Volume , Number 0
There are no articles.Commentary
There are no articles.Culture
There are no articles.Features
Steven l. Strauss
Media Spin &the Israeli Occupation
On Second Street
Slippin' & Slidin'
Farm Bureau Is a Front
There are no articles.
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
After LA: Organizing to Win
In the nine months since our unexpected victory at the World Trade Organization summit, thousands of people have converged on Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles to protest the International Monetary Fund/World Bank and the Republican and Democratic National Conventions (RNC and DNC). These mass actions have expanded the anti-capitalist and anti-globalizations movements tremendously by tapping in to the energy coming out of the Seattle protests. The most recent of these actions, the Democratic National Convention protests in LA, left me both excited by our progress in coalition-building and disappointed by our de-escalation of tactics. Most importantly, though, the DNC protests raised concerns that our attempts to “keep the momentum going” from Seattle may lead us into a stagnation of repeated, dramatic mass actions at the expense of long-term organizing.
The most encouraging development to come out of the DNC was the increased participation and leadership of people of color. Rise Up/Direct Action Network LA (the local arm of DAN, which has organized the recent mass actions) and D2KLA focused on local issues and issues affecting people of color, like sweatshops, police brutality, and the prison-industrial complex. From what I heard at a post-protest assessment, local grassroots groups like the bus drivers union felt like the week had given an enormous boost to their ongoing organizing efforts. The DNC action was far better in this respect than the earlier IMF protests, where an overwhelmingly white group of protesters took to the streets in Washington, DC, a mostly African-American city.
However, the DNC protests also brought home some hard realizations about tactics, the media, and the value of mass mobilizations. Unlike the previous three mass actions, which combined legal marches with city-wide efforts to disrupt business as usual, there was no mass direct action during the DNC protests. Instead, DAN- LA and D2KLA planned four days of permitted marches and targeted civil disobedience actions, with each day focusing on a certain theme. The idea was to keep the media from the issues and only reporting on the familiar “cops versus protesters” story. A perfectly reasonable plan, but I think the DNC action showed that the benefits from this strategy aren't worth the compromises we were forced to make. As much as we bend over backward to avoid confrontation with the police, in the end, it is up to the police whether a confrontation will occur, and it is up to the media whether our issues will be discussed. On the first day of the convention, a small, non-violent civil disobedience took place at the tail end of a march to protest Al Gore's complicity in Occidental Oil's displacement of the U'wa people in Colombia. Immediately after the march separated from the civil disobedience, the police charged the marchers unprovoked and initiated a series of baton attacks that forced the protesters back into a downtown park. Most of the press left the civil disobedience and followed the running confrontation. In spite of press releases, the several hundred T-shirts that said “Gore out of Oxy,” and the chants of “Hey, Gore, what about the U'wa?,” the LA Times's article about the protest devoted only one sentence to the U'wa, and failed to mention Gore's connection to Occidental.
I took the same lesson about catering to the media from the last night of the convention, when thousands of people marched to the jail to support people arrested during the DNC protests and to denounce the prison-industrial complex. Marshals tried to avoid confrontation by forming a barrier between protesters and the hundreds of riot cops who surrounded us. When the anarchist black bloc moved up to the very front of the march, marshals stopped the procession for several minutes and left the bloc to march alone, leaving them vulnerable to police attack. March organizers abandoned solidarity to separate themselves, physically and visually, from a group they knew would bring aggression from the police and distortion from the media.
When marchers arrived at the jail, we were immediately boxed in and trapped by the police, a common occurrence during the week. A police helicopter circled close overhead its roar nearly drowning out the sound system. Once organizers negotiated an exit route, they directed marchers to leave and quickly took off with the sound truck. With the sound truck gone, those who were ready to stay and risk a police-initiated confrontation to support their friends in jail became demoralized and trickled off. Except for a nasty police attack later that night in a subway station, the organizers pulled off the entire day of protests without a single confrontation, including the second-largest march of the week.
Did the mainstream media reward our “discipline” by covering our issues? Hardly. The LA Times carried three photos without an article about the day's protests, and one of these was of the wackily costumed “fluoride is good for you” man. Another major LA paper's headline described how “Protesters fail to make message heard” amid the massive police presence. Even when we are on our best behavior, the most we can hope for from the corporate media is an erratic, distorted presentation of our message. That's not a reason to ignore the media entirely, but future mass actions should not allow the media to veto one of our most effective tactics—direct resistance to disrupt illegitimate institutions and undemocratic processes. When it is effective, direct action is its message; those with power hear us because we force them to. Even when we can't “shut down” a target, blocking traffic and otherwise creatively disrupting a city shows our militancy and makes us impossible to ignore. It has worked for Ecuadorian peasants, South Korean union members, and French truck drivers, and it can work for us.
Direct action also organizes people. Participants in the recent mass direct actions learned to take responsibility for their affinity group's role in the direct action while coordinating with others. In Los Angeles, early planning for the four civil disobedience actions was semi-secret, in an attempt to prevent the inevitable police spying. This left the hundreds who had formed affinity groups and taken direct action trainings wondering how to plug in. The two civil disobedience actions that ended up taking place, although powerful, were both fairly small. However, media wasn't the only reason direct action didn't happen. Many LA locals pointed out that for vulnerable populations like undocumented immigrants and people with two “strikes” against them, marching face-to-face with the police was “direct action” enough. Although there still could have been a direct action day coordinated with the marches, it is understandable that longtime LA organizers decided that a week of permitted marches would best support their ongoing organizing. The question is, did it make sense to organize a mass mobilization around marches that could have happened on a smaller scale with locals only?
Mass mobilizations and direct actions are tactics, nothing more. Yet between our desire to prove to ourselves and the world that our movements are still strong after Seattle, and the organizing impetus of the ever-more-institutionalized Direct Action Network core that has hopped from mass action to mass action, we have begun to allow tactics to drive strategies. Already, activists have put out calls to come to Boston in October for marches against Nader's exclusion from the debates and to come to Cincinnati in November for direct action against the Trans Atlantic Business Dialogue. We need to ask ourselves if these mobilizations are achieving their goals. Mass mobilizations are useful if they radicalize their participants and inspire them to take action in their communities; create real resistance to illegitimate authority; and bring national attention to our issues. In order for future mass mobilizations to meet these goals, they need to happen infrequently enough that they attract enough people to be effective, and they need to give the folks who come an opportunity to do direct action. Mass mobilizations without mass direct action, as at the DNC protests, take time and energy away from long-term organizing without giving enough back in return.
For mass actions to really empower and radicalize the people who take part, we have to keep struggling for a democratic process that lets out-of-towners and locals collaborate in a way that strengthens both. We can learn from the DNC protests and give as much of our strength to local organizing in the city we visit as we do to challenging international institutions. Especially for white activists who have the time and money to take off and protest, we need to support the struggles of people of color and people who can't afford to risk arrest.
Above all, mass mobilizations have to be part of a bigger strategy of organizing communities and challenging state and corporate power. The DNC showed us that just bringing people in to create a bigger spectacle won't necessarily force the corporate media to bring our issues to the folks who stayed home. Nor will our friends and coworkers at home be shocked and politicized by scenes of police attacks against peaceful protesters on TV. Local police departments have become masters of propaganda and misinformation, and media outlets cooperate to distort or black-out police violence. The only thing that will organize our friends and coworkers at home is, well, organizing. That means long, undramatic work at our jobs and in our communities to build vibrant structures of resistance that will survive for the long haul. Most people who go to mass actions are already radical and active in some kind of political struggle. Mass actions politicize these folks even more, but they leave behind the vast majority of our neighbors for whom even working together to stand up to the boss or march against police brutality is a huge first step.
The risk is that these mass direct actions will only create a militant core of people ready to throw themselves onto the gears of capitalism and face down police violence again and again. Eventually, increasing state repression will scare away even most of the vanguard, and smash the rest. Already, anarchists in Eugene and Direct Action Network activists have been hit with escalating police infiltration, preemptive raids and arrests, and trumped-up char- ges targeting leaders. These tactics should be familiar to us from COINTELPRO in the 1970s. The massive police mobilization at the Democratic National Convention showed us that we'll need far more people in the streets than just our radical core if we hope to accomplish another WTO-style shutdown action. More importantly, we need to be part of a wider movement in order to survive state repression and make the kinds of radical changes we're fighting for a reality. Mass mobilizations can work, but only if they don't take the place of local resistance. Only by organizing at home can we build an anti-capitalist movement broad enough and strong enough to win. Z