The `Anarchist Menace,' Past and Present

In Chicago on May 19, three men described by police as "self-proclaimed anarchists" were detained for stockpiling Molotov cocktails and conspiring to attack President Barack Obama's campaign headquarters and other targets.

During the following weekend's anti-NATO protests, scores of demonstrators -- many of them clad in black and connected with anarchist factions -- were arrested for participating in militant confrontations with Chicago police.

The incidents seemed to be part of an unexpected trend. On Nov. 3, after vandalism and violence broke out following an Occupy Wall Street demonstration, Oakland's interim police chief described some of the protesters as "generally anarchists and provocateurs." On May 1, five men were arrested in Ohio for allegedly plotting to blow up a bridge near Cleveland. FBI spokesmen announced that they had foiled an "anarchist" plot.

For almost a century, anarchism has been a forgotten creed. But with the rise of the anti-globalization movement and Occupy Wall Street, the iconic figure of the bomb-throwing anarchist appears to be making a revival. And the response of police and prosecutors to this alleged new threat has some unfortunate historical parallels.

Few cultural signifiers have lasted as long, or have justified so many desperate actions, as the image of the anarchist. Opponents of governmental power, anarchists advocated a type of socialism based on individual autonomy and democratic decision making. Considered bestial, insane, desperate and implacable, the bomb-throwing radical was a bugbear as familiar to fin-de-siecle Americans as the turbaned terrorist is today. Since the 19th century, anarchism has usually been equated with transgression and chaos. If anarchists were criminal by nature, then it followed that they were also criminal in fact. Such simplistic blurring facilitated numerous repressions in the past. And it is just as dangerous now.

A century ago, novels by G.K. Chesterton, Joseph Conrad, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Henry James all featured anarchist villains, while melodramatic newspaper serials and lurid pictorials conveyed the character type to mass audiences. Political cartoons depicted them as animals or monstrosities. The image of the rampaging, conniving radical stuck.

"Bombs and anarchists are inseparable in the minds of most of us," wrote Guido Bruno, a chronicler of Greenwich Village life. "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."

Like most caricatures, this description was founded on some underlying facts. From 1880 to 1920, self-professed anarchists carried out a bloody litany of assassinations -- targeting czars and kings, plutocrats and presidents. These murders were interspersed with a series of failed plots, suspected conspiracies and botched assaults. In short, some radical outrage was more or less a daily feature of life.

But anarchism was a global movement claiming thousands of adherents. They founded schools, organized mutual-aid societies, worked closely with labor unions and argued eloquently for a post-capitalist society founded on individual freedom rather than profits. Only a handful of them ever acted violently, but the predations that did occur -- compounded by the zealous sensationalism of the press -- were more than enough to defame the entire faction.

Newspapers and politicians discussed anarchists with the same excess used by the authors of pulp novels. "They are simply filled with a crazy hatred of people who are better off than themselves," a New York Times editor wrote in 1894. "Every Anarchist crime makes clearer the necessity of putting Anarchists out of the way, like so many rabid dogs."

For elected officials, the very real threat of assassination ensured a similar attitude. "When compared with the suppression of anarchy, every other question sinks into insignificance," President Theodore Roosevelt warned Congress in 1908. "The anarchist is the enemy of humanity, the enemy of all mankind."

Such rhetoric had serious political repercussions. The supposed "Anarchist Menace" was used to justify new instruments of surveillance and repression, which served as the forerunners for today's intrusive security state. A 1903 statute made it legal to bar anarchists from immigration -- the first time in U.S. history that a political belief was cited as a barrier to citizenship. New York created an "Anarchist Squad" of undercover policemen in the aftermath of a bombing that was attributed to radical conspirators. During World War I -- and in the Red Scare that ensued -- thousands of anarchists were imprisoned and deported.

Whenever an act of political violence occurred, even if the perpetrators couldn't actually be identified, authorities were quick to blame anarchist dissidents. In 1886, eight anarchists in Chicago were charged when dynamite exploded among police during a demonstration in Haymarket Square. In 1914, poet and labor leader Joe Hill was arrested for the death of two Utah grocers. In 1920, anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were tried for a murder that occurred in Braintree, Massachusetts. All these cases relied on doubtful evidence. And the accused were subjected to politicized trials, in which they were prosecuted for their ideas rather than their actions. In each instance, the defendants were executed.

Cultural images have the power to demonize or validate social behavior, and have long served authorities and insurgents alike as potent political implements. Modern-day protesters who carry the black flag, or don Guy Fawkes masks, are signaling their desire to be perceived as a threat. But striking a confrontational pose isn't the same as committing a crime. When prosecutors -- in Illinois, Ohio or elsewhere -- cite the beliefs of the accused as evidence of their guilt, we must insist upon the difference between actions and ideas.

Democracy lies in the distinction.

(Thai Jones teaches history in the MAT Program at Bard College. His most recent book is "More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York's Year of Anarchy.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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