|A report from Philadelphia...
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 4 Aug 2000 17:26:35 -0700
From: "L.A. Kauffman"
Subject: [free radical] R2K REPORT
FREE RADICAL: chronicle of the new unrest
by L.A. KAUFFMAN
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R2K REPORT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Issue #9
The police stole our message.
The Philadelphia police, that is, before the massive
direct action - or should I say, "lawless rampage" -
outside the Republican National Convention on August 1.
"Zero hour" for the protests, as folks called our start
time, was set for 3:30PM that day. At that moment,
affinity groups would converge on selected targets
throughout Center City, blockading key streets and
intersections, while "flying squads" of other protesters
would circulate throughout the entire area, reinforcing
blockades or creating temporary ones of their own.
The tactical goal was to snarl as much traffic as possible
for as long a time as possible. The objective was to draw
attention to issues of criminal injustice, while inconveniencing
convention delegates on their way to the GOP's festival
of corporate wealth.
A few hours before the appointed time, police surrounded
the cavernous West Philly building that had been dubbed
the Ministry of Puppetganda. They arrested everyone inside -
about 70 Puppetistas - and then destroyed everything that had
been built there: giant puppets, banners, signs, and costumes.
These protest props were to dramatize the policing and prison
issues that motivated the direct action, and to communicate
our vision of change.
It was a smart move by the police. Stripped of our means of
communication, we looked as if we had no message to convey.
This perception became a running theme in corporate media
coverage of the August 1 demonstrations; we were cast as
mindless hordes wreaking random havoc.
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; the use of those tactics in the context
of a big direct action leaves me lukewarm at best. (The sort
of property destruction where people sabotage experimental
genetically modified crops and so forth: that makes my heart
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. I somehow never bothered to count them, but
there were half a dozen at least, spread out over a large area.
Each helicopter hovered over an effective, autonomously
organized blockade. Throughout the afternoon, the whir of
helicopters was joined by dozens of sirens, as long 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. (I got a great photo
of my affinity group in front of one such vehicle, flashing
the message "Take Next Bus.") 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.
The decentralized character of the action rendered police
surveillance ineffective and made our protest impossible
to stop. The district attorney is already trying to pin
conspiracy charges on people whom the authorities perceive
as leaders, like John Sellers, the director of the Ruckus
Society, which trains activists in blockading and other
nonviolent techniques. (His bail was set at a jaw-dropping
$1 million.) But the beauty of the action is that it wasn't
a conspiracy. There was no central planning of the actual
blockades: The people who created the various disruptions
kept their plans to themselves, and no one knew everything
that would go down. On the day of the action, communications
people relayed information between the various geographic
sectors, but there were no "leaders" in the usual sense,
directing or even coordinating the course of events.
Instead, actions of this sort rely on organizers - people
who play a very different role. For Philly, these key
activists crafted the call to action, focusing on police
brutality and the prison-industrial complex; they got the
word out about the protest, encouraged others to come,
and handled endless logistical details.
The lasting significance of the Philly action won't be
its effect on public opinion (and wouldn't have been, even
if we hadn't bombed so badly in the media). It will be how
and by whom it was organized. The Philly organizers were
not the same crew that put together the Seattle WTO
protests or the IMF and World Bank actions in Washington,
D.C. (The overlap between the organizers of the two earlier
actions was so extensive that many called the D.C.
The major players in Philly were a good deal younger
and far more racially diverse than the organizers of
Seattle or D.C. Activists of color - including members
of New York's SLAM (Student Liberation Action Movement)
and Philadelphia ACT UP - were key in initiating the
mobilization and played central planning roles
throughout the months of organizing.
In twenty years of activism, I've never seen a comparable
effort: a decentralized direct action based on affinity
groups and consensus decision-making process, that was
substantially shaped by people of color. Throughout the
last two decades, the movements that have used this
structure and process have been overwhelmingly white -
including the Seattle and D.C. mobilizations. In Philly,
the issues, priorities, and analysis of movements of color
intersected an organizational style developing in
predominantly white movements: The convergence was
wonderful to see.
After Seattle, Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez published a
widely circulated essay, "Where Was the Color in Seattle?"
The piece, drawing on interviews with a number of young
activists of color who attended the WTO protests, has
sparked debate and action throughout the overlapping
activist networks that make up the emerging movement
for global justice. Many whites have taken anti-racism
trainings in the months since, and have sought to make
new alliances by supporting movements of color, rather
than expecting activists of color to join predominantly
white campaigns. Meanwhile, many activists of color -
inspired by Seattle and D.C., even though critical of
their monochromatic character - have embraced and
transformed the Seattle organizing model, as part
of a longer-term renaissance of direct action within
African-American, Latino, and Asian-American movements.
The Philly protests are an exciting sign of progress,
an indication that sturdy bridges are beginning to form
between predominantly people of color and predominantly
white movements. If these alliances continue to strengthen,
along with analogous bonds between labor and environmentalists,
just imagine what this movement can do. Even without puppets.
You've heard of the Revolutionary Anarchist Black Bloc,
with their controversial tactics and fierce demeanor.
Philly marked the advent of a new force on the streets:
the flying squad of the Revolutionary Anarchist Clown Bloc.
Bedecked in silly wigs, red noses, and other trappings of
resistance, the Clown Bloc aimed "to show the Republicans
they are not the only clowns in town."
As they swarmed through the streets of Philadelphia,
they left fellow protesters giggling over their deadpan
take-offs on classic activist slogans: "Hey hey, ho ho,
hee hee!" "Three word chant, three word chant" and so forth.
Their official communique, even more of an activist in-joke,
stressed their political openness: "We are not, however,
calling for a strictly anarchist clown bloc. We hereby
open the call to those who do not identify as anarcho-clowns,
but nonetheless struggle to create the same revolutionary
antics: autonomist fan-dancers, situationist contortionists,
anti-fascist jugglers, council communist hula-hoopers,
wobbly tall-bike riders and stilt walkers, radical
cheerleaders, primitivist fire breathers, and yes,
even anti-state libertarian marxist mimes! Together,
we can take back our lives from dominations by elephants,
jackasses, ringleaders, and all others. Our intent is not
to be divisive of the larger protests, but to support them
by wearing very large shoes."
It was remarkable how many irony-impaired spectators didn't
get the Billionaires for Bush (or Gore), several dozen
delightful performers who marched under the slogan,
"Because inequality isn't growing fast enough!" Wearing
tuxedos and evening gowns in the Philadelphia heat, the
Billionaires put it all in perspective:
"Gore or Bush, Bush or Gore,
we don't care who you vote for.
We've already bought 'em
We've already bought 'em"
"What do we want?"
"How do we want it?"
My favorite Billionaire moments came when my friend Alex
took some of the paper money he was carrying and sidled up
to journalists from the corporate media. He'd take a fake
$5000 bill and slip it into the journalists' hand or pocket:
"You all are really doing a great job for us," he'd say.
"We're really happy with what you've been doing."
During the most chaotic part of the day on Tuesday, I was
walking not far from City Hall with Alex and other members
of my affinity group, when I spotted the loathsome Phil Gramm,
Republican senator from Texas, heading right for us. "Hey Alex,
that's Phil Gramm," I said. Alex was quick on his feet.
"The party's over. The rich aren't going to have their way
any more," said Alex. Gramm slowed down. "Bullshit," he replied
(and I swear this is an exact quote). "The rich have always
run everything, and they always will." What I would have
given for a video camera.
For more on the Philly actions, visit
FREE RADICAL is an e-column on the current upsurge in activism,
written by L.A. Kauffman. It will appear only sporadically
until the end of September, as I labor to complete my book,
DIRECT ACTION: RADICALISM IN OUR TIME.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR L.A. Kauffman (email@example.com) is writing DIRECT
ACTION: RADICALISM IN OUR TIME, a history of U.S. activism since 1970. A
longtime radical journalist and organizer, she is active in a number of New
York City direct action campaigns. Her work has appeared in the Village
Voice, The Nation, The Progressive, Spin, Mother Jones, Salon.com, and
numerous other publications. .