When it was first announced that Denver would be hosting the 2008 Democratic National Convention, there were a lot of different responses, but the vast majority amongst the radical left was that of fear and cynicism. People reacted everywhere from vowing to leave the city during convention week to taking a damage control stance, making the argument that “it’s better that we try to shape how this will affect us than the state or other activists we might disagree with.” There was very little local excitement or enthusiasm in organizing around the DNC.
Compare that to the sentiment amongst many anarchists on a national level. In what was probably some of the earliest and most thoughtful dialog around convention protests, the anarchist/anti-authoritarian network Unconventional Action (UA) emerged. The attitudes of those who initiated the UA network stood in stark contrast to many in Denver. Instead of a fear or dread of the negative impact the protests would have on local projects and the straining of resources, UA folks were preparing eagerly for the event, seeing it instead as an important springboard to a revival of anti-capitalist resistance and diversity of tactics at mass mobilizations.
In between this strange tension of outside enthusiasm and inside naysaying grew Unconventional Denver, an appropriate blend of the two. Admittedly, the group really was born of the more hopefully cynicism of Denver- the hope that by participating in the planning process, that we might be able to frame the protests in a less fucked up way than past events have been, maybe even creating some inspiration.
Organizing Amongst a Divided Left
Most major cities have a strong dose of bitterness, burned bridges and sectarianism. Denver is no different. Some had hoped that the DNC might serve as an impetus to band together. Unfortunately, it seems the opposite happened. In the middle of the disagreements, Unconventional Denver stood- caught between groups that had falling outs. We certainly had our own share of slip ups, miscommunications and thoughtlessness. In the end though, we were able to stay out of a lot of the politics and stay focused on our goals for the protests. I would attribute a lot of this to our points of unity: our respect for a diversity of tactics and emphasis on working in a horizontal fashion. Working in a non-hierarchical structure was a great way to show anarchism in action.
The DNC as a Failure Anarchists Talk Big…Again
When Unconventional Denver first started, there was a lot of talk about doing a mobilization right and learning from our mistakes. Somewhere between then and the conventions we got lazy, fell back on the familiar, and recreated some of the exact mistakes we vowed to avoid. I remember at the first few consultas folks were saying that,
• it was better to have an achievable goal we accomplished than call for something vague and grandiose that would fall short
• our actions should speak for themselves
• when you take a snapshot of us in the streets people will know exactly what we are fighting for
• we use the power of satire and humor in a respectful, but effective way against the Democrats
• we recognize the role the DNC plays in the furthering gentrification and racist development of Denver and work with those most affected by those forces to effectively fight its march onward.
One of our biggest faults was that, after our first national consulta, we decided that we would come up with goals for the DNC that would inform our strategy. When making goals, the number one rule is to keep the goals to around three and that those goals be measurable in some way. Doing this helps focus the group and makes them meaningful, something that can be constantly looked at to assess the work we’re doing. We essentially did the opposite- coming up with fourteen goals! Many of them were unrealistic and difficult to measure. Here they all are-
• shut down, disrupt, or delay the convention
• storm convention events
• dismantle Denver’s capitalism, gentrification, and eco-devastation networks
• feel our movement’s power as a confrontational force
• make direct action a threat again
• bring our international anarchist movement back into the public consciousness
• build momentum for the opposition to the RNC
• ensure that the DNC is a thing of rowdy beauty
• turn the DNC’s festivities into our own
• bring the direct action that meets the needs of local communities
• continue multiracial coalitions with multiracial turnouts
• stop racist development and the targeting of immigrant communities
• further Denver anarchist community’s ties with other local struggles
• have such a good time and create something so magnificently awesome that no one will ever want to leave. ever.
So looking back, many of the goals were unrealistic, but even the goals we set which we might have achieved, such as turning the DNC into a thing of “rowdy beauty” isn’t very helpful in guiding us towards whether or not the work we did was a success. Had we come up with two or three very solid goals it would have helped us tremendously in terms of prioritizing when our small, overtextended group repeatedly tried to take everything on, oftentimes forcing us to abandon efforts or scale them back significantly.
Radical Shouldn’t Mean Irrelevant
Radical politics should strike a chord with those who experience the violence of the state and capitalism in the most acute ways. The Democratic National Convention was an event that fit perfectly into the City of Denver’s continual racist and classist development. The changing face of Denver is one that is very insidious. Mayor Hickenlooper, a liberal Democrat, is a down to earth, feel-good guy who has prompted many nice sounding initiatives: a Denver Greenprint, opening of the new Denver Art Museum, reinvestment into Downtown Denver, Denver’s Road Home initiative are a few of the projects spearheaded by the City. This new, hip, eco-friendly urban center is accessible only to a certain demographic, namely rich middle to upper class residents. While the Denver Art Museum opens its doors, police are targeting neighborhoods of color with aggressive “Broken Windows” policing. As Denver touts its initiative for the homeless, the city ups its harassment of people in Civic Center Park and declares that all free food programs need to be moved inside and out of sight.
The Democratic National Convention was exactly the type of major event needed to continue pushing forward a progressive image while simultaneously securing extra funding and equipment to forcibly maintain the inequities of capitalism. The push to move the food distribution programs inside had been on the table for years, but suddenly it found extra funding and urgency to make it happen in time for the DNC. The Democratic National Convention also supported the push for posh retail outlets and high end restaurants at the expense of local, long time businesses. The City continued pouring in money to redeveloped areas of downtown while a housing crisis displaces communities that have been together for generations.
What would the DNC protests have looked like if Unconventional Denver and other protest groups used this analysis to guide organizing? The sad part is that we had this analysis early on. We even had it buried in the long list of goals. Again, had we been more purposeful in our intent maybe we would have ensured that we spend the time to educate ourselves on these issues and ask those struggling against police brutality and gentrification, how the DNC protests could aid their work and where we could work in coalition with one another. Instead, with vague aspirations of making direct action a threat again, we settled into white privilege and the familiar, to neglect real coalition building
So the cynics were right. We didn’t disrupt the functionings of the DNC, our messaging was at times unclear, the protests lacked broad diverse participation and both our major days of action- disrupting the fundraisers and blockading the convention were completely called off. Once again, we anarchists talked big and failed to follow through.
The DNC as a Success
But the cynics were also wrong, and probably wrong on the most important level. The Democratic National Convention is a symbolic event. Unlike a free trade agreement meeting where actual decisions must be made, in which direct action can actually affect those outcomes, the DNC was completely scripted. We knew who would be elected and even shutting the convention down completely would not prevent the two-party system from moving forward.
The primary point of organizing for the conventions was to revive the diversity of tactics model and make anti-capitalism relevant again. We wanted to leave a new generation of activists with a sense of the power that comes from organizing to make change ourselves instead of electing leaders. We wanted to highlight the brutality of the state and the beauty of resistance. In this sense, we won and we won big.
Dynamite Comes in Small Packages
For a group as small as we were, we fucking rocked it. Despite being one of the smallest DNC protest groups our productivity was impressive. As a result, anarchists and anarchist messages were prominent throughout the week: the Reclaim the Streets event; the anti-capitalist march, the green and black bloc and the key roles anarchists played in the Iraq Veterans Against the War march
I’d much rather have a deeply flawed mobilization spark a renewed enthusiasm for resistance, than one which saps resources or ends as soon as the police leave the streets of a city to continue its occupation of neighborhoods. I know that the DNC imbibed a new sense of hope amongst myself and many other anarchists and radicals. Let’s take that energy forward.