L.A. Kauffman

In 1971 the People Didn't Just March on Washington - They Shut It Down

The following is an excerpt from L.A. Kauffman's new book, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism (Verso, 2017). This excerpt was originally published on Longreads.com

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Why the Consensus Process Isn't Necessarily Ideal for Activist Movements

Consensus decision-making, a process in which groups come to agreement without voting, has been a central feature of direct action movements for nearly 40 years, from the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s to the turn-of-the-millennium global justice movement to 2011’s Occupy Wall Street. Instead of voting a controversial plan up or down, groups that make decisions by consensus work to refine the plan until everyone finds it acceptable. A primer on the NYC General Assembly website, the structural expression of the Occupy movement, explained, “Consensus is a creative thinking process: When we vote, we decide between two alternatives. With consensus, we take an issue, hear the range of enthusiasm, ideas and concerns about it, and synthesize a proposal that best serves everybody’s vision.”

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Fund and Bank Meetings Canceled

It's now official: In the wake of the September 11 disaster, the IMF and World Bank have indefinitely postponed their planned late-September meetings, and the raucous street protests that were to greet them have effectively been canceled. (At this writing, the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, the more radical of the two organizing coalitions, has still not decided what it's going to do.)

There still will be teach-ins and at least one large interfaith vigil in D.C. that week. Meanwhile, the International Action Center -- front group for the Stalinist Workers World Party, with a long history of supporting murderous dictators like Nicolae Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic -- is planning to go forward with a September 29 "March Against War and Racism" in Washington. I suspect a lot of other groups may sign on, because there's a widespread desire to do something. But you won't catch me supporting a "peace march" organized by a bunch of authoritarian opportunists who have no problem with slaughter, so long as it's committed by their pet tyrants.

Excuse my angry tone: I'm awash in emotion today. For days after the World Trade Center was destroyed, I was in numb shock and responded with frenetic action -- going to hastily called meetings; handing out thousands of leaflets for Friday night's massive peace vigil in Union Square; putting up posters all throughout Midtown Manhattan and, yesterday, the just-opened part of the Financial District. With exhaustion, the tears have finally come, mourning mixed with rage at what has happened and fear about what's to come. Today is supposed to be the day when people begin returning to normalcy, but there's nothing normal about life now in a city where the newspapers scream "CRUSADE!" and "WAR!" on their front covers, where fighter jets fly overhead and military vehicles prowl the streets, where Arabs and Muslims are being harassed and beaten, where lampposts and bus shelters remain covered with heartbreaking "missing" posters bearing photos of people who will not be found alive.

When the wind from Ground Zero catches you, this city smells of war and death. The first meeting I went to, held outdoors in Union Square because our usual meeting spot was in a restricted zone, had to quickly decamp when the horrible smoke began blowing north, overpowering us with its toxic stench. ("I left Kosovo to get away from that smell," a woman told a friend of mine.) Several friends and I had caches of gas masks in our apartments, many covered with rhinestones and glitter, that we were planning to distribute at the D.C. protests. When the call went out that rescue workers urgently needed respirator masks, we donated them all, first pulling off the festive decorations that were now so inappropriate.

So much is inappropriate now that just one week ago made political sense. Some of it is darkly comical: Just two days before the World Trade Center was reduced to rubble, people were meeting here to plan direct action against the Financial District in November, when the World Trade Organization was scheduled to meet in Qatar. (No word yet on whether the WTO meeting will even take place; the direct action, needless to say, will not.)

More broadly, the September 11 attacks definitively interrupted the unfolding logic of the movements for global justice. The IMF/World Bank protests in D.C. were going to be simultaneously broader, more diverse, and more intense than any demonstrations in recent U.S. history. The AFL-CIO was pouring unprecedented resources into the events, mobilizing its membership on a massive scale, and faith-based and non- governmental organizations were activating thousands of people who had never come to a globalization protest before. Meanwhile, more and more people were embracing the philosophy of "diversity of tactics," shifting away from the strict nonviolence guidelines that have been the hallmark of large-scale direct actions for two decades, and agreeing to respect those who chose to engage in more confrontational or property-destroying tactics, so long as they didn't directly endanger other protesters.

"Diverse tactics" are clearly off the table for the time being, especially in New York and Washington, where the sound of breaking glass connotes death and devastation, and the masked uniform of the Black Bloc will only inspire fear.

And with the world's greatest symbol of global capitalism having been reduced to a smoldering mass grave, it's going to be difficult for a while to present anti-capitalist critiques in a way that will resonate broadly, and not seem to justify an unjustifiable atrocity.

Our movements' vision of global justice is needed now more than ever; we will simply need to take great care in presenting that vision in a way people can hear.

In the meantime, a huge upsurge of activism for global peace is already well underway. All a round the United States, meetings to discuss progressive responses to September 11 have been overflowing. Groups everywhere have thrown themselves into organizing everything from rapid-response teams to counter racist attacks to antiwar teach-ins and rallies. Here in New York, we were all astounded and inspired by the thousands and thousands of people, of every race, class, and age, who converged on Union Square last Friday night to stand for peace.

I know that one part of the deep mourning I feel is for the global justice movements as they were before those planes crashed into the Twin Towers: steadily growing in scope and influence, increasingly occupying a central place on the global stage. We were blown off that stage on September 11, and the context for our ongoing activism is now utterly transformed. Action is essential: May it be prudent, strategic and effective.

L.A. Kauffman is a New York-based activist and journalist, who is at work on a book to be titled "Direct Action: The Roots of the New Unrest."

Police Squeeze

I've been walking around in a white-hot rage for many days now, ever since the New York Police Department collared 19 people from the Black Bloc on May Day.

Apparently, it's now against the law to be an anarchist in New York City -- or rather, to look like one, or fraternize with people who do.

The day's main event was a march calling for an unconditional amnesty for undocumented immigrants, organized by the Coalition for the Human Rights of Immigrants and other groups. Upwards of 5000 people attended, mainly folks from Mexico, but also from Colombia, China, and a dozen other places.

It was a family-oriented crowd, with as many baby strollers as protest placards. There was also a strong showing of support by U.S. citizens, including anti-sweatshop organizers, religious progressives, and puppet-wielding anti-capitalists from the Direct Action Network and other groups.

All around Union Square, the starting point for the march, the police amassed, literally by the thousands. Rows upon rows of cops in riot gear stood in military formation everywhere you looked. Some were carrying the suddenly ubiquitous canisters of pepper spray and tear gas; most had big bundles of plastic handcuffs hanging from their belts, as a none-too-subtle threat.

This obscenely excessive show of force was intimidating enough to someone born in the United States (one lifetime radical visiting from the West Coast told me it was the most militarized demo he had ever seen); imagine the effect on undocumented immigrants who attended the May Day march.

I found myself thinking about the appalling irony of it all. Thousands of people had come to this legally permitted march to show their desire to become U.S. citizens, to live under the protections of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And all around them were the trappings of a police state, in which dissent is dealt with through force.

Suddenly, while we were all milling about and waiting for things to begin, dozens of cops rushed the crowd and hauled off 19 people whom they believed to be anarchists.

There was no provocation, and the authorities couldn't simply arrest people for wearing black (they would incarcerate most of Manhattan that way). So they went all the way back to 1845 to find a legal pretext for sweeping anarchists off the streets: a law, originally used to squelch the Ku Klux Klan, that forbids the wearing of masks in public.

Mind you, only some of the 19 were even wearing bandannas over their faces. The rest were charged with loitering, on the grounds -- I'm not making this up -- that they were standing in the proximity of people wearing bandannas over their faces.

Preposterous? Of course. But the NYPD doesn't care. They can keep you for 30 hours or more in a filthy, crowded, airless underground cell before you even get to see a judge or lawyer. They win, even if your case is thrown out at arraignment.

This incident is part of a larger, disturbing pattern, which has received very little public attention. In just the three last months, there's been a sharp increase in the use of police power to stifle speech and curb First Amendment rights.

One D.C.-based organizer of the April 16 protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund had police show up at his door to threaten him on a night when he and others were going postering, which is legal in Washington, D.C.

Just the other day, I had to go to court with five other people, having been caught putting up posters in Greenwich Village that advertised A16 and other events (this in a city whose streetscapes are increasingly cluttered with huge corporate ads, many of them erected in violation of local zoning laws). Our case was dismissed, but our time had quite effectively been wasted.

Many people -- even some progressives -- lauded the Washington, D.C. police department for its supposed restraint at the IMF/World Bank actions. True, the crowds of protesters weren't indiscriminately gassed. The authorities were more shrewd in their abuse.

In the days leading up to the D.C. protests, the police repeatedly deprived us of our right to assemble, in ways that clearly hindered our ability to express our views.

First, the police raided the Convergence Center on Saturday morning, a day before the actions, evicting everyone on some flimsy fire-code pretext and not allowing us back until the protesting was well over. That meant no central point for information, no meeting spaces, nowhere to create protest props or distribute zines and broadsheets.

Then, when people regrouped in a nearby park, motorcycle cops descended on a legal training and threatened everyone with arrest if they didn't disperse. All day long, vans filled with police in riot gear menacingly circled the park, squad cars and motorcycles crisscrossed it, and helicopters hovered overhead. If you can't meet, you can't organize -- and the police were doing all they could to stop us from gathering.

Finally, on the eve of A16, the police surrounded 679 people who were heading home from a protest (against the prison-industrial complex, no less). All were whisked away to jail in what even high-ranking officials admitted was preventive detention -- that is, designed to keep them from the actions on the following day.

Organizers were resilient enough to deal with most of these disruptions -- finding a nearby church to meet in, and a union hall for building puppets, and so on -- but it amounted to a huge diversion of activist energies.

It was also unnerving, and intended to be. Late on Saturday night, a group of 15 or so organizers held a tactical meeting at an Ethiopian restaurant for the Rebel Alliance (a cluster of affinity groups from New York, Seattle, Florida, and numerous other places).

We'd all heard already about the 679 arrests, and as midnight came and went, more disturbing news kept filtering in: One of our meeting spots for the morning was swarming with cops; the National Guard had commandeered a school building halfway between there and the other main place where people were to meet.

By the time we wrapped up, we were all convinced we were walking into a big and possibly bloody trap. We figured we wouldn't be able to assemble at all, but would be clobbered before we got there. It was too late to change the locations: We'd told many hundreds of people where to meet, and there was no way to contact them all beforehand.

I'm a bit ashamed to admit I was utterly terrified, my stomach in spasms; but so, too, were many organizers far more experienced than I. Of course, in the morning, the meeting spots turned out to be totally unguarded, and we assembled without event.

The episode was instructive, for it underscored how much of police power is psychological. That's why the D.C. police have bragged about their surveillance of activists, and why NYPD detectives went out of their way at the May Day march to tell certain activists that they had seen them down in D.C. It's why law enforcement officials from other cities and agencies -- including the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, for christ's sake -- openly accompanied New York's police brass on May Day.

They all want us to know that they're watching us: monitoring our mailing lists, attending our meetings, even infiltrating our groups. Indeed, in utter violation of the law, they ostentatiously videotape every march and gathering they can.

And the message the NYPD sent by arresting the 19 anarchists was that you can't escape this surveillance: Leave your face uncovered, and they'll tape you; cover it, and they'll arrest you.

This escalation of police strategies toward our movements is new enough that there have been few discussions of how to handle it. For myself, I've decided to acknowledge that it frightens me, and work like hell not to let it make me paranoid.

I think it's important not to be blase, not to adopt the pose of toughened political heavies who don't bat an eye at the sight of riot gear. ("Hey, this is nothing -- you should have seen what they did in Seattle ...")

It's all bad: every single use of force to stifle speech, whether through intimidation or incarceration. Past police operations -- whether against the Black Panthers, the Vietnam antiwar movement, or the World Trade Organization protests -- shouldn't be the yardstick by which we measure abuse.

It's also crucial that we not give in to the temptation of paranoia. The minute we start obsessing about who in our ranks might be a cop, or whose telephone might be tapped, we begin closing ourselves to newcomers and poisoning our movements with suspicion.

Secrecy is the hallmark of undemocratic institutions: the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank, to name a few. Our strength is in openness. (Sure, there are small affinity group actions that must be kept hush-hush, ranging from banner hangs to sabotaging genetically modified crops, but that's a different story.)

For ultimately, what do we have to hide? We see gross economic injustice in a world on the brink of environmental catastrophe, and we intend to expose and challenge the responsible parties. We want fundamental change -- a revolution, if you will -- and we know that those in power will use every means at their disposal, from ridicule to police repression, to stop us.

Whose Movement?

A couple days ago, I was talking to an editor at a certain look-down-its-nose-at-activism newspaper of record, when I referred in passing to "the movement."

"Which movement?" she asked impatiently. "The sweatshop movement? The environmental movement?"

I paused, realizing with surprise what I had just said. "No," I answered. "For the first time since the late 1960s, I think it's becoming possible to talk about 'the' movement, something greater than the sum of its parts."

She wasn't convinced. (No surprise there.)

But, I wondered, was I?

Everyone who cares about such things is pondering the state of activism, in the wake of the plucky D.C. protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Are we witnessing the birth of something truly historic, or is it only a blip? Are disparate fights amassing into one mega-movement, and do we want them to be?

It's worth taking a closer look at what this current upsurge of activism is, and is not, in order to clarify what it might become.

Direct action is the driving force behind the new unrest. Direct action can entail civil disobedience -- the deliberate breaking of an unjust law -- but it's a far broader category. It encompasses everything from blockades and banner hangs to strikes, boycotts, and pickets: the whole panoply of pressure tactics that are not mediated by the political or legal system.

Engaging in direct action doesn't necessarily mean breaking the law or getting arrested. It can involve, for example, jamming the telephone lines of one's opponents, as supporters of the jailed protesters in D.C. did for days after their arrest. When direct actionists do break laws, they're often benign ones like traffic rules, rather than laws that are intrinsically immoral or unjust.

The key is action: not dull rallies where one speaker after another drones on, or meetings that just lead to more meetings, or studies that never end. The most dynamic movements today -- from the most daring segments of U.S. labor to grassroots campaigns against police brutality -- spend very little time debating doctrine. They generally lack manifestos, programs, or platforms, relying instead on shared values as the basis for action.

"A lot of us feel that the issues that we're faced with are so urgent that it's not about arguing over this and that ideal, but it really is just getting to work," explains Lilianne Fan, an activist with the New York-based Students for Solidarity and Empowerment, one of countless new groups formed in the wake of the Seattle WTO protests.

Some activists feel that there's too little political discussion happening in political circles today; it's a concern I've heard repeatedly voiced about the New York City Direct Action Network, for example.

But the emphasis on action over ideology has helped facilitate a range of novel political collaborations in recent time, perhaps the most distinctive feature of the new unrest.

I'm not talking so much about the vaunted "teamsters and turtles" alliance on view at the Seattle WTO actions, but about the earlier pairings that laid the groundwork for such an alliance.

Since at least the mid-1990s, an array of activist agendas and styles have been converging in potent campaigns. The movement against sweatshops, for example, has brought together not only students and labor, but also Central American solidarity activists and women's rights advocates.

"There's an understanding that these issues are tied up together," notes Laura McSpedon, a student anti-sweatshop organizer at Georgetown University, "that to separate culture and identity and race and gender from class and the concerns of working people is artificial, and divides us in unproductive ways."

The character of U.S. environmentalism, meanwhile, has changed dramatically in recent years. In many parts of the country, the leading edge of current on-the-ground organizing is environmental justice activism, which links the fight against economic and racial inequality to concerns about pollution, toxic wastes, and dumping.

Earth First! now combines social issues and radical ecology as a matter of course. This radical environmental network was infamous in the 1980s for the misanthropic sputterings of its self-styled spokesmen (and I do mean men), who heralded AIDS as a useful form of population control, among other too-deep-ecology nonsense.

But at the instigation of Judi Bari and dozens of less prominent activists, EF!ers in the 1990s began to build unlikely alliances at the grass roots: between tree huggers and timber workers, white hippies and Native American elders, forest blockaders and urban community-based groups.

Still, however powerful these blends are, the strength of contemporary activism lies in the autonomy of the agitators. There neither is nor will be a single organization -- be it a political party or a movement group like the 1960s Students for a Democratic Society -- that can remotely claim to represent the many strains of action.

Forget stifling calls for "unity": Activism is neither singular nor unitary. It is the combined product of many small and independent groups, rooted in many different communities. It's not a single coalition but a spectrum of self-determined movements -- who are finding each other, and figuring out how to collaborate.

That's what made me hesitate after I invoked "the movement" to that editor the other day. When activism is as decentralized as it is now, does it make any sense to talk of "the movement"? The term is so easily and often employed to exclude -- as when people use it to refer to globalization activism alone.

But there's an electric appeal to the phrase "the movement" when it expresses an aspiration, still a good way out of our reach. Not an aspiration to unite and homogenize, but to combine and augment. I don't know if I'll keep saying it, but I sure like the dream.


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