Introduction to my book on Contemporary Radical and Anarchist Activism in Richmond, Va

15 Feb

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Sometimes you have to

do more than just give a shit.

Sometimes you have to

stand up and be a part of it.

Look around,

throw your television out

of the window because

its sucking your life out.

Look around,

there’s no better time than now

to figure out what you want to be about.

You think you’re smart,

you think you’re really smart.

You’ve figured out everything.

One person can’t change the world

so why do anything?

I think that’s really defeatist.

You’re an apathetic elitist.

One person can at least

be a catalyst.

Sometimes an acoustic guitar

and a voice is better than nothing.

Sometimes just hearing a song that inspires you

is really something. Look around,

open your ears up to the sound

of tomorrow because its knocking your door down.”

– ‘Sometimes You Have To’ by Pedals on Our Pirate Ships

Chapter 1

An Introduction to Contemporary Radical and Anarchist Activism and Richmond


The first time I ran across a term for the types of social movement and activism that interest me was in a class at Hampshire college called From the Grassroots to the Streetroots: Urban Social Movements in Latin America (it is quite normal for courses at Hampshire to have such long titles). The teacher was a visiting graduate student, Alejandro Velasco. He included the first chapter from Richard Day’s Gramsci is Dead in the syllabus, which for me was the first time I had ever heard crusty punks, Food Not Bombs, modern anarchists and Do It Yourself culture discussed in any sort of academic way. Alejandro helped me realize that I wanted to write something useful to social movements and particularly anarchism in Richmond, Virginia.

I am writing this text because I wanted to know about the history of anarchists in my home town of Richmond, Virginia. I decided that the only way I could stand to stay in school in Massachusetts was to study something related to Richmond. Instead of studying social movements in other places, I am now studying them in my home town. The project has three parts. First, it is documenting a bit of history that has not been documented. This in and of itself will be useful as inspiration for anarchists in Richmond and in other ‘conservative’ towns. Second, the project is approaching this history from the perspective of understanding, explaining, and analyzing contemporary radical activism. The third part is that a better understanding of the past will hopefully give anarchists in Richmond a better chance at a more successful future.

On many levels it has been a difficult task to write this text about radical activism in Richmond, Virginia. There are the difficulties of writing about Richmond and learning the history. Interviewing people was something new to me, and something that did not come easily. Transcribing is worse. There is the typical research and reading involved in all levels of this project. But these are all things that I have been taught to do on an academic level. What I am not as prepared for is the presentation of this work. Which is good, because I believe if the presentation of this was the same as the papers I have been writing for four years, no one would want to read it.

But that is the tricky question- who is going to want to read this? Who do I want to read this. I worry they are going to either think I’m a complete idiot or a pretentious ass. I would rather not present myself as either of those things- for reasons of vanity, but also because I would like my work to actually be useful to other people- otherwise it is nothing more than intellectual masturbation, which is fun for me, but in the long run a waste of resources.

When I explain this to other people I tend to say that I am writing a book about radical activism in Richmond in such a way that my mom can understand it. Which is to say I am trying to avoid being super academic and obtuse. This text should be accessible. This text should be helpful. This text should be both general and specific.

I want to tell part of the story of activism in Richmond, to help future activists, honor past ones, and to preserve a more radical strain of history that is easily forgotten. But I also am analyzing that history in such a way as to explain the types of movements and ideas it is based on.

There is no way that my account of radical activism in Richmond from 1994-2004 is complete. But I do think I am managing to include most of the major points, and hit on many of the themes which will be relevant to future work in the city. I am not a historian, but I value history in the extreme. Not being a historian I do not feel obligated to include every detail. This is, as all histories are, by nature, selective.

Another thing that I think I am trying to do with this is encourage others to record their histories and stories. There is no way in hell I’ll be able to do it for you –I’m going to be too busy making history of my own. The more stories we get out there, and the more radical activist history is preserved, the better for future activism.

Many people that I know who are involved in what I’m calling radical activism do not seem to see why it is worth writing about in academic terms. For starters, I am not trying to be academic in my discussion about these ideas. Academic works are primarily useful to academics. I am not so interested in scholars readings this, but am more interested in activists, potential activists, and regular people reading this.

Telling stories about our past is extremely important. When I tell people I am writing about radical activism or anarchists in Richmond they tend to laugh and say they did not realize we had that in Richmond. The dominant culture in our society does not encourage the remembering of such things. But they were there, and still are. And it is important for everyone to know about these things. Radical activism and anarchists are not just things that go on in other places and in other time periods. Activists in Richmond in 2008 might not know about the amazing work that has been done in the city in the past 15 years. I’m hoping that sharing these stories will be inspirational. We can tell the story of Richmond as a radical city, changing its reputation from a city known for racism and poverty to something brighter and better, offering potential for equality and justice.

When Alejandro left Hampshire, he gave me a copy of Day’s book, Gramsci is Dead. And while I still do not know anything about Gramsci (I may or may not have skimmed those parts…), I have learned a thing or two about Contemporary Radical Activism. Once Day conceptualized the idea for me I found other sources that expanded on his work and created a fuller picture. In order to talk about Contemporary Radical Activism in Richmond I am going to first talk about Contemporary Radical Activism in general.

One Response to “Introduction to my book on Contemporary Radical and Anarchist Activism in Richmond, Va”

  1. Allen Harrelson February 19, 2010 at 3:50 pm #

    We should talk about how anarchy in richmond is almost entirely unknown by 99.999% of most richmonders in the era of which you write. I have been here, and even the most radical people I knew never mentioned much about it!

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