“Portland must be done with punk fascists,” an Oregonian editorial stated a few days after May Day. The paper was talking about a group of anarchists who smashed windows at stores and government buildings in downtown Portland on May 1, and also set fire to items in the streets.
By the time the crowd cleared, more than 25 people had been arrested, though most faced accusations of disorderly conduct—not a charge for people accused of vandalism. A few were arrested for felony riot, and more charges might well be brought in coming days.
Notoriously media-averse, a handful of anarchists have claimed they’ve been given a bad rap from the press (the Oregonian also called them “parasites”). So we’ve been talking with them.
Jeff S., 29, was arrested on May Day and charged with disorderly conduct. He wants to make it clear he’s speaking only on his behalf and as a member of the Anarchist Student Union at Portland Community College, not for anarchists as a whole.
MERCURY: What is an anarchist?
JEFF S.: Well, first you have to define the state. The state is all these systems—bureaucracy, army, police, courts, judges—that exercise rule over people. Anarchists believe in a stateless society, that human beings can organize themselves horizontally—without hierarchical systems. Anarchists don’t believe any one human being has any right to exercise authority over another. Authority should be granted by trust, not the right to do violence like the police have. A lot of [the police] might be nice people and we might not think of them as inherently violent, but at the end of the day, all their power and the power of the state is backed up by violence. Anarchists are the exact opposite. You don’t need violence to have authority, you only need to have a conscious society, people who care about their neighbors and communities who come together and organize themselves without this third middleman. A lot of people who advocate for government say “without government, who would build the roads?” The same people who always built the roads: people.... The government takes our money from us, tells us how it’s going to be spent without any input, and then, say, builds a road and gives the money to a private contractor. Now why can’t a community come together and hand the money to the contractor? You don’t need to have money stolen from you by the government, which is then used towards foreign wars and the police. At the end of the day anarchists believe that things like taxation, authority without trust, national boundaries, national identities—these all work to separate human beings and stop them from organizing with one another.
Yeah, I’ve noticed anarchists do the “no more presidents” chant a lot.
Right, that’s a good example. What is a president? He’s just some figurehead. There’s this guy now that has all this power and authority. All these people who didn’t vote for his authority are now subjected to his will, the will of congress. It’s tyranny of the majority over the few. The minority matters, the oppressed are the oppressed. Anarchists think that government is the root of all evil. The police only protect you because it’s an objective they have to fulfill. Even if the individual police officer believes they’re doing right, at the end of the day it all boils down to control. Controlling the working class, controlling the flow of capital, protecting private property, keeping the workers obedient. Police and government don’t take care of problems because it’s altruistic, they need society to function so the ruling class, the capitalist class, can continue to maintain itself. We say that police are an evil institution because their entire job is to use force and coercion to make the poorest folks obey.... A lack of laws doesn’t mean a lack of morality.... Society can and should be organized along horizontal lines and people should be autonomous in their own action.... It comes back to taxes, too, which is another form of slavery. Appropriating 100 percent of someone’s labor is slavery, right? What about 99 percent? Where does it stop? If 18 percent of my paycheck is taken away, is that 18 percent enslavement? If you’re going to take taxes from us, give us an option where to send it or spend it on things people need. Half of the budget goes to foreign wars and imperialism—stealing, murdering, and framing it as if we’re some sort of heroes.
Why do anarchists show up to rallies, marches, and protests wearing all black?
The black bloc is what it’s called. It’s a tactic, not a group. Many different groups, including socialists, communists, antifa, [and] anarchists do it. It’s a tactic to carry out direct actions against what people see as the enemy: the state. As far as we see it, cops may be nice guys, but they are the enemy. If we’re out there at a protest, and they’re dressed up in riot gear and hurting people, they’re going to have a force to contend with. These people see themselves as freedom fighters, guerrillas, soldiers, as liberators. It pains a lot of them to see how society looks at them. There’s a protector element to them, a defender mentality. Take a place like Chase Bank, who’s guilty of some of the most heinous, evil theft on the planet. These people are saying to themselves “How dare you just skate by and get away with it.” And even if it’s a tiny, tiny repercussion, we’re going to offer you some—you’re a massive conglomerate, we’re going to make you pay $150 to replace a window. On May Day, every single piece of property I saw attacked was a legitimate target: corporate targets, state targets—places that exploit human beings, the working class, places that put profit above people. They’re waging war against humanity. Somebody’s going to wage war back.
Why does vandalism sometimes happen at public events? Is the goal to get attention?
To a degree, but random acts all over the place do happen all the time. Spray paint is usually used to leave a political message behind, and the target in and of itself is usually a message—a Wells Fargo. If it’s a mom-and-pop shop on the other side of the river, it’s probably just some drunk smashing. But (vandalism at corporate targets) happens all the time and the media doesn’t talk about it because that’s how you suppress resistance. And I wouldn’t be out in the street doing what I’m doing, or have previously done, if I hadn’t seen other people doing it first. They don’t want people seeing that. They don’t want people knowing that this consciousness is growing. After Quanice Hayes was killed, I got word that a bank on the east side of the river had its windows smashed, spray paint across the building—as far as I was told—and not a word was said about it. There’s a reason for that. They—the state, the media, the system—don’t want people knowing people are pissed. The corporate media is a propaganda wing of the state. If they’re not jerking the Portland Police Bureau off all the time, they’re not going to get the stories they need. But what happens at marches? Violence. We consider violence to be attacking human beings. Vandalism is propaganda by the deed. People see it happen, propaganda by the deed is a very powerful thing. You can read a book about ideology or you can see it happen. These deeds in and of themselves make a point. It’s part PR, but with the great chaos of the situation, that’s how a guerrilla thrives. We’ve never said that it’s nice, I’ve never met any direct-action anarchist that’s said it’s nice. We admit that it’s not nice. We’re not trying to be nice, they (the police/state) are not trying to be nice. You need mass amounts of the populace to watch and see.
How do you want people to interpret it?
We want them to know this isn’t some punk kid or some high SOB fucking shit up to just have fun. It’s the whole gamut of society—nurses, lawyers, doctors, daughters, students, Black, white, Muslim, Christian. These are pissed off people who want to take a stand against what they see as evil. We want them to know these aren’t punks, these are real human beings with a real message. We want them to think they’re taking a stand against something super nasty, not that they’re terrorist assholes. I think the media does a good job making it look as if the rest of society thinks it’s evil.
Why wear black masks?
The mask is not only tactical. The police, the riot police, special forces all wear black masks. Why? Because their identity being revealed could lead to serious problems for them. The same with us. You need to get rid of any thoughts of glory (by showing face, getting individual attention)—fuck glory. You’ll feel it in the moment with your comrades when you’re out there, but fuck that. It does you no good, it leads to ego, and you have to get rid of those ideas so you can mask-up, so people don’t know who you are, so you stay safe from workplace consequences, attacks from unsympathetic political groups, attacks from the state. It is all about safety.People can call us cowards, we don’t care, we know at the end of the day, we are actually doing the intelligent thing. People always fail to recognize police are in masks, too—we’re not face-to-face, we’re black mask to black mask. The difference between us and the police is they have immunity, get paid, and train for it. Police get a paycheck.
What does the media get wrong about anarchists?
For the last 120 years, it’s been nothing but dynamite throwers, thieves, terrorists, sadistic people who only want society to be thrown into chaos. The state has always been pushing this narrative because they don’t want people hearing what they actually have to say: that government is actually extremely useless, that you can have society without government, without chaos. Our view is radical [and] not acceptable to them, so they try to discredit it. The media, being the propaganda arm of the state, tries to do everything in its power to reject our opinion, but they only focus on black bloc direct action. There’s so much more about anarchism than that. They frame us as terrorists, as people who want to see everything fall apart, as young crust punks. They frame us as these aimless, bitter, hateful people who couldn’t make it in society. It’s so the opposite. People who rule, the ruling class, people like [Mayor Ted] Wheeler and Trump, regardless of where they are in the pyramid, they all have one goal, and that is the protection of their privilege. Anarchists call that privilege out—we smash your banks.
Do you get why many people view anarchists smashing windows as frightening?
I absolutely do. I absolutely get they have been conditioned their entire lives.
Anonymous people breaking windows does look scary, though.
That’s the thing, though. They can look at US Special Forces doing that in another country and go, “Aww, freedom!” They can look at previous social revolutions in this country and say, “Good job, but no more is needed.” They’re not realizing they’re seeing the Boston Tea Party happen again. They can’t make that connection. I understand why it’s frightening to them because they’re unable to make the connection on how it’s been acceptable in their eyes before, and why it’s not now. Capitalism has done a really good job imparting in their minds that property is an extension of themselves. People confuse private property and personal property. Capitalism has suggested when you damage someone’s property, you damage them so you’re doing violence against them. It’s a ridiculous hypocrisy they’re totally blind to. I get that we look like these ISIS ninjas and we’re smashing stuff, but people aren’t paying attention to what’s being smashed. If you smash up a mom-and-pop shop, that’s class treachery—they’re not paying attention to what’s being smashed. They don’t care that Target exploits its workers.
Why do some anarchists threaten some journalists who film public vandalism? Shouldn’t they either take responsibility or work harder to not get caught?
There were bounties out to get some cameras. But some of us said we shouldn’t commit robbery. But here’s the thing: I totally see what you’re saying, and I’m totally sympathetic. And yes, it’s in a very public place, but it’s really about how you’re filming, not that you’re filming. If you’re a journalist familiar with protests, familiar with these actions, and you’re stupid enough to walk into a black bloc—I don’t want to say the responsibility is on you, but you made the choice. It’s not what you’re filming, it’s how you’re filming it. If you stay away on the other side of the street, all right. But we much prefer to block as much as we can, because it’s a safety issue. Your camera means nothing to me compared to my freedom, or my friend’s freedom. Frankly, if someone’s getting in our face, being obnoxious, or filming dangerously when they’ve been told to stop, they’ve made their choice. When I heard about (bounties on cameras), I told people you’re probably not going to want to go around smashing cameras. You need to relax. If he gets in your face, if he won’t leave the bloc, if he’s filming something really sensitive and he won’t quit, do what you’re going to do, but don’t make a point of taking their cameras.