Boston's Festival Del Pueblo: A Critical Analysis

Article from Barricada #18-19, October Double Issue. 3$ ppd, 4 CDN. 6 month subscription 15$ (US and Canada).


As we write this, Boston's Festival del Pueblo, held between May 1st and 5th, is already five months behind us. Yet, for us at Barricada, just as with the many other people who devoted so much time and energy to the project, we can only just now begin to gather our thoughts, re-gather strength, and analyze the event in a calm and collected manner.

The fact is that, just as we find it important to highlight the times when we are involved in projects which we consider to be successes, it is as important, if not more, to highlight our failures and shortcomings, as well as analyzing the concrete reasons for them.

Let's be clear. In our opinion, the FDP was, short of a total disaster, clearly a resounding failure. This is not to say that it was without its small successes and victories (which are discussed later on), but on the overall scale, it fell pathetically short of what it was intended to be, and the form which it took was not at all what we had hoped for. For what it turned out to be, i.e a five day primarily social gathering of anarchists, it was perfectly enjoyable and pleasant (Unless you happened to be an organizer, hadn't slept in days, and wanted nothing more than for the whole miserable experience to end already - Ed. Note)

However, it was not for a gathering of hundreds of white, middle class, crusty, traveller kids that so many of us sacrificed six months of our lives. We put the energy and commitment into it that we did because we felt it was an important experiment with latent potential to start to break the isolation of the anarchist ghetto and harmonize a mass anarchist presence, analysis, and tactics, with the daily struggles of the communities of Boston. It was an attempt to put our theories (outlined in Beggar's article "Towards the Creation of an Anarchist Movement" in Barricada, April 2002) into practice.

So, with that said, we would like to now enter into our analysis of the reasons why this project failed like it did, what we see as valid criticisms, what we don't see as valid criticisms, what is truth, what is lies, what is simple misinformation, and what lessons we draw from this experience as we look towards future endeavors. However, before we begin, there is one misconception which we feel it is important to clear up before continuing.

We often hear of FDP referred to as a "Barricada Event", with all the subsequent congratulations and criticisms directed solely at us. This is untrue, and above all, unfair to the many non-Barricada people deeply involved in the project. While the original idea did indeed come from members of Barricada, dozens of other anarchists and anti-authoritarians from the Sophia Perovskaya collective, the Sabate collective, BAAM, and others were instrumental in giving the project shape and making it a reality. Furthermore, over 70 groups and organizations signed on to endorse the project.

What We Did (But Not Enough of...)

The principal objective of the FDP was to build links between anarchists and communities in struggle of the city of Boston. In order to accomplish this, several things were done during a period of six months.
First, we decided to prioritize four specific areas to focus our intervention around. These were immigration, housing, police brutality, and prisons. Our next step was to approach as wide of a variety of community groups and individuals as possible. We undertook this task not from a vanguardist "Here we are, here we come" perspective, but rather with the acknowledgment that these community groups have been doing work around these struggles day in and day out for years now. We went to them asking a. is our presence welcome?, b. If so, in what capacity?, and c. How can we best *complement* the work that you have already been doing? We reached out to the maximum number of groups possible given our limited numbers, resources, and time. At several general assemblies, all present volunteered to contact a certain number of different groups, thus assuring that outreach was everyone's responsibility. A partial list of groups contacted would include SEIU unions, Jobs With Justice, Harvard Living Wage campaign, Dudley Street Neighborhood initiative, Alternatives for Community and Environment, Vida Urbana/City Life, Whats Up magazine, the Legalization coalition (a pro-Amnesty for immigrants coalition), Spontaneous Celebrations, Critical Breakdown, Student Labor Action Project, AFSC members, and many, many others.

We did not reach out to more due to a simple lack of time and resources, not will. The reactions we received varied. Some groups did not even return our calls, sometimes we were greeted with nearly open hostility, sometimes indifference, and sometimes enthusiasm. In some cases, we managed to set up appointments to meet face to face with group representatives or attend group meetings (Vida Urbana, Legalization Coalition, SLAP, Whats Up, Critical Breakdown, JWJ). Again, the results varied from meeting to meeting. From relatively negative scenarios, where hidden sectarian influences were clear or where it was obvious that the will to work together in a principled manner was not present; to mildly positive meetings where it was clear that the organization in question could not, for a variety of reasons, come out publicly in favor of the actions we proposed, but did indeed feel it to be a positive thing that somebody do them and open up those paths; to some very positive meetings that led to steady cooperation and what we hope will be significant long term working relations, most notably with Spontaneous Celebrations and City Life/Vida Urbana.

Anybody who was even mildly involved in the organizing process for the FDP knows that for many of us, this type of work was clearly priority number one. Not only did we call and meet with just about every single minimally supportive organization we could, but, because we do feel that oftentimes it is these organizations that are the safety valves utilized to tame the anger of the oppressed and which serve as social mediators for capital, we also tried to reach out via other cultures and more aggressive street level agitation.

FDP organizers contacted literally dozens of hip-hop labels and acts, went to hip-hop shows, attended Critical Breakdown regularly for months, organized joint hip-hop/hardcore concerts, reached out to reggae artists, folks artists, and even went so far as to organize not one, but two, free jazz concerts (one during the FDP itself and one as a fundraiser).

We produced and distributed literally tens of thousands of fliers, brochures, and posters. We mailed them to people, attended every minimally relevant event we could think of, distributed them at T-stops, organized fliering groups in different neighborhoods, and even went as far as to distribute them door to door in neighborhoods which we thought to be of particular importance. Hundreds and hundreds of posters addressing the issues of housing and prisons were posted up by different FDP outreach groups all over the city.

There is always more that can be done, and with the benefit of hindsight it is always much easier to point out errors made in outreach strategies. However, those who accuse the FDP of prioritizing the usual anarchist and leftist circles over community in our outreach are speaking simply out of ignorance. The work done was neither glamorous nor exciting, and as such not known to those not in the organizing process, but the undeniable truth is that it was there.

All this being said, it would take a total political imbecile to fail to realize that there were indeed shortcomings, and something did indeed go terribly, terribly, wrong. Unfortunately, we have been unable to answer what exactly that is even to ourselves. If we possessed these answers we would already be busily undertaking the next FDP and doing it correctly this time. But unfortunately, we don't have any answers, only speculations.

Barricada comes from a political context and experience which is significantly different from the US social and political context. We are usually very candid in admitting that we do not feel at home in the US political context, and that this feeling extends itself to anarchist circles as well. We come from a different reality, and most often what we try to do is adapt the strategies, tactics, and outlooks which we bring with us to the US context. We have done this with our propaganda, our political analysis, our anti-fascist perspectives, and with our street tactics. FDP was the same, with the only exception (and what an exception that is!), that this time the lessons which we learned where we were formed politically were, quite simply, not valid.

We come from societies with strong resistance cultures and strong street cultures, where people do not hesitate to take to the streets when they feel wronged or are defending their interests. Thus, in our minds we thought that if we succeeded in tapping into what the people of Boston were discontent with, centered our agitation around that, and provided an anarchist discourse and practice which held relevance to people's daily lives, we would then succeed in bridging the gap between anarchists and the communities of Boston.

Evidently, we oversimplified the question and thus overlooked significant barriers to effective organizing and agitating in the North American context. Not only did we overlook significant divisions which keep us from effectively working with certain sectors, but we also underestimated the extent to which a large extent of the US working class is pacified. This is not to minimize our own, extensive, mistakes, but merely to assert the reality that resistance and street culture, the culture that says you take to the streets when angry, is very weak in the US, exploding only when a crisis reaches it's boiling point (the LA insurrection, the Cincinnati riots, etc.)

The city of Boston is clearly not yet at this boiling point. Again, we say this not because the Festival del Pueblo failed to trigger any sort of mass discontent, as assuming that this would happen merely on our prompting would be incredibly arrogant, but rather because we have seen what the reaction is when the working people of Boston are seriously wronged, such as with the recent police shootings. Not even one hundred people take to the streets. The anger is clearly there, simmering under the surface, the task now is to tap into it through well directed and long term campaigns around particular issues. It is this that will allow for the building of a broad based, class conscious, and multiracial movement which will allow us to respond properly to the attacks of the ruling class on us.

May 1st to May 5th, Five Days that Changed Nothing

The sad reality is that, as far as the working class of Boston is concerned, nothing special happened between May 1st and 5th. So profound was our failure that, aside from being seen at our two marches, some Latin presence at several concerts, and a presence at the Amnesty rally, the FDP might as well have been billed as some sort of "anarchist only" event. For this reason, our analysis of this particular section will not focus on the particular events, as there is not a whole lot to say. Instead, we will use certain examples of what occurred, what we saw, and what we heard, to reveal what we feel to be some of the serious flaws with North American anarchism. So serious in fact, that we have now for months been very open about our desire to distance ourselves from large sectors of the anarchist "movement".

*With Anarchists Like These:

Some of the things we saw and heard during the five days of the Festival del Pueblo really went a long way towards challenging our faith in anarchism (or better put, in anarchists, as the best examples of anarchism in action these days seem to be coming from people who don't use the term).

-During the "Cultural Gathering" on May 2nd, for which we had an incredible space thanks to the generosity of the Arlington Street Church, we noticed several "anarchists" spitting at the several hundred years old portraits on the walls. While many of these did indeed depict old white aristocrats, the Arlington street church has always been a progressive institution where, among other things, the first draft cards were burnt during the war in Vietnam. If this is the respect anarchists intend to give people who help us out, then the anarchist movement is in a sorry state indeed.

-The issue of basic responsibility and anti-social behavior was actually a constant problem during the festival, particularly at the time of concerts. On the very first night, at one of the hip-hop, punk, and folk concerts held at a downtown nightclub (Buzz) we encountered repeated problems with club security due to a group of 15 to 20 people who refused to stop drinking outside and clear the sidewalk area. This however, was a minor incident. A much more serious one occurred at the all punk concert held on Friday, May 3rd at the Berwick in Roxbury. For some background, the Berwick is (was?) a DIY arts space located in a black community that regularly lent itself to various anarchist related events. However, given the precarious nature of the establishment, as well as the location, the show was to end at a certain time and we asked that people refrain from hanging out and making noise on the sidewalk too much. Of course, as with all our concerts (except the one at Buzz), drinking was not allowed.

At the conclusion of the concert, upwards of 100 people were to be found hanging out outside, several of them drinking. To make matters even worse, one very intoxicated young man was passed out, in the middle of the street of all places. All this is not terribly surprising at a punk rock concert. However, what is surprising and a little much, is when organizers are being accused of being “authoritarians” and what not for trying to clear the area. For the record, to our knowledge, the Berwick no longer hosts concerts.

-During the Anarchist Soccer tournament, which 16 teams participated in (and the glorious Guardia Negra squad triumphed, -Ed. Note), we caught the following brilliant piece of conversation during the course of one game:
Player A: "You can't pick up the ball with your hands, it's against the rules."
Player B: "I'm an anarchist dude, I'm against all rules."
Player A: "Yeah, just kidding, we do what we want."
Player B: "Yeah!"

It was some of these same people who later demanded that their entire team be allowed to play at the same time. They also confided that they never had any intentions of abiding by the guidelines set up by the tournament organizers and intended to "play what we want, when we want, when we want."

While of course, an anarchist soccer tournament is certainly not an event of great importance, the incredibly weak grasp some people have on anarchism, and not to mention the principles of mutual contracts, voluntary association, and basic respect, is a very serious manner indeed. If it is these sorts of characters who accuse us of being "authoritarians" for trying to uphold these principles basic to our anarchism, then we can only feel flattered.

-All of the above, while symptomatic of what we feel to be large ills, are clearly relatively minor issues. However, what most bothered us about the festival, something which we have been speaking out against for quite some time now, is the re-occurring phenomenon of the anarchist spectators. Anarchists who seem to fail to grasp the fact that anarchism is about self-management and personal initiative. Many people came to the FDP with the same mindset one would expect to take to a cruise vacation. We had people complain about their housing because "there is too much work going on and we can't relax." We had people refuse to help with dismantling rooms and events, and so on and so forth.

Most disturbing is that, despite receiving a few complaints about certain types of activities not being included in the program of the FDP, aside from the stellar work done by the BALM medics and Indymedia (and some Crimethinc individuals) there was not one single activity of any sort organized during the five days of FDP from outside the general assembly. From the very beginning we made it clear that for us the FDP GA was meant to be an umbrella that others could use to organize their own autonomous actions and events during the course of the five days. For many of us, the overwhelming sensation was that we had organized a five day birthday party for 600 punks.

Catch 22s of North American Anarchism

*Trusting Local Organizers vs "Tell Us the Details or we Leave"

If anarchists in North America are really serious about changing the character and image of our "movement" (if we can even be called that), then there will need to be some very serious re-evaluation of some of the dogmas that we hold, which are completely opposed to the direction which claim to be wanting to move in. The Festival del Pueblo provided us with numerous examples of this.

First, and probably most important, is that we often hear of the importance of trusting and respecting the work of local organizers. One such instance in which we hear talk of this, and we agree, is when it comes to large mobilization and actions, such as what we intended to do during the FDP. However, for obvious reasons of security and effectiveness, when we carry out precise actions around specific issues that are intended to be truly direct rather than symbolic, not everybody can be privy to all the details of what the exact target is. Trusting local organizers means that one is made aware of the general nature of an action (which was made very clear in numerous fliers and propaganda handed out during the five days) as well as the issue or issues that the action is trying to either a. bring attention to (in the case of a symbolic action) or b. directly influence (a direct action). The strategy that the FDP organizers involved in planning the direct actions were trying to implement is not a new invention, neither is it born of a vanguardist secrecy, as some have implied. It is, for example, the way which the anarchist anti-deportation collective in Paris (the Collectif Anti-Expulsions) operates. The collective decides on an issue around which to do an action. These are usually to bring attention to deportations, to denounce and pressure companies that collaborate with deportations (such as particular hotels or airlines), or to directly attempt to stop a deportation in progress. In all of these events, once the decision of what the action focuses on is made, an action group is formed to work out the logistics of the action in question. This group knows all the details of the action, but others are informed on a need to know basis, with the only information that is made 100% public being the issue the action is centered around, and the time, place, and date. Needless to say, the action group rotates individuals between actions in order to prevent the creation of an "action hierarchy." This strategy has been effective for years in allowing for mass occupations of buildings, preventing deportations, and so forth.

Clearly, if the goal is to go on a mindless romp through the city, then we can yell it to the four winds. However, if we are to have strategically oriented and serious direct actions, there will have to be a balance reached between democratic participation, accountability, and security culture. Demanding to know every detail of an operation under threat of packing it up and heading home (which many did) is not where that balance lies. Because of this, the action planned was scrapped for some other occasion. Hopefully, in the future more anarchists will trust local anarchist organizers and these actions will become possible.

*Breaking out of the Ghetto vs The DIY Dogma

A particularly fascinating phenomenon which we noticed during the festival was the glaring contradiction between people who, like us, see the need to break out of the anarchist ghetto, yet at the same time refused to take one single solitary step out away from the "anarcho-activist-DIY-dogma." The fact is, what is seen as "correct" or "proper" in our little anarcho world is not always what will allow us to best build relationships with other cultures and communities.

The first example, was the small scandal raised by several individuals over the fact that the first concert of the festival was held at a downtown nightclub. Allow us to state the painfully obvious: Most people, not already likeminded, do not hang out at the local infoshop, and they do not attend punk concerts. They go out to nightclubs. The fact that we were able, after much effort, to have a concert at a nightclub, was a positive thing, despite the fact that we lost almost $1000 on the night. Why? Because a fair amount of people entered the club, simply because they were looking for a place to have a good time, and ended up being exposed to a night of anarchist music, culture, and ideas.

We will cease to be a counterculture by infusing our politics into the rest of society, not by retreating to the comfort of the infoshops.

Yet another example of this catch 22 involved the controversy over the price of admission to the FDP concerts. First and foremost, it is important to note that every single event at the FDP was 100% free of charge (except the soccer tournament), including housing, vast amounts of food, speakers from all over the country and beyond, and so forth. However, seeing as we have not yet abolished money and established a classless society, all of this came at a price, and not paying back the money we owed was simply not an option. Even most simple conferences ask for 25 to 40$ for a weekend, a total of 25$ for over 50 musical acts over 6 concerts did not seem extravagant to us.

Above all, most of the costs incurred for the concerts centered around booking many hip-hop and free jazz performers. These are both cultures where artists expect to be paid for their performances, whether we like it or not. If we are to have diverse shows with something other than local punk acts playing for free, there will be expenses. So again, the choice is easy. Shell out a few dollars, or limit ourselves to organizing anarchist only events for young punks. We choose the former.

*Youth Rebellion vs Respecting Our Allies

Sometimes, we feel forced to make clear things so basic that it is almost embarrassing to have to be writing them in a magazine. However, some of the behavior which we saw at FDP truly makes us wonder whether people realize this.

If "anarchists" think it is intelligent to spit at paintings in a progressive church, get progressive spaces closed down, alienate our allies, and generally act in ways that can only be described as being wholly anti-social, then clearly, breaking our isolation and establishing meaningful ties with other groups and communities in struggle is going to be a difficult task indeed.

It is already difficult enough to get people to overcome their fear of the word anarchist, but working with other groups begins to become next to impossible when we have to go into meetings apologizing for actions that are more worthy of a garden variety hooligan than any person with serious political convictions. Again, respecting local organizers means respecting where they live and who they work with, and behaving yourself when at large events.

None of this is to take any attention away from the fact that serious mistakes were made in the strategic aspects of the organizing of FDP, the way outreach was handled, the steps we tried to take to involve new people, and in general with our expectations of the event. However, the fact that we, as organizers, committed faults in no way exempts others from also taking responsibility for their own actions. We have accepted ours, and are now looking to work in different ways in the future, avoiding the mistakes of the past. We hope fellow anarchists will do the same.

Positive Aspects

While we have already made abundantly clear our feelings about the FDP on the overall level, it is important to state that there were indeed some successes and victories. These were dampened by the overall reality of the failure, but noticeable nonetheless. To name but few:

-While it is true that the bookfair was dominated by anarchists and anarchist tables, there were several non-anarchist tables, such as City Life/Vida Urbana, Harvard Living Wage Campaign, Whats Up magazine, and others. This is still very few, and far from where we would like to be, but certainly more than at most other anarchist bookfair events.

-The presence of the legendary Peruvian rock band "Los Aeropajitas" at two of the FDP concerts brought out many people from the local Peruvian community, who many of us had the opportunity to interact and exchange contacts with.

-The Community Carnival, held in conjunction with the Wake Up the Earth festival was a huge success, and without a doubt the event that best embodied the goals of the FDP. (See next page-)

As a note of closing, most importantly, despite the great amount of effort put into what turned out to be a deception, many of us learned a great deal of important lessons to apply to our future organizing work. Furthermore, we established a great deal of long term relationships with groups that have been doing work around the issues we seek to focus on for years now. It is these relationships that are now allowing us to have a toe, if not a foot, in the door for future projects in the city of Boston. In some odd way, it could even be said that, at least in this sense, the FDP accomplished what it set out to do: It helped us lay the groundwork, establish the links, and build the base for a long term, concerted intervention in the class struggle of Boston. It is now our responsibility to apply the lessons learned, and move forward.

-Barricada Collective