutors wrote.

McMahon worked undercover — though the filing does not say for whom — infiltrating an “anarchist extremist group” in New York from 2008 to 2010 and took part in a black bloc during protests in Pittsburgh in 2008 during the G20 conference, according to the government. She was going to participate in a black bloc as part of the Occupy New York movement, but that “did not materialize as expected,” prosecutors wrote.

Prosecutors said McMahon also worked undercover in public corruption and foreign counter-intelligence operations, and previously had been allowed to testify in court under an alias in criminal cases in federal court in New York.

The Confrontation Clause of the US Constitution gives defendants the right to face and cross-examine witnesses against them in court. Prosecutors said they would provide the defense with McMahon’s real name and job history so they could prepare questions for her, under the condition that they not be allowed to reveal her identity to anyone else.

The government said the precautions were needed not only to protect operations that McMahon had been part of, but also to protect her — prosecutors said the lead prosecutor, Assistant US Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff, and the lead detective had been harassed as personal information about them spread last year. According to the government, Kerkhoff received a “targeted mailing” at her home that included a picture of her with the letters “CFM” on her body, which the government said often refers to the phrase, “Come Fuck Me.”

A spokesperson for the US attorney’s office declined to comment. The government filed notice about its intent to introduce McMahon in the cases set for trial March 26 and April 17; defense lawyers in those cases either declined to comment or did not return requests for comment.

Dylan Petrohilos, one of the defendants in the April 17 trial group, told BuzzFeed News that the description of McMahon’s work was proof of a “long-term strategy where the state has … clamped down on civil liberties in the name of trying to go after this anarchist bogeyman.”

“This is part of a long-term trend of surveillance of activists that is unfortunately becoming more and more the norm,” Petrohilos said. He declined to comment on whether he would challenge allowing McMahon to testify under an alias.


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Anews Podcast – episode 45

Welcome to the anews podcast. This is episode 45 for January 5, 2018. This podcast covers anarchist activity, ideas, and conversations from the previous week.
Editorial: On Accountability in Real Life
TOTW – Year Past, Year Coming

This podcast is the effort of many people. This week this podcast was
* sound edited by Linn O’Mable
* editorial by some anarchist
* written by jackie
* narrated by chisel and a friend
* Thanks to Aragorn! and friends for their help with the topic of the week
* Contact us at
To learn more

Introduction to anarchism:
Books and other anarchist material:
News and up to the minute commentary:

Edited for

Jacqueline Jones Talks Lucy Parsons, the Black Woman Anarchist That History Forgot

by Stassa Edwards, via Jezebel

History has nearly forgotten Lucy Parsons (c. 1853-1942), the radical anarchist and orator who enthused working-class audiences for decades with her rhetoric of resistance and violence. She struck fear into the hearts of the Chicago police and businessmen, agitating for workers to seize their rights by whatever means necessary, including violence. By 1887, one newspaper warned that authorities in Chicago “feared this one woman more than all of the chief Anarchists combined.” Another described her as “one of the most notorious women.”

If authorities feared Parsons, then it was because of what they perceived to be her dangerous rhetoric. “Learn the use of explosives!” Parsons wrote in a late 19th-century essay, imploring the laboring poor to rebel against exploitative capitalism, and those who profited from it. Despite the fact that Parsons was a virtual celebrity, followed by newspaper reporters and tracked by police, history has largely been unkind to her legacy, eclipsed in part by her husband, Albert Parsons, one of the anarchists executed in the wake of 1886’s Haymarket affair. In her new book, The Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical, Jacqueline Jones revives the life and legacy of Parsons by following her from her early life in Texas to her rise as a famous anarchist.

Jones describes Parsons as a “walking contradiction of terms.” As Jones deftly demonstrates, Parsons’s life was defined by ironies. Parsons was born into slavery but denied that she was black, creating instead a romantic origin story that purposefully obscured her racial identity. Likely born in Virginia, Parsons was forced to relocate to Waco, Texas by her owner (and likely biological father) in the middle of the Civil War. Once free, she sought out education and eventually met Albert, the Confederate solider-turned-Republican-turned-socialist-turned-anarchist. Unwelcome in Texas, the interracial couple relocated to Chicago where they both quickly established themselves as leaders in the labor movement and, eventually, became fierce and vocal anarchists. It was in Chicago, while Albert was on trial for his alleged role in the Haymarket bombing, that Lucy reinvented herself, claiming that she was born to Mexican and Native American parents.

It was a fiction, of course, but Parsons cultivated many personal fictions, even as her fame as a radical agitator grew. After Albert’s execution, Lucy toured the United States, imploring the working classes to take their rights by force if necessary. Her fiery and idealistic rhetoric was often at odds with her personal life. She disagreed with Emma Goldman on the issue of free love (eventually leading to a feud between the two), even as she took numerous lovers. Those contradictions extended into her family life as well. She advocated for freedom but Parsons infamously had her own son committed to an asylum because of political differences, where he would die 20 years later.

Jones deftly explores Parsons’s contradictions, offering an in-depth look at a complicated woman, as well as new insight into Parsons’s surely difficult life in Texas. What emerges is a woman whose legacy is present, even if her name has been forgotten. Parsons’s work lives in our more expansive understanding of free speech and her legacy haunts contemporary debates on class, economic justice, and capitalism.

I spoke to Jones about her book, Lucy Parsons, and Parsons’s enduring legacy. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

* * *

JEZEBEL: Why Lucy Parsons? What was so attractive that you decided to write this big biography?

JACQUELINE JONES: I’ve been teaching American history for a while now. When I teach the survey to students I’m always interested in introducing them to interesting women in American history. Lucy Parsons name has come up in my lectures for many years, yet I was pretty reliant on a biography that was written about her in 1976, Carolyn Ashbaugh’s biography [Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary] It’s good, it gives the chronology of her life, but it says nothing about her origins.

I got to thinking that with all of the new resources, especially digital resources, that it was time to revisit Lucy Parsons and to see if I could find something out about her background, as well as introduce her to a new audience. People today have never really heard of her. I guess I’m not surprised, but when I told people I was writing a biography of Lucy Parsons, many people, even people who knew a lot about history, said, “Who?” That’s too bad because during her time she was quite the celebrity. The news media followed her obsessively and she was known coast to coast. She was a tremendous speaker and her speaking career lasted from 1886 until she died in 1942. That’s quite a long life.

You brought up that many people don’t know about Lucy Parsons. Frankly, before reading your book, I only knew about her as the widow of one the Haymarket bombers.

Alleged bomber! Her husband Albert Parsons was executed in November 1887 for his alleged role in the Haymarket bombing. He did not throw the bomb. The prosecutor, the judge and the jury knew that he didn’t throw the bomb, he wasn’t even in Haymarket Square when it was thrown. He was several blocks away in a tavern.

In any case, it’s definitely true that her career has been overshadowed by his. Many people who do know her think of her as Albert Parsons’s wife or widow without know that she had a very long and fruitful career after his death as a public speaker, as an agitator, and as a writer and editor. She was really a remarkable woman. Maybe we only have so much room in the pantheon of women to acknowledge a few women anarchists. There is certainly Emma Goldman—with whom Lucy Parsons famously feuded. There doesn’t seem to be much knowledge about Parsons and her background. It’s too bad; she had such an interesting life, full of contradictions and full of ironies. She always denied that she had been born into slavery and claimed this false Hispanic/Native American identity for herself. She’s so interesting in so many ways.

Why do you think her reputation, or at least knowledge of her, has been eclipsed by other women like Goldman, or even Mary “Mother” Jones? Certainly, their reputations have survived in histories of labor and anarchists but Parsons seems to have fallen by the wayside. Why has she fallen by the wayside while Goldman has not?

I’m not really sure. Certainly, Goldman was a powerful speaker, she was an agitator, she propounded free love and she was the editor of Mother Earth. So, she was constantly in the public eye, but so was Parsons. She edited two radical journals, Freedom and Liberator, she had many speaking tours around the country. Parsons was also a prolific writer, she thought deeply about political theory and history. It’s not clear to me why she isn’t remembered. I know why Goldman is remembered—she was outspoken and deported in 1919, sent to the Soviet Union and returned from there deeply disillusioned. They have very different trajectories.

As I said, Goldman was a proponent of free love, she thought monogamy was not the natural order of things. Ironically, Lucy Parsons, though an anarchist, claimed that the nuclear family and monogamy were the building blocks of a just society. When in fact, she lived a very liberated life, sexually. She had a baby in Waco, Texas and the father is unknown—it might have been Albert but it might have been a named Oliver Benton, a man who claimed her as his wife. After Albert died, she had a series of love affairs with younger men, a couple of which ended in spectacular fashion in the newspapers. She dragged them to court. On some level, she presented herself as a very prim, Victorian wife and mother and her private life, I think, was subsumed under this rhetoric.

It’s quite an interesting question. I think she did pioneer resistance to efforts to suppress free speech. She was a real First Amendment proponent; certainly the efforts of the Chicago police to silence her in the late 1880s and 1890s, that was the beginning of free speech campaigns that other groups, like the Wobblies or the Industrial Workers of the World, continued well into the 20th century. Parsons was really there at the forefront of these free speech campaigns. She deserves a lot more credit historically than she’s been given.

I wanted to return to Lucy Parsons’s origins for just a moment. You uncovered new information about her birth and really untangled this mess of her self-made origin story. Could you talk a bit about the challenges of tracking Parsons’s early life, from her birth in Virginia to her life in Texas? This seemed to be a contentious issue during Parsons’s career, fueled in large part by her.

When Carolyn Ashbaugh wrote her book, she only devoted three pages to Parsons’s first 21 or 22 years. Ashbaugh barely mentioned [Parsons’s] years in Waco before she left for Chicago in 1873.

The short part of the story is that I sat in front of a computer for many weeks and managed to track her down. I found an article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1886 which I consider the Rosetta Stone of Lucy Parsons’s life. That article gave me the name of her mother, Charlotte. It told me that her mother had married a man in Waco named Charlie Carter, it gave me the name of [Lucy and Charlotte’s] owner, Tolliver. He was from Virginia and was a Confederate surgeon who brought his slaves to McLennan County in Texas during the Civil War. It also gave me the name of the man who claimed Parsons as his wife. He was called Oliver Gathings by white people, but the name he took after slavery was Oliver Benton.

All of this pointed to some real challenges to recreating her early years. One is that often after slavery, former enslaved men and women took new last names and abandoned the names of their owner. Charlotte did that, she took the name of her new husband, Charlie Carter. Charlie Carter had abandoned his slave name, Charlie Crane. Oliver Benton had abandoned his slave name, Oliver Gathings. That’s one of the challenges; to navigate these name changes over time is very difficult. But once I found the name of Charlotte, I could look her up in the Waco census for 1870 and her daughter who, in 1870, was 19. Her daughter gave her name as Lucia, again another name change because Lucia eventually became Lucy.

There were these challenges to overcoming these barriers to piecing this history together. Once I knew the name of Parsons’s owner, I could find Tolliver in the Confederate military records. He was a surgeon, he was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Illinois. He then went back east and got his slaves and brought them to Waco in 1863. He then becomes part of the Waco record.

It was a kind of detective mystery. It was fun to see these pieces eventually fall into place, again to have them confirmed by multiple sources. It wouldn’t have made any sense to take the Globe-Democrat article at face value. I had to confirm all of that information multiple ways before I thought it was true.

Lucy’s origin story or, at least the one she invents, of being Latina and Native American, seems to emerge at a very specific time. She spins this story at the very moment that her husband is implicated in the Haymarket bombing. She already has this very fluid relationship with identity, I was wondering what your takeaway on Lucy’s creation of a new racial identity is? Why is she compelled to create this particular identity?

You’re right that [Lucy’s origin story] takes hold at a very specific time and that’s when Albert has been implicated in the bombing and she’s about to launch her own career as an orator and agitator. I think there are a couple of things at work here: her looks were indeterminate and she felt that she would gain more credibility on a national stage if people thought that she was not African American. I think that she thought that being labeled African American would damage her credibility as an orator on almost any subject. She approaches it as a kind of exotic identity for herself.

Parsons was able to get away with it to a certain extent. People couldn’t really tell by looking at her what her origins were. Also, there was no Mexican-American press in Chicago until the 1920s or 1930s. There was nobody in Chicago to interview her or to ask her about her parents or to comment on the fact that she couldn’t speak Spanish. If you look at her through the years and see what she told census takers, she’s constantly getting her [fictional] parents mixed up—sometimes her father is Mexican, sometimes it’s her mother, other times they’re Native American. She can’t keep her own story straight because it’s a fiction. She’s not that careful about preserving it.

Albert was complicit in this. He claimed later that when he met her, he found a lovely Spanish maiden on her uncle’s ranch in west Texas. Of course, they met in Waco.

Popular print of Haymarket Riots, 1886. Image via Wikipedia.

I love that Albert and Lucy collaborate to create this romantic fiction…

One of the things you bring up in the book is that as Lucy cultivates this identity, of being Latina and Native American, she’s really emphasizing that she is more native than white Americans. I was wondering how that played out in the context of being an anarchist because, of course, many of them were foreign-born. Pointing to foreignness was a common way to discredit anarchists…

She took on that purpose very seriously. Certainly, she claimed that she was more native-born than anyone else—she claimed that her ancestors met Cortés when he came to Mexico. Sometimes she would say that her ancestors met Columbus when he came to the New World. Secondly, her physical appearance played a role, too. She was quite fashionable and she was very vain. Everyone agreed that she was very beautiful. She was very well put together and a very talented seamstress.

The picture on the cover of the book is one of her favorites. She’s in a silk-striped dress, she has a lace collar which has a gold pin at the throat. She’s wearing a hat with black ostrich feathers. Everybody remarked on how elegantly she dressed. She would go speak in places and the cops would be looking around for this firebrand orator and they couldn’t locate her. Then she’d ascend to the stage and they’d all be amazed to find this very beautiful, well-dressed woman was the much-feared Mrs. Parsons. She had a good sense of humor, she was playing with these stereotypes of a bomb-throwing anarchist as an unshaven man from western Europe who couldn’t speak English and who was very alien to native-born Americans.

The newspaper writing that you included in the book is very interesting. It’s essentially men who are both allured by her dress and the fact that she’s attractive but are also very bothered by her indeterminate racial identity. They seem very confused by the contradiction of stereotypes, between her looks and her rhetoric. There’s a bunch of ink spilled over figuring out over what her racial identity could possibly be. You call her a “walking contradiction of terms.” Do you think that’s something that she purposefully courted, perhaps to insert confusion into the coverage of her?

She often claimed that her personal identity—that her background—should be irrelevant. In the Introduction, I quote her saying something like “Nobody cares about who I am or where I come from, they only care about my message.” She is being disingenuous there. On the one hand, she thought that identity should be irrelevant and the message of class struggle should be everything. On the other hand, she loved the attention. If she could make headlines, she was delighted. She craved that kind of press attention. If she could remain a woman of mystery, I think she really embraced that as a way of being in the world.

I do try to make the point that I think that took a tremendous emotional toll on her. Parsons couldn’t speak freely about her background or talk about that long, forced trek from the east to Texas during the Civil War. She couldn’t be forthcoming about the family she left behind in Waco. I think that was an emotional burden that she carried with her.

You can tell in the book that I wasn’t about to write another Lives of the Saints, I wanted to portray her as I saw her. She had her son committed to an insane asylum in 1899. It was shocking, he wanted to join the Army and she thought that would be humiliating to her because she was an anti-imperialist. At the time she was speaking out against the [Spanish-American War] and now, to have her own son go off to the Philippines was too much for her to bear, so she has him committed. He died in that asylum 20 years later and, as far as I can tell, she never visited him.

People who met her said that she was tough. One person who met her described her as bulldozing nearly everyone. She was very sure of her own views and contemptuous of those she considered weak or ill-informed. She was a very formidable personality, but not a lovely one.

Parsons also played with gender, especially the interplay of gender and her incredibly violent rhetoric, which included encouraging crowds to make dynamite and engage in this anarchist war. She used gender to protect herself, or at least ward off suspicion, during Haymarket but also to garner support. As you pointed out, she’s very invested in her appearance as another method to undermine stereotypes. I was wondering, how does gender work either for or against Parsons? Especially considering that she’s not a white woman and the press is very invested in determining her racial identity— while they might not be sure of her race, they are sure that she’s definitely not white.

Her politics were, as you say, pretty violent. I looked at what she wrote in her husband’s paper, The Alarm, before Haymarket. She is one of the proponents of the use of dynamite. There developed a cult of dynamite among anarchists in Chicago in the mid-1880s. They argued that it was the ultimate form of self-defense for the laboring classes and also that it leveled the playing field. They argued that if they had to deal with well-armed police or businessmen backed up with Gatling guns, then they needed dynamite to protect themselves. Often this rhetoric veered away from self-defense to calling for the use of dynamite as a weapon in class warfare. She contributed to this.

It was interesting that during the Haymarket trial, the prosecution introduced many different kinds of evidence and one piece of evidence was her essay called “Two Tramps.” The essay ends with the sentence, “Learn the use of explosives!” She had a very demure personal presentation, all the while, her writings were very provocative. Authorities in Chicago loved to use words to describe her that invoked the Great Fire of 1871. They said she was a firebrand, that her comments were inflammatory or incendiary, that she was bound to unite the spark of revolution, and set the laboring classes on fire. There are all of these firey allusions to her.

After the Haymarket trial, the police detective Michael Schaack, who was the great nemesis of Chicago anarchists, was asked if he would go after the women next. The question referred to Lucy Parsons and Lizzie Swank [another anarchist and close friend of Lucy and Albert]. People often complained that Lucy got away with this murderous rhetoric only because she was a woman. And, to a certain extent, she did. Her husband was executed basically for saying things that she said as well. His writings were very provocative and very violent. He denied that later on, but that was certainly the case. When they were looking for suspects for the bombing, he and other editors and orators were rounded up—the usual suspects, I guess. It is interesting that she was kind of inoculated against a kind of vigorous prosecution.

She also has a really fraught relationship with gender. She used a lot of gendered language in her speeches—challenging men to be men, for example. But when she’s working with the Working Women’s Union, she’s also deeply frustrated by these attempts to unionize and mobilize working women like herself. This history of working women often goes unexplored in big histories of labor and anarchism. I was wondering if you could speak a bit about Parsons, the Working Women’s Union, and the organization of women in that period?

First of all, I should point out that Parsons was more of an agitator than an organizer. She didn’t really have the patience to work with ordinary laboring women. She wanted to get up in front of a big crowd and declaim. The experience with the Working Women’s Union she found instructive because she found that it was not going to be her destiny. The problem with that group is that it was composed mostly of middle-class women who were well-educated and well-read. They were very interested in political theory and would have meetings at night where they would discuss fine points of political ideology. Parsons didn’t seem to understand that working women—women who toiled as seamstresses or domestic servants for ten or twelve hours a day—were really not interested in that kind of evening activity.

They weren’t eager to commit to a union because they considered wage work to be temporary. They didn’t think that they would be doing this forever. They believed that they were doing this labor until they got married and then they could retreat from the paid labor force. Lizzie Swank found this out, too (she and her sister worked as labor organizers in what was essentially a sweatshop). They found that it took a lot of courage to walk out; these women would have been fired if they walked out of their jobs, left without pay, and likely blacklisted. These women just didn’t have the emotional resources to confront their employers and demand higher wages. It was a really brutal system. It is true that these women were getting a lot of discouragement from their brothers and father who believed that women should not be working because they depressed the wages of men. They were encouraged to think of labor as a temporary state. Beyond that, they’re tired at the end of the day, they want to spend their Sunday afternoons relaxing and not going to union meetings.

Parsons loved the debating and talking about political history. She was extremely well read and really enjoyed in-the-weeds discussions of political theory. Working women had no patience for Parsons’s approach. She made no headway and the Working Women’s Union collapsed very quickly. It was a struggle to organize women in the garment industry well into the twentieth-century, until the 1930s, and even beyond.

One of the thing that’s still a bit of a mystery is how and when Lucy Parsons becomes so radical. You follow her in Texas, and we know she’s in school at some point. She marries Albert and, because of racial and political discrimination, they move to Chicago. At what point does Lucy herself turn from a newly free woman with a child at home to a radical firebrand encouraging workers to make dynamite?

If we take her at her word, it was Great Strike of 1877. It was the summer of 1877 when railroad employees across the country went on strike and other workers joined them in solidarity. In Chicago, the strike was a very bloody one, it lasted about a week and several people were killed. Albert was a major figure that summer because of his rhetorical abilities. He gave several speeches to large crowds. That was the first time he really came to the attention of the authorities in Chicago, including the police and powerful businessmen. Lucy Parsons says that that experience radicalized her. She realized that capitalism was predatory, that the police were aggressive in their violent attacks on workers and that the laboring classes must defend themselves at all costs.

I see her starting to contribute to a magazine called The Socialist in Chicago in the late 1870s and then she continues to write for other periodicals. The Alarm started in about 1884 and she begins writing there. You can tell from her writings that she’s reading a lot during that period. Some of her writings for The Socialist indicate that she’s reading popular women’s magazines, as well as local newspapers, and dense political theory. She’s self-taught but she’s clearly brilliant—she had to be. She only had two or three years of formal education in a school with other children of [formerly] enslaved people. That was a rudimentary kind of learning that she got there. She read a lot her own; there was a lot of study groups, the Socialists were very big on meeting in the evening and discussing very dense tracts of political theory. Albert and Lucy were very involved in that.

Now that you’re done with this project and the book is out, what do you think Lucy Parsons’s legacy is today?

She was a fearless speaker. At one point, I suggest that she was never happier than when she was dodging the police. She did it so often, I came to believe that she came to relish it—it was something awful that she had to contend with, but it became part of who she was. Getting on stage or standing on a street corner and having the police tell her to move, then going to another street corner or spending the evening in jail—that meant that she was fearless when it came to speaking her mind. When you look at the late 80s and 90s in Chicago, she’s giving speeches and the cops are demanding that she show the American flag when she speaks, and she refuses. Instead, she shows the red flag or the black flag, or anything to aggravate and antagonize the cops.

When I think of Chicago’s Red Squad—an elite group of police officers who were supposed to keep track of radicals in the city—I think she was really an impetus for the formation of the Red Squad. Certainly, after the Haymarket trial, the police become very convinced that they have to monitor all radical activities in the city. She knew whenever she spoke that there were undercover police in the audience. She knew that detectives followed her. I see her as a fearless proponent of the First Amendment. She also demonstrated a great deal of physical courage, as well.

She was very prescient. She warned against machines taking people’s jobs. She warned that, as machines took jobs, no one would be able to buy anything or sustain the U.S. economy—she turned out to be half right about that. She called out both political parties, she didn’t think they were adequate to address the nation’s ills; she was right about that. She decried the role of money in politics, saying that money corrupted the political process. She was right about that. She’s really identifying the growing gap between the rich and the poor and the dispossession of so many workers. When you read her today, it really does sound like she is talking about our current time. She really was quite prescient.

But the personal life is filled with ironies and contradictions, and that’s what makes her so fascinating. She had a rich and turbulent life and she tried to smooth that over in her public persona. It’s just who she was.

In the classical Marxist sense, at least in the 19th century, she felt that her focus should be on the urban laboring classes, particularly factory workers. She and her husband, virtually all of their comrades in Chicago, ignored the struggles of black working people. It’s not just because she was born enslaved that I think she should have been more attentive to that community but, as positioning herself as a radical, she and her comrades should have really understood the very difficult position that black workers were in. As it was, these white agitators and labor organizers, they demonized black workers as strikes breakers, the same way they demonized the Chinese as workers who would take low wages and put white workers out of jobs. That was a very short-sighted way of looking at the laboring class. That’s, unfortunately, part of the legacy of American radicalism and, of course, Lucy Parsons.


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01-02-2018 Anarchy Radio


Iran erupts, eastern North America in deep freeze. Joey from Deep Green Bush School in New Zealand reports. Late 2017 rampant violence: mass shootings, pig violence. Latest urban horrors, reefs dying, air worsening.The “Brilliant” episodes 59-63 on technology critique: Huh? Action news, one call.


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Anarchist social organization

FORA march in Buenos Aires

posted by:s.nappalos

A piece discussing debates over the role of political ideas within social movements, and the debate within anarchism over political organization applied to the current context of North American anarchism.

Originally published in Ideas and Action

The rise of the right and the impotence of the institutional left organized in non-profits, business unions, and electoral political parties to offer an alternative is pressing the crucial question for our time: what is our strategy in pre-revolutionary times? The revolutionary left focuses on the other hand is fixated on the ruptures and revolutions of history, and this has done little to prepare us for the present. Without concrete projects and practices that make a revolutionary approach clear to the exploited, anarchism and socialism remain abstract ideas. In the United States there are no nation-wide social movements to draw upon in forging a new social force. Resistance remains largely fragmented, and more often than not abstracted from the struggles of daily life and carried out by a semi-professional activist subculture. The challenge then is where to begin, or more specifically how to move beyond the knowledge, experiences, and groups of the past two decades towards a broader social movement?

There are some experiences we can draw on however from the heyday of the anarchist movement, where similarly radicals in a hostile environment began to discuss and craft strategic interventions. An overlooked and scarcely known debate within anarchism was between so-called dualism and unitary positions on organization.[i] That framing for the disagreement largely comes from the dualists who were supporters of specific anarchist political organizations independent from the workers organizations of their day. This was contrasted against the anti-political organization anarchists in the libertarian unions[ii] who proposed a model of workers organizations that were both a politicized-organization and union.

The portrayal of anarchosyndicalists as inherently against political organization and as advocating unions exclusively of anarchists is a straw man. If anything the orthodoxy supported political organizations including: Pierre Bresnard, former head of the International Workers Association (IWA-AIT), the Spanish CNT (through its affinity groups, specific organizations around publications, and the FAI), along with others in the various revolutionary unions of the IWA-AIT. A more balanced picture of the movement would be (at least) a four way division within IWA-AIT organizations including: class struggle syndicalism that downplayed anarchism and revolution (both with defenders and detractors of political organization), the dominant position of revolutionary unionism influenced by anarchism but striving for one big union of the class, political anarchists focused on insurrectionism and intellectual activities, and a fourth position that is likely unfamiliar to most readers.

That position I will call the anarchist social organization for lack of a better term. Elements of this position have existed and persisted throughout the history of the syndicalist movement, but found its core within the revolutionary workers organizations of South America at the turn of the century. In Argentina and Uruguay in particular a powerful immigrant movement of anarchists dominated the labor movement for decades, setting up the first unions and consolidating a politics in an environment where reformist attempts at unions lacked a context enabling them to thrive.[iii] This tendency spread across Latin America from Argentina to Mexico, at its zenith influenced syndicalist currents in Europe and Asia as well. It’s progress was checked by a combination of shifting context and political reaction that favored nationalist and reformist oppositions. Both Argentina and Uruguay underwent some of the world’s first legalized labor regimes and populist reform schemes to contain the labor movement combined with dictatorships that selectively targeted the anarchist movement while supporting socialists and nationalists across the region. The anarchist movement of el Río de la Plata was dealt heavy blows by the 1930s and began to decline.

The theorists of Argentina’s Federación Obrera Regional Argentina (FORA, Argentina Regional Workers’ Federation) in particular laid out an alternative approach to politics that was highly influential. Argentina perhaps vied with Spain as the most powerful anarchist movement in the world and yet is scarcely known today. The FORA takes its name from an aspiration towards internationalism and one of the most thorough going anti-State and anti-nationalist currents in radical history. The FORA inspired sister unions throughout Latin America many with similar names such as FORU (Uruguay), FORP (Paraguay), FORCh (Chile) and unions in Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia just to name a few. They even won over the membership of established IWW locals in Mexico and Chile to their movement away from the IWW’s neutral syndicalism.

The ideas of the FORA came to be known as finalismo; so named because in Spanish fines mean ends or goals, and the FORA made anarchist communism it’s explicit aim as early as 1905. Finalismo was a rejection of traditional unions and political organizations in favor of the anarchist social organization.[iv] In the unions, FORA saw a tendency to divert the working class into reforming and potentially reproducing capitalist work relations. Unions they argued are institutions that inherit too much of the capitalism we seek to abolish.[v] The capitalist division of labor reflected in industrial unions in particular could be a potential base for maintaining capitalist social relationships after the revolution, something that the FORA argued must be transformed.

“We must not forget that the union is, as a result of capitalist economic organization, a social phenomenon born of the needs of its time. To retain its structure after the revolution would imply preserving the cause that determined it: capitalism.”[vi]

This critique they extended to apolitical revolutionary unions like the IWW and even with anarchosyndicalism itself, which was seen as arguing for using unions, vehicles of resistance that reflect capitalist society, as cells of the future structure of society. Their goal was to transform a society built to maintain class domination to one organized to meet human needs; something the existing industries poison.

“Anarchosyndicalist theory, very similar to revolutionary unionism, is today confused by many who approach the workers movement, and even participate in it, because they consider that all anarchists who take part in unionism are automatically anaarchosyndicalists. Anarchosyndicalism is a theory that bases the construction of society after the emancipatory revolution in the same unions and professional associations of workers. The FORA expressively rejects anarchosyndicalism and maintains its conception that one cannot legislate the future of society after revolutionary change…”[vii]

While participating in class struggle on a day to day basis, members of the FORA similarly rejected the ideology of class struggle. Class struggle as ideology was seen as reflecting a mechanistic worldview inherited from Marxism, that ultimately would reinforce the divisions derived from capitalism which would sustain obstacles to constructing communism after the revolution. Class and worker identity are too tied to capitalist relationships, they argued, and are better attacked than cultivated.[viii]

The foristas were skeptical of political organizations separate from workers organizations, and believed they posed a danger. Such organizations would tend to over-value maintaining their political leadership against the long term goal of building anarchist communism.[ix] The world of political anarchism was seen as drawing from intellectual and cultural philosophies abstracted from daily life, whereas the anarchist workers movement drew it’s inspiration from connecting anarchist ethics to the lived struggles of the exploited.

“Anarchism as a revolutionary political party is deprived of its main strength and its vital elements; anarchism is a social movement that will acquire the greater power of action and propaganda the more intimately it stays in its native environment.”[x]

In their place, partisans of the FORA proposed a different type workers organization and role for anarchists. Emiliano Lopez Arango, the brilliant auto-didact and baker, emphasized that we should build organizations of workers aimed at achieving anarchist society, rather than organizations of anarchists-for-workers or organizations of anarchist-workers.

“Against this philosophical or political anarchism we present our concept and our reality of the anarchist social movement, vast mass organizations that do not evade any problems of philosophical anarchism, and taking man as he is, not just as supporter of an idea, but as a member of an exploited and oppressed human fraction… To create a union movement concordant with our ideas-the anarchist labor movement- it is not necessary to “cram” in the brain of the workers ideas that they do not understand or against those that guard routine precautions. The question is another…Anarchists must create an instrument of action that allows us to be a belligerent force acting in the struggle for the conquest of the future. The trade union movement can fill that high historic mission, but on condition that is inspired by anarchist ideas.”[xi]

This position has often been misunderstood or misrepresented as “anarchist unionism” i.e. trying to create ideologically pure groupings of workers. The workers of the FORA however held in little esteem the political anarchist movement, and did not believe in intellectuals imposing litmus tests for workers. Instead they built an organization which from 1905 onward took anarchist communism as its goal, and was constructed around anarchist ideals in its struggles and functioning.

There is a key difference between being an ideological organization doing organizing versus organizing with an anarchist orientation. The workers of the FORA tried to create the latter. Counterposed to raw economics and the ideology of class struggle, they emphasized a process of transformation and counter-power built through struggle but guided by values and ideas.[xii] Against the idea that syndicalist unions were seeds of the future society, they proposed using struggles under capitalism as ways to train the exploited for revolutionary goals and a radical break with the structure of capitalism with revolution.[xiii]

In doing so they organized Argentina’s working class under the leading light of anarchism until a series of repressive and recuperative forces overwhelmed them. The CNT would eventually follow FORA’s suit some three decades later with its endorsement of the goal of creating libertarian communism, but it’s vacillations on these issues (predicted by some foristas such as Manuel Azaretto)[xiv] would prove disastrous. CNT scored a contradictory initial victory, but floundered with how to move from an organization struggling within capitalism to a post-capitalist order.

Anarchist Social Organization Today

The insight of the FORA was its focus on how we achieve liberation. These organizing projects are centered in struggles around daily life. Working in these struggles aims at creating an environment where participants can co-develop in a specific environment guided by anarchist principles, goals, and tactics. Ideas develop within through a process of praxis where actions, ideas, and values interact and come together in strategy. These are particular weaknesses we have in recent anarchist and libertarian strategies in the US.

In both political organizations and organizing work, anarchists have failed to put themselves forward as an independent force with our own proposals. Anarchist ideology is kept outside the context of daily life and struggle; the place where it makes the most sense and has the most potential for positive contributions. Instead ideology has largely remained the property of political organizations, while anarchists do their organizing work too often as foot soldiers for reformist non-profits, bureaucratic unions, and neutral organizations hostile to their ideas. This is carried out without plans to advance our goals or independent projects that demonstrate their value.

Similarly as I argued[xv] against the debates over the structure of unions (craft vs. industrial), the divisions over dual vs unitary organization carry important lessons but displace more fundamental issues. At stake is what role our ideas play in the day-to-day work of struggle in prerevolutionary times. The foristas were correct in seeing a positive role of our vision when combined with a practice of contesting daily life under capitalism, while constantly agitating for a fundamental transformation. Many dualists miss these points when they seek to impose an artificial division between where and how we agitate by organizational form.

Still these issues don’t preclude political organizations playing a positive role for example with crafting strategy, helping anarchists develop their ideas together and coordinate, etc. There has been an emphasis in political thought to speak in generalities, about forms and structures, and thereby missing the contextual and historical aspects of these sorts of debates. More important than the structure of an organization is where it stands in the specific context and work on its time, and how it manages to make its work living in the daily struggles of the exploited. That can happen in different ways in a number of different projects.

Today such a strategy can be implemented within work already happening. For those who are members of existing organizations such as solidarity networks, unions, and community groups, militants should begin networking to find ways to formulate an anarchist program within their work, advance proposals to deepen anarchism’s influence over the organizations and struggles, and move towards an anarchist social organization model of struggle. With experience and a growth of forces, we could contest the direction of such organizations or form new ones depending on the context.

The existing political organizations similarly can contribute to this work by advocating for anarchist social organizations, contribute to agitation within existing organizing projects, and collaborate on the creation of new projects. In some cases this may require locals of political groups themselves forming new organizing efforts alone. Ideally this would be carried out with other individuals and groups through a process of dialogue. There are at least three national anarchist organizations all of which benefit from having the capacity to influence the debate, and could intervene on the side of advancing anarchism as an explicit force within social movements. The alternative is for it to remain obscured, clumsily discussed, and largely hidden from view of the public.

Where there is sufficient interest and capacity, new groups should be formed. Workplace networks, tenants and community groups, solidarity networks, and unions can be created with small numbers of militants who wish to combine their political work in a cohesive social-political project. In the United States such a strategy has not even been attempted on any serious scale since perhaps the days of the Haymarket martyrs and their anarchosyndicalist International Working Peoples Association (IWPA). The unprecedented shift in the mood of the population brought on by the crisis of 2008 has made these sorts of experiments more feasible if not pressing. It is up to us to take up the challenge and experiment. Yet the primary work in front of us is to find ways to translate a combative revolutionary anarchism into concrete activities that can be implemented and coordinated by small numbers of dedicated militants, and allow us a bridge to the next phases of struggle.

[i] This debate was mirrored in the councilists in the aftermath of the aborted German Revolution of 1919 with the splits in the AUD vs. AUD-E. They adopted the term unitary organization to pick out a group that rejected political organization, and is similar to the approach I will lay out with the exception that they rejected organizing around the daily lives of workers, which differentiated them from the FAU at the time until later when the AUD was in decline and the AUDE moved closer to anarchosyndicalism and the KAPD organized in the AUD moved closer to pure political organizations. Unitary organization it should be said is confusing as those anarchists who are called unitary organizationalists by the dualists repeatedly polemicized supports of unitary organization in their writings, by which they meant people who supported a single united organization for all workers with all ideologies inside.

[ii] This will be explained in greater detail but includes some members of Solidarity Federation, IWW, and other revolutionary unions today, and historically militants of the FORista unions and also currents in the CNT aligned with FORA ideas in the debates of the 1920s.

[iii] Solidarity Federation. (1987). Revolutionary unionism in Latin America:


[iv] Lopez Arango, E. Syndicalism and Anarchism. Translated by SN Nappalos.

[v] Lopez Arango. E. (1942). Means of struggle – Excerpt from Doctrine, Tactics, and Ends of the Workers Movement, the first chapter of the 1942 Posthumous collection called Ideario. Published in Anarquismo en America Latina. (1990). ed. Ángel J. Cappelletti y Carlos M. Rama. Prólogo, edición y cronología, traducción: Ángel J. Cappelletti.

[vi] Lopez Arango, E. & de Santillan, DA. (1925). El anarquismo en el movimiento obrero. Pg. 32

[vii] La FORA Anexo 208. Translation of the passage by SN Nappalos. Quoted in Lopez, Antonio. (1998). La FORA en el movimiento obrero. Tupac Ediciones. Pg. 73-74.

[viii] Antilli, T. (1924). Lucha de clases y lucha social.

[ix] Lopez Arango, E. Political leadership or ideological orientation of the workers movement.

[x] Lopez Arango, E. & de Santillan, DA. (1925). El anarquismo en el movimiento obrero. Pg. 77

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Lopez Arango, E. The resistance to capitalism.

[xiii] Ibid. Means of struggle

[xiv] Azaretto, M. (1939). Slippery Slopes: the anarchists in Spain. Translated in May-June 2014 from the Spanish original by Manuel Azaretto, Las Pendientes Resbaladizas (Los anarquistas en España), Editorial Germinal, Montevideo, 1939.

[xv] Nappalos, SN. (2015). Dismantling our divisions: craft, industry, and a new society.

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Anarchy Radio 12-19-2017


Elijah sits in. Somnox, the world’s first sleep robot. California still burning, AMRAK and other mass transport crashing. Swiss prepare for end of civilization. World’s largest airport loses power. World’s largest cruise ship: “Independence of the Seas” (geddit?) Artists on VR. E-waste piling up, 1/3 of all food grown is wasted. Progress. Action news, one call.

Edited for