Wednesday, June 3, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Every Thursday at 6 p.m., the anarchists set up shop in a side room at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Maryland Parkway.
They blanket two folding tables with a spread of literature that ranges from the militant-sounding “(Expletive) Neoliberalism, (Expletive) Borders: An Anarchist Look at World Trade,” to the more tempered “Don’t Owe Nothin’: A Practical Guide to How You Can Stop Paying for War by Living Simply and Eliminating Your Tax Liability.”
Green-lidded containers that used to hold powdered Parmesan cheese serve as donation jars for radical causes. A tall, rectangular trash receptacle made of wood doubles as a lectern.
These are the trappings of the Las Vegas Anarchist Cafe — a weekly powwow for anarchists and the “anarchy-curious.”
The A-Cafe has been sparsely attended as of late. But no matter. For those who show up, there is an anarchists’ revolution to plan. Charles Johnson, the forum’s 27-year-old co-founder, wants it to be a springboard for activism, a place where like-minded individuals can network.
Today’s anarchist projects can take so many forms — perhaps “the burrito project,” a decentralized movement to feed the hungry, or maybe “radical child care co-ops,” which bring together groups of parents who take turns babysitting. Shortly before the latest meeting, Johnson expounds on anarchist principles. Though talk of anarchy typically evokes an array of alarming possibilities — chaos, violence, terrorism — Johnson says Las Vegas has no reason to fear him or his followers.
Dictionaries define anarchy as political disorder and violence, but the political philosophy that promotes abolition of the state is actually all about creating order, says Johnson, a copper-haired Web developer who grew up in Alabama and moved to Las Vegas in 2007 by way of Michigan.
In his vision of an anarchic society, Johnson explains, decisions stem from consensus. Neighbors might seek mediation for disputes instead of taking matters to established courts. In hard times, people might share food instead of relying on government handouts.
Johnson’s anarchy “is about lawless order, cooperation rather than coercion.”
Nevertheless, the ideology is a tough sell. A libertarian who frequents Johnson’s meet-ups skipped much of the most recent one, bored by Johnson’s half-hour-long reading of an anarchist essay.
According to a bright yellow flier trumpeting “Vegas Anarchy,” the reasons to turn to anarchy are obvious.
“Why Anarchy?” the handout begins. “Well, look around. Consider the alternative. Think about the last time you were at the airport. Think about what it feels like to go through a government ‘security’ checkpoint. The endless lines. The searches. The arbitrary orders about laptops and shoes and liquids and gels. Did the harassment and humiliation make you feel safer? Or did you feel something else?”
For people feeling that “something else,” the A-Cafe can serve as a springboard to activism, Johnson says. He estimates the meet-up has drawn about 60 different people all told since its inception last summer.
Anarchism’s emphasis on freedom appeals to Nevada’s libertarian slant. Its overarching philosophy is what strikes people as unreal. Johnson’s goal is “peaceful revolution from the existing society to a fully free society” — that is, the elimination of government as we know it.
The philosophy has gained traction recently through projects such as Critical Mass, in which bicyclists congregate and take to the streets, often without a set route, and Food Not Bombs, a decentralized movement whose devotees share vegetarian food with hungry people, according to Dana Ward, an anarchist and professor of political science at Pitzer College in California. Johnson, who learned of anarchist thinking through other activists and his libertarian father’s books, is a Food Not Bomber.
On Sundays, he practices his anarchy by joining Gail Sacco, a well-known local advocate for the homeless, and others to serve meals at Baker Park. The idea, he says, is to circumvent government bureaucracy in providing help. Anyone can eat, regardless of income.
“What we’re doing,” Johnson says, “is providing grass-roots mutual aid in the form of food.”
Sacco, who describes herself as a “nonviolent Christian anarchist with a little bit of libertarian in me,” says some participants found out about Food Not Bombs through the A-Cafe.
At the most recent coffee shop gathering, silence follows Johnson’s reading of anarchist Benjamin Tucker’s “State Socialism and Anarchism: How Far They Agree, and Wherein They Differ.”
When he began his reading, he had an audience of seven, including one young woman who happened to be in the room using her laptop to browse Facebook profiles before the event got started.
Now, only three listeners remain. (The Facebooker left.) Johnson slips out from behind his garbage-bin-turned-lectern and sits at a nearby table, draining the melted ice of his drink. Ceiling fans twirl overhead. Everyone is quiet.
Despite a clumsy start, the conversation picks up, dominated primarily by Johnson and Rachel Bovard, 26, a self-described anarchofeminist.
The discussion moves from inheritance and patriarchal societies to feminism and the need for anarchists to band together and realize, as Johnson puts it, that “our closest allies are anarchists — not a bunch of statists.”
By 8 p.m., when a Coffee Bean barista pokes her head in the room to announce that the shop is closing in one minute, the small group is talking about specifics.
Johnson has invited Bovard to speak at the A-Cafe about an upcoming nationwide protest against a company whose bulldozers Israel has used to demolish Palestinian properties. Bovard, a writing tutor, has offered to help build an Independent Media Center in Las Vegas.
Their revolution is under way.