Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

May Day vandalism: Whose anarchy is this?

Anarchist's symbol-May Day protests in Sea 2012.jpg
Erin Hennessey
May Day 2012 violence in Seattle

Weeks have passed since the May Day protests, but Seattle police are still asking for help identifying the individuals who damaged property. The violence was largely attributed to people who've been called anarchists. So what is anarchy anyway?

Anarchy is an ideology

To get some answers, we sought out Larry Cushnie, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington who studies militant activist groups. He says anarchism is an amalgam of a lot of different ideas but stresses that his attempt to represent one version is a  small slice of that. 

"Fundamentally, it's a belief that human beings need each other and that indications that tell us that we are bad or evil or sinful are all preconditions that come from society itself - from different sources of coercive power."

How does a political philosophy that values cooperation and a belief in human beings match up with the violence that broke out on May Day in downtown Seattle with black clad white men smashing windows?

Ideology versus tactics

Cushnie says within the idea of the Black bloc, what we saw in Seattle on May first, these tactics serve multiple purposes.

"One is to help radicalize those who are part of the movement. Another is to re-assert one's power within a society built upon capitalism, and built upon the social contract that tells us that it's the consent of the governed that leads to the legitimacy of government. But many anarchists would say, where's my consent? At what point do you consent to who is in charge of you?"

Reasons for the violence are not always  known

Cushnie says he understands why a lot of people are frustrated by the fact that no written or verbal reason is given for the property damage caused by anarchists. But he says that's not always the case.

"Groups like Earth Liberation Front had a press office and they made sure there was a press release that went along with every action to detail what the historical issues were, what the current economic issues were, and why they decided to resort to that tactic."

Some of the big players in American anarchism

Emma Goldman was an Eastern European immigrant who came to the United States (in the first half of the twentieth century) and who was well versed in the tenants of anarchism. She talked about the three institutional powers that dominate human beings. For her those where religion, property and government and that each of these forces remove an element of free thinking.

Another famous person who isn't always associated with anarchism is Henry David Thoreau. He was about self sufficiency. He saw government as a tool and that when it's outlived its helpfulness, it needs to be cast aside.

History of property violence as a tactic of political activism in the United States

The touchstone is the Boston Tea Party. And during the prohibition era, for example, you see women coming into saloons with hatchets demolishing the place in protest of people not abiding by local prohibition laws.

Cushnie says the vast majority of anarchists disavow any type of violence but he says  it's important for us to try to understand why individuals feel they need to go to these lengths to get a political and economic and social message across.


Before accepting the position of News Director in 1996, she spent five years as knkx's All Things Considered Host and filed news stories for knkx and NPR. Erin is a native of Spokane and a graduate of the University of Washington and London's City University - Center for Journalism Studies. Erin worked in the film industry and as a print journalist in London and New York before returning to Seattle to work in broadcast news.