Meet the Anarchists

The brouhaha surrounding this year's World Agricultural Forum said a lot about St. Louis. And a lot of what it said wasn't very good.

 Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.

When he moved to South St. Louis from Champaign five years ago and bought an $800 fixer-upper out of foreclosure, Dan Green never imagined that on May 16, 2003, he'd watch as the building was raided and condemned and fifteen of his friends were handcuffed and hauled off to jail in a paddy wagon. But that's precisely where he found himself, as a small battalion of St. Louis police officers accompanied by a city building inspector staged a Friday-morning spree that took them to Green's "Bolozone" housing collective and two other South City properties.

Police arrested 27 people, all of them associated in one way or another with protests directed at the third meeting of the biannual World Agricultural Forum, set to commence that weekend at the Hyatt Regency at Union Station.

Mark Gilliland
Bolozone owner Dan Green: “We didn’t start out on the right foot with the building division, and it’s been haunting us ever since”
Mark Gilliland
Bolozone owner Dan Green: “We didn’t start out on the right foot with the building division, and it’s been haunting us ever since”

At a press conference that Friday afternoon, Police Chief Joe Mokwa somberly displayed a table full of the booty his officers had seized. "We are very concerned," the chief said ominously, surveying an assortment that included whips, nails, lighter fluid, butane, a slingshot and a bag of rocks, two lengths of PVC pipe and a bottle with a rag jammed into its neck. "We can certainly draw conclusions and expectations after we found these items."

Two days later the conference went off without a hitch. The downtown protests, which had been portrayed by Mokwa as a calamity to be feared, were sparsely attended and peaceful. Only a few hundred turned out. Not a single arrest was made.

Some of those who were pre-emptively arrested, including members of a touring bicycle circus, have filed suit, demanding that property be returned. The American Civil Liberties Union is considering suing the city of St. Louis for violating the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable search and seizure. Mokwa, meanwhile, is awaiting the results of an internal affairs probe into the affair, based on allegations that his officers harassed residents and ransacked their property.

But for the most part, city officials are standing pat, defending the raids on the grounds that, according to Mokwa, "there were large numbers of people -- meaning twenty, thirty, forty -- going into a condemned house." Says Mokwa: "If there's any criticism that I'd be willing to recognize, it may be that emotions and anxiety and overstimulation of some officers may have gotten involved with it."

A month after the debacle, the residents of Bolozone and the other raided properties are still attempting to reconcile such statements with what they say transpired.

"The space I'm going to live in was really almost done; I had some plastering to do," says 23-year-old Tom Hallaran, a resident of a housing collective called the Community Arts and Media Project (CAMP). "But I've been just so demoralized since they came through, since they emptied out all my drawers onto the floor and turned boxes over. Emotionally, everyone was set back."

Beyond those directly affected by the arrests, some believe the raids and their aftermath represent a setback for the entire community. "One or two things like this can send a very distinct message: that we're not going to be welcome here," says Christina Reid, president of the downtown booster group Metropolis. "Or, I may be welcome here -- because I wasn't part of the protests. The establishment looks at me as not being threatening, so to speak.

"But I don't know if that's someplace that I want to be," Reid says. "Because I feel most comfortable when I see self-expression, when I see creativity, when I see lots of people that aren't necessarily like one another."

Dan Green sits at a little table in front of what he affectionately calls Momozone, the house next door to Bolozone. At age 24, Green, who's originally from Texas, looks like a young Thomas Jefferson. You may have seen him riding around the area on the ridiculously tall bicycle he welded out of scraps in Bolo's bike shop. "Bolozone" doesn't really have any specific meaning, Green says; it just sounded good. And "Momozone" is a simple term of endearment for the collective's second building.

Illinois Avenue in South St. Louis is a few blocks west of I-55, just north of Cherokee Street's antique row. From the doorway of 3307 Illinois, Green could probably hit the old Lemp Brewery with Molly Dupre's slingshot, if the police ever return it. Grape vines and honeysuckle overwhelm the front fence, and the vibe here is more lazy country than hectic city. Close your eyes and all you can hear are the birds. Next door at 3309 Illinois, the garden that is Bolozone's front yard creeps skyward; the raspberries are just past ripe, and the blackberries and peaches are on their way. Two pears droop from a dwarf tree in back, near an herb garden. "We share the food with anyone who wants to come pick it, pretty much," Green says.

Bolozone supports itself as a collective. Each occupant of the three-bedroom house shares in the cooking, gardening, maintenance, etc. In exchange, they get cheap rent -- $155 a month -- and kindreds for roommates. Only two people were living on the premises at the time of the May 16 arrests, 23-year-old Molly Dupre and 24-year-old Kelley Meister. Both spent the day in jail. The dozen other Bolozone arrestees had come to town for the protests.

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