Marching to Nowhere?
On March 20th, 2003, as bombs fell on Iraq, I joined with the thousands who took to the streets of Portland, Oregon, to express our rage against the war and to disrupt business as usual. One year on, I decided to travel to the Bay Area to check out the anti-war/anti-occupation demonstration there. What follows is not an attempt at a comprehensive report-back; I will merely describe my own experience, and draw a few general lessons from what I saw.
Marching to Nowhere?
Some Thoughts on the San Francisco M20 Demonstration
On March 20th, 2003, as bombs fell on Iraq, I joined with the thousands who took to the streets of Portland, Oregon, to express our rage against the war and to disrupt business as usual. That day, intersections were occupied, some freeways were temporarily blocked, and a couple of ugly businesses got trashed. A mass rally also took place. Surprisingly, we did not stop the war, but our fightback made a difference - we demonstrated to each other that it was possible to go beyond resignation and passivity. The question was how to be more focused and effective from then on. For some of us, San Francisco's actions of the same day hinted at solutions; the shutdown of that city's financial district was an inspiration. One year on, I decided to travel to the Bay Area to check out the anti-war/anti-occupation demonstration there. What follows is not an attempt at a comprehensive report-back; I will merely describe my own experience, and draw a few general lessons from what I saw. I hope that this exercise will be useful to those already active around the occupation, and perhaps also those who wish to be.
Much has changed over one year. From a US military standpoint, a relatively "easy" invasion has turned into a dangerous, unstable occupation. Not everyone who took to the streets a year ago has been able to adequately deal with these changes. Back then, we put an emphasis on stopping any more bombs from falling. We put up a decent fight, and also failed; looking back, we probably never had a chance of winning on such terms. Now, a different situation calls for a new approach, new understanding and a new set of goals, but making the transition to this has been done only slowly, and some refuse to even start.
The March 20th demonstration in San Francisco is a case in point. I have read estimates of up to 20,000 people participating in this event - while this number may be an over-estimate, the crowd was large indeed. Even so, it seems that many who shut down the financial district last year stayed home this time around. The start of a bombing campaign makes the underlying issues appear more urgent. The current quagmire enrages even those who initially supported the war, but many presume that the situation will drag on no matter what they do. There is less action, when there could be more and better.
The crowd, meeting at Dolores Park, was diverse. As well as pacifists, liberals, Greens and the usual "hard left" paper-sellers, it seemed as though many people without a rigid political ideology had decided to come along. The two groups centrally involved in the planning of the official event - one a "front group" for the Workers World Party, the other for the Revolutionary Communist Party - must have been excited about the presence of so many potential recruits. I wonder how much luck they had explaining the "historically progressive" nature of despotic states to the everyday folk who showed up.
As in Portland protests, there was also an anarchist contingent that set itself apart from the rest of the crowd with its black clothes, black flags and dubious fashion sense. Other anarchists attended without adopting such externals. I'll comment some more on the anarchists' contributions later.
The march itself was occasionally spirited, but often boring. The state was generous enough to give the demonstrators a full police escort, with cops often flanking the march on both sides. This limited certain possibilities, especially of people moving more freely and fluidly, striking up conversations with those passing by on the street, or doing urban redecoration along the way. In any case, a sizable police presence is to be expected at mass events. Many on the march did not even visibly resent this - the cops were there to help them to exercise their constitutional rights and speak truth to power, as well as to protect them from irresponsible elements. Nothing wrong with that, after all.
While the main march was on its way to its final destination of the Civic Center, the chants and slogans were for the most part predictable - from kicking Bush out in November to something about imperialism. I was grateful for the few marching bands, to those who got genuinely pissed off and started venting, and also to the Bay Area friends I bumped into at the park - all saved the walk from being an utter dud. Sometimes the mood of the crowd would pick up and I felt enthused for a few minutes; other times, it did not. The more vocal of the crowd spoke morally about something they felt was wrong, while others talked the angry militant talk. In both cases, the occupation of Iraq was presented as an "issue" - a campaign issue, a moral issue, or an issue of militancy - but not as something intimately connected with the day-to-day lives we lead here in the states. Only one placard truly made an impact on me all day. It read, "I want my son brought home."
At the civic center, there was the usual milling around. If speakers began their sermons, I didn't notice. Meanwhile, some of the black-clad crowd started gathering together. Near the end of the sanctioned stroll, I had been handed a flyer for a breakaway march. I had also read something about this earlier in the week - somehow it was supposed to tie in with local struggles, although the wording was vague, probably deliberately so. Some friends and I decided to check it out. It would be good to see what the radicals were up to. First we had to wait for this faction to get its shit together and start moving, though. Our wait was longer than expected. When people got going, there was an effort to move from one part of the gathering to that catercorner to it, through the entire dense crowd in-between. Or, at least, this seemed to be the plan; in yet another victory of "security culture", we were kept guessing the whole time. The idea of moving in this direction soon proved impossible, so the breakaway left from the section of street nearest to it.
The surprising aspect of the breakaway was that it involved many people who had clearly just heard about it, or who simply saw it starting and wanted to participate. Many of these people were not anarchists, or conscious radicals of any sort. When it began, this action appeared to involve almost a thousand people, although it's hard to estimate correctly when actually within the crowd. We set on our way, without ever knowing our destination.
After marching a few blocks, it was clear that the cops were ahead of the game - flanking the breakaway and blocking its progress at several intersections. This caused a couple of 180-degree turns - we advanced in one direction, then quickly had to turn around and head back in the other. This did little to add to the breakaway's overall cohesion. The bloc of agitators was not tightly grouped - some took off running to reach a certain point, while others were left lagging behind. Still, at this time the breakaway carried a trace of excitement and dynamism; despite an already large police presence, we did manage to move with greater freedom than the official demonstration. The breakaway contained no march stewards to help the cops with their jobs, and, more importantly, the crowd didn't care about obeying police orders. This was refreshing.
The crisis came at 5th and Market. Taking advantage of gaps within the breakaway, the SFPD moved in to decapitate the march. The boys in blue surrounded over fifty people at the head of the breakaway, while police also stepped in to block everyone else's advance down the street. Although the breakaway was disobedient, its participants did not have the strength to seriously interfere with this cop action. In a charming gesture, a few smoke bombs were lobbed towards the Law, but the impact of this was purely symbolic. The police took well over an hour to mass arrest the unlucky fifty, while individuals stood on the sidelines, videotaping and shouting words of encouragement to their encircled friends. At a certain point, a reduced breakaway took off from the scene of the mass arrest. I did not manage to join this, but later heard that it was viciously suppressed by the cops.
Once the police had made all their arrests at 5th and Market, the crowd there began to thin. And that was it - end of the protest, with a vague sense of defeat.
A debate has raged recently over the importance of street demonstrations to anti-occupation activity. Some have encouraged people to stay on the streets, while others claim that this tactic is meeting with diminishing returns. Although this year's demonstration in San Francisco was anticlimactic and sorely disappointing, a single example is not enough to argue for the complete abandonment of marches and street protests. There may be times when such tactics become useful, especially when there is already large social struggle. These opportunities ought to be seized. However, the elevation of a tactical choice to a matter of strategy or principle is dangerous. At best, protest after protest leads to wasted energy; at worst, skulls get cracked open without any gain being made. Those promoting street protests must articulate what precisely they hope to achieve through them; if their only response is a guilt-trip, or a moralistic appeal to "do something," there is little reason for their advice to be followed.
I went to the San Francisco demonstration because opportunities genuinely existed there. These opportunities were not from the protest organizers, nor were they those of the "fuck shit up" crew, who clearly wouldn't be seeing the city in flames that day. Those attending had a chance to begin talking about how the occupation actually impacts on their lives, and what it means to oppose it. In a crowd where not everyone was a political weirdo, this could have been a powerful achievement. I saw little of this discussion, though. What I saw were propagandists advancing their agendas, their logic concerning mass recruitment, rather than honest communication. The official march also attempted to push an anti-Empire product to the public at home, through soundbites and large march numbers quoted on the evening news. But some of us did not want to sell our perspectives as commodities. For us, the march could only have meaning as it became subverted, allowing for real human interaction. The breakaway signaled such promise, but ended badly for other reasons. (In particular, the anarchists could have challenged their own ultra-militant mythology, which so often leads to stupid decisions.)
I learned in San Francisco that the numbers game won't get us anywhere. It is true that thousands may do things that dozens cannot, but these things are only worth doing when each in the crowd has a sense of purpose. Our slogans mean nothing when they're disconnected from the real world; it is this world, not newspaper headlines or TV reports, which we need to change. We need to define our agenda independently of the mass media, and from the organizers fixated on it. Such a change would have made a crucial difference in SF this year.
Why does the occupation matter? Is it not because the market-friendly agenda imposed on Iraq is the very same one that ruins our desire here, exposing us to drudgery, meaningless work, poverty and the brutality of the powers-that-be? If it is a global order that needs to be scrapped, we need to start understanding this system. Sloganeering about how Bush is mean and stupid, how imperialism is nasty, or how authority ain't all that cool, simply won't cut it anymore. Supporting the troops is equal bullshit - do we support them when they fire into unarmed crowds, or when they rebel and want out, for example? We have great opportunities to link up not only with military discontent, but also with defiant Iraqis, who have never been the mere victims the US Left portrays them to be. Over the last quarter century, the Iraqi people have struggled with an intensity that puts the US dispossessed to shame. Starting to understand what this struggle really is, what is at stake and what we can do - all of this requires effort. Yet this effort has the possibility of actually making a difference. Anything else is just a dead end or an activist daydream; it is so much crap. Informed action may do what illusions cannot - through it, we may work towards US military breakdown, and revolt everywhere.
San Francisco this year was an exercise in activism - activity for the sake of activity, for the sake of "doing something," or for the sake of the media. I cannot comment on the activity of those who stayed away from the rally, but what I saw on the streets was a step backwards, a step away from rebellion. We have every opportunity to move forward instead, but this will take a change in priorities. We need connection with the true situation on the ground, and agreement between our analysis and our day-to-day lives. We can do big things, but perhaps we should start with small groups of friends - analyzing the world and our lives, then taking actions that are not simply temper tantrums, thrashing about, or "speaking truth to power". We can't have a mass change if we don't keep it real on the small scale.
And, one year later, we need that change more than ever.
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