The Cyclical Tale of Tristan Anderson

By Hannah E. Dobbz

Like the fog of Golden Gate Park, a somber spirit hung over this year's San Francisco Anarchist Bookfair. The annual festivity was dampened by news of an American comrade critically injured in Palestine the previous day. On Friday, March 13, Israeli soldiers shot Bay Area-native Tristan Anderson at close range with a teargas canister. Word traveled quickly to the U.S. West Coast, and by Saturday, fast-acting friends and supporters of Tristan were at the bookfair with information tables and brilliant banners depicting his well-known smirk.

Tristan, a seasoned, 38-year-old radical, is known in the Bay Area for his activism, which has ranged from marching to tree-sitting to reporting for This time he had been protesting the Israeli wall in the West Bank village of Ni'lin. Perhaps mistaken for a Palestinian, Tristan was shot in the forehead with a high-velocity projectile (described by his girlfriend Gabrielle Silverman as rocket-like due to the attached propeller) that fractured his skull and left eye socket.

According to Israeli activist Jonathan Pollack, "The firing incident took place inside the village and not next to the fence. There were clashes in the earlier hours, but he wasn't part of them. He didn't throw stones and wasn't standing next to the stone-throwers. There was really no reason to fire at them. The Dutch girl standing next to him was not hurt. It only injured him, like a bullet."

Israeli troops stalled the ambulance and delayed Tristan's arrival at a hospital, likely affecting his chance of recovery. Reports state that Tristan's brain was visible after the collision, the result of being hit by a new kind of canister marked, "40mm bullet, special/extended range." He immediately underwent a surgery that removed part of his right frontal lobe, which could leave him blind in one eye and with an unknown degree of brain damage. He later had a second operation to remove a buildup of brain fluid, but his condition has remained critical.

While Tristan lay unconscious in his Tel Aviv hospital bed, 7,000 miles away, long-time friends mobilized San Francisco to act in solidarity with him and other victims of Israeli violence.

Indeed, this was not the first instance of Israeli forces brutalizing protesters from the United States. Most famously, ISM (International Solidarity Movement) member Rachel Corrie was crushed by a bulldozer and killed almost exactly six years earlier, in 2003. Brian Avery, from North Carolina, was shot and maimed only a few weeks after Corrie. Other ISM members also murdered by the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) include Britons Iain Hook, Tom Hurndall and James Miller, all within six months of Corrie's tragic death.

While the death toll of foreigners may startle some, the Palestinians statistics remain far more disturbing, with 7,150 dead and 40,294 injured between Sept. 28, 2000 and March 30, 2009, according to the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy. And the violence is ongoing.

Back in downtown San Francisco, supporters of Tristan organized a last-minute protest at the Israeli consulate on March 16, complete with picket signs, informed speakers and a pre-injury audio recording of Tristan talking about his reason for traveling to Palestine. SF was not alone in its action; demonstrations were held around the world from Miami to Providence to Cambridge, UK. But despite popular support among peace activists and radicals, some began to question the demonstrations' efficacy. After all, how can a group of people in one place resist a force on the other side of the planet? How can direct action work when there is no direct method of implementing it?

As the picket demonstration in San Francisco grew in numbers, protesters began a march through the financial district, making their cause known to evening rush-hour traffic. When they circled back to the consulate, however, police attacked, snatching individuals, clubbing them and arresting six, charging four with felonies. The scene was formulaic, with riot cops chasing black-clad anarchists, hopping over newspaper boxes and racing down one-way streets. Protester Jonah Larrama went to the hospital, requiring eight stitches in his head.

"Two or three cops grabbed the girl who was dancing," Larrama said, "and then other people jumped in, and then more people jumped on. The cops kept coming and coming. We had no warning. The cops told us to get on the sidewalk -- I refused to move and they wanted to arrest me. People didn't know what to do. [Cops] hit everyone. They hit me. It was chaos; I don't know what happened."

Soon after these events, many tired and dissatisfied Bay Area anarchists began discussing their tactics and the meaning of the demonstration. In their attempt to resist, protesters and police had merely reenacted the same sort of authoritarian brutality that landed Tristan on life support in the first place. Now the focus necessarily shifted from solidarity with Tristan to supporting and raising money for friends in San Francisco jail.

Attorney Ben Rosenfeld, who often represents those arrested on such charges, expressed a concern that folks were potentially protesting in circles.

"Maybe I'm just a bourgeois lawyer," he said, "but I found it utterly counterproductive and lame to watch the Israeli Consulate protest degenerate into the obligatory, half-baked, occupy-the-intersection/reclaim-the -- what exactly? -- protesters-vs.-cops routine. There are times to join the group, add one's body to the mass, act in unison; there are other times to sever from groupthink and reconsider the one-size-fits-all approach to demonstrating."

It may be surprising how soon after the Oscar Grant uprising in Oakland that Californians are questioning the power of Riot. In January, hundreds of youth smashed windows and burned cars to voice their outrage at the unprovoked execution of Oscar Grant by BART police. And it worked. So why was the Tristan solidarity march two months later such a disaster?

As history illustrates, radical social movements have frequently used the disruption of traffic and commerce as a tactic for change -- from Oaxacan strikers to Bolivian farmers to French immigrants and Argentinean piqueteros. Engaging in actions that transform people's relationship to the urban landscape has proven over and over to be an effective method of protest. But history also insists that protesters survey each scenario individually and then act accordingly. After all, how does occupying an intersection in downtown San Francisco shake anything in Israel? While the BART police in Oakland were a target that was present and identifiable, the IDF was not close enough to home to make an impact. While Oscar Grant supporters could have burned down a BART police station to make their point, all that Tristan Anderson supporters had was symbolic street theater.

"It was not really organized," Larrama said. "It needed to be more organized. I don't think there were even any affinity groups there. People wanted something to happen, but nobody tried to do anything."

Everyone knows that once they up the ante, the police will do the same, resulting in more Tristan Andersons and Oscar Grants. But no one wants to admit that until they start posing a real threat, supporters of all the Tristans and Oscars will forever remain on the fringe of politics, filling the role of conscientious objector confined to a "free speech zone" in which no one can hear them, much less take them seriously.

All the while, Tristan remains hospitalized in Tel Aviv. As of April 11, he is out of intensive care and in a regular ward. He is semi-conscious and responsive, but his condition is still considered critical. And the IDF continues killing.

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