The second part of our ‘How were you radicalized?’ series brings us to the 2000s. Starting with his family roots in the South African anti-apartheid and American civil rights movements, the author takes us through the post-9/11 and Iraq War era, a time when many of us found the radical left. This piece was written by our friend, Dee, who is in First of May Anarchist Alliance as well as the IWW. Although a lifelong Midwesterner, he is currently living in South Africa.
How I was radicalized (Part 2): Growing up during the ‘War on Terror’
I was born in an impoverished, predominantly black city near Chicago called Harvey. The youngest of 5, I was raised by two lifelong activist/artists who have been married since the 1970s. My dad is a former South African Communist exile and member of the ANC (African National Congress) who made his living as a jazz musician. My mother was a former civil rights organizer and teacher from the west side of Chicago. Radical politics has been a part of my life since before I can remember. My earliest political influences included Pan-African philosophers like Marcus Garvey, W.E.B Du Bois and Kwame Nkrumah. As kids, my brothers and I were constantly encouraged to be independent thinkers. In fact, we were taught to read as soon as we were potty trained. These factors were crucial in my development as a political revolutionary.
When I was 8 years old, our family moved to Milwaukee, where my mom was offered a teaching job at a Pan-African charter school. I was enrolled there until 5th grade, when my mom began homeschooling me instead. A year before that, my dad moved to South Africa to live for the first time in over 30 years. I would not see him again for a decade. Despite his absence, my mom was able to manage her entrepreneurial career and home school me part time. I spent most of my time learning about subjects that most interested me. Geography and history were my favorites. It was around age 11 when I first started reading about the Vietnam war. The clash of political forces and the radical cultural shifts of that time fascinated me. I was ashamed and appalled at how my country could commit such acts of mass murder against millions of innocent lives.What amazed me most however, was the resilience of such a small yet determined Communist resistance. It was at this time that I developed a curiosity for Communist philosophy and started reading the works of prominent writers like Lenin and Mao.
Like many Americans, I remember the televised tragedy that was 9/11 like a bad dream. I remember writing in my journal and listening to the radio as it happened. I couldn’t comprehend the scale of it until I turned on the TV and saw those towers tumble to the ground. It left an impression on me of great shock. Mom’s reaction was quite tame: “chickens coming home to roost” as Malcolm X used to say”. It didn’t seem like a harsh comment to me as I was well aware America had accumulated countless enemies throughout its history. Who these particular enemies were and why they were angry, wouldn’t make sense to me until later.
Subsequently, a new wave of patriotic nationalism swept over the country. Radical leftists were not exempt from this as I noticed several of them go from revolutionary to reactionary overnight. This new political climate made it difficult for radicals to organize publicly. My own political development was severely stunted and soon I would find myself falling prey to the sensationalized notion of “patriotism”. I remember reading the paper one day and seeing an American flag printed on the back pages. For some reason, just seeing this flag produced an overwhelming feeling of fear and sadness in my heart that I still cannot fully explain. Afterward I decided to do something that would have been previously unthinkable. I cut the flag out and pasted it to my door. When my mom and older brother saw this they were not amused. My brother even threatened to tear it down but my mom stopped him. She was aware of the current political climate and the effects it could have on people. She bet that eventually I would realize the error of my ways, and she was absolutely right.
Two years later, George Bush would order the U.S military into Iraq, thereby initiating a vicious cycle of death and destruction that continues unabated to this day. Seeing such a costly and pointless war justified on manufactured rumors and lies immediately set me back on the path towards radicalization. Simultaneously, the left was given new life which began to reassemble under the antiwar movement. Millions of people took to the streets to express their righteous anger against another unjust war. While I was inspired by this, I was also skeptical that protest alone would be enough to stop what was coming. Therefore, my participation was minimal. Knowing what I know now, I would have definitely done more.
By the time I enrolled in public high school I was an explicit radical Communist, more specifically I identified as a Marxist-Leninist (even though I hated Joseph Stalin). I quickly became well known for wearing “controversial” political t-shirts. Only my right-wing civics teacher ever challenged me about it. One day he tried to make me look ignorant by asking “do you really know who that Che Guevara guy on your shirt is?” I gave him an unexpected accurate reply which made him cut me off mid-paragraph and continue on with his lesson plan.
As my studies continued, my politics began to mature and I started to become disillusioned with Communism. I could no longer accept the contradictory notion of “state Communism” the way I used to. I was still a believer in Marxism, but with no understanding of radical leftism outside of mainstream Communism, my confidence in leftist theory faltered. It was at this time that I started reading a lot of Noam Chomsky and from him I was introduced to the concept of anarchism. I was not at all aware of its rich history, let alone the fact that it was a left-wing political ideology.
By junior year I had fully made the conversion to anarchism. I became a huge fan of the Crimethinc Ex-Workers Collective. Short literary books and zines like Off the Map and Rolling Thunder became my favorites. Sometime during this period I would help start a graffiti group with two other friends. Graffiti provided an outlet for me to channel my political rage. I also started blogging for the group on our Myspace page and produced a good amount of anarchist propaganda which managed to attract some followers. Just as this group was starting to expand I graduated high school and was sent away to live with my older siblings in Minneapolis.
The weekend I was supposed to leave was ironically the same day as Crimethinc’s annual convergence, which was set to happen in a rural town close to Milwaukee. This would be my first chance to actually meet seasoned anarchists from all across the country and I would not miss it. The convergence initially started off with a sudden downpour which held up the initial setup. Afterward, strangers started talking to each other and helping out with the set-up which broke the ice a bit. Having come by myself to the back woods of Wisconsin, I felt somewhat vulnerable and out of place. Being one of the few black people in attendance did not help this. As time went on this feeling eventually dissipated. But I was outraged to find out that a white South African “anarchist” was allowed to conduct a workshop where he spoke openly of his dislike for black people and no one said a thing. After hearing this I made it a personal mission to confront him but he was noticeably absent.
Most of the workshops themselves tended to be more about identity politics and lifestylism than actual organizing.There was however one exceptional workshop that detailed various formations and tactics that police use to quell protests. This was in preparation for the upcoming Republican National Convention (RNC) protest set to happen the following month in St. Paul, MN. This turned out to be quite convenient for me as I would be moving to nearby Minneapolis the very next day.
I moved to Minneapolis an enlightened, yet financially challenged and socially unconnected, young man. Minneapolis was, and still is, worlds apart from Milwaukee. To make matters worse, when the RNC came to St. Paul I found myself unable to attend due to not being plugged in to the organizing efforts and having transportation issues. To make matters worse, Arise bookstore, my last connection to the left community had closed down. Three years later I would finally get my chance at redemption when the Occupy Wall Street movement came to Minnesota. From that experience I would gain invaluable contacts and resources that eventually led to me joining the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). I’ve been an active radical union organizer ever since.