Anarchist Hangout Surrendering to Market Forces

Melina Davis looks over a book at the Brian MacKenzie Infoshop, an anti-capitalist, anti-globalization hub that is closing at the end of month.
Melina Davis looks over a book at the Brian MacKenzie Infoshop, an anti-capitalist, anti-globalization hub that is closing at the end of month. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Stephen Lowman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008

At the Brian MacKenzie Infoshop, two binders contain every event flier distributed by the store in its half-decade as a hub for radicals in the nation's capital.

Here's one for an appearance by controversial college professor Ward Churchill, who has blamed the United States for provoking the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And here's one for a talk on radical child care by an "anarchist punk rock mother."

There was an evening of anti-capitalist folk music on the eve of President Bush's second inauguration. And there was a vegan prom -- a night of dinner and dancing to raise money for the legal defense of animal rights activists.

And now the final flier, saying goodbye to all that. It announced that the store will close at the end of the month, leaving Beltway anarchists without a space to call their own in the city synonymous with federal power.

For 5 1/2 years, a basement room at Ninth and P streets NW in the Shaw neighborhood has been part store, part resource center for radical activists in Washington -- a nonprofit cooperative run by volunteers, following anarchist principles.

For the past two weekends -- just in time for the holidays -- the Infoshop has held a going-out-of-business sale, to help pay off its remaining bills. Everything must go: buttons, patches, books and records. A box of free T-shirts sits on the concrete floor.

"Just because we are anarchist doesn't mean we don't exist within a capitalist structure," said David Combs, 25, as he worked the store's cash register Saturday night. "If we want to have a social space, we have to pay rent. There is always going to be a level of contradiction when your ideology conflicts with the politics at large."

The idea for the store was born as the anti-globalization movement was gaining momentum in the late 1990s. Rather than just staff informational tables at events, local radicals wanted a place to hang out, to plug politically minded books and records, and to throw parties to raise money for causes.

In May 2003, the Brian MacKenzie Infoshop opened, named for an American University freshman who was active in the radical community and died of a heart condition in 1999. Punk rocker Ian MacKaye, the front man for such D.C.-based bands as Minor Threat and Fugazi, co-signed the lease.

Despite its inconspicuous front -- a staircase obstructs the basement-door entrance, and tiny windows make peering inside difficult -- customers new and old filled the 300-square-foot room over the weekend.

The Infoshop was open seven days a week its first four years. This year, it was a struggle to open at all.

"For the first time, we were overwhelmed by the project. A lack of people stepped up to lend the commitment and work needed," said Myer Bridges, one of two founders still involved.

On Saturday, Skyler Mingo, 15, was sifting through the bins of merchandise. She said she learned of the Infoshop through a friend two years ago.

Living in Germantown makes it hard for her to visit the store, she said. But when she heard it was closing, she decided to make the trek one last time. "I come down here to get things I can't get in Germantown," she said.

Skyler bought a copy of Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" and a bumper sticker that reads, "Hemp is a Plant, Bush is a Dope."

Nathan Tsoi, 31, came from Arlington County to pick up one of the store's popular items, the Slingshot Organizer, a calendar for radicals published by a collective in Berkeley, Calif. It contains a this-day-in-history list of important radical events, a contact list of radical organizations worldwide and tips on dealing with police "repression."

"This isn't just a place to get records or literature," Tsoi said. "It's kind of an amalgam of things. So it will be sad not to have a really grass-roots, gritty place anymore."

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