Analyzing the Movement-Looking Back at PPRC 4
Here are some reflections on the attitudes and questions I had before the rally against Afghan Famine in October of 2001.
Have you ever felt expendable? As someone from a middle class home I never did. But, after 9-11, I felt more than expendable, I felt persecuted. Without any personal pressure, without any justification other than the national mood as it was depicted on the television screen and in newspapers, I fell into paranoia. I was sick with fear, too worried to speak my mind even in restaurants, worried about what neighbors or colleagues might hear.
In the emotion of the moment, feeling out of step and threatened, I imagined that I identified with the downtrodden. After all, the homeless people asking for change could reliably be trusted, and the men and women selling Street Roots, an activist newspaper for the homeless, were even to be admired.
Outside of Powell's Books about a week before I attended my first PPRC meeting I remember opening up to a Street Roots vendor, telling him that his was one of the only newspapers worth reading and asking him for his take on the present scene.
He didn't talk about the war, or terrorists, but talked about Dignity Village and the paper; about what Street Roots had meant to him.
"They taught me how to read," he said.
"Me too. Reading Street Roots and other alternative media, it helps me when I'm reading the paper. It's easier to see through the propaganda when you're reading outside the prevailing frame."
"No. I mean the people who run Street Roots taught me how to read. They've got a literacy program," he said.
I smiled stupidly.
"That's real... that's important work."
"I write for the paper now," he said.
There was a chasm opening up between us. I still admired him and his paper, but I couldn't help feeling superior to him at the same time. I wasn't really expendable after all; I was not expendable like he was, not illiterate.
We talked a little longer, and I told him that I was a writer too, and he suggested that I should write something for Street Roots. Again I smiled stupidly. I was a real writer, published in real journals and magazines. I would never write for something as marginal as Street Roots.
Shortly after this encounter I received an email from Len Bracken, the author of "Guy Debord--Revolutionary" and a working class activist in his own right. I'd contacted him months earlier because I admired his book and because I wanted to exchange webpage links. My website was newly acquired and I'd read that the thing to do was to set up these link exchanges in order to increase traffic to your site.
By the time his email arrived I was no longer so interested in self-promotion, but just pleased to be contacted by a fellow traveller in what was a hostile time. I told him that I was glad to hear from him, that his book on the Spectacle and Debord seem more relevant than ever, and I told him that I'd be glad to hear about whatever efforts he might be making to stop the war. I told him that I longed to involve myself in a legitimate peace movement, but what I'd heard about Portland's peace group left me cold. He wrote back and told me that the only war he was interested in was the class war, and that far from trying to stop this war he was determined to win it. He wrote that focussing on imperialist wars gave people the false impression that there could be peace in a world divided by class, a world dominated by capitalism, commodities, and sheep-like complacency. He mentioned a few recent labor actions that he'd participated in and talked about the possibility of a revolutionary general strike.
I argued with him, said that this war, sold as it was as self-defense, was part of the system of lies that kept people enthralled and sheepish. Until people could see that these wars weren't about protecting them they would be unable to find the will to dispense with the state and corporations that were killing them, the system that was so radically reducing their lives to a series of services rendered in exchange for short term survival.
I argued that the Famine in Afghanistan made action against the war a moral imperative. To do nothing to stop the US bombings of Afghans, to do nothing to make sure that food could get through, made you complicit in genocide.
Len wrote back to say that he didn't want to discuss it. Essentially, he was going to continue with working class actions in the economic sphere, and leave the peace groups to the middle class reformists and pacifists. He didn't want any part of the anti-war movement.
In hindsight I can't really say who was right. Certainly my experiences in PPRC confirmed his critique of peace activists, but that doesn't settle anything.
Moving forward to October 20th of 2001, there was going to be a protest against the Famine and the US bombing of Afghanistan. 7.5 million people were on the brink of starvation, an increase of 2.5 million brought about because of US aggression, and food aid was not getting into the country.
I met with a friend and cohort, a fellow activist who I'll call Z, a few days before the rally to discuss our prospects for success. We'd been discussing for weeks what needed to be done to stop the war, a war that was already promising to be endless. We'd eventually decided that the famine was the most important problem and had to be addressed. After Z agreed to that I had to convince him that working with a grassroots movement, rather than lobbying elite power, was the best approach.
Z was an admitted Capitalist, but also a self-styled intellectual. With sufficient argument he was convinced to do what I thought was the right thing.
The reality was that we were both deluded. We were acting as though our puzzling out answers was enough to make a difference. We were willfully unaware of our powerlessness. Perhaps working in a grassroots campaign was a step towards achieving some power, but it would only be a useful tactic if both Z and I, along with the organization itself, were very clear about what kind of power we were hoping to obtain.
Before the Famine rally we weren't happy or hopeful about PPRC. Z felt that the organization was too inwardly focussed, and that they were rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic when they argued about non-violence policies and organizational procedures, and I tended to agree with him.
Why wasn't everyone talking about the Famine in Afghanistan already? Why did the anti-Famine protest have to be organized outside of PPRC?
I still felt persecuted and isolated, but so did almost everyone else in PPRC. And when we hit the streets on October 24th these feelings of persecution would be confirmed. And, for a while, this alienation from the mainstream would be PPRC's primary point of solidarity.
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