Anarchy How?

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

Noting an incident where Amster disrupted a Rio Salado meeting, Durrenberger says, "I think [Amster] is a very earnest and sincere person, but I disagree with his tactics. If you really want to succeed, you don't have the luxury of acting out. You need to view the city as a partner rather than an enemy, and you have to be careful not to become a caricature. If how you dress overshadows your message, that's a problem."

Durrenberger points to a critique of the "New New Left" in a recent issue of the New Republic, which reads: "The anarchists, like their '60s predecessors, basically represent a revolt of the affluent. They are college students and graduates materially comfortable enough to condemn materialism" who not only "risk alienating mainstream America, they risk alienating their supposed allies."

Amster would never consider conforming to make the likes of Durrenberger more comfortable with his message.

Tom Hornsby talks to fellow activists and media on "A" Mountain
Paolo Vescia
Tom Hornsby talks to fellow activists and media on "A" Mountain
Marchers move toward a city council meeting in Tempe
Paolo Vescia
Marchers move toward a city council meeting in Tempe

But that wasn't always the case.

Cut his hair, remove his tinted glasses and thrift-store clothes, and imagine Randall Amster in a Brooks Brothers suit. Imagine him fresh out of Brooklyn Law School, working long hours as a corporate lawyer in Rockefeller Plaza.

Imagine him vigorously defending alcohol companies against fetal-damage lawsuits and tobacco companies against lung-cancer patients.

It's a difficult vision -- both for those who know Amster and for Amster himself.

"I couldn't find a way to live a life as a lawyer and reconcile my emotional, spiritual, intellectual and ethical framework -- it just didn't give me that sense of purpose and connection that I was looking for," he says. "They were compensating me quite well, but not enough to justify selling out my soul."

Amster quit practicing law and took a sabbatical to travel the country in his 1977 Dodge motor home with his two cats. He came to Tempe in 1993.

"From the moment I arrived in Tempe, things just sort of clicked for me," he says. "I saw the Co-op, somebody bought me lunch, and I met a whole bunch of people. I got back on the road and traveled for another year, then came back here to pitch a tent."

Something about Tempe had imprinted itself on Amster, whose family moved frequently when he was growing up. It felt like a place he had never been before. It felt like home.

He still had an interest in law, which, he says, was probably influenced by his father, who obtained a law degree when Amster was a teen. He also had an interest in activist theory, which he says was likely inherited from his progressive mother, who supported Vietnam War protests.

So when Amster settled in Tempe, he enrolled as a graduate student in the Justice Studies program at ASU. A year later, he became a lecturer for classes such as "Justice Theory" and "Research Methods," getting paid less than $3,000 per class.

"[In New York] I worked for a law firm making six figures, and I was miserable," he says. "Then I made one-twentieth of that, and everything was wonderful."

Then downtown Tempe, in Amster's eyes, began to change for the worse.

"Starbucks happened, Gordon Biersch, the Downtown Tempe Commission's assertion of power, the ordinances they were passing against urban camping and aggressive panhandling," Amster says, giving a now-familiar run-down. "I think the problem is [developers and city council members] are not in touch with the regular people in this town. I think they're looking from an overview perspective, a Monopoly board perspective -- I'll trade you this part for that part. But for those of us standing on the board, the view looks a little different."

When the city council banned sitting on Tempe sidewalks in December 1998, Amster saw what he thought was a clear case of corporations attempting to conquer public space -- the topic of his current dissertation.

When he first asked around for advice on Tempe activism and protest, he says he "got a lot of blank stares."

"Even in a department like Justice Studies, the academy still preserves the theory/practice dichotomy," he says. "It's okay to theorize about public space and civil rights, but acting -- and specifically protesting and breaking the law through civil disobedience -- that's different."

Amster wrote an editorial against the sidewalk ordinance for ASU's student newspaper, sued the city and organized a protest. Alone at the forefront of a controversial movement, Amster was the target of attacks from both outside and within the university.

"A state university gets its money from the state government, and state government people are sometimes not too happy if you get out there and shake the trees a little bit," says Professor Dennis Palumbo, former director of the Justice Studies program. "Some people were writing e-mails to the administration calling for Amster to be fired. Amster is a great teacher, students love him . . . and I told him there was no way we were going to fire him over this."

Since his recent victory on the sidewalk ordinance, Amster's profile has risen among city officials. In an e-mail debate with Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano, the mayor countered Amster's arguments with an attack on Amster's facts and teaching ethic.

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