Anarchists were active in Denton this election season, seeking to dethrone District 4 City Council member Joey Hawkins and place their own puppets on the council. At least that’s what the Citizens for Local Governance, a political action committee, warned on its website and in hundreds of mailers appearing in mailboxes across the county a few weeks before the May election.
“Who’s behind the Denton City Council Recall Petition?” the mailer asked voters, then pointed them to a website that claimed these anarchists were under FBI scrutiny and trying to take over the city.
But who are these anarchists sifting through the shadows as if riding a rising tide to convert impressionable college students and disgruntled Denton voters who approved a fracking ban?
The anarchist sitting at Fuzzy Taco’s on an afternoon in late April didn’t look like someone who’d slip on the V for Vendetta white mask and raise havoc through city streets.
Long dark hair pulled up, dressed in running attire, Cindy Spoon looked like a college student, maybe a young mother, not a criminal on the FBI’s watch list. She lives in Hawkins’ district and claims that his recall was a legitimate issue, that her group Blackland Prairie Rising Tide is mostly defunct and that she’s not an anarchist, at least not in the chaotic-destroy-all-government way sometimes associated with the word.
“But who said anarchy was bad?” she asks.
Blackland Prairie Rising Tide formed in 2010 in Denton to protest fracking. Spoon says the allegations of anarchy first began to circulate in November 2015, when former City Council member Greg Johnson became aware of her group’s intention to host an event called “To Change Everything: Anarchism and the New Social Movements, An International Panel Discussion” at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Denton.
For a night of anarchy, it was pretty light on mayhem, featuring instead a few foreign writers gathered under one roof to discuss anarchy and socialism in their home countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Balkans and North America.
“The participants will compare experiences from the wave of protests and uprisings that has swept the world since 2010 — exploring the role of demand-based politics in both catalyzing and limiting movements, examining a variety of forms of repression, and critically evaluating experiments with direct democracy,” according to the event webpage.
“There’s been a lot of whispering going on about a group that’s been promoting anarchy in our city,” Johnson said at a council meeting where he called for an investigation of the anarchists.
Blackland Prairie Rising Tide posted a response to Johnson on the website Denton Times. “Greg Johnson, it seems, might not even know what anarchism means, which is actually pretty common. People often use the word ‘anarchy’ in reference to chaos and disorder when in fact it actually refers to is the absence of authoritarianism.
“Anarchism is a political philosophy of self governance that holds the ideal social organization is one without a centralized state power. Although anarchism can be practiced in countless ways, the underlying values include horizontalism instead of hierarchy, freedom and equality instead of oppression, and the autonomy to organize our communities so that we can take direct action to meet our own needs.”
This horizontalism, Spoon says, is the key behind the organizational structure of Blackland Prairie Rising Tide locally and Rising Tide nationally. She says the group doesn’t necessarily have a leader, and trying to find out how many people who are affiliated with it is about as hard as trying to find out who was behind the political action committee that Spoon claims was trying to delegitimize Hawkins’ recall effort by fear-mongering.
Spoon claims Hawkins wasn’t responsive to his constituents’ emails. He also hasn’t held District 4 meetings, and he voted for resetting fracking setbacks after the fracking ban was lifted in 2015.
“And our district is disproportionately affected by fracking,” Spoon says. Denton has about 400 gas wells in the city limits, including one located on the University of North Texas’ property.
Local news reports picked up the anarchist story, giving a megaphone to all sides of the argument. Then a couple of emails from Pete Kamp, a former council member who served for 11 years before stepping down a couple of years ago, began circulating online, verifying that she was at least one of the persons behind the PAC.
“The mailer did as intended. ...It got people's attention,” Kamp wrote in an April 20 email to David Gosdin. “The information on the website is ‘in their own words’ and tells the truth. We have the truth on our side and if we are to help the future of Denton, we need to continue. I am willing if you are!”
Kamp could not be reached for comment.
The mailer pointed to a website called “Citizens for Local Governance” and made several claims about the anarchists, including that they’d been on “the FBI’s radar for many years.” It mentioned a couple of news articles related to the group’s involvement with protesting the Keystone Pipeline in East Texas and a University of North Texas student, Ben Kessler, whom the FBI tried to question in relation to the group’s protesting fracking in Denton.
“It was scary,” Kessler told the Washington Post in March 2012. He explained that the FBI had received an anonymous complaint, that the agency respected free speech but “worried about things being taken to an extreme level.”
In February 10, 2015, Esquire reported that the FBI had been contacting dozen of people in the northwestern U.S. “They appear to be interested in actions around the tar sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline,” said Larry Hildes, a lawyer working with protesters.
Allison Mahan, an FBI spokesperson, could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation related to Blackland Prairie Rising Tide or the Rising Tide, both of which had members protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Several sources in Denton referred to members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) who were responsible for dozens of firebombings across the Pacific Northwest as proof that the local group has something up its sleeve.
In If A Tree Falls, a documentary about the firebombings, some of the ELF members expressed frustration with the lack of response they were receiving by chaining themselves to trees. Police simply used pepper spray to remove them. So they took their action to the next level and began committing what the government considered acts of terrorism.
Spoon claims her group is not connected to the ELF and they have no intention of committing violent acts, although they have been known to climb trees and chain themselves to construction equipment.
“When is civil disobedience a bad thing?” she asked. “When did that become a bad word? When did it become a fear-mongering tactic? Civil rights movement, women's rights, when did this become such a dirty word?”
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Hawkins says that he believed Spoon and other members of her group were trying to get a quorum on the City Council to influence the vote for the proposed DME gas power plant, which supporters of the plant claim will bring cleaner energy to Denton. He points to their failed recall efforts of council member Kevin Roden. Blackland Prairie Rising Tide, which opposes the gas plant's construction, were allegedly putting forth several candidates to oppose two other council members, Greg Johnson and Dalton Gregory. Spoon denies this allegation of blatant democracy.
Five candidates were running against Johnson and Gregory, and four of them denied any affiliation with Blackland Prairie Rising Tide. Candidate Will Wooten admitted to having ties with the organization, but he didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Wooten lost his election bid, and Johnson was removed from council, replaced by Sara Bagheri. Hawkins beat the recall effort.
“I’m just moving on now and trying do my job on council,” Hawkins says.