Lessons from Miami for the Robo-Cop Era
When we’ve just gotten our asses thoroughly kicked, often the last thing we want to hear is any criticism, no matter how constructive. So to offset that, let me begin by thanking everyone who came to Miami. Your planet is ruled by those who show up, and you did so under obviously dangerous circumstances. And if the playout reflected tactical inexperience, the blame rests on more experienced activists who didn’t come or who, like myself, appeared too late to add to the planning discussions.
These actions are not at all in vain; the large militant turnout at every meeting of corporate globalization has sent the message each time that the conscious people of Earth find this a repugnant wrong turn in the evolution of the whole human species. The demonstrations have contributed vitally to the failure of many negotiations and the watering-down of others, such as the FTAA.
In every city I hear report backs, telling of a city under total militarization, and the repression of even the most innocent spunkiness with a methodical yet thoughtless violence. All this is true. But amidst the disorientation from the surrealism of the police overload, we must not lose sight of our own power under even the most desperate circumstance.
The Myth and Reality of Seattle
“…the blockade was organized in open, public meetings and there was nothing secret about our strategy. My suspicion is that our model of organization and decision-making was so foreign to [the police's] picture of what constitutes leadership that they simply could not see what was going on in front of them.”
Starhawk, “How We Really Shut Down the WTO”
Myths lend meaning to our lives. The Legend of Seattle: People from all walks of life, turtles and teamsters, liberals and anarchists, children to grandpeople, united in a surge of humanity that simply overwhelmed the forces of police repression and corporate dominance. And giant puppets doubled our size! Our vibrant energy created a free zone where all was possible and anything could be created, or destroyed.
There’s a lot of truth in the story, of course. So we’re inspired to try the same thing over and over. But the tale neglects the roles of dumb luck, on the one hand, and adherence to the basic idea of direct action, on the other. Elements of dumb luck include:
* The meeting was scheduled in the Pacific Northwest, ground zero for forest defenders, and just a hoppity from the Bay Area.
* In a city with no tactical police experience since the thirties.
* The Clinton Administration welcomed, encouraged and condoned the protests, in a cynical plot to channel the energy of the people to extract concessions from poor nations (This backfired).
The Essence of Direct Action
To take a homely example. If the butcher weighs one’s meat with his thumb on the scale, one may complain about it and tell him he is a bandit who robs the poor, and if he persists and one does nothing else, this is mere talk; one may call the Department of Weights and Measures, and this is indirect action; or one may, talk failing, insist on weighing one’s own meat, bring along a scale to check the butcher’s weight, take one’s business somewhere else, help open a cooperative store, etc., and these are direct actions. David Wieck, “Habits of Direct Action,” from Liberation, 1958
In these late days, we may just have to live with the term “direct action” being used to mean civil disobedience, sabotage or violence (granted these actions may at times be direct). So to avoid confusion, I’ll ask, how direct are our actions? Substance over symbolism, having a goal, and a reasonable chance of success, are elements of directness. Once we leave the classroom or the butcher shop, actions vary across a continuum of directness. In Seattle, our action plan was kinda direct, because it involved an attempt, although mostly symbolic, to blockade the ministerial. When implemented, the plan became more direct when we succeeded, against probability, in stalling the meetings for hours.
In successive actions, blockading meetings naturally became harder. In DC, the delegates awoke at 4 AM one day to beat the gauntlet. In Philadelphia, the convention was held far from downtown, so disrupting afternoon business as usual became the alternate plan. In Quebec City, unable to surround, people attempted to break through the fence and storm the meeting. Utterly symbolic of course, but spectacular for sure.
In Miami, it was obvious days or weeks ahead that the fence wasn’t coming down. Presumably, when people discussed direct action, they referred to symbolic attempts to pull down the fence (with obvious real consequences), or mysterious unannounced affinity group actions. Discussion focused on how those who did not want to do direct action and those who did could accommodate each other. Secrecy and security are important, but it’s troubling when no one understands what we mean by direct action except that it “gets the goods.”
When we say direct action, we usually mean civil disobedience, sabotage, and occasionally even violence. When the police and the media say violence, they mean civil disobedience, sabotage or any form of direct action. I worry that when we call our behavior direct action, and the police call it violence, and all we’re actually doing is protesting without a permit or parade marshals, in a city that they have closed down where we are not bothering anyone, our language contributes to their terror-baiting of our movement, and the criminalization of all unsupervised dissent.
Who’s fucking streets?
Black Blocs were invented in Europe in the 80s. The Bloc would break off from the mainstream march, destroy a few things, and merge back in to the teeming mass. Since then, mass organizers have asked Black Blocs and other such militants to distance themselves from the main group (if they dare exist at all), out of respect for those with different tactical ideas, or who are more vulnerable to police violence: children, aged, and the disabled.
The problem we’ve seen is that militants blocs are like armor that requires infantry, or ‘gators needin’ a swamp. In Seattle, we still controlled the city at noon, and the Black Bloc went wild. In San Francisco when the war began, the police had mostly regained control of the streets by noon, and the Black Bloc was mass arrested. In Miami the police controlled every inch of downtown pavement all week, and a teeny Black Bloc was dispersed fifteen blocks away. Nice try.
But regardless of militancy, every mass action should have a traffic management plan. Let’s read civil engineering texts on how urban traffic flow is designed. Let’s train ourselves in holding intersections as long as possible and flying to the next one, non-violently of course, as part of an overall plan. And if the traffic situation is hopeless, as it may have been in Miami, let’s keep that in mind in our “direct action” plan; that’s we’re not only surrounded and outnumbered, but paralyzed.
And one last thing, the purpose of meeting up at 7 AM is to blockade someone who meets at 8 AM. Otherwise, as in Miami, for example, where the delegates met in the same hotel they slept in, it just isolates the die-hards, and sleep-deprives the partiers.
The Land of Opportunity
“To be attacked by the enemy is a good thing,” said Mao. While this is an exaggeration, if we’re never attacked we’re probably not being effective.
While direct action often coincides with civil disobedience, the principle is different. The principle of civil disobedience is to not back down against unrighteous force, regardless of the consequences. Tactical direct action is a crime of opportunity. It’s about spotting the weakness- tactical, ethical, economic, emotional, whatever- in the opponent and acting on that point. This opportunity doesn’t always arise in a demonstration; finding your chance wherever it arises is the direct action life-style.
But protest, and civil disobedience, is worthwhile on its own sake, to speak truth to power. As the Mao quote suggests, if a multi-million dollar tyranny arises to prevent the most symbolic gestures, that in itself is a sign of our progress. Don’t despair because all you get away with is puppets; speaking your mind under a police state is way more powerful than talking in a democracy.
They will overextend themselves. If not next time the time after, we will get the drop on them again.
“The more you tighten your grip Darth Vader, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” – Princess Laia