Filed under: Analysis, Anarchist Movement, Central, Education
This analysis and reflection of May Day actions comes from the Autonomous Student Network in Austin, Texas.
During the first week of May, members of the Autonomous Student Network undertook what was perhaps our largest collective project as we staged a week of events and actions celebrating International Worker’s Day and the 50th anniversary of the May 1968 student & worker uprisings in France. Together, we were able to carry out events on a scale beyond anything we had attempted before. Because of the monumental and diverse nature of what we accomplished this past week, and due to the transformations May Week affected for us, we felt compelled to put together a statement to reflect on these events, celebrate our successes, acknowledge our shortcomings, and learn from these experiences to grow as an organized force. This statement is unique, as it is collaboratively produced, reflecting the multiplicity of perspectives which together made up May Week. We hope that this statement provides clarity and inspiration for others, and ask that folks who see this and feel particularly touched by our words or our actions come and find us as we continue to grow and build our collective capacities and projects.
Going into May Week, we knew that there was more at stake than merely commemorating a holiday and an anniversary. Due to a series of conflicts, we were in a position to plan our events independent of the Maoist milieu within Austin’s militant left. Some of us remembered the horror of last May Day, when an isolated militant bloc was cornered between cops and armed Nazis. We hoped to avoid the feeling of fear and alienation that we felt last year. Furthermore, this year we had a moment to build ties among the anti-authoritarian and autonomous groups in Austin, as our comrades in other organizations looked to us to plan events that they could show up to. In our initial May Week planning conversations, we placed an emphasis on our collective desires for the week and structured our choice of events in a way that would best satisfy those desires.
Our desires and goals were varied yet tempered. One of our first objectives was to raise awareness of May Week and May ’68. We felt that the situation on campus was such that days like International Worker’s Day–a holiday in most of the world, but barely known here–and May ’68 remained meaningful terms only to the various leftist subcultures on campus. On campus, the last many people likely heard of May Day was when it was connected by various right-wing elements to the May 1st campus stabbings last year. Therefore, we aimed to bring our message beyond our narrow subculture and make the history of worker’s struggles, student uprisings, class struggle, and autonomous organizing engaging and relevant to students. We furthermore wanted to take part in actions that, to us, carried on actions in the militant tradition of May ’68 and May Day. At the same time, we were painfully aware of our own limited capacities. None of us wanted another spectacular march through the bourgeois desert of downtown Austin, nor did we want to spend May Day simply facing off against cops or Nazis. We did not want to come out of the weeks with arrests, injuries, or demoralization. Instead, our aim was to carry out a set of actions that would leave us feeling more empowered and capable than when we started the week. Perhaps most succinctly, we wanted to live.
“Those who speak of revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth”–Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life
This society offers us the choice between different forms of death or a suffocated life. Dead labor and dead time steal away the totality of our lives piece by piece, as we give up our existence to the endless march of work, consumption, and obligations to our social roles. As students, we pay for own deaths at the hands of the University, an institution which grinds us up into raw matter from which to produce new citizens, managers, bosses, and rulers within Empire. Meanwhile, beyond the walls of the University this society expands its never-ending violence against its outside. This world is built on top of an accumulated mass grave, the graves dug by the Settlement, the Plantation, the Colony, the Prison, the Family, Capital, the State, the Gendered Nightmare, and Empire. Politics, as in the struggle to declare ourselves or some entity as the proper managers or rulers of this world, appears to us as nothing but preparation to manage a machine of death in an already dying world.
For us, at the heart of our opposition to politics–of militancy, autonomy, anarchism, revolution, insurrection, organizing, and every other conceptual buzzword which fills our communiques and comes out of our mouths–is life. More than the tedium of mere survival or the routines of daily life we are subjected to, life names for us the bonds and process which tie us to each other and to this place. It is the force which pulls us back out to meetings, actions, and towards each other. We do not recruit new members to fill slots, we build and intensify bonds with new friends. We do not fight to bring about some future state called anarchism or communism, we live in ways which are combative towards this society and themselves form initiatives of communism, a communism that builds life and attachments and escapes the rationale of the economy.
This theme is a strand we draw as well from the May ’68 riots. We think it is no accident that so many of the slogans of May ’68 evince a desire to seize life from the control of industrial capitalism, the spectacle of consumer society, and the crushing weight of boredom. Our planned actions reflected these desires–or at least, our interpretations of them–by retaining at their core a spirit of childish fun. Each of our events provided an opportunity to build relationships and to celebrate life, the history of worker & autonomous struggles, and each other. We posed an open invitation to friends, students, and workers to join us in celebration and merrymaking, to have fun as we lay the foundation for conspiracies against this dying world.
This vivacious spirit was reflected in our approach to the possibility of failure. We understood how massive this undertaking was, and we knew that there was no guarantee things would go as planned. We had no template and little prior experience to build on for the diversity of events we planned. Our primary consideration in every action we took was to feel more capable, confident, and powerful after we completed it, even if it failed. We planned actions wherein even failure would be acceptable and empowering, because those failures would simply be opportunities to build more with each other. Even if no one had showed up to the potluck, zine release, or squatted party, we would have each other’s company to celebrate May Day and life.
And in many ways, May Week went differently than expected. Our ambition hurt us, with the planning for many aspects of May Week falling into the hands of just one or two people. Some of the plans we had initially come up with ended up falling by the wayside–initiatives such as minor actions against the capitalist control of time and a more comprehensive propaganda campaign. While we pulled off our big events, we learned to be more intentional about our future actions so that we can better share the burdens and work together. These missteps are themselves part of life. Life is not a simple thing to be manipulated or managed–it is a complex process full of failures, mistakes, and difficulties. We do not desire a form of organizing that wishes away these complexities by trading our relationships and collective desires for leaders who plan out our actions. There is no enjoyment without some element of risk or the possibility of failure, and there is no growth without obstacles which we overcome together. Boredom is counterrevolutionary. And sometimes, it’s fun to fail.
This report-back is not merely a communique about May Week, but an attempt to communicate from the world we are building. It is itself an extension of what we undertook during May Week. This is not a univocal statement, the official words of some singular entity named the Autonomous Student Network. Rather, this statement contains a collection of voices displaying in different ways the diverse experiences and perspectives which constituted May Week. This is a selection of the many voices and singular experiences within ASN. This is an experiment in a form of communication that does not merely speak about life and conflict, but speaks from within it, a social language which is firmly rooted in our local situation rather than radical abstractions which separate us from ourselves.
A Note on Formatting: Since this is a collaborative piece, the different writing voices within the piece will be distinguished by different font colors.
It is Forbidden to Forbid: The Banner Drops
On May Day itself, we kicked off our celebrations with a little bit of mischief. We had prepared five banners for the day to drop across campus. The preparation for this day of action was itself marvelous, as we experienced a growth in our capacities to make banners. In the previous semester, it had taken us two days to get a banner together due to lack of experience and preparation. This time, we were able to make five banners in one day and coordinate plans for four distinct drops across the day. Each banner was decorated, in paint and glitter, with a slogan from the May ’68 uprisings.
The banners had a multifold purpose. We chose slogans from May ’68 not merely to invoke the spectacle or nostalgia for past insurrections, but to draw a connection between the slogans of the French insurrectionaries and our present situation. We hoped for the slogans to resonate with students and provoke interest, with the possibility that curious students would try to investigate and stumble upon the history of May ’68, the meanings behind the slogans, and perhaps information about our other events. The banner drops also stood out as coordinated mischief and hooliganism, transgressing the University’s arbitrary restrictions on the placing and content of banners. With even such minor challenges to the University’s control of its property and imagery, we demonstrated that these systems are weaker than they appear and can be subverted.
Our first drop came in the early hours of May Day. Around 5 AM, we scaled the front of the UT Tower and hung a banner reading “It Is Forbidden to Forbid” from the front balcony. We watched with glee as the maintenance workers dispatched to take it down stared with confusion, unable to figure out how to get up and take it down. The banner remained on the balcony until around 8 AM, when the building opened and the workers presumably got up to the balcony through an office window. The placing of this banner was not accidental–it was an intentional strike at the Tower as the symbol and site of the UT administration, that central power of the University which imposes restrictions on our desires and capabilities. Our target was more than the formal restrictions the University has imposed–such as bans on masks and flagpoles at campus demonstrations. The University as an institution is built upon restrictions, means by which it polices its boundaries against everything beyond its walls while molding the Students trapped within its machinery to become future rulers & citizens. At UT we see this in how vigorously the University grounds are policed against the “threat” of the homeless, ID-based restrictions on building access, the policing of student behavior within dorms, and the disciplining of students through internships and precarious work to prepare them for their future roles in government, non-profits, and corporations. The condition of possibility for the University is the forbidding of desires, relationships, and forms of life which run counter to its imperative to reproduce existing social relations, and it is this which we act against–both in this banner drop and in our organizing.
At 9 AM, we carried out our second drop of the day, hanging a banner which read “Reform, My Ass,” from the UTC bridge for students to see on their walks from the nearby dorms to their classes. This banner lasted until sometime after 11 AM, after which it was taken down and quickly followed by another banner dropped by the Revolutionary Student Front. With this slogan we hoped to communicate a refusal of the dead end of reformism in an eye-catching, light-hearted manner. This last point was an important component of the process for choosing the slogans. To many on campus and outside of leftist subcultures, militants often come off as parodies and caricatures of themselves, people who are too serious, full of themselves, and unable to take or make a joke. To combat this tendency–one we ourselves are critical of, for how it alienates “radicals” into self-referential subcultures–we took up some of the irreverent and silly slogans of the May ’68 riots.
Our next banner drop went down at 11 AM, with a banner reading “Anarchy is You,” going up on the bridge next to the Communications building. Unfortunately, this banner remained up for less than five minutes before somebody–presumably some passerby–took it down. While this was unfortunate, we remain proud of that banner and the message it momentarily transmitted. A modified version of “Anarchy is Me,” a slogan from the May ’68 uprisings, was written as an invitation. This message was addressed to the students and passerby who may have seen it, as a provocation to imagine anarchy as a latent possibility within them rather than a distant subculture or media spectacle.
Our final banner drop was our most ambitious and, unfortunately, our least successful. We planned to climb up to the top of the football stadium and drop two long banners from the top, one reading “What if no class?” and the other reading “Life is Elsewhere.” While we successfully dropped both banners and escaped without a problem, pretty soon after the drop the banners got twisted up and were unreadable. This was unfortunate, but also a learning experience–in the future, we’ll be sure to make our banners more aerodynamic and manageable. Nevertheless, we’re proud of our ambition and of the message we hoped to convey. The question we posed of a world without class–both in the Marxist sense and the sense of classes structured by the regime of the University–and the gesture towards the possibility of life in a world that is not this one are interrelated. We will continue to fight against and subvert the regime of class and classes, creating and experimenting with the possibilities of life and conflict and inviting others to join us in our escape from our present desert of a society.
Mutual Aid Everywhere: The Community Boxes
During May Week, we set up community boxes around campus to encourage a practice of mutual aid. The original motivation for this project was to provide material aid to our community while educating them about the effectiveness of mutual aid and exposing them to a more constructive side of anarchism than what is commonly seen. We maintained boxes in two locations: one on campus on the ground floor of the UTC building, and one in the Artist’s Market on Guadalupe Street. At each location, we placed multiple large boxes full of donated or bought items such as clothes, shoes, personal care products, non-perishable food, textbooks, and more, along with instructions for passersby to freely take what they need and leave what they can. Alongside the boxes, we left copies of Oh Shit What Now?’s “WTF Is Mutual Aid: A Brief Anarchist Introduction”, an introductory zine explaining mutual aid and anarchism, several of which were taken over the course of the week. The Artist’s Market boxes were removed by May 15, possibly by cops or by management of the shoe shop it was placed next to. However, the UTC boxes remain in their original spot and continue to be used, with much of their initial contents gone and replaced with new items.
While it is impossible to directly measure the impact our community boxes may have had, we can clearly see signs that the community engaged with them. At both locations, we observed items disappearing from the boxes and a variety of new ones taking their place, with no signs of abuse or “trolling” by those who would wish to see us fail. The handful of zines that were taken indicate we educated at least a few people. Most importantly, several folks benefited from the box by receiving necessary supplies they would have otherwise needed to buy, both improving their life individually and striking back at capitalism by denying the local grocery store some profit. By encouraging people to help each other in this way, we have hopefully strengthened the community and succeeded in our goals of material aid and education.
Beneath the Bricks, the Beach: The Squatted Potluck
We kicked off our public May Week events on Wednesday May 2nd with our Squatluck. In the early hours of the day, we gathered together with our supplies for the day–various snacks, drinks, toys, beach-themed accessories, and black flags with pool noodle poles. Around 11 AM, after spending some time working around the surprisingly strong winds, we set up our encampment in the East Mall dry fountain and began inviting passerby to join us. At the outset, we set up a neat arrangement of black pool noodle flags in the center of the fountain. From the center of our arrangement, four signs faced out to the public–“This is not a protest,” “Solidarity with the ZAD,” an indigenous acknowledgement, and a set of rules which mandated that we “Ignore cops, mock bureaucrats, and respect others in the space.”
Soon after we showed up, the police made their presence known. Beginning with the occasional officer walking by and some squad cars parked on a nearby street, the surveillance eventually upgraded to rotating shifts of two bike cops who stood a ways off and watched us the entire day. At one point, it became clear that they had even parked their paddy wagon nearby, prepared to arrest us if they felt they could. We had anticipated the police response in the month of planning prior, and were ready to respond. Our primary response was to ignore them. The Squatluck was an experiment in pushing the boundaries of UT’s management of space, an attempt to push the boundaries of what was possible while being careful not to provoke a confrontation with the cops which we could not win.
We weren’t there long until we got a shocking surprise. Around noon, a massive crowd of ROTC members in full uniform marched onto East Mall and stopped right in front of the dry fountain, where they proceeded to receive a speech from their commanders and eat lunch. This produced a spectacular juxtaposition. One one side, the foot-soldiers of imperialism had their solemn meals as they trained for the death march of Empire. On the other, we sat together sharing food, literature, space, and time in an effort to build new bonds of life. Their presence did not impede us.
In the six or so hours we spent in the dry fountain, we succeeded in much of what we set out to do. Our abnormal use of that space, which most students pass without thought, attracted a lot of attention–attention which we hope demonstrated different ways of moving through space. Lots of students stopped by to check out the signs and ask what we were doing, giving us great opportunities to talk to folks casually about May Day and May ’68 and offer them copies of our May Day zine. The event successfully achieved our goals of outreach, and was effective in presenting a welcoming, relatable face to anarchist activity. Some of those who came by expressed interest in what we were doing and our ideas, and some even stuck around for a bit. Together with them and other old friends who joined us, we produced a space that was fun, affirming, and worthwhile. We played mad libs, blasted music, told stories, blew bubbles, and shared food. We were joined by people from various walks of life. We were joined by sympathetic employees of the UT bureaucracy, Even when the heat of the Texas sun bore down on us, we stuck it out with each other and shared umbrellas and sunscreen.
At the end of the day, as we were packing up, some party poopers came by to deliver some “criticisms” of our May week plans. Criticism of this event we received from these rigid radicals may well have been in bad faith, but also may have been a fundamental misunderstanding of our broader intentions with our May Week Activities. Our picnic was not in place of more militant activity, nor a compromise between nothing and a sort of “total” or “definitive” May Day action (which no one in Austin or even the U.S. as a whole achieved – though they arguably did happen in other countries this year). We cannot limit ourselves to using reason and rational discourse to convince others that state capitalism is an active form of oppression that needs to be torn down. Anarchist spectacle does not always have to be a show of our strength – on the contrary, it can be a show of how the rulers, for all their posturing, are weak, that authoritarianism is fragile and constantly scrambling to sustain the illusion of its necessity. Police surveilled us for the entire afternoon. Had the police decided to use the paddy wagon they had parked and ready or otherwise break up our event, they would have had to confiscate harmless multicolored pool toys and beach towels in view of the busy campus thoroughfare. As it stands, many students and passers by no doubt witnessed law enforcement staking out an innocuous picnic (which, to some, even looked like an outdoor class session). This type of excessive police attention is by no means rare, but it is often hidden from the public eye. Hopefully, we helped train a few more people to look for it and notice it.
Significantly, our experiment in life here was intentional about its relationship to space. While we were explicit about subverting the University’s uses of, we were also cognizant of the settler-colonial terrain we were operating on. We entered the day with no intent to proclaim an “occupation,” or claim to possess the space, for we ourselves are at best guests upon land that has been stolen from indigenous people. We refuse possessive relationships to space entirely, as thinking about land as property to be owned lies at the core of settler-colonial and capitalist relations. For us, the answer to the question of space is not in the realm of property, but in the realm of life. We do not possess or claim a space, but rather inhabit a world within a particular territory–a world that is composed of social relationships, land, environments, experiences, and more. The squatluck was an experiment in co-habitation, in finding ways to live together. This experiment was not just a tactic to be deployed for revolutionary struggle. In many ways, these experiments in cohabitation are the very things we are fighting for. In the process of fighting we create the thing worth fighting for. As one friend put it, “there will be hella picnics after the revolution.”
Power to the Imagination: The Zine Release Party
[Read & Print this year’s May Day zine and previous issues of the call here.]
When we first brainstormed the idea for the zine release party, I immediately knew this was the event I wanted to help bottomline, mostly because of my belief in the importance of artistic expression both as a way to share, express, and open up discussion for revolutionary ideas, as well as a healthy way for many of us to cope with the many hardships we face as effects of capitalism and the state. Despite how stoked I was during early planning for the zine release party, I was feeling both pessimistic and anxious on the day of the event. We had planned for this to be a more unstructured event, so I had no idea how the night would turn out, and I braced myself for the worst. However, leading up to the event, fellow members offered much-needed help that I was too stubborn to ask for, and with their help,I felt much more confident.
To my surprise and appreciation, a lot of people dedicated their time and effort to come to the event. There were familiar faces from various anti-authoritarian anti-capitalist collectives in Austin, as well as super cool individuals, many of whom I had just met. The night was full of fun games, snacks, and meaningful conversations. When fascists arrived, we quickly reacted to defend each other. We failed to ensure there was a scout able to spot the fascists before they approached the door, which unnecessarily put our friends at risk–this is a mistake we will not repeat, and a situation we will be more prepared for. Luckily, while the two lonely losers yelled at us from the parking lot of Treasure City, we took up flags to defend ourselves. As they could do nothing to us, we decided to not let them spoil our fun and continued to play games and have a good time until they eventually got tired and left.
It felt really great to see people read and appreciate the zine that Autonomous Student Media put together. I’m so happy with how this event turned out, and, honestly, its success was because of the people who came. After this night, I felt more reassured than ever about the future of ASN. The relationships we build with the people we organize with mean everything. There is nothing counter-revolutionary about making new friends and strengthening the friendships we currently have, and I’m so thankful for the relationships that we, as an org, are continuing to build with people outside the university and in the community. It’s important to not view events like this solely as an opportunity for recruitment. Also, I dislike the word “recruitment”–we are not taking people and turning them into soldiers, giving them orders. Instead, we saw this as an opportunity to help people who want to learn more and get more involved be able to do that all under their own autonomy.
Whereas we designed the Squatted Potluck to be a space open, accessible, and enticing to friends and strangers who are not necessarily familiar with radical left politics or theory, the Zine Release was an opportunity to reconnect with people and organizations in Austin with whom we already share aspirations, resources, and vocabulary. For some members of ASN, this meant meeting a whole room full of new people and putting faces to names we had known only through digital correspondence. Everyone at the event met at least a handful of new people, and yet the circle we sat around remained warm, open, and convivial, effortlessly free of the social compartmentalization common to so many gatherings around work, school, and the like. We saw no need to circulate the room, to break off into pairs and clusters, to satisfy artificial standards of “being social.” In that way, it almost less like making new friends and more like a “first return” to an extended family. “Recruitment” played a major role in our planning for May Week, but also represents a certain ideological trap: revolutionaries, we let ourselves think, are always recruiting, always starting, always just short of their goals. As multiple Austin anti-authoritarian groups convened that night, some old and some new, we were all reminded that we are not starting from scratch as often as we are made to think. When we bring new comrades into our revolutionary projects, we bring them into something that is invariably longstanding and well underway, even if that infrastructure isn’t evident from any one immediate vantage point.
As with each May Day event, we went in with an open mind and acceptance that failure is possible and oftentimes inevitable. The recognition of failure as a learning experience prepared us to approach this week with a spirit that I believe reflected the true nature of May Day.
Life was here. When I braced myself for the worst, I imagined an empty room. Even though I prepared myself for the possible danger of fascists, them showing up was not my idea of the worst outcome. Not because I don’t take fascists as a serious threat, but because we greatly outnumbered them, and we had each other’s backs.
Fuck ’68, Dance Now: The Squatted Party
The initial plan for the Squatted Party–also referred to as the Squarty–built upon a longstanding tradition within ASN. Typically, after each action we have a group hangout–whether a party or a relaxed decompression–where we reflect on the days events, unwind, and build bonds with each other by having all sorts of fun. We wanted to end May Week on a similarly celebratory and fun note while inviting new friends into our circle to have a good time with us. In the run-up to the party, various friends contributed to a collective playlist featuring songs with May ’68, anti-work, labor movement, and truant themes.
[Check out our May Week playlist on Spotify.]
As the sun set on that Saturday evening, we congregated in the park around the warm lights of candles and, somewhat ironically, some small tiki torches. While the playlist ran in the background, the tone of the party took a different direction from what I had expected and from the tone of our last squatted party. Instead of dancing, the night was dominated by conversations and connections. Some folks ran around with kids, experiencing the euphoric possibilities of childish play. While we briefly attempted to play a game of Sardines–a modified version of Hide and Seek–we all quickly gave up and felt more inclined to congregate than scatter.
As the night progressed, small circles formed around the dim lights. Some shared war stories from their years in “the movement.” Others discussed their experiences and hopes. We built bonds beyond our milieus and across generations of anarchists. As some of our friends retired for the night, our circles shrank until there was only one circle of friends left. As we sat there upon the earth of the park and amidst the roots of the trees, we shared an intimate space where it became possible to speak of our desires, passions, and experiences in an honest fashion. Even though the group was a mix of strangers, old friends, and new acquaintances, I felt strangely comfortable and at home. I felt an openness to the situation, an acute awareness of my presence in that moment and the ties I was bound up in. I was able to perform a reading of a piece I had written for the zine and to speak frankly of my frustrations, experiences, and hopes over the past year. As the night came to a close, we finished off our experience by lighting a dumpster fire nearby.
After May Week, even as we faced the subsequent pressure of finals, many of us felt more alive, resilient, and capable than ever. We have diversified our skills and built capacities among our members. A new friend has joined us, and we have strengthened inter-group friendships that we hope will grow our ability to organize for future struggles. We feel more confident in our own capacities and our relationships to each other.
Now more than ever, we are experiencing the proliferation of possibilities. We finished off the school year with a bang. The summer brings new opportunities to work with our friends and the promise of a new generation of potential comrades from the fall’s freshman class. We are enthusiastic at the possibility of expanding this strange form of life we are building, of helping a new group of students find an escape route from the University into our world. Life expands, proliferates, and intensifies. This is not an expansion like the destructive progression of colonialism or the globalization of Capital. Rather, this is the forging of new bonds and the inspiration of even more mode of living that come into conflict with the present order. From within the world we inhabit together, we inevitably come into conflict with this society. The world we are building is one which exists in a criminal relationship with the current world, and so our process of living is also a process of attacking, of finding new ways to attack that coincide with and amplify our ability to live. Now that we have felt the intensity of our bonds and of life, we are ready for our next offensive.
–The Friendly Partisans of the Autonomous Student Network