Iceland’s government on point of collapse as angry protesters stake out the parliament in Reykjavik
BY Eirikur Bergmann / 21 January 2009

While Barack Obama was being sworn in to office on Capitol Hill yesterday, the people of Iceland were starting the first revolution in the history of the republic. The word “revolution” might sound a bit of an overstatement, but given the calm temperament that usually prevails in Icelandic politics, the unfolding events represent, at the very least, a revolution in political activism.

Four months after the collapse of Iceland’s entire financial system, no one has accepted any responsibility. Our currency has lost more than half its value, rampant inflation has already eaten up most people’s savings, property values have dropped by more than a third and unemployment is reaching levels never seen before in the life of our young republic. The fault is clearly shared between the business elite and the government, which failed to regulate the newly privatised financial sector, allowing a few incompetent and egotistical business tycoons to gamble with the nation’s fortune. And yet neither the government nor the bankers – who, by the way, seem to have disappeared into the cold thin air – see anything wrong with their own behaviour.

The governor of the central bank blames the risk-seeking bankers, the bankers blame the government and the prime minister attributes the whole crisis to the international credit crunch. This lack of any sense of responsibility has angered the Icelandic public to the extent that they have turned to the streets in greater numbers than ever before.

It started in October with peaceful demonstrations. Then the frustration grew, first with the lack of any sense of responsibility, then with the lack of any effective action to ease the economic pain most people feel – and finally with the sense that all the political elite were incompetent.

Initially the government tried to dismiss the protesters as frustrated wannabe politicians and disillusioned youngsters who did not understand the complexity of the situation. But when our grandmothers put down their knitting gear, strapped their boots on and took to the streets shouting for new elections we all saw that the disgust was almost universal.

Yesterday parliament resumed for the first time after Christmas. Without much organisation or central planning the public surrounded the parliament building and put forward a clear demand for early election. Ignoring them, the ministers and parliamentarians tried to sit out the protest, hiding inside the old building in downtown Reykjavik. This time it didn’t work. The protests grew and ordinary people kept warm by burning torches in front of the building. They were going nowhere. Well into this dark night in Iceland’s history, parliament remained under siege, and the vigil resumed this morning.

It is the first time in Icelandic history that a young anarchist can well expect to meet his grandmother in the crowd demonstrating against the government and drumming with her kitchen knife on pots and pans. The government is surely hanging by a thin thread and might fall at any moment.

The Icelandic public fear that their country has virtually been stolen by the globetrotting business elite that spent more time rubbing shoulders with international high society than giving back to the society that enabled them to enjoy this privileged lifestyle. Now ordinary Icelanders are determined to take their country back.



BY Valur Gunnarsson / 27 January 2009

The global economic crisis claimed its first leader yesteday, as Iceland’s prime minister announced the immediate resignation of his government following the collapse of the country’s currency and banking system. Geir Haarde said as recently as Friday that his coalition would remain in office until early elections, called for 9 May, after violent protests at its handling of Iceland’s tottering economy.

Yesterday he threw in the towel, saying that his Independence party and its Social Democratic Alliance partners were quitting immediately as he could not accept a demand by the Alliance to take over the premiership. “What I have feared the most has come to pass, we now have a governmental crisis on top of the economic one,” Haarde said.

The prime minister’s previous national popularity was obliterated in October when the global credit crisis ravaged Iceland’s hugely indebted economy, leading to a collapse in the country’s currency, the crown, and forcing the government to take control of its three major banks. The population of 320,000 – who had enjoyed years of rising incomes and high growth rates, thanks in no small part to an economy burdened with a foreign debt that peaked at 10 times the annual national GDP – now face a potential economic contraction of up to 10% this year, with unemployment rising rapidly.

After months of rallies outside the parliament building, last week protesters pelted Haarde’s car with eggs while riot police used teargas for the first time since 1949. The protests continued at the weekend despite Haarde’s announcement of the early election. Yesterday the country’s commerce minister, Bjorgvin Gudni Sigurdsson, resigned, apologising for the collapse. “I accept my part of responsibility in the collapse of the banking sector even if numerous other people have their share of responsibility,” Sigurdsson, a Social Democrat, told a press conference.

Who will take over from Haarde is unclear. Gisladottir, currently Iceland’s foreign minister, immediately ruled herself out. Gisladottir has only just returned to Reykjavik after undergoing treatment for a brain tumour in Sweden. Gisladottir has called for another senior member of her party, Johanna Sigurdardottir, the social affairs minister, to lead a new government. “A new government should be formed by the end of the week,” Baldur Thorhallsson, a political science professor from the University of Iceland, said. “It seems most likely that we will have a minority government of the Alliance party and the left-greens.”

Steingrimur Sigfusson, leader of the left-greens, offered a national government in October, when the collapse became apparent, which the government rejected. Sigfusson said that he is now considering all possibilities. Protesters celebrated the fall of the coalition government with a party outside the parliament building. “I am proud of the Icelandic people to have driven this off their hands. Now that the suspect is leaving the scene of the crime, the investigation can begin,” Illugi Jokulsson, a publisher, said. “The Independence Party should not run anything except the transportation ministry at most,” Erpur Eyvindarson, a rapper, said. Eyvindarson continued: “They ignored us in 1949, they ignored us when they went to war in Iraq and when they dammed the highlands. They will ignore us no more.”

“The news agencies reported last week that Icelandic “riot police” fired pepper spray at furious demonstrators outside the parliament building in Reykjavik. They rather overcooked the story. In truth, the Icelandic riot squad is on a par with the Icelandic anti-terrorist branch, NCIS or SWAT team, which is to say it does not exist. Iceland had been a model Nordic social democracy without the need for a coercive apparatus. Crime was so low that in 2007, the prison population stood at 104. Many of the 700 police officers were part-timers. Until its demented financiers bankrupted the island, the idea that they would be dousing their neighbours with pepper spray was unthinkable.’

New age of rebellion and riot stalks Europe / January 22, 2009

Iceland has no army, no navy and no air force – but it does now have riot police.

On Tuesday night the black-uniformed troopers came out to quell the latest riots in Reykjavik, which erupted in front of parliament. The building was splattered with paint and yoghurt, the crowd yelled and banged pans, shot fireworks and flares at the windows and lit a fire in front of the main door. Yesterday the protesters gathered again, hurling eggs at the car of Geir Haarde, the Prime Minister, and banging cans on its roof.

The transformation of the placid island into a community of seething anger – there have been half a dozen riots in recent weeks – is more than a regional oddity. In Riga last week 10,000 protesters laid siege to the Latvian parliament; yesterday hundreds of Bulgarians rallied to demand that the Socialist-led Government should take action or step down, in a second week of demonstrations, and last month the police shooting of a 15-year-old Greek boy led to days of running battles in the streets of Athens and Salonika.

The protests went beyond the usual angry reflexes of societies braced for recession. The Greek riots heralded sympathetic actions across the world, from Moscow to Madrid, and in Berlin the Greek Consulate was briefly stormed. The Riga unrest spread rapidly to Lithuania. It is, some say, just the beginning: 2009 could become another 1968 – a new age of rebellion.

The LSE economist Robert Wade addressed about 1,000 Icelanders recently at a protest meeting in a Reykjavik cinema, warning that large-scale civil unrest was on the way. The tipping point, he said, would be this spring. “It will be caused by the rise of general awareness throughout Europe, America and Asia that hundreds and millions of people in rich and poor countries are experiencing rapidly falling consumption standards; that the crisis is getting worse, not better, and that it has escaped the control of public authorities, national and international,” he said.

The global liquidity emergency became a full-blown crash so quickly that there was no time to hold governments to account. Now leaders all over Europe have declared themselves to be the saviours of the economy and are nationalising assets, extending loans and guarantees to failing banks and manufacturers. But the price is high: unemployment is starting to soar and cuts in public spending are hurting hospitals, schools and universities. Personal bankruptcies are at record levels.

Every segment of society has been hit, but it is the young who feel the pain most – and just as in 1968, it is they who are leading the rebellion. The Greek disturbances, the worst since 1974, were triggered by the killing of the teenager, but the anger was stoked by a sense that the young were going to have to pick up the bill for the miscalculations of the political class. Unemployment among Greeks aged 15 to 24 has reached 21.2 per cent; for 25 to 34-year-olds it is 10.5 per cent. The good years have come to an end suddenly.

The boom in Iceland led to the few narrow streets of the capital becoming jammed with expensive 4x4s. Latvia had double-digit growth for years; now GDP is set to contract 5 per cent in the coming year and Latvian youths are beginning to rail against mismanagement and corruption. In the EU, migration was always a way out of a tight domestic labour market. No more: the sheer magnitude of the recession means there is no easy escape. There are reports of anti-immigrant trouble brewing in Spain. Usually at this time of year migrant workers, most of them from Morocco, pile into the country to pick strawberries. This year the Spaniards are making it clear that they are unhappy about migrants taking jobs.

Each flare-up touches on a separate aspect of the crisis. In Greece it was partly about the failure of the education system (as in 1968). In Vilnius it was over high taxes. In Iceland it is about massive debt. In Russia unrest in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok was about dearer car import duties. But there are common threads. Across Europe, protesters demand a change of government. Politicians in wealthier countries can try to prop up banks and industries, but it does not work in heavily indebted nations with bloated and exposed financial sectors.

And there is a shared shock that the good times have gone. “The explosion conceals a compressed desperation,” the Greek psychology professor Fotini Tsalikoglou said of last month’s outburst in Athens. “Many young people live with the unbearable knowledge that there is no future.”

Global financial crisis overwhelms tiny Iceland
BY Colin Woodard / January 21, 2009

In the depth of winter, the sun shines about four hours a day here. But thousands of Icelanders – more than 1 percent of the entire country – have sacrificed much of their precious few hours of daylight in recent weeks to protest the financial darkness that now shrouds their island. From dapper senior citizens to masked anarchists, an eclectic group gathers every Saturday to demand the resignation of their government. On Tuesday and Wednesday, they clashed with police in increasingly violent demonstrations that suspended Parliament.

They’re furious over Iceland’s recent plunge from the world’s fourth richest nation – and the best in the world to live in, according to the United Nations – to global financial crisis roadkill. Its banks are ruined, the currency devastated, and one of the country’s closest allies recently named it a terrorist state. “This has been very hard for the nation,” says protester Rosa Eyvindardottir, eight months pregnant and carrying a red socialist flag in her hand during a recent Saturday protest. “Maybe this is a lesson that we need to wake up and see what’s been right and wrong with our minds.”

Harbinger of trouble?
As the world holds its collective breath, worried that a global recession will become another Great Depression, Iceland is being seen as the canary in the coal mine, an early warning system that might indicate what other countries could face. With the dust beginning to settle from the banking system’s collapse, Icelanders are taking stock of the mistakes. “The banks were expanding too fast, they were taking excessive risks, and the government didn’t do what had to be done to keep them in check,” says Gunnar Haraldsson, director of the University of Iceland’s Institute of Economic Studies.

Iceland’s banks were relatively new players on the international stage. Indeed, they were based in a remote, sub-Arctic country that had spent much of its history in a state of grinding poverty. Constrained by a short growing season, battered by storms and volcanic eruptions, Icelanders were one of the poorest peoples in Europe when they achieved independence from Denmark in 1944. Their national dishes – singed puffin, putrefied shark carcass, charred lamb’s head – reflect past necessity to avoid starvation.

After World War II, Icelanders harnessed the fish in the frigid sea and the lava-heated steam beneath their feet, investing the proceeds in infrastructure, education, and healthcare. By 2000, it was a society nearly devoid of poverty, where almost everyone is fluent in a foreign language, where homes and even the capital’s streets are heated with geothermal heat. Health care and education are virtually cost-free.

Iceland went global
In recent years, Iceland embraced the world economy, integrating with (but not joining) the European Union, floating its tiny currency on the open market, and, in late 2002, deregulating its sleepy banks. The banks rapidly expanded overseas, buying English soccer clubs, offering high-interest Internet savings accounts to Dutch and British families, and foreign-currency mortgages to Icelanders. “The whole world was suddenly open to us and this new generation of young people had taken over the banks and they looked like they had the know-how to deal with this new reality,” says the Rev. Karl Sigurbjornsson, bishop of Iceland’s state-sponsored Lutheran church. “Ordinary people like myself couldn’t understand what was really happening and when we asked questions we were told that we were just ignorant of the great new world of the free market.”

Halla Tomasdottir, a former head of the national chamber of commerce and cofounder of Audur Capital, says the economy was defined by “extreme risk-taking, short-term orientation, paper profits, and a lack of regard for transparency and the human being…. We looked around and said: This is going to burst.” By 2006, many worried that the banks had become too big and globalized for an economy of 300,000 people to backstop. The balance sheets of the three big banks – Glitnir, Landsbanki, and Kaupthing – exceeded Iceland’s gross domestic product (GDP) by more than five times. A report from Copenhagen-based Danske Bank warned that the banks had outgrown the country.

“The Icelandic banks, media, and officialdom saw the report as part of a conspiracy by representatives of the old colonial power,” recalls the report’s coauthor, Lars Christensen, who says the crisis could have been headed off if the banks had been reined in at that point. “We were worried, but it’s difficult when you are in a competitive environment to take responsibility for macroeconomic solutions,” says Landsbanki chief economist Yngvi Orn Kristinsson. “Somebody else has to do that: the Central Bank.”

Bank controls were weak
But, the Central Bank and government regulators didn’t rein in the banks. By October, their liabilities had reached twelve times Iceland’s GDP. The banks had borrowed heavily to make these investments and were dependent on short-term loans to continue operations. When Lehman Brothers collapsed and global credit markets froze in September, the banks had nowhere to turn for help. At the end of September, Glitnir executives turned to the Central Bank for a bridge loan. Instead, Central Bank chief David Oddsson – a former prime minister with no banking background – announced he would nationalize the bank.

Mr. Kristinsson, of Landsbanki, recalls: “We knew immediately that we wouldn’t have more than one or two weeks. It was a dangerous miscalculation, because analysts and credit institutions abroad believed that it was too much for the government to take on.” Ratings agencies downgraded the value of Icelandic bonds, dragging down the currency, and cutting Landsbanki’s credit lines, triggering its failure. Mr. Oddsson then suggested that Icelandic banks might not pay British depositors, prompting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to evoke antiterrorism laws to seize their British assets – a move that took down Kaupthing.

Icelanders were shocked to see Landsbanki listed alongside Al Qaeda and North Korea on Britain’s list of sanctioned ‘regimes’. “We conceived of ourselves as a very peaceful, peace-loving people,” Bishop Sigurbjornsson says. “Being labeled as terrorists was something we could never have imagined.” Most British and Dutch deposits will be guaranteed, largely by Iceland’s citizens using money borrowed from abroad. Many here are upset that they are left paying an enormous tab run up by wealthy bankers. Some economists compare the debt burden to the crushing one imposed on Germany after World War I.

Protesters want new leaders
The protesters’ main demand is for Oddsson and his longtime political ally, Prime Minister Geir Haarde to resign, which organizers say is the first step toward rebuilding public and investor confidence. Both have resisted. “They want to be able to lead the nation out of the mess,” Mr. Haarde’s spokesman, Kristjan Kristjansson explains. “Walking away from the problem now would be to surrender to it.”

Is Iceland the Canary in the U.S. Coal Mine?
BY Ed Zimmer / January 29, 2009

The collapse in late January 2009 of the Icelandic Government is being blamed directly on the collapse in 2008 of the country’s banks after they were overleveraged to such an extent that the world-wide financial crisis caused investment values to implode. During a period of rapid growth, the banks amassed huge debts in financial implements that turned out to be based on little more than promises that the good times would last forever.

Turns out forever had an expiration date. As a result of the banks’ implosion, the currency has plummeted, unemployment is rising and inflation is growing as the value of the currency falls.

Iceland was unable to prevent the banks’ collapse – it was simply too much, too quick. Elsewhere in the world, governments have been creating money hand over fist and pumping that money into banks by any means possible to avoid what happened in Iceland. Results are hard to quantify so far because the extent of losses seems to grow with each passing month.

In the UK, the government there is talking of nationalizing banks, yet no one is talking about how much is still at risk in these banks. The general feeling is that if the true extent of the losses were made public, the pound would literally ‘take a pounding’ in the currency exchange markets.

Here in the US, the same problem is showing up. Predictions less than six months ago that the total losses of bad investments would be around a trillion dollars have now been surpassed, with new estimates putting the total losses over 2.2 trillion dollars. 350 billion dollars of government bailout has not righted the economic ship and proposals now include spending the rest of the 700 billion dollar stimulus, plus another 850 billion dollars in new spending and buying up the “bad” assets by the US government.

However, just as in Iceland, no one is willing to admit just how much “bad” assets will need to be purchased or guaranteed by the government to stem the crisis. No one is even willing to admit to just how much needs to be written off, although research by NYU economist Nouriel Roubini is now placing US banking losses at some 3.6 trillion dollars. If that is accurate, it is 16% more than the entire US budget for this fiscal year.

The US continues to literally throw money at a problem that we are clueless about. The banks refuse to divulge any information that would make them look bad or create a “crisis in confidence” among their depositors, but it’s okay to take government funds, paid as taxes by those same depositors.

Still, the problem for the government remains how to save the banks, which could be completely insolvent due to bad assets on their books, without further shooting the economy which is in a recession. Both appear to be drowning, and with Iceland as the most recent model of what follows a banking collapse, the US government may not be willing to lose banks that could trigger a political coup. For the average person in the US, the question may be one of getting the bad medicine over quickly, or a lingering illness that produces a long term Japanese Pseudo Recovery.

For US politicians, it must appear as a no-win situation, and not a single politician wants to be accused of doing nothing while the crisis grows. But ignoring the consequences of their actions as an excuse for throwing money at a problem is not the answer. 350 billion dollars already spent would have given every man, woman and child in the US about $1000 each. That would have allowed some people to postpone the repossession of their homes, allowed others to pay bills or buy Christmas presents or even save for a rainy day. Instead the money went into a banking black hole and for all visible purposes, vanished from sight. Banks won’t even say how they have used the funds.

We may not be able to resuscitate this canary. The question may be, is there a better solution available or is it going to die anyway?

The Next Iceland? Three countries on verge of economic and political meltdown
BY David Kenner / January 2009

Great Britain
Economic damage: The financial crisis has gotten so severe in Britain that it has earned London a new nickname in the international media: Reykjavik-on-Thames. The question in Britain is no longer when the economy will enter a recession, but when it will enter a depression, with many bracing for a slump that could rival the 1930s in severity. GDP fell 1.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008, and the European Union estimates it will contract another 2.8 percent in 2009. Unemployment is projected to balloon to more than 8 percent by year’s end, and an estimated 23 percent of adult Britons currently consider their debt level “unmanageable.”

The British downturn is especially severe because the U.K. is more dependent on its financial sector than most developed economies. All told, British banks currently hold about $4.4 trillion in foreign debt (which, until recently, included a large amount of Iceland’s debt). For a $2.1 trillion economy, that’s a heavy load to bear.

Political fallout: Prime Minister Gordon Brown initially earned voters’ confidence by seizing a leading international role in the response to the crisis but, as the recession deepened, British sentiment has turned against the government. A recent poll showed that almost 6 in 10 Britons think the latest economic recovery measures will fail and gave the opposition Tories a 15-point edge over Brown’s Labour Party.

The government has already nationalized much of its financial sector, and investors fear that another round of nationalization might be around the corner. Government intervention has become so pervasive that nearly half of the economy will consist of state spending in the coming year. This, in turn, has earned Britain another nickname: Soviet Britain.

Economic damage: Latvia is arguably the one country that most resembles Iceland, and not just because of the cold climate. The small, developing country’s lofty growth rates in recent years were fueled by heavy investment from elsewhere in Europe, massive foreign debt, booming consumption, and minimal savings. After growing at an extraordinary 12.2 percent rate in 2006, Latvia’s economy is now the weakest of the 27 EU member states. A European Commission report forecast that Latvia’s GDP is set to contract 6.9 percent in 2009 and a further 2.4 percent in 2010, with unemployment climbing into the double digits by next year. The International Monetary Fund has approved a $7.3 billion bailout package for Latvia, but a long road to recovery remains.

With financial markets tightening and housing markets crashing down to earth, Latvian businesses have ground to a halt and the government has been forced to cut services to the bone. A new program will involve a 25 percent cut in the state budget, 15 percent wage reductions, and widespread layoffs.

Political fallout: The financial crisis threatens not only Latvians’ livelihoods, but it also poses a danger to their nascent democratic system. The government’s popularity currently sits at about 10 percent. In the largest protests since the rallies against Soviet rule in the 1980s, more than 10,000 Latvians gathered earlier this month in the capital of Riga to protest the government’s mismanagement of the economy. Some demonstrations turned violent, as angry youths threw rocks and eggs at police and lobbed cobblestones at the Parliament building.

The government has initiated a crackdown of its own, unleashing its security forces against those guilty of economic pessimism. When a university lecturer speculated that the crisis might cause a devaluation in Latvia’s currency, he was arrested and held in jail for two days.

Economic damage: The Greek economy, burdened by a debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 90 percent, is one of the shakiest in the European Union. The adoption of the euro had previously fueled Greece’s economic boom, but it is now one of the primary obstacles to getting the country out from underneath its massive debt. The typical method countries use to alleviate their debt is to depreciate their currency, lessening the real value of their liabilities. But with a single currency in use across the euro zone, Greece no longer controls its own monetary policy. Faced with the strain of falling tax revenues and the need to fund a bailout program, Greece could be forced to withdraw from the euro zone or default on its debt.

Standard & Poor’s cut the country’s sovereign debt rating earlier this month due to concerns over its rising deficit. Now, Greece must pay 5.6 percent to finance its 10-year debt, 2.5 percentage points more than Germany. As the financial crisis continues, expect the rift between the haves and the have-nots in the EU to widen further.

Political fallout: Outrage over a police shooting spilled over into widespread rioting throughout Greece in December. More than 150 banks were targeted by youths during the first days of the riots. Greece’s bleak economic situation is widely considered to be the underlying cause of the unrest. Greek banks had invested heavily in development in the Balkans and, with the onset of the financial crisis, found themselves dangerously overextended. The center-right government was forced to bail them out, but at the cost of drawing funds from social welfare programs. The image of the Greek government handing bags full of money to wealthy financiers while services were cut for the general populace has decimated the government’s credibility.


RĪGA – Shattered glass. Blue paint on the building. Broken plastic bottles. Cobblestones. Ninety-eight detained. These are the preliminary results of the aftermath of the penguin revolution (when Godmanis told the people in his New Year’s Eve address how penguins deal with severe winter – they huddle together to stay warm – the same way as Latvians ought to do when going through the economic turmoil).

But it started all so peaceful. Around 5 p.m. several hundred people had already flooded the Dom Square in the heart of the capital of Latvia. People of different ages, ethnicity, backgrounds appeared united in their disdain for the ruling coalition, and – more importantly – the culture of political cynicism. Following the 90-minute event mostly young people moved toward the Saeima building. They tried to get in. Prevented from doing so by the riot police, they began throwing anything that they could lay their hands on – from snowballs to street cobblestones. The first floor windows were shattered.

Commentators undoubtedly will analyze what had taken place – whether the riot was a fruit of public discontent and anger at the ruling clique, or a product of alcohol and intoxication, or, perhaps, a combination of both. One thing for sure, regardless of the protest, the political cynicism lives on. The Interior Minister Mareks Segliņš, who was nowhere to be seen near the riots, sent an SMS to Aigars Štokenbergs, a party leader, who organized the protest, saying “Now you can be proud.”

February 20, 2009 – Latvia’s center-right coalition government resigned Friday after weeks of instability brought on by the country’s economic collapse. President Valdis Zatlers said he accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis and his administration, which had been in power since December 2007. Zatlers said he would begin talks with party leaders Monday to find a new candidate for prime minister. Earlier Friday, the two largest parties in the ruling coalition parties had urged Godmanis to step down. Godmanis blamed those parties _ the People’s Party, and the Greens and Farmers Union _ for the government’s collapse, particularly at a time when Latvia must carry out tough economic reforms to get a rescue package from international creditors. “I am ready to continue working, but I think that responsibility for the consequences created by this government’s resignation must be taken by those parties that overturned the government,” Godmanis told reporters.

International lenders, including the EU, the International Monetary Fund and Nordic countries, have pledged euro7.5 billion (US$9.5 billion) to help the Baltic country recover from its economic predicament. President Zatlers has pressured the government to cut back on the number of ministries and bring in new faces in an effort to win back the public’s trust, which has plummeted. However, despite repeated attempts, the four ruling parties have been unable to reach a consensus on which ministries to abolish. The country’s economic decline is accelerating. Output plummeted more than 10 percent in the fourth quarter year-on-year, meeting a common yardstick for a depression. On Wednesday the Finance Ministry predicted that gross domestic product would fall 12 percent fall this year. Public anger spilled into the streets on Jan. 13, when scores of protesters clashed with police as they tried to storm Parliament. More than 40 people were injured in Latvia’s worst riots since the country split from the Soviet Union in 1991.


“On the night of Saturday, December 6th, two Special Guards of the Greek police clashed with a small group of young men. The exact details of what took place are still unclear, but it is known that one of the Guards fired three shots, and one of those bullets caused the death of 15-year-old Alexander Grigoropoulos – whether the injury was made by an accidental ricochet or deliberate shot remains to be determined. The two Guards are now in jail awaiting trial, the shooter charged with homicide. This incident sparked an immediate and widespread response in the form of angry demonstrations and riots in many Greek cities that have continued at varying levels to this day – though dimming in intensity recently. Alexander’s death appears to have been a catalyst, unleashing widespread Greek anger towards many issues – police mistreatment of protesters, unwelcome education reforms, economic stagnation, government corruption and more.”

Greek police battle with rioters / 24 January 2009

Hundreds of anarchist protesters in Greece have fought running battles with police through the centre of the capital, Athens. The demonstrators were demanding the release of people arrested during rioting last month after a policeman shot dead a youth aged 15. Rioters smashed shop windows and threw stones and petrol bombs, police say. Officers responded with baton charges, tear gas and pepper spray and eventually dispersed the crowd. Compared to the riots that swept Greece last month, Saturday’s violence was on a relatively small scale but it showed that anger against the state and the police are still simmering, the BBC’s Malcolm Brabant reports from Athens. The street fighters and anarchists are trying hard to keep alive what they regard as December’s insurrection and demonstrations covering a wide range of grievances are taking place on a daily basis, our correspondent says. But the nature of the clashes may soon change, he adds. The futility of firing tear gas at rioters who wear gas masks has dawned on the authorities and it is reported that Greece is taking delivery of water cannon, which should be ready for action within a fortnight, our correspondent reports.


Greek protesters storm television station

“Dozens of protesters in the Greek capital stormed the headquarters of state television station ERT on Tuesday, interrupting broadcasting and unfurling a black banner that read, “Do not watch television. Everyone out on the streets.” Witnesses, including ERT chairman Christos Panagopoulos, said 40 protesters snuck into the building outside the capital city of Athens, entering in small groups and acting as guests so they would not raise suspicions. Some of the demonstrators went to the office of the president to complain about the network’s coverage of the protests, while others wrested control of a broadcast from technicians in the master control room. Another group of protesters entered the studio where an anchor was in the midst of an afternoon broadcast and unfurled the banner. The station had stepped up security in anticipation of such a move, Panagopoulos said. A posting on ERT’s Web site said Panagopoulos “denounced” the actions of the protesters, saying they had not identified themselves. “Mr. Panagopoulos stressed that they were not students but unknown people, who do not respect freedom and democracy,” the posting said. The peaceful stunt appeared to have been carried out by artists and other professionals, not just students, who have been conducting most of the demonstrations, a witness said.”

How police shooting of a teenage boy rallied the ‘€700 generation’
BY Maria Margaronis / 13 December 2008

Thousands of protesters hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at police yesterday, as Greek police reportedly began to run out of teargas after a week of riots that have seen the streets of major cities turned into virtual war zones. Police sources say they have used more than 4,600 teargas capsules in the past week and have contacted Israel and Germany for fresh stocks. The prime minister, Costas Karamanlis, yesterday vowed to keep citizens safe, but students angry at the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos by the police again attacked officers outside parliament.

“Alexi, these nights are yours,” says the graffiti on the subway wall, addressed to the Athens schoolboy killed last Saturday, allegedly by a police bullet. The week of rioting and protest that has left the city in shards belongs, above all, to the young. It is a revolt of schoolchildren and students, most on the streets for the first time. There are reports of children as young as 12 battling riot police, shouting “Cops! Pigs! Murderers!”

The teenagers and twenty-somethings who have come close to toppling the Greek government are not the marginalised: this is no replay of the riots that convulsed Paris in 2005. Many are sons and daughters of the middle classes, shocked at the killing of one of their own, disgusted with the government’s incompetence and corruption, enraged by the broken promises of the education system, scared at the prospect of having to work still harder than their exhausted parents.

Some call themselves the “€700 generation” in recognition of the wage they expect their degrees to get them. The intensity of their fury has startled the whole country – including, perhaps, themselves. Anarchist groups dreaming of revolution played a key part in the first waves of destruction, but this week’s protests were not orchestrated by the usual suspects, who relish a good bust-up and a whiff of teargas. There’s been no siege of the American embassy, no blaming Bush, very few party slogans.

Though the spectacular violence has dominated the news, thousands have also set out to join in peaceful demonstrations, among them parents worried for their children’s future. Linked by the internet, by twitter and text messages, many are trying to distance themselves from the destruction, which they attribute to “extremists, idiots and provocateurs”.

The demands of the young are hard to formulate. They want an end to police violence; they want to change things; they want jobs, and hope; they want a better system. If the wish list is slightly vague, the problem itself is amorphous and difficult to name: a crisis of values and institutions, society and economy, vision and leadership.

Politically, Greece is a democracy that never grew up; economically, it remains a poor relation trying to pass in the salons of Europe. Its 20th-century history is a patchwork of coups and conflicts. The civil war that followed Greece’s occupation by the Axis powers in the second world war put politics on ice for 30 years. Greece is the only European country where collaborators were rewarded and those who resisted were punished. After the left’s defeat by Britain and the US, tens of thousands of resistance sympathisers spent years in prison camps or blacklisted from work.

The military dictatorship of 1967-1974 – brought down by the Turkish invasion of Cyprus after a Greek coup – was the last gasp of that repressive era. Under the conservative statesman Constantine Karamanlis (uncle of the present prime minister) democracy was restored, but institutions remained weak; under the socialist prime minister Andreas Papandreou (father of the present leader of the opposition), liberties were extended but corruption also flourished, hand in a hand with a corrosive leftwing populism.

At the same time, the country has been in the throes of a rapid and painful modernisation. In 40 years Greece has gone from peasant agriculture supported by a large diaspora to a mixed economy drawing foreign investment; from the periphery of the developed world to the middle ranks of Europe and the hub of the new Balkans; from a homogeneous nation where the lucky had jobs for life to a multicultural country where a fifth of the workforce are new immigrants.

Many of its most talented sons and daughters have chosen to work abroad rather than deal with Greece’s disorganisation and bureaucracy. The social fabric has worn paper-thin. Few politicians have risen to these challenges; most have relied on the old system of trading votes for favours, or on periodic appeals to nationalism and xenophobia.

Costas Karamanlis’ New Democracy government – which enjoys a parliamentary majority of one – has surpassed its predecessors in graft and corruption while imposing punitive economic austerity measures. Greece entered the eurozone in 2001 with a large budget deficit; prices have risen consistently since then. In 2004 the country spent an estimated €10bn on the Olympic games, an unknown portion of it pocketed by contractors and politicians.

The two trade union federations that staged a general strike this week want increased social spending in light of the global recession. But the government has called for bigger pension contributions and removed a tax exemption for some of the poorest self-employed. It has also partially privatised ports and plans to do the same with hospitals and schools – at a time when one in five live in poverty and youth unemployment stands near 25%, the highest in Europe.

Meanwhile, the centre of Athens is full of expensive boutiques; shopping malls sprout like mushrooms in the suburbs. Instead of education, values and understanding, the young are being sold an aspirational “lifestyle” they can’t afford, which many of them don’t want. They watch their parents struggling to make ends meet and are told to work hard at school only to find that without connections they can’t get a job – or a flat, or decent medical care. Despite the rhetoric of meritocracy Greece still runs on “means”, up to the highest levels.

In the weeks before the shooting of Alexis, the papers were full of the latest government scandal, a series of lucrative land swaps carried out for Mount Athos’s largest monastery, which involved at least three senior aides to the prime minister and are said to have cost the public more than €100m.

Graft, of course, goes hand in hand with incompetence. The government’s failure to contain devastating fires of 2007, in which at least 67 people died and 642,000 acres of farmland and forest were destroyed, was partly due to political tinkering with the fire brigades; the lack of progress in restoring burnt-out areas is due partly to pressure from developers eager to cash in.

Given that precedent, no one in Athens is surprised that the riots have got so wildly out of hand. It is the other shoe dropping – or, as one journalist put it, Nero fiddling for a second time while the city goes up in flames. Is this a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown? For some time, discontent in Greece has been aggressively policed. The area of Athens where the child was shot – a neighbourhood of ungentrified cafes where young people and anarchists, dope-heads and intellectuals all hang out together – has long been the target of a clean-up operation.

Police violence is not new, it is just that previous victims have been immigrants or Roma and so do not make the media. As usual when there is social dislocation, the far right has gained strength: the populist Orthodox Rally won 10 seats in parliament for the first time last year, and the neo-fascist Golden Dawn organisation is known to have supporters inside the police. Now that the lid has blown off the pressure cooker, repression may take more blatant and more violent forms.

More crucially, there is no obvious way out of the impasse. The problems facing Greece are profound and the recession will pull tensions tighter. Greece has a long tradition of protest and resistance – some of those occupying Athens University claim descent from the students who fell before the junta’s tanks in 1973 – but less experience of concerted action to find solutions. After the violence dies down there will, sooner or later, have to be an election. But the problems the young have exposed have been decades in the making. No one has begun to imagine a solution.


From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

Overview: who were (are) the Diggers?

The Digger Archives is an ongoing Web project to preserve and present
the history of the anarchist guerilla street theater group that
challenged the emerging Counterculture of the Sixties and whose
actions and ideals inspired (and continue to inspire) a generation (of
all ages) to create models of Free Association.

The Diggers were one of the legendary groups in San Francisco’s Haight-
Ashbury, one of the world-wide epicenters of the Sixties
Counterculture which fundamentally changed American and world culture.
Shrouded in a mystique of anonymity, the Diggers took their name from
the original English Diggers (1649-50) who had promulgated a vision of
society free from private property, and all forms of buying and
selling. The San Francisco Diggers evolved out of two Radical
traditions that thrived in the SF Bay Area in the mid-1960s: the
bohemian/underground art/theater scene, and the New Left/civil rights/
peace movement.

The Diggers combined street theater, anarcho-direct action, and art
happenings in their social agenda of creating a Free City. Their most
famous activities revolved around distributing Free Food every day in
the Park, and distributing “surplus energy” at a series of Free Stores
(where everything was free for the taking.) The Diggers coined various
slogans that worked their way into the counterculture and even into
the larger society – “Do your own thing” and “Today is the first day
of the rest of your life” being the most recognizable. The Diggers, at
the nexus of the emerging underground, were the progenitors of many
new (or newly discovered) ideas such as baking whole wheat bread (made
famous through the popular Free Digger Bread that was baked in one-
and two-pound coffee cans at the Free Bakery); the first Free Medical
Clinic, which inspired the founding of the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical
Clinic; tye-dyed clothing; and, communal celebrations of natural
planetary events, such as the Solstices and Equinoxes.

First and foremost, the Diggers were actors (in Trip Without A Ticket,
the term “life actors” was used.) Their stage was the streets and
parks of the Haight-Ashbury, and later the whole city of San
Francisco. The Diggers had evolved out of the radicalizing maelstrom
that was the San Francisco Mime Troupe which R.G. Davis, the actor,
writer, director and founder of the Troupe had created over the
previous decade. The Diggers represented a natural evolution in the
course of the Troupe’s history, as they had first moved from an indoor
milieu into the parks of the City, giving Free performances on stages
thrown up the day of the show. The Digger energy took the action off
the constructed platform and jumped right into the most happening
stage yet – the streets of the Haight where a new youth culture was
recreating itself, at least temporarily, out of the glaring eye of
news reporters. The Diggers, as actors, created a series of street
events that marked the evolution of the hippie phenomenon from a
homegrown face-to-face community to the mass-media circus that
splashed its face across the world’s front pages and TV screens: the
Death of Money Parade, Intersection Game, Invisible Circus, Death of
Hippie/Birth of Free.

The Diggers broadcast these events, as well as their editorial
comments of the day, pronouncements to the larger Hip Community,
manifestos and miscellaneous communications, through broadsides and
leaflets distributed by hand on Haight Street. These Web pages are my
attempt to present the story of the digger movement as it developed in
the mid-to-late sixties and early seventies (and evolved in various
directions even to the present). I have been collecting this Archive
for thirty years, and see the Web as a way to display the materials
and make them available both for researchers and for all diggers past
and present who want to preserve and participate in this history.


Emmett Grogan (c. 1943-1978) was a founder of the Diggers in the
Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, California who inspired
Abbie Hoffman to undertake a similar venture on the Lower East Side of
New York City during the mid-1960s. The Diggers were a hippie group
that scrounged for and provided food and other services. They took
their name from the Diggers of 17th Century England who were a radical
movement opposed to feudalism, the Church of England and the British
Crown. The Diggers of the 1960s can be compared with the present-day
Food Not Bombs who feed homeless youth.

Grogan’s penchant for personal myth making and distrust of the
mainstream media resulted in few details of his life being reliably
recorded. His 1972 autobiography, Ringolevio (A life played for
keeps), is filled with embellishments and large portions of his pre-
Digger life appear to be outright fabrications. This flexibility with
the truth was part of Grogan’s larger social and political agenda and
was meant to further Digger ideals. Grogan was also the author of
Final Score, a fictional crime novel.

Grogan shunned media attention, and became increasing suspicious of
those who sought after it. In Ringolevio Grogan discusses the 1967
Human Be-In, taking shots at counterculture luminaries Timothy Leary,
Jerry Rubin, and especially Abbie Hoffman.

The original Diggers were peasants who had banded together to fight
the Enclosure Movement in Cromwell’s England. The King had confiscated
the common grazing land to raise his own sheep to supply wool for his
new mills. The people tried to take them back, arguing that no one had
a right to appropriate private property for themselves, and the King
sent Cromwell and his soldiers against them. They were nicknamed “The
Diggers” because as the sun rose on them every morning, they were seen
burying the dead of the last night’s battle. The San Francisco Diggers
were initially assembled around the visionary acuity of Billy Murcott,
a mysterious childhood friend of Emmett’s who believed that people had
internalized material values and cultural premises about the sanctity
of private property and capital so completely as to have become
addicted to wealth and status. It was an enchantment so deep, an
identity with jobs so absolute as to have eradicated all contact with
inner wildness and personal expression not condoned by society.

Free,as the Diggers understood it, in its broadest context, was the
antidote to such addictions. For most people the word free means
simply, “without limits”. Harnessed to the notion of enterprise,
however, it has become the dominant engine of the culture. The
perception that the vanquishing of limits was not only possible, but a
necessary and valuable adjunct to succesful living was so integral to
American life as to remain unquestioned. In fact, personal freedom, as
it was colloquially understood, had lots of limits: it limited
aspirations (to adult adjustment, for instance), created continual
cultural upheavals, ignored interdependence, violated the integrity of
the family and community, exhausted biological niches and strip-mined
common courtesy and civility from public life. In reaction to job-
identity and the pursuit of material wealth, the Diggers sought the
freedom of authenticity – the response to one’s own or other inspiring
imaginings and visions of the world as opposed to those which evolved
around the culture of capital; the freedom of new forms – new ways of
living and interacting together which were not predicated on the
premises of capital and markets – imagining a culture you would prefer
and making it real by acting out. Since we were all products of this
culture, and could not always be immediately certain whether or not
one’s ideas were truly inner-directed or not, we expanded the idea of
freedom to include anonymity (freedom from fame) as well as eschewing
payment for what we did, supposing that if one acted for personal
recognition or wealth it was not really free at all.

Freedom, from our point of view, meant personal liberation. Our hope
was that if we were skillful enough in creating concrete examples of
existance as free people, that the example would be infectious and
produce real, self-directed (as opposed to coerced) social change.
People who were actually enjoying a mode of existence that they
imagined as best for them would be loath to surrender and more
probably, would defend it. If that were to happen en masse, it might
produce real social change. From our perspective, ideological analysis
was often one more means to forestall the time and courage necessary
to actually manifest an alternative. Furthermore, all ideological
solutions, left and right, all undervalued the individual, and were
quick to sacrifice them to the expediencies of their particular mental
empires. We used to joke amongst ourselves that the Diggers would be
“put up against the wall” not by the CIA or FBI, but by peers on the
Left who would sacrifice anyone that created an impediment to their
being in charge. Our disagreement with such folk and their policies
put the burden on us to imagine modes of existence and manifest them
as if the revolution were over and we had won. Our courage would be to
create them in the present. Skill for these tasks was measured by
ability not only to survive outside the dominant economic and social
paradigm, but in one’s ability to employ the techniques of theater to
transmit this survival information to others. The question was “how?”
I remember clearly the first day I went to the Panhandle with Emmett
to see the Free Food. Hearty, steaming stew was being ladled out of
large steel milk cans. Each portion was accompanied by loaves of bread
that resembled mushrooms because they had been baked in one pound
coffee cans, and as they rose over the edge of the tin, they spread
into a cap-like shape. The morning stung your cheeks with damp fog,
sharp with the smell of eucalyptus. Emmett and I stood just off to the
side watching the line that led the people waiting with their
ubiquitous tin cups, through a large square which had been constructed
out of six foot long two by fours painted bright yellow. This was The
Free Frame of Reference. In order to receive a meal, people stepped
through it, and once on the other side, they were issued a tiny yellow
replica about two inches square, attached to a cord for wearing. They
were encouraged to bring this up to their eyes like a monocle and view
any piece of reality through ‘a free frame of reference’. It was a
simple piece of mental technology which allowed people to reconstruct
(or deconstruct) their world-view at their own pace and direction.

Emmett asked me if I’d like something to eat, and I said “No, I’ll
leave it for people who need it.” He looked at me sharply and said,
“That’s not the point” and pried open a door in my mind. The point was
to do something that you wanted to do, for your own reasons. If you
wanted to live in a world with free food, create it and participate in
it. Feeding people was not an act of charity but an act of
responsibility to a personal vision.

In John Nierhardt’s wonderful book, Black Elk Speaks, he recounts that
the whole village acted out the dream of the young Black Elk, assuming
roles and costumes and moving according to his directions. This
realization of a dream in the flesh, is precisely what the Diggers
were trying to accomplish. The implications of this last point were
lost on people like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin both of whom came
West to investigate what we were up to. Abbie went home and published
a book (for sale) called Free, which catalogued every free service in
the city of New York which supported really needy people. He plastered
his own picture over it thereby announcing himself as a “leader” of
the free counter-culture.

Abby was and remained a close friend, but one with whom I and the
Diggers as a group had pronounced disagreements. One morning he woke
up Peter Berg, pounding on his door and shouting in his New England
twang, “Petah, Petah, I bet you think I stole everything from ya,
doncha?” This was indisputably true. Berg opened the door, looked at
him dyspeptically for a moment, then responded sleepily, “No, Abbie. I
feel like I gave a good tool to an idiot.” While he was a wonderful
human being, he failed to understand (wilfully or not) the deepest
implications of what he was about, and tended to live his life as if
it were a media event, concentrating undue attention and energy to
“revolutionizing” the masses through the media.

Relationships between us were severed over the debacle at the
Democratic Convention in Chicago. Abbie and the group which later
became identified as the Chicago Seven were inviting kids from all
over the country to Chicago to participate in a mass rally to protest
the policies of the Democratic party. Flyers promoting the event
advertised entertainment, camp-grounds and facilities that the
organizers knew did not exist. However they felt that the creation of
a media event which would “raise conciousness” was critically
important and had to be brought about by any means necessary. (Where
have we heard that before?) Diggers were furious at the deception.
Peter Berg accused Abbie of using people as “extras in a piece of
police theater.” We felt that Abbie and company were platforming their
political ambitions on the cracked skulls and smashed kidneys of the
nameless “masses” that they had assembled, and derided it as politics-
as-usual in hip drag, as manipulative as the government’s media-
management of the war, and we wanted no part of it. We rejected the
arguments that such media events could change the “conciousness of the
country”, an oft-repeated, meaningless, unprovable assertion anyway,
and urged instead that young people be educated to work in their own
communities; taught to research tax rolls and registrys to find the
owners of slum buildings and organize for improvements. They needed to
learn to use the tools of libraries and local institutions, to
organize and make changes in their own communities, where they were
not strangers and could not be invisibly victimized. The problem with
what we suggested was that no one could take credit for being the
leader of such decentralized activities, and so it was useless for
those with grand ambitions for personal recognition.

I never discovered whether or not it was true, but one night Abbie
confided to me that they had had a tape prepared to broadcast from the
roof of the Democratic Party headquarters. The plan was to alert the
mob that he was being held prisoner inside and exhort them to storm
the building. One can only imagine the carnage that would have ensued
had that ploy ever come to pass. Having registered my critique, it
must also be said, that even after his flight from undercover
policeman, and all during his long and solitary years of being on the
run, Abbie remained a committed activist – working within local
communities, agitating (at great personal risk) and organizing people
to defend themselves against environmental depredations. He never
abandoned his intentions for change, and certainly has my respect for
that. He always had my love.

San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district was a working class,
pleasantly inter-racial neighborhood of old Victorian homes bordering
the Park and near enough to the University of California Medical
Center to offer cheap housing to med students. At this time, in 1966,
the Haight was being inundated with young people from all over the
country who came seeking liberation or hope for a life of personal
empowerment. On one level the City of San Francisco was capitalizing
on the phenomena: local media was full of articles about the Haight-
Ashbury and the Psychedelic Shop, the San Francisco Mime Troupe was on
the cover of a Chamber of Commerce Brochure (despite the fact that the
City had arrested the company and tried to prevent their performing in
the Park.) The counter-culture was the. “new thing.”

Tourist busses began rolling down Haight Street, and middle class
people from far away places began walking around Haight Street,
spending their out-of- state dollars in the city, photographing us
like they were on some exotic trek and we were Masai people.The
tourism diminished relatively quickly when locals responded by spray
painting the lenses of the cameras and windows of the tourist busses.

The police were rousting street people in a very heavy-handed manner.
The same folk which were the magnet for the tourist dollars, were
being used as fodder for ‘police services’. They were being warned by
the authorities to stay away at the same time that the media used them
as leads for feature stories about San Francisco. This hypocrisy
angered some people to the point of action.** The Digger free food,
free medical clinics, free crash pads, and Free Store were responses
to this hypocrisy, but they were also the expressions of a political
world view that was far less benign than most people believed. People
who never probe beneath the surface thought that we were running a
funky Salvation Army for the unfortunate and chose to applaud us as
“hip” charity workers. They did not understand that we were actually
social safe-crackers, sand-papering our nervous systems and searching
for the right combinations that would spring the doors and let
everyone out of the box.

As this committed Digger street-life clarified itself, it became more
and more difficult to remain within the theatrically limited context
of the Mime Troupe. Life outside the theater was too much more
challenging and amusing, and I bid a bitter-sweet good-bye to Ronnie
and the company

Emmett’s personal relationship to these formulations of “anonymous”
and “free” was always ambiguous and complex. His notion of anonymity
was to give his name away and have others use it as their own nom de
plume. So many people claimed it for so many purposes that eventually
some reporters would assert that there was no Emmett Grogan and that
the name was a fiction created by the Diggers to confound the straight
world. While Emmett’s largesse was one way of demonstrating lack of
attachment to his name, it also made the name ubiquitous, and
incidentally made Emmett himself famous among cognoscenti.

Life with Grogan was a daily exercise in such contradictions, a daily
refinement of one’s understanding of “truth.” You could never be sure
precisely where and how the hair had been split. If, for instance, he
came into a room late for a meeting, he might apologize by telling a
story about being attacked by street toughs, waiting to take revenge
on him for some earlier intervention in their affairs. The subtext of
such a story was always that everyone knew who he was and had some
strong opinion about him. Usually we listened to these stories,
without believing or disbelieving them, enjoying the drama of life
with Emmett as payment enough. However, if someone was pushed to
incredulity by a particularly outrageous claim and were to challenge
him, Emmett might remove his dark glasses with the air of a smug
magician and demonstrate his blackened eye and wounds. The wounds were
definitely real, but was the story? If it was true, was it completely
or partially true? One never knew and never found out.

“Never let them catch you in a lie,” he said to me once at the
beginning of a three month “run” one summer at New York’s infamous
Chelsea Hotel. This remark alerted me to Emmett’s awareness of his own
self-dramatizing, and the extent to which he used his sense of
“theater” as an asset in his work. And what was that work?

The work was to “act-out” the life of your own hero; to live your life
as you wanted to and refuse to be defeated by the myriad excuses that
most people offered for their not being able to do that. Since this
life was engendered in the imagination, imagination was one of the
primary tools available for actualizing it. After I had known him for
some years, and we had truly become brothers, Emmett and I spent a
summer in Manhattan. I think the year was 1969. We entered the city in
search of adventurous possibilities, and the way we worked was
instructive of the way in which many things happened.

Janis Joplin had been an old and good friend of ours, sometime lover,
sometime dope-partner, always steady pal. When we arrived, she was in
New York at the Chelsea Hotel, on tour with her band. After they left
to continue the tour, Emmett and I stayed on, using their rooms,
pretending to be “managers”. Eventually that ruse wore thin, and we
were forced to move from room to room, jimmying the flimsy locks to
find an empty room and confounding the Hotel management which sent the
bills on to god-knows-what befuddled band accountant. Somehow the
bills got paid I imagine because we spent hours on the phone each day,
calling people we had never met, but who might prove to be resources
for our quest.

Anyone who has ever tried to pitch stock cold over the phone can
understand our daily routine. You have a name and a phone number,
perhaps you got it at a party, or from a friend of a friend. You have
just enough of a thread to make a call legitimate and to keep the
other party on the phone long enough for you to begin a pitch. Once
engaged, you have only imagination and skill to keep them engaged –
stock in trade for improvisatory actors. We became expert in trading
political visions, personal friends – anyone of whom intimate
knowledge could be turned to bring the party we wanted to meet – into
our purview. By the end of the summer we had New York wired: unlimited
mobility and access to rooms we wanted to enter – from Park Avenue
mansions of the Hitchcocks, and celebrities like Baby Jane Holzer to
shooting galleries on the lower East Side; recording studios, to rock-
star’s living-rooms; drinks with Jimmy Breslin to joints with Puerto
Rican gang leaders. Each personal “score” enhanced our cultural impact
at the next meeting by offerring information or stories which in turn
enhanced our prestige, and, of course made the next round of
introductions and access that much easier. It was not social climbing,
but social spread, the recombination and intermarriages of previously
separated “networks” of people as a means of “creating the condition
we described” in our imaginations. (The quote is Peter Berg’s phrase
for organizing public events in a manner which made their “message”
absolutely clear and incontrovertible, even if they were only
described by the media.)

One fine example of our summer’s work was brokering a peace-meeting
between several New York detectives and Puerto Rican gang leaders from
the Lower East Side. There had been numerous territorial and drug
feuds disturbing the peace that hot summer, and Emmett and I used our
status as outsiders to create a neutral turf where the antagonists
could meet and talk. Albert Grossman, the avuncular Ben Franklin look-
alike manager for Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, arranged for us to use
the penthouse boardroom of the CBS building, after hours. Albert liked
to help us in our scams. He had given us the run of his office, and
his assistant, Myra Freedman, was generous with her time and extremely
useful to us, taking messages and allowing us to turn their office
into our command central.

Albert was a complicated character and Dylan’s relationship to him was
obviously complex. I discovered that and a small key to Dylan’s poetic
literalness in a strange way. Albert smoked cigarettes in a curious
manner. He would insert the filter between his fourth and fifth
finger, then curl his hand loosely into a fist. He’d place his lips
over the circle formed by his thumb and first finger and inhale, as
one did with hashish cigarettes; the air rushing across his palm
dragging smoke from the cigarette with it. One day in his office, he
was smoking in this manner, and Dylan’s ironic voice was crooning over
the loudspeakers:

Mona tried to tell me, to stay away from the train line,
She said that all the railroad men, drink my blood like wine.
I said, “Oh, I didn’t know that, then again, there’s only one I’ve
And he just smoked my eye-lids and punched my cigarette.”

It did not require the brains of a rocket scientist to hear these
words and see Albert with the cigarette protruding out of his fist, to
know who the song was about, or what having your eye-lids “smoked”
meant. Whatever the charges and counter-charges between him and Dylan,
their relationship was intense, and perhaps Albert found it something
of a respite to deal with Emmett and myself and to arrange for our
meeting to be held in the CBS boardroom.

Emmett and I reveled in the confusion and shock apparent on the faces
of the police and the gang-leaders as they were escorted into the room
by the doorman, who had actually unlocked the front door of the
immense skyscraper for them. There, at the head of the huge, empty,
hardwood table with seating for twenty, were Emmett and I, in blue-
jeans, long-hair, earrings, and leathers, waiting for them like it was
our living room. It was a classic Digger ploy — hard politics with
style. It was our art, and we were becoming very good at it.

Another event might suggest the flavor of that summer. We had been
given Paul Simon’s apartment to use for a meeting. Emmett had told me
that David Padwa, a very wealthy stock broker, wanted to “give us ten
grand” and asked me to “pick it up”. He had to go out, and Danny
Rifkin and I would stay and meet David. On the way out of the
apartment with Emmett, Paul Simon walked into a large rocking horse
made of a wooden horse from an old carousel. He said, “God I hate that
damn thing” and he limped out, with Emmett right behind him. About
three hours later, Emmett stormed in. “Hurry up, the truck’s
downstairs. Gimme a hand,” he said, barely concealing his delight at
some piece of mischief he’d calculated, and incidentally changing the
subject so that Danny and I could not point out to him that David had
never intended to give the Diggers anything at all and had treated us
like a species of worm when we had mentioned it. Classic Emmett. He
had guessed that David might give us money, and rather than risk his
own status with David by asking, had arranged for Danny and I to do
it. Emmett had arranged a truck to come for the hated carousel horse,
and we piled into and drove north to Woodstock, New York, and
deposited it in the early morning hours on Bob Dylan’s (Simon’s bete
noir in those years) front porch as an anonymous gift to his children.

In December of 1990, twenty-plus years later, I saw Paul Simon eating
in a New York restaurant and had the waiter slip him a note which
read, “Didn’t you ever wonder what happened to the rocking horse?” I
saw him read it and laugh and look around for the sender. Seeing me
waiting for his reaction, he asked me over. He confessed that he had
known that we had taken it, but never knew where it had gone. It was
delicious letting the other shoe drop after mid-air suspension of 21

All artists desire an audience, and much as we would criticize and
change our culture, we want, at the same time, to be accepted and
rewarded by it. Emmett was no different, and it is this contradiction,
of simultaneously spurning and yearning an audience, which became the
crucifix on which he finally impaled himself. It does not require too
much of a stretch of the imagination to see in a crucifix the rough
outline of a syringe, and it is that ambivalent symbol of healing and
death that symbolizes the dark-side of Emmett’s “truth” – his
addiction to heroin and the sale of his personal autonomy to that
black deity.

The strain of inventing a culture from scratch is exhausting.
Everything comes up for review. No limit or taboo is sacred,
especially when the investigation is coupled to belief in a high and
noble mission. If our imaginations knew no limits, why should our
bodies? Drugs became tools in the quest for imaginative and physical

As edge dwellers, we were proud of being tougher, more experimental
and truthful, and less compromised than many of our peers who seemed
more interested in easy assimilations, dope-and-long-hair-at-the-
office or the marketing possibilities of the counter-culture, than in
real social alternatives. If their Hallmark Card philosophies were
fueled by acid, grass, and hashish, we had all of the above, plus
heroin and amphetamine–champions of the blues life, invincible allies
of Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday, foot soldiers in ‘Nam, and
countless others who had faced the beast at close quarters and, in the
process, consumed themselves in the flames they tried to signal

Hindsight has taught me that there is a ravenous, invisible twin
haunting each of us. Despite each “good work” and selfless sacrifice
for noble causes, without unremitting vigilance, tiny indulgences
betray these high aims and deflect nourishment to this gluttonous
companion. Unfortunately, not even hindsight frees one of the
consequences of such indulgence.

Emmett stuck me with a needle twice. The first time he pierced my ear.
“It’ll change you,” he said. We were in Sweet William’s kitchen, not
too long before he became a Hell’s Angel. Lenore Kandel, William’s
olive-skinned poet- lover, a true incarnation of a Hindu temple
goddess with a thick shiny braid, inscrutable smile and fertile erotic
imagination, hummed contentedly while she sat stringing beads for the
glittering curtains that festooned every window in the house. Sweet
William’s presence created a ceremony, his grave, Mayan-Jewish face
with high cheekbones and dark eyes bore solemn witness as Emmett
pierced my ear. Emmett was right. It did change me. The hole is still
there. It drew me deeper into our confederation and a little farther
from the pasty grip of civilian life. The second time was in the
living room of a famous Hollywood movie-star and bad boy, in a forest
of Pop-Art paintings. This time the needle was a syringe, loaded with
heroin. “It’ll change ya,” he said, and it changed a lot. The star’s
wife walked in, took one look at her husband sitting in a shooting
circle of freaks and left him for good; I began the process of ruining
a heretofore healthy body; Sweet William started down a path which
took a hard turn at a soured dope deal that later left him half
paralyzed with a bullet in his head. Emmett’s road petered out “at the
end of the line” of the Coney Island subway April Fools Day 1978–some
twelve years later, where his body was found, dead of an overdose.
Even in death he was charismatic. The detective who found his body
said, “I took one look and said to myself, ‘This is somebody.'”

The Sixties turned into the Seventies and the hard-life changed a lot
of things. A lot of friends died: Tracy, Marcus, Bill Lyndon, Billy
Batman, Pete Knell, and Paula McCoy. The list is longer than I have
the heart to type. Brooks wound up in a state hospital after blinding
himself on an acid trip he never returned from; Moose is lost
somewhere in the FBI secret witness program after turning in his
brother Hell’s Angels on numerous charges; Freewheelin’ Frank did 9
years at Folsom for being a Hell’s Angel and driving a truck for the
wrong kid. Kathleen was forced to go underground and disappeared in
Europe with her two infants for 17 years, because her boyfriend blew
up a radio tower.

Faced with these cautionary episodes, a lot of people got well.
Phyllis went to school and become a nurse and a college professor;
Natural Suzanne became a lawyer with the high marks at Boalt Law
School. She is a public defender today who feels that except for a
square millimeter of luck, she might well be where her clients are.
Nina, Freeman, David and Jane moved upstate to the Mattole river and
today look after their watershed, breeding wild salmon and attempting
to slow the excesses of the logging industry. Peter Berg writes and
breaks new ground as a bioregional thinker just as he always did as a
Mime Troupe director and Digger. Somewhere in these transformations,
Emmett got lost. I went to see him once, shortly after the publication
of Ringolevio when he was riding high, married to a beautiful French
Canadian actress and living in a luxurious apartment in Brooklyn
Heights. He was proud of having returned to Brooklyn wealthy and
famous – “so near and yet so far,” was how he put it.

I admit to envy of him then. I was without money, living on a commune
on my family farm in Pennsylvania, attending to details surrounding
the death of my father. Our group was doing hard, no-nonsense, farm
labor for ourselves as well as taking over the chores for a crippled
neighbor. I was still “chipping” street drugs and the occasional
bottle of Demerol I had extracted as tribute from a local physician
who liked to fish our old, well-stocked lake. Most of my energy was
absorbed by a splintering relationship with my daughter’s mother, the
tensions of communal life and group survival. What was left was
dedicated to learning enough about nuclear power to prevent a plant
from being erected in our community. I couldn’t help feeling that it
was our collective life that had paid for Emmett’s laundered sheets,
elegant rooms, well stocked refrigerator and bar. Proud as I was of
his success, like others in our family, I was sore about the
egocentric tone of his book Ringolevio and agreed with Kent Minault’s
assessment: “Oh yeah, Emmett sauntered and we all walked!”

Consequently, on one visit, when I saw that Emmett’s eyes were
“pinned” and knew that he’d been using heroin again, I took the excuse
to blow up. Louise smiled beside him in bed, secretly pleased, I
think, that someone was telling him what she could not. I told him
that I didn’t care if he wanted to die, but if he did, why did he want
to die such a boring death? If he wanted to go out, why didn’t he take
on the nuclear power cartel as his suicide mission and die for
something? I explained everything that I had learned about it to date
(and once again the Mime Troupe penchant for research had stood me in
good stead), told him he was a boring motherfucker and left, too
cloaked in self-righteousness to admit to the degree to which jealousy
had informed my anger.

From that time on, our relationship changed, and Emmett began to
relate to me as if I were a necessary audience. He was proud to tell
me later that our bedroom confrontation had produced a new book,
called Final Score, a nuclear thriller which he felt would outline
implicit perils of the system. He had begun writing songs (The Band
even recorded two) and was excited that Etta James might record one.
Consequently, he had been spending a lot of time with Robby Robertson
and the Band and was going with them to “The Last Waltz,” The Band’s
farewell concert at San Francisco’s legendary Winterland auditorium on
Thanksgiving 1976. I declined his invitation to join them because by
this time I was already bored with rock and roll’s self-congratulatory
pretensions. Emmett was angry at me about this and called back two
days later to announce that he had gotten Michael McClure,
FreeWheelin’ Frank, Sweet Willie Tumbleweed, Lawrence Ferlinghetti,
Lenore Kandel, and Kirby Doyle –all San Francisco Poets and
“family”– to come. “Is that good enough you Jew bastard?” he
inquired, knowing that I no longer had an excuse for not being there.
Despite all these activities and interests, nothing much was really
sustaining Emmett. The “play” had changed with the decade and the
perfect role he’d crafted for himself was slightly anachronistic. His
inability to make something grand happen again was taking a toll of
his confidence. He was trapped by the glamor of his persona and needed
time to disappear; to take beginner’s steps in new directions beyond
the glare of public attention, but he seemed preoccupied with
maintaining his identity and status. He developed curious mannerisms,
particularly an overused, knowing wink, suggesting that something he
had said had a deeper, hipper side that one would have missed without
his warning. It was as if he sensed that his act was getting
threadbare and instead of nourishing it, resorted to tricks to suggest
that it was the audience’s perceptions, not his own performance which
was faulty.

The last time I saw him, I kept a rendezvous at a Malibu beach house
and no one answered repeated knocks and yells. I prowled around, and
saw Emmett passed out in bed. I broke in through a window, checked the
pulse at his throat and, satisfied that he was living, shook the place
down, as only a druggie can, and found enough drugs and traces to open
a small pharmacy. I woke him and we had a corrosive fight, and
finally, as a strategy for getting me off his back, Emmett confessed
to a suicide attempt the previous day. I didn’t believe it (despite
the fact that daily use of heroin is really only suicide on a time
payment plan) but I was stunned nonetheless because, even as a ploy,
Emmett was asking me to feel sorry for him and that was so
uncharacteristic it frightened me for him.

Because I lived four hundred miles away, I called a trusted brother
who lived close enough to monitor him a bit. Duvall Lewis was a
brilliant young black man who had served as staff on the California
State Arts Council while I was Chairman and member there from
1975-1983. A tall, and charming hipster with an insatiable curiousity,
a political wizard and fixer, Duvall was fearless and never missed the
joke. I thought he and Emmett would like each other and they did and
began hanging out together.

Duvall called one day, and through his laughter described a hundred-
mile- an-hour car race through Topanga Canyon where Emmett chased down
a famous “liberal” cinematographer and forced him to sign a release
for his book, Final Score. The man had optioned the book and then
ignored Emmett’s entreaties for an unconscionable length of time, so
Emmett took matters into his own hands. When Duvall called with the
news of Emmett’s death, his call was just one in a long series that
crisscrossed the country, stitching friends and the news together. Not
so many years after this, Duvall himself was dead by his own hand, in
despair at being completely frozen out of the Reagan era’s material
feeding frenzy. Their two lives, and two deaths, haunt me as
unnervingly similar, and I can never think of either of them without
knowing exactly what Allen Ginsberg meant when he opened his epic poem
Howl with the line, “I have seen the best minds of my generation
destroyed by madness.”

Emmett told you what he thought. He was stand up. He was a man,
extreme and contradictory, quarrelsome and kind, charismatic and self-
destructive, who willed himself to be a hero, to be better than he
felt he was when he became conscious.

For most people it might have been enough to have been a living
legend, to have Bob Dylan dedicate an album to you; to be an icon to
thousands of people that included Puerto Rican gang leaders,
presidents of recording companies, professional thieves, wealthy
restauranteurs, movie stars, socialites, Black Panthers, Hells Angels
and the Diggers themselves, but Emmett was chasing his own self-
perfection, and while the struggle killed him, I cannot help but
admire the morality of his premise, and the brutally high standards he
established for himself. Emmett was a guidon, carried into battle, an
emblem behind which people rallied their imaginations. He proved with
his existence that each of us could act out the life of our highest
fantasies. This was his goal and his compassionate legacy and I will
not minimize it or let myself off the hook of his example, despite his
inconsistencies and flaws.

Let me return to the early days, when that example was still
untarnished, and its lustre summoned so many from safe havens and
comfortable futures, into the chaotic, unpredictable moment of life in
the streets.


* This is a deliberate reference to a book called We Are the People
Our Parents Warned Us About by Nicholas Von Hoffman. Von Hoffman came
to the Haight-Ashbury, using his teen-age son as a beard, and traveled
through the underground behind a smoke-screen of good-will and
“wanting to understand.” Besides misunderstanding most of what he saw,
including a good-natured romp between me and my friend, Roberto La
Morticella, which he misread as “mindless violence,” Von Hoffman’s
articles about the demi-monde and its use of drugs, named names,
places and dates. A number of people were subsequently raided and
arrested because of information which he printed. I was told years
later by a well-placed source, that the specificity of these articles
and the betrayal of confidential sources engendered something of a
crisis and series of heated discussions with him about journalistic
ethics among his peers at the Washington Post where he was employed at
the time.

** I cannot resist observing how people who act on their beliefs are
currently labeled activists, as if the norm were to have ideas and
beliefs and do nothing about them. Adding the “ists” to the verb,
lumps such people along with communists, socialists, feminists,
environmentalists, etc. all of whom we are supposed to assume
represent a tiny minority of extremists. In such a way the integrity
of the community is broken up into tiny, impotent, single-agenda
fragments. When I was young, we called people who did not act on their
beliefs, hypocrites. Who and what is served by this change in

Peter Coyote
Last modification: May 8, 1996

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]×17.pdf

“The Graffiti Report Card is a mechanism that you can use to judge
graffiti. It’s a sticker with an arrow on it that points to the
graffiti. The sticker has a number of categories you can judge the
graffiti on as well as a space to write your own comments. The way you
use the Graffiti Report Card is you:

1: Find a piece of graffiti you love or hate.
2: Print out the PDF I’ve included in this article
3: Fill out the graffiti report card with your comments
4: Stick it up on the wall next to the graffiti
5: Take a picture and send it to me or post it to the Graffiti Report
Card Flickr Group

What is the background of the Graffiti Report Card?

It’s a project I started a couple of months ago after seeing my
neighborhood (The Mission District of San Francisco) receive an
amazing amount of ugly, large, and talentless graffiti. I wanted a way
to combat the ugly graffiti while at the same time give praise to the
talented graffiti writers who I feel make the streets more beautiful.
It occurred to me, that many of our local taggers don’t realize how
ugly and talentless their graffiti is, so I wanted to give them some

I did some research and found the perfect project called the Graffiti
Critique. The Graffiti Critique is a form you use to critique graffiti
which suited my purposes well. I contacted Drew Heffron, the person
who created the Graffiti Critique who was supposedly giving out this
form as a PDF. I really love the design and execution. I had no luck
getting the form though, so I just created my own.”

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

Banksy Was Here
The invisible man of graffiti art.

by Lauren Collins  /  May 14, 2007

The British graffiti artist Banksy likes pizza, though his preference
in toppings cannot be definitively ascertained. He has a gold tooth.
He has a silver tooth. He has a silver earring. He’s an anarchist
environmentalist who travels by chauffeured S.U.V. He was born in
1978, or 1974, in Bristol, England—no, Yate. The son of a butcher and
a housewife, or a delivery driver and a hospital worker, he’s fat,
he’s skinny, he’s an introverted workhorse, he’s a breeze-shooting
exhibitionist given to drinking pint after pint of stout. For a while
now, Banksy has lived in London: if not in Shoreditch, then in Hoxton.
Joel Unangst, who had the nearly unprecedented experience of meeting
Banksy last year, in Los Angeles, when the artist rented a warehouse
from him for an exhibition, can confirm that Banksy often dresses in a
T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers. When Unangst is asked what adorns the T-
shirts, he will allow, before fretting that he has revealed too much
already, that they are covered with smudges of white paint.

The creative fields have long had their shadowy practitioners, figures
whose identities, whether because of scandalous content (the author of
“Story of O”), fear of ostracism (Joe Klein), aversion to nepotism
(Stephen King’s son Joe Hill), or conceptual necessity (Sacha Baron
Cohen), remain, at least for a time, unknown. Anonymity enables its
adopter to seek fame while shielding him from the meaner consequences
of fame-seeking. In exchange for ceding credit, he is freed from the
obligations of authorship. Banksy, for instance, does not attend his
own openings. He may miss out on the accolades, but he’ll never spend
a Thursday evening, from six to eight, picking at cubes of cheese.

Banksy is a household name in England—the Evening Standard has
mentioned him thirty-eight times in the past six months—but his
identity is a subject of febrile speculation. This much is certain:
around 1993, his graffiti began appearing on trains and walls around
Bristol; by 2001, his blocky spray-painted signature had cropped up
all over the United Kingdom, eliciting both civic hand-wringing and
comparisons to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Vienna, San
Francisco, Barcelona, and Paris followed, along with forays into
pranksterism and more traditional painting, but Banksy has never shed
the graffitist’s habit of operating under a handle. His anonymity is
said to be born of a desire—understandable enough for a “quality
vandal,” as he likes to be called—to elude the police. For years now,
he has refused to do face-to-face interviews.

Having fashioned himself as a sort of painterly Publius, Banksy
surfaces from time to time to prod the popular conscience. Confronted
with a blank surface, he will cover it with scenes of anti-
authoritarian whimsy: Winston Churchill with a Mohawk, two policemen
kissing, a military helicopter crowned by a pink bow. Typically
crafting his images with spray paint and cardboard stencils, Banksy is
able to achieve a meticulous level of detail. His aesthetic is clean
and instantly readable—broad social cartooning rendered with the
graphic bang of an indie concert poster. Since street art is
ephemeral, he occasionally issues books filled with photographs of his
work, accompanied by his own text. He self-published his first three
volumes, “Existencilism,” “Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall,”
and “Cut It Out.” His latest, “Wall and Piece,” was published by
Random House and has sold more than two hundred and fifty thousand

As his renown has grown, Banksy has parlayed his knack for reducing
ideas to simple visual elements into what a critic recently termed
“red nose rebellion.” He is both a lefty and a tweaker of lefty
pieties. At a London antiwar demonstration in 2003, he distributed
signs that read “I Don’t Believe In Anything. I’m Just Here for the
Violence.” Later, he produced revisionist oil paintings (Mona Lisa
with a yellow smiley face, a pastoral landscape surrounded by crime-
scene tape) and, disguised in a trenchcoat and fake beard, installed
them, respectively, in the Louvre and the Tate. For the Natural
History Museum, it was Banksus militus vandalus, a taxidermy rat
equipped with a miniature can of spray paint. In 2005, Banksy
travelled to the West Bank, where he painted the security fence at
Bethlehem with a trompe-l’oeil scene of a hole in the concrete
barrier, revealing a glittering beach on the other side; it looked as
if someone had dug through to paradise. Banksy sometimes satirizes
even his own sanctimony. “I have no interest in ever coming out,” he
has said. “I figure there are enough self-opinionated assholes trying
to get their ugly little faces in front of you as it is.” Still, he
posts news clips on his Web site, alongside video footage of
successful stunts.

Whoever he is, Banksy revels in the incongruities of his persona. “The
art world is the biggest joke going,” he has said. “It’s a rest home
for the overprivileged, the pretentious, and the weak.” Although he
once declared that “every other type of art compared to graffiti is a
step down,” in recent years he has produced his share of traditional
works on canvas and on paper, suitable for hanging indoors, above a
couch. His gallerist in London, Steve Lazarides, maintains a warm
relationship with Sotheby’s, authenticating Banksy pieces that the
house offers for auction, and thereby giving Banksy’s tacit
endorsement of their sale on the secondary market. In February,
Sotheby’s presented seven works by Banksy in a sale of contemporary
art. “Bombing Middle England” (2001), an acrylic-and-spray-paint
stencil on canvas, featuring a trio of retirees playing boules with
live shells, was estimated to bring between sixty and a hundred
thousand dollars. It sold for two hundred thousand. (“Bombing” is
slang for writing graffiti.) Last month, a painting titled “Space Girl
and Bird” sold at Bonham’s for five hundred and seventy-five thousand,
a Banksy record. Ralph Taylor, a specialist in the Sotheby’s
contemporary-art department, said of Banksy, “He is the quickest-
growing artist anyone has ever seen of all time.” Banksy responded to
the Sotheby’s sale by posting a painting on his Web site. It featured
an auctioneer presiding over a crowd of rapt bidders, with the caption
“I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.”

Such antagonism goads people, as it is designed to. For a while, the
Wikipedia entry for Banksy began, “Banksy is a nancy boy. Banksy is a
rip-off. Banksy is a bloody sod.” Diane Shakespeare, an official with
the Keep Britain Tidy campaign, told me, “We are concerned that
Banksy’s street art glorifies what is essentially vandalism,” while
Jonathan Jones, of the Guardian, recently wrote on his blog, “I think
there’s some wit in Banksy’s work, some cleverness—and a massive
bucket of hot steaming hype.” But for every litter freak or culture
purist driven to indignation by Banksy there’s a person who is
entranced. While setting up the show in Los Angeles, Banksy ordered a
pizza, ate it, and tossed the box in a Dumpster. Within weeks, the
pizza box was sold on eBay, for a hundred and two dollars. The seller
suggested that a few anchovies that had been left inside might yield
traces of Banksy’s DNA.

Banksy’s first formal exhibition was in 2000, at a Bristol restaurant
whose owners he knew. Soon enough, he had established a comer’s
reputation among cool kids and tabloid editors, but it was not until
three years later, with an event called “Turf War,” that he attracted
the attention of the London art world. A Barnumesque spectacle, staged
at a secret location, it included live pigs and a heifer spray-painted
with Andy Warhol’s likeness. Queen Elizabeth II, who had just
celebrated her Golden Jubilee, was depicted in a portrait as a chimp.

For his next show, “Crude Oils,” Banksy stocked a Notting Hill gallery
with two hundred free-roaming rats. Rodents are a favorite motif.
“Like most people, I have a fantasy that all the little powerless
losers will gang up together,” Banksy wrote in “Existencilism.” “That
all the vermin will get some good equipment and then the underground
will go overground and tear this city apart.” His most famous street
paintings are a series of black-and-white stencilled rats, the
majority of them slightly larger than life-size. Each is different,
but they all possess an impish poignancy that made them an immediate
hit with London pedestrians. One, a “gangster rat,” painted on a wall
near the Smithfield market, wears a peace-sign medallion and carries a
sign that says “Welcome to Hell.” Another pleads, “Please love me.”
Cheyenne Westphal, the chairman for contemporary art in Europe at
Sotheby’s, told me, “My first experience with him was in October,
2004, when he left a piece outside a party we were throwing for Damien
Hirst.” It was a rat, holding up a placard that read, “You lie.”
Banksy, typically, was flipping off the art world and begging it to
notice him at the same time.

Pleasing crowds, not cognoscenti, however, remains his stated aim.
“The last time I did a show,” he said, before the Los Angeles opening
last September, “I thought I’d got a four-star review, then I realized
they said, ‘This is absolute ****.’ ” He elaborated: “Hollywood is a
town where they honor their heroes by writing their names on the
pavement to be walked on by fat people and peed on by dogs. It seemed
like a great place to come and be ambitious.”

Banksy and his confederates (a team of “fun-loving Englishmen,” Joel
Unangst said) work flexible and light. Their m.o. is stealth: drop in
on a city, perform reconnaissance, erect—in the style of a World’s Fair
—a temporary gallery, and, almost before anyone knows they’ve been
there, break it all down and get the hell out. Unangst recalled, “Some
people I work with called me up and said, ‘Can they come and look at
your warehouse?’ We set up a meeting in the middle of the night.
Banksy rolls up in an S.U.V. and looks around. He asked me if I had
any problems with him bringing in a live elephant, and I said, ‘No,
it’s cool.’ ” Unangst was instructed to refer to Banksy by an alias,
which he refused to divulge, except to say that it was “a regular male

In February, Unangst showed me around the warehouse, a twelve-thousand-
square-foot former fruit-and-vegetable depot. “This is where it all
happened,” he said. “I thought it was going to be a quaint little art

Friday, September 15th, was the first day of the exhibition, titled
“Barely Legal.” Its location was not announced until that morning; the
warehouse, situated downtown, off I-10, is not easy to find. Still,
Keanu Reeves and Jude Law had shown up at a V.I.P. preview the evening
before, as had Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who bought several
pieces. “These days, everyone is trying to be famous, but he has
anonymity,” Pitt told reporters. “I think that’s great.” The irony may
have been lost on Pitt that one of Banksy’s publicists had invited

By Saturday, Los Angeles’s many animal-rights activists were
registering their displeasure. Banksy was displaying an eight-thousand-
pound elephant named Tai, whose hide he had painted red and
embellished with gold fleurs-de-lis, to match the wallpaper of a
parlor he had constructed. (The elephant in the room, a handout
proclaimed, was global poverty.) The activists said that the paint was
toxic. Ed Boks, Los Angeles’s general manager of animal services, said
he regretted that his office had issued a permit and, after visiting
the show, wrote on his blog that looking into the elephant’s eyes
“nearly brought me to tears.” He eventually ordered the animal hosed
down. The L.A. Times, which had not planned to review the show,
published two stories. Al Jazeera reported on the controversy. Other
people were angry about a large portrait of Mother Teresa overlaid
with the words “I learnt a valuable lesson from this woman. Moisturise
everyday.” By Sunday, thirty thousand people, waiting in lines five
blocks long, had seen the exhibition.

I asked Unangst what more he could tell me about Banksy, and he
replied, “The only thing I can say is he’s like everybody, but he’s
like nobody.” And so began the koan of Banksy, whose own talents as an
aphorist—“Never paint graffiti in a town where they still point at
aeroplanes”; “Only when the last tree has been cut down and the last
river has dried up will man realize that reciting red Indian proverbs
makes you sound like a fucking muppet”—seem to inspire all who cross
his path. Banksy has convinced nearly everyone who has ever met him
that promulgating his image would amount to an unconscionable act of
soul robbery.

“Banksy is a genius and a madman,” Unangst continued.

“He’s a guy from Bristol,” someone who knows him told me later.

“I’m not obliged to say more than I’m obliged to,” another loyalist

Cheyenne Westphal was in Los Angeles during “Barely Legal,” attending
a dinner for the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. “Everyone there was
saying, ‘Who is this Banksy?’ ” she recalled. During his time in
California, Banksy did not meet with any potential patrons, but he
managed to “get up,” in the argot, a few works of art for the
enjoyment of all Angelenos. Along with graffitiing several local
buildings, he bought a blowup doll and dressed it in a hood and an
orange jumpsuit, as a Guantánamo prisoner. Then he sneaked into
Disneyland and installed it along the path of the Big Thunder Mountain
Railroad ride, where it remained for ninety minutes. A week earlier,
he had created five hundred doctored copies of Paris Hilton’s début CD
and distributed them in record stores all over the U.K. Hilton
appeared topless on the cover, and her song titles included “Why Am I
Famous?” and “What Am I For?”

Unangst wandered behind the warehouse, toward what looked like a
rusted-out paddy wagon. It was parked against a wall. Banksy had
tagged the side that was obscured with a pixillated Dorothy, from “The
Wizard of Oz,” a noose in her outstretched hand. I wrote down a phone
number from a painted decal—“How’s My Bombing?”—on the truck’s bumper,
hoping that it might offer a hint about the Banksy mystery. It
connected to a Navy recruiting station in Arizona.

Even on Banksy’s home turf, it’s hard to know what to look for, or
where to look. For many of his admirers, that’s the fun of it:
scouring a city for him, or his art works, invests a potentially
monotonous activity with the possibility of discovery. When I arrived
in London, in March, my only clue to who Banksy might be was a series
of pictures, posted on the Internet in 2004, by a Jamaican
photographer named Peter Dean Rickards. That year, so the story goes,
Banksy flew to Kingston to work on a project. He visited the reggae
singer Buju Banton, at his studio, and Rickards documented the
occasion. Eventually, he became disgruntled. “Banksy swanned around
Jamaica as if he owned the place,” he told the Evening Standard, to
which he sold the images. “He’s too much of a pussy to protest having
his picture taken once he found himself in Kingston, Jamaica—nowhere
near the nice, safe media offices . . . that he’s accustomed to,” he
wrote on his Web site, in a rant that accompanied the pictures, which
have since been removed. Steve Lazarides confirmed to the Standard
that Banksy had been in Jamaica, but said that Rickards had the wrong
guy. When I contacted Rickards, he said that he wasn’t at liberty to
discuss the incident. “The best I can do is to tell you,” he wrote in
an e-mail, “that they don’t call him BANKsy for nothing.”

Buju Banton, reached on the telephone, did not dispel the notion that
the man in the pictures was Banksy. “Rickards tried to ruin something
that has a mystique, and that isn’t cool,” he said. “Banksy’s an
artist that not everyone should have a piece of,” he added, and then
started laughing.

Colin Saysell, an anti-graffiti officer in Bristol, who has been
tracking Banksy for years, concluded that the photos were legit. So
did Simon Hattenstone, a writer at the Guardian, who met Banksy, or at
least a Banksy decoy, in 2003, before Banksy swore off the press. I
showed him a makeshift lineup of supposed Banksy photographs—there
have been several others—and he gravitated toward the Rickards shot.
“That picture is definitely Banksy,” he said. Elizabeth Wolff, who is
now a reporter at the Post, was with Hattenstone, as a summer intern,
for the Banksy encounter, which took place over pints of Guinness in a
Shoreditch pub. She, too, said the Rickards picture was “definitely”
Banksy. “He was the grimiest person I’d ever met,” she said. “He
looked like someone from one of those British industrial towns from
the nineteenth century. There was a layer of grit on him.”

Steve Lazarides’s gallery is housed in a former sex shop on the ground
floor of a four-story brick building in Soho, in London. Lazarides,
like Banksy, grew up in Bristol. His mother was a housewife; his
father sold kebabs. Lazarides and Banksy did not know each other as
kids, but friends introduced them when they were in their twenties,
and Lazarides began taking pictures of Banksy’s graffiti. (Lazarides
was a professional photographer for a time, having also worked mixing
concrete and plucking chickens.) He gained Banksy’s confidence and
began serving as his fixer, gatekeeper, and, eventually, agent. As
their fortunes rose, Lazarides was able, in 2005, to establish his

The gallery’s motto is “Art by People,” but its affiliates exhibit a
caginess toward anyone outside their circle of trusted accomplices,
many of whom work in semi-symbiosis. Banksy, for instance, illustrated
the cover for “Think Tank,” a 2003 album by the band Blur, of which
Damon Albarn is a member. (Banksy later declared that he’d never do
commercial work again.) Albarn went on to found Gorillaz, a band whose
public face is represented by four animated characters. Remi Kabaka,
who provides the voice for the band’s drummer, works at the gallery as
a sort of majordomo. At a recent party at a bar nearby, his name was
the password for entry.

On a Friday morning, a crowd had gathered on the sidewalk in front of
the gallery, an increasingly common problem for Lazarides. “The
hookers get really upset if you block their doorway,” a neighbor told
me, pointing upstairs. The gallery was supposed to open at noon, but
the doors were locked.

Peregrine Hill and Dan Mitchell, partners in a London law firm, were
among those on the sidewalk. Worried that the show would sell out
before they got there, they had cut out of work. They were dressed in
suits and ties and had come armed with a P.D.A. and a computer

The night before, Lazarides had thrown an opening party for Faile, a
graffiti collective from Brooklyn. “They’re probably all hung over,”
Mitchell said of Lazarides and his crew.

“We need to get ourselves invited to the previews,” Hill replied.

Eventually, a young man with lime-green high-tops and messy hair came
bounding down the street, rolling a cigarette. He was not, it turned
out, a Lazarides acolyte but another anxious collector.

“Pictures on Walls got sold out of Nick Walker prints,” he said,
striking up a conversation with the lawyers. (Nick Walker is another
graffiti artist from Bristol. Pictures on Walls is the Web site
through which Banksy sells, and invariably sells out, his limited-
edition prints, which go for under fifteen hundred dollars apiece.
“When we sell prints at below their true market value that is done at
the artist’s request, not because we’re stupid,” the Web site reads.)

“That was rubbish!” Hill answered. He then asked, in the manner of a
Beanie Babies enthusiast, “Did you get one?”

“I missed it. Dickhead!”

The next to arrive was Caitlin Stapleton, on spring break from
Northeastern University. “Me and my sister are here visiting, and I’m
obsessed with Banksy,” she said. “I’m like, I’m going to go on an
actual trip and find things by him.”

A woman arrived, unlocked the door to the gallery, and disappeared
inside, without acknowledging the crowd.

“Even if I just found one of his little rats, it’d be awesome,”
Stapleton said.

Eventually, an assistant named Sam materialized and began rehashing
the previous night’s events. “It was insane,” he said. “People were
fighting—‘I want this, I want that.’ ”

I was supposed to have a meeting with one of Lazarides’s deputies. He
didn’t show. Eventually, Lazarides called in. I’d heard that he kept a
secret office nearby. Someone handed me a cordless phone. “We let the
art speak for itself,” Lazarides said, gruffly. “I don’t want to be
Banksy’s spokesman.”

“All these little lads look at Banksy the way the youngsters who are
into football look at Beckham—he’s their hero,” Denise James, the
director of an organization called Bristol Clean & Green, said
recently, sitting in a café on the top floor of a Bristol motorcycle
dealership. Clean & Green is charged with cleaning up graffiti blight,
which costs the city more than three hundred thousand dollars each
year. “It annoys me, it frustrates me, because it’s just so ugly,”
James said.

The graffitist’s impulse is akin to a blogger’s: write some stuff,
quickly, which people may or may not read. Both mediums demand wit and
nimbleness. They arouse many of the same fears about the lowering of
the public discourse and the taking of undeserved liberties. Graffiti
aficionados like to say that the form is as ancient as cave drawing,
and Banksy takes a similarly romantic view. “Imagine a city where
graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw wherever
they liked,” he once wrote. “Where the street was awash with a million
colors and little phrases. . . . A city that felt like a party where
everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big
business.” Detractors of graffiti, however, can trace its spread as
assiduously as epidemiologists mapping an outbreak of diphtheria.
Colin Saysell, the anti-graffiti officer, explained that graffiti had
first appeared in the U.K. around the same time as the Rock Steady
Crew, the Bronx hip-hop group, in 1983. “They went on a European tour
and brought with them a number of very famous graf writers from New
York as a fringe act,” Saysell said. At the end of the eighties, he
said, there was a crackdown, which succeeded in squelching local
graffiti culture for a moment. “Since 2003, it’s been going crazy

If Bristol is, as James told me, “the graffiti capital of England,”
then Banksy is its patron sinner. One morning last June, citizens were
surprised to find a new mural downtown, on the side of a sexual-health
clinic. It depicted a window, a perfect imitation of others nearby.
From the sill, a naked man dangled by his fingertips. Inside, a fully
dressed man scanned the horizon, next to a woman in dishabille.
Directly facing the fake window are the offices of the Bristol city
council, which, in a departure from policy, decided to put the mural’s
fate to a public vote. Of about a thousand respondents, ninety-three
per cent said the mural should stay. So it did. (In late April,
however, London authorities whitewashed Banksy’s famous “Pulp Fiction”
mural, which showed John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson holding
bananas instead of handguns.) “Banksy’s latest work of art is superb,”
a man wrote to the local paper. “If the council wants to do something
it should cut down that dreadful shrub which is obscuring the piece.”
Gary Hopkins, a councilman, told me, “I think we undermined his street
cred by making him mainstream.” Even James admitted to a grudging
affection for Banksy. “I like the one where he’s got a picture of a
stream and a bridge and he’s just dumped a shopping trolley in there,”
she said, referring to a painting that Banksy did in the style of
Monet. “I can relate to that, because we’ve got a problem with
shopping trolleys.”

Municipal lawmakers are not the only Bristolians to have taken a
faddish interest in Banksy: in a run-down part of town called Easton,
where Banksy is rumored to have lived in the nineties, a couple named
Sarah and David Anslow were trying, on behalf of an “anonymous party,”
to sell one of his early murals. The mural, which is spray-painted
freehand, with bubble letters and looping “wild-style” arrows, and
bears less resemblance to Banksy’s recent work than to something you
might see on a PATH train, adorns an exterior wall of a crumbling
Victorian terrace house. For a minimum bid of four hundred thousand
dollars, a buyer would receive the mural—with the house thrown in “for
free.” The Anslows, who have an art gallery in Devon called the Red
Propeller, announced the offer just after the February Sotheby’s

When I met Sarah Anslow at the house this spring, she began by making
a confession. She and David were the actual owners of the house. They
had bought it and several others in the neighborhood in the early
nineties, as investments. She said that they had decided to come out
as the owners only after a local reporter called them on the charade.
“We had been concerned that it could get reported in the wrong way,”
she said. “‘Greedy Owners Try to Cash In on Banksy Mural.’ ” Anslow
talked about her and David’s passion for street art. “We want to get
hold of Banksy,” she said. As she detailed their dreams of becoming
the Medici of graffiti, it was easier to see why Banksy makes himself

A white station wagon pulled up. Its driver, in an orange trucker hat,
rolled down a window and regarded us warily. When he asked who we
were, Anslow did not identify herself as the owner. The man introduced
himself as Ben Bloodworth, and wondered if we knew that, a few days
earlier, a city contractor had tried to destroy the mural.

“The guy said, ‘If you can get a group of more than twenty people to
come down, then maybe that’ll be enough to stop me,’ ” Bloodworth told
us. Twenty people, at least, had shown up, as had news cameras. It was
Bloodworth’s opinion that the incident was part of a publicity ploy by
the sellers. (Two weeks ago, the mural was defaced with a bucket of
red paint.)

“The house is fucked. It’s completely shabby. That’s why they can’t
sell it.” He launched into an impersonation of the putative landlord:
“‘It’s this really lovely three-bedroom shithole in Easton, but it’s
got a masterpiece painted on the side.’ ” Bloodworth said that he had
been interviewed on the BBC about the showdown. Banksy, watching, had
phoned a neighborhood friend and got him to put Bloodworth on the
phone. “He said, ‘It all came across very well. I owe you a pint.’ ” I
showed Bloodworth the Rickards picture and asked him if its subject
looked familiar. “Naw, that guy looks like De Niro,” he said, with a
shake of his head.

A few weeks earlier, Anslow had attempted to reach Banksy through his
Web site. Someone named Dean had responded with an e-mail: “Mr. Banks
is away polishing one of his yachts.”

“Fings have gone a little bit nuts lately,” Steve Lazarides said, with
the burry inflection of his native city. “Suddenly, it’s become all
right amongst the proper art world to collect street art.”

It was April, and Lazarides had agreed to meet me at the gallery,
where he would be setting up an exhibition by a thirty-six-year-old
sculptor named Mark Jenkins, who makes anthropomorphic figures from
packing tape. I arrived at the gallery first. Hip-hop was blasting
from the speakers; an empty Red Bull can had been tossed on the floor.
After a few minutes, a slight man with a shaved head burst through the
door. He was wearing jeans and carrying a camera. It was Lazarides—
he’d been around the corner snapping pictures of a tape sculpture that
Jenkins had planted on the sidewalk. Lazarides seemed elated. “It’s a
proper piece of street art!” he yelled.

Lazarides talked to an assistant for a few minutes about preparations
for the evening, and then swept out the door and around the corner,
into a bookstore. He bounded up a few flights of stairs: the secret
office. It was furnished with stained leather gym mats and loads of
art. There were fake Picassos signed by Damien Hirst, packing-tape
babies, a Banksy canvas of a monkey wielding a gun. Near a window was
a vending machine stocked with prosthetic limbs. “I get all the crazy
shit, basically,” Lazarides said.

After a few minutes, he scooted out of the building and into the
vestibule of another, where he rang a buzzer. A hostess opened the
door. It was a private club, where we were to eat lunch. After
ordering lamb chops and a glass of white wine—“whichever”—Lazarides
talked about his path to art-world dominion. “It wasn’t open to us, so
we just decided to open up a different branch of art,” he said. “It’s
a bit like being a d.j.—you’re in the club and they’re playing nothing
you like. All of a sudden, you have to put on your own club night.” He
went on, “To be honest, I have no idea how I got made the designated
gallery owner, out of everybody.”

Across town, meanwhile, amid the fashionable shops of Knightsbridge, a
show titled “Banksy” had been mounted by a gallerist named Acoris
Andipa, a descendant of what he says is civilization’s oldest art-
dealing clan. “The Andipa family was first recognized in 1593 in
Venice, although our history actually goes back much further, to the
time of the Bible,” he told me when I visited.

Sitting at his desk, dressed in a pin-striped suit, Andipa
acknowledged that this was an unusual show for him. “Being urban art,
I thought it was a little too far away, but I decided to test it on
the back of a Damien Hirst exhibit we did,” he said. “Four out of five
Banksys were snapped up in the first hour. That then satisfied me
artistically, and then, frankly, we went to a twenty-four-hour-a-day,
seven-day-a-week focus on putting together a major collection that
would be worthy of making a big noise about.” Cheyenne Westphal, from
Sotheby’s, confirmed that the market for Banksy has exploded over the
past year. “I feel in many ways that we are only at the beginning,”
she said. Michael Fischer, a hedge-fund manager who collects Banksy,
put it this way: “He’s gone from zero to a hundred in, like, three

Andipa does not represent any artists, so all his shows are privately
sourced. “At first, we had Banksy followers, if you like, telling us
it would be impossible,” he said. He had called Lazarides, but the
conversation “lasted a minute.” I asked him if he thought Lazarides
was unprofessional. “Let’s just say we have picked up a lot of clients
with the way we do business,” he said.

For his show, Andipa had instituted a no-street-art policy—although he
saw some “cracking good pieces,” he said, “street art must remain on
the street”—but he managed to acquire fifteen signed canvases and more
than thirty signed limited-edition prints. Having previewed the show
in Gstaad, he had now, a week after its opening, sold nearly half of
the pieces, which he was offering at prices ranging from ten thousand
to two hundred thousand dollars. Twirling a pen, he reported that walk-
in traffic at the gallery had increased fifteenfold. “We’ve had a lot
of youth, and we’re not talking about well-heeled youth,” he said. “A
lot of street kids, the kids who sort of hang around and hang out and
what have you. They’re all very polite.” Andipa said that he would
love to know what Banksy thought of his efforts. “In theory, he’s anti-
art establishment, and here I am in this Knightsbridge art gallery,
but I would also like to think, deep down, that he would be proud to
think of his work being surrounded by Picassos.”

Banksy is so intimately tied to Lazarides’s success, and Lazarides to
his, that, of people who care about these things, more than one has
speculated that Lazarides is Banksy. This seems unlikely: fielding, or
refusing to field, all the world’s questions about Banksy is
occupation enough for one man. Still, Lazarides is in deep. When I
asked him, over lunch, about a statement he’d once made, denying that
he and Banksy meet in person for the delivery of art works—“I get a
phone call and go pick ’em up, back of a supermarket”—he admitted it
wasn’t quite true. It is that kind of stagemanship that led a British
observer to describe him to me as “exactly like Malcolm
McLaren.” (Lazarides is no rube: type “Banksy” into Google and ads for
Laz Inc. come up.)

Whatever guile Lazarides possesses is offset, however, by a winning
ingenuousness. He was not happy about the Banksy exhibition at Andipa.
It was “piracy,” he said. He mentioned that Andipa had tried to reach
him. “He called me Stavros, and I called him a cock,” he said,
breaking into a grin. “Nothing I love more than failing aristocrats.”

Lazarides’s cell phone, which he had politely ignored for two hours,
buzzed with a text message: “Bloke on Neal Street doing a roaring
trade in fake Banksys.”

That night, I went to the Jenkins opening at the Lazarides gallery.
For the first hour, Lazarides and Jenkins hung back, drinking Tiger
beers on the sidewalk across the street. When Lazarides finally
ventured inside, he was approached by a serious-looking man in
important glasses. “What drew you to Mark’s work?” he asked.

“It’s fuckin’ funny, man.”

During a phone conversation in March, Lazarides had insisted that
Banksy was “lying low” for at least a year. An edition of his “I Can’t
Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit” painting had been released
on Pictures on Walls that month, crashing the Web site for five hours,
but, aside from that, he had not been heard from.

One Friday at the end of April, when I checked my e-mail there was a
message from Banksy.

“Hello there,” it went. “Thanks for taking an interest in my stuff.”

Banksy agreed to answer some questions over e-mail. He was wryly
eloquent, but his banter seemed less playful than it has in the past.
“I don’t think art is much of a spectator sport these days,” he began.
“I don’t know how the art world gets away with it, it’s not like you
hear songs on the radio that are just a mess of noise and then the
d.j. says, ‘If you read the thesis that comes with this, it would make
more sense.’ ”

I’d heard that Banksy had become “increasingly paranoid,” and I
wondered whether the accusations of hypocrisy had worn on him, and
whether he was able to enjoy his success. “I have been called a
sellout, but I give away thousands of paintings for free, how many
more do you want?” he wrote. “I think it was easier when I was the
underdog, and I had a lot of practise at it. The money that my work
fetches these days makes me a bit uncomfortable, but that’s an easy
problem to solve—you just stop whingeing and give it all away. I don’t
think it’s possible to make art about world poverty and then trouser
all the cash, that’s an irony too far, even for me.” He went on, “I
love the way capitalism finds a place—even for its enemies. It’s
definitely boom time in the discontent industry. I mean, how many
cakes does Michael Moore get through?”

“Why do you do what you do?” I asked.

Banksy replied, “I originally set out to try and save the world, but
now I’m not sure I like it enough.”

We discussed his mural in Bristol (“I think because it turned out
there was a sexual-health clinic on the other side of the wall helped,
which just goes to show—if you paint enough crap in enough places
sooner or later one of them will mean something to someone”) and the
city council’s decision to preserve it (“I think it’s pretty
incredible a city council is prepared to make value judgments about
preserving illegally painted graffiti. I’m kind of proud of them”).

Banksy has always had a fatalistic streak: in one of his books, a pair
of lovebirds is juxtaposed with the dictum “As soon as you meet
someone, you know the reason you will leave them.” In another, a
little girl releases a heart-shaped red balloon: “When the time comes
to leave, just walk away quietly and don’t make any fuss.” Recently,
the London Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak wrote that Banksy’s
“chief achievement, and I believe it to be a mammoth one, was finding
a way to operate so successfully outside the art world,” signalling,
with the use of the past tense, that his era of underground
credibility had come and gone. The game of anonymity must also have
its limits, and its limitations. “What happens if you are found out?”
I wrote.

For a cipher, Banksy was surprisingly direct: “Maintaining anonymity
can be kind of crippling. I gave a painting to my favorite pub to
settle a tab once, which they hung above the bar. So many people came
in asking questions about it I haven’t been back there for two years.

“In retrospect getting your work in the newspapers is a really dumb
thing to do if what you do requires a certain level of anonymity. I
was a bit slow there. Brad Pitt told a journalist ‘I think it’s really
cool no one knows who he is’ and within a week there were journalists
from the Daily Mail at the door of my dealer’s dad’s chip shop asking
if he knew where they could find me. All the attention meant I lost
some of the element of surprise. A few days after the show in Los
Angeles opened I was painting under a freeway downtown when a homeless
guy ran over and said, ‘Hey—are you Binsky?’ I left the next day.”

At the bottom of the e-mail, Banksy had appended a file. I opened it,
and the screen filled with a black-and-white image. An artist—shown in
profile, with proud posture and Vandyke whiskers—sits in the shade of
a parasol. Next to him, propped on an easel, stands a canvas covered
with graffiti. The artist’s fingers are gnarled, like a rat. ♦

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

Sooner or later, Punk and Islam were fated to meet and produce strange offspring. This excellent novel represents the first blast of the trumpet – loud and utterly unique. – Hakim Bey……

“The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight is the author’s debut
novel, depicting a fictitious Islamic punk rock scene. The title
refers to taqwa, an Islamic concept of love and fear for Allah, and
hardcore (punk music) – punk subgenres frequently being suffixed –
core. Taqwacore thus refers to a genre of Muslim punk rock, existing
only in the novel at the time of its writing, but since emerging as an
actual genre, inspiring taqwacore bands such as the Kominas and Secret
Trial Five. The novel has also been credited by Asra Q. Nomani as
first presenting her the idea for woman-led prayer, leading to a
historica woman-led congregation on March 18, 2005.

Knight originally self-published The Taqwacores in DIY zine format,
giving copies away for free until finding distribution with
Alternative Tentacles, the punk record label founded by Jello Biafra.
After receiving an endorsement from Peter Lamborn Wilson, the novel
was published by radical press Autonomedia. A UK version is published
by Telegram Books.

The narrator of The Taqwacores, Yusuf Ali, is a Pakistani American
engineering student from Syracuse, New York who lives off campus with
a diverse group of Muslims in their house in Buffalo. Besides being
their home, the house serves as a place to have punk parties and a
place for Muslims not comfortable with the Muslim Student Association
or local mosques to have Friday prayer.”


“His second book, The Taqwacores, is the story of some punk Muslims in
Buffalo, New York, sharing a house together. Their living room serves
multiple functions as a prayer room and party venue – and for the
purposes of the former, they have knocked a few bricks out of the wall
to serve as a qibla. Their life together mixes sex, dope and prayer in
roughly equal amounts, plus near-religious devotion to Islamic-punk
taqwacore bands – the sort of musicians who forfeit their street cred
the moment they start becoming popular.

This is the point where fiction turns into fact, because at the time
the book was written taqwacore music didn’t really exist. It does now,
as a result of the book. The word “taqwacore” is a combination of
“hardcore” and “taqwa” – an Arabic term usually translated as “piety”.

Today, the best-known taqwacore band is The Kominas (a Punjabi word
meaning “bastards”), and some of their lyrics are here. One of their
most controversial songs, Rumi Was a Homo, attacks Siraj Wahhaj, a
prominent Brooklyn imam who was accused of homophobia.

Although The Taqwacores is now studied in courses at several American
universities, it took some time for the book to be formally published.
Initially, Knight made photocopies of it at his local Kinko’s store
and distributed them himself in the car parks of mosques.

Eventually, the book went on sale by mail order through Alternative
Tentacles, a record label in California which trades under the
provocative slogan: “Keeping the Homeland insecure since 1979”.

I came across the book one day while browsing the internet, found an
extract here, and ordered a copy. When it arrived … well, I have
never read anything quite like it, before or since.

Early last year, I was chatting to a friend in London who works in
publishing and told her about The Taqwacores.

“Mmm … sounds interesting,” she said, and promised to read it. The
next thing I heard, one of their staff had gone off to the States,
tracked down Knight and signed up the British rights.

So now, it’s here. I’m a bit apprehensive but I hope British Muslim
organisations will be sensible about it and think twice before
protesting. They complain – rightly – about being stereotyped in the
media, and The Taqwacores is a powerful antidote to that (which is one
good reason why it should be read and circulated as widely as

The book is an easy, funny read but, at another level and without
labouring the point, it’s also profoundly challenging. It addresses –
in a way that’s shocking but ultimately positive – questions of
identity that are faced, to some extent, by all young Muslims growing
up in the west.

Of course, there will be people who insist that the characters in the
book are not “true” Muslims. I’m guessing, but I think this is the
main point Knight wanted to raise. How do you define a “true” Muslim?
On what grounds? And does anyone have the right to judge?”…,,2066036,00.html?gusrc=rss&f…

Islamic street preachers

From Boston to Lahore and beyond, the tentacles of taqwacore – aka Islamic punk rock – are spreading. And it’s giving disenfranchised young Muslims a voice, says Riazat Butt

Saturday April 28, 2007
The Guardian

There can’t be that many female playwrights who are deaf, punk and
Muslim, so Sabina England is something of a find. With a lurid Mohawk
and leather jacket slathered with slogans, she looks every inch the
rebel and has an attitude to match.

Sabina, who says she lives in the “shitty midwest of the United
States” or the “HELL-HOLE OF BOREDOM AND YUPPIES”, is part of a
subculture that, until a few years ago, existed only on paper.

The Taqwacores – a novel about a fictitious Muslim punk scene in the
US – has spawned an actual movement that is being driven forward by
young Muslims worldwide. Some bands – such as the Kominas – have a
cult following. Others, such as Sabina, are virtually unknown. In a
brief email exchange, she lays out some harsh truths.

How well known is the taqwacore phenomenon where you are?

“Muslims around here would rather act like a model minority and don’t
really want to rattle anybody’s chain. I really want to move to New
York City, if I can get my plays produced there. Unfortunately it
seems many theatre companies are too scared to do my works, or think I
only cater to Indians and Pakistanis and won’t attract white people.
But they’re fucking wrong, and they can’t see beyond racial
boundaries. Fucking worthless piece of shites.”

What does taqwacore mean to you?

“It means being true to myself, having my own faith, and interpreting
Islam the way I want to, without feeling guilty or being looked down
at by other Muslims.”

What is the future for taqwacore?

“It’s gonna get bigger. A lot of Muslim kids are tired of being told
what to do, how to think, what to believe in, and how to act, by their
parents. There are ‘the angry muslim kids’ who wanna grow beards and
pray five times a day, and then there are the OTHER ‘angry Muslim
kids’ who wanna get drunk and say a huge big ‘fuck you’ to the Muslim
population. Or maybe they just don’t care and wanna sit at home and
not think about Osama’s video speeches about how America is the Great

How her words would fare with Michael Muhammad Knight, author of The
Taqwacores and an unwitting idol to the young and restless, is
anyone’s guess. Knight, who is 29 and lives in New York with his dog
Sunny – “not as in Sunni Muslim” – downplays his achievement of single-
handedly inspiring this subculture that has produced artists such as
the Kominas, Secret Trial Five, Vote Hezbollah, Al-Thawra, 8-Bit and

“There was a scene already,” says Knight modestly, whose next novel
will be titled Osama Van Halen. “I just gave it a name. There were
kids out there, doing their thing. I don’t think of it as a movement,
though, just a group of friends supporting each other.”

Knight wrote the book to deal with his own issues. He converted to
Islam as a teenager and admits he “burned out” from being so
religious. “I was so intense. I felt Islam was so black and white and
there were no grey areas. These Muslim kids, who are punks, they are
in these grey areas.”

The kids he refers to have all devoured Knight’s work, some taking it

“One kid,” he says, “thought the book was non-fiction and thought that
stuff in the book actually happened. He got in touch. He said if it
wasn’t real, that he would make it real.” He sounds worried by the
suggestion that his book will be a manifesto for Muslim punks. “If the
scene develops, I don’t want it to be based on my book.”

The words stable, door, horse and bolt spring to mind. Some Muslims
are deeming his book to be nothing short of a revelation. “When I read
The Taqwacores,” says Basim Usmani, frontman of The Kominas, “all my
reservations about Islam melted away.”

Usmani was born in New York and moved around the US when he was
growing up. “I had this identity that stretched way further back than
these disenfranchised white kids I was hanging out with, but they were
the ones who showed me the most respect. I entered America where I was
weird and, when I went back to Pakistan, I was weird there too. I was
too Pakistani to be American and too American to be Pakistani.”

His aggression was ongoing, although he freely admits his rage didn’t
come from social dynamics. “In Boston I was middle class. In Pakistan,
where I am now, I am definitely upper class. But the poverty here is
intense and that makes me angry.”

Basim first played with Boston-based outfit Malice In Leatherland,
supporting horror punk band the Misfits. It was during this time that
he heard about Knight’s book.

“I read the book and I’m amazed. I send him an email and he called. I
saw a lot of myself in it. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a
story.” Neither he nor his taqwacore comrades confess to embracing the
more debauched antics of the novel – which has one character urinating
over the Qur’an and then reading from it and a female Muslim veil-
wearing punk, performing oral sex, onstage, in front of 200 people.

Understandably, Usmani was nervous approaching Shahjehan Khan, also in
the Kominas, about the book. “I didn’t know how he would react, he’s
not punk, but he was cool about it. He read it in one day. You could
say it was a catalyst for the Kominas.” Their songs are irreverent and
un-PC. His favourite track, he says with a snigger, is “I Want A
Handjob” – a jibe at Pakistani rockers Junoon (who launched a Muslims
For Bush campaign for the 2004 elections).

Usmani left the US just as the Kominas were breaking through into
mainstream culture. But he has a new band – the Dead Bhuttos, a
variation on the Dead Kennedys (who released their first single
through the independent record label Alternative Tentacles, the very
label that picked up Knight’s book for distribution).

A future project, hopes Usmani, will be a Punjabi version of the Billy
Bragg song There Is Power In A Union. “I’d like it to be a song for
the Pakistani workers ‘cos they don’t really have one,” he muses.

The Kominas, currently on a gigging hiatus, will tour later this year
in North America. “It seems weird to leave just when we were on the
brink. If I’d stayed then I would have been playing to sympathetic
white liberals. I didn’t want that. In Pakistan, people want to rebel
against the police and religious authority and punk is the perfect way
to do that.”

He’s put a downpayment on a bus and decorated it with the shahadah
[the Muslim declaration in the oneness of God]. “I have no idea how
we’re going to get it through customs.”

Meanwhile, Khan is in Boston mixing the Kominas debut album: “We’ve
put some EPs out but this is our first official release. There will be
remixes of our old stuff like Suicide Bomb The Gap.”

Khan says he looks like a typical engineer – with glasses and a goatee
– and comes from a comfortable, middle-class background. But he
appreciates what taqwacore has done for him. “I was like, where has
this book been all my life? None of us know where taqwacore is going
or what’s going to happen. It is a subculture that could influence
culture in general. It’s nice to be part of something at the

One of the newest recruits to the taqwacore scene is Secret Trial
Five, from Vancouver. Lead vocalist Sena Hussain, 25, took her
inspiration directly from the Kominas. “We saw them play and we were
all into punk music anyway. We haven’t had a chance to rattle some
cages, we only got together last summer, but I expect we will. That’s
the point of punk.”

Proposed title tracks include Hey, Hey, Guantanamo Bay and Emo-hurram,
a pun on the first month of the Islamic calendar. And, in a male-
dominated culture, she thinks they will face challenges from all
sides. “It’s another thing that drives us,” she says, “Muslim women
are seen as helpless and oppressed. We want to prove that wrong. I
used to sport a mohawk, I don’t now, but we will totally play up the
punk thing.

“There’s so much animosity towards Muslims and we need a dissenting
voice to say ‘fuck you’ to people who pigeonhole us.” Hussain, who is
looking for a new guitarist, adds: “It’s only fitting that we identify
ourselves as taqwacore, that’s where we got our inspiration from, and
I think that’s the way the genre will grow – and I hope it does.”

{Riazat Butt presents Islamophonic, }

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]


“From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Dekotora or Decotora (デコトラ, dekotora?), an abbreviation for
“Decoration Truck”, is a loudly decorated truck found often in Japan.
Dekotora commonly have neon or ultraviolet lights, extravagant paints,
and shiny stainless or golden exterior parts. These decorations can be
found on both the cab and the trailer, and not only on the exterior
but also in the interior. Dekotora may be created by workers out of
their work trucks for fun, or they may be designed by hobbyists for
special events. They are sometimes also referred to as Art Trucks (アートト
ラック), ātotorakku)?).

Note that Dekotora does not refer to vehicles used for political
campaigns or propaganda.”

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]


French marchers say ‘non’ to 2007

Parodying the French readiness to say “non”, the demonstrators in the
western city of Nantes waved banners reading: “No to 2007” and “Now is

The marchers called on governments and the UN to stop time’s “mad race”
and declare a moratorium on the future.

The protest was held in the rain and organisers joked that even the
weather was against the New Year.

The tension mounted as the minutes ticked away towards midnight – but
the arrival of 2007 did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm.

The protesters began to chant: “No to 2008!”

They vowed to stage a similar protest on 31 December 2007 on the
Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris.