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Thursday, Jan. 03, 2002 at 11:37 PM
An interview with a former member of the NYC Ya BAsta Collective
Yellow Overalls Must Rise! (in order to lay down again)
TFG Casper, former member of dissolved NYC Ya Basta! Collective
By Mira Jovanovich
MJ: I'm wondering if you can give us a little background on Ya Basta and the yellow overalls, as it has played out here in North America.
TFGC: The New York City Ya Basta! Collective formed just a few weeks after the pictures and stories from the protests in Prague [IMF meetings, Sept 2000] were transmitted across the Atlantic. Like many people inspired by these communications, we were interested in understanding the dynamics of this relatively new and somewhat poetic tactic of civil disobedience, and attempted, as far as possible, to gather intelligence on the efforts of the "tute bianche". We had the fortunate privilege of having an Italian activist as a member of our local collective, one who was more than familiar with the developments of the white overalls and the Ya Basta Association, specifically as things evolved in cities like Milan and Genoa. We received greatly informed reports as developments would happen.
Our first attempt to organize some sort of formation, on more than just an affinity group type scale, was during the Quebec City mobilization. Our original intent was to organize a "block" of yellow overalls made up of clusters from all over the States, as well as Canadian affinity groups. This attempt was met with certain interesting resistances. We called for, and carried out, several formation type trainings at a location just south of the Canadian border, in the small college town of Burlington, Vermont, which had become a sort of way station for those trying to get to Quebec from many points south. This experience of pulling together these trainings (at this point none of us had a direct experience of the kind) was a bit problematic. At one point these trainings developed into a sort of sports try out, in which a few overly enthusiastic jocks tried to rally "the troops" to a cause celebre, and unfortunately for the majority of participants became another forum for a sort of street fighting bravado. It gave some participants the valid impression that what was playing out within this "tactical movement" was the same dynamic frequently extent in other tactics that tend to become or appear to be male oriented. What was equally frustrating was that the greater collective was lacking a meaningful political consciousness to resist these manifestations of machismo, even though many of us were aware and disgusted by it. Ultimately, while we had committed to counter the repression of the cops, we failed to counter the inner tendencies, within the group, of similar oppressions breaking out.
And on top of this, most of the NYC crew never made it to Quebec. We had immigration problems.
One related question that developed out of the trainings, a tendency that never really resolved itself, was our inability to come to an understanding about what exactly we were. That is, were we an affinity group, or a tight collective of individuals adopting the tactics and partial rhetoric of the tute bianche, or were we more appropriately trying to foment a broader and specific political project, a tactic AND a philosophy of action? It's an interesting question if viewed within the context of the way activists organize in North America, or specifically in NYC, as opposed to more European flavors. We uprooted the language from its political and historical context, and in this way gave short attention to this question of transplantation.
MJ: The rumor is that the collective has dissolved. Has Ya Basta! come to an untimely conclusion? What of the North American movement?
TFGC: I can't really speak about the situation in North America in its entirety, but I can say that it's yet to be seen what effect it could still have across the continent. I can also say that it was hardly a movement per se, we hadn't reached that point quite yet. Unfortunately for the NYC group of yellow overalls, two occurrences stopped it in its tracks. One was of course the collective decision of the Europeans to take off the overalls, made just before Genoa, which directly influenced many in the NYC collective. The other is the strange environment coming out of the September 11th tragedy here in New York, and the assumed repression that will most definitely come about as a result, which many members felt had neutralized the efficacy of the transparent nature of the tactic.
Unfortunately the idea of yellow overalls barely got off the ground before these troubles set in. As for New York, there was no "dissolving" action in any sense, the collective simple fell apart for these reasons, which may have exacerbated our lack of vision and clarification about what exactly it we were trying to do, and with an additional bit of personal intrigues. There are still remnants of the notion of Ya Basta! floating around, but nothing like the transparent political project that characterized some of the initial thinking on the part of the collective. Whether or not the outward project that characterizes yellow overalls will rematerialize is a matter of the will of whoever decides it's a worthy pursuit, I guess.
More generally speaking, "Where for art thou, direct action?" is the question many are asking now that "everything has changed" following 9/11. In New York City, so called "ground zero", we are coming upon a semi-mass mobilization of thousands from all across the country who will find out for themselves what the cops have in store for disobedience, now that the lines are more clearly drawn between what is "right", or "patriotic", or simply "American", and criminality, even downright "terrorism". In this environment, I believe the tactic, in its entirety, is more appropriate than ever. What better way than to come out of this darkness, shinning forth so brightly?
MJ: Will you be surprised if we see a large group of people wearing yellow overalls?
TFGC: My feeling is that the visualness of wearing the overalls is problematic at this point. Many people are afraid of being picked out for this reason, although I don't agree with the naive assessment that we should, say, take into account the fact that those anthrax decontamination outfits resemble, symbolically, our overalls, and that we would be disrespecting or offending these workers by wearing them. It seems obvious to me that the Yellow Overalls are more appropriate now than ever, as another visual symbol for the invisibleness we're all becoming in the face of Empire, after 9/11. Although it's not simply a media tactic, but also a way to camouflage the individual in a sea of similarity, becoming a force recognizable by our numbers and force, an "adelante humanity", a "non-violent" wall of bodies. How else can one view this collection of Big Birds with elaborate padding and bright colored helmets? Will there be a mobilization of efficacious size to offer this protection? I don't think so.
It's important to note at this point that "Ya Basta" never meant a creative tactic alone. To think of it as a fashion of practicality, of how to be more successful in "getting away with it", is to misrepresent such a complex political project. Ya Basta in its entirety means so much more than this, and the return of the "street fighting man" was hardly part of the picture.
MJ: What's your hope for the future of the yellow overalls idea?
TFGC: In Genoa the "disobedience" block was the product of years of organizing, including a media blitz that at times got out of hand, using media manipulations thought to "play with the language of the state". On this, Ya Basta was criticized severely, essentially accused of taking a central, hegemonic position in relation to the more broad coalition against the G8. This criticism particularly targeted Luca Casirini (it's still a bit confusing as to the way in which he was to become the main spokesperson) holding press conferences and declaring "war", and so forth. Of course these were all valid criticisms. But the tute bianche has always interacted with the media in creative ways, understanding its power, most of the time. They refuse to ignore it, which is seemingly practical when such monopoly exists. It's this notion of "negotiation" that is central to the project of the overalls, a process by which one understands the overarching power of the state, or the media, turns that power around against these entrenched power structures, but also knowing when to say, "Ya Basta!", or enough for now, let's pull back and regroup and discuss the successes and failures, and go at it again when the time and energy is right.
In a sense, this is probably the single most important idea the tute bianche can leave us, the idea that there is a time and a place for everything, and backing off, or knowing ones' limitations, or that regrouping for another day doesn't translate into a "reformist" approach, or "not militant enough", and so on. If we look at the act of throwing off the overalls, just before the mobilization, as it plays with the notions outlined repeatedly regarding this, then the point was made, that the position of visibility was attained, 300,000 people and the worlds' attention was enough.
As far as the specific tactical utility here and now, I think it's obvious that we have neither the time nor effort behind us, as far as our place in the movement is concerned. But to also think that we could simply do away with the overalls because our Italian friends found reason, is to miss the larger point of why we would wear them in the first place. We've only just begun a process of proposing the idea as it could relate to resistance in North America.
I think the focus on the tactics alone misses a much larger picture of a language that the overalls communicates, what it has meant to the Italian political landscape. With that said, there are indications that the tactical utility of defensive protection that characterizes overalls has had an immediate impact on the North American scene, evident by the paddings and gear many bring to mobilizations like Quebec City. The drawback is of course that we've seen this development before, and history has shown that the "street fighter" alone, withdrawn from the type of informed political project that tute bianche attempted to forge, may just develop into a boys' club of toughs, divorced of any larger picture of resistance.
Dec, 2001 NYC
Mira Jovanavich can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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