News & Politics

FLIP SIDE: Anarkids and Hypocrites

Recent actions illustrate how absurdly ritualized leftwing protests have become. We need ways of protesting that are accessible to the uninitiated, untrained, nonvegan population as well as to the seasoned veteran.
In retrospect, it looks like a case of false advertising. Posters for the April 16 anti-IMF actions in Washington, D.C., promised a "nonviolent demonstration." But what actually happened was that thousands of demonstrators were tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, and/or beaten with police batons.

The Midnight Special Legal Collective, which provided legal support for the demonstrators, reports that one protester had three ribs broken during his arrest. Another was beaten bloody, then tossed into a paddy wagon with the instruction that he be driven around for a few hours before being taken to a hospital. In jail, hundreds of protesters were denied food or water for twenty-four hours, leading in at least one case to a severe hypoglycemic reaction. According to the legal collective:

"One group of men was taken into a basement, put into a cage, and told by a U.S. marshal, 'There are no cameras here. We can do whatever we want.' Anyone who looked up while the marshal was speaking was punched in the face. People were being released from prison in the middle of a cold, rainy night, without jackets, shoes, in some cases without shirts, and without any money to take a bus or cab anywhere -- all had been taken from them by officials."

If this is nonviolence, you'd be better off taking up extreme boxing.

The anti-IMF posters were, of course, promising that the demonstrators themselves would behave in a nonviolent fashion, but nonviolence on one side is, at least in theory, connected to nonviolence on the other. If the protesters are civil and predictable in their actions, then, it is generally hoped and believed, the police will be moved to emulate them. And if the police should fall short of perfect nonviolence, then -- the reasoning goes -- the poor, martyred, demonstrators will at least have the moral upper hand. Hence, in no small part, the excessive reaction by organizers of the Seattle anti-WTO protests to the black-clad anarchists who threw rocks through the windows of NikeTown, Starbucks, the Gap, and a few other chain stores last November.

No humans were harmed in the rock-throwing incidents -- the stores were closed at the time. Yet anti-WTO organizers from the Direct Action Network reacted as if their protest had been taken over by a band of Hell's Angels. Instead of treating the young rock-throwers like sisters and brothers in the struggle -- wrongheaded, perhaps, but undeniably enthusiastic -- protest organizers swept up the broken glass. They hinted that the perpetrators were agents provocateurs paid by the police. Some proudly assert -- though I cannot confirm this -- that Direct Action Network folks helped finger the rock-throwers for the police.

Will somebody please call Hypocrisy Watch? The same people who administered a public spanking to the anarkids featured, as one of the anti-WTO's honored guests, one Jose Bove, the French farmer who famously torched a McDonald's. The double standard for what counts as "violence" was never explained.

Seattle organizers also fretted that the anarkids' actions would upset the unions, although no union leaders issued a peep of complaint. It would have been odd if they had, since America has one of the most violent labor histories of any industrialized nation in the world, and not every little bit of that violence was perpetrated by the Pinkertons. Nor did the rock-throwing demonstrably "ruin" the Seattle protests in the eyes of the public. In fact, it probably doubled the media attention, with most press accounts carefully distinguishing between the 50,000 rock-less protesters and the twenty or so window-smashers.

And it would be interesting to know how many of the anarkid-bashers ever took the time to denounce the riot that swept Los Angeles just after the Rodney King verdict in 1990. Yes, I said "riot" -- including attacks on people as well as property, much of it belonging to merely middle class, mostly Korean American, citizens. But the oh-so-politically-correct, whose numbers no doubt include some of today's self-righteously nonviolent protesters, prefer to call that an "uprising."

The events in Seattle and D.C. are in many obvious ways enormously heartening, but they also illustrate how absurdly ritualized leftwing protests have become, at least on the side of the protesters. Once, back in the now prehistoric sixties, a group would call for a demonstration, with or without a police permit, and the faithful would simply show up. If you were fortunate or fleet of foot, you got away unscathed. Otherwise -- well, everyone knew there were risks to challenging the power of the state.

Sometime in the early 1980s, demonstration organizers started getting smarter -- or, you might say, more scientific and controlling -- about the process of demonstrating. In the anti-nuclear power and anti-war movements of the day, they carefully segregated protesters who wished to be arrested from those who did not and insisted that the potential arrestees be organized into "affinity groups" that had been trained for hours or even days in the technology of "nonviolent civil disobedience." It made sense at the time. Affinity groups provided a basis for consensual decision-making among large numbers of people. The training -- in linking arms, going limp, and "jail solidarity" -- helped assure minimal bodily harm to the arrestees. Besides, everything gets professionalized sooner or later: Why not the revolution?

But there are problems with the new liturgy of protest. For one thing, not everyone has a master's degree in nonviolent civil disobedience, and many potential protesters, even quite militant ones, would be put off by the counter-cultural atmosphere of the trainings. I can remember almost being turned away from an anti-nuclear action in 1982 until one of my companions had the wit to lie and claim that we had indeed gone through extensive training.

Then there is the numbingly ritual quality of the actions: Protesters sit down in a spot prearranged with the police, protesters get carried off by the police and booked, protesters get released. Sometimes safely ritualized protests can be effective, as when, in March 1999, almost 1,200 people -- including dignitaries like former New York City Mayor David Dinkins -- got themselves arrested to protest the shooting of Amadou Diallo. But even one of the organizers of that protest, longtime activist Leslie Cagan, points out the irony in the protesters' harmonious relationship with the very police force whose homicidal behavior they were protesting.

Worst of all, nonviolence on the part of protesters does not guarantee nonviolent behavior on the part of the police. In Seattle, as well as in D.C., many protesters were rewarded for their civility with pepper spray, beatings, and gas. These are not crossing guards we are up against, but some of the most highly militarized police in the world. In a few decades, they have moved from terrorizing communities of color to deploying torture as a tactic against anyone, of any color, who steps out of line: starving detainees in D.C., rubbing pepper spray in the eyes of anti-logging protesters in California, confining prisoners to potentially lethal restraint chairs, as Anne-Marie Cusac reported two months ago in this magazine.

Clearly the left, broadly speaking, has come to a creative impasse. We need to invent some new forms of demonstrating that minimize the danger while maximizing the possibilities for individual self-expression (sea turtle costumes, songs, dancing, and general playfulness). We need ways of protesting that are accessible to the uninitiated, untrained, nonvegan population as well as to the seasoned veteran. We need to figure out how to capture public attention while, as often as possible, directly accomplishing some not-entirely-symbolic purpose, such as gumming up a WTO meeting or, for that matter, slowing down latte sales at a Starbucks.

Rock-throwing doesn't exactly fit these criteria, nor did the old come-as-you-are demos of the sixties. But neither do the elaborately choreo-graphed rituals known as "nonviolent" civil disobedience. The people at Direct Action Network, Global Exchange, and other groups were smart enough to comprehend the workings of the WTO, IMF, and World Bank. Now it's time for them to figure out how large numbers of people can protest the international capitalist cabal without getting clobbered -- or trashed by their fellow demonstrators -- in the process.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive.

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