Sunday, July 09, 2006

Our Trip to Baltimore

OK… we’re back!

After a wonderfully pleasant ten day trip into the evil empire, we are back. Which means Sketchy Thoughts getting back to its usual more-than-once-a-week frequency, i promise!

I’m not going to do a travelogue of where we went and what we did, but think it would be a waste if i wrote nothing at all…

For those who are curious, the highlights of our trip were Baltimore (the Mid-Atlantic Radical Bookfair), Philadelphia (wonderful comrades, beautiful architecture, fantastic food!) and several dozen used bookstores on the way there and back.

I hardly ever go to the usa, and this trip was motivated by the first Mid-Atlantic Radical Bookfair to take place in years, in Baltimore – a city i had never been to before. I have to give a big congratulations to the bookfair organizers, who managed to create a great weekend of events. Unfortunately i was tabling the entire time, so i did not get to go to any of the workshops, but i did meet lots of great people and picked up loads of literature, some of which i’ll soon be adding to the Kersplebedeb catalog soon.

I have no idea how many people attended the bookfair – certainly more than a couple of hundred, i’d also say less than a couple of thousand… there were three floors of vendors, most of whom were anarchist but also some independent bookstores and (to my surprise) some old school commies like the SWP, Spark and the CP. Which of course suits me fine, as i always feel the less sectarian and the more strains of left in such an event, the better for all involved. I was surprised though that the local LBGT bookstore (Lambda Rising) and the local radical Black bookstore (Everyone’s Place) did not attend (though we would visit each before we left town). I have no idea how many attendees were “local” as opposed to visitors like us, though it may be telling that while the event took place in a majority Black city, you wouldn’t have known this based on the attendance…

The Bookfair took place just two blocks away from Red Emma’s, which is Baltimore’s anarchist coffeehouse and bookstore. This was handy as it meant that at any point vegan food and ice cold drinks were available within five minutes of the event. Unfortunately we arrived on the Friday just in time to set up, and thought we would check out Red Emma’s after the bookfair ended, on Monday – but it turned out the store was closed then – i imagine most of the volunteers needed a rest after the busy weekend – so i can’t really comment on the bookstore side of the project (though i could see it had a much better than average queer section, and another visitor told me their radical philosophy section was also great)…

We spent Monday driving around, going to used bookstores, eating outstanding vegan food at Yabba Pot restaurant, getting lost… you know, the whole “in a city you’ve never been in before” routine. The day was made much more enjoyable by the fact that the Bookfair organizers had provided us all with great maps, showing not only restaurants and clubs, but also used bookstores and hand out spaces – without this we would have had a lot less fun!

My impressions of the city as such are fairly disjointed and snapshotty, the only real constant being the heat – we would be in one area, hop in the car and in two minutes be in a completely different neighbourhood, in what sometimes seemed like a completely different city. Many areas we ended up in were solidly Black, and on some of these streets the desperate poverty was clear to see. And then we’d turn a corner, go through a tunnel, and voilà we’d be in a touristy or suburban area, overwhelmingly white and visibly far far wealthier.

A similar experience when we had been driving down: looking for a motel in Newark, NJ (which i knew nothing about) what was striking was how pretty much everyone was Black, and how (as we drove through what i guess was the downtown core) there seemed to be so much poverty… and then within five minutes of leaving the city and ducking into a suburb suddenly the houses were big, there were what looked like private clubs of some sort, and pretty much the only Black people there were working behind the counter at internet café we ended up grabbing an espresso at.

All within a five minute drive.

As i have mentioned before – my first time in Baltimore, my first time just passing through Newark, and i know nothing about either city so i hesitate to comment, but on the level of first impressions… well, let’s just say i’ll be a bit more demanding of those white comrades of mine who insist there is no Black nation, or that we should be thinking in terms of class as opposed to “race” when discussing capitalist oppression. As J. Sakai has pointed out, “You can't steer yourself in real politics, not in amerikkka and not in this global imperialism, without understanding race. "Class" without race in North America is an abstraction. And vice-versa.”

(For more on Baltimore see A Brief Economic History of Modern Baltimore from ChickenBones: A Journal and for those who love to dabble in such things the Federal Governments Statistics on Baltimore and the Rest of Maryland; for more on Newark you may want to see the page on Essex County, on the state see What’s Wrong With New Jersey)

But back to the bookfair: i was really glad i went, and am definitely planning on going again next year (and i encourage anyone reading this on the us east coast to consider joining me there!). I got to meet many people i may have never met otherwise, including folks from as far away as Texas and Colorado. I was surprised by how many “post-left” or “insurrectionary” anarchists there were who nevertheless seemed to have interesting, even promising politics and i was especially happy to meet the person behind and get some stuff from the (typically named) “Institute for Experimental Freedom” which seemed head and shoulders above the crap i normally see from the “post-left”.

So yeah, that’s my Mid-Atlantic Bookfair report!


  1. I'd say your impressions about Baltimore were spot on.

    Did you know that Sakai was actually living in Baltimore when he was penning "Settlers". It's still a very socially segregated city, and the interaction between class and race is plainly visible to everyone. That doesn't stop there from being a black bourgeois and black politico-compradors allied with the black churches, and also nearby suburban Prince George's County has the highest per-capita income for a black population in the U.S. There is a substantial black "middle class" that have salaries from their work in federal, state and city governments as well as many black workers in SOME of the unions. A lot has changed since Sakai wrote "Settlers". You also didn't tour the mostly white working class suburbs of Essex and Dundalk.

    That said, Sakai's analysis is of much less use in understanding relatively racially homogenous coal-country in Applachia, or in Vermont. I think there are some qualitative differences here, and I also suspect that relationship in Baltimore is much different than in Canada or Montreal. That's why, when bring up Sakai's analysis I think some comrades look at us as if we have two heads. It's a situation where we all have felt a different part of the elephant.

    Paul, from British Columbia, had some similar impressions of Baltimore and described some in his own journal. One thing I elaborated on was the local prisons.

  2. we were also bummed that lambda rising and everyone's place never made it out to table. the former was supposed to table for one day, but i think was stretched too thin to send someone over. more or less the same thing happened with normal's, baltimore's collectively run used bookstore, who we also really wanted to table. everyone's place, who we really desparately wanted to table, especially so all the infoshops there could get set up with african world books accounts, had some seriously tragic stuff go down right before the bookfair. and black classic press, another great baltimore book project, had a conflict with an event they had been planning. hopefully next year we can be a little more on top of all this...

  3. Hey, for what it's worth - i wasn't assuming anything or meaning to imply anything regarding any group's "responsibility" for stores being or not being at the bookfair.

    From my own personal perspective as an outsider, the event was very much appreciated, and seemed exceptionally well organized.

    i hope to go to next year's bookfair, and yes it would/will be great to see some of those local Baltimore stores represented there. (though with the great map you provided us with we managed to visit most of them on Monday)