By Joe Dargan
The Anarchist Book Fair went from a peaceful exhibition of free speech, to a chaotic, verbal clash between white vendors and black community activists in Leimert Park on Saturday.
The fair was a result of a collaboration between the Anarchist Bookfair Collective, an independent group of writers, publishers and activists promoting peace through dialogue and the Chaos network, a broadcasting and media company created by long time community member Ben Caldwell, geared towards giving inner-city youths alternative activities.
“This was to give cultural understanding on how different cultures think. These people are out-of-the-box writers of things like zines and political issues.There are also workshops for everybody, but attendees are mostly writers. ” Caldwell said. This was the first year the event was held in Leimert Park.
As vendors set up their tables and put their materials on display, disgruntled community members began to gather a short distance away.
“We look at people as human beings. We know everybody has an ethnic background and cultural point of view but, primarily, they are human beings and deserve dignity and respect on that basis alone.” Richard Vocal, a member of the collective who promoted unique items like subversive truth trading cards that donned the African American faces of people like Angela Davis and Fred Hammond, said.
Two hours into the event, the low-level rumbles of discord coming from the crowd of activists, including some who referred to themselves as Black Panthers, become a loud wave of screams impossible to ignore. They were saying things like, “We don’t want what yall selling” and “Stop taking advantage of the black community,” as one woman waved around an anti-white news publication.
As the angry roars intensified, a young black man and an older black woman with dreadlocks emerged from the crown of around 20 protesters. The two descended upon a vendor who couldn’t take it anymore and decided to pack up her things and go.
The small black woman took the lead as she confronted a woman named Burchett selling books (with the exception of Caldwell and Vocal, most vendors and organizers chose not to give a last name) with a verbal barrage of anti-white sentiment.
She berated the woman, saying things like “Get out,” “Don’t just take from the community, give to the community” and “F’ them books. You should go and read about black people,” while the guy stood guard. The two were eventually convinced to step away and calm down by a woman from the group of protesters named Gyasi Imhotep. Though tempers flared, no one resorted to physical violence.
“There is a lot of homelessness here. There is a lot of hungry people here and we feed them everyday. We feed them and clothe them and we don’t see anyone that’s Caucasian helping out. Then, when we see you come here vending and promoting, we’re like wait a minute. You’re taking from us, but you’re not putting back,” Imhotep, a community member of 14 years, said.
At the height of the commotion, a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter briefly circled the event, prompting the disbursement of the crowd. When the smoke cleared, the protesters were gone, but so were half of the vendors.
“I don’t think that a few big-mouth people represent a community,” said Vocal on why he chose to stay and see the event through.
“You guys are doing something for the neighborhood. They have no right to come and tell somebody to leave off of the sidewalk,” Anthony Cotton, a black community member who agreed with Vocal, said.
After an hour of unrest, the fair regained normalcy. People began to visit vendor’s tables again and the workshops carried on without a hitch.
“I’m personally sad because I really wanted to engage the community and have a conversation that could lead to something better for the people. Myself, Caldwell and James Burks, City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural affairs, had a meeting with some community members and politicians and let them know what was gonna go down. I had friends that told me ‘you need to engage in the community’ and I think we could have been stronger in terms of really reaching out and seeing what specific issues lie here. Yes, I can say I take the blame for what happened here,” Elias, an event organizer who didn’t want to give a last name, said.
Go to www.la.anarchistbookfair.com to learn more about the philosophy of the collective and any upcoming events.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Francisco Portillo wrote this article. It has been updated to correct this mistake.