The Autoethnography: Ten Examples

On Anarchism in New York

Adriana Pauly

Every time you treat another human with consideration and respect, you are being an anarchist. Every time you work out your differences with others by coming to reasonable compromise, listening to what everyone has to say rather than letting one person decide for everyone else, you are being an anarchist. Every time you have the opportunity to force someone to do something, but decide to appeal to their sense of reason or justice instead, you are being an anarchist. 

David Graeber

I was in a small makeshift kitchen in what can only be described as a makeshift apartment. From the big window that graced the long front of the apartment, the sound of raindrops crushing against glass filled the room with their melody. A light smell of humidity with a hint of industrial paint and plaster lingered in the air. From a faint distance I could hear the sound of a waterfall crashing, followed by more water, and what sounded like the piping system exploding.

I set my cup, covered with Russian advertising, of hot, delicious espresso on the table. The kitchen was bordered by an industrial metal shelf, separating it from the couch, a relic from Jonas’s grandmother, that made up the living space in the sparsely decorated apartment. The walls, naked, in their original state of plaster waiting to be dressed in paint.

It’s still unfinished. We have a lot of work to do,” Jonas had said somewhat apologetically and awkwardly upon entering the apartment. “Tomorrow I‘m going to paint my room. I’m thinking about black and green.” Every nerve of my body cringed at the thought of his shoe box room covered in black and neon green paint.

I took a closer look at my immediate surroundings. The high ceilings of the old factory building had been decorated with several posters animating to come together for noise manifestations at prisons. The kitchen was sparsely equipped with a stove, a wooden table, and a few more industrial shelves, not exactly creating the most comfortable and relaxing environment. “Well, I guess that fits.” I thought to myself, Jonas not being exactly comfortable and relaxed himself.

When Jonas came back from the bathroom, he proudly explained to me that they had just got it running a few days earlier after having moved in almost two months ago. The move-in apparently had been the result of an agreement with the landlord who allowed the two boys to utilize the space for a low price under the condition that they built the entire interior themselves.

I met Jonas earlier this year at one of his after hour parties in a dingy lower east side restaurant. A friend, his “business partner”, introduced us after having told me earlier “Yeah, he is an anarchist. Everything he earns he reinvests into his newspaper about anarchist stuff. It’s really crazy, the Fed has been to his place more than once…”. My curiosity was immediately awakened.

I excitedly anticipated a mohawked man covered in tattoos, leather, and studs. What I was actually introduced to ended up being not only a normal white boy but a rather nervous, to the extent of socially awkward, normal white boy. After exchanging the regular “What’s your name? What do you-do? Where are you from? Germany. Oh really?” part of what has become my regular introductory conversation, he surprised me by telling me that last year he had visited Berlin and had stayed at a squat across the street from my sister’s apartment. I took this as the gateway to making myself known as at least somewhat well versed in young activism. I felt like a dog being sniffed by its kind in order to figure out what category to be put in, friend or foe.

He recognized my rambling about the neighborhood in Berlin as a sign of kinship, or maybe I had cracked the code into the secret club. In any case, after that night of animalistic sniffing, I was regularly invited to parties and dinners.

Back in the kitchen I asked Jonas, “What is anarchism to you?” Seeing that he was starting to go off on one of his tangents about the cruelty of today’s society and the controlling and oppressing reign of all corrupt governments I interjected, “No, I mean what is anarchism to you? I am just confused…what kind of impact does it have on your life or what exactly does it mean to you?”

Jonas paused for a second. “Do you know the movie Amélie?”

I nodded, trying to conceal my annoyance, expecting him to go off topic once again.

“So, you remember the way she broke into her neighbor’s apartment to fuck with his head so he would leave his slightly dumb assistant alone?”

“Yeah that’s my favorite movie, so?”

“Well, that is exactly it. Anarchism. Taking your own approach to help people, not caring if it is socially accepted or not or illegal. Amélie helps the guy to fight his oppressor and then goes on banging her way through Paris.”

Throughout my research I came across many definitions and explanations of anarchism, anarchy and anarchists, but only one reflected what I believe to be the essence of it all.Anarchists are simply people who believe human beings are capable of behaving in a reasonable fashion without having to be forced to,” the Anthropologist David Graeber states in his explanation. He continues explaining the two basic assumptions,The first is that human beings are, under ordinary circumstances, about as reasonable and decent as they are allowed to be, and can organize themselves and their communities without needing to be told how. The second is that power corrupts.”

That evening in the small kitchen, sipping my espresso, I was reminded of my thirteen year-old self, her braces, her limbs too long for her child-like body, and her oily, bumpy puberty skin. With my hormones going through the roof I had decided to change my look for the x-time. Inspired by the German punk-rock band “Die Ärtze” I wanted to give myself a more radical edge, dying my hair purple, purposefully ripping my jeans, and adding a vast variety of patches, bells and dangly shit to my backpack. The variety of patches included some against racism, Nazis, and one with a circled A for anarchism. When asked by one of my friends about what the A stood for I usually replied with some vague rambling about no government, no rules and stuff, not really knowing what the meaning was.

Sitting opposite Jonas I smirked at my ridiculousness and my mother’s patience for my identity crisis. Jonas had gone far off topic, explaining to me that Haiti was originally an island for prisoners and slaves, and how lighter skin people in Mexico still hold better jobs than dark skinned.

While my naive thirteen-year-old self could only refer to banal stereotypes, I was emerging deeper and deeper into the topic. I had started following blogs that report on anarchist activities in all of North America and was shocked to see that what I had thought to be more of a teenage phase like punk rock, was actually an entire community of people. Looking at Jonas across from me I was once again amazed at how normal he looked. His black polo, dark denim jeans, and black sneakers did not allude to any political orientation in particular, nor did his bike or his backpack. The backpack itself was his constant companion, a habit he acquired during his stay in prison he had told me. With a Mary Poppins-esque magic he continuously whipped out treasures that so far had included, several pairs of socks, overnight gear, boxing attire, a computer, tobacco plus several additives, beers, water, and several crumpled up issues of the last edition of his magazine.

Sitting in the kitchen, the outside growing darker and darker and the rain heavier and heavier, I pictured a younger version of Jonas, who as a young boy struggled to fit into the social structures of regular suburban high school life. Frustrated with what to him felt more like a prison than an educational institution, Jonas did not get the tolerance or open-mindedness to freely express his points of views but instead was faced with many disciplinary actions. During his sophomore year he was sentenced to six months in prison. Usually open about his life and his experiences, Jonas was hesitant to reveal the reason for his sentencing, and even thought my curiosity was flaming up like a wildfire I did not ask.

The sense of injustice and the abuse of power he experienced during his stay only strengthened his anti authoritarian way of thinking. Feeling secluded and forgotten by society, he connected with the anarchist notion of solidarity that tries to break through the isolation and alienation created by an external structure of power and oppression and the authorities who hide behind badges, titles, and the power of the states.

After Anarchism had given him a sense of belonging and purpose he dropped out of high school and started moving around the country, finding friends and like-minded people all over the country and the world. He finally settled once again in New York where he started his own publication with the help of a friend. Taking the belief of solidarity to the next level, the publication aims to unite people who live in conflict with the social order, reporting on different forms of domination with the intent to achieve absolute freedom. Connecting to like-minded people over social media platforms and anarchist forums, the magazine publishes articles from many sources besides their own. All sources are kept anonymous, not striving for private recognition but together pushing toward the greater goal, awareness of any kind of oppression happening around the world. The wish to create insight, connect to different people, and making the topic accessible to anyone is also the reason why it is available as a free PDF download online, besides the print copies in several small bookstores.

Thinking back once again, looking at the thirteen year old girl who embarked on at least twenty more journeys of self discovery only to find herself, after having finished high school, at twenty-three in major she does not really care for, with no goal in life, no passion and nothing to strive for.

And there, in the dark kitchen, illuminated by a cold and naked light bulb, right in front of her was a high school drop-out, ex-convict who openly admitted to being high all day, telling her that he was flying to Thailand in a couple of weeks, then to China, followed by Japan, maybe Europe, maybe even Germany. With the confident, borderline smugness of someone who had found his calling in life, Jonas leaned back in his chair, casually resting his feet on the table.

“Now I am free. I work whenever I want, I work where ever I want, yes I know I will never have a career, but I also don’t want one. Now I can go on vacation whenever, I can explore the world, I am not bound to anything.”

With growing admiration I felt myself becoming more and more attracted to Jonas’s lifestyle, my heart being pulled like a magnet to this notion of limitless and absolute freedom. Suddenly the dark kitchen seemed lighter, the naked light bulb dipping it into a warm and cozy yellow, the rain drops outside started playing a soothing melody, the darkness outside appeared less menacing. I could see how this apartment, once it was painted in friendly colors, could create an escape, an oasis from the pressure, restrictions, and expectations from the outside world.

Almost instantaneously a blanket of heaviness was spreading over my heart, a result of the same connection in our brains that makes us realize that happiness is fleeting and that no moment can last forever. But my heaviness was unrelated to fleeting happiness, it was the discouragement that I was not prepared for a lifelong struggle for acceptance, a lifelong fight against social norms, a lifelong battle against narrow minded people. My lack of bravery to break free from society’s strings only made it all the more apparent how much control traditions and social acceptance have in our everyday lives. Discouraged, I slumped back into the heavy, wooden chair. It was only then that I realized I had been sitting up straight this whole time, listening to Jonas’s monologues like a child to a fairy tale.

Jonas, having moved on already, was busy telling me about the twelve-people squat he had been living in the past three years while balancing on the back legs of his chair, the chair letting out screeches of pain. A phone call interrupted his monologue about rent prices in New York. From the living area I overheard a one-sided conversation with one of his friends, Jonas for once being the silent one.

“Sometimes I wish I could just go to the hospital and tell them to put me under anesthesia for like a week. Just knock me out. Just one week to get a break from my own head,” he said coming back into the kitchen, rubbing his temples. With an expression of confusion, anxiety, and irony he explained that the cops had raided one of his friend’s apartments, looking for evidence on suspicious activities. Jonas’s paranoia sparked up immediately. “Do you think they are going to come here too? I mean I really don‘t have anything important here, besides the printer. And my computer is encrypted…”. This was followed by several minutes of nervous rambling about shoving his belongings in the basement, smoking up his stash of pot, and angry outbreaks of cursing out the police.

He told me that the police had raided his apartment several times, a few years earlier. The feeling of violation and impotence had only strengthened his opinions, and the fact that they were paying attention to people like him showed that they were getting somewhere.

“In a weird way it can, at the same time, be incredibly empowering to see those fucking idiots frantically going through your shit and not finding anything.”

When asking Jonas about what his family thought about his chosen path, he paused for a moment. For a split second I believed, or for my own sanity hoped, to have seen a shadow on his blue eyes. Feeling myself getting enthralled with the topic, I hoped that I could find an excuse for myself why I should not leave my current lifestyle behind and join Jonas on his quest for justice.

“They worry,” he said after a while, ” but I feel like they know that this is the path I have chosen and that there is nothing they can do about it, so, it makes them proud, or at least my dad. But, they worry.”

I tried to envision a future, aged Jonas, maybe with a few wrinkles under his mischievous, boyish eyes and a few gray strands in his blond curls. And yet, how would future Jonas sustain his lifestyle? Would he still organize events, “taking money from rich guys?” He surely would not have succumbed to a 9-to-5 job?

“I don’t really worry about the future. We’ll probably all be dead so why bother? I am free to decide what I want to do, and for now I want to live every day to my own standards. I want to share my passion, knowledge, and support with people who share my beliefs and those who don’t I want to prove them wrong, constantly, until they understand. But most importantly, I want to give those who can’t speak a voice, make their stories heard.”

Discussion Questions

  • Why would somebody want to read this piece (the “Who cares?” factor)?
  • Can you clearly identify the author’s intention for the piece?
  • How well does the author support the intention of the piece? Cite specific details that support or take away from the author’s intention.
  • Is there information missing from this piece that would make its intention clearer? What else would you like to know?
  • Does the author portray herself as a round character? How does she do this?
  • Do you trust the author of this piece? Why or why not?
  • How clearly does the author establish a sense of setting/space in this piece? Cite specific details that support your claim.
  • How clearly does the author establish characters other than the self in this piece? Cite specific details that support your claim.
  • Did you learn anything new from reading this piece? If so, what?
  • Are there particular passages with engaging language/description that stood out to you? Describe the appeal of these passages.
  • Would you read more writing from this author? Why or why not?

Works Cited

Publications:

Fifth Estate [Detroit] Spring 2012, Vol. 47 No. 1 #386 ed. Print.

FTTP [New York] Spring 2011, Issue #11 ed. Print.

Articles:

“On Building Dangerous Bonds.” FTTP [New York] Spring 2011, Issue #11 ed.: 5-7. Print.

“School.” FTTP [New York] Spring 2011, Issue #11 ed.: 28-29. Print.

Web:

“Anarchist Neighborhood: New York City.” Infoshop OpenWiki. Web. Spring 2012 <http://wiki.infoshop.org/Anarchist_Neighborhood:New_York_City>.

Anarchist News. Web. Spring 2012. <http://www.anarchistnews.org/>.

Chuck. “An Anarchist FAQ.” Infoshop.org. 22 Jan. 2012. Web. May 2012 <http://www.infoshop.org/page/AnAnarchistFAQ>.

“Featured Essay.” CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective: Home. Web. Spring 2012 <http://www.crimethinc.com/>.

Graeber, David. “Are You An Anarchist? The Answer May Surprise You!” NYMAA. Web. Apr.-May 2012.<http://nymaa.org/surprise_anarchist>.

Libcom.org. Web. Spring 2012. <http://libcom.org/>.

Trends in U.S. Corrections. Publication. The Sentencing Project, May 2012. Web. 19 May 2012.<http://sentencingproject.org/detail/news.cfm?news_id=1304&id=107>.

United States of America. U.S. Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Correctional Population in the United States, 2010. By Lauren E. Glaze. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011. Web. 18 May 2012.<bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpus10.pdfhttp://>.

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On Anarchism in New York by Adriana Pauly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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