Direct Action and Action Theatre
In 1973 Jacques Camatte indicated:'It is now becoming generally accepted that demonstrations, marches, spectacles and shows don't lead anywhere. Waving banners, putting up posters, handing out leaflets, attacking the police are all activities which perpetuate a certain ritual - a ritual wherein the police are always cast in the role of invincible subjugators. The methods of struggle therefore must be put through a thorough analysis because they present an obstacle to the creation of new modes of action. And for this to be effective, there has to be a refusal of the old terrain of struggle - both in the workplace and in the streets.'.
The response to insights like Camatte's has been, to a certain extent, a shift of the terrain of struggle away from demonstrations and street fighting to the creation of autonomous zones and communities of resIstance, as well of course as the development of direct action tactics. Despite this shift in emphasis, however, a ritualistic element still remains in many direct actions. As in the forms of resistance Camatte discusses, the ritual all too often still casts resisters as valiant, earnest protesters set over and against stern, repressive cops and security guards, and all too frequently the resisters end up playing the roles of victim and martyr - victim of police brutality and martyr to the direct action cause.
This essay is intended to make some suggestions as to how this ritual - of casting resisters as victims, and cops as victimizers - can be disrupted and perhaps broken. I want to state though that this essay can only offer suggestions, not answers. Moreover, some of these suggestions may already be taking place. The blossoming of actions means that it is impossible to keep up with all the developments currently taking place. No claim to originality is being made here! I also want to stress that the proposals in this paper should not be regarded as an alternative to or a replacement for direct action, but as supplemental to it.
When I spoke just now about ritual (the scenario that is set up for resisters and cops), I deliberately used a theatrical terminology. Resisters, I suggested, were cast as victims and cops were cast as victimizers. In short, in the scenario that has emerged at the site of many direct actions, the participants assume particular roles. As a result, direct actions are already theatricaI events in which the various players act out their parts. My proposals are based on a recognition of this fact, and suggest that direct action activists should take advantage of direct action's dramatic elements. This does not mean deliberately staging events for the media as Greenpeace, for example, have done, because that merely means playing for the cameras - and once the cameras have gone, the whole momentum of the action can disappear, which sometimes means that the whale campaign disintegrates. On the contrary, taking advantage of the dramatic nature of direct actions means manipulating events by consciously intervening and shaping them in ways that are positive for the resistance.
In "Notes on Political Street Theatre, Paris 1968-1969", Jean-Jacques Lebel deliberately talks of the Paris uprising of May 1968 in theatrical terms. He says: 'The first stage of an uprising ... the first stage of any revolution, is always theatrical ... The May uprising was theatrical in that it was a gigantic fiesta, a revelatory and sensuous explosion outside the "normal" pattern of politics.' It is in this sense that I wish to propose direct action as theatre: not as a dull ritualized scenario with pre-formulated roles for cops and resisters, and with an almost inevitable outcome, but rather as an explosion, as a riot of colour and effective action. In short, I propose the direct action as a prefiguration of uprising, as insurrection in miniature.
As part of the theatrical outburst of the May '68 uprising, Lebel refers to actual theatrical events on the street:
'Street theatre as such started to pop up here and there in mass demonstrations, such as the 13th of May, which gathered more than a million people. Large effigies appeared of the CRS (French riot police), of DeGaulle and other political clowns. Short, funny, theatrical rituals were performed around them as they burned. When the officially subsidised Odeon Theatre was occupied by the movement, many small groups of students and actors began to interpret the daily news in the street in short comic dramas followed by discussions with the passing audience.'
Lebel, who was directly involved in what he calls political street theatre, or 'guerrilla theatre', indicates the rationale for utilizing drama in this way:
'The main problem, then as now. is to propagandise the aims and means of the revolutionary movement among those millions who, while not actually being hostile, have not yet taken part in the action. Since the mass media are totally controlled by the State, all they pour out are lies befitting the State's psychological warfare ... [So] we tried to use street theatre as a means to provoke encounters and discussions among people who usually shut themselves off from each other.'
Here, Lebel is referring to an extension of agit-prop (agitation and propaganda) theatre to the streets. In the 1920s and 1930s, radicals staged agit-prop plays in theatres, community centres, on picket lines and dole queues. These were explicitly didactic plays - i.e. they had specific political messages to convey, and were designed as a form of political agitation and propagandising. Lebel indicates that in May 1968 these agit-prop productions were shifted even further away from the private space of the theatre to the public space of the streets, in order to address wider audiences. Lebel comments: 'Our orientation was agit-prop, yet we wanted to be creative and not just limited to old political cliches-above all we considered "theatre" only as a means of breaking down the Berlin Wall in peoples' heads and helping them out of their state of passive acceptance. We didn't give a shit about "art"-we were interested in sabotaging capitalism by helping to blow its arsenal of images, moods, perceptual habits and tranquilising illusions of security.'
In other words, political street theatre was regarded not as a work of art but as a weapon, an important tool in the revolutionary struggle.
This is an important issue, but the scripts of the two street plays from May '68 appended to Lebel's essay now appear very stagey and hackneyed. Remember that Camatte, writing five years after May 68, remarked that 'demonstrations, marches, spectacles and shows don't lead anywhere'. And the reproduced scripts seem very much like spectacles and shows. Conditions have changed - not least through the development of direct action tactics - and although something could perhaps be achieved through the kind of political street theatre discussed by Lebel, it no longer seems particularly relevant to the needs of today.
Nevertheless, Lebel points the way to uses of the theatrical that could be used to complement and increase the effectiveness of direct actions.
Avant-garde artists have often dreamed of demolishing the barriers between life and art, and have indicated that this dream is part of the revolutionary project. In one respect, the trajectory of political theatre in the twentieth century shows a progression towards precisely that aim.
Agit-prop theatre began the process by reclaiming and redefining the theatrical. Agit-prop took drama out of the private space of the theatre and into more public spaces: away from professional writers and actors and toward amateurs and activists; away from a middle class audience and toward a more popular audience; away from depoliticised representations of bourgeois life and manners, and toward explicitly politicised representations of resistance: and away from spectacularised, commodified forms of theatre and toward more everyday, face-to-face, interactive types of theatre.
Political street theatre, as Lebel indicates, took this process on a stage further (no pun intended !), by taking drama into the streets, and the sites of resistance. It attempted to use street theatre as a way of breaking down allegiance to capital and the State without replacing that allegiance with the cosy 'answers' provided by alternative political ideologies. Now, however, with the advent of direct action, this process - the process of integrating art and life as part of the revolutionary project - can be taken even further.
In political street theatre, allhough the script is collectively written and the actors are activist-amateurs, the relationship between performance and audience remains unchanged. The actors act out a play and the audience passively watches a performance. Moreover, the theatrical performance only plays an indirect role in events. In the case of direct action, however, this need not be the case. The 'performance' can become an integral component of the direct action. This is what I term 'action theatre'.
Action theatre would take planning and preparation of course, but there is no need to write a script - just a general scenario and a broad understanding among participants that they know what roles they are playing.
Suppose, for example, that there is a small group of people of different ages, races, genders, shapes, sizes etc - some of whom look 'straight' or conventional. They plan a scenario, the parts they will play, and what they intend to achieve. They target a site: maybe a shop, a bank, a McDonalds. They enter the site separately, at different times, and pretend not to know one another. One starts making a fuss, asks to see the manager, and starts having a loud row with him/her. One by one, others join in. Some may initially appear to offer counter-arguments to the politicised points put forward by the initiator, but then be won over. Maybe the 'real' customers will be drawn into the seemingly spontaneous debate (maybe they could be drawn in by someone turning to a 'real' customer and asking, 'what do you think?'). Maybe they won't, but even so, they will be alerted to some issues. The security guards will be loath to get heavy with seemingly legitimate customers - particularly if there seem to be many people involved.
The concrete achievements of this scenario are many: business will be disrupted, alternative perspectives raised in public spaces, 'everyday'people will be alerted to or even drawn into issues, and a general impression will be given that unrest and dissatisfaction are widespread and regarded as legitimate by many. Moreover, with this type of theatrical direct action, particularly if it is terminated at the right time, arrests are likely to be minimal or non-existent.
A variation on this scenario is to place the group of actors in (say) a store that is about to be occupied. Again, these 'plants' will act as legitimate customers. When the direct action commences, the 'plants' can support the action, complaining to staff about security guards and police, threatening to report them, and encouraging 'real' customers to do the same. The outcomes here would be preventing cop brutality and false arrest, as well as indicating to store managers, cops and customers that direct action is legitimate and widely supported.
Alternatively, staged events (which do not look staged, but spontaneous) could be used to create diversions - at a construction site, a store, or wherever a direct action is taking place - with the aim of diverting cop attention, and gaining valuable time for direct action activists. Additionally - and this is where the 'stop making sense' part of the essay title comes in - action theatre activists could arrange scenarios in which they (and other protesters) confuse cops by acting in unpredictable, absurd ways. Camatte talks about changing the terrain of struggle. The terrain of the cops is one of seriousness and rational behaviour, so shifting the terrain could involve emphasising the humorous and irrational. If prepared properly, this could really spook cops. It could also very directly challenge the scenario which casts resisters as earnest but also as victims. It could empower resisters in ways which cops might find it hard to cope with.
Action theatre is not an alternative to direct action; rather action theatre can complement direct action. It can cause disruption, but also be funny and fun to do. Moreover, it can get people involved who, because of their age, fitness, criminal record, job or personal commitments, can't engage in direct action or can't afford to get nicked, but can provide invaluable support for direct action activists, as well as directly contributing to the revolutionary project.
2) Jean-Jacques Lebel, "Notes on Political Street Theatre, Paris 1968-1969", Drunken Boat no.1 (Autonomedia, n.d.), p.27.
3, 4) Ibid.
5) Ibid, p.28.
Lights! Camera! Direct Action!
American activist Saul Alinsky's 'Rules for Radicals' has been a key inspiration for the theatre of direct action. Alinsky is part of the same tradition as all the pranksters, situationists, subvertisers, surrealists and absurdists, from 60s Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman who threw money on to the New York Stock Exchange, to 90s comedian Mark Thomas who took drought-ridden Yorkshire Water boss a tank of water flown in from Ethiopia. Alinsky's fifth rule, for example, states "ridicule is man's most potent weapon. It's almost impossible to counterattack ridicule, also it infuriates the opposition who then react to your advantage." Today, CCTVs are wide open to this approach.
Much fun can be had trying to destabilise the confidence in the relationship between the camera operator and the police on the ground. For example, some seafront boy racers were caught pouring from a petrol can onto a car in front of a CCTV camera. When the police raced to the scene, the lads got out some sponges and said they were just cleaning it (the can contained water). The possibilities are limitless - breaking into your own car, fake fights, huge dope-less spliffs, fake drug dealing... Making a false weapon from trashed circuit boards and bits of metal junk and pointing them at the cameras has also proved effective and arrest-proof. One man in Bournemouth dressed up as an eight-foot alien (see Undercurrents 6) and completely freaked the police. Making plays in front of a range of cameras simultaneously sends a direct message to the control room that we are watching them watching us. It is also unusual and very difficult for police to deal with a group that is not grouped, but split across a wide space.
Secrecy for more VIDA (Violent Indirect Direct Action) is vital as the targets for a surveillance action are, well, obvious. Identical masks (and clothing) can be used for protection and confusion.
Many cameras use microwaves to send information back to the central control room, and these can be disabled using reflective industrial foil strips attached to helium-filled balloons at the correct height. (in theory - mind the wind!). Camera poles can be useful 'lost children' stations. Simply make a sign, and have a child with the same balloon idea. Now who would take a balloon off a child? The great thing about getting police to come to protect the camera/find out what is going on is that simply by being there they negate the very existence of the camera. Finally, manipulating signs and symbols by being a mental environmentalist can be just as effective. Several thousand yellow and black stickers bearing the words "WARNING You are being watched by Closed Circuit Television" have been placed in hundreds of toilets and personal spaces, provoking debate and outrage. Strategically placed 'Danger! Radioactive Microwaves' signs, with a bit of police and workman's tape to cordon off the camera will also get people asking questions. Lights! Camera! Direct Action!