All posts by P Wingnut

Tips for disruption

The proposal to the General Assembly calling for the Oakland general strike stated “All banks and corporations should close down for the day or we will march on them.” However, except for shutting down the Port in the evening, only a handful of banks were blockaded and shut down during the strike. Most of the thousands of people in downtown that day stayed close to the occupation except for a few short marches. As a result, while a few blocks were closed to traffic and totally disrupted, it generally seemed like a normal day only a few blocks from the occupation on November 2.

If there is another general strike, the participants will have to determine whether it makes sense to try harder at disrupting business as usual as much as our numbers might allow, or whether a mostly symbolic day of action is enough.

Following are suggestions on how to disrupt business as usual in an urban area:

In a protest, you request change from those in power. Direct action is when people ignore those in power and build new forms of social interaction on their own — cooperatively organizing housing, farms, workplaces, etc. Militant disruption falls between traditional protest and direct action — the common situation in which people reject the authority and legitimacy of those in power, yet don’t have sufficient social resources to just build a world outside the rulers’ control. Disruption seeks to prevent business as usual and resist social control, thereby weakening the rulers and opening possibilities for new social structures.

Tactics that evade the police are almost always the most disruptive. All too often, you see would-be militants getting caught up in the cop game by focusing on confronting the police — pushing against a police line, etc. This is a mistake. When you confront the police, it usually results in order, not disorder, because the police know precisely where you are. They can re-route traffic around you, maintaining productivity and business as usual everywhere else except on your tiny corner until they can amass enough forces to surround and bust your ass.

If you see a police line, it is usually best to go the other way or melt away and regroup elsewhere. This keeps police guessing and confused while you’re free to cause chaos. The police are organized centrally and use radios which can only communicate between two locations at a time. If we can keep mobile in several different groups, their hierarchical structure has a much harder time keeping track of it all. If you’re lucky, you and a group of friends can get together, run through a business district, push some dumpsters into the middle of traffic, and generally run amok. If you keep moving, you’ll never see any police because by the time they arrive at a particular location, you’ll be gone. Sometimes you can watch cop helicopters to figure out locations cops are concerned with.

The police hope we’ll engage them on their level – it is up to us to figure out realms in which we hold the advantage:

• Maintaining traffic flow is a weak link for the system – causing traffic chaos is very disruptive to the system. The day the Iraq war started, a few hundred people were able to shut down traffic in downtown San Francisco with flying traffic blockades. As few as 20 people materialized on the street a safe distance from police, joined hands to block traffic, and stood in the street for a few moments. When police approached, the line melted away. These short interruptions in flow caused a ripple effect blocks away and gridlock for miles.

• Disruption and disorder can take many forms. Sometimes, creating beautiful or humorous expressions of the world we seek to build — music, art, gardens, public sex, bicycle swarms, etc. — can be disruptive while avoiding the system’s “us and them” paradigm. A disruptive march on leap day action night in 2004 invaded bank lobbies but threw only glitter and popcorn. Another tied doors shut with a pretty red bow.

What to Bring

For mobility, you want to travel as light as possible and avoid bulky signs, props or costumes. Leave those to the protesters. Carry water in a squirt bottle for drinking and to treat chemical weapons. Use a fanny pack or bag that doesn’t get in the way in case you have to run. Not everyone has to adopt the black bloc uniform – it can be like wearing a huge target on your ass. You may be able to get away with more if you’re dressed so you don’t stand out.

If weather permits, water repellent clothes protect skin from pepper spray. Layers are good because they provide padding and can be used for disguise/escape. In hot weather, dress comfortably — avoiding heatstroke and dehydration so you can run is way more important than protection from chemical weapons, padding or a disguise. Wear good running shoes. Don’t wear contact lenses, loose jewelry, loose long hair or anything the cops can grab, or any oil based skin product that may make chemical weapons exposure worse. Carefully consider if you want to bring drugs, weapons, burglary tools or anything that would get you in extra trouble if arrested.

Affinity Groups/Decision Making

Affinity groups are small action cells — usually 4-8 people — who share attitudes about tactics and who organize themselves for effectiveness and protection. The best affinity groups are people with pre-existing relationships who know and trust each other intimately. Decisions are (hopefully) made democratically, face-to-face and quickly on the spot. In a chaotic situation, affinity groups make decision making (as opposed to just reacting) possible, while watching each others’ backs. Affinity groups with experience and a vision can take the initiative and start something when the larger crowd is standing around wondering what to do next.

Some affinity groups use a code word which any member can yell if they have an idea for what the group should do next. Upon hearing the word, others in the group yell it too, until the whole group gathers up and the person who called the huddle makes a proposal. The group can then agree to the proposal, or quickly discuss alternatives, and then move. A code word can also allow regrouping when the group gets separated in a chaotic situation. Sometimes someone in the group holds a visible sign or flag to help keep the group together. It is a good idea for everyone in the group to discuss their limits before an action. During the action, taking time to check in about how everyone is feeling will keep the group unified. Don’t forget to eat and take pee breaks — a lot easier when someone can act as lookout while you duck behind a dumpster.

Chemical weapons

The police use these weapons to scare and disperse crowds. While these weapons can be painful and dangerous to people with medical issues, most people can endure tear gas and pepper spray just fine, thank you. Don’t believe rumors about use of these weapons — these rumors frequently circulate and are often false.

If you see tear gas, stay calm and focused and avoid it as much as possible. If there is wind, the gas is likely to blow away quickly. Some people are more chemically sensitive than others, so everyone has to decide individually what their body can accept, no questions asked. Throwing gas canisters back is heroic and looks great, but be careful of hitting other demonstrators or burning your hand. The canister might be fairly cool right after it goes off but heats up quickly — a heavy glove helps. Pepper spray is nasty — the best advice is to avoid getting hit by it. If you get hit, don’t spread it around or rub your eyes. You may need help from a medic to clean up. If you get hit with tear gas or pepper spray, avoid contact with others (including pets) until you wash off and change clothes.

Let’s Get Freaky

A call for diversionary tactics

In the wake of the election, wingnuts – already teetering on the fringes of reality – have got our work cut out for us. If in fact we now face the prospect of a Christian fundamentalist assault on abortion, gays, birth control – probably alcohol, drugs and porn, too, if they get a chance – then it’s high time to begin a counter-offensive — the best defense is a good offense!

Folks on the extreme fringes have a crucial role right now — which is to be on the extreme fringe and keep the political spectrum as wide as possible. The right-wing would like to move the debate ever further to the right – so that fringe issues and in fact fringe reality doesn’t even exist. If this happens, what are now the moderate issues could become the far-out end of the political continuum.

For example, Bush is believed to have used the gay marriage issue to help him win the election. We have to keep in mind that gay marriage is essentially an attempt by the more mainstream wing of the gay movement to assimilate into the mainstream – to be entitled to everything “normal” people are entitled to. That is cool and a worthy goal – but on the fringes, we have to recognize that winning gay marriage isn’t the radical forefront – having polyamorous, gender traitorous orgies in the streets is more like it. Right now, mainstream civil rights groups are talking about how they’re going to avoid pressing demands for gay marriage for the moment, because the movement for gay marriage is creating a perfect wedge issue. That is a calculation by responsible folks – many of whom have “activist” jobs with non-profits. Out on the fringes, reality looks a little different – those Christians would be begging gays to have nice, monogamous, suburban lives if they realized the alternative options for queer chaos. If gay marriage is a threat to het marriage, doesn’t polyamorous sexual chaos represent an even greater threat?

If you want equal rights for gays to be “normal” people, then the offensive strategy is to fight for the freaks. If you want to stay on the defensive, then do what the moderates do – pull gay marriage off the table because it might offend the Christian right, and see if you can work on subtle changes to the tax code or whatever to provide more space for folks in civil unions.

The same theory works for most issues – Earth First! or the Earth Liberation Front define the fringes of the environmental movement while the Sierra Club engineers sensible compromises that usually leave the earth worse off. Playing defense is always going to get us the crumbs. The Christian right didn’t win the last election by playing defense – they fought for what they actually wanted. The fringe is always tiny and marginalized, and usually has influence far beyond its apparent marginalization. Those of us on the fringe have to remember that as millions of Kerry voters sink into a post-election depression — we have to avoid catching their negative energy.

Radicals in America have a lot to learn from the rebels in Iraq. When you’re battling an empire, a lot of times it’s not the best idea to launch a frontal assault on heavily armed troops. Instead, the guerrilla looks for weak spots, looks to distract the enemy from it’s main goal, looks to move in the shadows until the crucial moment. Being a radical in America, we share a common struggle with the rebels in Iraq – we reject the brutal American empire and its occupation of our homes. But conditions are not precisely the same — conditions are totally inappropriate for tiny bands of youth to “go underground” and take up small arms in the USA. That may sound romantic to a few people, but a romantic suicide doesn’t help anyone. However, the root of guerrilla tactics still apply – we need to pick fights that favor our spontaneity, flexibility, the element of surprise and our other strengths and avoid battles on terrain chosen by the rulers.

When a baby wants to play with a hot fire place poker, you try to distract the baby with something a little safer, like a rattle. The right wing wants to spend the next four years going after abortion, gays and women. The fringe has an opportunity to distract them and force them to waste their energy instead of using their time effectively. So like the guerrillas in Iraq, who launched an uprising in Mosul while US forces invaded Falluja, as wingnuts we ought to be figuring out diversionary attacks that we can mount against religious fundamentalists, rather than spending the next four years in a defensive mode trying to preserve a mainstream status quo.

I’ve been trying to think of actions designed to be so outrageous that the right-wing would be forced to drop what they want to do to stop them. Even if such actions don’t work as diversions, they can help keep the political field broad and let freaks everywhere know that we’re not alone, and we’re not going away!

But figuring out appropriate actions is hard when the stakes are high and your main strengths are humor and being a total freak — you don’t want to just have a really outrageous Sodomy in the Streets (SITS) party while the US empire is shooting civilians in Iraq. My friend thinks we could disrupt reality by going around the country planting marijuana seedballs so pot would start growing everywhere like the weed it is. Cute idea, but let’s be serious.

Another idea I had right after the election was to mount a campaign of Bible Burning. Remember a few years ago when the political establishment had to drop what it was doing to try to stop flag burning? For some reason this totally symbolic act by a tiny number of wingnuts drove the political establishment nuts. So I was thinking, if flag burning drives ‘em crazy, how about Bible burning? But I think this is probably not a great tactic for a few reasons: it’s scary and negative, evoking images of Nazi book burnings, it ignores the liberatory threads of some religious folks, and it only highlights what we’re against, not what we can be for. I do like it because it could be an insane diversionary tactic – wouldn’t it be great if church groups spent time banning bible burning instead of banning abortion? We need to be creative, but also be thoughtful and not allow our own fear and prejudices to lead us into our own intolerant actions. Intolerance is a far greater threat to the fringe than to the mainstream.

Because we’re in the belly of the beast here in the U$A, we have a crucial role – determination and even some discipline are in order. We have to use all means at hand in the struggle – a wide variety of tactics gives us the best chance to discover what will work.

After turning it over in my mind for the past few weeks, I have to admit that I have no idea what kind of actions we need to be up to, but I’m pretty sure we need to try some new things. The night after the election, the usual suspects gathered on Mission Street in San Francisco to protest, but this response seemed weak and somehow inappropriate. We shouldn’t stop protesting and resisting, of course, but couldn’t we be a little less ritualistic? If we have rallies and protests to lift our spirits, act in solidarity with peace and freedom loving people outside the USA, and show that there are alternatives to the grim drumbeat of war and capitalism, that is great. But our protests need to serve our own purposes — traditional protests seem less relevant at the moment.

I think the best hope is for lots of people all over to think of some new ideas and try some freak experiments — and then report the results to everyone else. Decentralization and diversity are strengths in uncertain times. Seize the moment and let your freak flag fly!

Leaping Into a New World

Universal Uprising – Leap Day 2004

Crafts and Insurrection Convergence (and various independent troublemakers) are calling for a spontaneous universal uprising on Leap Day – February 29, 2004. Leap day is an extra day — a blank slate waiting to be transformed into a spontaneous, inspirational rebellion against dreary business as usual. Every other day, the wheels of global industrial capitalism spin around, running over our freedom and the earth in the process. It’s up to us to try to make leap day a little different.

Leaping is an uplifting, explosive, hopeful action. Try it right now. Do you feel better? I thought so. Leaping is how you get from where you are stuck, across a wide creek in the forest, to the other side and new possibilities. You leave the ground and fly free into the unknown.

In the radical milieu, far too much of our energy goes into tired, ritualistic protests. Usually, a protest is focused on being against something. As such, many protests are inherently reactionary, not proactive. They allow our rulers to set the agenda, and then we predictably turn out to try and stop it. The best that can be achieved in this model is the status quo, and the worst is that the protest is a failure and the rulers get their way.

You can’t build a successful movement to create change and build a new society by just being against something, or everything. When do these oppositional protests ever allow us to put out our vision for the future? You know you’re in trouble when conservatives — whose agenda is literally to turn back the clock — accuse you of supporting policies of the past because you’re spending time fighting to defend gains made in the 1930s or the 1960s.

Always protesting makes us come off as whiny and negative. People don’t always want to join the losing team or identify as the underdogs or oppressed. In a lot of left circles, it feels like a competition to see who is the most oppressed and fucked over — you win if you lose the most. This is not going to be a successful strategy to organize a movement to win gains and change society — it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and oppression.

Recently, Berkeley anarchists started a soccer club, and named it Kronstadt, after an incident in post-revolutionary Russia in which the Soviet Army defeated and massacred rebellious anarchist troops. This is telling in terms of how we see ourselves — we too often worship failure, defeat, and even our own slaughter! You don’t ever see our rulers celebrating the time they got their ass kicked.

So Leap Day is an opportunity to have an action for something and not against anything. Leap Day is a totally arbitrary day, and thus it puts the onus on radicals to think about what we want, and figure out how to communicate and promote our goals.

The proposal for a universal uprising on Leap Day is totally open-ended in terms of tactics, goals and strategy. The idea is that folks across the universe will get together and figure out how to use their extra day for something exciting and new. This could range from individual actions of sabotage, disruption, art, music, or enjoyment, to more organized forms of rebellion or building and development.

The hope is that people will let their imagination run free and wild, incorporating forms of expression never seen before. Why should every protest have the same signs, the same puppets, the same chants? Maybe there could be an action at rush hour of totally silent mimes or scary clowns. What does our vision of the future look like, and can we build a little piece of it right now to show around? How can we go beyond involving the same young-ish, white-ish people as always?

Leap Day is about breaking down the separation between activism and living our lives full of enjoyment and freedom. Living full joyful lives must ultimately be the same as building a new world.

You don’t need permission to celebrate Leap Day, and there is no organization, no structure, no email list! There is no success or failure. This is about taking matters into your own two hands and seeing what might happen.

The first radical action specifically inspired by leap day (that I’m aware of) happened on Feb. 29, 2000. There was only one meeting to organize the action because we wanted it to be long on action, inspiration and leaping into the future, and short on the typical boring meetings. We decided that we would make puppets, but not the huge kind you usually see at street protests. Too heavy to leap in. Too bulky to run from the cops in. We decided to make finger puppets, and then have puppet shows in front of all of the chain stores and banks in downtown Berkeley.

We had a sound system on a bike and really cool finger puppets representing all the factions present in Seattle when we shut down the WTO: police, protesters, turtles, jeerleaders, even a John Zerzan finger puppet to talk to the media. If you want to shut down a business district, try doing finger puppet shows right in their front doors with a bullhorn. What are they really going to do but shut down? The cops were too confused to really do anything, and after smashing a TV and VCR in front of the local corporate video rental place Blockbuster, the mob dragged old mattresses out into the streets and simulated sex acts in the road. Happy Leap Day Berkeley!

Leap Day is the only day of the year that hasn’t been declared “national carpet installer day” or whatever. In 2004, it’s our day to start building a new world. Use your extra day wisely and joyfully. Maybe when you wake up on March 1, it will be different, too.

Obituary: Beth O’Brian 1979-2002

Beth aka Horehound, aka Dumpster Leg falls to her death from tree-sit at Eagle Creek, Oregon

“It could have been me but instead it was you So I’ll keep doing the work you were doing as if I were two” — Holly Near

Our friend Beth O’Brien was killed at the Eagle Creek tree-sit in the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon on April 12 2002. She fell 150 feet (50m) when she slipped while climbing a rope ladder between two platforms. She had just snowshoed in with supplies. We know that she was very excited to be there and her death in this tragic accident makes us very sad. She was 22 years old. The tree-sit had just, three days before, succeeded in saving the forest from logging, and activists were only waiting for signed documents canceling the timber sale before coming down.

She was from Santa Rosa, California where she started a local Food Not Bombs, worked with Earth First! and the Purple Berrets-against police brutality and she made many things happen with her energy. Recently she had moved to Oregon to work with the Cascadia Forest Defenders. In the Bay Area we remember her coming to events where she shared her indignation at protests and showed her love of life.

At her funeral in Santa Rosa her Father noted right-wing talk-show host Rush Limbaugh had called her a “Tree-sit suicide bomber” and said “If she was saving the trees why didn’t they save her”. This outraged him and he called for us to take action.

Cascade Forest Alliance noted “Years of community efforts, heralded by direct action, have protected the Eagle Creek area thus far. . . . Tree-sitting is a risk taken to protect our remaining native forest from destruction. It is a tragedy that such risks must be taken. While we recognize the dangers inherent in tree-sitting, we take safety seriously. Tree-sitters and tree-climbing trainers are taught the best safety available and constantly stress the importance of conveying safety protocols to others. This tragic accident results because communities must risk their lives to protect their land. We view Beth’s death in a tradition of courageous action to defend life that extends through decades of non-violent protest in the US and abroad.”

Action tactics fantasies

If anarchists are going to go to leftist or liberal organized demonstrations, at least let’s not act like fucking sheep!

Over the past six months of mass demonstrations against US military action, Israeli atrocities and other post 9-11 outrages, anarchists have faced the same tactical problem over and over again. It goes like this:

The International Action Center (IAC) or some other non-anarchist activist machine calls for a mass demonstration. At the demonstration, anarchists are there in force. We find ourselves perhaps clustering with our friends and acquaintances to march together. But at the crucial moment when an opportunity presents itself to up the militancy of the demonstration, or refuse to be part of something silly planned by liberal “demonstration leaders”, you hear a lot of sarcastic comments and clever suggestions, but nothing happens. We find ourselves marching together to hang out with our friends, but not really acting to shape the demonstration or provide our unique perspective on the issue at hand. We’re basically acting like sheep, which is to say, being lazy.

I even went to one huge demonstration (on April 20 in San Francisco) where a Black Block of anarchists carrying black flags, some even in face masks, acted the same way. Without direction. Without the capacity to act effectively and spontaneously as a group.

Mass demonstration makes you feel sheep-like, each individual seemingly powerless to direct events. The only option is to continue marching ahead with the mass, even when many individuals in the crowd may wish the whole affair wasn’t so lifeless, formalistic, boring. As an individual, what can you do?

The reality is that even a relatively small group within such a mass can redirect events, but only if such a small group has a certain level of organization, communication and decision making capacity.

What isn’t needed is appointment of an anarchist “leader” or formation of it’s bastard cousin – the anarchist “steering committee”. We don’t need more endless meetings to discuss standing institutional structures or figure out precisely how we should act in advance.

The answer to anarchist ineffectiveness and boredom at mass demonstrations is effective affinity group structure. In Seattle at the WTO, about 40 of us from the East Bay made numerous spontaneous decisions quickly and mostly democratically. Whenever it seemed like we needed to decide which way to go or what to do next, anyone in the group could yell a code word (“Wingnut”) and everyone who heard the word would start chanting it too. Within a matter of seconds, everyone in the group heard the word and we would rapidly form a circle. One member of the group carried a pink flag with a drawing of a Wingnut to help keep us together. In the circle, proposals would quickly be made, debated, and a decision reached. If there wasn’t complete consensus, the group could and did split into smaller groups. The key was the feeling of solidarity, flexibility and a commitment to quick decision making. This simple structure or something like it could be worked out in anarchist scenes around the country as a kind of structureless “understanding”.

At a recent IAC organized Berkeley mass march against the Israeli invasion of Palestinian areas, 40 or 50 activists from Students for Justice in Palestine led the formless crowd into a line of police who were protecting the freeway entrance. There were a number of anarchists marching who generally thought this escalation was excellent.

But then, with the sizable crowd stranded before a riot-geared police line, a lot of us realized that the best next step was to keep the crowd moving around the police line, or at least open a second front to create confusion and disrupt the police. The police accomplish their mission of maintaining order when they’re engaged in a stable stand-off with a crowd. They don’t mind – they’re getting overtime and they know precisely where the crowd is.

When the crowd splits into different parts, a third trying to overwhelm another freeway entrance, a third entering a nearby commercial strip, a third tying the police down at the stand-off, the police with their hierarchical decision making structure and limited number of radio channels and event commanders can’t handle it. The first police line must fall back so officers can be pulled off to deal with other groups.

A number of us tried to organize a break-away march, but eventually realized it was hopeless. We’d get a few ready to go, then look for more to join us, and by the time we returned, the original group would have dissolved. We had no way to make spontaneous, effective, democratic decisions and we had no means for quick, spontaneous communication.

Things would have turned out much differently if the anarchist community had reached an “understanding” for spontaneous affinity group formation, structure and tactics. It’s a shame for anarchists to be spending their time at liberal-organized mass demonstrations with so little to show for it. If we can open up ways to spice things up a bit, our time won’t be spent in vain.