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by L.A. Kauffman
Tuesday, May. 15, 2001 at 11:23 PM
After Quebec: A broad sense of momentum and growth, and an increasingly combative culture of street protest, make this a turning point for the global justice movement in the U.S.
FREE RADICAL: chronicle of the new unrest
by L.A. KAUFFMAN
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TURNING POINT. . . . . . . . . . . #16 (May 2001)
Radicalism is rising in North America. The large
and varied late April protests throughout the
continent against the Free Trade Area of the
Americas (FTAA)confirmed, if there was any doubt,
that this anti-capitalist, pro-democracy movement
of many movements continues to grow. There's creative
ferment everywhere, and the greatest sense of radical
possibility in a generation.
For parts of the American global justice movement,
the exposure and connection that the FTAA protests
brought to Canada's more freewheeling direct-
action tradition are greatly accelerating the
move toward more militant tactics, which began when
the anarchist Black Bloc went window-smashing
during the late 1999 World Trade Organization
meetings in Seattle. These two dynamics - a broad
sense of momentum and growth, and an increasingly
combative culture of street protest - give this moment a
feeling of promise, unpredictability, and peril. It's a
time of great excitement, daring acts, much serious
organizing, and some very stupid posturing.
I spent late April in Quebec City, where the leaders of 34
Western Hemisphere nations were meeting, in a charming
walled city made sinister by the addition of another man-
made wall, guarded by phalanxes of faceless police in riot
gear. There an estimated 50,000 demonstrators were barraged
with nearly 5000 canisters of tear gas, in two days of
stunning street confrontations that greatly eclipsed
Seattle in intensity.
Simultaneously, thousands of protesters in dozens of
places - from the Tijuana-San Diego border to El Paso to
Kansas City - were answering the call to "localize the
movement for global justice" by holding rallies, marches,
and direct actions that made connections between pressing
issues in their communities and the sweeping trade pact
being negotiated in Quebec City. These were also a
response to widespread critiques of "summit-hopping," the
post-Seattle activist trend of jumping from one mega-
mobilization to the next.
In both its lead-up and its realization,
Quebec City felt like a turning point.
Two of the main groups calling for the
protest, the Anti-Capitalist Convergence
and the sardonically named Welcoming
Committee for the Summit of the Americas -
familiarly knownby their French acronyms,
CLAC and CASA - announced from the start
that they would organize on the basis
of "respect for a diversity of tactics."
Specifically, they committed not to renounce
"violence" (always a slippery term) or to denounce
any demonstrators' methods of dissent.
For Canada, this stance wasn't out of
line with past radical direct actions,
although CLAC and CASA's position did
stir up a lot of controversy in the weeks
and months before the Summit. For Americans,
though, this kind of tactical carte blanche
has been virtually unheard of at large-scale
protests since the street-fighting days of
the late 1960s. Beginning with the anti-nuclear
movement of the mid-1970s, it's been standard
procedure at most mass actions in the United
States to have nonviolence codes, explicit
agreements about the limits of acceptable
behavior that all participants are asked to
respect. They have varied in intensity and scope.
Some guidelines have been incredibly sweeping,
prohibiting even angry speech, while others have
been more limited, mainly proscribing physical
violence against people (including police).
One of the hallmarks of the direct-action
anti-globalization movement in the United States
has been its growing unease with these
traditional rules. It's not that there's been a
mass embrace of street combat or property
destruction among American radicals, although
interest in those tactics is clearly growing
among a small but highly visible group. Instead,
there seems to be a broadening consensus against
denouncing people who do those things, a
reluctance to draw lines between "good" and "bad"
protesters, and a recognition that the
overwhelming majority of the violence to date has
come from the police.
In Quebec City, outrage at the hated wall and the
vicious tear gassing quickly overwhelmed much
lingering ambivalence about the "diversity of
tactics" approach. When armed thugs are barraging
you with chemical weapons simply because you've
gathered to oppose the secret negotiations of a
tiny elite, it's hard to get real worked up about
whether folks should be throwing rocks at them or
not. Don't get me wrong: I strongly disagree
with some things that Black Blocers did in Quebec,
particularly the use of Molotov cocktails. But
out there in the streets, under attack, the
atmosphere was one of almost total unity.
From moment to moment, you felt you were in the
midst of a fireworks display, a sporting event,
or a war zone. A low thwomping sound announced the
discharge of each gas canister, and you looked up
at the sky to trace its arcing path and gauge how
close to you it would land. There's a delay then
before the noxious chemicals are actually
released, and in those crucial seconds, the crowd
would wait to see if someone - usually a
Black Blocer wearing thick gloves - would pick
up the superheated thing and hurl it back at
the cops. Often, someone would, and a huge
cheer would go up as you saw the trail of gas
head toward the police line. Or, if not, a
thick toxic cloud would begin to spread;
some folks would panic, but others always
urged the crowd to stay calm. There would
be cries for medics to wash out the
burning eyes of the unprotected - the movement
medics were flat-out amazing, selfless and
superbly prepared - and before long, you'd hear
the French chant that became the watchword for
the action: "So - so - so - solidarit "
This scene repeated itself countless times, most
movingly for me on Saturday evening, the second
and larger of the two big days of protest. My
buddy Mark and I joined a crowd of perhaps a few
thousand engaged in one of these standoffs on an
elevated ramp of the Dufferin-Montmorency
Highway, which juts out from a high cliff that
the police were seeking to clear of protesters.
The gassing was relentless: canister after
canister of the foul stuff, sometimes so much of
it you could hardly see. But the more they shot
at us, the more it made people want to stay. Mark
and I had mediocre goggles but great masks - the
kind painters use when working with solvents - so
we were pretty well protected, but all around us
were people with nothing more than vinegar-soaked
scarves around their faces, coughing and crying
but still chanting their solidarity and standing
Suspended in air, we all held our surreal ground
as best we could, but inevitably we were pushed
slowly down the ramp, as the riot squads advanced
and blanketed us with poison. When it comes down
to brute force, after all, the state will always
win. But below, underneath the freeway's concrete
tangle, was L'Îlot Fleurie, a longtime sculpture
and community garden that served as a kind of
staging ground for the protests. Mark and I had
been there earlier - it was, among other things,
where Food Not Bombs was serving up free meals to
all comers - but as we descended we saw that the
place was now packed with thousands and thousands
of bedraggled, euphoric veterans of the weekend's
battles. People were creating art, sharing food,
providing first aid, building bonfires, and
making music - astonishing music, for their
instrument was the freeway itself, its guard rails
and light posts transformed into the biggest, most
sonorous drum set you ever heard. We threw down
our backpacks and joined the joyous rave, dancing
beyond all fatigue. Up on the cliff you could see
the glint of streetlights on the face shields
of the riot cops, and it made us smile: Sure, they
had walled us out and pushed us down, but it had
only brought us all more strongly together, and
that counted as victory.
In some radical circles back in the States,
though, the militant acts at the front lines
are being seen - and celebrated - in
isolation, as part of a growing mystique
of insurrection. Check out the collage
poster of FTAA photos assembled by the
Barricada Collective, a Boston-based
anarchist group that has been influential in
Black Bloc circles.
It features image after image of young men in the
throes of battle - tossing a gas canister, waving
a red flag, pushing downthe fence, wielding a big
stick, lifting a barricade - with the tag-
line,"against the violence of capitalism and the
state." Perhaps one or more of the costumed figures
is a woman, but I doubt it. You don't see
any of the medics, or the folks who supplied us
with food, or the camaraderie of L'Îlot Fleurie.
You see anger and adrenaline, but you don't see
Meanwhile, I'm hearing more and more loose talk
about dangerous things: someone saying there
should be "lots more violence" in the movement;
others talking up the idea of armed struggle;
jokes about explosives that leave a sense of
unease. And I wonder if all the folks who are
moving toward greater militancy have really
thought through the possible consequences.
Given the government's posture to date toward
the global justice movement, and the Black Bloc
in particular, I think it we could soon see people
doing serious jail time for things that happen
A call is already circulating for a "diversity of
tactics" Black Bloc at the next big summit action,
outside the Washington, D.C. meetings of the
International Monetary Fund and World Bank in
early October. It reads, in part, "We will not be
content with reforming, or even abolishing the
IMF/World Bank. We will not rest until every
last bank has been burned, till the last memory
of banks has been erased from our world."
I find this hyperbole more humorous than
menacing. But it brings me back to the debate
about summit-hopping, and why it's a problem
for the movement. New York-based activist
Lesley Wood says, rightly I think, that major
mobilizations and local organizing don't have
to be seen as antithetical to one another,
assuming people are involved in both: Big
actions like Seattle or Quebec City inspire
and energize people in ways that can directly or
indirectly benefit community-based campaigns
when they return to their hometowns.
Radicals whose activism largely consists of
mobilizing for one big action after another,
however, tend to develop very different politics
from those who are deeply enmeshed in local
organizing. There's a kind of rigor to nuts-and-
bolts campaigning with concrete, immediate
stakes - say, fighting to stop a power plant
from being built in a low-income neighborhood with
epidemic asthma rates - that privileges strategy
over gestures. Without that grounding, it's all
too easy to make the great militant error of
elevating tactics to principles, rather than
seeing them as tools, and to engage in
confrontation for its own sake.
But even as I worry about a creeping
recklessness that's likelier to fuck people up
than fuck shit up, it's clear that the audacity
of the Black Bloc is an electric charge - and
it's getting people juiced. CLAC has a slogan:
"It didn't start in Seattle, and it won't end in
Quebec City." Look for things to intensify.
FREE RADICAL: chronicle of the new unrest
is a column on the current upsurge in activism,
written by L.A. Kauffman (firstname.lastname@example.org).
It appears on average every few weeks.
Back issues can be found at www.free-radical.org
This article is archived at
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
L.A. Kauffman (email@example.com) is perhaps
the first person in U.S. history to be arrested
for allegedly committing a crime by fax machine.
(The Manhattan D.A. declined to prosecute.)
She is currently writing DIRECT ACTION:
RADICALISM IN OUR TIME, a history of U.S.
activism since 1970. A longtime radical journalist
and activist, she was a principal organizer of the
direct-action campaign that saved 115 New York
City community gardens from development in 1999.
Kauffman is a frequent speaker on protest
movements past and present, and her writing
has appeared in the Village Voice, The Nation,
The Progressive, Spin, Mother Jones, Salon.com,
and numerous other publications.
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All contents Copyright 2001 by L.A. Kauffman
FREE RADICAL may be reprinted freely by any nonprofit website or publication, but please write to me and give me a heads-up, I'd like to know about it: firstname.lastname@example.org
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