Tunneling Beneath the Psychic Landscape of the Street Protest Ritual

“Psychological First Aid for Activists: This training is designed to give people the tools they need to recognize the signs of emotional trauma immediately following a difficult experience, as well as the tools they need to provide immediate care and referrals. Some goals of the training are to provide practical help for immediate care, to legitimize the equal importance of psychological first aid to physical first aid, promote emotional resiliency in the activist community, and encourage peer support leading up to large events such as the RNC. The training covers defining stress and emotional trauma, signs and reactions to emotional trauma, how to address those reactions, active listening exercises, breathing exercises, & body awareness, red flags for more serious issues, and preventative care.”

Occurring shortly after my arrival, this workshop is a sort of introduction to RNC reality for me. I am not like the other people here because I do not know why I am here. Most people are attending because they plan to staff the Wellness Center, where presumably, protesters who are traumatized by police violence will go to obtain help. Two men are part of a group that will staff a hotline for people to call when sexual assaults happen between converging activists, and as with the Wellness Center staff, this workshop is a mandatory part of their training. I do not know what I will do when the protests happen. It’s like a rally where I won’t hold a sign because I want to keep my hands free; I remain non-committed so I will be ready if something really needs doing and everyone else is busy. That said, it seems likely that someone will freak out and I will try to help them. Doesn’t that happen a lot?

In most arenas of human struggle — business, politics and war come to mind, the psychological factors are thoroughly studied and analyzed. Why has activism been so much of an exception? Part of it is certainly our alienation from traditional systems of mental health and fitness. Many in our communities are survivors of psychiatric abuse. We see an academic mental health ideology being applied from the top down upon vulnerable people whose experiences are minimalized.

In response, people throughout activist culture have started to implement grass-roots personalist approaches to mental health. These include the global Icarus network, primarily for bipolar people, and many local collectives and informal self-help groups in a city near you. Participants in these projects were instrumental in developing the North Star Health Collective’s psychological response plan in the Twin Cities. The workshop was part of this endeavor.

But there have been other obstacles to activist mental and emotional self-care. A direct action culture has overemphasized heroism and daring exploits — fear, vulnerability to stress, and sometimes even second thoughts are perceived as embarrassing weaknesses. Also, in government and business, psychological programs are imposed upon reluctant peons in the name of productivity and effectiveness. In an anarchistic subculture this is obviously impossible.

I never do end up counseling anyone who is falling apart. But with my attention now drawn inward, my perception of the RNC protest situation is irrevocably altered. Is it Republican dark magic, or ingrained self-destruction in punk culture? Meeting any of my basic psychic needs is a hassle requiring persistence and assertiveness. The direct action plans publicly proposed are absurd. Are they all decoy actions or are the mysterious organizers in denial? In any case, I don’t focus on winning anything; I just want to play my part well and am determined to understand what is going on in new ways. I force myself to eat at least two real meals a day and drink water.

“September 1, 2008, we, the RNC Welcoming Committee, invite all anarchists and anti-authoritarians, all radicals and rabble-rousers, all those who are fed up with government lies and spectacles to show up ready for action and ensure that we leave no place for these expired politicians. What we create here will send the convention crashing off into insignificance.”

“To someone who has never experienced danger, the idea is attractive rather than alarming.” – Carl Von Clausewitz, On War

I meet some people who have come hundreds of miles to do an action together. They want to be a part of the big plan. They are exhausted from AG meetings, cluster meetings, and colossal, long, spokes-councils. For days they have little contact with anyone who is not an anti-authoritarian focused on some decisive activity, and this is their whole experience of Minnesota.

They are tense and cranky. I remember the psychological workshop; I think people who want to do something dangerous and stupid should be calm and grounded so they can do it as intelligently and safely as possible.

A grand variety of projects were under way, organized autonomously from the Welcoming Committee, which rented the Convergence Space. The Welcoming Committee’s bicycle project spun-off as a distinct entity of sorts, building literally hundreds of bicycles to keep out of town activists functional and mobile during their stay. The venerable Seeds of Peace provided food for the massive permitted peace march of 10-40 thousand people (yes, the variation of crowd estimates is unusual), as well as most events over the week of convention related activity.

The North Star Health Collective and Cold Snap Legal Collective were organized locally and independently of the Welcoming Committee. An unprecedented number of people underwent a three day intensive medical training. When the protests finally happened medical resources were constantly available even in the most intense situations.

Most radicals who live in the Twin Cities and most radicals from out of town are on different planets now. See, most people, even most freaks, don’t care about the RNC. So most people stay home, but the smaller number of people who do come here think the whole thing is a great idea and they wouldn’t miss it for the world The people who live here don’t have as much choice about being here and having to perhaps reluctantly deal with the whole thing, but also have options unavailable to outsiders (whether they come or not).

There seems to be a curious mood of harm reduction: militant protesting is like heroin or speed or something, and while we’re all going to be good anarchists and not tell people not to do things, we can also meet with the personal devastation one-on-one and let people know there might be better life-paths. Oh, but are we enabling?

Whatever, fuck that guilt trip. But what does seem to really be happening… is this polarity between anarchy as stereo-typical black bloc chaos, and ultralawfully marching in obedience to a permit (no dis on either intended), without inclusion of the universe of actions in between. Is it fueled by our withdrawal?

“I can’t help thinking of Grand Theft Auto IV ?you hear the copter, you know you’re doing well.” – Christopher Beam in Slate.com

Simultaneously with the huge peace march, there were breakaway marches and makeshift roadblocks scattered throughout downtown. Some people fucked shit up. The destruction was far from massive and not the focus of the actions: some windows, a couple cop cars, a delegate bus got pelted.

I would write an article about such a demo but there is already an article that I like better than the one I would write because the author is mainstream and tries to be non-judgmental (which is funny): www.slate.com/id/2199060/

Someone who is working on getting people out of jail tells me statistics. They say there were an enormous number of people arrested Monday who are from out of town and under 25. The first info-bit is not surprising Saint Paul civic leaders had called out far and wide that downtown Saint Paul was the happening place right now. But the youth aspect troubles many people.

While I might share this feeling later, as the protest unfolds I am inspired. The youth are swift and brave and an equal number of police cannot contain them at first. In the face of police attacks they grow bolder. They stay as long as they can, even when swelling police ranks make mass arrests inevitable.

The police presence is intense and severe throughout the convention. This had been telegraphed by the police attack on Critical Mass exactly one year before. And now they begun with preemptive raids on the Convergence space and homes or crash spots of alleged key people the weekend before the convention.

About 3500 police and 200 Minnesota National Guard were on convention duty Monday the first. While they get a B+ for their research and reconnaissance the police response on the street was clumsy and uninspired. And they made up for their shortcomings with arbitrary brutality. Over four days of the convention, police consistently attacked peaceful demonstrators with a variety of special weapons, even though there was sabotage and disruption only on the afternoon of the first. This culminated on Thursday as McCain rose to speak — a permitted march had its permit revoked by surprise and almost 400 were arrested for a now “unlawful” assembly, while corralled people were sprayed and gassed for no apparent reason.

Even away from from the protests the reality of mass police action dominated the cores of the Twin Cities this week. The daily newspapers reported the police brass boast that they “didn’t take the bait.” Like much in the corporate-imperialist press regarding sensitive matters, this is the precise opposite of the truth. Everywhere felt like occupied Baghdad. More so than either the militant or the obedient protesters, the police did an wonderful job of showing the Twin Cities that you really can’t keep the war over there.

A thousand police can be a thousand times as intense as one police. You try to go to sleep and they’re still parading around in your mind. Police, police, police everywhere. How many people were how injured by the police on what day? And they’re snatching people on quiet residential streets and in far flung exurbs in their pursuit of “rioters.”

Every house has a sign by the door explaining what to do if the police come, do they have a warrant? You have the right to remain silent (so shut up already, keep it to yourself). In RNC week everyone, especially if you look funny, has to expect and have the energy for a harsh encounter at any time, and keep the strength for refusal in reserve.

This is the world each police lives in, they wake up and go to work and there’s a zillion other police. Every second they have to know who to obey and who to command in a web of police culture that encompasses almost everyone on Earth in its grip. As they flood our minds every hour we get more like them. We get spiteful, aggressive, dismissive and indifferent. (We were already desperate.)

The National press ignored the protests, even the national “alternative” media. The local media depicted bands of psychopathic “anarchists” bent on mindless destruction. Hurling urine at people and kidnapping delegates are portrayed as standard “anarchist” tactics. The weekly artsy paper said the best defense against anarchists was “a healthy childhood.”

Even if the discontent was exaggerated and fanned by the corporate press, it was still very real that large numbers of people felt genuine disgust at the “anarchist” activities.

I ride in the back of the metro bus to Minneapolis. Everyone is talking about the protests unless they actually are protesters in which case they’re ready to change the subject. Men of color express annoyance with the police over the disruption of bus service, and opine that the police had provoked the young dissidents into recklessness, and at least some of the window breaking on Fox News was staged. I imagine that a less oppressed group of people might have a less charitable view of us.

The convention is over and the Republicans appear to be unscathed. McCain and Palin go off to rule the world in a real life Handmaid’s Tale with endless war in the biblical lands. But in Minnesota the police state is exhausted, and as confused about who was arrested as we are. The heat is off and people breath easy as the aftermath sets in.

In the secret Anarchist tavern in Eagan, I can’t peacefully sip my port while writing down strange dreams because there are so many college students and crusties excitedly telling thrilling protest stories. Despite the felony charges, the lasting burns of tasers or unusually concentrated pepper spray, and the mass adrenal exhaustion, hundreds of people are wiser and stronger, ready to come back into downtown America, do it better and stop all their wars.