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THOUGHTS ON THE MEANING OF THE PHILLY PROTESTS by Leslie Cagan, August 14, 2000
For nearly a week I wrote reports on the many protest activities I participated in during the Republican Convention in Philadelphia. (All of my reports can be found at www.zmag.org.) As the demonstrations came to an end I realized that I needed to offer some thoughts on the meaning of it all and what we can learn from the experience. But writing this piece has been harder than putting together my reports mostly because the events in Philly are still not over. As of today 48 people remain in jail, and all of the more than 450 people arrested faced very high bails and ridiculous charges. The full story, and a more thorough analysis of the meaning on the Philly protests cannot be written until everyone is out of jail and the court appearances and trials are completed. In the meantime, here some preliminary thoughts. ----------------------------------------------
On August 4th the delegates, alternates and guests attending the Republican Party Convention - along with the estimated 15,000 members of the media - packed up and left Philadelphia. Riding high on what they hailed as a success, these folks all seemed to not care about the more than 450 people in jail as a result of protest activities during their convention.
For almost a week, people upset with the direction this country continues to move in, and the role of both the Republican and Democratic Parties, gathered to raise their voices and call attention to a range of concerns. Activities included marches and rallies with permits (secured only after taking legal action against the city) to marches without permits; from forums and an alternative convention to nonviolent civil disobedience.
Now, as the Democratic Party Convention gets underway in Los Angeles, I offer some thoughts on the meaning of the Philly protests. In some respect we are still too close to these activities to fully understand what impact they will have or how they will be remembered. There is a great deal that the organizers and participants need to evaluate, and as a social change movement we all need to consider the lessons from these events. My comments here will hopefully be useful as part of that larger dialogue. ---------------------------------------------
The mainstream media over and again claimed there was no clear message, almost implying that people were protesting just for the sake of protesting. Of course, this is ridiculous: there were important, clear issues that were raised throughout the week. Part of the problem was the media's refusal to address the issues. For instance, on August 1st there was a press conference opposing the death penalty and calling for justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal and at least 80 reporters were in the room. As best we can tell only 3 or 4 outlets actually ran a story on it.
In another example, the July 30th Unity 2000 march and rally was designed as a multi-issue, multi-constituency event. The call for the demonstration offered a solid critique of the many domestic and global problems before us, offering ideas on how things could be different. A decision by organizers not to suggest that one issue was central did, I believe, make sense. The goal was to bring people active in different struggles together, to show an understanding that our issues are connected. Did the mainstream media print the call for the Unity 2000 protest, or even excerpts from it? No. Instead, for weeks the Philly papers ran articles about how the police were ready for any trouble, etc., etc.
Don't get me wrong: I am not suggesting that everything is the fault of the media. Indeed, precisely because we know how hard it is to get our message out through the mainstream media it is critically important for organizers to be creative in developing other ways to deliver the message. For instance, I believe it would have been possibly to give the Unity 2000 event more political definition and depth, and to do so in a way that maintained the multi-issue nature of the day. Articulating an over-arching demand for justice and democracy, for example, would have allowed each group to bring its issues and still help everyone see the connections.
Here's another example. The direct action on August 1st was aimed at calling attention to the realities of the criminal injustice system, linking the death penalty, the expanding prison-industrial complex and police brutality. The challenge of getting a complex message out to a generally hostile media was made infinitely more difficult as the puppets, signs, banners and other items designed to explain the issues were seized by the police several hours before the action got underway.
But, again, some of the responsibility rests with the organizers. Several times during the afternoon I stood on corners as people blocked traffic and the police cordoned off the streets. Passersby asked what was happening...a logical question since the mammoth police presence made it impossible to even see where the demonstrators were, much less what was being said. I did my best to explain, but certainly having people on the streets handing out an informational leaflet would have gone a long way. In fact, I don't believe any of the demonstrations I attended had handouts to give people as we marched and rallied on the streets of Philadelphia. -------------------------------------------
#3: Independent/Alternative Media
Realizing the limits of working with and through the mainstream, corporate controlled media has led to the development of Independent Media Centers around the country. When activists in Philly learned last summer that the Republicans were coming to town, one of the first projects to get underway was the organizing of an IMC in Philly.
I spent a lot of time at the IMC and was extremely impressed with the operation. Every type of media was being used, all in the service of helping to get out honest and politically supportive reporting of the events as they unfolded. A daily broadside was printed (although I'm not sure how widely it got distributed); audio tapes for radio broadcasts were produced; video journalists got just about everything that happened on tape; a web site included written articles, audio and video reports. There was room for reporters from alternative media to file their stories, as well as access to the most up-to-date information about what was happening on the streets. In addition, an exciting new effort took place with the twice daily live radio, web and cable TV broadcasts of the news.
As was true in Seattle last November and in Washington, DC this past April, the IMC made it possible to get the real story out - the story the mainstream media simply will not tell. It was exciting to see the creativity, the use of older and newer technologies and the clarity of common purpose. The organizers of the IMC hope the positive experience will help as they hammer out plans to continue to operate, continue to provide a serious alternative source of news and information. Of course, it will help their efforts tremendously if the progressive funding community could begin to see the importance of media our movements media efforts! ------------------------------------------
The fact that the Republicans and their corporate buddies would be in town for several days offered both an opportunity and a challenge to organizers. Because the Republican Party is so bad on every issue and has played such a heavy role in moving the country further and further to the right (no, I am not suggesting in any way that the Democrats are good!), there were endless possibilities for issues to address...and because they would be around for a few days meant there was no need to everyone to agree on just one form of protest. The challenge was to find a way for constituency and issue groups to raise their concerns in the way they felt most comfortable and, at the same time, to develop a vehicle to increase cooperation and support. How do we build unity and maintain our diversity? How do we encourage new initiatives and tie our efforts together?
For reasons I have yet to figure out, putting together an umbrella structure that would allow all of this to happen was extremely difficult. For months there were attempts to develop something, and the baby steps that were taken would collapse. Finally, in the last two months or so, the R2K network did come together. In addition to helping everyone know what was being planned, it was also then possible to figure out what needs the different activities had and develop ways to work together. In the end, teams of people were put together to offer medical, legal and media support for all of the protests. That meant that each demonstration did not have to put together and train its own legal observers or people with first aid skills.
It was wonderful that this came together in the end, but I cant help but wonder how much more effective this umbrella structure might have been if people had been able to develop it months earlier. I am struck over and again, not just in Philly, at how deeply activists understand the need to link issues and yet still have such difficulty when it comes time to actually work together. Perhaps one of the problems in Philadelphia (and other places) is that organizers don't have a lot of contact with people in other struggles in between the times when outside forces (such as the Republicans coming to town) throw them together. --------------------------------------------
#5: Tactics and Outreach
As I said, one of the good things about having a few days available for demonstrations is that it allows for the possibility of a range of tactics to be used. And this true in Philly.
The first protests were permitted marches and rallies, and the hope was that the Unity 2000 demonstration would bring out very large numbers of people. I know there are disagreements about the numbers, although I doubt that anyone would suggest that this was a truly massive turn-out. One of the reasons to use this form of protest is that it allows for larger numbers of people to participate, including people who for any number of reasons may not want to do civil disobedience or engage in other forms of public protest.
I believe the decision of Unity 2000 to aim for that type of event, and to do it on the Sunday before the Republican Convention opened, was a good one. The problem was that the organizing did not match the potential. While there was a list of over 200 groups endorsing the demonstration, the core group never managed to kick its outreach and organizing into high gear. Philadelphia was not flooded with leaflets and posters and mailings and phone banking....the word did not get out. And without a solid base and strong momentum in Philly it was extremely hard to build interest in other cities.
On the opening day of the Republican Convention, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union led a non-permitted march from Center City a full 3 miles down to the First Union Center where the Republicans would gather later than evening. KWRU had tried to get a permit and was repeatedly denied one by the city...but they made it clear they would march regardless. Both the issue and the tactic were clear: the voices of poor people in their call for economic justice would not be silenced and the march would happen.
The event went very well as thousands of people joined the KWRU, and the success of the day might lead some to conclude that it is better for groups to organize their own activities, to steer away from coalitions. But I don't think it is that easy, and there certainly are no magic formulas: sometimes coalitions make sense and sometimes a group acting on its own works best. The real question is what will work best given the particular circumstances and what will help best deepen and expand the movement?
Without a doubt, the tactic that got the most attention from the media was the day of direct action on August 1st. The idea was straightforward: given the state of the criminal injustice system there can be no business as usual. The plan was to make it difficult, if not impossible, for the delegates to get to the convention that evening - and to do that by blocking traffic in the downtown area packed with the hotels where the delegates were staying.
As I finish this piece, two weeks have passed since the protests began...and there are still 48 people in jail in Philadelphia! Most of the more than 400 people arrested spent at least a week in jails and since the August 1st direct action extensive time, energy and money has gone into getting folks out. There have been serious physical assaults on people (described by some as torture), outrageous charges and unheard of bails ranging from $10,000 all the way up to $1,000,000 for two people. As I said earlier, a thorough evaluation of the day will have to wait until the dust settles on this legal situation. And when that does happen, I hope such an evaluation will look at the meaning of this new tactic by the state: making the jail experience and the ability to get out as difficult as one could possibly imagine. (Just this past week protesters against the U.S. military occupation of Vieques, Puerto Rico were hit with $10,000 bails for nonviolent civil disobedience, and we shall see what happens this coming week in Los Angeles!)
Having said that, I do have a few thoughts about the direct action. The goal of the protest was, at least for five hours in the late afternoon and early evening, achieved: there was no business as usual in Center City Philly that afternoon. There were enough people engaged in the civil disobedience and involved in a supportive way that most of the main arteries of the downtown area were disrupted.
At the same time, according to reports on the news that night, the Republican Convention started about 15 minutes...they were able to do their business as usual. While people demonstrated amazing courage, creativity and commitment, we need to be honest: the demonstrations were not able to stop or even significantly interfere with the business of the Republican Convention.
I think nonviolent civil disobedience is a powerful tactic, and one that allows for a great deal of creativity. I also am deeply moved by the process used to organize this and other such actions - a process based on small affinity groups making their own specific decisions within the context of an agreed upon political focus and willing to cooperate on a number of details that make everyone's effort stronger. The combination of decentralized and yet still coordinated planning is exciting.
There are estimates that as many as 4,000 people took part in the action on August 1st, either by doing the civil disobedience or as support people. I don't know if there will ever be an exact count, and that's fine. While that's a significant figure, we need to ask how this form of protest can made be attractive to more and more people thereby making such actions even stronger.
In most of the protest activities of this past year, the direct action was organized primarily by young white activists. What was new here- and extremely important - was the input and leadership from young people of color. I assume that the political focus of the action helped attract young activists of color. But beyond that the people of color brought the strength of their own organizing experience into the mix, and many of the white activists understood that anti-racist work begins at home. I don't want to sound like this was a perfect situation, far from it. But it was a giant step in the right direction, something that will be built on in the years to come.
Much of the organizing for all of the activities in Philly was done via the Internet. Listserves and web sites helped get the word out to folks all around the country. Its great that activists are finding ways to put the new technologies to work and it is clear that the Internet will be used more and more in the future. Nonetheless, and some may call me old-fashioned, I am concerned that there was so much reliance on the Internet that other ways of getting the message out simply didn't happen, or didn't happen to the extent they might. I mentioned this in terms of the Unity 2000 event, but I also think its true for the direct action protest: massive leafleting, mailings, calling people, getting posters up, etc. are all tools that we cant walk away from, regardless of the form our protests take. It is not a question of using the Internet OR doing this other things...it all must be used if we are to really make sure our message is getting out.
Finally, because these activities unfolded over a few days it was much easier to have the space for different tactics. Now, as the evaluation process begins, I hope we take a closer look at which tactics work best for what situations. There is no one perfect tactic and there are lots of reasons to decide on one or another tactic. The point is to figure out what we can use to best communicate our message, make our statement, and strengthen our movement. -------------------------------------------
#6: Identity Politics?
For years, people have fought hard to bring their different identities into coalition efforts in the hopes of deepening the common political analysis and to make sure their own struggles are not lost in the mix. There is much to say about the strengths and weaknesses of identity politics...no, I am not going to do that here.
As I went to many of the Philadelphia protests I was struck by the lack of, what I would call, identity presence. As an activist in the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender movement for many years, I was struck by the number of lesbians, gay men and other queer people involved in the organizing for much of the activities in Philadelphia. But I was even more struck by the lack of a visible queer presence. I don't know what this means or what, if anything, should be done about it. The good news in this is that perhaps at least some folks are moving beyond some of the limitations of identity-based politics. The problematic is that we learned long ago there is an assumption of heterosexuality when a queer identity is not made visible.
I wonder if the new wave of activists have a different relationship to identity and therefore to identity politics, and it would be wonderful to hear from folks about their thoughts on this. The discussion might help us avoid a dynamic where people put aside their identities for the sake of the common good, only to have internal struggles erupt in ways that make working together more difficult. The challenge is to move toward a unity grounded in a respect for our diversity, a unity strengthened by what we each bring to the struggle. ---------------------------------------------
#7: The Other Convention
One of other main activities in Philadelphia was the Shadow Convention called by a small coalition of groups but essentially under the leadership of Arianna Huffington. They got some mainstream media attention, although I assume not what they had hoped for given the heavy hitters they had speaking. The idea of convening a parallel convention where several of the major issues of day (the power of money in the electoral system, the failure of the war on drugs, and the growing divide between the wealthy and poor) can be seriously examined and new ideas for addressing these problems can be put forth is great. But I had a problem with the Shadow Convention. That is, someone with a great deal of money who has already established herself as a media celebrity (in no small way because of her money), called the shots. Did this not, in some fashion, replicate the problem that those with money have the power to make the decisions? Of course, on top of this Arianna Huffington was for many years a hard core Republican, a friend of Newt Gingrich. Yes, people do change - if I didn't believe that I would have gotten out of this line of work a long, long time ago. But would a tiny bit of humility not have been in order? Would it have been so difficult to ask organizers in Philly what they thought should happen, if they needed any financial support for their activities, how the idea of a Shadow Convention might have been helpful for their ongoing work? ---------------------------------------
When all is said and done, the real question is what are we doing in-between the public protests? It is understandable that our demonstrations are often viewed as a measure of the strength (or weakness) of our movements, and I strongly believe in the value of public action, mass mobilization and street protest. At the same time, the energy, time and money that goes into these activities needs to be matched or surpassed by what we put into our ongoing organizing efforts. Are we carrying out educational campaigns, are we reaching out to people not yet involved, are we training newer activists in a range of skills, are we consciously engaged in the hard work of movement building? If not, our demonstrations will not grow, our power will not expand, or ability to make change will fall short.
Now, two weeks since the Philadelphia demonstrations, I believe it was important that these protests happen, and that in many ways there were important successes during the week. Perhaps one of the most important things is that Philly was yet another expression of the deep commitment, sometime dazzling creativity and often very sharp political insights of a new generation of activists. In this past year alone we have seen this in Seattle and in Washington, DC as young people led the demonstrations against the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank; in cities across the country as young people are in the forefront of the fight against police brutality and in defense of the rights of immigrants; on hundreds of campuses in the struggle against sweatshops; the list goes on. I was glad to be in Philadelphia to be counted as part of the opposition movement. I was honored to be in the company of so many young activists!
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