Song: Utah Phillips and Ani Difranco - Shoot or Stab Them
Listening is crucial to understanding this post.
A woman of color living in the south at the end of the nineteenth century, Lucy Parsons saw her closest friends and relatives lynched by white mobs because of their race. She moved north at the end of the Civil War to become a prominent anarchist organizer where she saw her husband and closest comrades framed and lynched by the state because of their political beliefs.
She dedicated her life to the pursuit of anarchism. Her anger at the injustice she had seen and endured lasted until her death and her spirit of revolt, even as she grew very old, is inspiring to this day. Her militancy and revolutionary fervor caused the Chicago department of police to describe her as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.” Parsons’ famous pamphlet, To Tramps, the Unemployed, the Disinherited, and Miserable, distributed among tens of thousands of workers and unemployed, reads:
Can you not see that the “good boss” or the “bad boss” cuts no figure whatever? that you are the prey of both, and that their mission is simply robbery? Can you not see that it is the INDUSTRIAL SYSTEM and not the “boss” which must be changed?
The pamphlet ends with an isolated line: “Learn the use of explosives!”
Utah Phillips, like Parsons, discovered anarchism under harsh circumstances. Unlike Parsons, he was a pacifist. His introduction to anarchism came after his harrowing experience fighting in the Korean War. He deserted the army mid-fighting and returned home. Like so many veterans, he spiraled into a funk of wandering and drinking.
While stopping in Utah for a free meal, Phillips came across the Joe Hill House of Hospitality where he met Ammon Hennacy, a 69 year old Christian anarchist who had organized with Dorothy Day in the 30s. Hennacy ran the Joe Hill House and he and Phillips became close friends. It was he who advised Phillips to become a pacifist and an anarchist. He told him:
You were born a white man in mid-twentieth century industrial America. You cam into the world armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons. The weapons of privilege, racial privilege, sexual privilege, economic privilege. You wanna be a pacifist, it’s not just giving up guns and knives and clubs and fists and angry words, but giving up the weapons of privilege and going into the world completely disarmed. Try that - Ammon Hennacy
With this, Utah began to conceive his own radical outlook. His “slow” approach to overthrowing capitalism and the state and replacing it with anarchism is deeply rooted in the theory of “creating a new world within the shell of the old,” and seems very non-confrontational in contrast to Lucy Parsons’ radical militancy against the system:
The big system can be pretty overwhelming. We know that we can’t beat them by competing with them. What we can do is build small systems where we live and work that serve our needs as we deﬁne us and not as they ‘re deﬁned for us. The big boys in their shining armor are up there on castle walls hurling their thunderbolts. We’re the ants patiently carrying sand a grain at a time from under the castle wall. We work from the bottom up. The knights up there don’t see the ants and don’t know what we’re doing. They’ll ﬁgure it out only when the wall begins to fall. It takes time and quiet persistence. Always remember this: They ﬁght with money and we resist with time, and they’re going to run out of money before we run out of time - Utah Phillips
Parsons saw action as imminent. Her experience drove her to call workers to arms. To commit acts of violence in hopes of triggering a spontaneous uprising of the lower classes. Utah’s experience brought him the same revolutionary dream of a society without state and capital, but with less of a sense of urgency, and a dedication to nonviolence.
Utah Phillips, a white male of considerable social privilege, chose pacifism because he was horrified by his own tendency towards violence and the culture that promoted it. Parsons, a woman of color from the south, became a militant as a form of self-defense against a society that devalued and made expendable every element of her person.
Utah’s ode to Parsons, even to one of her most violent speeches, shows his awareness of the role that privilege plays in the development of ones beliefs and actions and reaffirms the anti-dogmatic nature of anarchism and the tolerance of its adherents towards different forms of revolutionary change.
Anarchism is the only social theory whose very basis is in the fluidity of its basis. Anarchism calls for total autonomy of the individual because there is no “system” that can account for the sporadic and constant nature of human change. A social program that is written and informed by one social background can hardly be applied to those with different lived experience.
However, those institutions which can never bring freedom and equality, such as capitalism, government, patriarchy, racism etc, those institutions which are built on caste, hierarchy and power and thus are inherently opposed to freedom of self and community autonomy, must be universally opposed by anarchists of all stripes.
A vacant lot is a field of possibility, but one must first remove the trash and weeds that suffocate its soil. From this point only a gentle encouragement is needed towards a beautiful and spontaneous growth. The means in which the lot is cleared will be strongly debated, but it is the possibility of growth that drives us unanimously forward.