Two things on Tempe Butte are irritating corporate lawyer turned anti-corporate activist Randall Amster.The first is a City of Tempe sign that says "Enjoy your parks." It's a message on the westward side of the Butte, the section long owned by Bay State Milling that the city council quietly approved for development three years ago. Amster wonders: How can residents enjoy parks scheduled for demolition?
The second irritant is a series of MCW Holdings property markers. They mark the proposed boundaries of Hayden Ferry South, a development project that involves dynamiting a chunk of the Butte to build offices, movie theaters and stores.
"This is what we've always been able to see from up here -- the Mill, Papago Park, the whole Valley," Amster says. "This view that used to belong to the people of Tempe is going to be co-opted by whoever owns a condo. It's a bizarre value system."
Amster notices that one of the marker poles is missing. He leaves the hiking trail and treks through the brush to pick it up.
"Normally I would never do anything to help [the developers]," he says, straining to push the pole back into the ground. "But I want people to see this; I want them to see what they're going to do."
Randall Amster, 34, is a self-proclaimed anarchist leading a group of Tempe protesters in an effort to preserve the Butte. He's a likable Arizona State University adjunct professor whose prototypical hippie appearance -- dreadlocks, tie-dyed shirt, torn jeans, green Converse All-Stars -- is his only predictable quality.
"Once you get past his looks, the dreads, he can reason with any man," says sophomore Kate Paxton, host of the ASU radio show Cowgirl Kate's Radio Rodeo. "The first time we talked, he blew me away with his mad brilliant shit."
Amster abruptly entered Tempe politics last year when he sued the city over an ordinance that banned sitting on sidewalks. He organized Mill Avenue sit-ins against the ordinance, got ASU listed as a Top 10 activist school in Mother Jones magazine ("Must have been a slow year for protests," he quips) and, in February, won his case in a U.S. District Court. The city is appealing the decision.
Mustering public passion for the Butte, however, has been trickier.
The Butte has already been scarred by development (the spiky antenna, the fat water towers, Sun Devil Stadium), making it a hard sell as an endangered monument. Plus, some residents wonder why they should bother to protest Butte-blasting when so much of Old Town Tempe has already been irrevocably Disneyfied.
Amster convincingly overcomes such objections by arguing that the Butte is a symbol of the university and a popular park that's been made all the more valuable because of previous and current development. His group, usually called "Friends of the Butte," is urging the city council to exercise its option to purchase the land and preserve it for public use.
Less convincing is the wisdom of Amster's intentionally unstructured approach to activism that opts for ideals over results.
Amster mans a Save the Butte petition-signing table outside the ASU Memorial Union twice a week, yet he eschews building coalitions with like-minded groups or high-profile community leaders. There's an extensive "Save the Butte" Web site, but it has been left largely unpromoted. Amster rarely seeks out press coverage and does not accept financial donations or encourage letter-writing campaigns. There are no well-defined roles within Friends of the Butte, and he does not want to be called the leader.
He doesn't even like the group to be called a group.
"One of their strategies is to call us a group, to label us in a nice little box, then say you're only a "vocal minority who's against development,'" Amster says. "It's definitely not easy doing it this way, but otherwise you set yourself up as another hierarchical entity, and ultimately you become the very thing that you're struggling against."
Wanting to remain true to anti-corporate ideals is at once a movingly admirable and frustratingly stubborn approach to taking on the Tempe political establishment.
It's also a striking contrast to the largely successful tactics employed by the anarchist-fueled Direct Action Network to disrupt the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle last November.
The Direct Action Network organized touring "teach-ins" about the WTO, met with other groups, sent out press releases, trained students in civil disobedience and used coded hand signals -- even giving protesters prepared sound bites for the press. "Anarchists get organized," declared The New Yorker.
Amster says protesters should first attempt civil obedience before disobedience, and he says they should be allowed to choose individual protest methods instead of letting organizers push them to become a quasi-militarized corporation. "A totalitarian regime might be more efficient or effective than an anarchistic or democratic one," he says, "but it would undermine the values we represent."
Which sounds wonderfully freestyle.
But can Amster's brand of anarchism save "A" Mountain?
Protest strategy session, Casey Moore's.Amster is here with his core group of co-conspirators, plotting among the pints. The faces are familiar to followers of Tempe activism.
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.
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 islongtime 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."
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.
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.
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.
"You have a right to your opinion, and even a right to distort and misrepresent the facts, which you do rather well," the mayor wrote. "And I'm sure your students are learning a thing or two from you. . . . I've heard from a few about your comments in class." The mayor signed off with "have a nice day."
Amster fired back: "I would be happy to compare course evaluations and student feedback with you any time. . . . I'd also be happy to discuss or debate these issues with you any time. . . . I hardly think that a 5 percent mandate [based on population] gives you carte blanche authority to transform Tempe to suit your vision. . . . I hope you have a nice day as well."
Other Amster opponents are more generous.
"There's a lot of respect for Randall," says Tempe Downtown Community executive director Rod Keeling, who actively supports the sidewalk ordinance and the Hayden Ferry South project. "My understanding is that he's a very intelligent, very bright guy. I don't think anybody takes him lightly, but I think he's clearly out of the mainstream. He's not stupid, but it doesn't make him right. I think he's wrong."
At issue is not just development of Tempe Butte or where homeless people can sit a spell, but defining the heart of the city.
Keeling argues that if residents were really against growth, they wouldn't elect pro-development candidates to city council.
Amster counters that Tempe's low electoral turnout makes such results meaningless, and declares, "If we only get a dozen people [at the march and vigil], then that will be a sign that we really are a vocal minority and we're not backed by an unvocal majority like we claim."
He says this about a week before the protest, and a few hours before Amster and the Friends of the Butte attempt to sway the Rio Salado Citizens Advisory Commission at its Tuesday night meeting.
It is an effort that backfires wildly.
The Rio Salado Citizens Advisory Commission has been charged by the city council with drafting a series of development guidelines for the Hayden Ferry South project in the event MCW Holdings proposes construction that exceeds its original plan. The meeting room tonight -- a cramped, fluorescent-lighted chamber in the Pyle Adult Recreation Center -- is the aesthetic opposite of the Friends of the Butte headquarters at Casey Moore's. Leading the meeting is former Arizona Bank of America CEO Dave Hanna, a disliked figure among the protesters, who object to his apparent pro-development leanings and pushy, continually exasperated manner. The protesters refer to Hanna, who's thin and tan, as Swizzle Stick.
At the last Rio Salado meeting, Amster and his group waited three hours hoping for a chance to speak, even though Hanna had announced there was no more time slated for public input.
Tonight the agenda is the same, yet Amster and his friends are here anyway.
Amster has grown increasingly frustrated with the commission members, saying they've scaled back their guidelines for development and have ignored his 2,000 petition signatures urging the Butte buyback option.
"We've doubled the height [of the development] without asking for anything except a couple view corridors," says commission member Nancy Russell. "I think we've left the barn door open here -- unless they're making glass buildings."
Hanna insists the commission must stay focused on the agenda. At the moment, the agenda is on how to word the view corridor requirements -- staggering the height of the development to allow some sight lines to the Butte.
Amster, sitting in the back of the stuffy room, grows frustrated.
The commission is treating the Butte like an annoying accessory to development that's preapproved, he thinks.
The commission is worrying about the pedestrian traffic through the corporate-fed "retail experience."
They're not considering the buyback.
They're not even considering environmental impact studies.
They're not even looking at him.
"It's like we're not even here!" Amster suddenly bursts, much louder than he intended.
Hanna immediately shoots back: "Excuse me, this is the night we work!"
Amster stands up. "This is the fourth night we've been here! You've wiped out everything we've forwarded instead of giving it any consideration!"
Hanna: "Can we continue?"
Commission member Eric Edwards spins around in his seat to face Amster: "What you just said is that you don't like what we're doing, just because it's not going exactly your way."
"But it's not going our way at all!" Amster shouts.
Near the door, a red-faced Richard Dillon suddenly gets up.
Tall and wild-eyed, Dillon makes a much more threatening impression than Amster, and Rio Salado Project Manager Steve Nielsen jumps up in turn.
"The only reason you're discussing this issue is because we brought it up, and now you're throwing out everything!" Dillon barks.
Hanna slams his fist onto the desk. "Quiet! Quiet! QUIET!"
Dillon, half-turning to leave, is escorted silently out of the room by Nielsen.
Amster and his protest colleagues opt to leave as well.
Hanna sits back down, and sighs. "Well," he says. "I'm sorry all the fun has gone out of this."
Outside, a security guard is looking for Dillon, who cannot be found. Amster and other Friends of the Butte are fuming.
"We've gone to every one of their meetings, we've played by their rules, we've jumped through their hoops in meeting after meeting," Amster says. "There's seven city staffers in there, and they're going to make this sound like it was done with the public's approval."
Amster is furious, but also a bit embarrassed.
It's not like him to lose his temper and force his opinion on others. He's no ego-driven cult leader, like Durrenberger says. He used to be angry, he admits that, but he's different now. He is still an anarchist -- hell, yes -- but he's a mellow and reasonable anarchist. So why did he disrupt the meeting?
The next day, Amster sends out an e-mail to the commission members apologizing for his outburst. He doesn't want to give the opposition any ammunition to marginalize the resistance.
Tomorrow is the protest march.
It's 102 degrees in Tempe Beach Park on the day of the march and vigil. The park, with its nonfunctional swirls of sand, grass, desert and concrete, is a much-derided symbol among the protesters of what's wrong with Giuliano's leadership -- too much corporate influence on public property.
Amster arrives in good spirits. This morning's East Valley edition of the Republic features a column by Durrenberger mocking the efforts to save such an ugly hill. Later that night, a group of protesters will sneak over to Durrenberger's home and plant a Save the Butte sign on his lawn. The next morning, Durrenberger will find the sign and pose with it and his dog for a keepsake photo.
In the column, Durrenberger rhetorically asks: If the Butte is so special, where were protesters when such disruptive features as the water towers and flour mill were built? And why aren't they trying to improve the Butte instead?
"Uh, where were we 50 years ago?" Amster responds. "And before this, we weren't down to the last isle of land in Tempe. We can't even get the city to stop from blasting the damn thing, and he wants us to talk about water fountains."
Amster does wish Durrenberger had mentioned the march and vigil, however. The protesters here are a lively group -- street kids, students and longtime residents -- but there are strikingly few of them. There are little more than 60 participants when the march begins. Organizers keep using the adjective "diverse" to describe the group, trying to give the turnout a positive spin.
Amster, carrying a sign with the nicely clever slogan "Don't Make a Molehill Out of "A' Mountain," makes a brief speech before the march, but otherwise maintains a low profile. He says he doesn't want the media coverage, including this story, to focus on him. So Amster marches unobtrusively in the middle of the group next to his girlfriend, who beats an African drum.
The protesters march down Mill to Fifth Avenue in a lengthy stream. They cheer, hold up their signs and are joyful. Local news cameramen run alongside the protest line, getting good footage.
Only a couple cars honk in support.
Most passers-by give odd looks. One woman yells that they're idiots. Hooters waitresses stare silently from their upstairs perch. Employees from Tempe Mission Palms gather to watch the procession, arms folded.
Considering that the group is marching through a college town for a seemingly popular cause -- restricting development of a public park and university monument -- it is a strikingly cold reaction.
Most of the protesters seem not to mind or notice, and continue to the Butte.
Once on the mountain, the group splits in two. Dillon leads half the marchers to a makeshift shrine, while Amster stays with the rest of the group at a midpoint. Then a third group breaks off to hike to the peak.
For illumination, some have candles, others have glowsticks or nothing.
For music, some bang on drums or play guitar, but there's never a sustained chant.
Some marchers are unsure where to go, and one local news crew stops midtrail up the Butte, seemingly unsure which action to follow.
The vigil has become completely disorganized and chaotic.
Smiling contently to himself, Amster beats on a drum, eyes closed.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.