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MOVEMENT AT A TURNING POINT // free radical #16

by L.A. Kauffman Tuesday, May. 15, 2001 at 11:23 PM
lak@free-radical.org

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

http://www.free-radical.org

--------------------------------------------------

[to subscribe, write

freeradical-request@lists.riseup.net

with the word subscribe in the email subject or body]

==================================================

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

firm.

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.

(http://www.indymedia.org/display.php3?article_id=37636)

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

solidarity.

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

during demonstrations.

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."

(http://www.infoshop.org/news6/racb_fall.html)

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 (lak@free-radical.org).

It appears on average every few weeks.

Back issues can be found at www.free-radical.org

This article is archived at

www.free-radical.org/issue16.shtml

****

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

L.A. Kauffman (lak@free-radical.org) 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.

*************

TO SUBSCRIBE,

write freeradical-request@lists.riseup.net

with the word subscribe in the subject or body of the email

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: lak@free-radical.org

========================================

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