At the end of a long day of peaceful demonstrations in Oakland this past November, a few hundred protesters — many wearing masks or covering their faces with bandanas — massed for a night of rage, smashing windows, chucking rocks and sparking bonfires. In the aftermath, the city’s police chief described the perpetrators as “generally anarchists and provocateurs.”
Across the continent, in New York City, I joined more than 1,000 protesters in a march from Zuccotti Park to police headquarters to express our solidarity with the people of Oakland. In front of the grim, brick facade of 1 Police Plaza, we created a human microphone, relaying speeches, sentence by sentence, to those crowded behind us. When audience members agreed with a speaker’s sentiments, they performed a gesture of approval, waggling their fingers above their heads. For disagreement, there was an even simpler expedient: We just refused to repeat the words, shutting off the microphone.
These two rituals of protest have largely defined the national Occupy Wall Street movements: on the one hand, tetchy and often violent confrontations with the police; on the other, a democratic commitment to true consensus. These also happen to be the hallmarks of anarchism, a political philosophy with roots dating to the 18th century, which is currently experiencing its widest florescence in the United States in nearly 100 years.
Jews were deeply involved in the movement’s previous heyday. In the 1880s and ’90s, immigrants from Russia or Eastern Europe carried their anarchist beliefs with them to New York City. “Among Jewish radicals,” Vivian Gornick writes in a recent biography of Emma Goldman, “none were more dynamic than the anarchists, who in their unaccommodating view of capitalist reality often struck the note most emotionally satisfying.” In 1890, the anarchist periodical Freie Arbeiter Stimme — the Free Voice of Labor — began publishing in Yiddish. (In 1898, this newspaper’s forebear, the Forverts, was referred to by The New York Times as “the Anarchistic organ.”) And by the turn of the 20th century, New York City’s Lower East Side was an international center of the movement, boasting such world-renowned Jewish anarchist leaders as Goldman, Alexander Berkman and a host of others. “They were revolted by the entire ethic of capitalism that they found here in the United States,” historian Paul Avrich has said. “So what they did was to replace this world with a counter world — American culture with a counter culture — and they began to establish their whole anarchist culture.”
But for most Americans, anarchy was — and remains — just a synonym for chaos. “Bombs and anarchists are inseparable in the minds of most of us,” a journalist wrote 100 years ago. “Mysterious destroyers of life and of property, merciless men who have pledged their lives or their knives or their guns to some nefarious cause or another.”