Monday, March 31, 2008

After the Anniversary Comes the Fighting ...

March 30, 2008

Another March 19 has come and gone, leaving those of us who organized protests of five years of war to muse about what we accomplished.

The actions here in San Francisco were pretty successful. We had more people participating than we have had in the last four years, though unsurprisingly, not close to the numbers who came out in 2003 when the war first began. There were 165 arrests, most of people who chose to be arrested, and that was a lot more than any single action in the last four years as well. Which in itself is interesting, because in the 1980s, when the U.S. was involved in covert wars in Central America that hardly anyone knew about, we used to occasionally have actions where 500 people got arrested.

It’s not that getting arrested is the be all and end all of activism, it’s just that it’s one indication of how much personal risk people are willing to take to express their opposition to a government policy. I always assumed that the more egregious the government’s actions were, the more people would be willing to engage in resistance that carried some risk to themselves. But in fact, the opposite has proved true, and I think there are a lot of reasons for that.

First, it’s been several generations now since there was a major example in this country of mass nonviolent action actually being effective in changing policy. In the eighties, the civil rights struggles of the fifties and sixties, and the antiwar actions of the sixties and seventies, were still fresh in a lot of our memories. There were even people who had been involved in the labor movements of the thirties who were participating in those actions. But people who are 35 and under today don’t even know about most of the movements of the eighties which used direct action: the anti-nuclear movement, the movement against the contras in Nicaragua and the death squads in El Salvador, the sanctuary movement, even the anti-apartheid movement in its grassroots community aspect. It seemed a couple years ago that the immigrant rights movement would provide a modern example, which like the Black civil rights movement, might have rippled to create an activist awakening among other communities. But, for reasons that not being a part of that community, I can only speculate about, that massive uprising quickly dwindled to a movement of the hard core.

Second, a friend pointed out, with cable TV, there are so many more options for what to watch, and that’s compounded by the nearly limitless resources of the internet, while in the sixties, seventies and eighties, everyone was watching the same news. The opportunities to opt out of news altogether mean that even the rare glimpses of the Iraq war on the mainstream television news go unseen by a majority.

At the same time, the overwhelming barrage of disturbing images and stories from all corners of the world causes people to shut down. A few weeks ago, I was listening to the Winter Soldier hearings at work, and when people would come into the center where I work alone on Fridays, I would tell them what it was. “What’s a war crime?” asked one man, a 30-something African American who is a supervisor in the records department. I explained briefly and he was momentarily shocked: “We’re doing that?” But then he said, “I like to maintain a positive outlook, so I can’t think about things like that.” My coworker who came in at 3:00 p.m., a 60-something working class Jew and life-long leftist, said something very similar: the news is too upsetting, and she is done thinking she can do anything about it, so she tunes it out.

On March 19, I was part of a group of about 30 people who walked around in orange jumpsuits and hoods (and a few of us in masks of prominent politicians) doing theater in areas heavy with shoppers and tourists. Many people came up to us and said, “Thank you for being out here,” which at first was gratifying but quickly became deeply disturbing. What will it take, we started to ask each other, for people to move from saying, “Thank you,” to saying, “What can I do?”

I used to think that actions would do that, that people might not decide they could do what we were doing, but seeing us take action would motivate them to think about what they were willing to do. In fact, I think that once that was true, and I think the consumer mentality that the ruling class has worked so hard to promote over the last twenty years has destroyed that possibility. Whether it’s a vigil, a blockade or a die-in, people see it as the same as a billboard, a street band or religious fanatics ranting at them – part of the ambience, something maybe trying to elicit a reaction, but not an invitation to DO anything.

It is, of course, hard to convince people to participate in activism when you can’t point to any specific action and say, “Look at the effect it had.” When I told an Israeli friend who is also a U.S. citizen about the March 19 actions, she pissed me off by saying, “That doesn’t do anything. If everyone stopped paying taxes, that would do something.” It pissed me off because one, there is no chance that _everyone_ is going to stop paying taxes, or even that a lot of people are going to do it. It is extremely difficult to actually stop paying taxes; you can’t have an over-the-table job, you can’t have a bank account, and you can’t own any property. So only a few people are going to do it; a few people already do, and it’s a noble act of conscience but not something that actually hurts the government as much as the government can hurt them. And second, it puts the cart way before the horse. If “everyone” was about to stop paying taxes, we certainly would have been able to get the 68% of everyone who opposes the war to come out to a peaceful demonstration, and we can’t even do that. The point is not the specific act, but that we have to figure out something we can get everyone who opposes the war to do, and that in itself is a monumental task which we are nowhere near being able to accomplish.

The warmakers have made it clear that they don’t care what people think. Cheney said it flat out in the runup to March 19: “We don’t make policy based on opinion polls.” They do care, though, what people do, at least if what those people are doing makes it hard for them to continue governing. So the $64,000 question is, what is there that masses of people would actually do that the government would care about? It would not necessarily be one thing, but some set of things which would signify actual resistance, not resignation.

We can’t just sit around waiting for everyone to stop paying their taxes, but we do need to reframe the concept of resistance. One thing we need to stop doing is equating resistance with demonstrations. I think demonstrations are important, but they are only one kind of resistance. There are people who are never going to go to a demonstration, because, as my friend Jean says, they are just convinced that’s not something people like them do. So we need to open up discussions which will elicit “culturally appropriate” (credit to Jean again) forms of resistance for different communities. But that’s not going to happen by itself, and it’s not as easy as it sounds because anything that is effective is going to come in for repression. If enough people start hanging “Stop the War” signs in their windows that the government feels that’s a threat they can’t ignore, they’re going to outlaw hanging signs in windows.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that if that happened, fewer people would be willing to do it. Repression can energize resistance as often or more often than it discourages it, because people figure that the government doesn’t repress things that aren’t making a difference.

The other day, I got an email at work, from a secretary forwarding a job from the attorney she works for. I’m not sure whether it was the secretary or the attorney, but one of them had as her epigram the quote from Gandhi, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” I thought, if someone who works at a big corporate law firm chooses that tag line for their email, maybe we’re closer to winning than I thought.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Are we the ones we're waiting for?

March 16, 2008

For the last four months I’ve been focused on March 19, the fifth anniversary of the second war on Iraq, and now it is here. My goal was to reinvigorate a militant anti-war movement this season, and I would say that it looks like we have done that. Direct Action to Stop the War II, a group (or grouping, which remains to be seen) initiated principally by people who were involved in the shutdown of San Francisco in March 2003, has pulled in a couple hundred people, mostly in their 20s, who haven’t been involved directly in organizing for the last several years, and they have good energy. On the other hand, while a lot of people have come to meetings and plan to participate in actions, despite very good intentions, we have somehow not succeeded in getting a lot of them involved in doing work, with the result that it still feels like a few people are taking most of the responsibility, a lot of us have too many different responsibilities to fulfill them all well, and the very ambitious actions feel a little underorganized.

Yesterday was the first of two actions we organized for this anniversary, a rally and blockade at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond (a city just north of Berkeley). The rally was organized mainly by community groups which have for a long time been battling Chevron on environmental issues, and are now fighting a proposed expansion of the refinery. It drew a good crowd – estimates differ of how good, my estimate was 800-1,000; the Chronicle said “more than 300”, other activists put it somewhere in between and I imagine the organizers would say 1,500. There was great music and spoken word mixed in with the speeches, few of which I heard because I was involved in doing a lightning direct action training/orientation for about 20 people who were just plugging into the blockade yesterday. This was my first experience with a super-short training (just under an hour) and I have to admit, you can get a lot in if you’re really focused.

One thing that was kind of disappointing about the rally and the march that followed was that most of the community participants were white (though there was prominent leadership by two African American men), in a community that is overwhelmingly African American and Latino. Even more disappointing was that very few people from the Richmond community participated in the blockade. Neither of these facts was shocking, given that the sponsoring organizations in Richmond were groups like Communities for a Better Environment and Richmond Greens, along with West County Toxics Coalition, an environmental justice group. A friend, who was arrested in yesterday’s action at Chevron, pointed out that at the same time there was a community-wide mobilization in the African American churches that brought out 1,000 volunteers for a day without killing – Richmond has one of the highest murder rates in the state. The fact that we (or at least I) did not even know about this parallel action in the same small city highlights the fact that it is harder than we sometimes want to admit to bridge the huge cultural and political divides that exist in our society.

Last week, there was a panel on direct action as part of a larger strategy for anti-war movement building. At one point, a woman who identified herself as “poor and old” spoke up to say, “Convince me, and others like me, that we should take the risk to participate in your direct action.” Asked to restate the question, one of the panelists said, “She is bringing up the point that many people who are poor can’t take the risk of participating in actions where they might be arrested.” The woman shook her head. “No,” she said, “I want to take the risk. I want you to tell me why I should take the risk.” This exchange (which I’m totally paraphrasing and hopefully not further mischaracterizing) really made me think.

The statement that the panelist made, that people who are poor and/or people of color can’t risk arrest by participating in civil disobedience/direct action, is invoked so often in movement circles, it’s like a mantra. While it’s true that it’s a lot easier for people with class and race privilege to blithely throw ourselves into the arms of police, the mantra irritates me. The fact is that poor people and people of color have done direct action a lot more than rich white people have. If you make a list of campaigns that utilized civil disobedience or direct action, or if you look at one of the lists that others have made, 80% of the campaigns are going to be ones led by people who were either poor or of color or both. To name just a few: the campaigns against apartheid in South Africa (both here and there); the civil rights movement; the labor movements on every continent; the occupation of the refineries in Nigeria a few years back; the rebellions against privatization in Argentina and Bolivia; the first Palestinian Intifada. To say that people can’t take the risk of direct action is to let ourselves off the hook. What I think the woman at the panel was getting at is that most people won’t take the risk because we’re the ones who are asking them to, and they have no reason to trust us, or to think that our interests are theirs.

The flip side is that only a tiny fraction of the people who can well afford to take the (minimal) risk involved in doing direct action in San Francisco or Richmond are going to take it. And for this we also let ourselves off the hook, by telling ourselves that they’re not doing it because they don’t agree with us, they’re in favor of the war, they’re unenlightened or they’re disempowered. But it’s not true. Over two-thirds of people in this country oppose the war; in the Bay Area, it’s probably closer to 85%. In March 2003, something like 20,000 people participated in the direct action in San Francisco, which was unprecedented. That was 10% or less of the people who had participated in marches against the war before it started, less than 0.4% of the population of the Bay Area.

I’m not trying to say that most of the 6,000,000 people in the Bay Area could be convinced to risk arrest or engage in some other form of active resistance. But a lot more of them could be than the 500 or 1,000, or less, who are going to do it this year. And they too are not going to do it because of us, because of what my friend Gopal calls our “self-marginalizing behavior.” Most of them are not going to do it because we’re not going to ask them. We’re not going to ask them because we think they’ll say no, or because they’re not the people we want, or because we look down on their lifestyles or their fashion sense. We might hand people a flier at BART on Tuesday or Wednesday, but few people decide to join an action, especially one that carries an unfamiliar risk, because some stranger hands them a flier. They might do it if a coworker asked them, or a family member, or someone in their church choir or someone in their cancer support group. But I’m not going to ask my coworkers, because they’ll say no, and I’m not going to ask the women in my support group because I think they’ll think I’m weird.

At a meeting of Direct Action to Stop the War in January, one of the few African American women there said that in her community, the attitude toward the anti-war movement is “What have they done for us lately?” I looked around the room and I thought, honestly, a lot of the people there have done a lot. There are quite a few people in this grouping who work for community based organizations, for free or for pay. There are union organizers, teachers, counselors, nurses, people who work on immigration rights, people who work on housing rights, people who work against gentrification. What those people haven’t done, though, is bring the people they’re working with in those community-based organizations to this anti-war organizing. I don’t know if that’s because they’re embarrassed to invite people to an almost all-white, class-privileged group, or because they have invited people and they don’t want to come. I know one friend said some of her friends said they didn’t want to go because everyone is white, and she said, “Well, if you come, they won’t be.” But they didn’t.

Alliance building across race and class is really difficult in this country, and it seems to me that it gets more difficult all the time. I’ve been in a lot of groups that have tried to do it over the years, and most of them failed. But one reason we fail is because we don’t acknowledge how much time it takes. If we’re serious about building alliances with people who don’t know or trust us, that’s what we’re going to be doing for the next six months or a year or more. We’re not going to be able to build the alliances and organize a major anti-war action in four months. We can’t go to a community where we’re not known with our agenda, and say, “Want to do this?” We have to go with no agenda, to support what they are doing. After we’ve been around for a while, shown ourselves to be reliable, then we might be able to say, “Hey, you know what else I’m doing?” and then maybe some of them would say, “Well I might be interested in checking that out.” And then again, they might not.

But we need to realize too that if we did that, we would not be organizing creative, militant anti-war actions, and that feels pretty important right now too. So maybe –I’m not saying it is, but it’s possible – it’s better to just admit that we’re not who we wish we were and concentrate on doing what we can do. Or maybe, we should think about the risks we have not been willing to take, and what it’s going to take to get us to have that conversation with our families, our doctors and our accountants.