Anarchy How?

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."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd