In the ruins of New Orleans
Kirsten Brydum pedaled away from the Howlin’ Wolf club into the darkness of another American city that she didn’t know very well. It was 1:30 a.m.
She rode a black cruiser bicycle with a basket on the back, borrowed from friends of friends. In nearly every city she had visited on her 2-month-road trip, it seemed someone was willing to lend her an old bike.
The Rebirth Brass Band was on the bill that night. Brydum, 25, had danced for a while outside the club in her flip-flops. She thought that the bouncer would eventually let her in for free, and that suited her in more ways than one. She believed, passionately, that people would one day reject a basic mechanism of free-market societies: the exchange of goods and services for money.
She arrived in New Orleans in late September with a rail pass, a little red notebook and a head full of ideas about the oppressive forces of capitalism and government, and how they might be replaced with something better. The road trip was partly a rite of passage in the grand tradition of Jack Kerouac -- an adventure to mark her recent graduation from college in San Francisco. But she also hoped to report on the small, scattered outposts where fellow radicals had established alternatives to mainstream culture.
It would all end in New Orleans, four miles from the Howlin’ Wolf, in a forlorn and out-of-the-way block in the 9th Ward.
More than three years after Hurricane Katrina, its homes remained battered and abandoned, its lots choked with debris and roof-high weeds. To many Americans, this kind of New Orleans neighborhood has come to symbolize a near-criminal lack of government presence.
Brydum might have seen the block as the kind of place where an autonomous, post-capitalist movement might flourish.
But it is unclear if she saw it at all.
She had some cash saved from waiting tables; her mom helped with some of the travel expenses. Brydum and an old boyfriend drew up the list of places she would visit: alternative health centers, collectivist punk communes, anarchist bookstores and “guerrilla gardens” planted by activists on land they do not own. Her plan was to document on a website what she found, allowing radicals to share ideas and strengthen tiny institutions that she believed would “prefigure a world without capitalism.”
On July 30, she flew to New York City, where she met her boyfriend, John Viola. In an e-mail to friends and family, she rhapsodized about their four days of “romance and resistance.”
Viola, a Bay Area attorney, met Brydum when he agreed to take on her 2004 criminal case. She and a few dozen others had been arrested at a San Francisco biotechnology and anti-globalization protest. By the time he got involved, the activists had been jailed for a couple of days, and the stress was beginning to show.
“And there was Kirsten, just super rock solid,” recalled Viola, 38. “Like a lot of people, I just immediately fell for her.”
She was small and fine-boned, with long hair and brown eyes. After he won her release, they would see each other at the same parties, the same protests. In March, they met at an impromptu procession through the streets of the Mission District that had started at the Anarchist Cafe, on Potrero Avenue.
“I was in the back with Kirsten, and people in cars kept coming up to us and saying, ‘What’s the procession for?’ ” Viola recalled.
“It’s for fun,” Brydum would tell them, smiling.
She grew up middle class in Van Nuys -- sweet-tempered, well-liked, a good student. But from an early age, she questioned accepted wisdom.
At her Catholic elementary school, she challenged the religious dogma; her ideas, she later joked, got her branded “a third-grade heretic.” At Birmingham High School, she gravitated toward the punk-rock kids, the black-clad, the ravers and the seekers.
At the now-defunct New College of California, where she earned her bachelor’s degree, she immersed herself in contrarian thinkers, particularly the anarchists: Emma Goldman, imprisoned by U.S. authorities for opposing the draft in 1917; David Graeber, the anthropologist who studied the egalitarian communities of northwest Madagascar; and Hakim Bey, a scholar who extolled history’s “pirate utopias,” which operated beyond the grasp of governments.
Central to her thinking: “She didn’t believe that we lived in a world of scarcity,” Viola said. “That scarcity was a myth that was used to keep people divided. And so if resources and goods are taken care of and shared equitably, then there’s enough for everybody.”
In San Francisco, she put the idea into practice. She helped found a series of fine-dining events. Patrons were not required to pay. In Dolores Park, she cofounded a “Really Really Free Market,” where people gathered to give things away.
“Because there is enough for everyone,” the slogan read. “Because sharing is more fulfilling than owning.”
She was a utopian, Viola said, but not naive. He had seen her street smarts. Still, as she prepared to leave New York and set out on her own, he was concerned.
“She was very aware of the risks,” he recalled. “She said, ‘If anything should happen to me on the trip, if I should ever be killed on the trip, I accept that.’ ”
The e-mail messages home traced her path. From New York, she rode the train to Philadelphia. There, she wrote, she met up with “a small activist scene living in the cracks of a neglected and impoverished neighborhood. . . . We borrowed bikes and rode all over town, visited the urban farm, danced at a benefit for Critical Resistance” -- a group that advocates the eradication of prisons -- “cruised a free store/vegan potluck barbeque/folk show in the basement.”
In Providence, R.I., she stayed in a friend’s apartment without electricity, noting, on her trips around town, the “gorgeous empty mills that seem to be opening up for more creative endeavors as the condo wave recedes.”
In Boston, she networked at a regional anarchists’ meeting. In Buffalo, she met up with a friend who calls herself Hannah Potassium. The pair rode bikes everywhere.
“She showed me the greener side of the Rustbelt city: rivers, lakes and gardens,” Brydum wrote. “We found a well-organized housing co-op with beautiful interiors and were invited to come back for dinner. At midnight, I hopped on a Greyhound to Detroit not knowing where to go or what to do when I arrive. . . . “
She was shocked by Detroit’s vast landscape of blight. The broken city seemed to support her ideas about the folly of capitalism. But she was also troubled that people had to live there.
“Sure, there’s some romanticizing of a place like this: a post-industrial workless wonderland free for the taking, ripe with opportunities to create a pirate utopia,” she wrote. “But in reality, the scene was sad. Some people do still live in Detroit, and the few that I met from the activist scene were bitter and burned out. It’s hard to create the world you wish to see when there are no resources, few comrades to inspire, and no spare energy.”
By early September, she was in St. Paul, Minn., for the Republican National Convention, among the thousands of activists who protested President Bush, the Iraq war, and the neglect of the needy, chanting: “Stop the war on the poor!”
More cities followed: St. Louis; Kansas City, Mo.; Madison, Wis., and Chicago. She found a ride from the Midwest to North Carolina on Craigs- list. But the driver changed plans abruptly and left her in downtown Indianapolis. She eventually hooked up with another stranger who drove her.
Then it was on to New Orleans, on Amtrak’s Crescent line.
“I don’t really know what to expect,” she wrote. " . . . The sun is setting on the bayou-licked lands and I am truly fortunate. I have rounded this beautiful Southeast corner on the Crescent line today and from now on I am westward bound.”
She rolled into town with a reservation of sorts at a punk-rock group house in the 9th Ward. They were friends of friends, white kids in a black neighborhood. Some dumpster-dived for food. Some were artists and musicians, and some hopped trains. Some had volunteered to help rebuild the city.
Julia Milan, a 22-year-old resident of the house, remembers the impression Brydum made when she came in from the Amtrak station. She wore a pink sundress with a pink ribbon around her waist.
“She was so cute,” Milan said, but not meek. “She looked very driven.”
Brydum had talked to her friends about making sense of New Orleans, and looking for radicals working for solutions amid the post-Katrina ruins. Since the storm, the city -- long a magnet for escapists and hipsters -- had also been attracting a new kind of itinerant idealist.
Some came to work for nonprofits or public schools. Others aligned themselves with activist groups like Common Ground Relief, a nonprofit that set up shop in the Lower 9th Ward, gutting houses, starting community gardens and helping organize residents left homeless.
Many of the newcomers arrived with scant knowledge of the charming but insular city, which, by some measures, is plagued with the nation’s highest crime rate.
“We give them overly cautious warnings,” said Caitlin Reilly, Common Ground’s volunteer coordinator. “We say, ‘You’re probably going to be fine, but you should be aware there’s very high crime, and a high murder rate.’ ”
But Common Ground was apparently not on Brydum’s list.
After the brass band show at the Howlin’ Wolf her second night in town, Viola said, Brydum disappeared.
Her laptop, duffel bag and phone remained at the punk-rock house, and the phone kept ringing.
“We were kind of worried, because she didn’t seem like a party kid,” Milan said. “The second day, we started to get scared.”
Her body had been found by a church group gutting houses in the 9th Ward; it was lying unidentified in the morgue. Brydum had been shot four times in the face. New Orleans police detectives began their search for a killer, but have thus far had no luck.
When the news reached the Bay Area, some of her fellow activists wondered if there had been a conspiracy. Some suspected the CIA.
“Kirsten’s death looks more like a hit job rather than a random act of murder,” someone called SF Activist commented on one blog, one of a number of similar comments. “New Orleans is still a militarized zone and it’s quite possible she was targeted by hired guns.”
New Orleanians tended to respond to such comments with a weary disbelief.
“Hired guns?!” a respondent named Sterno wrote after an essay on xavierthoughts.blogspot.com. “Every murder here in New Orleans looks like a ‘hit job’, mainly because our criminals are professionals.”
Viola, the boyfriend, flew to New Orleans to meet with homicide detectives. He held meetings with anti-violence activists and a few young radicals. With his encouragement, they established a system that provides escorts to anyone who feels uncomfortable biking alone at night.
Brydum’s mother, Mamie Page, always respected Kirsten’s ideas and ideals, even when she didn’t share them.
In an e-mail message, she said her younger daughter told her that Kirsten “would have been more about forgiveness than punishment for this crime, and focusing more on the issue of violence against women and rehabilitating the criminal.”
“I can’t get my brain around that one,” said Page, a paralegal living in Portland, Ore. “For obvious reasons.”
Other family members noted, with a disgusted irony, that the killer may have been covering up a robbery. Brydum’s bag and bicycle were not found at the scene.
“It’s kind of pathetic,” said Brydum’s aunt, Catherine Page-Evans, of Woodland Hills. “Of course, she would have given it to them.”