Anarchy How?

Can an anarchist with a law degree break the rules of modern activism and still save Tempe Butte?

There's Gail Martelli, a post office letter carrier. Richard Dillon, an Irish author. Rich Bank, a two-time city council candidate and landlord. And Richard "Sarge" Erdmann, a veteran who's also run for city council.

All have lived in Tempe for many years. All resent the city's rampant growth (though for somewhat different reasons). All have participated, off and on, in local civic activism.

And all have just about given up on Tempe.

Threats to the Butte rejuvenated Irish author Richard Dillon's interest in civic activism
Paolo Vescia
Threats to the Butte rejuvenated Irish author Richard Dillon's interest in civic activism
Randall Amster and a friend get ready to bang the drum of Butte preservation at a protest march
Paolo Vescia
Randall Amster and a friend get ready to bang the drum of Butte preservation at a protest march

Nobody likes to refer to the Butte as the last stand, yet there is a palpable sense of finality among the group. Bank is moving to Oceanside, California, a move he says is solely because of Tempe's lack of growth management. Likewise, Dillon claims he had given up on civic participation until last summer when he first noticed a test-drill hole in the Butte.

Amster is the youngest and most idealistic. He refuses to call the Butte issue the last stand.

"The city council and the political process is not the only source of power in this town," Amster says. "We've gone through the process, gone to the meetings knowing we won't get a favorable response. I still feel like there's got to be a moment where we can get public opinion to interpose at the right time and place and in front of public officials, and that will have an effect."

That moment, he hopes, is at a protest march and candlelight vigil that will begin at Tempe Beach Park, proceed up the Butte, then continue back down to the city council meeting. At the time of the strategy session, the protest is still a couple weeks away, and the group has been engaged in endless debate. Among the problems: Should they march on the private property part of the Butte? How many traffic lights should they cross? How far can they reasonably expect marchers to walk up the Butte? How close do they dare march to the Tempe police station at the base of the trail? Should they tie ribbons on the creosote bushes? Should they use Indian-style drumming?

To the last, Bank interjects: "I don't envision this thing as a hootenanny, some sort of Woodstock. I picture native drumming, because if we can convince the council that the Butte is a shamanistic and spiritual thing, once the council hears that native drumming it'll be much more effective."

Amster sighs, trying to keep the plans grounded. "Just don't start going off about Chi's and Chakra points."

In a gentle and noncombative way, Amster objects to proposals such as attempting to enlist more protesters while marching along Mill Avenue. He also rejects taking any position short of a complete buyback of Butte property at the city council meeting.

"I don't think we should show any sign of compromise until the very end," he says.

Like all of Amster's input, the statement is a suggestion, not a mandate.

"His approach is different than the one I would take," Erdmann says later. "He has an unstructured approach, and in some ways it's made us less effective."

Although Amster organized previous protests for the sidewalk ordinance battle, the rallies were not responsible for his recent victory. A judge -- not Amster's sit-ins -- decided that outcome. And, yes, Amster recognizes the irony.

"By challenging the status of the law to promote an anarchistic open-space quality, I had to validate or reify the legal system in order to bring that about," he says. "It's a contradiction I'm totally sensitive to."

In the Tempe Butte fight, however, Amster must succeed in the court of public opinion before the city council will consider the buyback option.

One vocal critic of Amster is longtime Tempe neighborhood advocate and Arizona Republic contributor Dan Durrenberger.

Durrenberger blasted Amster with particularly personal attacks during the sidewalk ordinance battle, describing Amster (whom he says he has never met) as a childish, ego-driven leader of a cultlike movement trying to help the "creeps who infest parts of downtown."

"Over the years, the leaders of odd religious cults have perfected similar mischief," he wrote. "That is what this nonsense is all about. Amsterites are consumed with the propagation of a spurious form of social religion hidden behind a trumped-up veil of social justice."

When reached at his public relations office, Durrenberger backs away from the vitriol of his columns, saying many of them are written a bit tongue-in-cheek, a fact "some people don't pick up on."

Amster (a Tempe "activist") and Durrenberger (a Tempe "advocate") manage to have several interests in common while remaining perfectly at odds, a sort of yin and yang of neighborhood politics.

They live within blocks of each other -- Amster renting an older home overgrown with plants and trees, Durrenberger owning a "neo-traditional home" in the newly built and much-derided Ash Court complex. Both have strong feelings about nearby Casey Moore's -- one of Amster's favorite hangouts and one of Durrenberger's favorite targets of criticism.

And then there's the Butte.

Durrenberger says he agrees with Amster that the Butte should be preserved, even going so far as to call it "the topographical signature of the town," but that's where their accord ends.

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