Two weeks ago, the A Space Inside anarchist collective in Auckland held the Anarchism Is Organising conference, the first national conference for anarchists since the Anarchist Tea Party in December 2005. Anarchists from Auckland, Raglan, Hamilton, New Plymouth, Wellington and Christchurch attended (a fairly decent geographical spread) although total numbers were slightly less than the Anarchist Tea Party, and considerably less than the 2004 conference in Christchurch, and the 2003 Anarchist Tea Party.
The organisers had planned the conference agenda to first analyse the current state of anarchism in Aotearoa (day one) and then, on day two, to move towards what they saw as the best way to move forward, a broad Aotearoa anarchist network for communication and coordination between centres. Day two of the conference kicked off on a sour note, when before it had started, police arrived at the conference venue, allegedly to do a “bail check” on an activist who lived there, but on sight they arrested him, beat him up and pepper sprayed three others. The activist was eventually released around 27 hours later, with no charge.
In this article, I hope to discuss two things: the organisation of the conference and the proposal for an Aotearoa anarchist network which was the basis for the conference. I had a fairly negative experience of the conference, and therefore this will be a fairly negative piece – nonetheless, I do respect the work that the organisers did put in. I hope that they find this feedback constructive, and of course especially welcome any thoughts in the form of comments (or emails, if you’d rather keep it private) from the organising crew and other conference attendees.
Prior to the conference, a callout was sent out for contributions to a Conference Reader. Unfortunately, like many other local anarchist publications, this seemed to have seriously struggled to find people interested in writing for it – only two Aotearoa anarchists outside of the A Space Inside collective sent articles in, and one of those two contributed a previously published article. The lack of local anarchist writing is, in my opinion, intimately linked with a lack of critiquing, strategising and theorising across Aotearoa anarchism. Obviously, written pieces aren’t the only way to discuss these things across Aotearoa, but they are certainly one of the easiest ways to get discussion going outside of our own centres. On that note, I think the Wildcat Collective in Wellington deserve kudos, having produced the weekly broadsheet SNAP!, then the 2005 Wildcat Annual and now the Aotearoa Anarchist magazine.
The conference venue was the A Space Inside social centre (ASI), which is still relatively young and transforming from its former state as Necropolis, a punk venue (and living space). While it is certainly looking a lot better than it used to, and is sure to improve further, I do feel that a different venue would have been better, as the layout of ASI was not very conducive to a conference. While the lounge was large and adequate for the numbers we had, if many more people had showed up it would have been much less comfortable to have the entire group in one place. Additionally, when splitting up was required, there was no adequate second (or third, fourth etc) space to go to – the kitchen and ASI resident’s bedrooms simply weren’t big enough.
Early in the conference, one attendee commented that it was the first anarchist conference she’d been to where there weren’t any children present. The lack of children certainly changed the atmosphere (one later joined, but she was relatively old and was happy to join in with the conference activities), and I wonder whether part of the reason for the lack of children (given that there’s no shortage of them within the anarchist community!) was because in the advertising for the conference, no mention of children or the conference being child-friendly was made (a stark difference to previous conferences). Part of the reason for this could be that, unlike the 2004 Christchurch conference and the 2003 and 2005 Anarchist Tea Parties, none of the organising group had children, and therefore it was able to escape their mind (and, in an extension to this, that unlike the Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin communities, there are very few anarchists with children in Auckland full stop). This shouldn’t be an excuse however, and I wonder what would have happened if people from other centres had brought their young children up. Given the lack of space I mentioned in the previous paragraph for alternative meeting spaces, I wonder if a “childrens space” could have been created, and who would have kept the children company (and entertained) throughout the conference.
Another “conference norm” that I felt was organised poorly was food. I know that one of the organisers in particular (and possibly others, although I’m not sure) did a hefty dumpster run and scored some great ingredients, but the cooking seemed very disorganised. At other conferences I’ve attended, the cooking has been organised in two different ways – either a group has taken it upon themselves to cook all the meals (like Food Not Bombs at the A Space Outside conference in Melbourne in 2006) or there has been a list of meal times that people could put their names to spread around and filled in at the start of the conference. At this conference, neither of these happened, and the question “are we having breakfast/lunch/dinner here, or do we have to go out and buy food?” was asked a number of times. A number of people ended up volunteering to cook (and made some delicious food!) but it was very disorganised and seemed to rest on people (mostly outside the organising group) taking it upon themselves to say “we should have a meal, I’m going to go cook, who wants to help?” which made the whole process messier than it needed to be.
The last question I’ll discuss in this section is the timing of the conference, scheduled to be just before the protests against the US/NZ Partnership Forum. There are certainly positives in organising a conference to coincide with a major protest – mainly that it provides an extra incentive for people to travel, especially if coming from further away. I would say that the negatives outweigh this however. Much of day two of the conference was taken up with discussing the protests, when we could have used that time more productively as part of the conference. Additionally, because of the way that happened, and the timing of the first protest on Monday morning, there was no real final session in the conference. I discussed with a few friends (both from Auckland and from elsewhere) on Tuesday and Wednesday how weird it felt that we hadn’t had a chance to say bye to people, to exchange contacts with new friends or even just to get closure. Most of the anarchist conferences I’ve attended have been timed just before major protests, and I think this is something we should definately move away from. We need a time and a space to organise on our own terms, and when you know that in a couple of days you’ll be at a protest, there’s always going to be other things on your mind.
There was, of course, one other major issue which came up in the organising of the conference (and indeed, in the conference itself) – the issue of abuse and sexism within the anarchist community. This will take a whole article in itself to even begin to discuss however, and so I won’t talk about it here.
An Aotearoa anarchist network?
Prior to the conference, I was fairly sceptical of whether or not we would actually end up with an Aotearoa anarchist network (and in the event it was created, I had questions about its purpose and structure, see this and this). I certainly wasn’t the only person sceptical of it – on Saturday morning, I had a conversation with a friend, who said something along the lines of “So this conference is about organising an anarchist network right? I’ll bet you $20 we walk away without even a contact list”. Sadly, he was right (luckily though, I hadn’t agreed to the bet!)
Part of my scepticism undoubtedly came from discussions with people who’d been to many more Aotearoa anarchist conferences than I had. The idea of an anarchist network had come up a number of times before, and was always agreed upon, but once the conference was over the action was lacking. The following quote comes from a report-back from the 2003 Anarchist Tea Party:
The last day was spent primarily brainstorming for projects and networking. Of particular interest to me was the commitment to develop a communication network across Aotearoa to make it easier for people to get in the loop and get involved, to know what others are up to (and help out if they’re interested) and to just generally facilitate organisation and action around Aotearoa. Other projects include setting up a mutual aid network (fungus network), pirate radio in Wellington and elsewhere, creating an annual Aotearoa anarchist guidebook (containing information about contacts, various organisations, planned actions, and skills like consensus decision making), building a support network and the setting up of discussion groups among other things.
That we had the same discussion and came to similar conclusions at a 2007 conference says it all, really.
The question is, will this year be any different? Its chances started off poorly, when the person who’d been driving the idea and was supposed to introduce and facilitate the discussion wasn’t even at the conference at the time. I even got asked to do an intro for it, despite the fact that I wasn’t the least bit interested in forming a network (if it happens, thats not a bad thing, but its not something I have any energy or passion for). The idea does have one thing going for it, which is that rather than being driven by individuals, it’ll be driven by collectives (namely A Space Inside in Auckland and Wildcat in Wellington), although I do wonder how, given the lack of contact list, they plan on getting in touch with those in the smaller centres (not to mention those from Dunedin and others who couldn’t make it to the conference).
The other network that may reform out of discussions at the conference is the Aotearoa Anarcha-Feminist Network, who put a callout yesterday on Aotearoa Indymedia.