Reflections On Mass Protest in Amerika
Before Seattle, I had come to feel totally disillusioned with demonstrations, public protests and both the concept and practice of 'mass organising'. For the most part I'd found them to be more disempowering than empowering, and felt that the energy put into them would be much better spent on other forms of action.
In fact, the most depressing event I've ever been to was the Global Day of (in)Action on June 18th (J18) last year in San Francisco. Not only were there a million riot cops following us everywhere, but after getting a sound system going, the cops immediately declared it an illegal assembly and gave us 5 minutes to disperse. And we did.
My disappointment was compounded by accounts of J18 in London and elsewhere. I wondered what would it take for things to kick off enough here in the belly of the beast to make public protest effective? I was disillusioned with the preliminary reports I had heard about how activists were organising for Seattle - and I almost didn't bother going. Yet Seattle rocked.
One of the best things about it for me was that for the first time in my life, when people shouted, "Whose Streets? Our Streets!" on that fateful Tuesday, it wasn't just a small group of us huddled on the sidewalk getting harassed by tourists and suits for being in the way. This time thousands of people really meant it, and our words were backed up by our actions. Something had shifted in US politics, and that's the focus of this short treatise.
Why Seattle Boogied
The Direct Action Network (DAN) jumped on the call for a global day of action against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) early on. They did an excellent job in organising for it, distributing posters and agit-prop all over the country. In particular, the Art & Revolution Convergence group does an excellent job of making protest sexy and appealing, instead of a boring chore one is obliged to take part in on behalf of some authoritarian leftie group. Also, they create events that people who are afraid of police brutality and don't want to get arrested can take part in (the dangers of this approach will be discussed below), which adds valuable numbers to a protest. Thus, difference one - sheer numbers. On November 30th (N30), for the first time since the Gulf War there were fuckloads of people taking over the streets. On top of that, the 10-day Convergence before allowed people time to plan actions, get to know the city and, importantly, get to know each other.
DAN and other groups also made a great effort to attract a wide spectrum of people to N30, which succeeded in broadening the protest to those outside of our respective little activist ghettoes (problems with this will be considered later). Alliances that had previously only been talked about, or were in the beginning stages, were forged on the streets and in meetings during the days before and after N30. Among other advantages, this made it harder to marginalise the voices of dissent against the WTO, and gave people inspiration to go for it because there was the feeling, to greater or lesser degrees, of a common front. And it felt good for a change to go on an action where workers weren't going to be attacking you, physically or verbally, for interfering with their job. Instead, at one point the steelworkers and masked-up riff raff were together in the front line building barricades and chucking tear gas canisters back at the cops.
Despite opinion to the contrary, and despite the obnoxious non-violence guidelines, the organising for N30 allowed people more room to do as they please than in any mass public demonstration I'd ever taken part in. The affinity group and spokescouncil organising structure adopted by DAN had the inevitable effect of helping people see that they could conduct themselves in an effective manner without having to be told what to do. This cannot be emphasised enough - N30 was successful in large part because people thought and acted for themselves and became empowered as a result of it. I was dubious beforehand about whether DAN would succeed in allowing for transparency while planning an illegal action, but in the short term it unquestionably did. And even though many of us had to fight with DAN folks to try and get them to recognise that property damage was going to happen whether they wanted it to or not, and even though some of them denounced the black bloc with a perverse intensity, their model of organisation allowed for the plethora of tactics that left the cops just plain fucked.
A decentralised approach to organising is such a refreshing change, and one that can currently be traced back to groups such as the EZLN (Zapatista Army for National Liberation) and Peoples' Global Action (PGA). It reveals a rejection of political parties and hierarchical leaderships in favour of collectively agreed principles. This was played out brilliantly in the streets of Seattle, and as right-wing papers like The Economist have said in the aftermath, will prove to be the major challenge to globalisation unless the corporations do a better job of dividing, conquering, and marginalising radicals while inviting mainstreamers and liberal reformists to the table.
Another thing that should be said is that even though the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Mafia by and large went ballistic against the black bloc, the DAN spokespeople in my opinion did a really great job of 'staying on focus'. Instead of playing into the media's strategy of dividing people along tactical lines and diverting attention away from the real crimes of the WTO (hmmm, let's see, which is worse: broken windows and graffiti or a shredded biosphere and millions in misery?) DAN spokespeople mostly refused to denounce others publicly even if they were pissed off by certain tactics.
Stumbling Towards Revolution?
How do we draw enough people into our movements to make a significant impact, yet without making alliances that appeal to the lowest common denominator of shared perspective? In other words, how do we build momentum, involving people who don't share our exact focus, without watering down our vision?
The tear gas soaked streets of Seattle dramatised the inherent problems and contradictions in this amorphous movement. A major one appeared when many of the big labour groups that took part in the permitted march came from the perspective of 'Fix or Nix' the WTO, while most of the people blockading the streets were working towards its abolition. On the one hand, I was impressed that people could put aside their differences to a certain degree and focus on the common goal of shutting the fucker down. But now, months after N30, there still hasn't been much awareness or debate about how dangerous it is to work with people and groups who are nationalist, and often racist.
Another issue was the role of the NGOs in 'mediating' the 'debate' between 'civil society' and the corporate/government complex. The foundations that fund NGOs hold a pernicious influence on the directions and policies that these groups take, thus earning the distrust of grassroots activists. The situation worsened when these self-appointed leaders of civil society castigated those who damaged property and labelled them as agent provocateurs across the board. The head of one of the main NGOs was quoted in The New York Times decrying the fact that the police were harassing the peaceful protesters instead of arresting the anarchists.
[PULLOUT] "These kids didn't come to simply break the windows of The Gap, but to physically perform a metaphor against the system as a whole, including the very idea of protest itself." - From 'Smashing Seattle: How Anarchists Stole the Show at the WTO', in Anarchy, Summer/Spring 2000.
Perhaps the major and most intractable problem facing the 'anti-globalisation' movement is that people are eager to replace one form of oppression with another. Most of the people who came to Seattle see the solution to out-of-control corporations being strong national governments. These folks refuse to recognise, or just plain haven't considered, the domination inherent in statism. The state and capital are two sides of the same coin, and the loss of sovereignty that people keep carping about is rather pathetic, since individuals rarely have a say in our modern democracies. Furthermore, it's not enough to just oppose free trade, because the opposite of free trade is protected markets, which are still markets that destroy ecosystems and communities.
What the NGOs and Marxist-Leninist/Maoist groups don't understand is that we want freedom from all forms of oppression and domination, including organisations that want to think and represent and act for us. Fortunately, the lefties have been so discredited that we don't have to spend much energy convincing folks that state capitalism is as bad as private capitalism.
What the Fuck Now?
A debate has developed over how radicals (specifically the black bloc) should organise for spectacular events such as J18 and N30. Some feel that anarchists should be autonomous in every way, while others feel that we should infuse our anarchist politics and militancy into the larger movement. While it's compelling and often times easier to work with a small group of mates who share our vision fully, I believe that now is the time to broaden our circles without compromising our values.
As history has shown time and time again, effective radical movements that get marginalised get crushed. Does anyone think we are stronger now than, say, during the earlier part of the twentieth century? Right now, anarchism is very appealing because communism is in shambles, socialism has been bought out, and capitalism is accelerating to its own destructive end. Now is the time to leave the ghetto. I fear our own self-limitation, and the ability of the state to portray us as 'terrorists' to be eliminated, more than I fear our values getting compromised by fossilized lefties, hand-wringing liberals or right-wing bigots.
That's why I believe we should be involved in organizing for mass events. And I think it's just as important at times to build friendships with people who are in NGOs as it is to work with them on projects or actions. If communication was better among different groups, movements, and individuals, we could hold discussions and make decisions without the intense acrimony currently displayed. Moreover, if mainstreamers weren't defensive and worried about getting viciously attacked by us, they would be more open to our arguments, and we would be able to persuade them more easily as to why we have to hold a militant line. Is it our fault that they are defensive, or our responsibility to disabuse them of their flawed views? Certainly not, but if we want to mix property destruction and civil disobedience on the same action, for instance, then we will need to do a better job of conveying why this is important and legitimate. Their limited strategic vision cannot be smashed, but it can be seduced and broadened by us.
The debate over whether property destruction is violence has been raging on these shores - despite it being ridiculous and very boring. My impression is that in other countries such as England, the debate has evolved to, 'when is property damage strategic?' not whether smashing capital's inanimate wealth is violent. For North America to get to that stage, I think the black bloc and other saboteurs need to continue to communicate through writing and debating, while remaining careful to avoid the rigid moral self-righteousness that characterises the Peace Police. If we let the natural appeal of sabotage lead the way, instead of our anger at how stupid some of our supposed allies have been in characterising sabotage as violent, then those tactics will surely find a place in the hearts and hands of the people on the street.
To close - a wave is building on these shores, a post-leftist movement against globalisation, neoliberalismo and the state. From the jungles of Chiapas to the grey pavements of Seattle, from indigenous campesinos to urban dwellers, people in the Americas are making a break from the past and organising models of resistance which encourage people to think and act for themselves. La lucha continua!