National / News / September 17, 2008

Knox grad protests at DNC

TKS: So, Kelli Refer. You identify as an anarchist. Can you define what that means?

Kelli: An anarchist is someone who does not support hierarchy because that structure makes exploitation inevitable. Anarchism is the aim to abolish all forms of oppression. It is the belief that people can organize themselves without leaders, that people can assert their own power.

TKS: How did you get started in the movement?

Kelli: It was a long transition from being really liberal to radical. I would say Knox had a big part of this transition: I was in a really supportive activist community. Working with other radicals, especially Ellen Vessels, ‘08 and Vicky Daza, ’10, I think my politics progressed through conversations and actions with different groups. Also I think I hated Student Senate so much (realizing I was on it for like two years) that I became really disillusioned with any sort of representative politics.

I think a major part was realizing capitalism is inherently exploitative. That led me to more socialist beliefs, but then I realized I do not really like the way the government interacts with people’s lives. My family had to work a lot with governmental programs like social services and mental health care (or should I say lack of care) and seeing the failure of these systems I was turned off of governmental support. That is when I became really interested in the concept of mutual aid.

TKS: People supporting each other?

Kelli: Exactly. Working in your community to provide the services people need.

TKS: I imagine a lot of people wonder why you went after the DNC, then. Wouldn’t it make more sense to protest the RNC, given that the GOP is even less into social services than the Democrats are? Politics often comes down to the lesser of two evils these days.

Kelli: That [voting for the lesser of two evils] is something I am really against. The protests were a single movement against the DNC and RNC.

It is funny because at one time I was a Democrat. But the thing is, Democrats still participate in exploitative economic structures and electoral politics, two concepts entirely antithetical to anarchist politics.

TKS: So your group, Unconventional Action, went to both conventions?

Kelli: Yes.

TKS: How did you find them?

Kelli: Unconventional Action is a decentralized organization that was created to deal with organizing a mass mobilization against the conventions. I found them last December when I went to a DNC protest meeting. I met people from different groups like Unconventional Denver (the local section of UA) and R68. I decided to try their meetings this summer. The meetings were about creating a plug-in structure for other activists in Denver, coming up with a framework that facilitates other activists to participate in with their own affinity group.

TKS: So you graduated, went to Denver, found these people. Then what?

Kelli: Our focus was on direct action. I worked on the media working group and participated in the Fifty Million Dollar Action, which was a press release about all of the money spent on security for the conventions. That got a lot of coverage. It was a little freaky seeing my name and face all over big people news, rather than TKS.

TKS: UA promised convention organizers in Denver that your group would go home and not protest if they agreed to spend their $50 million security budget on improving the community. Did the organizers respond?

Kelli: No, they ignored it as a spectacle. The money spent on security really was just a militarization of Denver. During the convention you felt what an occupation must have felt like. While that sounds hyperbolic it is not. The Iraq Veterans Against the War did a mock occupation. One videographer juxtaposed the IVAW and police footage of the convention and they were eerily similar.

TKS: But don’t you think some level of that was necessary? They did catch three guys with weapons and a semi-plan to assassinate Obama.

Kelli: The amount of security was excessive. Black Hawk Helicopters with snipers hanging out of them. Every police officer had multiple weapons and full riot gear. There were police surrounding everything. I saw more violence planned and provoked by police than I ever did protestors. Direct action does not equate to violence.

TKS: Let’s go back to the Fifty Million Dollar Action. It seemed as though the media did not take UA especially seriously–one blog,, called you a “twisted moonbat” and a “Feminazi.” Was there more backlash than nasty words? Did any media outlets sympathize with your cause?

Kelli: Some independent journalists understood the point. In hindsight there were a few problems with the action. It was driven by spectacle and we knew that. We wanted media coverage and we knew that to get that we had to have a good image. So we went with the bandanna clad anarchist. I was also criticized for giving my real name, but I should at least be able to stand behind my political beliefs. The bandanna was not about hiding my identity, but rather about creating an image that would be picked up by the media.

TKS: That certainly worked. What would you have done differently, looking back?

Kelli: I am not sure. We got out of it what we wanted, but I would like to make people aware of other projects and things that we do in our communities.

TKS: What are your plans for the future? Are you still with UA?

Kelli: We do not know what will happen to UA. I am still friends with other organizers, although I would like to take a break from meetings for a while. I really want to help with Food Not Bombs.

Deana Rutherford

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