Betsy Raasch-Gilman on Anarchism, Organizing and Movement for a New Society
This week, we share a conversation that Bursts had with Betsy Raasch-Gilman. Betsy is a lifelong Quaker, feminist and anti-capitalist. She talks about her experiences organizing as an anarchist during the Cold War with Movement for a New Society, difficulties of critiquing capitalism within the peace movement, anti-nuke organizing, modeling consensus and affinity group organizing, alternative and cooperative models, attempting to ground organizing in anti-racism, separatism, organizing with the Marxist Left and more. Later in the conversation, Betsy talks about her engagement in the RNC Welcoming Committee against the 2008 Twin Cities Republican National Convention, the conspiracy trial that she almost got roped into, security culture and police spies and what she’s excited about now in the current terrain.
You can find out more about the work that Betsy is doing these days, check out Training For Change.
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TFSR: We’re speaking with Betsy Rasch Gilman, a longtime anarchist from St. Paul. We decided to chat about being an anarchist during periods of low time in US anarchism. We’ll cover a lot more during this conversation. But thank you very much for taking the time to chat, Betsy.
TFSR: Can you talk a bit about your upbringing? Were you a red– or black-diaper baby? Did you have any religious upbringing that might have influenced you?
B: Yeah, I was actually a pink-diaper baby. My mother identified as a socialist at that time. She now identifies as a green, but I was brought up with the idea that socialism was a perfectly acceptable political philosophy. That was really a foundational piece for me. That was in a time when to be called a communist or a socialist was– It was a dirty word. It was a derogatory label. So the fact that my mother was willing to say she was a socialist was pretty important to me. As for my religious background, my parents were Quakers, they had worked in a Quaker work camp before I was born. But there was no Quaker Meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota when I grew up. So they sent me to the Unitarian Church instead, and the Unitarian seemed great to me, but as soon as there was a Quaker Meeting available to go, I started going to Quaker meetings. I’m still a practicing Quaker.
TFSR: A lot of listeners may not have familiarity with Quakers. Can you talk about what the tradition is, where it comes from, and how it overlaps – because it seems to really overlap with a lot of very conscious political activity, not that there’s a specific tendency to it, but that there’s an engagement in this world that’s really important to it?
B: That’s right. Quakers are Christians, liberal Protestant Christians. Quakers do have a real orientation towards social justice and social service. It’s a historic peace church. Quakers are pacifists, by and large. The exception to all these rules I’m telling you was Richard Nixon.
TFSR: No idea. Whoa!
B: He comes from a branch of Quakerism, that is of the evangelical variety of Christianity. He was a Quaker, embarrassingly enough to the rest of us. But we often engage in issues of war and peace, racial justice, and equality of women and female-bodied people to male-bodied people. Justice issues are just right across the board. We were on the cutting edge of Protestants who would marry gay and lesbian couples before it was legal to do so. Quakers pride themselves on this stuff. The social engagement varies from one location to another in one congregation. We call them meetings actually, not congregations, we use different language than most Christian churches do. But it varies a lot from one location to another. But I belong to the most progressive, the most politically liberal branch of Quakers. The little factoid about us is we worship in silence. So there’s no prepared ministry. Occasionally somebody will speak out of the silence when they feel like they have something to say that might be of interest and use to the rest of the group. But we don’t have paid ministry. So in my branch of the denomination, others do it differently.
TFSR: Thank you. So you became involved in the Movement for a New Society in the 1970s? What were this network and its vision for revolutionary change?
B: The Movement for a New Society was a network of individuals and groups that wanted to pick up from the end of the Vietnam War protests, as the Vietnam War was winding down and in the wake of the actual government quashing of the civil rights movement, the repression of the civil rights movement, activists who wanted to continue the work on into the future. And also who were informed by the publication of a book, which is not usually remembered now, but it was called Limits to Growth. It was a study about the ecological damage that industrial society is doing to the planet. Basically, it put out that capitalism is limited by the amount of exploitation that they can do on the planet. So there are limits to growth. Capitalism is really based upon the economic growth of expansion.
So those threads – the anti-war thread, the civil rights or social, racial equality thread, the environmental thread, and feminism were another big piece of the MNS. It got started in the very early 1970’s, and the white feminist movement was very strong at that point, and MNS incorporated a lot of things from the feminist movement, also from the gay rights struggle. Stonewall was in 1968, so the gay rights struggle was very much in full swing when MNS began. So, we incorporated a bunch of different strands, and we incorporated anarchism. MNS was anti-capitalist, I think, is what we really can say. Some of us were more anarchist in orientation, and some of us were more socialist in orientation. But we were definitely anti-capitalists. We saw these six overarching realities, as we called them, which I’m not sure I can name anymore. But capitalism was one of them, patriarchy was another, racial hatred was another – things that we had to address at the same time in order to do what we wanted to do, which was to overthrow the United States government. We wanted to do that through non-violence. So it was a very ambitious undertaking.
In our own defense, I can say, I mean, you might listen to that and think “Were these people nuts or what?”, but I want to say that the times were very different in the early 1970’s, and really, throughout the 70’s. It’s very common now to talk about the 60’s as being a time of real turmoil, and it was. The 1970’s, though, was a time of really exploding political growth and multiplying efforts to change the very fabric of US society and the economy. So the 1970’s were not so much turbulent, but a really productive time. A time when it was easy to be hopeful. I recently reread a book that was published in the mid-70’s by Marge Piercey called Woman on the Edge of Time.
TFSR: Oh, it’s so good. That’s one of my favorite novels.
B: I was really struck, it was my third time reading it. But rereading it now, I thought “Wow”. She seemed so hopeful about the possibilities that this utopian society of the future could be pretty much on the verge of just mopping up the last bit of resistance. I can’t remember the year she said at the end, but it was like 2050, or something like that. I thought, “Whoa, that is a very optimistic view of the world and one that I probably subscribed to at the time that Piercey was writing.” It was interesting to look back on that and say, “Ha, it looked easier then.”
So, MSN, one of the things that I’m rather fond of saying is that generally, as a whole, we mistook a clear vision for a short distance. We were pretty clear about the world we wanted to live in, but we were way optimistic about how quickly that would happen. As I said, it was a very ambitious program of completely overthrowing the United States government, and oh, by the way, patriarchy and the oh, by the way, militarism, and oh, by the way, capitalism, and all the rest of the things that form the repressive nature of our society still today. That was Movement for New Society, we were small groups of people scattered throughout the country. We had connections with folks and members in other parts of the world, too, primarily Southeast Asia and Canada, wo we were somewhat international.
We had much more influence because we had a very active program of training. We worked up a program of training in social change skills. We would have weekend workshops that were an introduction to Movement for New Society, primarily in Philadelphia. But then also, two-week training programs for people who wanted to learn the skills of social activism in a living way, people mostly came to Philadelphia for those training programs. There was a year-long training program as well, for people who would move to Philly, find jobs, move into a communal household in Philly, and just devote themselves to that project for a year. We had a lot of influence, an outsized influence for the number of people we were, which was really a fairly small group. I don’t think we’ve probably had more than 200 officially, at any given time.
TFSR: That really is surprising considering how big of an impact the activities that you all engaged with were.
B: Yeah. The other piece of it was that as we had a network that had branches around the country, we spread issues through the issues that we worked on in one place, and we would spread those issues to another place. Since we had those connections with one another, these spark-plug people all over the country were participating in the same movements and spreading the influence that way as well.
TFSR: You had mentioned that a lot of elements within the MNS were anarchist, and you’ve described yourself as one. When did you start describing yourself as an anarchist? Who and what influenced or inspired you to do that?
B: I was thinking about that recently. While I was in MNS, one of the things I did early on was to participate in a study group, which was a self-run study group, we looked at different political philosophies. A small group of us got together, and each of us would read a small chunk of a book or a chapter and bring it back. We read different things, and we’d bring back a little description of what it was we had read so that we could cover more ground together than we could cover alone. The study group had the philosophies of anarchism, socialism, feminism, and ecology – those were the four ones that we looked at. That’s when I really began to understand what anarchism was. One of the books that we read, and I still have on my shelf, was called The Anarchist Collectives. It was a compilation edited by Sam Dolgoff with an introduction by Murray Bookchin, it was about the Spanish anarchist collectives in the Spanish war. That was really foundational to my understanding of how we might organize our society in the future. I resonated with the anarchist vision. I never felt really antagonistic towards a socialist vision, but boy, if I was going to put my effort into something, it would be the more anarchist combination of worker-managed economy and neighborhood or geographically based neighborhood organizations that would run social life and relationships. Later we put that together also with a vision of ecological bioregions within the North American continent, and the possibility of breaking down the structure of the United States into these bioregions so that the economy, which is based on the geology and the biology of an area would be– We might wind up with seven or eight smaller social-ecological groupings, where these worker-run collectives and neighborhood-run collectives could work on a smaller scale. So that we would not have the large nation-states of the United States, Canada, and Mexico, but rather than we would be working on making decisions based on the bioregion that we happen to be in, and what was good for the planet, and how we could sustain ourselves within that physical area. Those were some of the pieces that formed my understanding of anarchism and where I got my introduction, where I got my start.
I should also say that in the Movement for New Society, we probably put more attention as a group, as a whole into defining feminism and our relationship to feminism and how feminism informed all of us, and what we did. This is the context of the time that the feminist movement was very strong, the anarchist and socialist movements were not as strong. Partly because of the stigma that was attached to anything that could be labeled socialist, or, God forbid, communist. The left was very allergic to the idea of any critique of capitalism. That applied a little bit to people within MNS, that there’s just a certain “Oh, I don’t want to mess with that area,” but feminism that I can really relate to, that I can really understand. It’s a very clear and very important piece of our political development, our political program, we have a lot of unlearning to do in order to create the society that we want to live in, and that feminism is a big piece of the remaking of our world. In practice – I think it was 18 years that Movement for the Society Existed – we probably put more effort into defining and working with feminism than we did with either socialism or anarchism.
TFSR: There are a lot of different approaches to feminism that people come with, as you mentioned before “white feminism”, and you could pose that with black feminism or POC feminism that specifically takes in either specific people’s experiences with the intersections – intersectionality, I think, was a new thing at this time that was really being introduced into activist lingo – intersections of race and class and gender and region and all these things. Even if you were mostly talking about feminism, what seemed to correlate between an anti-capitalist approach and a feminist approach?
B: The exploitation of the planet was a big one, that the planet is treated like our female body is treated, and that patriarchy violates female bodies and the planet regularly. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind. Within MNS, we grappled a lot with lesbian separatism. Movement for New Society was an all-gender-welcome organization and we also recognize that the most creative, the most radical, and the most visionary work came from lesbians. Many other women who were involved in Movement for New Society identified as lesbian. It received some critique and also some curiosity from the lesbian separatist women of the feminist movement at the time. “You know, why are you working in an organization with men?” But then on the other hand “Really? Some men will take feminism seriously?”
I remember a specific example of that, we had a group of lesbians who were organizing a march in the Twin Cities called The Women Against Violence Against Women march in 1979. Some of the women from MNS were talking about the possibility of men heckling the march, the march was planned for late at night through a district that had a lot of porn movie theaters, and bookstores that sold pornography. So the women in the planning group were saying, “We’re going to be harassed by these men”, and one of the feminist women said, “Well, I think I know some men who would act as marshals, they would talk to other men and keep men from disrupting our march either because they thought they were supportive, and they’d marched in front of us and guard us, we don’t want that. That’s not the idea of the march. But we have some men who would be on our side, and who would work with other men to make the march go smoothly and try to keep men in check. And it was like “You do, you know some men like that? Are you kidding me?” That was the reaction from women who were not part of the Movement for New Society that they didn’t really trust that there were men who took feminism seriously, and who would pitch in to make a success specifically a woman-run, woman-centered march. So that was part of it that the possibility of a group working together across genders for the eradication of patriarchy was inspirational too. We got some grudging respect as well for the possibility of tackling that problem. I’ve gotten way off the topic of anarchism, that was a tension that we worked with within MNS, around lesbian separatism, and the critique of what we were doing from that angle, but also the curiosity about it, too.
TFSR: Just to get further away from the tendency. That makes me think of how much you were carrying influences over from the Civil Rights Movement when you did have white people putting their bodies on the line in solidarity with black folks and people of color, who didn’t get to choose to put their lives on the line to go vote or to go participate or to go to the store or use public transport or whatever. That thing shows you what a future can look like and that a future can look different.
B: This tension over separatism was also a carryover from the Civil Rights Movement, because part of the Black, struggle for liberation, really didn’t want white participation and certainly didn’t want any white leadership. Like, if you white people get in here, you’re just going to screw everything up, let us alone. So there was a very definite Black separatist movement in the late 1970s. There was a definite lesbian separatist movement in the early 1980s too.
TFSR: The approach that Movement for New Society was taking by identifying these specific elements within society that are problematic, and the people or the things that are affected by those negative things and organizing against those by holding those things together, it seems to me to counterpose the Marxist or the Maoist approach, which is generally that there’s a central revolutionary identity or central struggle that everything else has to be put to the wayside of the back-burner for, whether it be the gender issue of the lesbian separatists, or the race issue of some of the Black Liberation separatists, or the Marxian workerist approach that only views the worker identity as the important and revolutionary position to take.
B: Exactly, we were very consciously countering that reductionist approach. Because when we talked about our six overarching realities, we said, “These are all true, and we need to address them all.” And we’re not going to say, “One is primary and the others are secondary.”
TFSR: Yeah, that’s fascinating. That must have been a point of contention in the political world at that time.
B: Yeah, the Marxists didn’t like that very much.
TFSR: But it still is, too. People get their blinders on. It’s also hard when you look through history and you hear about struggles for change, or revolutionary struggles being co-opted by other sides, as opposed to people coming together necessarily and finding a balance, where you can hold all these things at the same time and agree they’re all wrong. It doesn’t have to be some sort of hierarchy of who is missing out the most based on the terribleness of our society.
B: I still believe that that’s a non-starter. It’s a way that we keep ourselves being less powerful than we could be.
TFSR: In this period, as the Cold War burned, the largest anti-capitalist tendencies were the statists, I imagine with people looking to the Warsaw Pact nation, or other state-capitalist ventures calling themselves communist as the natural alternatives to the imperialism at home and abroad in the USA, with nuclear war looming very closely overhead. Wonder what that reminds me of? Can you talk about what organizing during this period as an anarchist was like?
B: You mentioned nuclear war, one of the places where the Movement for New Society put a lot of energy was into the Peace Movement that bloomed under Reagan. President Reagan came into office in 1981 and immediately started a really dangerous program of saber-rattling with the Soviet Union, which existed at that time. It scared a lot of us. That scared us a lot. There was a large Peace Movement as a reaction to this. It was also international. People in Germany, Great Britain, and Italy also reacted because actually, the nukes were stationed on their soil, the US had some but the US was putting its nukes over in Germany and over in France, and in Italy, and they didn’t like that idea very much they were going to be first out if there was a nuclear exchange. So it was an international Peace Movement at that time. I remember that, within Movement for New Society, we tried to influence that Peace Movement in the direction of a critique of capitalism. But if I began to talk about having a critique of capitalism as being a piece of the militaristic, jingoistic thing that was going on, other passive peace-oriented people would say, “Oh, well, we can’t talk about that. We can’t really go there, we were not communist.” It was easier to make a connection with the abuse of the environment by the military, it was certainly easier to make connections about the military’s patriarchal foundations. It was harder to make the connections between the military’s effect on our economy and the fact that the whole economy of the United States is still structured on the military. It’s a very large chunk of our economy, was then, and still is. Reagan was busy making it a bigger and bigger piece of the economy. It was hard to bring those things up and say, “Look, capitalism is a problem. It’s a part of the problem.” Generally speaking, when I brought those that critique up, I got shut down because people were still so nervous about being labeled communist. The Soviet Union existed, and it was the big enemy. And other statists based on the Marxist fringe– Well, I shouldn’t say fringe, the Marxist brothers and sisters had the same difficulty even worse than mine. There was a group called the American Soviet Friendship Committee that I worked with in the anti-nuclear movement, or nuclear weapons movement. They were pretty much all old communists. They couldn’t say that they were communists. They’d said they were the American Soviet Friendship Committee. But basically, they were all old communists. So there was a lot of that disguising an anti-capitalist critique in order to have some sway in the larger liberal leftist movement.
I just should flag here that I’m really talking about a very white context here, that the Peace Movement was really white. It might have been different if it had been more diverse racially and ethnically. But it was not, and to organize from an anarchist point of view was tough because of this real allergy to anything that critiqued capitalism. Now, jumping ahead a bit, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, I didn’t see the ripple effect immediately. But within the next five years, it was much more possible to say, “Look, I think capitalism is really a problem” and not get shut down by other leftists that I was trying to work with. Easier to say, “What the problem is, it’s right there. It’s capitalism.” And people were becoming much more receptive to that by the time that the US invaded Iraq, Desert Storm, specifically, I remember in the organizing against that invasion, people were definitely willing to entertain that capitalism was a problem. But that was also the beginning of globalization, the push for corporate globalization. There was a guy named H. Ross Perot who ran for president in 1992 with a well a critique of globalization. After Perot had begun to raise questions about what corporate globalization would do to us, it became much more possible to talk about the impacts of corporate capitalism and to develop a critique of that and have people say, “Yeah, you’re right, certainly, it’s not doing the planet any favors either.”
I would say that during the whole period of the 1980’s into the early 1990’s, it was awfully hard to come out and say, “Okay, let’s organize for an anarchist future.” It really couldn’t be done. Personally, as an activist, I think Movement for New Society laid itself down in 1988. So we didn’t survive the 80’s. But others within MNS had the same basic approach that we would organize with what was available. So that was often the Peace Movement, the anti-war movement, social justice movements, and increasing movements throughout the 80’s for racial equality and feminism. The women’s movement really lasted right into the mid-late 80’s as a movement. So we went with what we could, where we could actually make some headway or some progress. I never forgot that I was working towards a future that would be basically an anarchist collectivist future. I kept bringing it up when it was possible to do and sometimes surprised people by saying, “Well, this is the future I want to live in. I do not want to have the United States as an entity even exist any longer” and lay out my future. I remember somebody saying, “You really thought about this?” I said, “Yeah. I thought about this quite a bit, actually. So the anarchist ideals really informed me, they were in the background of everything I was trying to do. But to organize around the anarchism was tough until the Soviet Union fell apart. It got more possible through the 1990’s.
TFSR: Some of the ideas and actions that the Movement for New Society is remembered for include its application of non-violent direct action and spokes council models and the forming and actions related to the resistance against the Nixon administration’s project of proliferating nuclear power plants like little bunnies around the country, like little explosive bunnies. Can you talk about the role of the Movement for New Society that it played in this period and the role of resisting nuclear power plants alongside resisting the nuclear weapons and war that you mentioned earlier?
B: I think in many ways the anti-nuclear movement, beginning with the occupation of the power plant that was under construction at Seabrook, New Hampshire, that was a trigger point for the anti-nuclear movement generally. Part of why it did explode nationwide after Seabrook was because of the Movement for New Society. The authorities at Seabrook did a very stupid thing. They arrested 1,400 people who were occupying this site where the power plant was supposed to be built and locked them up in seven national guard armories for two weeks while they tried to process all these arrestees. Well, for two weeks, they had a little mini-training camp inside each of these armories.
TFSR: Siberia, this is where the Tsar went know, right?
B: Exactly. Movement for New Society activists were in probably most of those armories organizing workshops, facilitating spokes council meetings, and working to resolve– It wasn’t pleasant being locked up in those armories, people got into each other’s faces. But MNS folks, we tried to be people who could handle conflict in a creative fashion, rather than just trying to shut it down or tell people just don’t talk to each other or things like that. We tried to actually address what could we learn from the conflict we’re having. That was just a nice little training camp that the authorities provided.
When people were released from those armories, they went back home to wherever they’d come from and they started their own anti-nuclear power movements. It was the Clamshell Alliance that occupied the Seabrook plant, but all these little alliances started springing up all over the country. In my area, there was the Northern Thunder Alliance, and there was the Northern Sun Alliance. There was a one around Chicago that I’m blanking on right now. A bunch of these anti-nuclear alliances got started all with the same basic spokes council structure, the same basic grassroots up the non-hierarchical structure of how to organize a movement, and all these alliances staying in touch with what each other was doing and from time to time helping out. Diablo Canyon was another big issue and nuclear power plant built on an earthquake fault if you can believe that.
TFSR: A really good idea.
B: So when Diablo Canyon needed bodies, they could call on the alliances in other parts of the country to come in and help to conduct their actions. Movement for New Society was never very large in numbers. But because of this training aspect of what we did, we had a big impact, especially on the anti-nuclear movement. The same thing was true then for the Nuclear Freeze Movement that was built during the 1980s. Also, the Pledge of Resistance to the US invasion of Nicaragua was another place where the Movement for New Society participated in this way of trying to network together things that were happening all over the place, and also provide training to people who are coming into activism for the first time or new to activism. Sometimes we joked that process was our most important product because a lot of it had to do with just how do we work together? How do we treat each other? How do we make decisions together? How do we be democratic, radically democratic? And a lot of that was informed by anarchism, the idea that we don’t want a central committee making the decisions for us. We want to make the decisions ourselves. In order to do that, we have to have processes that will allow as many voices to be heard as we can and yet be able to make clear decisions and be able to move forward, not get ourselves bogged down and just rehearsing the same stuff over and over again. So that was the process piece that MNS tried to offer to all the movements that we were involved with. It’s really quite fundamentally anarchist in its approach.
TFSR: So y’all are to blame for all those really long consensus meetings that I have to sit through?
B: Alas! We tried to do better than that, you should have seen our own gatherings.
TFSR: No, that’s interesting. Since I came up in the anti– or alter-globalization movement, that’s when I came into anarchist politics, the people in Northern California who were teaching about nonviolent direct action, doing trainings, who were talking about consensus, about the spokes council model, which that isn’t something I had seen put in place until the anti-war protests in 2003 in San Francisco. It’s interesting to pinpoint how these processes got tied in with not just protest politics but were the radical influences that were integrated with it came in.
So, another aspect of the work that the Movement for New Society participated in was alternative economic models within capitalism. The idea of building an alternative inside of capitalism and using that as a base of struggle is an idea that has replanted itself its own roots in the last 10 years in the US with conversations about infrastructure and autonomy. It goes further back you can point to the Zapatistas who are a clear example of the same thing, which for my generation was a huge influence and how we tried to do politics. Can you talk about what was the model, the role, and the application that you were aware of in pushes for cooperative business models, collective projects, and land trusts?
B: Yeah, that is another place that Movement for New Society made a big dent because the cooperative movement based on a critique of capitalism was pretty strong in the 1970’s. I wish it were that strong now, personally, the way I made a living was working for about 11 years altogether at a food coop, and I was part of the collective management of a food coop in Minneapolis. I know a lot about alternative economic institutions that we could talk about for an hour on that alone. Again, I’m talking from the Midwest, Minnesota, where there was a long tradition, actually going back to the 1920’s, of economic cooperation came with the Finnish immigrants to Michigan and Minnesota, Wisconsin. Also, the Swedes brought up a model of economic cooperation. So there already were coops. We called it the third wave of food coops in the 1970’s that came out of a countercultural youth movement, primarily white. My short answer is that the cooperative movement I was a part of was good for practicing and developing ideas. It made me feel quite skeptical about the possibility of really reforming capitalism that way.
We existed as a food coop. There was a very great network of food coops at that point, and a network of other kinds of coops – housing cooperatives, and land trusts that you mentioned. A bunch of experiments with how to use cooperation as a basis for economic life rather than competition. But we existed within the structure of capitalism, and we, unfortunately, succumbed to the structure of capitalism. The problem is the word “capital”. In order to do much of anything, we needed capital, that’s the whole basis of the capitalist system. So we got lucky in that we could start a bunch of small businesses, low-skilled – running a food coop does not require a whole lot of skill. A lot of people can put cans on shelves and can drag around boxes of produce and stuff like that. But so at low-skilled, we came in on the end of the mom-and-pop grocery stores, and supermarkets were actually developing and putting those grocery stores out of business. We moved into the actual literal buildings and the coolers and the equipment, the cash registers left behind by these mom-and-pop operations that had to fold up shop, and couldn’t compete with the supermarkets. We filled in a very specialized niche of natural foods. Very few people really cared about natural foods in the early 1970’s. So we had a market niche of natural foods, and we had the infrastructure, and it was a low-skilled operation. So we could capitalize on it with our labor, which is what we did. At the coop where I worked, a share of stock was $2. You became a member and earned a discount by volunteering your time. You got to vote in the running of the cooperative because you had that $2 share of stock. But you also had to put some time in, a certain number of hours in order to be a voting member. People were not really interested or thinking about the possibility of redistributing wealth through the cooperative structure – I was. Even though coops have changed dramatically since that time and gotten very quite glitzy and upscale, I still shop at coops because it basically tries to keep the wealth in as many hands as possible. The cooperative structure gives any profit back to the people who’ve invested in it and who’s created that work.
TFSR: Whether it be the worker-owned or the consumer cooperative, right?
B: Right. In my area of the country anyway, we started out with worker coops. So that the working made your membership and made your profit. You got rewarded for the number of hours you’d put in. Most coops in the late 1970’s throughout the mid-1980’s converted to the consumer coop model because of the capital problem. They needed more capital and they needed to raise actual money, not just labor, but money to buy new coolers, expand the stores, to remake the stores. As I said at the beginning, capitalism is premised on growth, the ability to grow. That affected us as cops as well, we wanted to sell more stuff, there was more food available that we could sell, the organic farming really took off in a big way. We could sell more stuff, people demanded more stuff, people’s expectations of what a coop or a grocery store would look like, everything around us was being more bourgeois and more upscale. That pressure was on the coops to do the same thing. I can talk about this because my coop was one of the last holdouts of a worker-owned coop in the Twin Cities. We consciously talked about how do we not grow, and how do we be successful without growing. We’d never come up with an answer to that. We had to say that the pressure in a capitalist society means that we really can’t do what we would like to do. We are going to have to grow, we are going to have to have a bit of new building, we’re going to have to move to a place where we have more room, we can carry more stuff, the coolers are not breaking down all the time, we have to buy more stuff. All of that requires more capital.
We managed to get away because we’ve been successful early on, we had some reserves. So we managed to get away without turning into a consumer coop. But we also fold it. But it was a good 30-year run. It was 30 years by the time that coop folded and I wasn’t involved till the bitter end. But to me, it really pointed out the difficulty with trying to form an alternative economic system from within the shell of the old one. Capitalism is so difficult, it doesn’t give us a lot of room to do something different. So I hate to be discouraging in saying this. But I think it’s really important to go into this with eyes open, otherwise, we spend a fair amount of time pursuing, essentially a utopian strategy that we can somehow create our own little island over here that is separate from the capitalist system. I have a great big critique of utopianism to the extent that an alternative economic system participates in a utopian idea that just by doing the right thing over here, we’ll just get bigger and bigger. Our little coop movement will get bigger and bigger and bigger and will just take over the capitalist system. Everybody will see the logic of cooperation rather than competition. They’ll enjoy cooperation more than the competition. It’ll be more of a satisfying way of life. I still believe all that’s true, but it didn’t work. The capitalist system is far more insidious and far more difficult than I wish it were. The utopian way of going about social changes is just not very realistic.
TFSR: A bit naive, maybe.
B: Oh, yeah, just not very realistic. So that said, I also want to say that within anarchism, of course, there’s always been and there remains a real wish to create the new society that we want to live in right here right now. I must admit that as an activist of maybe 45 years within activism, has been sustained a lot by little groups of people, like-minded people who I can take my problems to, and they all understand the kinds of issues that I’m trying to deal with and give me pats on the back when I need them and that little huddling thing. Also, it’s very sustaining. But I think we’re making a mistake if we think that by doing an ideal little society, a little ideal community, anarchist or otherwise, that that’s going to make the revolution happen. It really does help and sustain us in trying to make the revolution happen. But it’s not the same thing as– That’s not the strategy. That’s not the strategy that’s going to work. It is really helpful and sustaining for organizing.
TFSR: Flash forward a bit. It was the Republican National Convention…
B: Oh, yes.
TFSR: You said that the Movement for New Society was laid down, which is a very peaceful way of saying it in 1988. In the meantime, before we get to the RNC, were there other activities that you were engaged with that you wanted to talk about, and between there and 2008?
B: One of the things that are true for me as an activist is that I’ve never quit. I did sustain my own activism. It was a big disappointment to me when Movement for New Society folded up. It was a really a very peaceful ending. We love each other still, I’m still in touch with people that I was friends with in the MNS. We had a series of reunions. So it wasn’t a bitter end at all. But we recognize that a revolution of the sort that we were talking about really could not be carried out only by white people. We were pretty much all white people, and we really weren’t able to get beyond our own cultural boundaries in order to become a more diverse organization. So we decided we were going to end it, rather than peter out in a really sad way. And we’ll see what comes next. So that was why we laid it down in 1988, with a real intentional process.
I continued to be involved in peacework, I founded and was part of a training collective doing the same training for social change and social change skills, and did that throughout the 1990s. Another organization that came out of the Movement of New Society in some ways is called Training for Change. I’m still involved in it. It’s really expanded far beyond anything MNS did, and much better. In the Training, we’re much better now than we were. So Training became a piece of what I continued to do. Then in 1999, I got a message from another old MNS person who lived in Seattle saying, “You know what, there’s this great big thing that’s going to be happening out here, called the WTO. Has anybody heard of this thing? This protest is gonna be a lot bigger than we’re gonna be able to do the training for. Could you all come?” I said, “Sure, I’ll come.” Without having really any idea what I was walking into, I walked into the WTO protests in 1999. From that time on till 2007, I was quite involved in the resistance to globalization. I did a lot of non-violence training around the country, then I even got to Germany to do some work with the groups that were opposing the G8 meeting in 2007. So the Global Justice Movement was a big part of what I did in the early 2000’s. There I found anarchists all of a sudden, oh my gosh, there are lots and lots of anarchists. That’s great! That was real excitement in getting involved in the Global Justice Movement.
Then “look at what’s coming to my town, the Republican National Convention, oh sweet hallelujah!” I became involved in the RNC Welcoming Committee. I participated in the Welcoming Committee pretty much throughout from when it was founded through to the convention. Then I participated in the committee to defend the RNC8. I nearly avoided being charged myself, I think, in large part, they didn’t want me in the case, because it would have made it harder to make a case against the RNC8. If I was the ninth, it would have been harder to make the case against us. So they left me out. But I would have been a major witness for the RNC8 had it gone to trial. Then I put two and a half years into the defense work afterward. So altogether, that was like about four years of very intense work, planning for the convention and then mopping up afterward. That was my story about the RNC8.
TFSR: The point of the Welcoming Committee was to help to sustain a protest against the Republican Party and the potential election and protest against the 2008 elections, basically. The RNC8 was a conspiracy trial that the state created against some of the people that were involved in the Welcoming Committee and coordinating groups to do protests during the convention. It seems like a product of surviving that was also learning a bunch of skills towards resisting state efforts at repression. And I know that, having been around Anarchist Black Cross groups and repression groups, and having friends that have either been on conspiracy trials or doing support work, it seems like this is a pretty fundamental learning point for movement. Basically, that repression is going to come when you try to resist. Can you talk about a few lessons that you can take away from doing support for the RNC8?
B: Yeah, I can’t say that I was super surprised that we experienced the repression that we did. I wish I had been more alert about exactly who their informants in our group were. I was not. Some of the things that I learned were ways to identify where we might be infiltrated. What I learned about how to identify infiltration. Partly it was a real lack of clarity about politics. Truth to tell, there was a lot of lack of clarity about politics in the Welcoming Committee. But four people turned out to be informants. It was always a little puzzling why they kept coming to our meetings. That is something that I will carry away as an indicator – if I’m puzzled about what is the motivation of this person for being here? Well, the motivation might be that they’re paid to be here. Ah, now the pieces fall into place. So that was a really good lesson.
I’ll say it even though it’s a little bit controversial, I was troubled with the security culture of the Welcoming Committee. Not that it wasn’t good enough, but it lent itself to real suspiciousness and a certain self-deception about how one could keep oneself entirely safe. I say that even though some of the people did excellent jobs at keeping themselves out of trouble, so I guess I’m still puzzling over that. I’m still asking myself… On the one hand, I was feeling a little bit like the way that we’re approaching the security culture seems to me not very realistic, and maybe a little self-delusional. But then it turns out, we were infiltrated. So wasn’t it really all that self-delusional? Well, no, I guess not. But it surely didn’t keep us safe either. Security culture might have made it a little more tough for the law enforcement, but they managed quite nicely to completely infiltrate us. So I don’t know, I’m still mulling over the lessons there. Of course, those were lessons that the Occupy Movement had to deal with also just a few years later. They were also quite thoroughly infiltrated. The Occupy movement was far more porous. There was so much coming and going, it wasn’t an intentionally small group of people working on a particular project like the Welcoming Committee was. I’m still chewing on those lessons. I think security culture is really necessary and also it can be outright detrimental to organizing, if you’re changing the location of your meeting because you’re afraid that somebody is going to infiltrate it, then the people that you want to come might not even know where to go. There’s some self-defeating stuff about security culture. Obviously, it’s so necessary, too. I’m still mulling this one and I don’t have a conclusion.
TFSR: That’s okay. I think that some of the more applicable approaches towards security culture that I’ve heard have been akin to what you mentioned, if I can’t figure out your motivation, maybe there’s something outside of the realm of possibilities that I’m thinking of what might be motivating you to do that. I think likewise, there are certain social patterns that people engage with sometimes when they’re operating with poor security culture, that may be conscious or unconscious, that relate to bragging about things, talking about things that aren’t their business to talk about other people’s experiences or histories, attempting to pressure people into things or create divisions or splits as opposed to addressing things, like if they have an issue addressing that clearly between people and attempting to de-escalate or find a solution to a problem. But then there’s “we need to like shift around, we need to change names every meeting,” at a certain point, it does become self-defeating and Kafkaesque. One of the other really important things that I can think of that came out of the resistance to the Republican National Convention in 2008, was the Minneapolis Principles… Just kidding.
TFSR: Got ya, the St. Paul Principles. Yeah. Could you talk a little bit about that? What conversation led to that being adopted? What do you think the implications of that are?
B: The organizing to oppose the RNC was not just a Welcoming Committee, there was also a large march announced almost as soon as the RNC was announced. The Peace Movement announced a large march to be during the RNC. In the Twin Cities, we have a very active chapter of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO). That was really the group that was working to a large mobilization, that was hoping to get several many thousands of people to come to the Twin Cities and protest. They were planning on a permitted legal march, and there was a great deal of concern and discussion between them and the Welcoming Committee about how an anarchist non-hierarchical spontaneous space could be created, where people could do their thing and not be marshaled into a prescribed behavior and also have this big march that grandparents and grandchildren and strollers and people in wheelchairs could participate in. So that was the origin of the St. Paul Principles. We had the luxury of 18 months in which to organize. The relations between the anti-authoritarian and anarchist Welcoming Committee and the socialist-informed Peace March were not really easy during the whole of these 18 months of organizing. As we grew closer, we started to say, “Okay, we got to figure this out.” There were four days of the convention and the Welcoming Committee had really aimed at the first day of the convention to do our actions. Of course, the Peace March wanted to be on the first day too. Then there were some other groups that some other actions that we’re hoping to get their time during the four days of the convention, one of them being the Welfare Rights Organization that was going to be doing a march on the second day, which didn’t have a real organizing presence locally until fairly close to the convention.
So, the Freedom Road Socialist Peace Movement, and the anti-authoritarian anarchist movement came together, and for about a month, we worked out the principles. I remember I wrote an early draft, which was way wordy. Other people wrote big, wordy drafts, too. Then we had just some sit down and talk about it at meetings, to come up with a very streamlined four principles. Two of those came from the Welcoming Committee, and two of those came from the Peace Movement. The principle of not criticizing each other in public was one of the things that we felt very strongly about. To divide the protesters into good protesters and bad protesters and have the Peace Movement critiquing the anarchists, people felt very strongly that this was not acceptable. We insisted on that. The Peace Movement really insisted that we separate the actions in space or time and we had to work out that conjunction, whether it was “or” or “and”. That little conjunction took a lot of work. We agreed that we could separate our actions in space or time. I am blanking on the other two because they weren’t quite as difficult to get an agreement on.
I have seen the St. Paul Principles recently, where somebody just declared that we were going to use the St. Paul Principles. I thought, no, wait for a second, you can’t just declare that we’re going to use the St. Paul Principles here. You have to get the agreement to use the principles here. That’s why they worked because we had the luxury of pre-planning and doing the hard discussion and building up some modicum of trust. It really was still not a very trusting relationship, even after we got the principles down. There was still a good deal of mutual distrust. Anarchists feeling like “Don’t you dare bring your marshals over and tell us what to do. We’re not going to promise not to use the march as a launching point for an anarchist action, or a more spontaneous action. We’re not going to be policed that way.” And the Peace Movement feeling like “Don’t you use us as protection, if you’re gonna do something that’s gonna bring the police down, don’t come running to us.” It was tense right through the action. In the event, of course, the police became the enemy of both of our groups.
TFSR: As it should be.
B: Yeah. The policing really took center stage. We had a whole lot more solidarity afterward because of the way that the police came down on us. I was really pleased to see the principles basically holding all through the follow-up actions, too, because we had all these arrests and trials. We had 400 people arrested just in one day, and they were charged largely with misdemeanors, we had 18 felonies besides the RNC8, and a whole bunch of misdemeanors, most of which never went to trial. Some of the felonies did. So we had a whole question of solidarity afterward, as well as solidarity in the event. And St. Paul Principles held, there was not a lot of recrimination of “If those nasty anarchists just hadn’t done this, then the whole thing would have gone over off so much better.” Or “If those spineless peace people hadn’t done that, we would have had a much stronger presence or a much stronger demonstration.” There was not that public recrimination. I felt really, really happy with the process that resulted in the St. Paul Principles and the way that they held up afterward.
They are a good basis for further action, as long as there’s a real discussion about “what do you mean by separated in space or time? What do you mean by public criticism? Does that include Facebook? Does that include Twitter?” There are ways that you really have to know what you’re agreeing to? I feel like the St. Paul Principles do strengthen our movement. Probably some of my MNS colleagues, if they heard me saying that would be disagreeing with me. But I think they do strengthen our movement. And the strength, though, lies in working out the details, and what do they really mean? Are we truly agreeing to these things?
TFSR: Yeah, especially the holding to the principles. You can make any statement, but until all parties are on board with what it means and honestly engaging with them, it’s just a piece of paper.
B: Right. Especially as the whole thing gets changed and lost. As people lose memory of what they really meant and why they worked.
TFSR: Are there any projects that you’re excited to see blossoming in your scene? Have you seen St. Paul change over the years, while you’ve been organizing and agitating there?
B: I had been agitated.
I think that some of the things that I feel most hopeful about, there is a real willingness to engage in public action that just wasn’t there. If I go back to the 1980’s, even the 1990’s, I would tend to see the same faces at every single demonstration I went to. For instance, under President Clinton, we bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and a training camp in Afghanistan. This incident has been all glossed over in all the bombings we’ve done since. But I remember that the group of people organized with Afghani-Americans in the Twin Cities, and we did protests and demonstrations around the bombing in Afghanistan in the mid-1990’s. Then there was also Sarajevo and the bombings and the US involvement in the war in Bosnia. There’s actually a fairly large Serbian population in the Twin Cities. The Serbian-Americans came out against those bombing actions. Then there were the bombings in Vieques and the US naval practice carried out in Vieques. So Puerto Ricans came out in opposition to that, and yet there was a strain of people like myself and some of my other friends who came up to all of them. I began to think actually, it’s not bad that there is a certain core of us who care about bombs, whether they’re in Afghanistan, Sudan, or in Serbia, or Albania, or the Vieques. We care about bombs, and that it’s not entirely rooted in our self-interest. So I came to honor the fact that some people just will simply care about these issues, regardless of where they happen, or to whom they happen. At the same time, you get tired of seeing the same old people at every single one of these demonstrations. That’s not been my experience, since– Occupy was the first time that I noticed that I thought, “Hey, these are brand new faces, I haven’t seen these people before.” Since that time, I have seen more and more brand new faces, more and more people I haven’t ever seen before. I really love that, I love that there is an increasing sense of “I can’t just sit on the sidelines anymore, I have to do something.”
Because again, I feel like that’s a piece of anarchism. If we’re going to see an anarchist future, it really requires people to not sit on the sidelines. It requires a willingness to participate in public life. Sometimes I think that anarchism really demands a lot of that, and may be a little unrealistic in some ways about just how much participation in public life we can have. Nonetheless, I think that, for where we are today, or wherever we have come from, it’s really good to see so many people who are willing to say, “I want to participate in the formation of this society, I want to have a say in what’s going on, I want to try to think about how we can do things better, I’m willing to put some elbow grease and some time and some foot power into it.” It’s promising for an anarchist future that we have so many people who are feeling willing to speak up and to take part, I think that’s what an anarchist future is going to depend on. So that’s one of the things that I feel really excited about.
Currently, the project that I’m working with is Showing Up for Facial Justice (SURJ), it’s a national organization, but we have a very active chapter here in the Twin Cities. I’m working particularly on policing and on the possibility of spreading the ideas of the abolition of the police department, not just the prison system, but the police department itself, particularly to people of European descent, who may not have even considered the idea before and saying, “Well maybe it’s time for us to think about that, maybe it’s time to think about abolishing it completely, abolishing the police department?” And then having conversations about what then? And be willing to throw the ideas around, because we have to start someplace. Certainly, I’ve heard a lot of People Of Color saying “We have to abolish the police department.” They won’t be able to do that if white people get in the way. So to try to at least somewhat normalize the idea of abolishing the police among people of European descent, who have, unfortunately, the white privilege… At least introduce the idea, develop hopefully some sympathy for the idea of the project of abolition, and at least neutralize the opposition. So that’s the thing that I’m working on right now. With the background, the fundamental commitment to an anarchist future informing my politics and my actions, finding ways to develop both the culture of taking self-responsibility, self-management, of self-discipline, the culture that will be necessary to create an anarchist future and also the politics of not relying on authority and not declaring ourselves free of the need for military authority running our lives, or status to authority running our lives. This is what I can see to do at the moment.
TFSR: That’s lovely. Thank you, Betsy, so much. If only you could see if there was a video option on this side, I’m just nodding my head and with the microphone being down saying “Yes, yes.” Preach it.
Thank you so much for having this conversation. I’m happy to link to your organization trainingforchange.org in the show notes. Thanks so much for sharing all this info and these experiences and hope to get to meet you sometime.
B: Yeah, I hope so too. Thanks for reaching out and taking the time.