Looking back on a decade of throwing power out the window

November 30, 2015

It’s now been ten years since we first started publishing this paper.

The defenestrator as a project initially grew from an informal conversation riding back to Philly from a Homes Not Jails conference in Boston. The conversation in the back of that van in retrospect bore a strange resemblance to more recent conversations I’ve been in on the way home from other inspiring conferences, essentially: “Why don’t we do that in Philly?” A few weeks later we had our first meeting to shape what was to become the paper you now hold. The first issue, number zero, was photocopied, laid out by hand and contained Philly news about the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, Philly Squatters Aid, an enthusiastic bit on Philly Freedom Summer for Mumia, the Atlantic Anarchist Circle, Wooden Shoe Books recovering from a fire, as well as updates from political prisoners and various international news bits. We printed issue zero on stolen paper using commandeered photocopiers at undisclosed locations.

Before long a number of new solid contributors came on board to help fill those commandeered photocopied pages. The path through the years reflects largely what these contributors and collective members had been working on or were connected to at the time: actions against police violence and the death penalty, support for various political prisoners (especially Philadelphian Mumia Abu Jamal), Radio Mutiny (our local pirate station), raids or evictions of various squats and ACT UP fighting to get needle exchanges funded were all part of those beginning days. The first issues looked lively and chaotic and from the beginning we ran our staple rebel calendar, something that before the prominence of the internet was a useful activist refrigerator adornment.

Along with the collective solidifying, by issue three we’d made it to newsprint, a big 11x17 inch 4 pager. We still hadn’t quite figured out how to get photos to come out looking right and most of our readers were just resigning themselves to our consistent violations of spelling or punctuation standards (no it wasn’t anarchy, we were just fucking up). Despite the bad pictures and lack-luster grammar, energy continued to flow and by issue 4 we added another 4 pages.

During this time, issues zero through four, I had been living in Squirrel Squat, a squatted building at 49th and Baltimore, borrowing resources liberally from our neighbors across the street: Not Squat (a former squat)which at the time was an informal neighborhood anarchist center of sorts. The building housed a pirate radio station and a heavily utilized computer lab in the attic. Before any protest or sizable direct action Not Squat’s attic was THE command center for making flyers, press calls, sending out faxes and press releases etc. Surrounded by all this activity (between the computer lab and the radio station) it was a great place to be working on the defenestrator.

After our eviction from Squirrel Squat in June of 98, a number of the former Squirrel residents opened up a small one room radical community space near 44th and Chestnut and dubbed it the Derailleur. It contained a small library, a darkroom, and a trash picked loft that housed our new tiny office. Perusing the issues from this stretch of time: the FCC had busted Radio Mutiny, Police shot and killed Phillip McCall at 40th and Market, and both the Love and Rage anarchist federation and the German Red Army Faction had split up for good.

Over the next year or so, though we didn’t quite know it, steam was building for a big year of resurgence in action. Our issues of that year, 1998-1999, featured police killings and brutality so consistently you’d think it was 2007. Our tenth issue ran a call for folks to go to Seattle to shut down the World Trade Organization. Though there was certainly a buzz around Philly about the WTO protests at the time, no-one really had expected such a successful massive action. By November that year some thirty thousand rabble rousers blocked Seattle’s streets, effectively leading to a collapse of dialogue intended to give the richest, most powerful corporations of the world unrestricted freedom to exploit poor people globally. Simultaneously an anarchist “black block” roved separately in a complementary action and trashed corporate and police property, a spectacular and rare black eye for capitalism. Philadelphians making their way back from Seattle were inspired and ready to ratchet up the fight another notch. The relative success of the WTO brought in a new wave of activists, both new faces and folks who had been politically dormant for years, sending new energy into the paper and the collective. Fortunately that summer (2000) the fight was coming right to Philly in the form of the Republican National Convention. How convenient, we thought.

A coalition of radical groups came together to form the Philadelphia Direct Action Group (PDAG). The idea was to disrupt business as usual as much as possible on August 1st 2000, the first day of the convention and bring attention to the Prison Industrial Complex, which we defined as everything from the cop terror on the streets, to America’s political prisoners, to the growth of the private prison industry, to the racist nature of all of the above. All of our collective members at the time took part in nearly all aspects of organizing for this ranging from legal support and outreach to direct action trainings to cooking food for arriving protesters. The process leading up to the RNC, especially with PDAG, represented a rare coming together of different organizing efforts. The lead up to August 1st was an exciting time of forging new connections and bonds especially overcoming some racial boundaries, political differences, but also a time of being harassed, infiltrated and surveilled by our attentive PD. We had come out with a special edition of the paper with maps of the city listing deserving local targets, important meeting spots and cheap eats, which we spent too many hot hours at excessively long protests handing out before August 1st.

When the day of action rolled around, we had joined with a kick ass coalition of NYers and essentially shut down center city. Despite a number of successful hits that day (shutting down traffic, defacing Lynn Abraham’s office and the Rizzo statue among the more spectacular), we took considerable blows ourselves. Aside from getting completely trashed in the media, nearly 500 of us were arrested, some of us getting severe beatings both in jail and on the streets. The arrests, which included a number of felony charges (including 3 of my own), took a lot of the organizational wind out of Philly’s sails as hundreds of radicals spent too much time dealing with court and legal situations. But August 1st also brought a whole new wave of Philadelphians in touch with radical politics, some of whom became important defcollective partisans.*

In the time since the RNC demonstrations, University City District and Upenn driven gentrification began to be felt much more acutely. Thus we began our Gentrification Watch column in order to keep Philadelphians up on developers’ schemings and some of the organized resistance to this process. Other matters we covered included: Mumia’s repeated defeats in racist courts, a campaign against DA Lynn Abraham’s systematic pursuit of the death penalty, a steady flow of R2K legal updates, accompanied by coverage of the uprisings around the world against capitalist globalization. From Prague to Australia massive direct actions against meetings of ruling elites filled streets with broken glass, smoke and teargas and the nagging persistence of anti-capitalists in the street began to shake the dominant narrative of capitalism as the inevitable and only way forward.

The attacks on New York on September 11th 2001, however threw much of this energy on its head. A fighting movement (of course still with tons of our own problems), drew back largely in fear as hundreds of Arabs were being rounded up in racist sweeps. By now we had lost the Derailleur, but together with Philly Indymedia and an assortment of other individuals, bought 4134 Lancaster Ave. in a post 9.11. real estate confusion. Years of construction followed (and are sure to follow), but the paper was the first organization to move in to what we now know as LAVA, the Lancaster Avenue Autonomous space. True to the changing times, we had DSL hooked up before plumbing or heat. While we continued to keep cranking out the issues, we organized against the inevitable invasion of Iraq, covered the uprisings that swept Argentina following an economic collapse, and issue 23 dispelled delusional White House claims the war was over ( if only they knew)... In the meantime, it seems like much of the longer term work has paid off. Sometimes it takes years to have the good results of one’s work to come back around. Often we hear good words in random conversations on the street, or are told about someone hooking up with an action, organization or community garden after reading about it in the defenestrator. It’s also been territory for discussion on theory and strategy for the radical left in general. Despite various small and gratifying gains as a result of the paper, we’ve also failed (along with the left in general) to help keep our world from spiraling quickly into an increasingly fucked up situation: A war that some people said early on we shouldn’t waste our time fighting is still going (badly from any perspective), Philly cops keep topping their records in murders of young black men, Mumia has taken several hard legal losses, a number of new political prisoners are making their way through the courts, and former Panthers are facing the rest of their lives behind bars for what never happened 30 years ago. All this makes the defenestrator’s work feel just that much more crucial.

No-one considered that we would have lasted ten years. Looking back at other comparable anarchist or radical Philly papers, we’ve done well. The various projects which preceded us locally, the Philly Free Press (an SDS paper based initially out of Temple) lasted some xx years, while the Schuylkill River Express, Plain Wrapper etc. cranked out impressive work during the height of the left in the late sixties and early seventies. Later specifically anarchist projects, like the Free Voice (1990s) and Life is Free, a small squatter newspaper, lasted only a handful of issues, while Talk is Cheap, a paper based in the punk scene, made it through the late 80s. In ways we came out of that tradition of documenting local radical community struggles while giving the movement as a whole some material to chew over. Adding to this intra movement communication was a desire to connect to the street as well as about what was going on politically. Over the 10 years, we managed to put out issues zero through 39, as well as some event specific publications: one for the Coalition Against the American Correctional Association (a trade fair for the prison industry), another for the Biodemocracy anti-genetic engineering convergence, both in Philly. Despite sporadic production we fell to several ultra low points which had us question whether to continue or not. But new people always fell into the collective as others wandered off and there was always that fresh spark to kick us back into production. It’s certainly understandable how a project like a radical paper can easily fold. The effort of raising the money to keep printing alone has at times been such a daunting prospect that withering away seemed the obvious next step. Same goes for the matter of constantly attempting to pull together all the disparate strands of what it takes to keep the paper together on an organizational level. Any paid coordinator was never even a matter of consideration, pretty much all attempts at gathering funds via grants were rejected (usually before even sending in an application), so the defenestrator throughout its decade was always a reflection of the creative and fiscal energy we had at that very moment. One can see this in the varying levels of quality in design and content over the years. And though it seems like we may be nearly an issue ahead of ourselves financially as of this issue, it’s never been that way yet. Looking through the archives, the numerous desperate pleas for funds attest to this (almost pathetically in retrospect).

The recent bankruptcies and collapses of other radical publications who seemed to have it so together compared to us, such as Clamor, in many ways were a surprise to hear about. We had always been just barely scraping by both in terms of having people work on the paper as well as financially. But in our situation it was just that much easier to pick ourselves back off the ground. Amongst the roughest times fiscally, it just meant we had to kick down a few hundred out of our own pockets to get an issue out. That’s certainly been a burden, but in my opinion, not nearly the burden of trying to maintain an engaged collective or sharing working more equally amongst each other. Looking at the relatively enormous fiscal reliance of other papers makes it now seem a blessing that we’d never gotten it together to expand to such a degree.

Over the years, though the collective has always been shifting, we’ve more or less maintained an affinity group style of working. A lot of the creative work happened informally over beers and our politics have often been largely undefined and subject to internal conversations and debates. This has been a consistent critique of the collective over the years. It’s meant that we’re less accessible, often because of our lack of a clearly defined set of politics. As a result, we’ve set ourselves up for some weird situations with more state oriented leftists. The paper has always been heavily influenced by anarchism and it’s notions of horizontal organizing, direct democracy, and direct action, but being stuck in a cultural anarchist ghetto, both in terms of what we report and who we talk to has never been our intention or desire.

The laid back affinity group style also made it rough to incorporate people from different political perspectives, especially when editorial issues to do with the state would emerge. At numerous points, in my opinion because we had no distinct political perspective spelled out, editorial discussions would break down into personal bitterness over political differences. Some of these disagreements pivoted on how to cover various union struggles, Chavez and Venezuela, pressuring the state for concessions versus self-organizing. Here especially a more defined politics could have been useful to avoid some of the personal aspects of our editorial arguments. These arguments however, while some people did leave, never managed to split the defcollective as much as other issues that are maybe more typical to groups of friends than they are to political collectives. Personal problems inside our collective have often had a much rougher impact on our work than did political disagreements or editorial issues. The issue of strong personalities dominating the visual or editorial slant of the defenestrator has recurred a number of times, as has an imbalance of who’s been doing the work. Like with countless other all volunteer projects with limited means, it often proved simply too frustrating to watch countless solid collective members wander off to pursue full time jobs or other more sustaining ventures both political and not.

Skimming through this decade of newsprint brings back a ton of memories not just of these collective members who have wandered away, but also friendships, triumphs, struggles, and even loses. Font choices and layout styles bring back faces of former collective members; reports of organizing attempts or actions that hadn’t crossed my mind in years have me full of pride that Philadelphians are always putting up a fight, and even though I should know better it remains stunning how many steps back we take in our path towards a better world. Reading backwards through the years, I’m also reminded of the pain that’s been part of the last decade: there have been deaths amongst contributors and the larger defenestrator family: Mary Cabrera, Sera, Marlon Solar and Brad Will among those vividly and heartily missed.

Despite the frustrations and downturns over the past decade, the defenestrator survived. Today new as well as old energies infuse the pages. These pages are still a reflection of the various struggles we’ve been part of or connected to for the past ten years, but also illuminate the paths that will lead us into our future. In many ways we stand in an exciting place, one where we have the history, the experiences to critically address both our success and our failures. As we stand here, at the cusp of another decade of defenestration, a Zapatista expression comes to mind: we walk, we do not run, because we have a very long way to go.

This piece appeared in an issue of the Philadelphia anticapitalist newspaper the defenestrator.

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by dave onion .... twitter / mastodon