While there are criticisms of the ABC formations as they are socially (and racially) formed in  North America, particularly in the United Statesthere is no mistaking the historic influence and political impact that this particularly effective model of “inside/outside” prison abolitionist organization, PP/POW solidarity activism, popular anti-oppression pedagogy, and aspirationally horizontal networks of mutual aid built across prison walls has.

Below is a nice primer on the history the ABC in North America, shared with permissions from the author. 


Origins of the Anarchist Black Cross

The origins of the Anarchist Black Cross date back nearly 140 years ago, during the rise of revolutionary movements opposed to the Tsarist government. Populist sentiments and the rise of socialist and revolutionary thought that was being introduced by Western European revolutionaries were stirring the heart and minds of the people of Russia. The Russian population began to rebel against the conditions of toil and serfdom that defined their very existence. With the rise of political opposition, the Tsar instituted a series of repressive measures resulting in imprisonment, exile or death of anarchists, socialists, and other revolutionaries. Conditions within the prisons were unbearable and those imprisoned for political actions faced considerably cruel treatment.[1]

Around 1872, a prisoner aid organization called ‘Political Red Cross’ was formed to provide support for those political prisoners kept within the confines of Tsarist prisons or labor camps. This organization not only provided aid to prisoners but also assisted in planned escapes from prisons or places of exile. The great anarchist theorist, Peter Kropotkin, was one of the many former political prisoners who owed their freedom to members of this organization.[2] The organization also assisted young women in their escape from parental restraints, as it was often a common practice for young women to be forced into arranged marriages.

For the first ten years, various revolutionary factions seemed to have their own versions of the Political Red Cross, but by the summer of 1882, these factions came together to form the Political Red Cross of the People’s Will. While named after one of the revolutionary organizations active in Russia, it was designed to support all imprisoned revolutionaries. A formation of a foreign section of the organization was also created, which had the responsibility of building support outside of Russia.

Well-known anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker in the United States, and Peter Kropotkin and Nikolai Tchaikovsky in the United Kingdom, were important organizers for the organization.[3] Funds were collected and sent in to the central committee, which would disperse the funds to each prison. Although the organization was, in theory, non-partisan, it wasn’t long before the social-democrats (the followers of Karl Marx) gained control of the organization. Aid to anarchist prisoners, as well as any other political prisoner not associated with the Social-Democratic Party, soon began to dwindle.

Anarchists outside of the prisons were unaware that the funds given to the Political Red Cross were not reaching their imprisoned comrades. When made aware of such news, they were infuriated by the divisiveness of the social-democrats.[4] It became self-evident to the anarchists that the only way their comrades would receive the help they needed was for the anarchist community to create their own aid organization. Thus, the Anarchist Red Cross (ARC) was formed.

The exact date of the Anarchist Red Cross’ creation is unclear, but because of recent data that has emerged, we have been able to narrow the time frame to within a few months. Furthermore, it is important to take note that there are two dates of importance: the date of the first Anarchist Red Cross activities and the creation of the ARC as an international organization. Several people have referenced both these dates as the date the organization began.

According to Rudolph Rocker, once the Secretary-Treasurer for the Anarchist Red Cross, the organization formed during the period of 1900 to 1905. He claims that the organization came about during a meeting in London with Vera Figner, who was the treasurer for the political prisoners of the Party of the Socialist Revolutionaries.[5]

Recent research has discovered this meeting probably took place in the summer of 1907. According to the London Times in August of that year, the Russian Social Revolutionary Party had a conference in London, where Figner is known to have been one of the attendees. According to various other sources, the London ARC, as well as the New York chapter, began in 1907, which would fall in line with this time frame.

While the date is not known, it is known that all in attendance had agreed that this new prisoner aid organization would support both anarchist and socialist-revolutionaries in prison and in exile, wherever the two existed, since both had been excluded from the Political Red Cross.[6] They refused to make the same mistake the Social-Democrats made by excluding others because they were not from the same political thought. As long as prisoners were social revolutionaries they should be supported.

Despite Rocker’s account that the Figner meeting was the birth of the ARC, other accounts have shown an earlier beginning. According to Harry Weinstein, who is considered the father of the Anarchist Red Cross, he and a friend, known simply as B. Yelin, began the ARC in Bialystok after being released sometime in August of 1906. We do know the organization had groups in Kiev, Odessa, Bialystok, and other cities by the end of 1906. In 1906-1907, hundreds of revolutionaries faced trial for their involvement in the 1905 Revolution. At least six members of the organization were tried and convicted for their involvement in the revolt. Members of the organization and other revolutionaries fled the country in fear of mass arrests and persecution. Many of those who managed to escape were the first to start chapters of the Anarchist Red Cross in other countries.

The Figner meeting should be considered the beginning of the ARC international. It helped to establish the first chapter outside of Russia. The London ARC became the main chapter as other chapters emerged throughout the years. The organization collected funds from other chapters throughout Europe and sent those funds to the politicals in Russia. Those involved in the London branch included Peter Kropotkin, Alexander Shapiro, V. Cherkezov, and Rudolf Rocker. The following year, the first North American chapter was started in New York and soon other groups sprung up with chapters in various cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, Brownsville, Detroit, and Baltimore.[7]

Propaganda by the Deed

It is important to understand that even though these men and women fled Russia, their dedication against injustice still remained as strong as ever. Members of the Anarchist Red Cross brought with them their passion for the anarchist ideal as well as their belief in the “propaganda by the deed.”

On January 27, 1914, a member of the Chicago chapter of the Anarchist Red Cross, Morris Bernstein, was arrested after being accused of inciting a riot during an unemployment protest. Shortly after the arrest, Capt. James Storen of the Chicago police received an anonymous letter written in red ink and adorned with skulls and cross bones. It carried a threat that the station would be blown up unless Bernstein and the others arrested were not liberated.

Later that evening, the target of the unemployment protest, Harry Fishman, discovered a skull and cross bones written in red chalk on the front of his house, along with a threat against the employer and his family. These incidents were attributed to the Anarchist Red Cross.

Later that year, in response to John D. Rockefeller’s involvement in the massacre of striking workers and their families in Ludlow, Colorado, members of the Latvian section of the Anarchist Red Cross and others began to design a plot to assassinate J.D. Rockefeller.[8] Sadly, on the morning of the planned assassination, the bomb planned for the industrialist went off in the apartment where the anarchists were staying, killing ARC members Charles Berg, Carl Hanson, and two other individuals. The bomb showered the street below with debris and body parts. Dozens of people were injured and the repression after the incident increased heavily. This event became known as the “Lexington Avenue bombing.” Other individuals not associated with the organization were involved, as well as at least one other Anarchist Red Cross member, Louise Berger. Luckily, Berger left the building minutes before and she got away unharmed (less than ten years later she would lose her life to illness in Russia.)[9]

Russian Revolution and the Continued Repression

With the outbreak of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Anarchist Red Cross in the United States disbanded after news was received that all the political prisoners were released from the Russian jails. Several ARC members traveled back to Russia to assist the revolution, where they were warmly met by the political prisoners they had once supported. But before long Russia would once again have political prisoners, this time arrested by the Bolshevik’s government.[10] With the rise of a new dictatorship, the ARC was forced to reorganize in 1919 (known at this point as the Anarchist Black Cross.) The organization changed its name to avoid confusion between them, the International Red Cross and the Political Red Cross.[11]

In the Ukraine, the Black Cross was organized as defensive units under Makhno’s army. The purpose of the units was to protect cities and villages and organize resistance to pogroms lead by Cossacks, White Guards, or the Red Army. Many of those involved in these units were members of the Nabat Confederation in the Ukraine or had previously been active in the Anarchist Red Cross in the United States.[12]

Because of their activities, the Anarchist Black Cross members experienced constant harassment from the Bolshevik government including the seizure of goods being shipped to political internees, the creation of laws against the organization making its activities illegal, and the murder of ABC activists. By 1924-1925, the organization in Russia was virtually destroyed. Several members of the organization, like Lea Gutman, Helana Ganshina, and Aaron Baron, were arrested and later killed by the Bolshevik government. Others were arrested but due to international campaigns brought on by anarchists abroad, the Communist government was forced to release them.[13] At least two ARC members actually converted to Bolshevism, only to have their lives destroyed during the Stalinist purges.

Several individuals who manage to escape or were released from Bolshevik prisons met up in Berlin where they reorganized the ABC. The organization continued its activities there for several years before moving to Holland and then to Paris. Chapters in the Unites States reemerged once again to support the comrades still left behind in Russian jails, but by 1936 contact with comrades in Russian prisons began to dwindle and by 1940 all contacts with prisoners in Russia ceased. Later it became known that most, if not all, anarchist political prisoners were killed during Stalin’s purges.[14]

World War II

By this time, the Spanish Civil War and Second World War had broken out in Europe, and the organization switched to a more international focus. ABC worked diligently to aid anarchist comrades fleeing from fascist persecution as well as assisting those arrested in the resistance movement throughout Europe.

Most of the ABC members at this time were of Russian-Jewish backgrounf, so being caught in Europe during this period was almost certain death for these people. Once again, social-democrats headed up gravely important organizations that meant the very livelihood of many anarchists. This time it was the Jewish Labor Committee which assisted Jewish refugees in escaping from Hitler and Europe. The social-democrats’ refusal to assist ABC in helping their comrades escape caused hundreds of Jewish anarchists to die in Nazi concentration camps.

By 1939, most of the chapters in the United States and Europe were crushed by the amount of aid needed for anarchist prisoners. Many have pointed to this period in which the organization folded. However, the organization continued under several different names for almost two decades (The Joint Committee for the Defense of Revolutionists Imprisoned in Russia, Society to Aid Anarchist Prisoners in Russia, Relief Fund of the International Working Men’s Association, Chicago Aid Fund, and the Alexander Berkman Aid Fund). All these organizations mentioned were recognized as groups continuing the work of the Anarchist Black Cross by its members and those individuals they supported.[15]

Towards the end of the war, only a few groups remained active in prisoner aid work. The Berkman Aid Fund in Chicago, one of the few groups able to organize serious aid operations, was able to reorganize a Paris branch where C.A.R.E. packages were sent to anarchists in serious need of funds and support. This work went on for many years but due to a lack of support needed to maintain its work, the group was not able to continue its activities after 1958.[16]

The Second Wave

In 1967, the organization resurfaced in England where it initially worked to aid prisoners of the Spanish resistance. The London ABC began to promote the concept of the Black Cross and during the International Anarchist Conference in Carrara their call for an International Anarchist Black Cross was answered. Other chapters emerged throughout Europe, the United States and Australia. Groups like the chapters in Australia and London were organized by or had membership that was part of the Spanish resistance movement at one point in time.[17]

But the early success of the organization was also met with some great losses. The organization watched as the police in various countries detained, tried, and even murdered members of the ABC. Stuart Christie, one of the founders of the London chapter, was arrested on several occasions including one case where he was imprisoned for more than a year after being accused of having been involved in the Angry Brigade, an underground group active in the United Kingdom in the 1970s. In the end, he was found innocent of all charges and released.[18]

On December 12, 1969, Guiseppi Pinelli, member of the Milan chapter of the Anarchist Black Cross, was arrested in relation to several bombings throughout Italy. This was not the first time the police tried to pin a bombing on Pinelli or other members of the Milan chapter. For three days, Pinelli was interrogated and harassed by the Milan police. On the third day, December 15, a few minutes before mid-night, Pinelli was thrown from the fourth story of the police station where he received fatal injuries. The authorities claimed Pinelli had admitted to the charges against him before jumping out the window to his death.[19]

Pinelli and another anarchist by the name of Valpreda were accused of the bombing despite recent evidence produced by the London-based Observer that indicated the sudden rash of bombings in Italy was the work of neo-fascists. Later it became known that these bombing were in fact apart of fascist plot, backed by the CIA and NATO, known as “the Strategy of Tension.” The plan was to plant bombs and pin the actions on ‘the Left’ causing so much demand for law and order, the fascists would be able to walk right into power.

Pinelli was targeted because he was a well-known anarchist and it was known that he was in the process of an investigation regarding allegations of a planned fascist coup in Italy prior to his murder. The Anarchist Black Cross in Milan, at the time, was infiltrated by neo-fascists and it became clear to the police, who were involved in the plot, that Pinelli might be aware of who those infiltrators were, as well as, the very plot against him. It became necessary to kill Pinelli to ensure the plot’s integrity.[20]

On December 4, 1971, Georg von Rauch, Secretary of the Anarchist Black Cross in Germany, was pulled over by the police. During the incident, von Rauch and a police officer opened fire on each other resulting in von Rauch being shot and instantly killed.[21]

Several months later, Augsburg police closed in on two known radicals. During the arrest, one of the officers with an ‘itchy trigger’ shot Thomas Weissbecker, who died instantly. Weissbecker had also been a member of the Anarchist Black Cross in Germany, and both Weissbecker and von Rauch had also been associated with the Movement 2 June, one of the most prominent left-wing German urban guerrilla groups of the seventies. The two had been part of the counter-culture movement and revolutionary left and took part in several underground groups prior to being killed, including the Hash-rebels. Both lived very short lives and their involvement in the movement can be described as short but intense.[22]

In the late 1970’s, members of the Anarchist Black Cross in Huddersfield were tried in what became known in the UK as “the Person’s Unknown trial.” Another ABC member in the UK, Phil Ruff, who was in prison due to armed robbery, was soon accused of inciting a riot during the Gartree Prison Riots in 1978. Stuart Christie, mentioned earlier, continued to remain ‘public enemy #1’ in London and in Spain through the rest of the decade and was constantly under police harassment.[23]

During the mid-1970’s, member of the Irish Anarchist Black Cross, Noel and Marie Murray, took part in several armed actions throughout Dublin. In September 1975, during a robbery of the Bank of Ireland branch in Killester, Marie Murray shot and killed an off duty policeman who tried to intervene. Apparently, the police officer was sitting with his wife and child in a parked car outside of the branch when the anarchists ran out of the bank with 7,000 pounds. The police officer ran after the anarchists and was shot in the process. Both were given the death sentence but were later commuted.[24]

The Present Wave

In 1979, Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin a former Panther and Black anarchist political prisoner in the US issued a “Draft Proposal for an ABC Network” in hopes that it could build a movement to assist anarchist political prisoners. He believed that the ABC should be a united mass movement rather than individual collectives. This proposal put out by Ervin influenced the growth of the Anarchist Black Cross well into the 1980’s and 1990’s. Despite Ervin’s call for a Network of ABC’s, this kind of organization never emerged among all the ABC groups in the 1980’s. But by 1989, movement in the ABC community began to be seen with the establishing of the “Emergency Response Network” (ERN). This was organized to respond to political raids, crackdowns, death sentences, hunger strikes, torture or killings of members of or communities that the ABC groups worked with. An ERN mobilization meant that ABC groups and others around the world would send telegrams and/or phone calls, organize demonstrations or other actions within 48 hours of the network being alerted. Sadly, much wasn’t done with this and the Emergency Response Network faded away.

In the early 1990’s, although few ABC groups who still continued to maintain solid support work, the concept of a united ABC front never materialized. ABC groups seemed to work in multiple areas and there was little common focus or unity. This resulted in a weak support system for any political prisoner found within the prison systems. In August of 1994, a conference of Anarchist Black Cross organizations was held to discuss matters concerning political prisoners support and once again the ERN was set up.

One year later, four ABC groups got together to form the Anarchist Black Cross Federation. (New Jersey, Bronx, Washington DC, Brew City) Other groups would soon enter into the picture but less than a year later, issues of direction and goals of the Federation would cause a split in the organization. Those leaving the ABCF would soon create the ABCC (Anarchist Black Cross Confederation), but this organization would not last more than a couple of years. The Anarchist Black Cross Federation has continued to remain a significant force in the political prisoner movement.

Other networks have emerged but have existed for only a brief period of time. One such group was the Raze the Walls Network, which was very successful for a number of years but seemed to disappear around 1998-1999. A group called the Anarchist Black Cross Network would take its place a few years later but would only last roughly five years before it slowly vanished. Networks in Europe, such as the one in Poland, have emerged have continued to grow.

Harassment in the Modern Era

As with most of the previous generations, this wave has not found itself immune to repression and the false accusations of the State. The Anarchist Black Cross Federation above any ABC formation in this era has seen its share of harassment. Described in an FBI document as the militant wing the Anarchist Black Cross movement, its members and publications have been banned by various prisons throughout the United States.

Even prior to the official creation of the ABC Federation, some chapters were familiar with police intimidation. As an example, the Paterson chapter of the ABC found itself the target of political violence when it’s bookstore, Right to Existence, was shot up by police in September of 1993. Earlier in the day, police attacked several ABC members under false accusations of tampering with police property.

In January 1996, after the formation of the ABCF, the Jacksonville chapter was raided by local police agency on two separate occasions. Police seized computers, weapons and material – all with the intent to discover the activity of the organization. Members of the group were arrested and charged with Felony Criminal Mischief in connection with political graffiti. Charges were eventually dropped.

Members of the same chapter would soon see a series of intimidating FBI visits and years of constant harassment. In 2000, members were suspected of hiding Azikikwe Onipedo (known to authorities as Arthur Washington), a member of the Black Liberation Army who had been placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.  Agents harassed family members, neighbors and landlords of ABCF members merely on a hunch that members of the ABCF were assisting Onipedo avoid arrest. Agents would visit members in what seemed like an annual or semi-annual basis.

Harassment of the ABCF was not just reserved for the east coast. In 1999, days after the Los Angeles chapter held a fundraising event in Griffith Park, a member of the organization was approached by FBI agents at a separate rally held in Washington DC. The member was shown a series of photographs from the previous event with each member of the LA chapter circled and identified. The agent made a few threatening comments and then left. While the interaction seemed uneventful what transpired next would be viewed as ominous. The next day the member who was confronted by the FBI was struck by a hit-and-run driver and was place in the hospital for several weeks while she received reconstructive surgery. While members of the LA chapter have been slow to suggest it was foul play at the hands of the government – the timing and nature of the incident caused many to become alarmed.

Several incidents have taken place with the New Jersey chapter that while they seem so bizarre that they leave the reader doubting the credibility of the accounts, they are no less true and have actually taken place. A member of the organization has reported having carcasses of dead animal placed at their doorsteps in a building with secured entrances. Days later, the same member was assaulted by an individual, slamming him against a wall, then placing a piece of paper in his hand with his phone number. Around the same period, the very same individual had a bizarre incident where he dropped off several pieces of mail at the post office only to return to have those same letters sitting on his table. The individual reported the sole purposes of his leaving the house that day was to mail off those specific letters.

In February 2005, the Director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, identified the ABCF, during a Senate Committee on Intelligence, as a potential threat to national security. The statement caused many within the anarchist community to distance themselves from the organization. Further concerns were raised when newspapers attempted to associate the organization al-Qaida.

Seven months later, a member of the Jacksonville chapter of the ABCF was picked up after the government’s assassination of Filiberto Ojeda Rios, leader of the Los Macheteros. Agents demanded that the member use his contact within the Puerto Rican community to find out the intentions of the Los Macheteros. The member refused. Agents then attempted to get the member to provide information about other organizations and members of the ABCF. All attempts failed to produce any additional information.

A few years later, this individual discovered that an informant for local authorities had befriended him for well over three years. This informant remained his associate during a period of intense harassment by the FBI and had attempted on several different occasions to encourage the member of the ABCF to sell him weapons illegally. The member refused despite not having knowledge that the individual was a police informant.

The organization would again see the attempt to link the organization to al-Qaida, when in February 2010, Ojore Lutalo, a former political prisoner and member of the ABCF, was detained on a train in Colorado. Authorities claim that he had made several terrorist threats on a cell phone and had made reference to al-Qaida. Despite the claims there were no charges ever filed against Lutalo. However, national media took advantage of the event, associating Ojore, anarchism and the ABCF with global terrorism.

Despite the series of actions harassing the ABCF, it is not the only ABC formation to receive such treatment. In 2004, the FBI began to monitor several anarchist organizations, including in some cases infiltrating the groups. One group that was heavily monitored was the Denver Anarchist Black Cross. Several years later in 2006, FBI documents would be released via a FOIA request, illustrating the intense level of harassment this group and others experienced.

Internationally, we saw ABC organization take on tactics similar to those seen during the second wave of the ABC movement. In October 2004, Bart De Geeter, a member of the Ghent ABC and several Spanish anarchists engaged in a shootout with police after passing through a border check in Aachen, Germany. He was sentenced to three years in prison while the other two anarchists, Jose Fernandez Delgado and Gabriel Pombo da Silva, received sentences ranging from 13 to 14 years in prison. A passenger in the car and sister of one of the anarchists received probation.

In 2007, when John Bowden, an anarchist prisoner in the UK attempted to apply for parole process, he faced opposition by a prison social worker, who attempted to use Bowden’s connection to the Anarchist Black Cross. This individual described the group as both a “paramilitary” and “terrorist” group. Bowden had received significant support from both the Brighton and Leeds ABC organizations. In May of 2008, due to the constant harassment and smear attack by prison authorities Bowden went on the run for weeks. He was captured on June 6, 2008.

In 2009, the Mexico City ABC experienced serious harassment after a series of bombings have taken place throughout the city. Police have made it clear that they suspect members of the organization or associates responsible to the attacks. Beyond mere allegations, there remain no facts to back up these claims.

Works cited

[1] Voline. The Unknown Revolution. pg 27-31

[2] Broido, Vera. Apostles Into Terrorists. pg 96

[3] Woodcock, George. Peter Kropotkin: from Prince to Rebel. pg 188

[4] Freie Arbeiter Stimme. February 10 1956

[5] Yelensky, B. The Struggle For Equality. pg 20

[6] Yelensky, B. The Struggle For Equality. pg 20

[7] Letter from P. Avrich to Matthew Hart.

[8] Zinn, Howard. A People’s History Of The United States 1492-Present. pg 346-347

[9] Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. pg 533

[10] Letter from P. Avrich to Matthew Hart.

[11] Avrich, P. The Russian Anarchist. pg 136-137

[12] Bulletin of the Anarchist Black Cross, London. July, 1967

[13] Bulletin of the Anarchist Red Cross, New York. 1924

[14] Yelensky, B. Twentieth Anniversary Alexander Berkman Aid Fund of the International Workingmen Association. pg 7

[15] Letter from P. Avrich to Matthew Hart.

[16] Yelensky, B. Twentieth Anniversary Alexander Berkman Aid Fund of the International Workingmen Association. pg 7

[17] Bulletin of the Anarchist Black Cross. July, 1967

[18] Anarchist Black Cross Bulletin No. 2, Chicago Anarchist Black Cross. September-October 1972

[19] New York Times. December 12, 1969

[20] Christie, Stuart. Stefano Delle Chiaie: Portrait Of A Black Terrorist. pg 63-64

[21] Baumann, Bommi. How It All began. pg 93-103

[22] Tom Vague, The Red Army Faction 1963-1993. pg 42-43

[23] Black Flag: Organ Of The Anarchist Black Flag. Volume 5, Number 7, 1978

[24] Times. December 21, 1979