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The Kids Are Alright



A Salt Lake City coffee shop seems an unlikely place for radical activists to gather at the end of a hard day. Especially when the vast majority of those belonging to Provo’s Resistance Collective don’t drink coffee.

Here they are, nonetheless. One Resistance Collective member, 23-year-old Tariq Khan, had to drive to Salt Lake City anyway for a meeting with his attorney. But all of them, 10 in all, had woken at 9 a.m. that morning to drive from Provo so they could feed striking workers at the Gateway Project. In the eternal struggle against The System, they cooked rice and vegetables, mixed in some broth, and then packed it up for the journey north to fight Structural Coating, the company that allegedly shorted workers out of their due pay.

It’s time for a little relaxation, and an interview most of them seem a bit nervous about. When you’re a professed political radical—an anarchist even—from Utah’s conservative citadel, you learn to watch your step.

So 18-year-old Britton Tweedy plays a bit of chess with a Salt Lake City friend on a makeshift board. The rest of the group, dressed in frayed dime-store garb, chat quietly. Tariq’s sister, 21-year-old Nazneen, is making her way through George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, the closest thing to required reading among this Utah County band of confessing renegades who just happen to be Mormons, whether active or falling away.

Nazneen already has several questions about the Spanish Civil War chronicled in Orwell’s book. “Who supported the fascists?” she asks.

Her brother is quick with an answer. “The Catholic church and the government,” Tariq offers. “And the anarchists had prisons without bars for their prisoners of war. You couldn’t tell the prisoners from the guards. But they’d never try to escape because their life was better in the anarchist prisons than in the fascist military.”

While Tariq Khan is quick to speak, Tweedy takes a bit of prying to open up. Yes I’m an anarchist, he admits with eyes almost to the ground.

But that’s just a word—“anarchist.” The rest of the group would rather talk about what the Resistance Collective has done for the youth of Provo, the dispossessed who feel alienated by the city’s fierce brand of conservative Mormonism, who want to have fun sans drugs and alcohol.

Dressed in combat fatigues and T-shirt, Tweedy slowly warms to the dialogue. “It’s as if the kids in Provo take everything for granted, without questions,” he said. “Provo’s youth has absolutely nothing to grow on.”

So, after they all fell into the same political stew of radical activism serving meals to the homeless with Food Not Bombs at Provo’s Pioneer Park, they ended up forming Resistance Collective. Then, finding the right landlord, they opened the August Arts Center, a warehouse and living space ideally suited for impromptu concerts, with a back-room library for the incubation of political ideals. That’s no small feat in Provo, a city that sees Satan’s dens in the form of public dance halls. Sure, there’s a Provo Teen Center, if you don’t mind hanging out in a hall with a police substation. The city fathers want to keep a tight lid on the kettle of youth.

“The only reason I’m there is for the August Arts Center,” said Tweedy, continuing his chess game.

Tariq, meanwhile gushes forth the anarchist’s credo with all the low-level disdain of a cynical street preacher: capitalism and fascism are redundant words; the United States is a police state always repressing the working classes; the ruling elite makes strategic use of religion and international situations to keep the powerless divided; government rules by fear and dominates by violence; society—indeed, the entire world—is in a constant state of undeclared war; the slave-wage system must be smashed so that workers own the means of production and finally gain full rights as masters of their own destiny.

And the hits just keep on coming. Oh, to be young, Mormon and radical in Utah County.

You, too, might be an anarchist if you lived in Provo, a town that absorbs fun and new ideas as well as an internal combustion engine takes to sugar.

But Mormon and anarchist? In the world of Provo’s Resistance Collective, the two are entirely compatible—even logical. All of which makes Tweedy, Khan and company even more newsworthy. They blast expectations on all sides.

“People who don’t see the connection between the church and activism are confused,” said Nazneen Khan. “When you see someone being put down, you’re supposed to stand up for justice.”

Her brother chimes in, quoting no less a figure than the church’s founder to back up his political convictions that cops, prisons and laws have done little or nothing for the progress of humanity. “Even Joseph Smith said friendship and education can do more for people than putting them in prison,” said Tariq Khan. “People, for the most part, are essentially good. Give them freedom and they’ll do good.”

The August Arts Center, where the Resistance Collective resides, is as non-descript as they come: a gray-brick, oblong structure with doors at every side and a dusty, pebbled and grassless front lawn. A dog named Hoola struts and pants through every room, including the bedrooms, kitchen and an expansive warehouse. A drum set sits in the back of the warehouse, with a makeshift stove keeping it company in an adjacent corner. The warehouse ceiling is stripped bare enough to show its insulating fiberglass, stained with the slow drip of rain. Guitars, both acoustic and electric, stand against the entryway walls. The young folks of Resistance Collective are big into music, preferably adrenaline-fueled hardcore punk with a message.

They’re also big into slogans, lots and lots of slogans. Like elderly couples in Winnebagos collecting sugar-spoons of the states, Resistance Collective takes in tracts, manifestos and bold statements. A big, black banner above Tariq Khan’s bed declares, “Whoever they Vote for We Are Ungovernable.” The statement is book-ended by the letters “A” and “E,” both wrapped in circles to denote “Anarchy” and “Equality,” respectively.

Slogans, whether posted on banners, fliers or pamphlets are everywhere at August Arts. “Violence is not strength and compassion is not weakness,” reads one. Contradicting that is the image of a breast-feeding woman, rifle over her shoulder, headlined with “Resistance is Fertile.” The poster’s sub-text speaks the inside language of the converted anarchist, appropriately enticing to any outsider: “The greatest illusionist spectacle in the world no longer enchants us. We are certain that communities of joy will emerge from our struggle, here and now. And for the first time, life will triumph over death.”

If that tickles your radical tummy, try this on for size, posted on the fridge of Resistance Collective’s vegan (meat and dairy are decidedly counter-revolutionary) kitchen: “Behind an apparent aesthetic repugnance for politics sometimes lurks a vulgar conservative sensibility. … The intellectual, just like any fool, is subject to the influence of his environment, his education and his interests. His intelligence does not operate freely. He has a natural indignation to adapt himself to the most convenient ideas, not the most just.”

In other words, it’s easier for activists to trip over their own shoelaces rather than someone else’s.

Opening the August Arts Center was a deliberate strategy, not just for Tweedy and Khan, but for everyone involved. No drugs or alcohol are allowed inside the doors. Admission to concerts in the back warehouse goes toward rent and operating costs, such as the collective’s anarchist library, which features sections on “class war” and “graffiti,” and boasts books from Salinger and Chomsky all the way to such charming titles as You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive.

The library may not be the biggest draw, but it’s a centerpiece that the collective hopes will gradually get more attention. “Most of the kids don’t come to read, they just come to hear a show,” explains Tariq Khan. “Most kids think reading is this tedious task. It’s hard to get people to read. That’s one of the goals we’re working on.”

Ricky Calkin, a 22-year-old native of Oklahoma City, made it out to Provo on a Greyhound bus. He plans to leave by hopping a freight train, but seems at home. “I’m sure I’ll make it back this way,” Calkin said. “The community is something we don’t have anymore, and this is a good place for people to come together and express opinions.”

Sitting right across from Provo’s railroad tracks, it’s apparently a place the local police don’t much care for. Tweedy talks of frequent patrol car drive-bys, as if the police are just waiting for an excuse, any excuse, to bust the place. Officers even knock on the door to ask a few questions, a veiled attempt at intimidation, as Tweedy sees it.

“We could have opened this place in Salt Lake City or Ogden, but we had to open it here,” Tweedy said. “I could move to Salt Lake City any time I wanted to, but this place needs help.”

Resistance Collective stands ready to serve, and walk a risky tightrope. Besides the Food Not Bombs and workers’ strike feedings, there are Critical Mass rallies, orchestrated bike-ride protests calculated to slow traffic and give roads back to the people. Tweedy garnered a Class B misdemeanor as a public nuisance for his role in one recent rally, a fact he quietly wears like a ribbon on his chest. “It lets me know that I’m on the right track,” he said.

No one in the Provo collective admits to voting in the last election—representative democracy is too bourgeois to count—but they protested George W. Bush’s inauguration in Salt Lake City with a host of other groups in tow. Their demeanor and knowledge earned them respect among radical peers. “I was really impressed,” said Jonathan Jemming, spokesperson for Citizens’ Coalition for Fairness and Democracy. “They fit the Provo image in everything but their political ideology, and they’re a pleasant reminder that there’s some spice left in Utah County. I would put myself on the line for them.”

Everyone knows August Arts could be shut down at any moment during a concert. Provo’s recently enacted dance ordinance requires that all public dance parties get a business license, install FAA quality metal detectors and surveillance cameras, and hire state-certified security guards. Government groups, churches and schools were exempted from the law. Should anyone inadvertently wiggle or move to the music at an August Arts concert, the police could crack down with full support of Provo’s City Council, which passed the ordinance.

So it was off to another protest, but this time in their own backyard. Dressed in black, from pants to bandanas, they gathered in front of Provo City Hall. They even issued a “Collective Communiqué” as fair warning to law enforcement: “We refuse to place surveillance cameras, metal detectors and security goons in our venue because we believe they create an authoritarian atmosphere which we find highly undesirable. The Provo city government does not have our consent to govern us and we view their coercive authority as being nothing more than tyranny, which is, necessarily, unjustified.”

No one can say for certain if the statement ever reached police. But the daily media read it. After the collective rebuffed interview offers from “corporate media,” the Deseret News, in turn, tagged collective members as “bandits carrying black flags.” (Note: media cynicism runs so deep among some members of the collective that they also refused any comment for this article.)

But the ultimate act of resistance belonged to Tariq Khan. In early January, before August Arts opened its doors the following month, police descended on a house party to write violations for illegally parked cars. When a BYU photographer started recording the proceedings on film, officers grew testy. That’s when Khan stepped in, informing the local constabulary that, “There’s no law saying you can’t take pictures of fascists.” That quickly won him a back seat in a patrol car, after Tariq was shoved down and handcuffed.

“If I had it to do over again, I would have been a little more polite. But I still believe they’re fascists,” Khan said. “If you want to get a police officer upset all you have to do is assert your rights.”

The night in jail was a good lesson in crisis management, however. Refusing to surrender his composure, Khan sang songs with a friend. Later, a judge chided him for having a “problem with authority.”

“Well, everyone should have a problem with authority,” Khan huffed. “People with power are no better than us.”

Strange words, perhaps, for someone who has no problem submitting to the authority of a church. But as Khan and others in the collective explain it, true anarchy isn’t about throwing bricks and senseless tantrums. It’s about submitting to a higher, natural law and taking responsibility yourself instead of surrendering it to the state, which will inevitably only abuse its power. This entry on the collective’s chalkboard schedule speaks volumes: “May 15—Britton’s court date, May 21—Tariq’s trial, May 30—Tariq enters the Missionary Training Center.”

The first task around any argument about anarchy is the question of human nature. Are people naturally predisposed toward good or toward evil? By default, that makes any argument about anarchy more radical and time-consuming than most people have the time or patience for.

For Provo’s Resistance Collective, or at least Britton Tweedy and Tariq Khan, the answer is simple: Given a just society, which only anarchy can provide, people will act kindly and justly toward one another. The catch, it might be pointed out, is that anarchy has never lasted long enough to prove that claim. And the political traditions of America and Britain have always laughed anarchy away. Faith in the state and law is as old as Plato. Political philosopher Thomas Hobbes was one of the first to argue that people must relinquish some of their rights to the state if they are to be protected by it. Without the administration and enforcement of laws, Hobbes warned, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Historically, that tradition was at odds with what people were thinking in Continental Europe. With Jean-Jacques Rousseau heralding the call of the Enlightenment, conclusions about human nature took a decidedly different turn. In their natural state, people are essentially good. Or, in Rousseau’s famous words, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

Maybe that’s why a word like “anarchy” gets a decidedly different reception in America than in Europe. Where Americans think of violence at the word’s very mention, many Europeans think of working-class people engaged in a sincere effort to establish a just society. “Anarchy,” you see, isn’t really anarchy in the sense of absolute chaos. Orwell was fascinated with the anarchist political parties who seized large parts of Spain and competently managed it for themselves before Franco’s fascists crushed them, and the Stalinist-led communists, in the Spanish Civil War. Although Leo Tolstoy—the same Russian novelist who authored War and Peace—dodged the anarchist label because he didn’t want to be grouped with terrorists, he eventually wrote a book titled Government is Violence.

Tweedy, who has made several trips to Rome where his family lives at the behest of the U.S. Air Force, knows the difference between the American stereotype and anarchy’s true, or at least theoretical, practice. “Oh man, there are so many anarchists in Rome. Tons,” he said, almost in raptures. “And they know what it’s all about.”

Up in Salt Lake City, Jemming also notes the important difference. “They [Resistance Collective] are both theoretical and practical anarchists, as much as you can be in the world we live in. But I’d associate them more with the Ghandian philosophy of being against the militaristic and fascist underpinnings of the capitalist state.”

If August Arts and the collective want to accomplish anything, it’s the creation of an environment where kids can form friendships around activism and enjoy a punk-rock tune. Tweedy mans the VCR and television set to show an example, removing yet another slogan taped to the set’s screen, “Mom … the TV stole my BRAIN!” He quietly, yet proudly, explains that no one in the collective uses the set except to watch videos.

Tape inserted, local Provo band Undivided pop onto the screen, playing stiff, neck-snapping hardcore punk with vein-popping energy. The band holds out a ringing note and the crowd, not wholly visible, seems silent. Tweedy notes that all the band members are returned LDS missionaries. (Note to law enforcement: It doesn’t look as if anyone was dancing.)

“At weekends you’ll see so many kids spend time at crappy places like 7-11 and dance clubs, where all they learn is how to be sexist,” Tweedy said.

He searches for the right words before speaking in a gentle voice, and looks off into space when he does. Raised in the LDS church, Tweedy still holds to its tenets, but confesses that he has a problem with blindly accepting organized religion. He made his way to Provo because his parents own some property in town, and because his sisters attended BYU. He’s been here for a year now, and hopes to one day attend law school. The irony’s not lost on him. It’s simply a fact of the activist life that you must know the law if you’re going to go up against it.

“I see myself as a wrench,” Tweedy laughs. “Just getting in the way. I don’t plan on conquering the whole state. I just believe conscience is the higher law. So replace government with cooperation, autonomy, equality, liberty, freedom. Replace it with life in general.”

Sitting across from him in their shared bedroom at August Arts is Tariq Khan, who’s putting his belongings in order, preparing for his mission in Thailand. Khan could have fought his attempted public nuisance charge in court, Tweedy points out, but struck a deal for some community service to keep his mission plans on schedule. Khan’s father, a Pakistani who organized government workers before making his way to the United States, helped instill a small part of Tariq’s rebel attitude. But not enough to keep his son out of the Air Force. Stationed in Las Vegas and South Korea, Tariq made training bombs for flight missions. It’s something he now deeply regrets.

“It was an evil job. But it was actually good that I went through the machinery of the system like that. I don’t have to read about what it’s like. I know what it’s like,” Khan said. “I didn’t make any of the Kosovo bombs, thankfully. I made training bombs, but I still feel responsible for that.”

In school at UNLV and the University of Maryland, Khan studied sociology and philosophy. Other members of the collective attend or have attended BYU. But it’s worth noting that none of them grew up in Utah. Khan and his sister are from the Washington, D.C., area. Tweedy grew up in Germany. It’s somewhat odd that none of them see that as a factor in their politics, or why they’ve set up shop in Provo. “It’s probably just a coincidence that we all come from out of state,” Tweedy said.

That doesn’t mean they don’t find Utah County bizarre in its own way. Tariq finds it odd that so many of his fellow Mormons cling to the Republican Party. “Government uses religion to turn people against each other. My dad saw it happen in Pakistan, where people were told they couldn’t be good Muslims if they voted a certain way. It’s totally bogus,” Khan said.

And Tweedy finds the community’s attempts to fight crime both hilarious and frightening. He holds up a mailed flier from the Franklin Neighborhood Mobile Watch, a subdivision of the Provo Police Department that invites residents to ride through neighborhoods with patrol members. “We Are Watching!” yells the flier in big, black letters.

“They routinely go by our house,” said Tweedy, almost with a lament in his voice. “So many people think we must be on drugs or something, or that we’re violent. But that totally contradicts why we opened this place, and why we’re here.”

Fact is, Tweedy wonders why anyone would think of the collective as somehow constituting a threat. He even wonders whether the collective is worth a story. “I mean, we haven’t really done anything yet,” he points out.

Fair enough. Anyone could call Resistance Collective and its August Arts Center a clubhouse with oversized political ambitions. But if the majority of Utah County denizens who live solely to the beat of life at work and in the ward house could learn anything from these kids, it’s the value of fun and the thrill of free-thinking. And looking over a stash of photos Tweedy has collected over the months since August Arts has opened, it’s clear that a few lucky kids in Provo are having a blast: Look! There’s Tweedy with an electric guitar! Look! Here’s a warehouse concert where people actually look excited! Look! Here’s Tweedy dressed in anarchist’s black, standing next to a banquet table! And look here! There’s Tariq getting arrested by Provo Police while housedog Hoola sniffs the arresting officer’s bum! Yes sir, being a Provo anarchist is an absolute gas!

The possibility of getting shut down or arrested isn’t the only downside, however. There’s always the dichotomy of what you may want to do, and what you’re allowed to do. Khan and Tweedy write songs as part of an acoustic group. One song, “Whisky,” blatantly romanticizes the act of graffiti: “Bombing in the streets of Provo tonight/Ain’t gonna get caught tonight, ain’t nobody in sight/Just me and my crew spray-painting the walls/Put my mask up over my face/Keep an eye out for the cops and the bull/Just me and my crew spray-painting the walls.”

Tweedy explains it away. “It’s just a joke,” he said. “We would never do anything like that here, never.”

Probably not. Spend a day at August Arts and it’s more likely that Tweedy and Khan will walk the dog through a few neighborhood blocks and chew on a few butterscotch candies. That’s a far cry from spray painting over commercial billboards in protest of materialism. Then again, there’s only so much anyone will do around a nosy journalist. Don’t think for a second that these fellows are dumb.

Naïve, perhaps. Talk with them long enough and you’ll see more than a few cracks in their ideology. Talk about the recent Tom Green polygamy trial prompts Khan to state that, if any living situation is consensual, the state should bug the hell out. But even in cases where a polygamist allegedly had sex with a 14-year-old girl?

“That’s not cool,” Khan admitted. “But even if it’s a 14-year-old girl, government shouldn’t be able to go into it. People should be handling stuff themselves. Where were the girl’s parents?”

That, of course, was no doubt the same question the state asked when it looked into Green’s prosecution. When an individual’s social support or family breaks down, it’s the state and its laws that so often pick up the slack. An anarchical honor system that relies solely on the latent good will of humanity is bound to see others slip away. Without laws churned out and enforced by our admittedly tedious and imperfect consensus of representative democracy, people are bound to take the law into their own hands.

But why spoil the Resistance Collective party in Provo? In a year when the United States Supreme Court ruled with a straight face that it’s perfectly legal and constitutional for police officers to put a woman in jail for not wearing a seatbelt, who’s to say an anarchist here and there can’t offer needed debate and balance? Conservatives will smile wide to know that Tariq Khan is on his way to Thailand, and may yet return to mend his political ways, go back to school and possibly even become a millionaire businessman. Those who think this nation needs a bit of shaking up can only mourn.

As for Tweedy, he plans on staying at Provo’s August Arts Center until the police shut it down. “This is one of my dreams, one of my goals,” he said. “I’ve been wanting a place like this for six years now. It’s relieving to know that something’s been done, especially in an apathetic place like this.”

Tweedy can feel that way because he’s not the only one who’s grateful. For Blake Donner, a 20-year-old singer with the Provo band Parallax, the Resistance Collective is only one element spinning around the blessing that is the August Arts Center. He can’t really be bothered about anarchy. Not like Tweedy or Khan, at least. This non-descript warehouse is, in a very real sense, the last hold-out in Provo, the city’s last hope for any sort of youth culture.

“No offense to anyone who’s Mormon, you know, but the rest of us here really need a social structure,” Donner said. “Here, if you don’t go on your mission, you’re practically considered a drug-addict.”

Not that there aren’t actual drug-addicts in Provo. Donner talks about Mormon kids he went to high school with who felt the pressure of their church and family so acutely that they, in fact, went over the edge and into drugs.

“Crystal meth is big here,” Donner continues. “Thank God we have a drug-free place like August Arts. It’s not necessarily a leftist or rightist place. It’s just a place run by kids for kids.”

Driving into downtown Provo for a meal of Szechwan tofu at a local Chinese restaurant, Tweedy and Donner catch up on news, continuing their talk until sitting down to order. They talk about all the things you might, or might not, expect of young men: dreams of building a solar-powered house with enough rooms to share with friends; the importance of questioning everything you come into contact with; and the difference between musicians who want to be rock stars so they can get laid, and musicians who really have something important to say.

All this talk, though, comes to an abrupt halt the moment they see a police officer enter the restaurant. They speak in whispers. An officer who overheard their conversation about August Arts could shut it down that same night. Then, of course, it occurs to them that a newspaper article could shut it down just as well. Publicity is a double-edged sword. Provo charges a high price on different ways of life.

It’s only a short while before Donner and Tweedy regain their confidence, though. Like Tweedy, Donner knows he could move out of Provo. But why? Unlike San Francisco, Seattle or Denver, there’s work here to be done. The way they see it, Provo may not love what they do, but Provo certainly needs all that they provide.

“It’s a bold attempt to say, ‘Here we are. Rockin’ like a hurricane,’” Donner said. “Because we do exist. We exist here.”