Burnt Offerings

What the Anarchists Want

By Jeff Sharlet

On the Sunday of the big march that lassoed Manhattan from Union Square up to the Garden, there was, mixed in among the crowd, disguised in polo shirts and madras, a contingent of true believers whose faith was so pure that they didn’t need the media, didn’t want it, and rejected it as a matter of religious principle. Or maybe it was political; it was hard to know what they believed, since notebooks and cameras shocked them into silence and casual questions elicited mysterious responses. These were the anarchists the papers had promised were coming to destroy the city, and although they were nothing like the official accounts — “Anarchy, Inc.” The New York Daily News screamed, warning of paramilitary alliances between old Black Panthers and young tree spikers and bomb-throwing Quakers — they were indeed real.

They carried umbrellas to protect their plans from the all-seeing eye of the Fuji Blimp, pressed into actual paramilitary service by the NYPD, and they hid within a float, a giant paper-mache green dragon head snorting up the avenue, sheets sewn into curtains for flanks, black boots peeking out from its underbelly. The sheets would ripple and open and yet another member — shucking off worldly street duds to be born-again into ragged, fierce couture — would join the black mass within the white skin.

As we approached the Garden, faces that had been visible inside the dragon disappeared behind ski masks and bandanas. A knife’s edge of vinegar — protection from tear gas — spiked the breeze that eaked through the crowd. The dragon tamer, a big, pigtailed woman in a gold vest and genie pants, cracked a bull whip in each hand as she somersaulted and roared at journalists who clicked and fluttered away from the whip-tips like a flock of nervous sparrows. Amps in the dragon’s head bellowed hardcore; black and red flags unfurled but hung limp in the muggy air.

The dragon started steaming. We actually wondered: Do they have a fog machine? The whip snapped at the cameras. Black-clad soldiers tore through the sheets like angry dragon babies, crying It’s happening!

“What’s happening?” the reporters asked. Nobody answered. The dragon tamer disappeared. The steam filled our noses hot and sharp, which meant it wasn’t steam, it was smoke: The dragon was burning. A hole opened up in the middle of a crowd that stretched at least 100,000-strong in either direction. The police did not know what do; best-laid plans had not included giant fire-breathing Trojan salamanders. In minutes the flames leapt out of the dragon’s skull, then consumed it entirely, a bonfire thirty feet tall in the middle of Seventh Avenue, “Fashion Avenue,” spewing black smoke and spitting ash. Who didn’t think of the towers?

The police began to move, the crowd began to run, around the corner a cop made a flying tackle. Protestors surrounded him and his prisoner, shouting Let him go! As more officers rushed to the scene, anarchists ambled away from the commotion, shedding black to reveal sports jerseys, blouses, friendly clothing. The police penned us all — anarchists and press and ordinary protestors — at Herald Square and scanned the crowd for the enemy. The enemy stared back, laughing and chanting: Give the cops a raise!

An old man trapped in the crowd, who had the misfortune of having worn a beige fishing vest — popular with government bodyguards — asked who’d set the fire. A dragon-burner beside him, a tall young man with beautiful cheekbones and a red polo shirt, collar raised high, said he could not imagine. Nor could the old man. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he muttered, shaking his head. “This won’t help Kerry.”

The anarchist turned to a friend made over in Betty Crocker fashion. “As if we did it for him.”

* * *

Close to midnight, on our way home, we stopped at St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery, a 200-year-old church made into a temporary haven for any protestors who cared to rest — or sleep — there. It was packed for the duration of the demonstrations, Episcopal hymnody giving way to “Radical Faerie” rituals and good-natured hardcore hoe-downs, with parts for tuba and trombone.

Marching bands are, naturally, de rigueur in any march for freedom, peace, war, or whatever, and when we passed by St. Mark’s, a fine one was stomping up dust in the graveyard. Two tubas, in fact (or maybe one was a sousaphone), and trumpets, clarinets, dueling flautists, a giant drum, some pots and pans at the margins: The Rude Mechanical Orchestra and friends. They were playing what we at first mistook for Jewish klezmer. “Gypsy music,” a saxophonist explained. They were also fond of Italian fight songs. “And some originals.” The latter tended toward faux-football stadium anthems and flamenco, or something like it — good enough, anyway, for the men and women standing around us to break into a bare foot flamenco emulation. Anarchist ninja suits gave way to funny, striped leggings and tattered school-team t-shirts and bare bellies, bare backs, shaved heads, dreads, close-cropped buzz cuts and well-trimmed page boys, shaking in the cemetery dust of Gypsy-klezmer-Italian-fight-song flamenco.

Several signs pegged to the trees surrounding the outdoor kitchen warned against cameras. A bulletin board told Ashley that her Arkansas friends worried about her. “Don’t be in jail!” Another sign requested the return of some heisted incense. “NEEDED for POC spiritual spaces.” POC? Purification of Church…? Purification of Convention…?

The music was a gumbo and the crowd ragtag in all the best and worst senses, but the spectre of purity laced the air like pollen, a belief in its possibility, its desirability. By the door of the church someone had painted posterboard with a giant green fish bubbling a command: “Don’t Vote!” Like the holy rollers of old and the Radical Faeries of now, the midnight brass band congregation was made up of “come outers,” as fundamentalists used to describe themselves: come out from the wicked world, come out from big media, come out from the mainstream into the wild waters of uncharted channels. Put away your notebooks, they told us, and dance. Don’t report, join. We didn’t do this for him; we’re not doing it for you. There’s no story but right now.

Later, there would be evaluations and meetings and strategy sessions, the trombone would turn against the tuba, one anarchist would call another “narc,” or “cop,” or “tool.” The burning dragon would be denounced from within and without, the dancing derided as narcissistic noodling, documentaries would be made, “history” replayed and reprinted. That would come later. Now was not a time for media, it was, rather, not-timekairos to the drearychronos of political fever. For as long as it lasted, the grave dust and the three-days-sleeping-in-a-church stink, the big boom-boom of the bass drum, the flamenco steps and the gift of ululating tongues granted a girl perched high in a tree all seemed to believers like signs and wonders, the entirety of protest, or revolution, or radical ludditism, or anarcho-syndicalism, or neo-paganism, or whatever anyone cared to call what they were doing. Better still: Don’t call it anything. They scorned sound bytes and for the moment they desperately did not want mediation of any kind.

What they wanted was revelation. “Religion” — as broadly-defined as the mouth of the Hudson — not political digression. They wanted, believed they needed, and maybe even achieved — before the music stopped and the kitchen closed and the big-booted anarchists, and the rosy-cheeked girls, and the half-broken, half-wild men with freight-car leather skin all fell asleep among and on the grave stones — was some kind of liberation. It had been won, or would be won, through sweat and the smoke of burnt offerings: stolen incense, free food cooked too long, a big fire in front of Madison Square Garden. We did it for ourselves.

Jeff Sharlet is editor of The Revealer and co-author of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible.

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