A West Philly-based anarchist newspaper turns 10.
From the June 27, 2007 Philadelphia Weekly
It was the halcyon days of the mid-'90s. The economy was fast approaching the dot-com boom, welfare reform was putting people to work, the country wasn't at war and Monica Lewinsky wasn't yet a household name.
With the exception of an escalating homicide rate, things were pretty quiet in Philadelphia in 1997.
A little too quiet.
On a long van ride back to Philadelphia from a Boston conference for activists fighting poverty and homelessness, a group of Philly anarchists decided, "We don't fuck shit up nearly as much as we really ought to."
The rhythm of everyday life had beaten the once-thriving Philly activist scene into submission. Demonstrations had been too tame, they said. Protests had been ill attended. They needed a spark to bring everyone together, to inspire action, to mobilize.
The conversation on that van ride 10 years ago this month spawned The Defenestrator, a collectively run anarchist newspaper based in West Philadelphia that first published a few weeks later. In August the newspaper will celebrate its 10th anniversary - a major accomplishment for a community that's constantly in flux and doesn't believe in hierarchy.
"We wanted to have something that projects what people in Philly are doing outward," says Dave Onion, who was among those in the van. "And to connect the different groups of people in Philly. A lot of people didn't know each other existed."
A handful of activists met at the A-Space - the antiprofit anarchist cafe on Baltimore Avenue - and kicked around ideas. Stories were written and pages were laid out. A friend who worked at Kinko's surreptitiously printed hundreds of copies for free. When that batch ran out, the Kinko's insider printed more.
"Everything was funded through stolen supplies," says Onion, 36.
The first issue was a 16-page rallying cry, a challenge to the radical community to incite change.
"Cement those toilets ... get out those slingshots, hack those ATMs, glue those locks," the unsigned front-page editorial beckons.
There are stories about squatting in Philadelphia and the evils of McDonald's. Mumia Abu-Jamal contributed an essay. There's even a "radical calendar" of events.
They named the paper after a 15th-century revolt in Prague where the peasants "defenestrated" the ruling monarchs and church officials - they threw them out the window.
"Throwing power out the window" has been the paper's unofficial motto ever since.
The volunteer staff now operates out of the Lancaster Avenue Autonomous Zone (LAVA) in the Belmont section of West Philadelphia. They share space in the converted row home with fellow unconventional media organizations like Geoclan.com, Radio Volta and the Independent Media Center of Philadelphia.
The Defenestrator's small crimson-colored third-floor office is decorated with protest signs from various causes - workers' rights, antipolice brutality, anti-Penntrification. A few signs are in Spanish. One is in German.
Donated computer parts are everywhere, and the largest piece of furniture in the room is a bench seat from a minivan.
"I'm almost opposed to saying there are guidelines to what we'll print," says Defenestrator contributor Colin Cascia, 23. "It's good to allow some openness. We'll allow anyone who is doing things as a community or autonomously and not relying upon the police or government."
Staffer Eian Weissman, 24, says, "We expect there to be a diversity of opinions in a healthy society."
About 15 or 20 people - including a few incarcerated writers - regularly contribute stories. A core of five or six people piece together the sporadically produced newspaper. They average about four or five issues a year.
Workers' rights, the squatting movement, antiglobalization, anti-gentrification, Mumia, prisoners' issues and direct action are championed in nearly every issue.
"The stuff we print is the stuff people are passionate about," says Onion, who was raised by Christian missionary parents in the former Yugoslavia and Austria. He squatted in Berlin before coming to Philadelphia.
In the May issue, for example, Onion explains the goals of the political autonomy movement - the rejection of capitalism and hierarchical institutions.
"Autonomy has been often expressed as a healthy mix of anarchism and Marxism, drawing the best of each, ditching authoritarian or dogmatic strains," he writes.
It costs about $600 to print the 3,000 copies of each issue. Funds are raised by holding concerts, brunches or other events. The staff delivers free copies to coffee shops, laundromats, bike shops and college campuses. During the Republican National Convention they circulated more than 8,000 copies to activists from around the world who descended upon Philadelphia.
They used to mail 600 copies to prison inmates across the country, but that became too expensive. Now they send copies only to prisoners in Pennsylvania and nearby states.
"There have been times when we've pretty much shriveled up," says Onion. "But there's always someone who says, 'No, no, no. We can do it.' And we pick ourselves up and we do it."
But Onion is the last of the original staffers.
"Some people moved away," he says. "Others went on to other things."
Fortunately, Philadelphia has a long tradition of radical thinking, and the city draws numerous activists like Cascia and Weissman, who are both from Connecticut.
"Compared to other places in the States, this community is pretty active," Onion says. "There's a lot of infrastructure for it here."
He cites the A-Space, LAVA and the Wooden Shoe anarchist bookstore on Fifth Street near South as places where like-minded people congregate.
"But people should be doing stuff wherever they're from," he says. "If they did, then we wouldn't have such a Nazi in the White House."