Blackout Books and The Community Labor Coalition

Officially, the Lower East Side Community Labor Coalition (CLC) is an umbrella group that includes a wide variety of autonomous groups, such as the Coalition for a District Alternative, the Lower East Side Collective, Blackout Books, the Labor and Religion Coalition, and the Mexican American Workers Association, but it is really the brain-child of the Lower East Side Collective (aka the LESC or the Borg). But while the LESC's politics are reformist (another, "better" capitalism), the CLC's politics are neo-liberal (the capitalism we have, but working as it should).

The CLC's entire program or mission consists in the "demand" that the mostly Mexican illegal immigrants who work sweatshop hours for sub-minimum wages at several fruit-and-vegetable stores ("green-groceries") in the Lower East Side of Manhattan to be allowed to join a pre-existing union. Because the immigrants' mostly Korean employers refuse to meet this "demand," the CLC's only recourse -- which is also its raison d'etre -- has been to call for a boycott and to picket outside of the non-unionized stores. The CLC has tried and succeeded in involving local politicians (from the Democratic Party, of course) in the "struggle" for the workers' right to unionize. The whole operation is one of representation: the union represents the workers; the politicians represent the electorate; and the CLC represents the community. Direct democracy is apparently out of the question, completely unthinkable and unthought.

The only reason you are being subjected to this unappealing information is the anomalous presence on the list of sponsors of the CLC of Blackout Books, which is New York City's only anarchist bookstore. By definition, anarchism is the rejection of all leaders and all forms of representation, and their replacement with direct democratic decision-making, that is to say, the very opposite of the CLC's program. Blackout's misalliance with the CLC has become more pronounced with the recent additions to the list of sponsors of the Socialist Party and the [Marxist] Committees of Correspondence. At least in the mind of one volunteer at the bookstore, Bill Not Bored, Blackout Books has no place at all in 1) any organization that uncritically accepts "representation" and that doesn't even consider the anarchist critique of it, and 2) any organization in which Socialists and Marxists are co-sponsors. Since the summer of 1999, Bill has been arguing within Blackout that the store should withdraw from the CLC.

At the end of July 1999, Bill wrote a statement about the greengrocers from an anarchist perspective; thanks to a friend, the statement was translated into Spanish. (The text and its translation are reproduced on the following two pages.) Unlike the CLC's flyers, which are addressed to potential customers and appeal to their respective consciences, Bill's statement is addressed to the workers themselves and appeals to their conscious minds. On 31 July 1999, Bill personally distributed copies of the flyer to workers in several green-groceries in the Lower East Side, and to several people from the CLC who were standing outside Gracefully Yours (on Avenue A) and distributing their own flyers. While standing on the CLC's picket line and giving out his own flyers, Bill got into a minor scuffle with one Manny Ness, a hierarch in the CLC, who called Bill a "fascist" for discouraging the workers from getting involved in the union. Manny ended up on his ass, and Bill ended up having to take off: one of the leftists in the CLC called the police.

A minor furor erupted. On 2 August 1999, Manny telephoned another volunteer at Blackout Books to complain and to threaten the store. Manny then followed his phone call up with an e-mail to this same volunteer:

Dear -----,

Just want you to know that I do not hold what happened against you personally. Moreover, I hope that you continue to come to pickets and meetings. We definitely need you. Not coming to the CLC's events would be counterproductive and help the owners and the other yuppie supporters.

My concern is with Bill Brown's destructive interference as a member of Black Out Books. I don't want to get into a political discussion with him because frankly, I don't care what his politics is.

My concern is that Mr. Brown isn't playing fair. If Mr. Brown wants to help workers organize themselves--and doesn't like the way we're helping workers, why doesn't he set up his own model. Just because he doesn't have a clue about organizing doesn't give him the right to interfere with our effort to help workers organize at the green grocers. Store owners have already used Mr. Brown's actions as a sign of the Lower East Side community's opposition to our boycott and the workers' efforts.

I was told by representatives of the Mexican American Workers Asssociation that if Black Out Books continues to condone Mr. Brown's actions--Mexican workers participating in the struggle have threatened to picket Black Out Books. I hope they don't do this.

But Mr. Brown's audacity of interfering with an ongoing effort that was already endorsed by Blackout Books is particularly deplorable and appalling. I'm frankly afraid of Mr. Brown's violent behavior. I didn't report the assault to the police, but if you get a chance--tell him to stay away from me and the workers' picket line. My neck still hurts and my body continues to ache as a result of his unprovoked attack against me. Also, Mr. Brown's demeanor and rhetoric to members of the community and people on our picket line is identical to the yuppies and gentrifiers who defend the store owners.

Once again, just want to reiterate our thanks to you and the Black Out Books collective for all the help you've provided for worker self-organizing in our neighborhood.

Forwarded a copy of this peculiar letter, Bill wrote back to Manny:

Since you have confused me and my flyer with Blackout Books -- you have both called ----- ------, of all people (someone totally uninvolved with the production of the flyer), and have e-mailed the bookstore -- please let me begin by reminding you of what I told you when you asked me (in person) about the origination of the flyer, when I handed you a copy on the picket line.

My flyer was written by me, me alone, and is in no way attributable to Blackout Books; it is attributable to me and me alone. (In addition to volunteering at Blackout, I publish my own magazine, have arranged a theatre group and maintain my own website.) Please stop involving Blackout Books in this matter. Though I am a volunteer at Blackout, and Blackout is a part of the Community Labor Coalition, this matter is between me and you, and me and you only.

For the record (and for anyone who is interested), let me recount what I recall exactly happened on Saturday 31 July in front of Gracefully Yours.

In the company of someone who is not a Blackout volunteer, I brought with me a flyer that I personally had written and had translated into Spanish. The flyer bears no name, for I knew that I and I alone would be distributing it.

There was, of course, no response. Soon after this (non)exchange of letters, there was a meeting of the volunteers at Blackout Books, at which a sizable majority endorsed Bill's -- and every volunteer's -- right to act autonomously, even if he or she is a volunteer at a store that has entered into coalitions with other groups; the store's tactical alliances must be seen as separate from those of the individual volunteers who staff the store. A summary of this decision was sent to Manny, but there was again no response.

Gratified by Blackout's endorsement of autonomy, Bill then renewed his effort to have the bookstore withdraw from the CLC. In September, he drafted the following resolution and posted it in the bookstore.

Blackout's Membership in the CLC


1. Blackout has been primarily run by anarchists and has primarily stocked books by anarchists since its inception.

2. The Community Labor Coalition (CLC) is not anarchist. Neither its conceptualization of nor approach to the problem of exploited laborers is influenced by anarchist ideas. There are no anarchists in the CLC other than people connected to Blackout. (The CLC is best described as Leftist: it doesn't advocate the abolition of wage labor, as would the Marxists, but advocates merely that existing capitalist laws about the minimum wage and overtime should be enforced.)

3. The CLC mentions in all of its flyers and public statements that Blackout is among its constituent groups, despite the facts that Blackout is neither asked for nor gives any input into either the general policies or the specific actions of the CLC.

4. The impression has been created and is now being reinforced that, despite #3 above, Blackout has indeed had input into -- and even approves of -- what is being done by the CLC in its name.

5. Both the reputations of anarchism as something different from standard run-of-the-mill Leftism and of Blackout as an anarchist bookstore have been and continue to be compromised by this situation.

6. If Blackout wants to be involved in anarchist labor-organizing, it should do so with other anarchists (such as the I.W.W. and the W.S.A., both of which have NYC offices) or start its own pro-labor campaign.


Blackout should withdraw from the Community Labor Coalition.

Unexpectedly, at least for Bill, there were a relatively large number of votes in favor of Blackout remaining in the CLC: the final tally was 12 votes in favor of withdrawing, and 8 votes in favor of remaining in. In other words, there was a majority in favor of withdrawing, but it wasn't a two-thirds majority (necessary for important decisions at the bookstore). Stunned that so many self-avowed anarchists held non-anarchist positions -- or, rather, that so many non-anarchists continue to volunteer at the bookstore, despite efforts to only have anarchists volunteer there -- Bill dropped his campaign. The issue quickly died, and remains unresolved.



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