Seattle. DC. Los Angeles. Philadelphia. The very mention of these cities where great confrontations have recently occurred or are expected in the coming months conjure images of a resurgent mass direct action movement. Thousands of radicals, particularly anarchists, are rapidly gaining experience in powerful and effective tactics of mass disruption including the widespread use of lock boxes, mobile communications, moving militant action, and even puppet deployment.
Mass direct action is powerful, visible, and effective. But just as “traditional” non-violent civil disobedience actions, like the 5,000 people arrested at the School of Americas just a week before Seattle, are now ignored and predictable, there is a danger that national mega gatherings will lose effectiveness unless activists learn to take it to the next level.
What is missing from the centralized spectacles like DC, Seattle, and this year’s fourth annual San Francisco May Day is local actions to match the national gatherings. In Berkeley, fo example, militant protests and direct action in right in town used to be common place in the 1980s and early 90s. These local, smaller but more spontaneous actions are strangely missing, even as mega-actions increase in number.
The most spontaneous and grassroots Berkeley actions were called BART alerts. An issue would come up and someone would call for a 5 p.m. protest at BART. These often turned into roving marches, sometimes tearing up targets like the ROTC on campus, etc. These actions were much smaller than Seattle, but they were accessible to the majority of people who can’t travel for a few days to a protest-families, workers, regular folks. And even more importantly, they were organized quickly, by the seat of the pants, saving resources and permitting more people to be in the streets more often.
This year’s San Francisco May Day is an example of what can go wrong with a mega action. After Seattle, people were jazzed that May Day would be bigger than ever, and there was a lot of excitement for some more militant tactics this year. Months of planning meetings began. Everything was carefully coordinated. So much work and effort went into it that the result was completely the opposite of Seattle. It felt managed, scripted, controlled. There wasn’t a lot of spontaneity. And there was barely any space for militancy.
In Seattle, thousands of people took their own initiative. There were meetings and organization but the scale of the action in the streets was sufficient to eclipse any effort by meetings and organizers to direct the proceedings. The communications system was shut down by the cops and thousands of people had to figure out what to do at their particular corners on their own. And it worked because the individual reservoirs of creativity, bravery and militancy of the thousands in the streets were far more brilliant than anything that could have been organized by committee. The cops ultimately dud us a huge favor by shutting down centralized communications structures; the masses avoided being “managed” by our own “leaders”.
How about experimenting with locally based actions/demos that aren’t so carefully scripted and don’t require such huge advance organizing efforts, but that emphasize individual spontaneity and collective creativity and militancy? Local actions could happen monthly or more in dozens of cities, providing invaluable training in street tactics. It took months to organize SF May Day, with dozens of people focused on May Day to the exclusion of most other activities.
Berkeley’s Leap Day festivities were an excellent example of the kind of action that should happen more often. As a joke, because there was no historical date for February 29 to put in the Y2k Slingshot Organizer, some one typed in the following on February 29: “Leap Day Action night – Use your extra day to help smash capitalism, patriarchy and the state! (In Berkeley, gather at Berkeley BART at 6 p.m. Bring running shoes and masks).”
As February 29 drew near, some of us decided to make this action a reality. There was one, and only one, meeting to organize it. It took two flyers: one for the meeting, one for the action itself. In the end, the action wasn’t hugely attended. 40 or 50 people showed up at the BART station plaza with black face masks, black clothes, black flags. There was a mobile sound system to give the action an RTS flavor, a computer was ceremonially smashed as the protest started. A day-of-the-action flyer appeared which targeted the corporate invasion of Berkeley by chainstores, showing their locations on a downtown map.
The crowd marched from chainstore to chainstore, with no pre-planned route, making speeches in front of each one with a megaphone and blocking the entrance with a reenactment of the Battle of Seattle, carried out with finger puppets. Finger puppets are better than the large ones at a militant action than the large ones at a militant action because if the cops charge, it is a lot easier to run with just a finger puppet. Also you don’t have to think about preserving the huge puppets which took countless hours to build in case of trouble. The finger puppets were in four designs: Turtles, black-masked Eugene anarchists, WTO delegates and police finger puppets.
At several stores-Barnes and Noble, Eddie Bauer, McDonald’s, Starbucks-the small crowd briefly occupied the store until the police arrived. At Blockbuster Video, people smashed a TV right in front of the door. The march lasted about 2 hours, blocked lots of traffic and was watched carefully by lots of cops.
All of this took virtually no organization of time to put together, but accomplished several purposes: (1) attack on business interests; (2) direct action politics in public to inspire others to action; (3) test tactics; (4) fun.
In Eugene, after the June 18 Reclaim the Streets action turned into a mini-riot last year, activists started having monthly protest events to keep out in the streets. Sort of like Critical Mass, except a protest. Same place and time each month, different route and targets. If the direct action scene wants to move beyond Seattle, take on issues in our local communities, build a movement with people who can” take off work for travel to a distant city, and continue to evolve our tactics to maintain effectiveness, it might be a good idea to follow Eugene’s lead.