mountainsfromtrain

September 15, 2008

Content Warning: misogynist violence

It might be that the anarchist traveler scene died when Sali died, on September 15, 2008, as summer gave way to autumn. It was two weeks before her twenty-first birthday.

It might be that the man who killed her marked the end of a way of life.

There were probably hundreds of us in the early-to-mid aughts, us crusty anarchist travelers. We hopped freight trains and we fought the state. We ate out of trash cans, we shoplifted and scammed corporations. We stole photocopies from Kinkos to disseminate our zines, we broke into empty buildings to sleep and throw parties and convergences, because fuck capitalism and fuck asking permission from the system we detest. We worked hard, fought the State tooth and nail, and interwove play into everything we did. An endless summer.

There was no future in it, of course.

In the woods, we tree-sat and blockaded roads to keep old growth forests from the saws of greedy lumber barons. In the cities, we broke windows and locked our bodies to each other at neoliberal trade summits so as to make a mess of the plans of global capital. We were the shock troops of anarchy. We didn’t have jobs, and we didn’t pay rent, leaving us free to move to cities months before demonstrations to start organizing. For a lot of us, jail was already a daily part of our lives — police have never been fans of the homeless — and the threat of arrest was nigh unto meaningless. Because of how we’d set up our lives, we could go harder, give fewer fucks.

We had this crazy fierce love for one another that bordered on cultish, but we had no leaders — not even informally, not to any real degree. We came and went from one another’s lives all the time. We assumed we’d see one another later a little further down the line.

We played banjos and accordions more than electric guitars, but we were still pretty punk. Our clothes were sewn together with dental floss, our bodies and hearts held together by stick-and-poke tattoos. We learned gardening and permaculture and contradancing and primitive skills. We went to jail a lot. We studied Spanish. We hitchhiked and we piled into veggie-oil buses. We played a lot of games. We snuck into orchards to eat fruit right off the trees.

There are a lot of valid critiques that were levied at our way of life as a political praxis, and living the way we did is not something I advocate, specifically. But it’s how I lived and I’m not sorry.

The bottom fell out of the protest-hopping scene, and we tried to make do. A lot of us settled down to organize where we’d landed, a lot of us went further afield in search of adventure. Sali, she left the country and she never came back.

Sali
Sali
I can’t say I knew Sali well. But we were interwoven.

I write what follows without the emotion that I feel, only because I don’t know how to express the emotion I feel and because it helps me to just move through the events somewhat matter-of-fact.

She moved to Mexico in 2007, joining the social struggle in Oaxaca. A year later, she was hitchhiking around and a man offered her a place to stay. He raped her and cut her chest open with a machete and left her body to rot.

My friend Sascha relates what happened after she died:

In the next week, Sali’s killer was apprehended, not by the police, but by punks in Mexico City who had their suspicions she had been killed by an acquaintance. As the story goes, they [threw a party just to get the killer to attend], demanding to know where the cuts all over his body that looked suspiciously like knife wounds came from. He initially claimed that villagers in the town he had just been staying in attacked his dogs. That story fell apart, and he eventually confessed to killing Sali. The punks beat him within an inch of his life and handed him over to the police.

He went to trial eventually, and was sentenced to thirty years to life. At the sentencing Sali’s mother confronted him.

“You killed my daughter,” she said.

“I had to. She was too strong,” was his only reply.

“I had to. She was too strong.”

I can’t think of any more succinct summary of patriarchy than those seven words: “I had to. She was too strong.” Strange that the single clearest explanation came out of the mouth of the man who murdered my comrade.

Two years earlier, another anarchist traveler, Brad Will, was gunned down in Oaxaca, Mexico. He filmed his own death at the hands of government-aligned paramilitaries while covering the militant teacher’s strikes in the region.

Before he died, Brad, more than a decade my senior, had always seemed a bit like one of my possible future selves — a committed anarchist, rootless and brave. He still seems like one of my possible futures. So does Sali.

I can’t politically disambiguate their deaths from one another. One was shot by the federal police, one killed by a misogynist. One was murdered by the State, the other by Patriarchy, and those two things are entirely interwoven. Sali went down with her knife in her hand, fighting. Brad went down still filming.

* * *

Darkstar is on the left, with Fodi and Ferg. On a boxcar, probably the summer of 2002 but I couldn't promise.
Darkstar is on the left, with Fodi and Ferg. On a boxcar, probably the summer of 2002 but I couldn’t promise.
Another friend of mine, Darkstar, died drinking and driving in 2003. I don’t think he made it to twenty-two. He was one of the best of us. He was a grizzled old veteran when I met him, myself only nineteen. He weighed 95lbs soaking wet. He taught Gaelic and wrote children’s stories. He burned every American flag he could get his hands on. I hopped a train to see him once, only to find him in jail for pulling a knife on a crowd of bros who were threatening him. He served a month, then got two years on probation that sent him back to Maryland and, I’d say, led to the depression that led to his death.

He’s the only person I’ve kissed whom I know to be dead, though to be honest I would be surprised if he’s the only one.

* * *

Were they the best of us because they’re dead?

There’s no future in it, in crusty travel. Maybe there’s no future in it because our community dissolved — or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe Darkstar and Sali can live on as legends because they died before their lives were complicated by age. Before attendance at huge demonstrations flagged, before it got harder to get by on petty crime and activism.

Sali’s death went through us. It hit some of my closest friends harder than it hit me, and this time of year I worry more for my friends than I do for myself. It wasn’t just that she died, it was how she died. It was that she was too strong, so she’d been destroyed.

I have no scientific evidence that Sali’s murder is what broke us apart. But the theory works, for me, symbolically.

We’ve held on, in our various ways. There’s a punk version of grownup that’s nothing to sneer at — a trailer on land at the edge of town, or a punk house full of grownups who know how to clean their own dishes and take out the compost. There are gardens and kids and community and tattoos and collective projects and bands and food.

I still wander, but it’s nothing like it was. The road is a lonelier place for me these past years. Ten years ago, if I saw someone in California in May, I’d like as not see them in New York come August. We floated around the country and world, independent but loosely interwoven.

There’s a new generation out there, to be sure. It’s not the same, but nothing ever is.

I can’t decide if I’m mourning a lost cultural movement or just my own lost youth. It was a magical thing we once had, and I like the idea that it’s still out there, opaque to me but vibrant and alive for those in it.

* * *

I’m sitting here at a fancy cafe on Harvard Square, on the seventh anniversary of Sali’s death, and Hurray for the Riff Raff came on the stereo. Hurray for the Riff Raff is Alynda’s project. Alynda was one of us, and she did amazing things then and she does amazing things now.

As much as I can wax nostalgic, I’m happy with who I am and what I’m doing. I’m proud of my past and it informs my present, but it’s my present I’m living for. I refuse to have had glory days.

A lot of the skills I’ve learned don’t translate well to polite society, and a lot of the mannerisms I’ve picked up tend to just confuse people. I know how to block roads and talk my way out of trouble with cops and I know how to get on a freight train without dying. I can organize consensus meetings but I don’t know how to play politics in scenes where people care about social capital and don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. I forget to wear deodorant to job interviews and I have this tendency to tell bosses that I don’t take well to orders. (I wonder if they know that I have both studied and practiced the art of destroying businesses that upset me.)

Traveler life taught me to live for the present, not the past, not the future. I didn’t set myself up for a future because I wasn’t really sure I had a future.

I’m not the frontline anymore. Myself and plenty others of my generation, we’re the reserve troops of anarchy now. We’ve got a lot more to lose — some of us have children or aging parents or careers, some of us have felony records or endless probation. A lot of us have trauma and PTSD and health problems. The “let’s go fight cops” bar is set a lot higher than it used to be, but we’re still here. We never stopped caring. Hell, most of us never stopped fighting, we just do so along different fronts and with different tactics.

I get all the more upset about the people and institutions that have murdered my friends when I realize how amazing it is to grow up — when I think about how much I love wrestling with all the complexities of being antagonistic to the existent society yet needing to find stability within it. I learned an awful lot in my early twenties, and I’m better at things now than I was then. Sali, Darkstar, plenty of others, they’ll never have that.

People who plan all carefully for the future die in car accidents or get murdered or whatever else all the time too, and my friends packed more life into their years than most. Despite the risk, life is better when you don’t hold back. I truly believe that.

Just now summer is giving way to autumn, though, and the dead are on my mind.

9 thoughts on “September 15, 2008”

    1. Yes, exactly. Magpie, we have never met and I was never involved in the scene directly, yet I have heard many vivid stories from friends that ring true like yours does here. I hope you continue to pack everything you can into this life.

      In solidarity,
      Ceilidh

  1. Damn dude, you definitely have a way of putting into words what I’ve been feeling this year. I’ve only recently started looking back on that stuff and realizing what I missed about it all this time.

    I can’t help but think that not all hope is lost for this next generation, although rational evidence sometimes says otherwise. I guess my main concern right now is helping the younger generation not come out acting like a lot of the shitheads I see on the road today.

  2. there is still an anarchist, traveler crustypunk scene. you’re just not part of it anymore.

    this sounds like an old man lamenting “these kids these days…” or “why, back in my day…”

    and life goes on within you and without you…

    1. This is addressed in the piece. It was written to capture the rise and fall of a specific generation of crusty traveler, and I’ve yet to hear from anyone who thinks it’s the same now as it was then. Not saying it’s worse now, but it’s not the same.

  3. Hey there Magpie… Its been a long time. 7,8 years?. If I recall correctly you and I never got along yet I stumbled across this and it is the sentiment that I have been struggling with since the late 00’s as I watched the wave you’re talking about crest and begin to break. I often though my life is better in man way now find myself groping for the feeling of urgency and potency that was in the air in the late 90s and early 2000s. I miss what it was and what we were to it, each other.. It still exits in its own right for those new to lifestyle that our generation proliferated… but the way it was for us will never be the way that it will be again for numerous reasons. If you read this know as Im sure you do that many of us mourn and celebrate those times… And thank you for your eloquent perspective on our own Altamont .

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