Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Southern California Anarchist Federation

Two short essays on the achievements and failures of the Southern California Anarchist Federation.

Learning from our experiences: Reflections on the rise and fall of the Southern California Anarchist Federation- Los Angeles chapter.

by John Riley

I wanted to reflect on the achievements and failures of the Southern California Anarchist Federation and hopefully start a dialogue so that we can reflect as a group and learn from our mistakes.

First of all, I want to say that any criticism that I make of SCAF is a self criticism. I think its silly to critique an organization that I was very involved in as if I was had nothing to do with its short-comings. If things didnt work out, it was because we messed up, so I want to take responsibility for my actions. Second, I want to acknowledge that what we tried to do and what we are continuing to try and do is extremely difficult. Taking on Capitalism, Patriarchy, White Supremacy, Heterosexism, and the State is not an easy task and there are tons of forces working against us; the police, our bosses, the media, and most importantly the internalized messages that we hold within ourselves. With that said I think that it is important that we move forward as individuals and as collectives to try again (not necessarily to reform SCAF, but to continue in struggle). Realistically, we probably wont get it right the next time around either, but I dont think there is a magic way to organize that will bring on the revolution, it is through this process of organization and reflection that we move towards the world we want to create. Like we said in our mission statement, we make the road by walking.

Accomplishments:

SCAF, at least in the LA chapter, was different from most Anarchist groups in the United States, because of who made up the organization. Unlike most Anarchist groups in the US, SCAF LA was composed primarily of people of color and working class folks. This is not to say that we were naturally free of racism or classism because of this (this was hardly the case) but I do think this fact influenced our group greatly and added a realness to our actions. People were not merely theorizing about the working class, but bringing their own experiences growing up in the hoods of LA, with mothers who were housekeepers, working shitting jobs, going to shitty schools, and struggling to get by. Because of this I dont feel like we fell into many of the pitfall North American anarchist fall into, namely symbolic activism that is totally disconnected from the community.

I also think that we tried to come together with a common vision (however broad) and grew together doing so. While our mission statement was not a blue print for revolution, and was not all-encompassing (nor do I think it should have been), I do think that creating it collectively was an experience which helped us grow. Similarly, the retreat in Big Bear also helped us form theory together and learn from each other.

I also think we were able to challenge some of the activism in LA. For example, the discussion groups after the Answer march, gave people there an experience in popular assemblies. The propaganda workshop and the When Anarchists Organize also challenged many peoples vision of anarchism as chaos.

Mostly I think SCAF LA helped plant a lot of seeds. Out of SCAF, a lot of projects and collectives have started, not all of them are continuing, but many of them are. Similarly, many people who were not yet active, or who were not at the time active before the formation of SCAF became active and learned a great deal. Mujeres Libres, Cop Watch, the youth Collective, Si se Puede, the CIPO tour, the newly formed study group, the after school program, all sprung up from SCAF. And while it is not clear where all of these projects will go, the fact that an organization was able to be the spring board for all of these is pretty amazing. As far a personal development, I can at least speak for myself and say that I learned a lot. Before SCAF formed I was not doing much except for labor organizing, since working with SCAF I have begun working with many more people, working in the community, and really challenging my own shit more. I hope that others feel the same.

Criticism:

On the flip side I do think we have a lot to learn from our experiences. Looking back (which is always easier than looking at the present) I think never really gelled into a cohesive group. I guess what I mean by that is that we never were able to come to agreement on exactly what we were going to do, or fundamentally how we saw the world. As a result we never really worked on anything as SCAF, and it ended up being more just report backs. Which was fine, but I think realistically it was more of a Coalition than a federation. For example we never could come to an agreement on what SCAF should do as an org, the limited things we did try were events and one time actions, not projects or long term campaigns. We didnt even work to really support the collectives work, most of the time a collective put on an event, SCAF was MIA. As a result SCAF often seemed disjointed or scattered, and I think because of that as well, we became disjointed and scattered and many people ended up flaking over and over again.

But why werent we able to ever form more political unity? I think there are two basic reasons: First we came together from a very loose call of Anarchists, which doesnt really explain who we are as much as explain who we arent. From the beginning, there was never a real level of common political theory to start with. But I dont think that all we needed was to all have the right line. In fact I think that what was necessary was for us to really work together to create our own theory for liberation, not fit ourselves into a pre-existing formula for revolution, even an anarchist one. But the only way to do that I think, is through practice, not just theory.

One thing we could have done to help in our formation of theory and action could have been to look at the problems that we see in our communities, and try to do something about them (which I think we tried). Then we could have gone out and talked with folks in our communities and try to figure out what they saw as the most pressing issues , and start from there. (something I dont think we did very much). From there, we could have come back and done a reality check on our theory and practice. I think it was this element of going out and talking to people in our communities, which we were really lacking. I know that many of us did this regardless, but I think its different when people do it consciously as a group and discuss it afterwards.

I also think we didnt do a very good job of passing on knowledge and skills between us. Many of us have been around organizing for a while and have skills in facilitating meetings, organizing protests, reaching out to other groups, writing speeches and papers, as well as political theory. We were not very conscious about passing that information on, or for that matter, validating the knowledge and skills that every member of the group brought, whether that be knowledge of Marx or knowledge of how they were being fucked over at work. As a result I think we missed a lot of opportunities for growth, and we also kept power in the hands of a few. I know that I ended up talking a lot in meetings, and a number of us always dominated discussion and were the ones to bring ideas to the group. One of the most important aspects of any organization should be individual growth, and I think we failed in that.

Lastly I think we lacked a bit of Revolutionary Love. By revolutionary love I mean solidarity, honesty, commitment, and respect. I mean a commitment to each other to check in when someone doesnt show up, or is upset, a commitment to challenge each other on our own internalized oppression (racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc), and a commitment to take criticism and being checked and really think about it and make changes. I Lack of revolutionary love led us to build more and more divisions between ourselves, not talk to people when we have problems with them, talk behind each others back, and not have each others back when they were facing racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. In that I think we all failed in our own way, at least I know I did.

So where do we go from here?

Im not sure all of us are on the same track, in fact Im sure we are not, but I do think that any of us shouldnt toss in the towel, we cant afford to. I do think this is a time for reflection so that we can determine where each of us wants to work and then from there link up with people with a similar vision. Then maybe as we form collectives and we want to link them up we can re-form the federation. I also think now is a time for us to create our own path and our own theory. I personally am not really interested in the title Anarchist that much anymore, I think it is much more useful if you have to really define what you believe instead of putting yourself in a box. One thing that some of us are doing is starting a study group to learn together and create our own theory, and possibly form some kind of new organization once we have more of a common understanding.

I hope that some of my thoughts are helpful to people and that they help trigger discussion. Thanks to everyone who has been part of SCAF and I hope to work with you all in the future.

In love and struggle,
John Riley

My basic sense of it has always been to get people to understand that in the long run they themselves are the only protection they have against violence and injustice. People have to be made to understand that they cannot look for salvation anywhere but to themselves.
-Ella Baker

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On SCAF-LA Disbanding
by Joaquin Cienfuegos

I want to continue the discussion on the disbanding of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Southern California Anarchist Federation. I agree with a lot of what John has to say, so Ill try not to repeat the same points. Overall SCAF was a great idea, and Im still dedicated to building a revolutionary movement regionally, in our communities and internationally. I think there were some problems that existed in the organization in SCAF, and also have some self-criticism.

I think when we set out to start this organization; it was JUST open to anybody who called himself or herself an anarchist to join. One thing we did do though, is have an organization that was diverse, and made up of oppressed people (in the majority). We did however have some early squabbles. It was difficult for the people who made this organization up to find political unity and a praxis to organize from. We had some basic agreements which included: long term organizing, building dual power institutions, helping in the process of community, worker, and student self-organization.

The organization was also politically diverse; there were people that came from different experiences in organizing, from socialists, to green anarchists, Trotskyites, Maoists, individualists, and people who were new to politics altogether. We all wanted to be part of something different, that we werent being offered by liberals, reformists, and top-down organizations.

SCAF-LA for the most part, gave us experience in organizing ourselves, and for a lot of people helped figure out what they wanted to do politically (and what are some mistakes and victories we can learn from). None of us were burn out by this organization (at least the core members werent).

Personally I think that I still want to build a federation, that has more clear politics and isnt obscure North American Anarchist politics. I want to organize with people who I DO see eye to eye with and share common experience. I want to be part of a revolutionary organization. In SCAF-LA I think there was a divide politically and practically between the people who wanted to be part of a revolutionary organization and the people who wanted to be part of another anarchist network. So there was a feeling of a constant tug of war, of the organization in different directions (and I think I felt into that as well). At one point I wanted to leave before, because I did not want to waste my time being part of another activist group who only focused on actions with no clear strategy on fighting for liberation, just jumping on whatever issue was hot at the moment, and no clear connection to peoples everyday lives.

I think in a revolutionary organization you have to have discipline and dedication from the membership, you have to be open to be challenged and challenge yourself in the process of changing the world. There has to be a way to integrate new members more efficiently into the organization and to the community without just throwing them into a collective that has no real strategic aims for the long term. SCAF-LA didnt have any of these things, and in fact I think people struggled against it, so this is one of the reasons why it failed.

In any organization who takes it self seriously, or that is serious about taking on the state and capitalism and all oppression, you need a strategy and you need a praxis. The best way to do this is collectively with the membership, so that the organization can be owned collectively. Some members just argued for disconnected individual actions without any coordination, which defeats the purpose of having a federation. There was no foundation being built besides the rhetoric of some of the members (myself included in that).

A revolutionary organization needs to have clear political positions, even though this might sound rigid, this a necessary way to outreach to people and let them know what were about --- rather than just saying Im an anarchist and every person gives a different definition for the organization.

There were a lot of liberal positions taken by members regarding things like criticism. We would not call out members who would take up responsibilities and not follow through. We would even continue those people to take on more responsibilities and let us down again and again. Other liberal positions included things around race, gender, class, and sexuality in fact we never even discussed these things in how they relate to us. We only talked about these things in theory. One instance we argued with one of the white members who was talking about reverse racism and how it was real. Oppressed people were not taking up leadership, within the organization you had white middle class males attempting to or blatantly positioning themselves in the leadership.

I want to continue to grow and develop collectively with people who I trust and have ideas and experiences in common with. I think that everybody that came out of SCAF-LA will continue to support each other informally; there are some folks who will continue to organize and fight for our freedom. This is all want and nothing less.

I dont want to be in an organization that connects me to other anarchists, I want one that is building, and reflecting, learning, making mistakes, building collectivity and autonomy and destroying the system that is killing us while building the world we dream of. I want to be part of an organization that is integrated and comes from oppressed communities, is made up of the oppressed specifically as in people of color, working class people, women, queer and trans folks (and has support and allies from privileged communities and people) because the politics will be real and more genuine. I want to be part of a federation of revolutionary community councils, where we dont have illusions about the police or the state. Where we prepare and learn from each other, and train ourselves, and give ourselves practice in organizing ourselves. Where we fight to retake our communities, and overthrow imperialism and the neo-colonialism in our communities.

Im fighting for my liberation and looking for comrades and allies who want to do the same.

Always in struggle until humanity is free,

Joaquin Cienfuegos