Survivalism isn’t just for white right-wingers anymore.
Fernando Antonio Salguero grew up with his sister and mom in “a community of junkies and thieves” in a series of squats in Kensington. The worst year, he says, was 1985. Salguero is certain of this because it was the same year that Mayor Wilson Goode dropped a bomb on the West Philly building containing members of the radical group MOVE, killing six adults and five children. Salguero watched the bombing on a neighbor’s TV.
Salguero was 11 years old. This was also the year he, his mom and his younger sister learned to survive on the five gallons of water a day that dripped from the faucet of the abandoned building where they squatted.
He says he’s still haunted by the memories of going to school “not being able to shower properly, in clothes that weren’t clean. The unbound contempt of other kids.”
But those aren’t his only childhood memories. Some of Salguero’s youth was spent on various military bases with his dad, an Air Force chief master sergeant who helped “design the trigger and release mechanism devices for nuclear weapons.”
There was probably no way Salguero was going to grow up to be boring. When he hit adulthood he studied Native American shamanism and became a survivalist. He got jobs working for environmental nonprofits, including as a door-to-door organizer for Ralph Nader’s Clean Water Action Project.
These days the bespectacled, stocky guy rocks a black goatee and earns his living selling water and air purification and filtration systems. It’s a subject Salguero is more than a little passionate about. But it’s not the only topic that excites him.
Given his early contact with both Third World living conditions and some of the more mundane aspects of nuclear warfare, it’s not surprising that Salguero isn’t convinced that civilization in its current form is going to continue for much longer. He believes that a cataclysm will occur and that with the exception of himself, his loved ones and those he teaches, his species is horribly unprepared. When megamillion death comes a-courting it could be in one of any of a thousand guises, and Salguero is familiar with all the major suspects.
Years ago, the survivalist, or the man carrying the banner reading, “THE END IS NIGH,” might have been dismissed as an eccentric. But what is surprising is the increasing number of Philadelphians who’ve come to share his fears. In December 2008 Salguero set up the survivalist meet-up group Survive and Thrive, which, as it proudly boasts on its website, is “open to all faiths, beliefs and lifestyles. BAR NONE.”
Survive and Thrive, says Salguero, is for people who, like him, “don’t fit the Confederate flag-hat-wearing, baccy-chewing, racism-spewing stereotype.”
“This is not a stereotypical all-male, all-God-and-guns survivalist group. Atheist, Muslim, Jew, LGBT, women, immigrants—all are welcome.”
By February 2009 the group had 44 members, many of them professionals, some of them liberal, “gay, straight, black, white,” says Salguero. “No more than a handful are the white, male Christian Republicans you’d maybe expect.”
But don’t go mistaking Survive and Thrive for some sort of postapocalyptic bunny-hugging commune in the making. As the website emphasizes: “This is NOT a group that plans to work together in the event of a meltdown, but rather a group of individuals focused on SELF-PRESERVATION AND CARE OF OUR LOVED ONES.” Today the group has 81 “prepared members.”
In other words, no matter how nice and liberal Salguero might seem on first acquaintance—especially when compared to the (often blatantly racist) old-school survivalists—you do not want to be caught sniffing around his tomato vines after The End of the World As We Know It (TEOTWAWKI) unless you’re looking for an ass full of buckshot.
Those turning up to Survive and Thrive looking for advice and information about practical cannibalism, ninja-stalking tactics or how to turn a semi- automatic weapon into a machine gun (all information that’s out there on the survivalist Web) are likely to be disappointed. So far, Survive and Thrive meetings have been about post-disaster medicine, cooking, gardening and water purification. The next meeting, says Salguero, is likely to focus on health issues “like how to create a safe room and how to dispose of a corpse.” The meeting after that— Survive and Thrive’s eighth—may tackle guns and all that good stuff.
Salguero says we’re dealing with a new breed of survivalist here. Educated, multicultural, often professional—far removed from the monocultural camo-clad gun nuts of the Cold War era.
He could be right. We live in interesting times. On the TV news we see right-wingers in tricorner hats waving teabags and speaking authoritatively about Obama’s plans to “institute control of the civilian population through liberal front groups.” On the Internet there’s increased buzz about ex-police and military types organizing to keep their neighborhoods “safe.”
Immediately after the election of the nation’s first black president, millions of Americans panic-bought guns and ammunition. Last month, Michele Bachmann, a Republican member of Congress, stated her McCarthyite conviction that Obama is planning to build politically correct “reeducation camps for the young people.” Alistair Howard, a politics professor at Temple University, reports being told by a student that the Serve America Act is yet another sure sign that we are on the road to military control of the civilian population.
And for $550 a New Jersey-based company called onPoint Tactical will arrange for you to be kidnapped in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, as part of a course called Urban Escape and Evasion, which teaches “leading-edge skills to civilians who live and work in challenging urban environments or in urban centers that may destabilize during a crisis.”
Ron Paul supporters and Occupiers make for strange bedfellows: While Paul’s supporters and Occupiers agree that this country is in big trouble, they advocate wildly different solutions.
Our friend and colleague Steven Wells died two years ago today of the cancer he had documented so well in two cover stories for Philadelphia Weekly. On June 14, he submitted this column.
The 2014 Philadelphia Spring Guide
PW's Winter Coffee Tour