Protesting protesting

I attended a rally and march Wednesday night (01/14) in downtown Oakland demanding:

  • A BART community oversight committee
  • a murder conviction for officer Mehserle
  • the release of names and an investigation of all other officers present at the time of shooting
  • the creation of healing centers in communities most affected by police violence
  • the resignation/recall of Alameda county’s DA Tom Orloff

First of all I should say thank you to folks who organized this protest. I appreciate the time and energy that was put into it, and the obviously good intentions behind it. I know I haven’t contributed nearly as much as they have, and don’t mean to diminish their contributions. I do want to raise some critical questions & observations though, in the spirit of movement self-evaluation. The first one is specifically about this rally, but the rest of it is about this type of protest in general.

After the opening rally at Oakland city hall, the march kicked off with a prayer to “God the father” and “Christ our Lord”. We were asked to hold hands and pray along with the reverend. I can sort of appreciate the desire to bring a spiritual element in when you’re asking people to remain peaceful. But the invocation of a Christian god, in whose name bloody oppression and conquest have been carried out for millennia, was very disturbing to me. While leaders from other faiths were included as speakers (a Muslim leader whose name I don’t recall spoke eloquently about all the $ poured into the CA penal system while our state goes deeper into debt and our poor communities remain underserved), the only actual prayer I heard while I was there was this one. Personally I’d prefer no praying at all, but if it’s included, shouldn’t it be a little more… er… inclusive? While I don’t subscribe to any theistic belief system and my objections tend to be more political, I wonder if those of other faiths might have been offended to have to march under the “blessing” of a Christian god. I don’t understand why organizers felt this was a good call.

The organizers’ intent to keep the protest peaceful was abundantly clear. Speakers repeated it over and over, and as with any legally permitted march, “dissident” volunteers worked alongside police to monitor the crowd and keep the peace. Yet during the march, unsurprisingly, this well-used protest slogan was repeatedly invoked for us to chant: “No justice, no peace!”. Does anyone else find this maddening? Nothing like watering down the intent of what should be revolutionary words by using them completely out of context where they become meaningless. Okay yeah, “We are peaceful now, but if you don’t meet our demands we might reevaluate our strategy and bring the noise” isn’t exactly a catchy slogan. But can’t we at least refrain from using language that lulls us into believing we are acting in a threatening manner towards the state when in fact we are clearly working with the state to ensure that our peaceful protest doesn’t get out of hand? Maybe I’m just being a nitpicky vocabulary geek, but I do believe in the power of words and I believe it’s a problem that we kill our own power phrases.

This is the main reason I stopped going to marches and rallies many years ago. They just make me feel incredibly stupid, to be honest. There’s surprisingly little critical evaluation of tactics and I feel the opposite of powerful when I’m following a crowd that’s adhering to state-sanctioned forms of expression. Like a little sheep, marching where I’m supposed to march and yelling what everyone else is yelling, and going home at the end of it to resume normal life. None of it really makes sense to me. I don’t think the powers we are supposedly yelling at during these protests simply don’t know that we wish the cops would stop shooting people for no reason. That they don’t realize people want justice and aren’t getting it. That if they only realized how unhappy we are with the way they run things, they’d stop making policies based on greed and power and start making policies that reflect the desires of the people. I think they know exactly what they are doing and they choose to do it anyway, either because they have a twisted belief that it is necessary for people to have no rights in order to save us from ourselves, or because they really couldn’t give a shit whether or not people are happy. If they were sitting up there scratching their pus-filled heads, waiting only for an indication that folks were dissatisfied with their leadership to mend their ways, we would’ve launched blissfully into utopia ages ago. Ages.

I believe that peaceful marches and rallies  serve two purposes only – to educate others about what’s going on and increase community ties between dissenters.  IMO, these tactics are a means but they tend to be used as an end, which creates a feeling of accomplishment amongst participants that I don’t feel is realistic.


January 15, 2009. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . Uncategorized. Leave a comment.

The shooting of Oscar Grant III, Pt. II: Protest strategy.

In my last post, I discussed how I’ve been disturbed by the valuation of Oscar’s life based on certain aspects of his lifestyle. How we need to avoid using the state’s (or any) value markers to assess the relative tragedy of someone’s murder while demanding the same from authorities. Now I’d like to talk about responses people have had to the property destruction during the protest last Wednesday.

Let me start by saying that I was not there and my opinions are based only on report-backs and others’ responses. So there may be details I’m missing and questions about the appropriateness of my voice here. Regardless, I think that any time a protest involves property damage or violence, it is important to follow it up with nuanced discussions about why people are so angry; why some people felt that the more peaceful tactics being employed were insufficient to either express their rage or get the attention of power; whether the destruction contributed to garnering a desired response from authorities; and how, in the event of future destructive outbursts, protesters can channel their rage in more appropriate directions.

I’m not hearing this sort of balanced evaluation much, if at all. Even on radio shows I usually consider pretty radical (Hard Knock Radio, for one), the responses have largely been blanket disapproval of any sort of destructive protesting, regardless of the situation and the success of other tactics being used. There is only dismay and disappointment, people talking as though the loss of a business is equatable to the loss of a life, and plenty of words like “unproductive”, “violent”, and “anarchist”. I have to take issue with these terms specifically.

“Anarchist”. The fact that something is out of control and destructive does not make it anarchist. Please learn something about anarchism before you use it as a label for all things chaotic! Not simply another word for lawlessness, anarchism is a very well thought-out set of ideological theories that, whether you agree with them or not, are far more complex than they are given credit for. Also, even if people doing the destroying consider themselves anarchists, that doesn’t make their actions “anarchist” any more than, say, a punch thrown by a capitalist is a capitalist action. Unless there is a specific anarchist agenda related to an action, it does not become “anarchist” simply by virtue of the (possible) political beliefs of the perpetrators.

“Violent”. While the destruction of property can be considered violent in certain situations, it isn’t violent in and of itself. It is completely situational. For example, would the destruction of an air force bomber to prevent it being used to kill thousands of people qualify as violent? I don’t think that could be considered anything but anti-violence, since it potentially prevents more suffering than it causes (if it causes any). However, destroying the property of someone who has very little to begin with – for example, throwing all the worldly possessions of a homeless person into a trash compactor – would qualify as violence in my book since it causes much suffering and ameliorates none. Most people apply the word “violent” indiscriminately to all property destruction, and this has the effect of making property seem as important as living beings. That’s an extremely harmful idea to foster, not to mention it’s also propagated by the state.

If the definitions above are applied to this particular protest, where the property destruction was unfocused, it can probably be said that both violent and non-violent destruction occurred. I wouldn’t call the smashing of an empty police vehicle or a McDonald’s window violent, for example, but smashing up the car of a man on crutches as he stands there pleading with you is definitely fuzzier for me. Violence or not, I have sympathy for the car owners and business owners whose lives were made more difficult. But it should always be remembered that windows can be replaced; is financial hardship a fate worse than death?

“Unproductive”. When people are not being heard no matter what they do and it’s a matter of survival, things are gonna get ugly. This is the fault of power that is deaf, dumb and blind to the needs of the people, not the fault of the people sweating it out in the corner they were backed into. While it’s helpful to look at ALL the events of Wednesday and ask ourselves how they could have been more effective, I don’t think a blanket condemnation of lashing out against property is an effective or particularly accurate review of events. An examination of traditional “non-violent” protest strategy would show the vast majority of it to be unproductive as far as effecting real change. Just as there exist effective and non-effective uses of various “non-violent” tactics, there also exist effective and non-effective uses of property destruction as a tactic.

Focused property destruction in a capitalist state can be extremely productive and can be incorporated into a wider strategy of other non-violent tactics. For example, property destruction could be used by “peaceful” community organizers as leverage with the state in the days following, insisting that the force of people’s anger is proof that they must waste no time in setting things right. Instead, the opportunity is wasted on lamenting protesters’ lack of self-control and strategy, admonishing people to use restraint next time. Standing behind the justifiable anger and the intent behind property destruction while presenting the powers with a choice – listen to our demands or face more unrest – might transform the destructive actions into constructive actions.

Maybe if folks organizing protests these days were less staunch about discussing exclusively pacifist tactics, people who do end up engaging in property destruction could be afforded the space to strategize and come up with more effective windows to smash than what just happens to be in front of them. I don’t expect that major organizers would actually come out and condone property destruction, I’m just saying they should allow people the space to talk about what to do (what sort of things to target, how to focus the destruction more effectively on the state) in the event that things turn in that direction.

Having said all that, the family of Oscar Grant have come out in the last couple days and said they don’t want any more destruction in his name, and people absolutely need to listen. While folks understandably want to use this latest police murder to demand justice for the wider POC community, this is also a singular personal tragedy for the people closest to Oscar and they should be heard and respected right now.

In the event of further destruction related to this incident, there needs to be a concerted effort on the part of organizers to distance those actions from this specific case and align them with a larger nation-wide movement to end police brutality and corruption.

January 10, 2009. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , . Uncategorized. 3 comments.

“Lawful Excuse”

Root Force is a really interesting campaign that promotes blocking infrastructure expansion to fight the further spread of colonial capitalist systems. I get a feed from their blog into my iGoogle, where I found a link to this news tidbit a few days ago. I’ve never heard of the “lawful excuse” defense before (probably because I don’t live in Britain), but it’s amazing that it’s actually successful sometimes! Below is the blog post:

On September 11, a British jury concluded that Greenpeace activists were justified in vandalizing a coal chimney at the Kingsnorth Power Plant in October 2007, because far greater property damage will be caused if global warming is not halted. The court acquitted the activists of any criminal responsibility under the doctrine of “lawful excuse,” which says that damage may be done to another’s property in order to prevent another, greater damage.

Six Greenpeace activists had painted Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s name on the chimney, and the power company spent £35,000 to remove the paint.

The “lawful excuse” defense has previously been successfully used by Greenpeace activists who ripped up genetically modified crops and by East Timor solidarity activists who damaged military jets bound for Indonesia.

Kingsnorth Power Plant was also the site of a number large at the recent UK Climate Camp. Plans to build a new coal-powered plant at the site have drawn widespread opposition.

The Independent has a full article on the action.

September 23, 2008. Tags: , , , , , . Uncategorized. Leave a comment.

Politico-personal Crisis of Faith

If I were an activist, maybe I would know the answer to this question, but… what, exactly, makes someone an activist? I’ve been pondering this question in various forms a lot lately.

It’s mostly this recent lingering depression. Or maybe that’s not the right term for what I’ve been feeling – it’s not caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain so much as the colossal disparity between what my brains think should be happening in the world and what actually happens in the world, has happened in the world always, and arguably will always happen as long as there are people in the world. I’m world-weary. Yeah, yeah, I know – it’s an old story. What person possessing even a modicum of intelligence doesn’t think the world of humans is generally fucked, right?

Poor, poor me; sad, whiny, white, middle class-ish, can’t-handle-the-reality-of-massive-oppression, wanna-be do-gooder me. Yeah, that’s right – I’m not even a do-gooder. I’m more of a think-gooder. I just think of all the helpful things I could be doing, then psych myself out of action by thoroughly analyzing and critiquing the possible impact (or lack thereof) of my endeavors.

See, it seems ridiculous for me to be depressed and defeated, because I’m not DOING anything about anything, right? I don’t work for a non-profit, I volunteer/donate only minimally, and I haven’t attended or helped organize any direct actions since the late 90’s. My current contributions, if you can call them that, read like a check-list for armchair intellectual progressivism: I read a lot and attend discussions/talks in an attempt to lessen my obliviousness as a person with relative privilege living in the most destructive, colonizing nation on the globe; I forward e-mails & re-post bulletins on myspace about things other people are doing; I eat mostly organic vegan food; I buy almost exclusively used clothing/shoes/gadgets/appliances; I attempt to reduce/re-use/recycle in that order; whenever possible I avoid supporting multi-national corporations and evil non-profits; I run my 1980 Mercedes on recycled biodiesel from a local woman-owned collective.

Holy shit, I sound annoying, don’t I?! Like one of those “I buy/don’t buy all the right things, therefore I am making a difference” types. Except I don’t really believe these things make enough of a difference to brag about – I only do them because I couldn’t stomach myself if I didn’t.

I see making conscious lifestyle choices and educating oneself as the least possible amount of involvement anyone calling herself “radical” could have. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around those people who ARE activist—like, real down-in-the-mud, blood-and-guts activists—yet they happily give money to the very corporations creating this mess because they don’t believe in pocketbook activism. Spending money conscientiously isn’t going to bring about revolution, but in a capitalist system, where you spend your money is important. It equals funding whatever the companies/people you buy stuff from have their filthy little hands in. And it’s something you can change with minimal effort (even if you’re not middle-class, contrary to popular opinion).

It is not elitist to withdraw support from those perpetuating the worst elitism in the first place – that’s just common sense. I don’t think the communities most grossly affected by corporate greed are applauding anyone’s continued support of Pepsi and Monsanto as a righteous refusal to be aligned with the bourgie “green” consumers who shop at farmers markets and buy organic cotton sheets. Of course, I’m sure they’re not applauding any of us for our patterns of consumption, but hopefully you get my point. I’d like capitalism to fall and/or morph into something more just and palatable as much as the next anarchist, but while we’re stuck with it we can’t ignore the impact we have on it.

Anyhow, slight tangent there. I’ll stop now, but there’s an awesome blog post about all that here, if you want more.

So, as I was droning, the low-effort aspect of living a more conscious lifestyle is why it’s the main thing I manage to always do. Like, if I can’t even do that, I really can’t justify my own existence.

Yes, what I do right now is minimal, but it is all I can do right now. I’m talking psychologically. I simply don’t have the strength to engage more intensely with the babbling insanity of all the animal torturing, women hating, people of color terrorizing, poor people steamrolling, queer and gender non-conformative bashing, resource hoarding, earth killing devils of western imperialism. I just. Can’t. Do it. Right. Now.

Partly because all these injustices feel extremely urgent to address and I don’t know how to choose just one or two to give more energy to.

Partly because in the past when I have chosen something to focus on, I have found that systemic oppression runs so deep, even those of us trying to buck it rarely disentangle all at once—I’ve encountered transphobic queers, misogynistic environmentalists, classist feminists, animal torturing anti-racists, racist anarchists… combine the descriptors as you may, they’re all out there. How the hell is one supposed to stay committed when working alongside folks who create oppression while claiming to fight it?

And lastly, my apathy stems in part from knowing more about the world than I did when I was 21 and Food Not Bombs-ing my lil’ heart out. When I take a wide view of what I now (think I) know about global history, damn but I can’t find anything that has ever changed the course of things on a massive enough scale to claim success for even one community in a lasting way. So I feel colossally defeated.

Should I engage in actions I feel are mostly futile out of some sense of obligation to my activist status? Attend anti-war or environmental protests even though another war or environmental catastrophe will be right around the corner unless the fundamental principles of world leaders have shifted from “profit & power before anyone/anything deemed expendable”, to “no person, place, culture or species is expendable ever”? Rally against internal state violence like police brutality & the prison system even though I secretly think nothing short of massive revolution will affect the way the state operates unless, perhaps, your time line is in the thousands of years? Ugh, I know, my negativity can be crushing. Apologies.

I have heard it said that the tendency to disregard any action that doesn’t seem likely to fix everything (activist perfectionism) stems from being in a position of privilege. I can’t say I disagree. It’s not that I don’t want to engage in any action unless it will cure all ills on the globe, though – it’s that I’m not convinced any action I might undertake will help anything at all.

I’m sure that is partly because nearly everything I read and listen to tends to focus on tragedies and defeats of peoples everywhere, rather than highlighting what folks are doing to resist and how some of them have succeeded. That’s a major problem, even in alternative media.

I am aware that my skin color, geographical location, and relative class privilege (meaning I get by with minimal financial stress & that’s better than so many) afford me the choice to not fight certain fights. I don’t have to worry about getting pesticide poisoning from working in the fields, being arrested/beaten/shot because of my skin color, I don’t have to work three jobs to get by, etc. Some would argue that it’s easier for me to say I don’t have the strength to actively fight these fights because they aren’t “mine”; that I’m holing up in my little privilege bubble and ignoring the suffering of others because I can. Maybe, but I don’t know – it’s not like I’m putting myself out there for gender equality, queer rights, or economic and environmental issues that affect me more directly, either.

There are multitudes of people globally who are directly oppressed by things that they don’t fight, for reasons not including privilege, such as fear of retribution/alienation/losing what little they do have. Maybe I’m one of those, y’know? Because it’s not for lack of caring, or outrage, or horror that I currently stay out of the fray – it’s for lack of energy, stemming from a lack of faith. And perhaps also a shortage of courage. Maybe.

And if I may be so bold as to point out, it is untrue that all these other struggles aren’t “mine” – as a person who is vehemently opposed to all types of oppression, subjugation, and violence, the fact of my unwilling complicity in all these things simply because I buy things/am white/am a citizen of the US is a serious detriment to my psychological and emotional health. Oppressive systems don’t only oppress the obvious victims – they oppress and fuck with every single person living under them. Even those who benefit from them are simultaneously limited by and subjugated by them in ways that are sometimes less obvious, but not always less damaging.

Anyhow, back to my question – what makes an activist? Recently I was discussing feeling depressed with someone in my book club, who referred me to the Bay Area Radical Mental Health Collective. I checked out their website, and it turns out they are a mental health group for activists experiencing burnout. Ahh. Well thank goodness they exist, really. That’s fantastic. But I was trying to imagine myself at a meeting, explaining how I’m not an activist per se, I just think a whole bunch about stuff. Does armchair activism count? Shit. I doubt it.

Well, I found on their site a really great article about something similar to what I’m struggling with. It’s about how activists sometimes need to take mental health breaks (and some more often than others, depending on certain character traits), but feel guilted or judged for doing so because there’s this culture of all-or-nothing 24/7 commitment in most activist circles. It’s well-written and I think anyone who identifies as an activist should read it. And it made me start to feel like maybe I could consider myself an activist after all, because I’m doing what I feel capable of doing right now. And is that possibly all we can fairly ask of each other, if a sincere effort is being made?

I really hope I don’t sound too oblivious – but more than that, I hope that if I do, anyone spotting it will (kindly) let me know. I’m not just saying that – I’m open to being called out. I call myself out all the time. Just be gentle with me, because this was a difficult post to share – it’s kinda personal.

Thanks for reading.

September 19, 2008. Tags: , , , , , . Uncategorized. 4 comments.