From spectator to participant to organiser – climbing the informal hierarchies of the Anarcho-punk subculture

Sometime in my teens I started reading Anarchist and Marxist stuff online, listening to ‘political’ bands, having conversations with friends about politics, going to raves in squats, studying the subjects at school and A levels, which allowed most discussion of radical ideas – sociology, philosophy of religion, history, and politics, and, crucially, wearing badges, patches, tee-shirts and hats that had the Anarchy A or hammer and sickle or Che Guevara on them. This was stage 1 – being a misfit teenager, talking shit, doing nothing. I went to a couple of the anti-Iraq war demos when I was 15, but that was it. After the war started I went back to just talking shit and doing nothing.

In my gap year I worked a shitty temp agency job in a call centre for RBS, and then Scottish Widows, causing me to think that Corporate bosses were even shitter than the bosses I’d had in pubs and stuff before that, and to think a bit more about how the whole financial system is evil and fucked. At the same time I was living with a load of migrant workers form all round Europe and beyond, seeing how our lives were different from the middle-class students my girlfriend at the time was friends with, and thinking more about how it was way cooler to be poor and having wild parties with crazy Spanish people than it was to go to stupid student club nights in taxis and spend loads of money all the time. I met musicians who took life less seriously, working to live instead of living to work, and generally being cooler than the people who worked in the bank. I also read a lot of Anarchist graffiti on the walls and thought hard about it’s messages as I worked at my shitty stupid job. This was the next stage – being an exploited worker with a rebellious spirit among others, feeling strong feelings, thinking deep thoughts, still doing nothing about it.

Then I went travelling in Australia, New Zealand and South America, seeing the massive disparity in living conditions between indigenous people and the European-settler colonialist-descended people, learning a bit about the brutal history of imperialism that created the modern globalised capitalist economy, seeing how it was still fucking the same people over, all for the benefit of rich corporate fuckers like those I used to work for at the bank, and also about the histories of resistance, rebellions and revolutions that have always emerged in response to that shit, feeling inspired and humbled by how awesome and inspiring these rebels and revolutionaries and just ordinary people managing to survive in the face of all those odds were. Stage 3 – learning how privileged I was and how fucked the reasons for my privilege were, but still doing nothing about it except being a poverty-tourist (as opposed to just being a poor tourist, as I would later become).

Next step was going to University to study International Relations and Development Studies in the hopes that by learning even more about how the global system worked and putting all the weird horrible things I’d seen on my travels into context I might one day be in position to do something about it, thinking something along the lines of working for an NGO or campaigning organisation like Amnesty International or some shit like that. But actually I just got driven into a total rage against capitalism, the state, patriarchy, colonialism, nationalism, racism, the destruction of the environment, and all the rest of it, being so overloaded with horrible depressing information that all I could do to cope with it was throw myself unthinkingly into whatever anti-capitalist activism I could find around me, which was loads. There were so many direct action groups, ‘revolutionary’ parties, radical discussion groups, queer groups, feminist groups, people growing vegetables, squatting, fighting fascists, protesting wars, camping out to save the environment, talking about Palestine, the Zapatistas, the anti-globalisation movement, so many books to read at radical bookshops and social centres and activist gatherings, so many different ways to get arrested for things, that I just tried to do everything at once, in no particular order. Stage 4 – doing lots, thinking lots, not really achieving anything

Then I was all like ‘fuck this!’ against the stuff I had put lots of time into which didn’t seem to lead to big revolutionary stuff happening, especially the whole year I had spent trying to do things in the student union of my Uni, and I felt like I had to make a real big change in my actual lifestyle, not just to live a consumerist life funded by student loans, but to actually be resisting capitalism with every fibre of my being, and I thought the way to do that was to become one of these mysterious anarcho-punk-squatter types who I’d seen around, stealing things from supermarkets, eating food from bins, living in squatted buildings or vans or tents and looking really scary, covered in black clothes and patches and shit, drinking loads of beers and taking drugs and smashing things up in the night, or whatever the fuck I thought they were doing. I guess I thought I was entering some kind of insurrectionary underground where people would be constantly planning actions that were almost terroristic in nature, and taking huge risks, achieving loads for ‘the cause’ or whatever, but really, no, not at all. Stage 5 – taking drugs, living an alternative lifestyle, feeling smug about it – still not really doing anything.

I went back to Latin America, searching for anarchist groups, and I found them, spoke to them in pidgin Spanish and sometimes in English, trying to figure stuff out, also while reading a lot about the history of the global anarchist movement, glorifying it more and more in my head, writing pure ideological propaganda, twisting the facts to fit whatever I wanted to believe the world was like, learning even more about ecology, meeting spiritual hippy types and being all dismissive of them, like I was some kind of Che Guevara in the making while they were just dumb gringos, yet really just acting totally the same as them, tripping on acid and getting stoned while indigenous people were working their arses off in dire poverty all around me. This was stage 6 – living in an ideological prison, divorced from reality, and therefore, of course, still not doing anything

I came back to the UK, full of FIRE and revolutionary optimism, thinking we could just start squatting land and building a free society on it, all in harmony with eco systems, and the masses of the poor and working population would surely overwhelm the forces of repression, but of course, the squat scene was MADE OF K in the words of a friend, and even worse MIAOW MIAOW had somehow taken off in a huge way while I’d been out of the country, and everyone was just being SO FUCKING ANNOYING and I had to babysit fucking munters all the time so how the hell could we organise a revolution? I realised so much that the hardcore insurrectionary anarchist lot who were the ones who actually did things instead of poncing around in universities like I’d been doing for years, were actually hopelessly ghettoised and divorced from the general population, and even from lots of activist groups who were at least trying to be in touch with the population, even if they were shit at it. I didn’t know all the history of how it had happened, with the ‘Nineties’ being this strange mythical time where, presumably, people felt like there was less of a divide between being a crusty-type in your lifestyle while at the same time working to mobilise the masses, before the State fucked it all up with Criminal Justice Acts and heroin conspiracies and whatever else that all the old crusties harp on about as excuses for why they’re mostly all alcoholics or dead. All I knew was, I had arrived about 10 years late for the party, and now it was just a bizarre scene of confusing nutcases. Stage 7 – being disillusioned and realising that the movement was in a big hole it would take a lot of work to dig ourselves out of before we could really hope to make a splash in wider society – finally starting to do something

We organised a squat crew of artists, musicians and activists, wanting to use squats to house whoever we came across so long as they abided by our safer spaces policy, to help contribute towards the homelessness crisis, and also wanting to get people with drug and mental health problems involved in creative and socially conscious projects, so they’d have something else to do besides take drugs. We organised small events at first and got better at organising bigger and bigger ones, squat gigs, raves, pop-up social centres and art spaces, and gradually expanded our circles of active squatters and supporters over the course of around 2 years, in the course of which the whole ‘student riot’ thing happened and we were trying to support that as well, and go to Dale Farm, and Calais, and support other traumatised activists, and fight against the squatting ban, and support striking workers, and help bring together different aspects of the anti-cuts movement, while still always fighting a day-to-day battle just to stay relatively sober with a roof over our heads. Fuck anyone who says we didn’t do a good job, especially anyone who never lived in a squat or knows nothing about addiction or mental health. Stage 8 – actually learning real skills, achieving a few things, small drops in the ocean, but real things nonetheless, and things you could feel proud of.

At the end of 2011 I was horrendously burnt out, feeling like I was put-upon and doing way more than my fair share of stuff while most people around me just didn’t take things seriously at all. Friends and comrades had killed themselves or died or developed terrible traumas and drug addictions, and the government was even worse than the one before, seemingly wanting to eat our brains and drink them down with champagne. They had come looking for me at squats where it was supposed to be a secret I was living, with a picture of me, like it was DEFINITLEY true that people very close to me were undercover cops and saw me as some kind of organiser, and yet lots of people were just drinking all the time and taking K even after all we had done to bring a positive vibe to the scene, and so weakening our movement and our potential to defend ourselves against this onslaught, much less agitate among the wider population for greater resistance against the policies that were chucking more people onto the streets and more mentally ill people into crazy lives of drug addiction and suicide instead of helping them. So I fucked off to the ZAD and stayed there for a couple of months eating mushrooms and chopping wood and being baffled by the French activists, mostly just because I didn’t speak French. Stage 9 – burning out, almost, but still hanging around the edges of radical stuff so it didn’t feel like giving up.

When riot cops starting attacking the place and I had to run from a barricade that failed to catch fire at the right time, away from crazy French fascist cops who I knew full well were capable of all kinds of teargas-flavoured ultra-violence, running across fields and nearly getting killed by a bull, I decided to move on, and it was gonna be an all-or-nothing, desperate-attempt-to-prove-something-to-myself journey into the unknown to try and start a new activist group in a country we knew nothing about with two close and trusted friends. A wild 6 months followed, full of hitchhiking disasters, alcohol abuse, staying in random punky squats or just sleeping rough in tents or abandoned buildings and getting woken by cops, all throughout France, Spain, Portugal, Spain again, Tangiers, Spain yet again, briefly Germany, and then back to the UK to write a pretty bizarre zine about what we had found out about the situation on the Spanish-Moroccan border, the conditions of life for Black immigrants in Morocco and the role of the EU in funding a load of violent, awful, racist, imperialist shit at it. Stage 10- breaking new ground, haphazardly, sometimes drunkenly, but still actually doing it, full on, to the max, both crazy rebellious lifestyle and actually something useful to a wider struggle, thinking on a bigger level than just the squat scene in southern England or even the whole class struggle in Europe, breaking paradigms in my own head and wanting to break them in others too, even if I didn’t know how.

Then after just chilling out in a squat in Bristol for a month with some really drug-addled nutters, I went back to Tangiers and ended up living there for 7 months, making friends with West African migrants who faced racist abuse literally every time they left the house, writing and recording songs with them, starting a blog to put up articles about it all and spread the news, and eventually moving into a flat with a bunch of them, and on the first day I lived there witnessing racist attacks where some drunk Moroccan youths burst into the house and just starting stabbing my friends, because they were black, and they thought they were Christian, even though they weren’t. Then I saw how the police didn’t give a fuck, the hospital was like some kind of really bad joke, and the UN and all the NGOs and charities were like, totally not what the migrants needed at all, not political, not trying to stop the violence, just being patronising useless fuckers, whereas the migrants were persevering and struggling and self-organising and having solidarity with each other in ways that made all the druggy squatters and self-righteous activists I knew back in the UK look like TOTAL POSERS, including myself. Stage 11 – realising that the anarchist scene is a joke, and the real struggle is out there in the real world, surprisingly.

But then I had to come back to this pisspoor joke of an ‘Anarchist Movement’ to find it in even worse shape than when I left, with all the squats gone except for like one crew in Brighton and the usual London madness which I always avoided, not being able to cope with it in the slightest. I was all like ‘Hey everyone! There’s this totally real, actual struggle going on down there in Morocco, that you DON’T KNOW ABOUT, and I want to tell you about it and get something going, because COME ON NOW ALREADY’ but even getting people to listen to it, or read anything, or help me organise a meeting, or anything, was crazy. Like noone gave a shit, noone wanted to know about something new, or help start something new, they were all burnt out, or were so convinced that they were awesome and knew everything that they would just pretend they knew what I was talking about, even though I knew they didn’t. Noone was like, ‘oh well done mate, you trekked across countless obstacles with NO MONEY and found out loads of shit we didn’t know about in order to help unite different struggles in different continents and expose massive scandals about how our taxes are paying for systematic racist oppression in other countries, so yeah, nice on, I’ll help out with that, got nothing better to do except sit around and get drunk so it’d be nice to do something real for a change’ NOPE. Some people did go down to Morocco of course, because they read things I’d written or heard me do talks, but NOONE, and I mean NOONE wanted to have a serious discussion with me about strategy, or aims, or basic principles, or how to fund it, or anything, they just rushed off on their own, and when I tried to engage them in serious conversations about it, they got defensive and lashed out at me, then took over the blog, email list, EVERYTHING I HAD CREATED, changing the passwords and locking me out of what I had built so I couldn’t even be part of it anymore, or contribute to the project that had become my whole reason for living, so I fell into deep alcoholic depression. Stage 12 – realising it ain’t so easy to get the anarchist movement to change its stupid, immature ways.

So I started being a benefit cheat, because I’d never done that before and figured ‘hey, I’ve been beaten by cops for defending people’s right to be benefit cheats, may as well actually make use of this stupid system while it still lasts’. Drank a lot of my housing benefit money, smoked the rest of it, till I was 4 months behind on rent. Spent a year trying to restart No Borders Bristol in the hope that I might find people who’d want to help organise talks and fundraisers for Morocco, but noone wanted to come to meetings, and when they finally did, they didn’t want to help the project in Morocco, because after all, it was OUTSIDE OF THEIR COMFORT ZONE, and I gave up in despair again, became an alcoholic again even though I’d temporarily managed to kick the booze long enough to do an English teaching qualification, and moved into a mad punk squat in Cardiff where at least I could get drunk in peace, except it wasn’t really ‘peace’ at all, just a maddening headfuck for about a year, living once again with a shitload of people with mental health problems and drug addictions and trying to just stay positive and help make sure really basic household issues got solved. Tried to be part of No Borders South Wales, again in the hope that people might help organise stuff for Morocco, with slightly better results in that one person actually did go there, and we organised a few benefit gigs, but then the people I felt most affinity with stabbed me in the back, making me homeless, just because I had criticised them for being too negative and they cant stand criticism. Stage 13 – dealing with being a post-traumatic stress kind of guy in a scene full of people who have no idea what the hell you have been through because they don’t want to educate themselves about the issue you are struggling for even though that’s all you really need them to do to make you happy and they claim to be your friends, but are all so fucked in the head an irrational that they just turn on you instead and make you even more traumatised.

So I got rescued by the Old Wise Crusties from the nineties, none of whom really wanted to know about Morocco either, but were at least nice, loving friendly people instead of twisted up burnt out activists who should really just stop and learn some basic things about being a nice person. I spent a summer of Love, Music and Pyschedelic drugs, completely gave up alcohol and tobacco, got into meditation, Zen, Tao, and stuff like that, walking in beautiful bits of nature and probing the insides of my own head, wanting to be less angry at everyone for not helping me with the project, or helping the project but just being really rude and shit to me, to learn how to forgive people and see those who fuck you over as just being damaged and in need of love and compassion, and trying to be able to be loving enough to have love for those I used to hate, just because it was better than being bitter and awful. Finally I felt like I could just go back to Morocco and contribute to the project directly, doing the things I wanted to see done myself, instead of being angry that other people weren’t magically doing them myself. Stage 14 – getting over trauma, a little bit, enough to at least be kind of happy, most of the time, and therefore be able to carry on being politically active in the projects you helped start.

So now I’m preparing to go there again, even though I’m still pretty fucked up, because I don’t give a shit any more, it’s better to do something positive that bitch about the negative all the time. There is a whole network of international activists going back and forth from Morocco now, and most of them are people I have never even met and don’t know who I am, so whatever, great, it proves that you can start something and still not be the leader of it, so long as you do enough to get it going in the first place and then remove yourself from the equation by being fucked in the head for 2 years, so they have to carry on without you and want to lock you out of it because you seem like a dangerous nutter. That’s how non-hierarchical networks get founded I guess. Viva la revolucion and all that. Stage 15 is yet to be lived through, I might die, or go insane, but whatever, what the fuck else is there to do? Get drunk? Nah.

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