Strategic Resistance Organizing Conference- a look back

by Larry George Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2001 at 5:04 AM Santa Monica

At the begining of August, the Strategic Resistance Congerence was held in Venice CA. With an invitation only guest-list of 200 activists from around the Americas, the conference focused on goals, sexism and white supremacy within the movement today. Larry George writes the inside scoop.


By Larry George, Los Angeles Indymedia

Approximately 200 anarchists and anti-authoritarians from several western states gathered on August 2-5 in Venice and Santa Monica, California for an invitation-only conference that many who attended described as rejuvenating and pathbreaking. Organizers of the gathering intended the forum to be a place where activists could discuss future goals and projects, as well as confront pressing issues of sexism and white supremacy, not only in US society as a whole, but also within the anti-authoritarian and anti-corporate globalization movements themselves.

A multitude of activists from a variety of backgrounds, identities, and affiliations attended the meetings. Their diversity could be seen directly in a morning icebreaking exercise conducted by Shawn McDougal, an activist with the American Friends Service Committee. Shawn kicked off each day's activities by tossing out a series of possible self-identifications ethnic, gender, experience, etc. and asking people to stand up if they fit the descriptions. Some of the results were more or less predictable; others pretty surprising.

The vast majority identified themselves as anarchists, significantly fewer as socialists, only a handful as communists. Many, especially among younger participants, simply rejected all of the ideological self-identification options that were offered. John Imani, a veteran community activist and playwright from South Los Angeles, insisted on the need to dissolve these distinctions altogether, pointing out that he identifies himself as an anarchist among communists and an independent communist among anarchists.

Somewhere between thirty and forty percent of the activists present were women. Approximately a fourth were persons of color, and perhaps a third self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans-gender. (The organizers had sought to use the invitation-only process to ensure that a solid majority -- ideally around two thirds -- of the group would be made up of women, gay men, and trans-gender persons). Several were under 20, a few over 40. Only five had children. All but a handful had been to college and most had parents who had gone to college. Over two-thirds were bilingual, and for several, including a delegation from Mexico, English was a second language. Most were vegans or vegetarians. Only a few expressed any allegiance to organized religion, an overwhelming majority identified themselves as "spiritual." Over half had been to jail, and a significant number proudly admitted to dumpster diving and living on the streets at some point. The conference was organized into plenary meetings, morning workgroups, afternoon caucuses, and evening sessions devoted to exploring possible future projects, actions, and other "common work." Friday's workshops used the Seattle anti-WTO actions of November 1999, and the successive protests and activities that have taken place since then as a springboard for discussion. Participants were encouraged to draw on their personal experiences in these actions to frame visions of a liberated society, and to discuss strategies, tactics, and means for creating such a society. Workgroup facilitators framed the discussions around 5, 10, and 25 year time periods, asking participants to list goals they would like to see accomplished within each of these stages.

In one workgroup, Abby and Jess each told stories about how being outsiders to mainstream culture sometimes helped and sometimes created problems in their work with incarcerated women and youth. Rory talked about the importance of moving beyond thinking in terms of Temporary Autonomous Zones and starting to think in terms of what he called a "Permanent Autonomous Planet".

At one of the other workgroups, the discussion was thoughtful and reflective, if somewhat abstract. Aragorn, who had come down from Oakland, suggested that moving beyond what he called "the deep, articulate, and numbing language of the left" would be crucial. Annie, Nick, and Gila addressed some of the large questions facing the movement. One participant suggested that "we do need to push this movement beyond simply fighting for harm reduction." Another participant suggested added that "we do need to push this movement beyond simply fighting for harm reduction, and towards real positive change." When another speaker suggested that hopefully within 25 years much of the rancor and strife within the movement will have been put behind, a third responded, "I think that we're not going to get beyond struggle as a part of life." Another said "What we need to do is to get past merely fear-based responses," and a fourth concluded that "We must try to introduce the idea of love back into these political things."

Carwil James, who is with Project Underground in Berkeley, had obviously thought carefully about these matters before coming to the meeting, and he presented a more detailed vision of possible steps towards large-scale revolutionary transformation. The plan he put forward entailed concrete measures, like establishing actual indigenous control over enough territory as to make up both a substantial region and a political bloc. It also involved creating a "culture of subversion," that would support revolutionary activity through, for example, generating a "recruitment crisis"for the forces of repression by making it more and more unacceptable and unpopular to choose to become a cop or border guard. Civil and other forms of disobedience would be widely enough practiced that those engaged in it could tacitly assume that there will be broad undercover support for it and other revolutionary activities, as occurred in, for example, East Germany in the late1980s.

Friday afternoon, all participants attended one of several caucuses, where activists discussed the role of identity in organizing work and strategy. The themes of these sessions were decided by the participants themselves, and included caucuses ranging from young activists of color to whites confronting white supremacy in the movement. Saturday's plenaries and workgroups encouraged participants to talk about their own experiences in the movement, incorporating feedback from Friday's caucuses. Several of these sessions also provided forums for activists with common interests, professions, and callings to meet and "alter-network." On Sunday, Los Angeles filmmaker Jessica Lawless premiered her uncut draft documentary video production "Paint It Black," which deals with issues of media constructions of anarchism and blackness, and with larger questions of race and identity within the movement. The film was received boisterously and enthusiastically by 50 or so viewers who smiled, danced, and cheered through it.

On the whole, most participants seemed to be pleased with how the conference went. Nearly everyone recognized that the stated goals of the meeting were laudable, if optimistic. Most acknowledged that while the conference missed some of these targets, (and was interrupted briefly while organizers confronted an incident of perceived sexual harassment), it certainly succeeded in terms of the overall good will and solidarity of the activists who took part, and in the general absence of the sort of unproductive, confrontational behavior that is too often common in such gatherings. Most felt rewarded by the opportunity to meet new friends, comrades, and kindred spirits in a convivial and comfortable setting. Given that the conference was convened in large part to address issues of white supremacy and gender hierarchies among anarchists and anti-authoritarians, it was not surprising that these issues pervaded much of the weekend's discussions and conversations. Several activists of color publicly denounced the overwhelming white composition of the movement against corporate globalization generally, and within the anarchist and anti-authoritarian movements specifically. More than one suggested that future trans-racial and trans-ethnic alliances were being jeopardized by the failure of white activists to vigorously confront these issues in their organizations, interpersonal relationships, and personal attitudes. Such observations seemed to strike an uncomfortable chord with most of the white activists at the conference. Some provoked more controversy, as when a Latino organizer described attending an uncomfortable meeting where white women had displayed pictures of men, including men of color, who had been accused of domestic abuse. A good deal of confessional dialogue broke out after Dan, from the Midnight Special law collective in Oakland, circulated a widely praised "open letter to other men in the movement" about how men tend to act in political meetings, entitled "Shut the Fuck Up." [SEE ATTACHMENT]

Several LGBT and women activists, as well as many activists of color reported that their respective caucuses provided their first real opportunity to meet with large groups of anarchists and anti-authoritarians who shared their self-identification. Speakers in these caucuses raised a number of issues that many felt have been downplayed or ignored altogether in more conventional political settings where even among radicals and anarchists -- white heterosexual males tend to comprise the numerical majority. One frequently mentioned issue concerned the way even radical white activists often unconsciously assume the validity of white cultural norms. These can include not only subtly hierarchical Euro-American ways of organizing, interacting, and communicating, but even many "radical," "anti-authoritarian," or other "alternative" ways of acting consciously adopted by white activists, as well. "Just being conscious of how culture and identity are continually being played out, and not taking these for granted is something that came up a lot in the folks of color groups," said Shawn McDougal. "This doesn't mean that culture and identity are fixed," he added. "We need a more conscious pluralism, where we can create them ourselves, where its pretty much DIY when it comes to identity and culture. We need to get beyond the enemies vs. allies thing, by recognizing that struggle is also at the level of consciousness, not just who's in charge."

Conversations among participants revealed that the nexus of politics, values, and cultural identity within the movement can be complicated indeed. Veganism provides an interesting case in point. Chantel, like many other activists of color, comes from a culture where eating meat is regarded as perfectly acceptable and even wholesome. She said she was relieved at being able to discuss for the first time how she and many other activists of color frequently feel uncomfortable and intimidated at the way veganism has become not only the default regimen of the movement, but a sort of ethical litmus test, as well. "Sometimes being vegan or vegetarian is viewed by people of color as a kind of privilege that mostly white activists enjoy," she pointed out. "But that can be really ethnically insensitive, and sometimes even hypocritical. Native Americans felt that when they killed animals for food it was part of a sacred practice. People from many cultures don't view just people and animals as being alive, but all of nature. There's no one way to look at it, but a lot of times some white vegans make some people of color feel like they aren't going to fit in."

Covert political assumptions and stereotypes are another problem, and they can cut in many different directions. In one role-playing workgroup, for example, participants worked through a hypothetical case study that involved trying to organize an ethnically diverse working class community to stop the siting of a toxic waste dump there. One activist of color chided white comrades for acting on the assumption that revolutionary options were excluded from consideration, and for underestimating the genuinely revolutionary sentiments actually present in communities of color. In the same session, an African-American speaker insisted that while conducting the exercise, activists should confront the (typically privileged, white) environmentalist prejudices built into the scenario the group was playing out, by considering the possibility that the jobs created by the hypothetical toxic waste dump might be preferred by that community to the dangers of locating it there.

This should not imply that the overall informality, friendliness, and good spirits of the conference were undermined by confrontation and frank exchanges. Self-deprecating humor was part of the show, as when one speaker alluded to the psychological game activists often play with themselves of trying to give themselves "identity legitimacy" by "counting up the ways I'm privileged and subtracting from this the number of potentially discriminated-against groups I'm a member of , and hoping that this will add up to being oppressed." Several sharp-tongued wags were periodically overheard issuing biting commentaries on the jargon, political presumptuousness, "scene language," and other pretensions of some activists. Everyday life has its own politics, too, of course, and behind all the organized dialogue, ordinary human moments were there for the listening (albeit with the kind of textures peculiar to the emerging political cultures of the anti-authoritarian and anti-globalization movements). Tough anarchist women known for their bravery in street battles were overheard expressing relief at being able to retreat periodically during the conference into testosterone-free zones. One Persian activist noted how gratifying it was to be able to hold a political conversation in her own language with someone other than her own family members. A brief crisis erupted over an incident of sexual harassment. Cross dressing men complimented with admiring glances each others' skirts and tops. Zine writers heard their own prose quoted back to them. Beautiful gender rebels were observed stealing kisses in public.

In another room, a toddler sporting Black Bloc dress-code-approved black Converse All Stars stared, visibly envious, at a naked, gleefully nursing newborn. During one group breathing relaxation exercise, several activists staged a spontaneous sit-down strike in reverse, working and talking in open rebellion. A young black blocker solicited advice about love and seduction from an older radical. A few activists shot baskets, although with conspicuously less game than many of the seven and eight year olds that took over the gym Saturday morning. More than one pair of eyes welled up with tears of rage and empathy as veteran nonviolence trainer Lisa Fithian described the police beatings and psychological brutality she witnessed at the G-8 protests in Genoa last month. People laughed and whooped as they recognized themselves and their friends in Jessica Lawless' film. When encouraged, even the most hardened revolutionaries were willing to shake their booties from time to time. An educators' workgroup eventually surrendered, humbled, after 45 minutes of failing to untie the pretzel. Jose, a strikingly well-read Bay Area activist and documentary filmmaker, reported that "What was really inspirational to me was how challenging some of the conversations at the caucuses were, and how they spilled over beyond the organized discussions. One night we stayed up until 2:00 AM talking about strategy and tactics, and then went to a show and discussed these issues with the kids we met there."

After the conference had closed, a reporter ran into two participants on the Venice Beach Boardwalk. They all discussed how much they learned from the gathering, and how far the movement still had to go to work through these vexing issues. As they turned up a hill, the reporter noticed how the evening breeze off the water blew their black t-shirts flat against their backs. It seemed to aid their climb a little, and in the chill they walked closer together.

Original: Strategic Resistance Organizing Conference- a look back