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imperialism & war

Analyzing the Movement-Looking Back at PPRC 3

I started going to meetings. My life was soon overwhelmed by them. Head first into the process, I was to be facilitated, debated, proposed, and finally flummoxed.
After 9-11, after the disappointment of the first PPRC rally, I was in a peculiar circumstance. At least, it was peculiar for me. I was being pushed by the world, by the morning paper, by conversations at the water-cooler, by an overwhelming sense of doom. I had to act, but I didn't know how. There was only one organization in town that was visibly working against the war. My options seemed limited.

I started going to meetings. My life was soon overwhelmed by them. Head first into the process, I was to be facilitated, debated, proposed, and finally flummoxed.

My first PPRC meeting was at PSU. It was a planning meeting for a scheduled Teach In, and I went because this was the only PPRC meeting that fit my schedule. It could have been a PPRC meeting about catering or wallpaper design and I would have turned up. It was held in the PSU Student Lobby and this helped me feel good about it. Being held at the University helped the whole project seemed more legitimate.

There are only a few models for cooperating in large groups. That is, there are only a few settings where most of us actually do work together. On the job, at school, or at church are the places where we are forced to deal with each other, everywhere else we're left aloneóduring leisure time most group decisions never get more complicated than deciding where to get a drink or what video to rent.

The first PPRC meeting seemed like school to me. I got the impression that if we weren't exactly working for credit, we were still accredited. After all school is where society figures you out, it's where you go to be slotted into your official position in the world. Thus, if something happened at school it automatically had an official position in the larger society, however marginal that position might be.

I took my five year old son Benjamin along with me to this peace meeting; I can't remember now if my wife asked me to take him or if it had been my idea, but it seemed like a good idea when I got there. He'd be entering kindergarten soon, so it was a good precursor experience for him.

We were late, and the smile on the facilitator's face was strained as she shook my hand and invited me to sit down in the farthest chair. She clearly didn't appreciate the potential disruption that my five year old represented.

We sat down next to the meeting stenographer, and I gave my son a Superman comicbook to keep him distracted. This turned out to be a mistake as he kept asking me what Lois Lane was saying, asking me to read, read, read, while I tried to keep up with the conversation bouncing around the table.

"Just look at the pictures," I told him.

The group was working on a question about Afghans. Specifically, the question was whether the Afghans should be invited back to the second Teach In. The Afghans had been out of line at the first Teach In, and many of the young, white activists didn't want them back.

"We have established our points of unity and none of the speakers should speak in opposition to these basic principles of the group," the facilitator argued. "Should they?"

"We're not talking about inviting Colin Powell to speak, but we have to take the local Afghan community into account," an Palestinian man who I'll call B said. He seemed frustrated to debate what he clearly felt was obvious.

The Afghans were against the Taliban. At the first Teach In the Afghans had been unanimous in their hatred of the brutal Taliban regime and very soft in their opposition of the US bombings. While not quite supporting the US invasion, and with grave reservations about the Northern Alliance, the local Afghans couldn't quite bring themselves to openly and directly oppose anybody who was killing Taliban soldiers and leaders.

"Who do these Afghans represent?" I asked. I was getting the hang of it. "I mean is this an Afghan rights group, or just a couple of guys that we're talking about?"

B rubbed his face in frustration. "They are Afghans. They don't represent an official group, but these men wish to speak."

"Why don't we invite someone from RAWA?" I asked. "They've taken a strong stance against the US bombing."

"Do you know someone from RAWA?" B asked.

"No."

The meeting continued on, and the question of the Afghans was dropped. Instead people wondered if there ought to be a class on Islam at the Teach In, in order to facilitate deeper understanding and quash hate crimes. Someone else wondered how long the event would last, and whether there would be discussion groups or only speakers.

Perhaps I was doomed from the start, after all I'd never really fit in at school.

An example:

My strongest memories from my time at Steele School Elementary in Colorado Springs, the school I spent six years of my childhood attending, involve a painting of a Sad Clown and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Steele School was built in the seventies, during the open concept fad, so there weren't any rooms inside the school. There were just various spaces defined by carpeted facades. We had our morning assemblies in the library space at the center of the school. I remember pledging allegiance and listening to Dr. Keely, our polyester jump suit clad principal. She'd introduce the pledge every morning by reminding us that many soldiers, many good men, had lost their lives defending our country. She'd tell us that these men were the reason we were pledging allegiance, and she'd stand there next to the flag and never even glance up at the kitsch clown painting over her head.

I don't know who put the clown painting up there, but in first grade I assumed it was hers. I thought she'd brought it in to illustrate her point about the dead men. The clown was wearing a bowler helmet and crying, and I stared at him during every assembly because it was better than looking at the principal and chancing eye contact.

After a while it all became connected. Her polyester suits, the depressed clown, school and the flag were all part of the same thing. Steele School was the country, the clown was the sacrifice, and the pledge was our participation in this mystery, this depressing spectacle.

So, my natural response to facilitated meetings, my natural inclination when asked to raise my hand to speak, is to resent the structure and either act disruptively, or just space out. Still, at the time I understood that the set-up was there to ensure democratic participation. The rules were more legitimate than my impulses. I really tried to play along.

But my son couldn't take it. About 30 minutes in he'd had enough. He slipped out of his chair and started climbing around under the table and scrambled out of my reach. I imagined him untying my fellow activists' shoes.

"I missed that," I said to the man next to me, giving up for the moment on retrieving my son. "Are we still talking about the speakers list?"

"I'm taking the minutes," he said. "I can't stop to explain anything to you."

The facilitator was looking down at something under the table. This was embarassing. I decided to give up and take my son outside, but before I could gather him up, before I could collect all of our things, one of the meeting participants spoke out of turn, breaking through the official stack.

"7.5 million people are going to starve to death unless we do something," a woman who I'll C said. She tried to be gracious, mentioned that she'd just read a Chomsky lecture off the internet and he'd gotten her riled up. Chomsky had spoken about the massive famine in Afghanistan, a famine made much worse by the closing of the Pakistan border and by American bombs. Chomsky called the American response to 9-11 a "kind of silent genocide." This phrase would be thrown back in his face later on when some food aid finally got through to the major cities. Hitchens and other US apologists would use this phrase in an attempt to marginalize Chomsky's views in the weeks to come. The right wingers would be wrong and complicit in a terrible crime. Even after the famine would be declared averted by the WFP, over a million Afghans would still be at severe risk of death from starvation.

"We have to do something now, otherwise we'll millions of Afghan refugees will die," C said.

It was what I wanted to hear. This was why I'd come to the meeting. This was the issue for me. Our retaliation for 9-11 would not only miss the real culprits, but also kill millions. The word genocide echoed in my head. Complicit to genocide.

"Let's go!" my son said. I tentatively raised my hand to speak and then put it down again. There was no chance that the facilitator would call on me before my son went ballistic.

I took Ben outside to play on the campus grounds. We found a slide, some swings, and some wooden jungle-gym bars on the south side, beyond Lincoln Hall. We spent the rest of our trip to the University at recess.

On the way home I spotted C waiting for the streetcar, and I decided to talk to her. I wanted to tell her that I'd agreed with her, that I'd heard Chomsky's speech too, that I'd read the WFP's webpage.

She was glad to hear it, and told me about a protest that she was working on. She said that it wasn't a PPRC event, that she and a friend had decide to go outside of PPRC for it because they'd couldn't get it through the events committee, that C's proposal for a protest against the Famine had been tabled at the last meeting.

"We're doing it anyway," she said.

"Great. I'll help. What do you want me to do?"

"Can you hang some posters?"

"Sure."

Already, at the end of my first meeting, I was breaking rank and disrespecting the decisions of the group. I didn't know it at the time, but this would define my experiences at PPRC as much as the pledge and the sad clown had defined Steele Elementary.
Activate for Peace 17.Dec.2003 11:34

Local

Let's focus on what we need. A visible and therefore informative and motivating demonstration of the write to free speach and to peacefully assemble in opposition to this war and recent attacks on sovereign rights of citizens. We need to counter-act lies and misinformation of dominant media, through indie-media, but also through concise, nondistracted, informational pamphlets geared towards questions of 9-11, truth behind military-welfare war, and the threat to consitutional sovereignity.

I appreciate you writing what happened, but it reads like a memoire of the past. Don't Mourn, Organize. Now is the time to find or start anti-war coalitions that do the above. My CONSTRUCTIVE solution to groups like PPRC is spelled out in this below.

When I was at the protests after war the war started, hundreds came out and ad hoc took over the Burnside bridge then walked onto I-5 and then I-84. That's when the police came and showed force. I left because I was working the next day and didn't feel like getting arrested. I wanted to go back down town, but the cops had blocked off the streets a little, so I took the long route back, hoping to meet up downtown again to continue to try to speak to the city of Portland (it's people) through a continued demonstration. I thought, "wouldn't it be great if everyone just did what they felt like and walked where they wanted without having to f eel like they were being forced into a song or forced in line?" I knew we could have just spread out so that it would have been hard for cops to arrest us without more seriously removing our constitutional rights. I looked into this alternate method of visible protesting called below distributed protesting.

Distributed Protest

The purpose of a protest is, ostensibly, to attract attention to an issue.

When my brother and I went to the June 23rd protest against Bush and his abuse of the office of President, I held up a provocative sign, "Why did Bush block the investigation of the 9/11 attacks?" The protest was large and loud - as it should be. A few thousand people showed up, but many of them could not find a place to stand in the pens that were set aside for the protest.

Several people were arrested for walking outside of the pens.

After the protest, I walked to Bryant park - holding my sign. I noticed that I got a lot more attention as a "lone-protestor". People came up to me and asked questions. Everyone in sight plainly read my sign, and many people asked me to turn it - so they could get a better view.

It dawned on me that another way to protest is for everyone to simply carry a sign on the street, on a designated day. That way more people will see the message. Imagine how powerful it would be that when you went to work, or to the shops, saw a person carrying a sign on every block, no matter where you looked and as far as you went. [Imagine, wow, imagine Powell, Broadway, Donwtown busmall etc., Sandy, Burnside, 39th, all the bridges, 405 overpasses, etc. WOW!]

For those of you familiar with networking, it's analogous a D-DOS versus a DOS attack... provably a more powerful method, even with comparable bandwidth. An excellent and pertinent article on the decentralized coordination of large groups can be found here. [seems academic]

To comply with the law and make a stronger message there are several simple rules to follow:

1. Leave your house within a precise time, and bring a sign to an area, possibly with limits, that's convenient to you.
2. If you see another protestor nearby, acknowledge them and move on. [necessary to move on?]
3. Avoid police. Lower down your sign or walk away when told to. [necessary?] Raise it up again only when you are out of view. This form of protest is about the group, as a whole, not the individual. Persistent avoidance makes a distributed mob impossible to stop - like trying to corral ants. The cops can't staff people on every corner for months at a time. You, however, can.
4. Use cardboard, foam-core or paper signs only. Art supply stores sell cardboard tubes suitable to use instead of sticks. [re FTAA protests]
5. Respond to requests for more information with clear answers or a printed flyer.
6. End the protest at a planned time. Late-stragglers will water-down the impact.

A critical facet of this form of media is the timing. Anyone can wear a t-shirt and make very little impact. However, when very large groups of people wear them on the same day, it has a deeper resonance. All media has impact in it's distinction from the background noise of everyday life. Since people wear t-shirts all the time, they aren't as powerful as signs, and so they require a higher density. [I don't care for this idea]

Another critical issue is the centralized controls swarm-rules methodology of decentralized management. This is a powerful methodology that can be used to have a massive impact. By carefully tweaking the swarm rules, you can refine the overall message. [sounds academic]

Other ideas for making the protest work. Not necessary, but useful.

* Stick to crowded areas. This one is obvious. Distributed protests only work in busy metro areas, or malls, etc. Also, nighttime is fine for a vigil or rally, but not for a distributed protest.
* If you insist on using t-shirt mobs, use a site like cafepress.com to have a T-shirt drive. After you have enough buyers, email all the buyers and ask them to wear the T-shirt on the same day and in the same place. You will need a much shorter timeline and a 3-5 times higher density for this to be effective, so make sure your venue is small enough. For example, 500 people wearing the same t-shirt showing up at a mall at the same time. [t-shirt ok idea]
* You can create a radius, like "Manhattan Only". However you want to make sure the radius allows for 6 or-so protestors per square block. Click here for a protest density and map calculator. [for those who like buddys]
* Unlike traditional rallies, which are very effective for other reasons, a distributed protest is more effective as a long-term media campaign. You are better off running a 30-minute protest each day from 6pm until 6:30pm for 8 days in a row, rather than having 1 protest for 4 hours.
* Hand-drawn signs and creative slogans make a big impact on viewers, by creating a diverse, penetrating message. Here's an excellent FAQ on sign-making. Please note that cardboard tubes are not optional anymore in most states. [lost link]
* Be clear about your agenda. Ask that protestors stick to it. But don't stop fellow protestors and knock their efforts if they seem to be off-topic.
* Use viral emails to organize large protests in a short amount of time. All emails should contain a request to forward them on to at least 3 others.
Distributed protests are the political manifestations of smartmobs, which are, in turn, the physical expression of the force that universal publishing has given us. They represent the ability of the common man to present media using the same level of sophistication and organization previously available only to those in power. Regardless of what political agenda you stand for, they have the potential to be a new tool in the arsenal of the concerned citizen.

Also, I have since taken this idea to the streets to further experiment with visible demonstrations, has anyone out there seen me on Powell during rush hour with my Activate 4 Peace sign? Perhaps you would be interested in starting an affinity group to publish a leaflet to hand out on this subject? Douglas?

Response to Local 17.Dec.2003 22:09

Douglas Lain

I'm writing these personal accounts of my experience in PPRC because I don't have any simple answers about how to be an activist. I'm not even sure that being an activist is a good idea anymore. At least not a traditional activist. I'm writing a memoir because I can't write a how-to manual. Such a manual might be useful, but I've read a few and they haven't solved the problems.

Your idea about "distributed protests" sound fine to me. Seems worthwhile. But I figured you'd be the person to write leaflets about it, not me.

My understanding of Affinity groups is that they are based on some personal contact and trust.

Dear Douglas 18.Dec.2003 10:32

Still Local

Sounds like you need to turn off the T.V.

I would like to take the time to moralize you for your deflated attitude, but I think this will happen on it's own. (Lies nauseate, the truth evigorates) You appear to have the disease that many Americans have: "Don't think, ask him." Blackout thought. I'm not bitter, and you probebly could trust me to help work on a great series of pamphlets this city really needs on the streets. See you out there. THE TRUTH IS SO IMPORTANT RIGHT NOW. So, if you have time away from work, be productive, and know that there are activistists standing out in the scared, tired, deflated, terrorized, mal nourished, dehydrated, consumerized, shafted, oppressed, depressed, and repressed crowd in America that will make, and have made, this world much more livable for your child. P.S. what in the world do you think you should be right now, if not an activist?!

i repeat: Sounds like you need to turn off the T.V.

And Another Thing Douglas 18.Dec.2003 10:42

still very local

I repeat:
Let's focus on what we need. A visible and therefore informative and motivating demonstration of the write to free speach and to peacefully assemble in opposition to this war and recent attacks on sovereign rights of citizens. We need to counter-act lies and misinformation of dominant media, through indie-media, but also through concise, nondistracted, informational pamphlets geared towards questions of 9-11, truth behind military-welfare war, and the threat to consitutional sovereignity.

It occured to me that you may not be concerned about these things because you aren't aware of their gravity. So read this below and also check out articles from the Gaurdian and the gathered articles on Whatreallyhappened.com. Again, turn off that beastly television and remove yourself from the matrix and enter reality.

Paying Attention

In these times of war it appears that the pervasive "news" sources stand strong as purveyors of established misinformation and a sustained naive careerism. What we get day in and day out from these national newspapers and conglomerate productions (t.v., radio etc.), almost all of them cartel rags and infotainment shows, is the appearance that our nation is not being usurped. The continual onslaught of half-relevancies, conspicuous silences regarding important topics, and officially mandated spins appear to mask the fact that politicians, compromised by the special interests of those who pay for their careers, and ensure their future successes, are plundering our nation of its tax-base and constitutional integrity. All of this is apparent to anyone brave enough to pay attention.

As the mysteries of 9-11 recede into collective amnesia, the American people do not know how it took two decades of plane-jacking to produce the 9-11 tragedy, how NORAD failed to scramble intercepting jets, or who made the conspicuous stock exchange transactions the night before the attacks, nor do they appear to care. And new mysteries are already receding into the collective abyss. What lies were told regarding the war of Iraq? What economic gains (for these are the only real gains intended) were sustained by the invasion of Afghanistan? We receive, instead of contested points, a continued flow of arbitrary angles, and along with their complimentary "expert" military witnesses, the latest official spins. This continual wash succeeds in producing a meaningful and general resignation. The spectators that the mass of this society have been reduced to seem to have accepted that all that appears to be happening in regards to the "war on terrorism" is in fact meant to be happening. Fortunately this is not the case.

According to Donald Rumsfeld, our new administration's secretary of defense, Iraq kicked UN inspectors out of it's borders in 1998, while one of the chief UN inspectors (Scott Ritter) has publicly declared it was the U.S. who pulled them out. One can see the language of the administering elite illustrate a concerted effort to nullify debate on these contested facts. In response to a gutsy soldier's comment that this war was just about oil, Rumsfeld, in excellent political fashion, responded with a most eloquent circular argument: Even if the Iraqi regime is overthrown, someone else will continue to control the oil there, we will still have to buy it, and therefore this war is not about oil. If anyone can recognize or remember this (these days memories of just days ago seem to be erasable), a most glaring example of something called doubletalk, they have also most likely come to recognize it coming from the mouths of all of their heads of state and "media," both locally and nationally. Today the american term "leader" could easily be read as "misleader." .It appears that what we are receiving are not just reports of the latest official directives and the corresponding news regarding them, but we are in fact receiving orders. It's as if all at once we remember our contempt for politicians at large, and the world of alienation they seek to guard. We realize these falsifiers have worked tirelessly while we slept, to exploit us and people like us the world over. And it appears they control, through a most ingenious design of pressure, the only expansive means of receiving information on, or having any discourse about, their intentions.

Directly before the first monstrous unleashing of this "war on terror", a spectacle of what once was more rightfully called a "town hall meeting" was assembled for the sake of the pretense of spectator participation. Stage Left were various leaders and personalities who were gathered because they dared question and/or oppose this push to war, and precisely because they did not question or oppose the presumptions of this pseudo-dialogue. Stage Right were the apologists for a war that had already been planned, for a decision that had already been made. Ultimately the argument was null, the apologists smiled smugly, because they knew, the concerns of the people did not matter.

As long as the conscience remains the thought of the human heart, and society retains a respect for it's own reason, lies will continue to nauseate. And we have never been more nauseated. But to rely on our contempt as motivation is to fail before we have begun. We must recognize that what we seek in the truth is our own presence in our lives. So to imagine the absence of the corrupt military-industrial complex, and its corealary spectator society, is not enough. We must imagine the social practice of participating in community, media, and government. Resignation comes to those who have resigned themselves. Like children we must resign ourselves to the only truth that we need seek; all of them. Just as the sun rises, these fundamental

Responding Again to Local 18.Dec.2003 15:05

Douglas Lain

Umm...I don't own a television and I don't fundamentally disagree with you about the problems we face. I am aware of the propaganda that bombards us daily. What I'm writing about is what happened to me when I tried to act in concert with others to counteract the lies. I think it's worthwhile to consider how we replicate the system of control in our own organizations.

You seem confident that you have the answers about how we should organize. Perhaps you have already solved all the problems I confronted. If so, why don't you address these problems?

Even the worst of the PPRC crowd would agree with what your comments about the war and many would agree with your thoughts on 9-11. At this point it seems easy enough to point out that Bush is fraud, that Cheney is a monster. To shout about how the sky is falling is even easier.

What I'm doing is looking at what can be done in the face of all this. I'm taking a round about approach to it, focusing on my own experiences, because that's the approach that comes most naturally to me and this approach also seems to forstall quick answers and snap judgements.

You asked what I think I should be other than an activist? I'm not sure what my answer is. But my first knee jerk answer is this:

I'd like to be free.

Local 18.Dec.2003 19:50

local too

It's sad you can't read about someone else's experience without moralizing. Of course we need to think about what we need to do and not just focus on the past. We also need to be able to talk about what we've already experienced without someone taking a lazy potshot.

"Turn off your TV set" ??

Here's another classic lobbed around indiscrimately ... "Get a job."

Garbage in garbage out.

douglas... 19.Dec.2003 09:42

kurtkabang

i like what you have to say and i appreciate reading about your experience, although it was different from my own. it's so ironic when people (i.e. local) try to rant about what indymedia "should be".

thanks for putting so much time into this.