Activists are getting civil disobedience and nonviolent direct-action training in Philadelphia in preparation for future rallies at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
By Ben Geman
JULY 17, 2000: PHILADELPHIA -- Inside the major-party convention halls this summer, the presidential nominations of Texas governor George W. Bush in Philadelphia and Vice-President Al Gore in Los Angeles will be scripted, sanitized, and devoid of drama. They'll be as dull and pre-programmed, in other words, as the candidates themselves.
Outside the halls, however, the scene will be anything but dull. Tens of thousands of activists are expected to flood the streets of Philadelphia, where the Republican National Convention takes place July 31 through August 3, and LA, where the Democrats will meet August 14 through 17. The mass protests, marches, and civil disobedience will mark the next big action of the growing movement against corporate globalization that came to prominence with last year's demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle. A smaller, but nevertheless impressive, showing at last spring's meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington, DC, proved the movement wasn't a fluke.
The convention protests will likely show that this growing grassroots movement has staying power -- and that it's evolving and making new allegiances. Organizers will focus on issues such as welfare rights, health care, prisons, and American poverty, and they'll work with locally based groups and organizations that have focused more on domestic policy. In Philly, you can also expect protest around the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the radical black journalist on death row for the fatal 1981 shooting of a Philadelphia police officer. (Activists say Abu-Jamal was never given a fair trial and contend he's a political prisoner.) Other planned events in Philadelphia include a march by the Ad Hoc Committee To Defend Health Care July 29 and a Unity 2000 rally the next day focusing on health care, prisons, low wages, and numerous other issues. Organizers will also team up with the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, which will engage in civil disobedience July 31 with an unauthorized "March for Economic Human Rights." The group has been working to transform activism against welfare reform into a global issue. In Los Angeles, planned events include a march against the WTO and protests focusing on police brutality, immigrants' rights, and workers' rights. All this will mark a substantial shift in focus from global to domestic issues, but the movement as a whole is likely to be strengthened by the ties made between local activists and groups like the California-based Ruckus Society, which trains activists in nonviolent civil disobedience. "You know how in Seattle it was the Teamsters and the [sea] turtles?" says Margaret Prescod, an organizer of the Los Angeles protests. "Now it's the Teamsters, the turtles, and the welfare mothers. You have a lot of people doing community-based work in a way that didn't happen in Seattle and didn't happen in DC."
The new focus was apparent last weekend in Philadelphia. At the Friends Center, a Quaker institution located downtown, about 100 people gathered for the "People's Action Camp," a weekend of tutorials in nonviolent civil disobedience and media and strategy training for activists. The camp was put together by the Philadelphia Direct Action Group and the Ruckus Society, which played a significant role in the Seattle and DC protests. Saturday's training unfolded with some get-to-know-you games. Standing in a circle of about 60 people, the activists were asked to state their names and organizations -- and the answers displayed an impressive array: ACT UP; student activists from New York; the Next Movement, a Boston-based group of young activists of color; Chicago ACORN; the radical group Refuse and Resist; and a farmworkers' advocate.
The diversity of groups showed something else besides a shift in focus from global to local issues: color. In Seattle and DC, the props and puppets were colorful but the protesters' faces, when you could see them behind the masks and bandannas, were largely white. The crowd at the People's Action Camp in Philly was nothing if not diverse. African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latinos stood alongside white activists. "We made a conscious effort here for this training to link the issues of global corporate domination to what is going on domestically and to bring to the table activists who represent constituencies of the most marginalized peoples in the United States -- people of color, poor people, people with AIDS, the queer community," says Amadee Braxton, of the Philadelphia Direct Action Group and the Black Radical Congress.
Activists say that moving from protesting WTO policy to protesting, say, prison reform flows naturally from their criticism of global corporate influence. Indeed, activists now use the phrase "structural adjustment" -- the term describing the budget cuts and trade liberalization that the IMF and World Bank require of governments in exchange for loans -- to describe domestic policy. "We were talking about structural adjustment in the Third World without realizing how much happens in low-income communities and communities of color in the United States," says Han Shan, of the Ruckus Society. If there's a unifying theme to the protests planned for the conventions, it's this: the same agenda that places free trade above human rights and the environment in developing nations is pushing an American domestic policy that limits wages, privatizes prisons, and lets big money influence elections.
But the new voices heard at last Saturday's activists' training in Philadelphia were also asking tough questions -- of the movement. Terry Washington, 23, of the group Next Movement, says the mobilization against corporate globalization has made some mistakes along the way, such as focusing too much on the Web to organize and exchange information. "A lot of people say how great the Internet is, but a lot of people don't have Internet access, especially people of color," Washington says.
Another issue, notes Prescod, is that minority activists aren't always on the same playing field as their white counterparts when it comes to facing off with police. " 'Driving while black' is a problem, much less standing in a picket line while black," she says.
The bottom line, however, at least as it was shown last weekend, is that the protest plans are being driven by issues. "The US political system no longer runs from left to right. It runs from top to bottom," says Beka Economopoulos, of the Rainforest Action Network. "People at the bottom realize they are not within shouting distance of the folks at the top. No matter what reason activists are outside the DNC or the RNC, there's a common belief that democracy is broken. It's been sold, and big business has bought it."
There's no reason my parents should have to take out a second mortgage for me to go to school," says Nermin Abdelwahab, a 20-year-old Hunter College student dressed in jeans and a Zapatista T-shirt emblazoned with masked armed rebels. Abdelwahab is practicing sound bites in front of a camera during a media training session for protesters organized by the Ruckus Society. The goal is to teach activists to present clever, concise answers to what is hoped will be a media crush at the convention protests. Earlier, Abdelwahab had declared: "We're out here to protest for social and economic justice that does not exist in the two-party system."
The training was proof that these activists are serious about getting their message out, at the convention demonstrations and elsewhere. But at the same time, they showed just how hard it is to pin down exactly what this movement is about, even as its message takes shape. Or, rather, its messages. Trainees discussed everything from AIDS to the influence of money on elections.
This multitude of voices, issues, and concerns shouldn't be mistaken for disorganization. It's a deliberate strategy that reveals the Seattle-bred movement's postmodern roots. There's no coherent structure, and communication takes place largely through the Web. There are tactical allegiances and networks but no overarching structures or detailed ideologies. This lateral structure was on display in the Seattle and DC protests -- and dissected nicely in a recent Nation piece by Naomi Klein. In Seattle and DC, activists organized themselves into autonomous "affinity groups" of up to couple of dozen people, which worked together to coordinate the mass actions. The loose organization allowed dozens of groups with varying ideologies and causes to fight a common enemy. For example, although everyone assembled in DC agreed that the IMF and World Bank can be destructive, the autonomous structure allowed them to protest together without consensus on what, exactly, should be done to change the rules of global trade.
But as the conventions loom, activists are asking whether this loose structure can carry the movement beyond the Philadelphia and Los Angeles protests or wherever the next big mobilization might be (probably the September meetings of the World Bank and IMF in Prague). "I don't know where this is going," says Evan Henshaw-Plath, who helped set up the Seattle Independent Media Center Website, which features articles, photos, and other records of the WTO protests from a viewpoint very different than that of the much-maligned "corporate media." "What came out of Seattle was a particular style of organizing that proved very powerful. How do we continue to build and grow off of that and develop more direction and move forward without just event-chasing? That was and continues to be an effective way of capturing the popular consciousness of the moment, but I don't think anyone is sure what the next step would be. There is a lot of uncertainty there."
"We don't want to just have a series of big demonstrations and events. That will just fizzle out," adds long-time activist Mike Morrill of Unity 2000, which is organizing a rally in Philadelphia on July 30. "We don't want people just to be adding to their T-shirt collection." Instead, he and others say the protests must be followed by continued advocacy for deep policy changes, both at big demonstrations and in the activists' individual communities.
And the People's Action Camp will help effect this. The Ruckus Society trainers say the weekend tutorials were aimed at giving activists tools to keep working beyond the conventions. Similarly, the effectiveness of the convention protests themselves will be measured by whether groups that confront globalization can form lasting bonds with those working for domestic change.
That's not to say, however, that this movement consists of nothing but waiting around for the next big demonstration. For example, trade-policy activists recently forced Starbucks to start buying "fair trade" coffee. And the new movement is setting down roots. Case in point: the Direct Action Network, which has groups across the country (including the Philadelphia Direct Action Group) that help coordinate large nonviolent protests, is forging the Continental Direct Action Network, a nationwide superstructure linking the different organizations. In Pennsylvania, Unity 2000's Morrill says he and others are planning a conference to help the groups that come together for the Philadelphia protests remain connected, to create a "movement of movements." And about 30 people, including Henshaw-Plath, gathered July 2 in Boston to discuss transforming the Boston Independent Media Center, which sprang up to cover the March Biodevastation conference and protests, into a permanent institution.
In a sense, the "what next?" question is partially answered by the organizing methods themselves. A common theme is that the new activism shouldn't descend into what activists say the American political system has become: hierarchical, top-down, undemocratic. Activists are "really taking on the challenge of walking the walk," says Mike Prokosch, a veteran activist with Boston's United for a Fair Economy. "I have not seen a lot of power trips."
Cathie Berrey has just locked herself by the neck to a table in the Friends Center with a Kryptonite bike lock. "You can lock down to anything like this," she says. Berrey, 34, is a "blockade trainer" with the Ruckus Society. Aside from the aforementioned U-shaped lock, her teaching materials include steel chains and cables. Berrey is careful to note that she is training activists in tactics and not for specific events. "I just train people in hypothetical situations they may or may not engage in," she says. What "hypotheticals" will actually unfold beyond the already scheduled protests is anyone's guess.
That's where groups like Ruckus and the Philadelphia Direct Action Group come in, beyond their participation in the scheduled events. Though there is no explicit call to try to shut down the events -- as there was (successfully) in Seattle and (unsuccessfully) in DC -- activists say that "creative nonviolent direct action" will take several forms. The training that unfolded in the basement of the Friends Center, for example, featured "hassle line" role play, with people linking arms and pretending to blockade a National Rifle Association function.
There will probably be different, smaller-scale actions from several different groups. "A lot of people are interested in creating strategic disruptions to get the message out," says Kevin Rudiger of the Los Angeles Direct Action Network. "There are these high-priced fundraisers, $10,000-per-plate dinners, which are part of the problem, that are happening all over town, and I would not be surprised to see some of these targeted by protesters with nonviolent direct action. There are all sorts of other events, receptions sponsored by corporations, which we see as connected to this whole issue of corporate control. There are a lot of these types of events that are potential targets."
"All I have to say about the Direct Action strategy is that it will not be business as usual," adds Washington, DC, resident Adam Eidinger, an organizer of the DC protests who's helping to publicize the Philadelphia and LA demonstrations. "There will be people inside the convention halls," he vows. "Our people."
The shadows knowsIf the raucous protests expected to take place outside the national snoozefests -- er, political nominating conventions -- aren't enough to catch the public's attention, then maybe something else will.
Political columnist and policy bon vivant Arianna Huffington is working with activists such as Public Campaign's Ellen Miller and the Reverend Jim Wallis, an anti-poverty advocate, to convene "shadow conventions" in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Held alongside the actual conventions, they'll address issues largely ignored by the major parties.
These issues will include campaign-finance reform, the failed drug war, and the glaring inequality between rich and poor. The array of guests -- some appearing at one convention and some at both -- includes Warren Beatty, Al Franken, John McCain, Jonathan Kozol, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Organizers say they'll merge serious policy discussions with fun, two things that will be absent from the official conventions going on nearby.
"Basically, they have drained politics out of the conventions and all that is left is an elaborate floor show and coronation in both places, yet political reporters are expected to turn up and cover it," Huffington says. "Major issues like the failed drug war, the corruption of money in politics -- like the growing inequalities in the middle of our prosperity -- are going to remain unaddressed unless we hold these shadow conventions and make sure they are."
The shadow conventions, dubbed "A Citizen's Intervention in American Politics," will feature daytime forums and debates. Entertainers and other speakers will follow, as will footage of the real conventions that will be dissected and parodied.
Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center, a New York City-based
foundation that advocates for a more public-health-oriented
Politically Incorrect's Bill Maher is also on the roster. The Shadow Conventions Web site (www.shadowconventions.com) promises that "one theme we will emphasize throughout the evenings is the effectiveness of satire and parody as a tool of public advocacy." The satirical group Billionaires for Bush or Gore, created by Boston-based United for a Fair Economy, will host "hospitality suites" where people can eat and schmooze.
Huffington, a onetime conservative who is sounding more progressive of late, may be keeping company with Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who she says will attend both events. (Nader's campaign could not confirm this Tuesday.) But despite the traditionally progressive themes and a rather progressive guest list, Huffington denies that the issues being raised are the exclusive domain of the left. "Just take the war on drugs," she says. "There is a very broad coalition against the drug war that includes Bill Buckley and Milton Friedman. And there are many on the left who are still passionate drug warriors."
Still, it must mean something that she has brought on Mike Dolan of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, one of the lead organizers of last year's protests against the World Trade Organization, to help plan the events. Maybe this, to steal a phrase that will surely surface in the expected colorful street protests, is what democracy looks like.
"We hope that this will galvanize people to take action and basically stop choosing the lesser of two evils," says Huffington, "and demand some radical change in our political system." -- Ben Geman
Site seeingProtests, rallies, and a general ruckus will unfold alongside the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Want to take part? The Web sites below will tell you what's going on.
The D2K Network
Los Angeles Independent Media Center
The R2K Network
The Philadelphia Independent Media Center
The Philadelphia Direct Action Group
The Kensington Welfare Rights Union
The Philadelphia Ad Hoc Committee to Defend Health Care
-- Ben Geman
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