Like many New Yorkers, Sierra Ortega starts the morning with a bite from the bodega across the street. Ortega is a college professor, a performance artist and a student working towards an MFA. 

Ortega is also a self-described anarchist. 

“We say anarchy, and people immediately get images of burning cities and chaos, ‘The Purge’ and, like, ‘Mad Max,’” the 31-year-old Long Island City, Queens, resident said. “That’s not what anarchy is. Anarchy is just the absence of structure. It’s the absence of a government in the traditional ways that we conceive of it.”

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Justice rattled New York, Seattle and Portland by declaring the cities “anarchist jurisdictions” alleged to be rolling back law enforcement, promoting violence and destruction.

Local anarchists, meanwhile, say they are occupying themselves with peaceful pursuits — including the 14th annual Anarchist Book Fair, which begins on Friday and runs online through the weekend. Ortega will be among those leading workshops on subjects ranging from plant medicine to food autonomy. 

Ortega’s workshop, “Reclaim the Brain,” is described as a collective healing space drawing from anarchist mutual aid practices. Ortega will also perform a 30-minute sound improvisation about their experience with anxiety. 

Another local anarchist, Thadeaus Umpster, said he runs around Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant daily, stocking up community fridges and distributing discarded food to park goers. 

Anarchist Thadeaus Umpster restocks a free food fridge outside his Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn home, Sept. 24, 20200. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“We’re normal people, we look like everyone else,” he said. “But a lot of us are doing a lot more. That’s what defines us as anarchists. We’re doing things actively and consistently to try and live our beliefs, and to try and help other people.” 

Umpster called New York’s new title “election nonsense.” 

“It’s a very old tactic,” he said, “using an anarchist as a boogeyman. Politicians have been doing it for well over 100 years in this country.” 

‘Freedom, Equality and Good Vibes’

The Anarchist Book Fair has long attracted anarchists, activists and the curious to Judson Memorial Church, long a center of social activism, at the south end of Washington Square Park.  

Organizers will be attempting to capture the collective energy via Zoom, as well as through pre-recorded sessions. 

One of the book fair’s founders and organizers, who simply goes by the name Black, is a fifth-generation anarchist from Brazil. They found themselves in Bedford-Stuyvesant 20 years ago after fleeing their home country. 

“I left my country because my country wants to kill me,” Black said. “I feel safe in New York. Here in New York, I can express my voice.” 

With this year’s book fair, Black hopes to continue educating people about “freedom, equality and good vibes.”

“We know how to live life in a different way,” they said. “This is the way we want to show how we can live this new way together.” 

Black points to mutual aid efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Anarchists right now are creating solidarity. We go to the house of the people that cannot go out, you know, and people volunteer to do that,” they said. “That’s really beautiful between human beings you know? This is what anarchists are doing right now without money, just to stay alive.”