The following is an excerpt from a book about the year I lived with college students at 23 schools across the USA. Each chapter tells the true story of one week in the life of a random college student at one of the nation's most interesting colleges. In the following excerpt, a former radical anarchist reflects on his political motivations as he begins a new life as a graffiti artist.
Chapter 22: UC Berkeley (excerpt)
For most of the students in this book, I was only able to see a one-week snapshot of their lives. UC Berkeley was different—I had the pleasure of meeting my host on three separate occasions. Some people have relatively stable identities; if you see them every few years, they will be more or less the same person each time. Others have ever-changing identities; each time you see them, they have different interests, a different worldview, and a different plan for the future. Vishal was one such person.
When psychologist Erik Erikson was studying the process of identity formation, he found that many geniuses share the trait of having extended adolescences. If adolescence is characterized by the search for identity, then an especially gifted person may have trouble with adolescence. They recognize that they may have the potential to do great things in the world, but they struggle to find a social role that allows them to put their potential to full use. A normal person may figure out his social role by his late teens or early 20s, but the especially gifted person may continually redefine himself, trying on different social roles, until he is in his late 20s or early 30s. If you study his biography, you find an extended adolescence full of twists and turns and a life story dictated by a bizarre inner logic, knowable only to himself.
I first met Vishal before I had thought of writing this book. I was 18 years old on a solo road trip and passing through San Francisco when a mutual friend told me I should visit Vishal, a freshman engineering student who lived in an all-male dorm at UC Berkeley. The plan was just to grab coffee with him, but I ended up sleeping on his floor for almost two weeks. From my first interaction with Vishal, it was clear that he had been going through some profound life changes. He was a new convert to a certain political philosophy, and he was fiery and passionate about it. He spoke about the evils of corporations and the monetary system, the injustice of wealth inequality, and the need for intentional communities and a redistribution of power. I kept asking Vishal if there was a name for his philosophy, but he didn’t like to give it a name. His activist friends, however, were quick to tell me the name of their movement: radical anarchism.
A college freshman is significantly older than a high school senior. To me, Vishal was a wise teacher, and I was his naive pupil. During my two weeks with him, he taught me a number of things. His lessons consisted of how to steal cafeteria buffet food in plastic containers, how to dumpster dive, and how to eat food communally. Eating as a group off a single plate of food teaches you how to share finite resources; at first, the instinct is to overeat, but quickly you learn that you can’t enjoy what you’re eating until you’re sure that everyone else has enough. Learning this lesson about food made me more sympathetic to what Vishal was trying to teach me about politics.
Vishal’s life outside of school consisted mostly of attending protests or planning for protests. The first protest we attended was a 20-day hunger strike against the Arizona law that allowed police to racially profile anyone who looked like they might be an illegal immigrant. We didn’t join the hunger strike, but we sat in solidarity with the strikers for an afternoon. During that afternoon, a group of protestors—Vishal and I included—marched around chanting, “20 day hunger strike!” At one point, Vishal even gave a crowd-pleasing speech into a megaphone. The event gave me the satisfied feeling of being a part of something. It felt like important things were happening here.
On another day, a large group of students gathered outside the UC Berkeley president’s house to protest the privatization of the university. This protest was accompanied by a long row of riot police prepared to arrest protestors for any illegal activities. While the protestors were lined up parallel to the riot police, I overheard a student have the following conversation with one of the police officers.
“How are you doing?” she asked.
“Doing alright, ma’am,” he said with a smile.
“I want you to know you live a sad life,” she said, “and that you’re a failure to your family.”
The police officer chuckled. “I’m sorry you think that,” he said. Some other officers laughed too.
Then she said, “Fuck you, pig!” and moved to a different place in the crowd.
Her comment seemed rude and unnecessary. If earlier I had been on the side of the protestors, now I didn’t know whose side I was on. If earlier I had felt compelled to chant along with the protestors, now I felt more compelled to stand to the side and simply watch. As we left the protest, Vishal told me not to tell our mutual friend that he had gotten involved in the anarchy scene. He didn’t want his friends back home to find out, and he especially didn’t want his parents to find out.
My final disillusionment with these anarchists came when Vishal and his friends asked me to drive them to court. None of them had cars, so about six of them piled into the back of my mom’s minivan to drive from Berkeley to Oakland, where they had been arrested. Before I arrived in Berkeley, nearly 300 protestors had run onto a freeway and stopped traffic, again protesting the privatization of the university. The only people arrested were Vishal and a few of his friends, and now I was driving them to their court date. When I was parking, they assured me that I wouldn’t get a parking ticket if I parked right in front of the courthouse, but a few hours later as we were leaving, I had in fact received an expensive parking ticket. The anarchists complained about the injustice of my parking ticket the whole way back to campus but never offered to help me pay for it.
In some ways, the anarchy movement was a social club just like any other. One of Vishal’s roommates had also joined the anarchy movement once he came to Berkeley, but Vishal questioned his motives. When I asked why he thought his roommate was involved with anarchy, Vishal said, “For the friends.”
An anarchist must have a fundamentally optimistic, Rousseauian view of human nature: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Although anarchists focus on abuses of power and the corruption of authority, they also have to believe that humans are capable of governing themselves without authority figures. Individuals are good; it’s power that leads to corruption. Beneath all the protesting and anger, there’s a strand of utopianism: if only we could tear down our existing systems and rebuild them without unjust hierarchies of power and ownership, then life on earth could be equitable, peaceful, and happy. And that was Vishal as a college freshman—idealistic, passionate, and hopeful to rebuild a better world.
By the time I visited Vishal to write about him for this book, it was three years later, and he had recently graduated. He was unemployed—happily, he said—and living in Oakland. He had dropped out of the political scene and was now putting his energies toward life as a graffiti artist. He warned me that if I were to follow him around for the week, I would have to engage in some minor illegal activities—mostly trespassing. In the three intervening years, Vishal had changed his appearance dramatically. As a freshman, he was clean-shaven and dressed like someone out of a Gap catalogue. Now he had a long beard, disheveled hair, and wore mostly loose, black clothing, which gave him a tough look. He had the same wise, all-knowing vibe, but his optimism had shifted into a world-weary cynicism.
“Oakland was a booming town in the ’50s,” he said. “Lots of industry was here. Then in the ’70s, all the industry left. What’s left behind is run down and in ruins. I want to expose how decrepit the city is and how much it’s falling apart, and how there’s this culture of beautiful graffiti art that people don’t even notice, because it’s on these buildings people have stopped caring about. It’s almost like this secret haven.”
We took a drive to see some of the graffiti in the area. Vishal could tell me what graffiti was old and what was new, and he could often identify which artist had done each piece.
“Berkeley made me realize how corporatized schools are,” Vishal said. “I got in trouble with some of the stuff I was involved with, and there were a lot of stresses in dealing with the charges and still trying to graduate. So I got out after three years instead of four. Looking back, during school the urge to do graffiti was kind of like a trance. And I realized after I graduated that I’d built up this passion, so now all I really needed to do was follow through with it.”
Vishal had a girlfriend, Bailey, who lived with him. She had the unusual job of being a dominatrix. (I’ve somehow met two dominatrixes in my life, and oddly enough, they were two of the sweetest people I’ve ever met.) She worked at a legal dominatrix place where the women would act out scenes with paying customers, but no sex was involved. She would often come home from work ecstatic about how good of a performance she had given that day. One day she was asked to roleplay being a cop who interrogates a male customer for stealing jewels. “You should have seen me, babe,” she said to Vishal. “I was so good. You would have been proud.”
Bailey was extremely supportive of Vishal’s life as a graffiti artist. She viewed him as a sort of hero who was beautifying the world and giving back to all the people who didn’t have the ability to create graffiti art themselves. She looked at Vishal adoringly and always seemed excited to be in his presence. Vishal never let Bailey do graffiti with him, saying it was too dangerous, so she would stay home and wait up for him. On nights when we’d do graffiti, she would walk us to the door and say, “Alright soldiers, kick some ass!” Then when we’d return home—often at 3am or 4am—she’d be awake and eager to hear how everything went.
Vishal was unemployed, but he wasn’t looking for a job either. He had done some freelance web design work since he graduated, but when I was visiting him he ignored two phone calls from a man who wanted to hire him for more work. At the same time, Vishal was applying for food stamps. We spent three mornings that week at the Self-Sufficiency Center waiting in line for Vishal to complete the next phase of his paperwork. The process seemed to be intentionally frustrating. One day we waited for three hours to talk to one of the social workers. When it was our turn to talk to them, all they did was give us a phone number to call. When Vishal went home and called the phone number, it went straight to a voicemail box that was full, so he couldn’t leave a message. We had to wait another three hours the following day to receive a new number to call. That phone call allowed us to schedule another appointment at the Self-Sufficiency Center, and so on.
Vishal was a smart guy, so the irony of this situation—that Vishal was turning down paid work while applying for food stamps—could not have been lost on him. I suspect he did it on purpose: the urge that compelled him to do graffiti was also compelling him to apply for food stamps the same week a writer was there to document his life. It was a rebellion, a statement. Vishal could have hidden the fact that he was turning down paid work, and he could have chosen to apply for food stamps on any other week. What was he trying to express, then? Perhaps it was his disaffection with society. He had given up trying to help or change society, and now he was resigned to get by as easily as possible.
During the day, Vishal spent his time looking for new spots to graffiti, and after he had picked a spot, he would do sketches of his graffiti in a notebook. He also spent a lot of his free time playing Grand Theft Auto, and he was reading the Marquis de Sade. Camille Paglia wrote that “all roads from Rousseau lead to Sade,” and this seemed to be Vishal’s exact journey. As a freshman, Vishal’s worldview assumed the inherent goodness in human nature. At 22 he seemed to be dwelling on the bad—the violence, cruelty, and sadism.
“Do you want to do any drugs while you’re here?” Vishal asked me. “I could probably get anything we might want from one of my old co-op friends. Mushrooms, acid, but also pretty much anything you can think of.”
“What’s a bad mushroom trip like?” I asked.
“Well, speaking for myself, one time I got into a thought loop where I couldn’t stop thinking about how once all of humanity is gone, the universe will be no different without us. The thought of the meaninglessness of all life and existence became so intense that it was almost palpable.”
“Hm,” I said, “I think I’ll have to pass on that.”