150 people rampaged through downtown Berkeley targeting banks and chainstores with foam rubber bricks, glitter and popcorn during the second quadrennial Leap Day Action Night, February 29, 2004. The leap day action once again served as a laboratory for research into new forms of disruption while getting folks into the streets to target the local expressions of the global capitalist monster. Apparently, the idea of “using your extra day to smash capitalism, patriarchy and the state” has a powerful and strange appeal. The action went off action without the usual need to react against the latest outrage or focus on a simple, single issue or single representative of the power structure.
Leap day in Berkeley was free flowing, spontaneous and broad in its critique of social institutions. The protest was determined and militant at times, but also had a sense of humor and knew that we are more effective when we can laugh at ourselves instead of grimly taking ourselves so fucking seriously.
Leap day was also an alternative to the increasingly standardized forms of street protest that have developed over the past few years — the repetitive national extravaganzas at summit meetings. As focus, energy and resources have shifted to big national protests, we’ve neglected the kinds of grass roots organizing, protest, and militant disruption that give depth and meaning to a mass movement. Most folks can’t take a week off to go to Seattle or Miami or Cancun to protest, so they sit at home feeling powerless, isolated and marginalized by “the movement.” The big protests privilege the young, affluent and those with flexible schedules and few community ties — mostly students, trust-funders, “professional” activists working for non-profits and drifters. You don’t see a lot of 40-hour-a week workers, parents, school teachers, etc. out in the streets at big national gatherings. Increasingly, radical circles have split off from a grassroots base, from the community, and ultimately from reality. This is a serious problem.
Leap day action night was everything these ritualized mega-confrontations are not. It took no resources, no preparation, no bureaucratic structure, no airline tickets or road trips and no mysterious movement superstars with financial backing. There was exactly one meeting of 6 people to brainstorm some ideas, a few hours gathering props, a few email messages and a tiny number of flyers (not glossy postcards). At the event, no one was in charge — there were no communications and no plan. It was amazing to see tactics more in line with our goals. Small, decentralized and local was beautiful.
What happened?As folks gathered in the dark that Sunday night, the sense of mystery mixed with expectation was palpable — what would happen?!? The customary black flags were passed out, but also pieces of cut up foam couch cushions and Styrofoam bricks painted bright red. A day of action flyer proclaiming “We’re NOT calling for a consumer boycott! This is about taking Direct Action in Self-Defense!” had a map of downtown Berkeley with the locations of 29 chainstores, banks and fast-food restaurants marked. Someone handed out little envelops of glitter with funny messages like “more glitter, less government” written on the envelopes.
The original plan discussed at the meeting a week before was to march to the nearest Safeway store to support the grocery workers’ strike in Southern California. But 2 days before leap day, the union had announced a settlement, so the focused march was scrapped and replaced by no plan — just march around and cause trouble to those corporations which deserve it most.
Strangely, there were no police around as the large and black-clad crowd filled the BART subway plaza. Soon after 6 p.m., the crowd marched into the streets and headed north. The closest target on the map was the Bank of America, but since there were two busses stopped in front of it, the march proceeded to Domino’s pizza. The Domino’s workers looked surprised as the crowd came out of nowhere and started hurling dozens of funny looking bricks at the plate glass windows . . . which bounced harmlessly when they hit their target. The front door was glittered and the crowd demanded that the restaurant close its doors. The CEO of the 7,000 store chain has contributed handsomely to right-wing causes, including funding anti-abortion activities. When the Dominos employees didn’t shut for the night, a rag tag marching band (trombone, baritone horn and accordion) occupied the lobby. “Hey, the acoustics are pretty good in here!”
Next, the march headed to McDonalds and the Citibank store across the street, blocking University Ave., a major Berkeley street. Again, foam flew, and then the crowd moved on to one of the 2 Starbucks outlets within a 2 block area in downtown Berkeley.
At Starbucks, an attempt to cover the store with used coffee grounds failed – they had solidified into an uninspiring mass that lay lifeless on the sidewalk. But people managed to tie the doors shut with yarn, pelt the windows with foam, and spread glitter and chaos in every direction. A few passers-by were supportive and joined in.
Across the street, the Eddie Bauer outlet was having a going out of business sale. At the last leap day in 2000, the crowd had rampaged through the Eddie Bauer store inspired by the fresh memory of the mom and pop ice cream store the chain had just displaced. Now, in only 4 short years, the store was going out of business leaving another vacant storefront. A huge “CLOSING” sign hung above the locked door.
Tiny light bulbs were visible over numerous heads in the crowd as knives came out, cutting the ‘CLOSING” sign down. The sign was turned into a 4 lane wide banner at the head of the march. Just then, the Twisted Sister song “We’re Not Gonna Take It” came on one of the two bike propelled sound systems in the march, and the mood turned electric. From then on, we marched behind the “CLOSING” sign from business to business, demanding that they too close up shop.
On the second pass by the Bank of America, people hurled the stale popcorn from the Food Not Bombs cart at the mega-bank. The B of A together with Citicorp are working with the US occupation in Iraq to set up a foreign controlled banking system. Fuck that — have a foam brick and some popcorn and glitter, pigs!
At the second downtown Starbucks location, the march used a pretty red bow to tie the doors shut, and then used outdoor cafe tables and chairs to barricade the customers in, just in case. At a nearby Shell station, the crowd decorated the gas pumps with cardboard flame cut-outs while decrying Shell’s role as the 31st largest military contractor. Later on Telegraph Avenue, the crowd was marching north when the police blocked the way south. Incensed, the mob made a U-turn and marched between the cop cars while they impotently ordered us to stay back. After a long march South into residential areas, the march turned down the street on which the Mayor’s house sits. No one could remember quite which house it was, so we demanded on the bullhorn that the neighbors bring out the mayor for a discussion on corporate control of Berkeley. When he didn’t emerge (it was Sunday night after all) the crowd proceeded back to downtown Berkeley, stopping along the way to fill the “video return” slot of Blockbuster with glitter and popcorn.
Throughout it all, no windows were broken — but it was because the crowd decided that was how it should be. The police took a ridiculously long time to show up, and even when they did, they lacked sufficient numbers to really do anything. Even without any property destruction, the message of leap day was clear — Berkeley belongs to the people, not corporations. There shall be no business as usual while the earth is destroyed and the people are enslaved. Chainstores: we will fight you. Today Berkeley, tomorrow, everywhere else! Leap for it!
Houston Leapday update
In spite of intermittent thunderstorms throughout the day, people gathered in Lamar Park in Montrose to celebrate their free day. Temporary shelters were constructed, various arts and crafts projects manifested and free veggie food was enjoyed. A few people met in the park in the afternoon and then when the rain refused to let up, the party moved to a neighboring house. Later it reconvened at Amy’s ice cream, the launching spot for a bike ride back to the park where guerrilla gardeners planting a beautiful garden of veggies and flowers. Free food and beverages soon re-appeared and people continued to arrive. Party in the park — a leap of dreams.
NYC Leap Day Action!
In New York City, a pirate parade on Leap day started at St. Mark’s church with about 50 pirates and went through the Lower East side back to St. Mark’s church. Folks chanted “What do we want? Booty! When do we want it? Now!” and “Hey hey, ho ho, The royal navy has got to go!”
There were no police until Houston St., then the parade got escorted by several police cars. There were no arrests. Some time around 6 pm the police shut down Tompkins Square park when the parade got close to the park. As the people who got kicked out of the park saw the reason the cops were shutting down the park, they agreed that this was a really silly action by the cops. Pirates: 1, NYPD: 0.