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Morris and Spagnuolo both became paid project managers at Woodbine Ranch in 2006. They like to joke about the cyclical nature of the property's history. "It took eighty years, but the homeless Indians and Italian gangsters have come back," laughs Morris, who's of Shawnee descent on his father's side. Spagnuolo, who's also the spokesman for PITCH, or Progressive Italians Transforming the Columbus Holiday, had grown up in the Bronx as part of a large Italian family that moved to Long Island when he was a teenager. They'd lived in a bad part of town filled with gangs, drugs and violence — and Spagnuolo admits taking part. "I was very angry at the richer kids on the richer side of town," he says. One of his teachers helped him turn that energy toward politics, particularly the anti-apartheid movement of the '80s, and he's been hooked ever since.
During the summer solstice this year, Woodbine Ranch hosted a celebration. A long, dirt parking lot extends up a hill toward the main lodge, where about 75 people were eating grilled corn and chicken and talking about the project's amazing potential. The incongruous conglomeration of groups that rally under the anti-Columbus banner were well-represented, with Native American activists mingling with hard-core hipsters and soft-spoken earth mothers. In their discussion, everything seemed possible, because nothing like this had ever been done before — at least, not in the liberal activist world.
Woodbine was not a commune, or a compound. If you called it either, you were quickly corrected. Woodbine Ranch was a summer camp and conference center based on a "non-colonialist model" — or it would be one day. Morris stood near two bulletin boards propped up on a tripod, one covered with old newspaper clippings and photos of the property that he had found while doing archival research at various libraries, the other a color-coded timeline for completion of the project. Orange and yellow showed the work that was needed to bring the fifty-year-old electrical and plumbing systems up to date. Next up was securing the building permits to remodel most of the twenty structures on the property, which range from sheds to fully functioning homes to rustic, multi-bed cabins. They hoped approval would come through by August so construction could finally begin.
The project wasn't a secret. But the core group behind Woodbine was worried that if news of their project broke the wrong way, those applications might be stalled indefinitely. Earlier this summer, when a California-based direct-action training group that's been linked to so-called eco-terrorist organizations like the Earth Liberation Front held a meeting there, Douglas County Sheriff's Department vehicles were parked at the base of the canyon the whole weekend. There was no trouble, though. And while neighbors had been wary, they weren't unduly alarmed given the property's eclectic history.
Morris seemed lighthearted as he explained Woodbine's past and talked about its bright future. The plan called for Woodbine to operate as a summer camp for Native American youth who live on reservations or are involved with various tribes across the country, to be a place where they could reconnect with their heritage by practicing traditional farming techniques and learning culture and history from their elders. But kids from other backgrounds would be welcome as well. The property has a small lake, a swimming pool and a large network of trails. It also has meeting rooms and a chapel that the group wanted to convert into a lecture hall so that Woodbine could host conventions for national progressive groups and be available for local events and fundraisers.
The target was to get the place operational by summer 2008, and perhaps even use it as a staging area for DNC protests.
But first, the core group of Woodbine stakeholders had to reach a consensus.
Standing near the industrial-sized kitchen, Stavropoulos watched visitors as they separated their potluck waste into designated recycling and compost bags. The overarching theme for Woodbine, he said, was to create a community free of the colonialist structure of hierarchy and domination.
"How do we all learn to live with each other in this place?" he asked, adding that he hoped Woodbine would serve as a model of the type of interpersonal, environmentally balanced society that's possible, if only on a small scale.
An old jeep painted with the classic anarchist circle-A symbol was parked outside the building. Although it has dozens of intellectual schools and mutant offshoots, anarchism essentially holds that the ills of societies can be blamed on people who have power imposing their will on people who don't have power. If economists look at the world as a system of capitalist market forces, anarchists see the world as a system of power forces that oppress workers, minorities, poor people and others. Power should be held by a collective, they say, not by an individual or a government.
But to be the owner of a large property like Woodbine, where people live and work, is to have power. And that put anarchist Stavropoulos in an awkward position.
Activists repeatedly assert that Woodbine is a project separate from the Transform Columbus Day Alliance, which is separate from R-68. But the three efforts involve several of the same principal players and pull from the same stable of supporters. Morris, for example, is a leader in Woodbine and TCD, but not R-68. The Cohens are main organizers for R-68 and TCD, but not Woodbine. Spagnuolo has been a top dog in all three — and as the most vocal member of a group that's gotten attention through sheer vocalness, he's become the de facto representative of all potential DNC protesters.