January 1825, 1996
The anarchist community has a history and a future.
As anarchist activists in the Philadelphia branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) strive to establish a foothold in North Philadelphia, a Center City IWW job shop is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and two anarchist-based West Philadelphia community programs continue to thrive.
The Wooden Shoe Bookstore, hidden in the basement of a building at 20th and Sansom, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
"We'd like to have a lot of big events to celebrate," said Scott Lamson of the anniversary. Lamson is a member of the IWW and a veteran volunteer at the Wooden Shoe. He said that during the anniversary celebrations he would also like to discuss the general issue of control, book trade, and what it means to be an independent bookstore.
Established in 1976 by an anarchist collective, the Wooden Shoe began as a labor movement bookstore. Its name derives from the industrial revolution, when French workers, forced to spend agonizingly long hours at work, would stick their wooden shoes in the machines to try and slow them down. Eventually, the bookstore lost its labor focus and became centered around anarchist materials.
A hand-drawn sign reading "Hard to Find Books" stands outside of the stairway leading down into the Wooden Shoe. On either side of the stairwell are flyers advertising everything from lost cats to speaking engagements.
Inside, the place is packed, wall to wall, with newspapers, books, pamphlets, flyers and vinyl records. A small round table has somehow been squeezed in to accommodate those customers who like to take a leisurely browse through revolutionary theories.
The Wooden Shoe has survived all of these years through the volunteer efforts of Philadelphia anarchists. There is no owner or manager. The bills are paid through sales. The store is run completely by staffers, although they do hire out a bookkeeper. "It's the kind of structure that we want to see everywhere," said Lamson.
Because over half of the bookstore's present employees are members of the IWW, it serves as a job shop for the labor union. Technically, a job shop is a work place that recognizes the IWW as a representative for all of its workers. Because all of the workers at the Wooden Shoe volunteer and there is no manager, there is really no need for the representation of a labor union, said Lamson.
Another very successful volunteer effort of local anarchists is Books Through Bars, a prisoner support organization that began in 1991. A program that donates books to prisoners throughout the country, Books Through Bars is run by members of the anarchist collective and by New Society Publishers.
Prisoners, who often discover the program through word of mouth, write letters to Books Through Bars requesting specific books, or types of books. The most requested topics are English language books, African-American and ethnic studies, self-help and law.
"We have been overwhelmed with requests. We often get repeat requests with nice letters attached," says Barbara Hirshkowitz of New Society Publishers.
Books Through Bars, which relies mainly on individual donations and grants, is so swamped with letters from prisoners requesting books that an order received in January might not be filled until March. Lamson says that, due to insufficient funds, "we won't be able to keep this pace up."
When Lamson got involved with Books Through Bars two years ago, he and his co-workers were only filling a few dozen requests each month. Today, said Lamson, they distribute 300 packages a month.
In addition to finding the money for mailing materials and postage, Lamson has to contend with prison bureaucracies. Because individuals cannot send unapproved packages to prisoners, the mailings from Books Through Bars have to be sent through New Society Publishers.
Publishing companies, Lamson says, are trusted by the prison system "not to send anything disruptive." All books must be packaged in envelopes, not boxes, and must only be in paperback, not hardcover, says Lamson, who thinks that the prisons must see hardcover books as potential weapons.
According to a pamphlet, volunteers who work with Books Through Bars "look forward to the complete abolition of prisons and hope to discover alternatives to prisons through our support work."
Through letters from the prisoners and through personal relationships with former prisoners, Lamson has heard of guards involved in drug trafficking, maggots found in food and people being carted off to maximum security prisons with no explanations.
"The idea of rehabilitation is dead and buried... The prison system doesn't protect society, it damages society," says Lamson.
On a more local level, the anarchists in Philadelphia are deeply involved in Food Not Bombs. It was first organized in Boston by Keith McHenry and was created, according to IWW member and anarchist Bob Helms, to publicize the idea that "people are starving in our streets while the government spends money on the military... It is an effort to get people involved in feeding themselves."
The Philadelphia chapter of Food Not Bombs was established three years ago by Tim Dunn. Volunteers meet every week at the A-Space, an anarchist meeting place in West Philadelphia, to collect and distribute food.
Dozens of grocery stores in West Philadelphia donate fruits, vegetables and bread to Food Not Bombs each week, according to Lamson.
Food is available for people to take on their own. They are not limited to one helping of beans, or one piece of fruit, but can take as much as they wish of a food item that is in abundance.
"This is not so that we don't feel guilty when we see a homeless person... We often deal with people who have homes, even kitchens. We give people food; poor people that need to have some extra help. It gives them more options in their lives to get their material needs," says Lamson.
The A-Space was originally the Philadelphia Marxist School. "When Marxism crumbled around the world, including in West Philadelphia, we decided to start the A-Space," says Alexis Buss, an active member of the collective.
In 1991, Helms launched the Voltairine de Cleyre Lecture Series from the A-Space. Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912), an activist committed to anarchy, feminism, free speech and atheism, lived most of her life in Philadelphia. The A-Space has hosted 40 events in the de Cleyre series, including lectures by historians who discussed anarchist-related material and activists who talked about political and legal cases involving anarchists, according to Helms.
Various artists have also exhibited their work at the A-Space. Currently, the A-Space is sponsoring a series of events and exhibitions by Mary DeWitt entitled, "I Face Myself, I Face You: Voices and Portraits of Seven Life-Sentenced Women." According to literature distributed about the series, it is devoted to "women who were forced to defend their lives and the cruel irony of the judicial system that put them behind bars once they finally had escaped their batterers."
For Helms and many other anarchists, it is not only the judicial system, but all aspects of government that stand in the way of their freedom. "Government is simply the security team of the corporate power structure. It is a method of imposing the corporate will," says Helms.
In the absence of government he does not believe that society would fall into a black hole. "You can argue that anything, including things that cover distances...can be arranged better without government, especially without corporate power," he continues.
In light of the programs conducted by anarchists in Philadelphia that help area communities, the reputation of violence has been a stigma anarchists here grapple with every day. "Very often people don't use the word anarchist. They see it only as a term of abuse. They can't see it as constructive," says Helms.
"We aren't nihilists interested in destroying society. We are interested in building society," explains Buss. "I usually don't describe myself as an anarchist because it seems to have lost its meaning," Buss continues. "I believe in mutual aid I help you, you help me community, people working together for the common good and in self-defense," she says.
To Buss and to many other people associated with it, anarchy is not synonymous with violence.
"I am interested in transcommunality with the Black Panthers, anarchists and people working for prison reform," says Elizabeth Quigley, who founded and runs the Pennsylvania Alternative Education Association and the Bucks County chapter of Books Through Bars. Although she doesn't consider herself an anarchist, Quigley shares many of their beliefs. "Right now we have many goals in common. If they moved to armed revolution, I would not be with them," she continues.
Through the combination of community based programs and the acquisition of new properties, anarchists in Philadelphia are working toward their main goal, which is, according to Bob Helms, "taking responsibility for our own lives and acting accordingly."