Exploring anarchism and radical organizations in Vancouver
// Tiare Jung

The halls of colleges and universities are populated with students, most of whom are youth. The tuition they pay for the classroom they sit in for hours at a time, the professor who lectures them, and the notes they are writing down, however, are not organized by these students – laws, policies, and procedures inside post-secondary institutions of Canada are determined by the provincial and territorial governments.

The world of academia is one avenue of learning, but there are alternate routes and communities of education and action that coexist with, or in some cases outright oppose, the dominant institutions; some might call these venues radical.

“Radicalism is just trying to get to a place where people have a voice,” says Robin Pickell, an activist in the Food Not Bombs movement. “It’s funny that this seems radical in this day and age. It’s nearly impossible to have a say in what is actually happening in terms of where tax dollars go and what happens to poor people, marginalized groups, and food waste.”

By taking direct action in their own learning, food, and organization, these communities are pursuing freedom from consumer culture, authoritarian structures, oppressive behavior and stereotypes, and the freedom to live and grow collaboratively, rather than by any determined law and structure. This do-it-yourself, or DIY, philosophy offers a broader spectrum of engaging with the world, one that invites people to make art, self-publish, grow their own food, and run their own operations.

Located in Vancouver on the corner of Parker and Vernon (near Venables and Clark), the Purple Thistle Community Centre is a hub for arts and activism. The space consists of an open lounge area where meetings, discussions, and sometimes bluegrass jam sessions occur; as well as a textile room, computer lab, dark room, sound booth, recording space, silk-screening studio, small kitchen, and bike-fixing station. The space, resources, and tools are open for anyone to use during drop-in hours from 4 - 10pm, Monday to Thursday; and 2 - 6pm on Fridays.

A variety of workshops and classes are offered throughout the year, which anyone can attend for free. Dream Seeds, a full-time paid training program for young women, is also run during the day. In addition to in-house projects, the Thistle hosts events for other organizations and often participates in festivals and conferences.

Independent groups who are interested in collaborating with the Purple Thistle regularly approach the youth collective, which meets every Monday night at 7pm. “If you and your friends have an idea but you’re lacking funding, come to the collective meeting, and we’re always open to doing new and exciting things, and there’s money to work with,” invites Carla Bergman, co-director of the Purple Thistle.

Several pods function out of the Purple Thistle, including the Eat the Rich Community Kitchen and the Radical Gardeners of the Purple Thistle, which both focus on issues of food security, and the Rain Zine Project.

Eat the Rich hosts events throughout the year such as concerts, gallery nights, and poetry readings, where they serve food by donation. All proceeds are put towards food-related workshops and the development of a community kitchen space at the Toast Collective at 648 Kingsway. Eat the Rich Collective meets every Monday at the Purple Thistle at 5:30pm.

The Radical Gardeners of the Purple Thistle have claimed three spaces in the industrial area of Strathcona for gardening, one of which is in the process of being transformed into a food forest – literally a forest of edible plants.

The Rain Zine Project is an independent micropublishing project for youth to make DIY magazines, film, and art.

Carla Bergman wears many hats at the Purple Thistle including co-director, mentor, alternative counsellor, and spokesperson, but defers all decision- making power to the youth collective that runs the space. “I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that the expertise, the people who run things in our society and have the most power, are between the ages of 30 and 60. We aren’t that good to our young people and we definitely aren’t good to our elderly; both groups are often oppressed and silenced. People trying to engage with the Thistle default to me, and I have to tell them to organize with the youth collective, not me. It’s linked to ageism. It is important to have some adults around to reverse youth oppression and break down barriers. It is part of being really public and legitimate in a way that we can have a true impact in the city, secure funding, and really be able to have a solid alternative to school and not just be a subculture project.”

“Unschooling,” as Bergman describes, “is a way of approaching learning that is about owning your learning and not waiting for others to tell you what, when, or how to learn. It isn’t mitigated in a school system where everything has parameters around it and you have to fit it into these rubric boxes. It goes beyond institutionalized learning – it is life learning, learning while doing.”

A phrase coined by John Holt in the 1970s, unschooling is a spectrum of educational philosophies and practices that encourage learning through natural life experiences such as play, games, domestic responsibility, work experience, social interaction, and direct-impact community projects. A mentor or collaborative community may facilitate this process. It differs from traditional education primarily in that it does not standardize curriculum or conventional grading methods, for these frameworks are believed to be restrictive and counterproductive to maximizing the potential of each individual. This process can take place in our school, for it essentially boils down to “taking learning into your own hands,” Bergman emphasizes.

In July of 2009, three friends with similar ideas came together to carve out a space at the corner of 12th and Clark. The first event was held September 2009: Lucio, a Story of a Bank Robber. This documentary followed the life of a Spanish man who produced passports for people escaping civil war and forged money orders, nearly bankrupting a bank.

As part of the anti-development café series, the collective organized an event called No Olympics, held at Britannia Community Centre. Community organizers of the neighbourhood spoke about anti-Olympic history in the Commercial Drive/East Vancouver neighbourhood and described the details and consequences of Olympic developments in the city. The presentation was followed by a discussion of anti-Olympic organizing and its possible impact on community and neighbourhoods.

The 12th and Clark collective was an expressly anarchist space that existed to address issues of social control, the prison system, the institution of the police, capitalist development, indigenous sovereignty, and to purposefully ally with any communities in struggle against capitalism.

Recently displaced by the loss of their lease, the collective is in search of a new location. Formerly, the space was intended to bring people of similar values together and develop affinity. Activities housed at 12th and Clark were movie nights, discussions, reading groups, the occasional cabaret, and monthly dinners, so long as the purpose or nature of the event was to challenge the existing order of exploitation in society.

Unlike the Purple Thistle, 12th and Clark was not a drop-in centre, or an introduction to alternative communities, but a place for already like-minded people to congregate. Collectively interviewed, members of the 12th and Clark collective refused to give their names or speak as individuals on behalf of the collective.

Food Not Bombs is an international movement happening in over 1,000 cities world-wide to build communities geared towards making and sharing food, reducing food waste, and supporting social movements. For example, in collaboration with the Food Committee at Occupy Vancouver, Food Not Bombs has been running a full-tilt, seven-days-a-week community kitchen at the Vancouver Art Gallery, literally providing sustenance for the movement.

Food Not Bombs Vancouver does weekly food preparation and sharing in the community, and has made appearances at events such as the Women’s Housing March and the Tent City that resulted from the 2010 Olympics. Partnering with local grocery stores, volunteers have developed relationships with retail outlets and arrange pick-ups of food that will not be out on the shelves and sold, but is still edible. The Good Samaritan Act addresses charitable food donations, alleviating the donor of liability issues. Large-scale cooking takes place at the Toast Collective at 648 Kingsway, the same kitchen used by the Eat the Rich Community Kitchen.

Food Not Bombs was born in 1980 as a result of the successive events that began May 24, 1980, surrounding the protests of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station. Food was diverted from the waste stream and shared in protest of war and poverty.

The movement became a criticism on government spending on military while ignoring the fact that basic nutritional needs are not being met for all people. Up to 40 per cent of produce in Canada and the US is discarded because they do not meet the “grade” or cosmetic standards of supermarkets, according to Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal by Tristram Stuart.

“The mandate of food not bombs is tackling this waste culture, this consumer culture that we’re in. It speaks very much about wealth and disparity. There is always meant to be literature on the table. So while you’re sharing food with people, you can tell them why you’re doing it,” describes Robin Pickell, a volunteer for Food Not Bombs.

Food Not Bombs is a cooperative collaboration of volunteers who self-organize without leaders, in an effort to provide essential needs of food and advocate for housing, education, and healthcare. “It’s not a charity thing,” Pickell explains, “it’s an awareness action. There’s also a lot of support for other social movements, so if something is happening, Food Not Bombs will be there feeding people.”

In addition to human struggles, Food Not Bombs is an advocate for vegetarianism and veganism. Feedings are used as opportunities to inform people of the conditions of factory farming and environmental issues linked to consumption of commercial meat.

“It’s actually really good outreach talking to people about the interconnecting oppressions of keeping animals in horrible conditions, killing them, and eating them, and the oppressions that we experience and are fighting against. A lot of people haven’t made that connection yet, so having Food Not Bombs be that kind of organization to spread the word has been really informative,” says Pickell.

People interested in helping can check out the Food Not Bombs Facebook Page for postings. There is also the option of showing up on site when Food Not Bombs is taking part in an event, sharing food, and asking how one can be of service.

A “vertical organization” is characterized by hierarchical structures such as workers, supervisors, and managers, or members, executive committees, department heads, and presidents. By contrast, “flat organizations” do not operate on any level of management, but by the direct participation of collaborators. In this sense, they practice direct, participatory democracy or selfgovernance. That is not to say that people do not have roles or responsibilities: individuals are expected to take direct ownership for their involvement rather than have their actions dictated by an authority.

“Horizontality gives us more flexibility than organizing anarchists – or it’s less ideologically charged,” says Bergman. “The Thistle is explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-colonial. We’re really politically overt, but we are not ideologically pure. You don’t have to be an anarchist to be a part the Purple Thistle.”

Using The Thistle as an example, it does not attach itself to one “ism”, but claims anarchist principles of consensus decision making, collective processes, and anti-oppression, greatly influenced by the Zapatista movement in Argentina, called the first “post-modern” liberation revolution by the New York Times.

Consensus and organizing by collective decision- making may be criticized as slowing down processes, for it can take quite a bit of time and energy for a group to all agree. “Collectives can be contentious if good relationships are not in place,” Bergman acknowledges, “but less bureaucracy is always a good thing. I think that it is a misdemeanour to say that consensus slows things down, because in my opinion, bureaucracy weighs things down a lot more, and usually dispirits people.”

When working within a consensus structure, it is important to keep in mind that the goal is not to unanimously agree on one thing, but rather to find a compromise that everyone can live with, and that best represents the varied opinions of the group.

No uniform definition can be assigned to anarchism, because each group or individual that carries the banner does so in a different fashion. As described by a 12th and Clark member, anarchism is a tension that exists against the dominant system; it is not a solution. Core values of anarchism are horizontal organizations, anti-oppression, anti-capitalism, and radicalism, and it is these shared values that create solidarity between The Purple Thistle, 12th and Clark, and Food Not Bombs. Though not politically homogenous, these sub-communities criticize issues in the dominant systems of our society and seek to offer alternatives, and change behaviours. The anarchist revolution can have many faces – some are more radical, some build anarchist values in practice.

While not strictly anarchist, these alternative communities are self-identified radicalists – seekers of political liberation and dramatic changes in social behaviour. Subsequently, groups lobbying for direct participation processes can also be considered radical.

"Radical literally means to get back to the roots,” states Bergman. “Radical, direct, participatory ways of engaging. If we’re going to have a sustained viable and lively social change we need lots of things happening … I mean an alternative, counter institution. Things in place where we can come together and socially organize together that is not the dominant culture way of organizing, where we really take care of each other, where we’re outside of capitalism, we have a radical generosity, we have themes of hospitality that really move beyond the notion of tolerance and go for friendship in a meaningful way.”

//Tiare Jung, writer
//Illustrations by Arin Ringwald

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