In-Depth Analysis of the Protests at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
Published on Indymedia.
The two major parties tried to carefully stage-manage their conventions this summer so that there wouldn’t be any surprises. It didn’t work. In Philadelphia, where citizens were supposed to welcome the Republicans with open arms, local groups instead worked to gridlock the city streets. In Los Angeles, corporate donors going to an ocean-front fundraiser for the Democrats had to clink their glasses over the drumming of an activist beach party. While oil-rich George W. Bush called for the country to “tear down that wall” separating the haves and have nots, and while business-friendly Al Gore vowed to fight against the “powerful interests” of the wealthy, massive battalions of police officers guarded the convention halls against contamination by the real populists rallying outside. And the party meetings were continually haunted by the specter of Ralph Nader — or, at least, a ten-foot-tall puppet of the Green party candidate — who bellowed steadily against his exclusion from the presidential debates with the demand, “LET ME IN!”
The mobilizations for global justice had gone domestic. While protests in Seattle and Washington D.C. focused on international issues, organizers in Philly and L.A. brought the energy and vision of the activist convergences to bear on the national elections. And try as they may have, the parties could not fully contain an eruption of democratic dissent. During two distinct weeks of action, thousands of people came out to express dissatisfaction with the two-party system, to raise issues that are otherwise being ignored in this election season, and to articulate a true platform for social justice.
The protests were the largest to target the main political conventions in recent memory. Yet their message struggled to reach the delegates inside the party meetings, and rarely did it shine through a virtual black-out imposed by the national media. Among activists, the mobilizations left some expectations unfulfilled and raised questions about the state of our movements: Why did the demonstrations receive the coverage they did? How was planning for the direct actions different from past convergences? How did the police affect our message? What victories did the weeks of protest produce in spite of the limited press? Should organizers continue to focus on creating mass actions, or should they turn their energy to more sustained campaigns?
Having participated in the two convention mobilizations — R2K and D2K — I believe several important developments distinguished these protests from N30 and A16. The mobilizations exposed a concerted effort on the part of local and federal law enforcement to stomp out the Seattle brand of resistance, an effort that continues to impact activists arrested in Philadelphia. Organizers’ commitment to anti-racism as a central part of their planning produced actions that included more people of color, but the diversity of the protest coalitions was strained in other ways. Community groups organized actions that paid off in propelling their local campaigns. At the same time many national groups sat out the protests, limiting the actions’ impact on a wider scale. Each of these gives us reason to look back on what happened during the convention protests, and to consider the implications for future activism.
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Crashing the Grand Ol’ Party
The town was dressed in red and blue. City leaders wanted the world to believe that Philadelphia, of all places, loved its GOP — that sights as unlikely as a public subway-car full of khakied Young Republicans could be found in the course of a typical Philly day. Of course, maintaining this pretense was a massive effort. It involved many months of holding off local groups who came calling for protest permits, and months more discouraging these groups from hosting out-of-town company. A 3000-person March for Universal Health care that took place on the Saturday before the convention began proved that this effort had failed. Not a huge rally, the kick-off event nevertheless hurled bad omens at those who wished for a tension-free convention. Also, it served as nice prelude to the Unity 2000 march the next day, which was several times as large.
Organizers had billed Unity 2000 as a major coalition effort and promised that it would be the biggest protest of the convention. Here, “Labor, environmentalists, feminists, LGBTQ groups, anti-racism activists and more” would “join together to raise a unified voice for a new future.” Indeed, when the time came, representatives from a wide variety of causes gradually amassed for a short walk through downtown. Free Mumia activists, peace groups, and students against sweatshops were well-represented. A group of anarchists in black denounced the corporate-dominated two-party system as corrupt and undemocratic, Greens promoted the third party, and a multi-colored puppet pageant proclaimed a “festival of resistance.” The march was predominately white, however. And while the UFCW came out to publicize a contract fight, they were one of few unions presenting a sizable delegation.
The whole procession never quite made it to the stage that planners had erected on Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the march’s end. The program of speakers (lacking some advertised notables, like AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney, who didn’t show) could not really capture the attention of the audience. The crowd instead spread itself loosely over several city blocks. People found trees to shade themselves from the summer sun. Or they grabbed some food and watched the street theater.
In one of the skits beings performed, the candidates body-slammed one another in a truck-top ring as they mud wrestled for corporate dollars. In another, the “Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)” made their debut. This troop, which would be ever-present during the weeks of protest, goaded the crowds with its claim that “We don’t care which one you vote for. We’ve already bought them both!” and its chant of “This is what plutocracy looks like!” — all backed up by United for a Fair Economy’s serious research on big money influence in the elections. In the spirit of the day, the main direct action was to liberate a public fountain in Logan Square, so that wet punks as well as local kids played in its waters.
ACLU complaints about heavy police presence during Sunday’s action convinced city officials to pull back the troops for the afternoon. But the authorities returned in full force on Monday. Of the local groups who had fought with the city for a protest permit, the nationally-known Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) endured perhaps the bitterest battle. Though it never did gain official sanction for its actions, the KWRU was not about to shut up. For the duration of the convention the group maintained a tent city on the South side of town which was designed to dramatize the plight of Philadelphia’s homeless. And on the day of its planned march, as many as four thousand gathered with determination to walk or to be arrested trying. News cameras swarmed around Cheri Honkala, the photogenic leader who had cultivated the KWRU’s confrontational demeanor, while helicopters wafted overhead. “We’re going to march as far as we can,” she said to indymedia reporters who pushed their way into the mainstream fray.
Negotiations were tense. Eventually officials permitted the assembly to hike down the center of one of the city’s main thoroughfares, but made them file out in a narrow line. This was a mistake for the police. A densely-packed march might have taken up a few blocks, but the thin file of protesters stretched out over the better part of a mile. They hiked energetically toward the distant First Union Center while motorists on side streets waited for the endless roadblock to pass. Parade marshals riled the activists: “They said they’d never let us have a march down Broad Street. Well, what do you call this?!? This street is ours today!”
The First Union Center sat three miles from the city’s downtown core, and this presented a tough tactical challenge to planners of the main civil disobedience which took place the following day — a day of action decrying capitol punishment and the expansion of the prison-industrial complex. Not only was the place isolated, but police maintained a highly concentrated presence outside. And then there were the fences — towering 14′ security fences blocked access to most of the building’s lot. It wasn’t going to happen. Having scouted the area, activists rightly considered it impenetrable.
The situation demanded creativity. Activists had to depart from the type of protest scenario used in Seattle and D.C., where they would surround the actual buildings where objectionable meetings were taking place. Instead, they divided Center City into a number of zones, each containing potential sites of direct action (such as bus stops for the delegate shuttle service, hotels where prominent Republicans were staying, or businesses known for particularly offensive practices). Within each zone, clusters of small affinity groups could act independently to build street blockades or to target companies for creative demonstrations. This planning represented a potentially innovative approach to how activists might conduct wide-scale civil disobedience.
Yet the scenario would never be fully deployed. As the 3:30 PM starting time (dubbed “zero hour”) approached, police began a massive crack-down that was more strategic and comprehensive than anything seen at the past year’s major protests. They began by raiding the puppet warehouse. By 2:00 well over 100 officers had surrounded the West Philadelphia building that served as a puppet-making space, and detained the activists inside while they waited for a search warrant to be created.
This tactic was not new. Cops in Washington D.C. closed down the A16 convergence space on ostensible fire code violations. There, they emerged from the warehouse kitchen with a crate of peppers and a long string of garlic — evidence that activists were making homemade pepper spray to use against police! In Philadelphia, they didn’t bother so much with pretenses. They muttered something to the media about people making bombs, but as soon as the long-awaited warrant arrived, they had its contents sealed. Eventually police arrested seventy “puppetistas” and gutted the workshop. They put the puppets inside a garbage truck and compacted them along with any personal bags or backpacks that had been left behind.
The raid had a political purpose. For most people, seeing a protest without its signs and banners is like watching T.V. with the sound turned off. It was precisely the beautiful props like those contained in the puppet space that had made such an impact in previous actions. The shredded puppetista creations — including an army of 138 skeletons, one to represent each of the people George W. Bush has put to death while presiding over capital punishment in Texas—had been designed to make clear the connections to criminal injustice concerns. But absent these materials, the media proved even less inclined than usual to examine the issues that the protests advanced. Police effectively muffled our message and made it easy to frame the actions as muddled and directionless.
The policing did not end with the puppet raid. As they assembled downtown, an unprecedented number of affinity groups discovered that they had been infiltrated by informants, and found their meeting places surrounded by cops. Many activists ended up joining in large legal rallies, most notably a heavily-monitored gathering near City Hall. Nevertheless, some affinity groups were able to form blockades in the street. With the media present, police let several of these hold for hours before tearing activists off the line and arresting them. In total, officers arrested 400 people.
I was one of those arrested in the raid on the puppet warehouse and, having also participated in jail solidarity during A16, I can testify that the conditions inside Philly’s “roundhouse” jail were horrific. Jailers packed tiny (6′ by 7′) cells with six or more protesters and callously disregarded various requests for water, phone calls, and medical attention. The pre-arraignment period extended for a shockingly long time, so that some activists sat four days without ever seeing a judge, learning their charges, or being allowed to call anyone outside. Pissed-off guards quickly grew tired of protesters’ non-compliance tactics and turned to brute coercion to keep to system running. Those going limp were thrown against walls, put in compliance holds, struck in their genitals, or cuffed in painful positions and left to suffer.
Once in custody, activists saw the final elements of the police strategy unfold. Authorities singled out protest “leaders” (some of whom, like Ruckus Society head John Sellers, had been yanked from the sidewalk in frighteningly authoritarian “preemptive arrests” on the day of the actions) and assigned them a litany of offenses. The bail commissioner, a political appointee, doled out historically high bails — up to a million dollars for the “leaders” and $5,000 to $50,000 even for those with minor charges. City prosecutors explicitly argued that individuals should be detained for the remainder of the convention, and, for that matter, through the DNC in Los Angeles. Through all of these actions, the police (along with federal law enforcement) held positions which served less to ensure public safety than to chill democratically-protected freedom of expression.
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Breaking the Media Blockade: A Critical Mass?
Certainly, the police abuse and the prolonged imprisonment of protesters ended the week of action on a low note. Many of the activists I have spoken with, moreover, feel disappointed that R2K did not garner the same level of public support or media attention as events like A16. I believe that to understand the muted response — and to evaluate the successes and failures of the convention protests more generally — we need to take two factors into account: 1) the numbers of people organized for the actions, and 2) the mainstream media’s approach to the conventions.
The demonstrations in Philadelphia, and especially the main direct action, were much smaller than previous mobilizations. This would seem to be an obvious point, yet few people seem to make it in discussing why they protests turned out as they did. The main legal march, Unity 2000, drew around 10,000 people — a respectable number to be sure, but half of what organizers had hoped for. Unlike in Seattle and DC, this crowd was not around to bolster the demonstrations during the direct action, which happened two days later. Witnesses estimate that Tuesday’s demonstration involved 3000 protesters, with perhaps 1000 committing civil disobedience. These numbers would indicate that the direct action was only 15% the size of A16 and just a fraction of Seattle’s N30.
One might provide several reasons for the smaller turn-out in Philly: the fact that college campuses could not mobilize effectively during summer recess, that few major NGOs or unions invested substantially in the effort, and that the summer protests benefited less from the momentum of Seattle. Certainly, reflecting on these organizing issues will be important in planning for future actions. But given the limited numbers that were present, the protests achieved some important victories.
In regard to the media, activists faced a fundamentally different situation with the conventions than when challenging bodies such as the World Trade Organization, the IMF, and the World Bank. Most Americans are unfamiliar with these international institutions, and their meetings would regularly attract little media attention. In this context, large-scale protests were largely able to define what sort of coverage the meetings did receive. The conventions of the two main political parties, in contrast, were already considered major news events. The parties worked extensively with the television networks and newspapers to manage the coverage provided. So protesters had to work much harder to get their issues included as part of the story.
I believe that as activists, we had two hopes for how we might succeed in doing this. First, by staging a series of protests that extended through the week, we could aspire to create a steady counter-point to what was going on inside the convention. Though the actions may not make top headlines, we could hope that they would draw some attention to the idea that the main political parties had ignored matters of critical public concern.
This first hope was partially fulfilled. Although the press corps, isolated in the convention hall, spent very little time exploring the issues raised by the demonstrations, they did generally mention the regular presence of protesters on the streets. Furthermore, much of the “Shadow Convention” teach-in (the liberal twin of the street protests, featuring speakers such as Jesse Jackson on the failed drug war and Sen. Paul Wellstone on campaign finance reform) aired on C-SPAN and generated publicity of its own. Together, these helped create some public awareness of the protests, albeit vague, on which activists can build as they continue to organize and educate people about the issues.
But our protests also had a second, bolder shot at major news coverage. By organizing a mass act of non-violent direct action, we could hope to steal the show for a day—to create a disruption so significant that concern over normally marginalized issues, and not the convention’s polished storyline, would be the prime news event. This second ambition, of course, fueled on the memory of protests in Seattle shutting down the opening ceremonies of the WTO Ministerial.
Obviously the main civil disobedience never truly succeeded in pulling focus away from the Republicans. With aggressive policing, including the preemptive arrests, the authorities were able to keep the street protests from affecting most of the delegates. Nevertheless, the actions demonstrated in an exciting way the power of civil disobedience. As I was unable to see the actions first-hand, I will quote progressive writer L.A. Kaufmann, who provided one of the more optimistic accounts of what happened in her on-line column, “Free Radical”:
There were about two hours on Tuesday when chaos reigned, and I have to say it was glorious. Not the small-scale window-breaking, tire-slashing, and graffiti, mostly targeted at police vehicles… What thrilled me in Philly was the success and character of the action from an organizational point of view. By about 5:00PM, all you needed to do if you wanted to know where disturbances were happening was to look up in the sky and follow the helicopters…Each helicopter hovered over an effective, autonomously organized blockade… [L]ong lines of police dashed around the city trying to contain the protests, only to encounter new disruptions in previously quiet locations. Center City was gridlocked, and delegate buses were stuck in the traffic before they could even pick up their intended passengers… Delegates who wanted to get to the convention had to walk some distance before they could even hail a cab. We made our presence felt.
We must consider that others might temper this version of events. Still, from a purely tactical standpoint, it is remarkable that a relatively small number of people engaged in non-violent direct action could have such an impact on the flow of the day’s business, especially while up against a massive police apparatus.
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The Battle of Los Angeles
In Los Angeles, plans for a massive direct action never materialized. The groups planning protests outside the Democratic National Convention could not agree on a single theme or common target for large-scale civil disobedience. Also, organizers wanted to facilitate the participation of community groups in the actions, groups with many valid reasons to avoid risking entanglement with the LAPD. Thus, the D2K demonstrations tacitly abandoned the hope of dramatically seizing the spotlight from the Democrats. While this was disappointing in itself, it also came with certain advantages. Organizers were able to focus on creating an impressive series of rallies, marches, and small-scale direct actions. Robust and diverse crowds at many of these events, along with some innovative legal work to keep the LAPD at bay, produced a week of action about which most local activists feel very positive.
The Staples Center in central Los Angeles offered a much choicer target for action than Philly’s remote First Union Center. Police, well aware of this, anxiously sealed the area against any risk of democratic intervention. They established an expansive perimeter around the center and designated a far-away lot as a site for sanctioned protest. A group of progressive lawyers challenged these “security plans” in court and won. Thus, a large lot just outside of the convention center became the official “protest pit.”
Then activist lawyers pulled off an even more impressive feat. They charged that the police’s strategies of intimidation and “preemptive arrest” were unconstitutional. A federal judge agreed and issued an injunction against the police. This barred them from using their now-practiced tactics of harassing demonstrators and bringing in fire officials to close down the convergence center.
It did not, however, prevent them from militarizing downtown. The LAPD deployed helicopters overhead and sent riot crews tromping in formation on the ground. They removed newspaper kiosks and cut down small trees near the Staples Center that “could be used as weapons.” Still, the legal maneuvers did put the department on the defensive and gain the protesters some measure of protection.
On Sunday, the day before the Democratic Convention even began, protests heated up with a 7,500 person March to Free Mumia. An unexpected array of prominent speakers, including Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers, turned out to support the march. To everyone’s surprise, a healthy group of mainstream journalists also showed up, and organizers were pleased with the coverage. Two other actions took place the same day in Santa Monica. First, HERE union members rallied outside of the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica to demand that CEO Jonathan Tish (a major Gore fund-raiser) grant the union card-check neutrality. Then, a march denouncing sweatshop-using stores began outside of the Gap and the Banana Republic on the Third Street Promenade. This became a party on the beach when it reached the Santa Monica Pier, where Democrats were busy holding a high-priced fund-raiser.
The colorful range of activity continued through the week. Because they would not culminate in any large-scale civil disobedience, it was hard to feel any sense of momentum building between the actions. Nevertheless, many succeeded convincingly in their own right. Thousands of teachers trekked through downtown on a “Pilgrimage for Public Education,” and nearly a thousand “Queers and Allies” celebrated a “kiss in” before heading out in one of the many marches that was threateningly-guarded by black-clad police “escorts.” Some small-scale direct actions — one decrying the scandalous behavior of the LAPD Ramparts division and another in solidarity with the U’wa people of Colombia — resulted in planned arrests. With others, the arrests were unplanned. Forty animal rights activists were surrounded and snatched up with felony conspiracy charges after rattling the windows at two downtown furriers. Likewise, motorcycle cops ambushed and chased down seventy “Critical Mass” bike riders near the convention center, who they then accused of reckless driving.
The bulk of the actions, which resulted in a total of 198 arrests, took place between the week’s two major bookend events. The “March for Our Lives” on the opening day of the Convention and a Rally to End Sweatshops on the closing day produced highlights for the week. In the first, a crowd of 10,000 progressed from Pershing Square to the Staples Center. Even those of us who have gotten used to parading alongside large puppets were shocked to see the huge, disturbingly life-like face of Ralph Nader floating along, pulled by a troop of Greens. Nor were those of us who have come to expect a strong activist drum corps punctuating our steps ready for the salsa/hip-hop band that rode along on a truck and jammed with the activist chanting. The band was just one indication of the strong Latino presence at the event, which also attracted decent numbers of union members (owing mostly to the California Nurses Association, AFSCME, and some Hollywood unions with FTAC, the Film Trades Action Coalition).
Upon arriving at the Staples Center, the march met up with several thousand more people who had come to see a free performance by rock group Rage Against the Machine. Undoubtedly, the volume of the sound system during the show was controlled so that the band would not disturb the nearby Convention; thus, the hard-driving Rage players ended up giving one of the quieter shows of their career. Still, the spirit of rock and roll prevailed. Delegates stood on the convention center balcony to catch a glimpse of the show. So when one of the band’s most popular anthems surged to its climax, the “protest pit” crowd knew exactly where to direct its frenzied yells. Five thousand people simultaneously turned to look at the Democrats and sang, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” In the words of a friend, writing in Feed Magazine, “Middle fingers swayed in the air like lighters.”
Sadly, the night would witness perhaps D2K’s most serious outbreak of police violence. During the concert a couple of bandanna-masked protesters climbed atop the high security fences near the Convention Center. Police soaked them (and several journalists) with spurts of pepper spray. Rage finished its show, but the conflict escalated during an intermission. By the time a second band (home-town favorites, Ozomatli ) had taken the stage, other crowd members were responding to police by throwing debris over the barricade. Police retaliated in turn by cutting the power to the show and declaring the assembly unlawful.
Most of the crowd dispersed within the allotted fifteen minutes. But after this period expired, cops opened fire without warning on those who remained. People who turned to flee were hit from behind by rubber bullets or mace. Others were struck with batons or pushed by horses as they tried to squeeze through narrow exit lanes. During their onslaught, police targeted journalists for attack—even those clearly displaying credentials and standing away from the confrontation. Several of these are now represented by the ACLU in a civil suit against the city. It is also important to note that the police charged at the very moment that Clinton’s speech ended inside. It seems possible that the DNC demanded the police clear the protest pit in time for the delegates’ exit, and highly likely at least that the city demanded this.
The entire scene might have repeated itself at the end of the week if police hadn’t exercised more restraint. A main closing event for the protests began as a “Rally to Stop Sweatshops.” Here, groups such as Sweatshop Watch, the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), El Rescate, and the Southern California Fair Trade Network organized a large and heavily Latino crowd of around 5000 demonstrators. Most of the people present carried white crosses bearing the names of those who have died crossing the border into this country. The march gained energy as it wove through the Garment District of downtown Los Angeles, where neighbors yelled in support from the balconies of upper-floor apartments. Upon their arrival at the protest pit the marchers joined in an even larger coalition event, called “The Voice of the People Don’t Stop.”
For a while, as the day dawned and the nearby convention prepared for Al Gore’s acceptance speech, the gathering adopted the quiet character of a vigil, with speakers reflecting on the week. But before long the hip-hop group Spearhead reinvigorated the crowd. Rapper Michael Franti cleanly outperformed Gore as the evening’s true populist with his activist lyrics and heartfelt denunciation of the police action he had witnessed in Philly. He kept the beats coming from the stage even as the event ended and a portion of the audience took to the streets on a march to the far-away Twin Towers jail. There, the group rallied for a short time in support of the arrested activists. In a final repressive fit, the LAPD amassed dozens of cars and officers to surround the nighttime assembly. Only after organizers reasoned with them at length did they relent and allow these last protesters to depart and diffuse out through the city. Even then police at some Metro stations, intent to strike a final blow against peaceful dissent, chased and clubbed the protesters and journalists who were headed home on public transit.
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The completed weeks of protest raised several issues of on-going concern to progressive movements. While each of these deserves prolonged consideration, I can only touch on them here:
One of the most amazing parts of the demonstrations against corporate globalization has been the alliance between the labor movement, direct action forces, and liberal groups — an alliance that could potentially give the Left a large base of support in the American public. While each of these constituencies was present outside of the conventions, a sense of unity never coalesced. Speakers at the liberal Shadow Convention would regularly nod to the importance of the protests on the streets. But there was little real cross-fertilization between the lectures and the demonstrations. Ties with the labor movement were even more strained. Union participation in the convention was limited in part because of the movement’s fear of being associated with protests involving property destruction and in part because of labor support of the Democratic Party.
It is important to note, however, that labor took to the streets in its own actions, even during the DNC. As a member of a union of city employees explained about his group’s march, “We weren’t part of the other demonstrations. But we felt our issues were important enough that we wanted to get out here and show our numbers.” At least in L.A., the main difference from previous global justice protests was not who was on the streets but the feeling of distance between them. Political differences and disagreements about tactics existed before the conventions, and we can expect them to persist in the future. The key to effective coalitions is cultivating a broad sense of solidarity and mutual support that transcends these specific disputes. For this reason, it is crucial that we continue to build relationships between the diverse groups as we prepare for future events.
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Property Destruction and Nonviolence
“Direct action gets the goods.” The statement has served as a central maxim through much of the global justice protests and is a key sentiment among DAN activists. But outside of this general feeling, there are many disagreements about the tactics we use. During the Philadelphia direct action, members of the Black Bloc smashed windows and slashed tires of up to twenty vehicles, mostly police cars, and thus raised controversial questions about property destruction. As a most common response, activists argue that this falls outside of the action guidelines created to build trust between activists. (And while this was certainly the case with Seattle and L.A., the guiding principles in Philly may have been more ambiguous.) The “action guidelines” argument, which has much legitimacy in its own right, is nevertheless part of a trend to speak of nonviolence as a prohibition, a limit against certain violent or disputed tactics.
A deeper understanding of nonviolence brings an important perspective to this debate. Here nonviolence is not a simple tactical prohibition. Instead, it is actually a philosophy of generating conflict — of (as DAN materials explain) “creating a moral crisis.” By building blockades in the street, locking themselves to a business, or preventing delegates from entering a meeting, activists forcefully disrupt business as usual. Those in power must either reckon with the protesters’ beliefs or their bodies. Most often, police move against the peaceful demonstrations. Nonviolence relies on an ability to constructively manage these escalated tensions — to use conflict to convey the moral seriousness of the protests and to delegitimate the unjust positions held by adversaries.
Hit-and-run property destruction interferes with this deeper nonviolence not because it crosses the line of physically harming anybody, but because it works on entirely different premises. While it may express outrage, defiance, or retribution, it does not force an ethical conflict in the same way. And while one can argue the effectiveness of vandalism or sabotage in different possible settings, property damage creates real problems in the context of mass civil disobedience. It draws media attention away from the moral crisis provoked by physical resistance. It provides too easy a pretext for police violence against those who are locked in blockades. And it issues a contradictory message about why people should join the movement.
In the context of jail solidarity, it creates an even more problematic tension. Police and prosecutors eagerly conflate the distinct strategies for action, leaving protesters in the weak position of distinguishing between people in two very different situations: 1) those civil disobedients in the street blockades facing purely bogus charges of vandalism, and 2) those activists who may have actually used property damage, contending it was a legitimate and effective form of protest. However prisoners decide to deal with this situation, property damage has unfairly forced the debate about tactics into a situation that depends on unity.
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The extreme police response to the convention protests should be of urgent concern to all progressives. In the wake of Seattle, local law enforcement agencies have invoked the specter of “rioting” to justify a militaristic response to peaceful protests. And federal agencies like the FBI have taken it upon themselves to monitor, criminalize, and disrupt the activities of anti-globalization activists. FBI special agent and Philadelphia office chief Thomas J. Harrington promised in the Philadelphia Inquirer before the RNC that “Virtually every resource that the FBI has available will be put into play.” He also equated the protests with terrorist acts to explain an acute FBI interest: “After the Atlanta Olympics it was bombings that were the main focus…. Now protesters have become more of a focus.”
During the conventions, protesters suffered the steady application of undemocratic police tactics. Bystanders had to walk a terrifying gauntlet of armed troops in order to join in demonstrations. Conversely, cops regularly prevented people from freely leaving the protests. And often helicopters would swoop so low as to drown out the speakers at rallies. Sadly, some activists are still feeling the effects of the most extreme police actions. Many of those arrested in Philadelphia spent two weeks in jail using solidarity tactics, but the city proved unwilling to negotiate. The battle is now moving to court. There the city has vowed to prosecute civil disobedients, most of whom were at worst responsible for blocking traffic, on an extended series of misdemeanor and conspiracy charges. Some targeted “leaders” are being charged with very serious crimes such as felonious mischief for their part in nonviolent protest. While some of these people are nationally-known activists, others are merely affinity group members who were photographed scouting an intersection or buying PVC piping, and who are now being painted as criminal masterminds.
This unjust prosecution is no doubt intended to “serve as a lesson” for other protesters, and to discourage future demonstrations that may involve direct action. It testifies to the need for preemptive legal action in advance of future protests. It demands that we continue to use innovative tactics for direct action that can express a clear message and engender public sympathy. And it calls for our outrage against the City of Philadelphia for its continued persecution of activists
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Anti-racist work held a central place in both convention mobilizations. As a result of the on-going discussion about the whiteness of protests in Seattle and Washington, D.C., those issuing the calls for action made significant efforts early-on to include more people of color in the organizing and execution of the demonstrations. Planners aimed to create a more pluralistic atmosphere for the demonstrations and make space for community organizations to lead events during the weeks of action. Racially diverse groups like New York’s SLAM took central roles in organizing the civil disobedience, and even established in Philly a convergence center expressly to facilitate the participation of people of color. Undoubtedly, these represent important advances for the movement.
Within DAN, a main approach to dealing with the question of race and diversity has been to work to alter the composition of the organization — to make the group less insular and more welcoming to a range of people, and thus to integrate more people of color into the network. This has also resulted in some crucial advances, such as an increasing awareness about the largely non-white neighborhoods where the convergences are taking place and the addition of anti-racism workshops to the schedule of trainings.
However, at times the approach comes dangerously close to settling into liberal understandings of racism and to producing an attitude of tokenism. In several of the sessions I joined, participants repeatedly stressed the need to “be friendly” and “smile” as means of making the mobilization more inclusive. While these sentiments are not bad in themselves, they fall far short of confronting ingrained structures of white privilege. It is important that DAN’s efforts go beyond addressing the guilt many white activists feel about being in a racially homogeneous organization, and recognize the real reasons why the group would be so white in the first place — the very distinct cultures that have dominated the convergences, the privilege inherent in participating in direct action, and so on.
Ultimately, I believe that DAN need not change its white, middle-class base so much as it needs to come to terms with what role of white, middle-class activists have in a movement taking on problems that disproportionately affect people of color, the poor, immigrants, and those in the developing world. It needs to see itself as but one part of a much larger movement to combat these evils — a movement that includes organizations that represent more diverse constituencies. Then, it might proceed with a deeper sense of the value of its own contributions as well as the imperative to work with people of color.
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The Medium of Mass Action
In some of my comments above, I have tried to explain several of the factors that made the Philly and L.A. protests more limited than the large anti-globalization actions of the past year. In the wake of the conventions, some are arguing that activists should stop the repeated effort to create “the next Seattle,” and instead focus more on grassroots organizing or on targeted single-issue demands. Certainly, this criticism is very relevant for a particular set of activists that has traveled between the mass actions and has channeled most of its political energy into them. There, a need exists to realize that these large protests cannot be ends in themselves and to consider how they can be used to fuel more sustainable work for change. Many of those most involved in this sub-group have already begun the process of self-criticism and are pushing for more time between convergences.
At the same time, I believe that this argument overstates the tension between different types of organizing. Mass mobilizations may not by themselves build organizations or propel long-term activist campaigns. But they are not necessarily exclusive with these day-to-day efforts either. No doubt, many people (especially activists living in Philadelphia and Los Angeles) worked hard to prepare for the convention protests, and sacrificed time that they might have invested on campaign work. But one of the reasons the convention protests were much smaller than they might have been is that so many activist groups, unions, and NGOs didn’t mobilize. Presumably, the many who did not invest in building the summer protests carried on with other political work, and have little reason to begrudge those who did turn out to provide an activist presence at the Conventions.
Did the conventions protests advertise grander mobilizations than they could actually produce? Could their message have been clearer and their actions more disciplined? Perhaps. Perhaps we should have acted earlier to contain the oversized hype and exaggerated expectations. Perhaps we should have anticipated in advance some of the lessons we will have learned as a result of the actions. Yet such reflections can quickly degenerate from constructive criticisms into the stale certainties of hindsight. It is important that we understand the mobilizations that did materialize, and claim the victories that they created.
In their modest proportions, the demonstrations had more impact when they bolstered local initiatives and less impact in affecting public consciousness on a wide scale. Still, they drew substantial local press and some national attention to important issues that have been blocked out by the Republicrat consensus. Before the conventions, the mobilizations drew area groups together and helped to build relationships that will affect their future work. And during the weeks of action, the convergences served as conventions in themselves — sites for activists to convene, to educate themselves further, and to make connections between diverse issues. Many of these people have returned home to organize on their day-to-day issues with more vigor, and to share with others a strengthened commitment to progressive change.