The Whole World is Watching
“New York City is rising. The Republicans believe they can exploit our city to further their regressive political agenda. Together we will prove them wrong.”
“We have witnessed two unjust wars, at least one American life lost each day overseas, a depressed economy, the collapse of the dollar, $87 billion to boost war profiteering, the closing of our firehouses, a health-care crisis, millions of children being left behind, and now this. We say, Enough!”
Seemingly far removed from the reactionary political climate immediately following September 11, 2001 disillusionment with the current Bush administration has by now reached a broad base and runs deep, extending well beyond our own national borders. Events over the past 6 months such as the March 20 coordinated day of action against the occupation organized by United for Peace & Justice, the million person strong pro-choice march, back in late April organized by groups like Planned Parenthood and the National Organization of Women, and most recently the unprecedented popularity of Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11, have left many people anticipating a week of historic demonstrations when the Republicans come to New York City from August 29 to September 2.
What was originally supposed to be the Republican strategists crowning achievement in their tireless campaign to exploit the tragedy of September 11, the week during the convention has quickly turned into a virtual public relations nightmare for Bush and his crew.
Although good organizers never overestimate numbers, it is safe to say that over the course of the week, hundreds of thousands of people will be taking to the street, representing a wide range of issues, constituencies and communities. On August 29, the international day of action against the Bush agenda initiated by United for Peace & Justice at the 2004 World Social Forum in Mumbai will kick off the proceedings and will likely draw the largest of the crowds, possibly one of the largest this generation has ever seen.
This will be followed on Monday August 30, by a day of action focusing on social and economic issues domestically, as the Still We Rise Coalition, in an interesting alliance, has teamed up with the Hip Hop Summit Action Network to organize the ‘March on New York: Still We Rise.’ The Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), a group that played a large role in the Republican National Convention protests in Philadelphia 4 years ago, is organizing a similar action later in the day called ‘The March for Our Lives’—calling attention to the virtual invisibility of poor people living in the United States.
The third day of major protest, Tuesday August 31, is the day earmarked for massive non-violent direct action and civil disobedience as an ad-hoc group of organizers from around the country have called for a “creative day of resistance outside of the protest pens.” The rest of the week will be rounded out by a series of marches, rallies, counter-conventions and concerts, including possibly a Labor Day march on Wednesday, September 1 which is being moved up to coincide with the RNC.
“This is why we are doing this work. The policies of the administration are affecting all of us. We are fragmented and we are frustrated, and this has compelled us to work collectively.”
—Louie Jones, organizer with the Still We Rise Coalition
On both the international level (as we witnessed on February 15, 2003 with the worldwide day of action against the impending invasion of Iraq coordinated on all 7 continents) and here in the United States, the Bush administration really has been the ‘Great Uniter,’ forging alliances between activists across a wide range of issues. Back in July 2003, a few of us pulled together an informal meeting at a local bookstore in an effort to start some collective dialogue around the RNC and how we might want to respond. The meeting drew a crowd of nearly 80 people, flowing out of the store and onto the street.
It was this initial meeting that eventually lead to the larger ‘Clearinghouse meetings’—meetings that by now involve literally hundreds of people. The original concept for the Clearinghouse (just as it sounds, an ongoing clearinghouse of ideas and information) was simple, yet initially led to some confusion among activist circles. The idea that there was no actual forming of a ‘city-wide coalition’ was a concept many activists were not used to, and it took a while for some to realize the benefits of this kind of structure based primarily on information.
Coming to consensus fairly early on this kind of a loose structure was a welcome development, especially in a city like New York that has had a long and tension-filled history with large-scale coalition work. The Clearinghouse has provided a space for various areas of specific work (related websites, legal, outreach, etc) to be coordinated effectively without the setting up of a larger decision making body.
People not involved with any of the working groups, but who were organizing ‘independent projects’ like conferences, concerts, and campaigns happening in and around the major week of action, could talk about their efforts and connect with people who were interested in collaborating with them. Perhaps most significant is the way the Clearinghouse functions as a place where new and/or unaffiliated people can come and get a feeling for what various groups are planning around the city, with the option of plugging in at any point.
Because of its large size, attending Clearinghouse meetings can feel a bit overwhelming initially, although this feeling usually gives way to a sense of excitement and energy that fills the room as soon as you look around. It seems like something we might imagine social centers to be like in the distant future—people talking with each other about politics and various projects they are either working on or hope to become a part of. The Clearinghouse has represented a kind of unique on-the-ground fusion between many wings of the global justice movement as representatives from the youth, antiwar, racial justice, direct action, women’s rights, and labor movements can all usually be found in attendance.
The meetings, although doing the thankless job of providing a solid framework for overall coordination of RNC-related events, fall short in several key areas. In what has been to its credit a very inviting and democratically structured space, the Clearinghouse has lead to an influx of certain activist voices while marginalizing others. A combination of variables including the set location of regular meetings (always held in downtown Manhattan), lack of childcare, and generally inconsistent outreach to the outer boroughs, has limited participation among those most affected by the Bush administrations policies within New York City. For these as well as various other reasons, some organizers have intentionally ended up staying away from the “madness” of the Clearinghouse.
Unlike the Clearinghouse meetings which started a good thirteen months before the RNC, serious discussion around a direct action scenario did not get underway until April, less then five months before the convention. For obvious reasons, the way in which the group that originally put out the call for August 31 came together was nothing like the open process of the Clearinghouse meetings. With a short timeline, little infrastructure and growing restlessness about the lack of a direct action framework by out-of-town activists who were planning on coming down, the process for decision making was less then perfect. Although the group did initially try to reach out to key sectors of the direct action community—specifically to people of color-led organizations—the end result was that it remained a fairly small group of personal friends through what would be its important formative stages.
Given all of the energy and focus around the RNC, the slow development of a direct action scenario combined with the initial low participation at meetings came as a surprise to some. Though there is certainly no shortage of people who recognize the importance of pulling off a successful day of direct action during the RNC, there are a few key reasons why many who have traditionally identified with the direct action movements, specifically since the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, have been cautious about the planning of such actions this time around. With a few important exceptions, most notably the actions that shut down San Francisco right after the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the direct action movement in the United States has taken a series of hits.
This has been specifically true on the East Coast, arguably starting with the last Republican National Convention in Philadelphia where police preemptively arrested hundreds of direct action organizers in the main convergence space before they even had a chance to hit the streets. As Kazembe Balagoon, one of the founding members of SLAM (Student Liberation Action Movement)—a group very active in the direct action planning in Philadelphia—put it; “The weakness of the counter-convention in Philadelphia laid in the lack of understanding around the power of state repression. The Philadelphia police gained a great learning curve from the experience of the WTO protests in Seattle. As such, they were able to gather the necessary forces to shut down our response. Even traditional responses like jail solidarity couldn't clog up the system, since they ushered in the use of both city and state jails.”
New York City activists got a taste of some of the same police repression during the World Economic Forum (WEF) protests in February 2002, which saw very little direct action and left many people uninspired, some with an extensive series of court dates to boot. The 2002 protest against the IMF and World Bank in Washington DC was billed as a massive “peoples strike to shut down the city.” However, the police again preemptively arrested nearly 500 protesters, many of whom spent at least a full day on the floor of a gymnasium, shackled from wrist to ankle.
Still, much of this was relatively minor compared to what many experienced when they went down to Miami for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) protests in November 2003. In what became known as the ‘Miami Model,’ activists ranging from trade unionists, to college students, to directors of large NGOs all saw first hand what state violence looked like in the 21st century. An endless series of well-attended and nationally coordinated spokes councils were stifled by both the massive police presence and the obvious miscalculations by many of the organizers involved. Although New York City will differ from Miami in many important respects, the ‘Miami Model’ is something that has penetrated many people’s consciousness as they prepare for the RNC.
The direct action movement in New York has not only suffered setbacks at some of the major summits over the past few years, but locally there have been two recent high-profile court cases leading up to the RNC which have drawn a lot of attention. The two cases, involving the arrests of key activists from around the city loosely affiliated with JATO (Jews Against the Occupation) and APOC (Anarchist People of Color), foreshadow a serious shift in the way the police and courts are planning to prosecute dissent, even for the most minor of infractions. In the case of the APOC trial starting September 20, it was actually the police who literally broke into a local fundraiser to support members heading out to Miami for the FTAA meetings.
Whether it has been tying activists up in the criminal injustice system for extended periods of time, preemptively arresting hundreds of organizers, or straight-up breaking into our safe spaces, the increased police repression has forced many of our communities to rethink direct action tactics.
Another important phenomenon we can point to among activists who became politicized during the ‘Seattle generation,’ has been the slow but steady process of internalizing the ‘think globally, act locally’ mantra—something often repeated but rarely acted on. Many have found that acting locally has meant prioritizing activities that do not always include those traditionally associated with the direct action community like organizing spokes councils, finding housing for out-of-town activists, and preparing elaborate schemes to either ‘take down the fence’ or ‘flip over the barricades.’
Frustration over the perceived lack of imagination surrounding most of the direct action scenarios following Seattle in 1999 and trying to deal with the escalation in police violence since then has left many burnt out and wanting something new. One of the more interesting questions is whether those involved with the planning this time around will be able to provide some of those answers in the form of a visually creative and personally empowering action on August 31.
“We’ve got to get more creative than marches, and we’ve got to get smarter than direct actions that leave our people at the mercy of the same fucked-up system we’re trying to dismantle. We’ve got to focus on building with our communities, and we’ve got to start really working together to create more long-term solidarities, visions, and plans of action. I envision lots of communication happening across communities of privilege and oppressed communities to deepen each other’s understandings of our different struggles, challenges and perspectives. I envision the impossibility of single-issue campaign because our analysis as a movement would connect the prison industrial complex at home to the military industrial complex abroad, connect welfare reform at home to structural adjustment abroad, connect gentrification at home to occupation abroad.”
—Lailan Huen, organizer with Critical Resistance, NYC
It is true that if meaningful victories were won primarily by mobilizing large numbers of people out into the streets for a series of well-attended demonstrations or even more militant forms of civil disobedience, we could probably have chalked this one up in the win column a few months back. Still, large protest summits, even historic ones, are never an end in themselves. Many people have come to see them as important components or temporary peaks in the larger more long-term struggle for global justice. The question then remains for those of us organizing and participating in various ways around the RNC: how do we collectively envision success this summer?
Around New York City, there has been a lot of discussion about using the RNC, with all of the attention surrounding it, as a tool for more sustained movement building. We can start to think of movement building more as developing principled, face-to-face relationships, specifically between traditionally segregated activist communities and across lines of privilege. In the end, many of us realize that the only way we actually ‘defeat Bush’ is if we are able to do the hard work of creating these sustainable relationships, coalitions, networks and, ultimately, trust among various activist groupings so that no matter who is in office come January we will be in a position to face up to the various challenges together.
Without dismissing the importance of the major mobilizations being organized this summer, whether inside of the police pens or out, many organizers have spent the summer working on projects intentionally geared towards longer-term movement building and strategy. The Life After Capitalism 2004 conference, taking place from August 20-22, is aiming to bring together between 700-1,000 activists from all over the world for a weekend of reflection, strategizing, and personal relationship building.
According to Francesca Fiorentini, the conference coordinator, organizing for the conference started early: “It was clear over a year ago that the run-up to the RNC would be an intense period of mobilization followed by what could be (regardless of who wins the election) a fairly depressing time for all of us, possibly with a lot of activist burn out. It was not clear that there would be the opportunity in the midst of the hectic organizing to connect and exchange with different activists, unless such an opportunity was deliberately created. Therefore, with the belief that sustainable movements need to be nurtured with strategic dialogue and face-to-face interaction, the organizing of Life After Capitalism began.”
In an attempt to try and bridge the longstanding divide between the people of color-led community-based organizations and the predominantly white direct-action community, a project called ‘New York Uniting’ was initiated. The purpose of the retreat, as outlined in its mission statement is to “create a principled, self-reflective, movement building weekend of skill-sharing, facilitated discussions, and unstructured rest and relaxation time for a variety of organizers and activists.”
Unlike counting numbers at the demonstrations, or the arrests at the direct actions, the impact of simultaneous projects like Life After Capitalism and New York Uniting will be much harder to measure, at least in the immediate future. Still, the success of initiatives like these, alongside others like Racial Justice 911’s peoples assemblies (or consultas) and the six-week ‘liberation school’ being organized by the NYC Summer collective, will go a long way in determining whether or not we will emerge stronger.
It is safe to say that a lot is at stake this summer—this holds true not just for the Republicans but for us as well. Much of our work since September 11, 2001 has been on the defensive side of the ball. We have time and again found ourselves struggling to respond to a series of right-wing attacks, whether around foreign policy issues such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine, or domestic issues like the deportation of immigrants, the ongoing budget cuts in our public schools and the continued mass incarceration of people of color. Here in New York City, a deeply fractured activist community was temporarily brought together by the energy and excitement generated by the February 15, 2003 demonstrations, yet many opportunities for long-term organizing were lost to the constant focus on mobilizing ‘the troops’ for yet another demonstration.
In what may very well be our generation’s Chicago ‘68, the Republican National Convention in 2004 presents our movement with an almost endless series of opportunities as well as questions that we will have to answer. Will the excitement around the city, and specifically the energy in the large Clearinghouse meetings, translate into some form of sustained political action? Will the direct action movement here in the United States be able to cope with increasing state repression? Can we do the hard work of bridging the divide between the most affected community-based groups and the more free-floating anti-capitalist/anti-authoritarian activist community?
Just like in streets of Chicago 36 years ago, the whole world will be watching. Yet, the question remains the same: Will we have built something that will be worth watching even after all the TV sets have been turned off?
Max Uhlenbeck is an organizer who works and lives in New York City. For the past year he has been on the program committee for the Life After Capitalism 2004 Conference. He can be reached at email@example.com. This article first appeared in latest print edition of Left Turn Magazine, which can be found on the web at www.leftturn.org.