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actions & protests | imperialism & war | political theory march 20, 2004

Marching to Nowhere?

On March 20th, 2003, as bombs fell on Iraq, I joined with the thousands who took to the streets of Portland, Oregon, to express our rage against the war and to disrupt business as usual. One year on, I decided to travel to the Bay Area to check out the anti-war/anti-occupation demonstration there. What follows is not an attempt at a comprehensive report-back; I will merely describe my own experience, and draw a few general lessons from what I saw.
Nowhere
Nowhere
Marching to Nowhere?
Some Thoughts on the San Francisco M20 Demonstration

On March 20th, 2003, as bombs fell on Iraq, I joined with the thousands who took to the streets of Portland, Oregon, to express our rage against the war and to disrupt business as usual. That day, intersections were occupied, some freeways were temporarily blocked, and a couple of ugly businesses got trashed. A mass rally also took place. Surprisingly, we did not stop the war, but our fightback made a difference - we demonstrated to each other that it was possible to go beyond resignation and passivity. The question was how to be more focused and effective from then on. For some of us, San Francisco's actions of the same day hinted at solutions; the shutdown of that city's financial district was an inspiration. One year on, I decided to travel to the Bay Area to check out the anti-war/anti-occupation demonstration there. What follows is not an attempt at a comprehensive report-back; I will merely describe my own experience, and draw a few general lessons from what I saw. I hope that this exercise will be useful to those already active around the occupation, and perhaps also those who wish to be.
Much has changed over one year. From a US military standpoint, a relatively "easy" invasion has turned into a dangerous, unstable occupation. Not everyone who took to the streets a year ago has been able to adequately deal with these changes. Back then, we put an emphasis on stopping any more bombs from falling. We put up a decent fight, and also failed; looking back, we probably never had a chance of winning on such terms. Now, a different situation calls for a new approach, new understanding and a new set of goals, but making the transition to this has been done only slowly, and some refuse to even start.
The March 20th demonstration in San Francisco is a case in point. I have read estimates of up to 20,000 people participating in this event - while this number may be an over-estimate, the crowd was large indeed. Even so, it seems that many who shut down the financial district last year stayed home this time around. The start of a bombing campaign makes the underlying issues appear more urgent. The current quagmire enrages even those who initially supported the war, but many presume that the situation will drag on no matter what they do. There is less action, when there could be more and better.
The crowd, meeting at Dolores Park, was diverse. As well as pacifists, liberals, Greens and the usual "hard left" paper-sellers, it seemed as though many people without a rigid political ideology had decided to come along. The two groups centrally involved in the planning of the official event - one a "front group" for the Workers World Party, the other for the Revolutionary Communist Party - must have been excited about the presence of so many potential recruits. I wonder how much luck they had explaining the "historically progressive" nature of despotic states to the everyday folk who showed up.
As in Portland protests, there was also an anarchist contingent that set itself apart from the rest of the crowd with its black clothes, black flags and dubious fashion sense. Other anarchists attended without adopting such externals. I'll comment some more on the anarchists' contributions later.
The march itself was occasionally spirited, but often boring. The state was generous enough to give the demonstrators a full police escort, with cops often flanking the march on both sides. This limited certain possibilities, especially of people moving more freely and fluidly, striking up conversations with those passing by on the street, or doing urban redecoration along the way. In any case, a sizable police presence is to be expected at mass events. Many on the march did not even visibly resent this - the cops were there to help them to exercise their constitutional rights and speak truth to power, as well as to protect them from irresponsible elements. Nothing wrong with that, after all.
While the main march was on its way to its final destination of the Civic Center, the chants and slogans were for the most part predictable - from kicking Bush out in November to something about imperialism. I was grateful for the few marching bands, to those who got genuinely pissed off and started venting, and also to the Bay Area friends I bumped into at the park - all saved the walk from being an utter dud. Sometimes the mood of the crowd would pick up and I felt enthused for a few minutes; other times, it did not. The more vocal of the crowd spoke morally about something they felt was wrong, while others talked the angry militant talk. In both cases, the occupation of Iraq was presented as an "issue" - a campaign issue, a moral issue, or an issue of militancy - but not as something intimately connected with the day-to-day lives we lead here in the states. Only one placard truly made an impact on me all day. It read, "I want my son brought home."
At the civic center, there was the usual milling around. If speakers began their sermons, I didn't notice. Meanwhile, some of the black-clad crowd started gathering together. Near the end of the sanctioned stroll, I had been handed a flyer for a breakaway march. I had also read something about this earlier in the week - somehow it was supposed to tie in with local struggles, although the wording was vague, probably deliberately so. Some friends and I decided to check it out. It would be good to see what the radicals were up to. First we had to wait for this faction to get its shit together and start moving, though. Our wait was longer than expected. When people got going, there was an effort to move from one part of the gathering to that catercorner to it, through the entire dense crowd in-between. Or, at least, this seemed to be the plan; in yet another victory of "security culture", we were kept guessing the whole time. The idea of moving in this direction soon proved impossible, so the breakaway left from the section of street nearest to it.
The surprising aspect of the breakaway was that it involved many people who had clearly just heard about it, or who simply saw it starting and wanted to participate. Many of these people were not anarchists, or conscious radicals of any sort. When it began, this action appeared to involve almost a thousand people, although it's hard to estimate correctly when actually within the crowd. We set on our way, without ever knowing our destination.
After marching a few blocks, it was clear that the cops were ahead of the game - flanking the breakaway and blocking its progress at several intersections. This caused a couple of 180-degree turns - we advanced in one direction, then quickly had to turn around and head back in the other. This did little to add to the breakaway's overall cohesion. The bloc of agitators was not tightly grouped - some took off running to reach a certain point, while others were left lagging behind. Still, at this time the breakaway carried a trace of excitement and dynamism; despite an already large police presence, we did manage to move with greater freedom than the official demonstration. The breakaway contained no march stewards to help the cops with their jobs, and, more importantly, the crowd didn't care about obeying police orders. This was refreshing.
The crisis came at 5th and Market. Taking advantage of gaps within the breakaway, the SFPD moved in to decapitate the march. The boys in blue surrounded over fifty people at the head of the breakaway, while police also stepped in to block everyone else's advance down the street. Although the breakaway was disobedient, its participants did not have the strength to seriously interfere with this cop action. In a charming gesture, a few smoke bombs were lobbed towards the Law, but the impact of this was purely symbolic. The police took well over an hour to mass arrest the unlucky fifty, while individuals stood on the sidelines, videotaping and shouting words of encouragement to their encircled friends. At a certain point, a reduced breakaway took off from the scene of the mass arrest. I did not manage to join this, but later heard that it was viciously suppressed by the cops.
Once the police had made all their arrests at 5th and Market, the crowd there began to thin. And that was it - end of the protest, with a vague sense of defeat.

**

A debate has raged recently over the importance of street demonstrations to anti-occupation activity. Some have encouraged people to stay on the streets, while others claim that this tactic is meeting with diminishing returns. Although this year's demonstration in San Francisco was anticlimactic and sorely disappointing, a single example is not enough to argue for the complete abandonment of marches and street protests. There may be times when such tactics become useful, especially when there is already large social struggle. These opportunities ought to be seized. However, the elevation of a tactical choice to a matter of strategy or principle is dangerous. At best, protest after protest leads to wasted energy; at worst, skulls get cracked open without any gain being made. Those promoting street protests must articulate what precisely they hope to achieve through them; if their only response is a guilt-trip, or a moralistic appeal to "do something," there is little reason for their advice to be followed.
I went to the San Francisco demonstration because opportunities genuinely existed there. These opportunities were not from the protest organizers, nor were they those of the "fuck shit up" crew, who clearly wouldn't be seeing the city in flames that day. Those attending had a chance to begin talking about how the occupation actually impacts on their lives, and what it means to oppose it. In a crowd where not everyone was a political weirdo, this could have been a powerful achievement. I saw little of this discussion, though. What I saw were propagandists advancing their agendas, their logic concerning mass recruitment, rather than honest communication. The official march also attempted to push an anti-Empire product to the public at home, through soundbites and large march numbers quoted on the evening news. But some of us did not want to sell our perspectives as commodities. For us, the march could only have meaning as it became subverted, allowing for real human interaction. The breakaway signaled such promise, but ended badly for other reasons. (In particular, the anarchists could have challenged their own ultra-militant mythology, which so often leads to stupid decisions.)
I learned in San Francisco that the numbers game won't get us anywhere. It is true that thousands may do things that dozens cannot, but these things are only worth doing when each in the crowd has a sense of purpose. Our slogans mean nothing when they're disconnected from the real world; it is this world, not newspaper headlines or TV reports, which we need to change. We need to define our agenda independently of the mass media, and from the organizers fixated on it. Such a change would have made a crucial difference in SF this year.
Why does the occupation matter? Is it not because the market-friendly agenda imposed on Iraq is the very same one that ruins our desire here, exposing us to drudgery, meaningless work, poverty and the brutality of the powers-that-be? If it is a global order that needs to be scrapped, we need to start understanding this system. Sloganeering about how Bush is mean and stupid, how imperialism is nasty, or how authority ain't all that cool, simply won't cut it anymore. Supporting the troops is equal bullshit - do we support them when they fire into unarmed crowds, or when they rebel and want out, for example? We have great opportunities to link up not only with military discontent, but also with defiant Iraqis, who have never been the mere victims the US Left portrays them to be. Over the last quarter century, the Iraqi people have struggled with an intensity that puts the US dispossessed to shame. Starting to understand what this struggle really is, what is at stake and what we can do - all of this requires effort. Yet this effort has the possibility of actually making a difference. Anything else is just a dead end or an activist daydream; it is so much crap. Informed action may do what illusions cannot - through it, we may work towards US military breakdown, and revolt everywhere.
San Francisco this year was an exercise in activism - activity for the sake of activity, for the sake of "doing something," or for the sake of the media. I cannot comment on the activity of those who stayed away from the rally, but what I saw on the streets was a step backwards, a step away from rebellion. We have every opportunity to move forward instead, but this will take a change in priorities. We need connection with the true situation on the ground, and agreement between our analysis and our day-to-day lives. We can do big things, but perhaps we should start with small groups of friends - analyzing the world and our lives, then taking actions that are not simply temper tantrums, thrashing about, or "speaking truth to power". We can't have a mass change if we don't keep it real on the small scale.
And, one year later, we need that change more than ever.

More or Less I agree With You 27.Mar.2004 14:41

JP Cupp, Iraqi Resistance Solidarity Network anti_imperialist_solidarity@yahoo.com

www.geocities.com/iraqiresistancesolidarity

The key to me seems to form Pro-Resistance Committees, and define what that means (versus being part of the "left wing" of the Imperialist/Zionist pole.) and then wrestle power from the opertunists. Let's face it
1. We must boycott all Presidential Candidates, for the most "radical" of them simple advocates using the UN to illegitamitly occupy Iraq.
2. Have a more through-going understanding of world zionism, and what it is.
3 built direct conduits between the US and the Iraqi Armed Resistance Leadership
4. Openly advocate our demands, that is the Military/political defeat of Imperialism/Zionism in Iraq, principally " the occupation".
5 reject "pro-palestinian" organizations, which are rejected by the overwhelming majority of Palestinian arabs, and are little more than 2 state zionists reducing arab liberation to" palestinian civil liberties" and the zionist entity from an illegatimate product of colonialism which should be destroyed to a valid nation that needs to "move out of the west bank and gaza (18% of historic palestine).


Shit Like That Flag 27.Mar.2004 17:08

?

You post shit like that flag, and then you wonder how come you're marginalized, and why your "movement" is so small. Maybe it's because your obnoxious and stupid "ideology" only appeals to the small group of delusional fuckups that happens to include you.

very good negation 27.Mar.2004 19:47

black Rosa

I see where this is coming from, I think the idea of having small groups and participating in real discussion is very important in getting folks activlly fighting the occupation. But how does this effect you life? I really find it more important to focus on the people dying and being occupied rather than how I cant find a job, or my tuition was raised. Cant you get out of your arm chair and act, or is that too scary for you? I have found that spending time wallowing in my intellectual guilt is a fucking waste of time. When youre in those groups why dont you think of ways to dismantle those systems that effect us all instead of how fucked it makes your life! Get up, get out and do something. just do it with brains.

fighting against war is fighting for the unemployed 27.Mar.2004 22:33

transparent jellyfish

But how does the war effect my life? Well, I'd say that having so much of our tax dollars spent on hurting people instead of helping them has a huge effect on my life. I resent having my tax dollars spent that way. How can I change this? I'm not talking about by not paying taxes because despite what folks say this can get me in trouble and I'd rather be out of trouble and working for justice.

opposition to the war is supporting the jobless 27.Mar.2004 23:27

transparent jellyfish

How is the war affecting my life? Well, all those billions of tax dollars that should be spent helping people are hurting them. I resent that, and I don't see an easy way to stop my money from being used like that. The war is very related, in that sense, to the struggles of the jobless.

i got your hot hints...get yer hot hints 28.Mar.2004 07:13

bongo

psst...
2003...everyone was screaming "no" this, "no" that...at least in philly.

you gotta do the math: nothing to nothing -(neghativity of war and killing: + all the refusing, down with, saying no to) creates NOTHING which is why all that protesting added to driving with the emergency brake on. or grinding the gears. basically we did nothing but riase awareness. and we were already aware.

no ceiking to awareness though. tese arecmplicated times. they require DEEP thought whoch many people think is uncool. and socialists? that
's a philosophy of another century, two centuriesago now, and it';'s original plan was world control whose side are they on? not anarchy. (watch them deny it.)

socialism is directly opposed to anarchism, see all those dressalike, think alikes, chanting the same old slogans? the socialists screaming smash the state in one place, and the socialists lunging for power in the wake of death in anothr, like carrion. it is NOT anarchism. they despise individualism

when people flock together out of a sense of LOVE (the key word, the real antiwar word) it is different than recruitingmore bodies for the bolshevik.

the hint is: people must say YES to something and CREATE something rather than just screaming NO as is the new trendpunk cynicism. most of these kids don;t remember original punk. they were crapping their jammies to the superfriends when punk started up: they could learnm fropm the old heads they sneer at. i won;t go hear the same thre chords anymore. boring.

even I think that's harsh. anyway.

people have to agree to POSITIVE action. creating something new. sayiung YES to something of course brings balance to the war initiative that is basically saying no to life.
and then we hit the fvkers where ithurts, in their "we're prolife but we have a war machine" hypocrisy. those hypocrites..they are church right now praying to Jesus for victory on the killing floor and thinking vengeful thoughts about that half baked "Passion" movie...i skipped it...read the Book. better.

imho.

people have to create PEACE agenda. people wound up in their hate for Bush and the State, as you poiinted out, are using hate as a political tool, and big wakeup call -- that is the same thging that happens on the field of battle. and so it failed.

i am glad you could see it. you are not alone.


My Armchair 28.Mar.2004 11:53

DN

black Rosa asks:
"Can't you get out of your arm chair and act, or is that too scary for you?"

My armchair is just so comfy. The thought of leaving it fills me with dread.

Our discussions would be better if we left out attacks of this sort.
The glory of my revolutionary practice
The glory of my revolutionary practice

Study groups and action 28.Mar.2004 16:06

V!

I agree that forming study/affinity groups is valuable. But only as long as new ideas and actions are the fruit of them. People all over the country(the world, really) need to start focusing their thoughts and emotions into forming clear visions, goals, and strategies(as opposed to single tactics)and then act on them. The time is ripe for a revolution if we are wise enough to make it possible.

Repost - Bush wants you to think protests don't matter. 28.Mar.2004 20:19

ctrl-z

Bush doesn't want you protesting. He wants you to stay home. Protests mean there are some who don't agree with him. Protests might actually make some people who are on the fence vote against him. So Bush LOVES articles like these: 'Getting television coverage doesn't matter. Showing people signs expressing dissent is useless. Exposure to thought doesn't make people think. Figure out something else to do.'

Here's a hint: Bush's 'Free Speech Zones' - that is, holding areas blocks away from Bush appearances for anti-Bush protesters, aren't to protect Bush's delicate sensibilities (or to protect him from physical harm.) They are to keep protesters away from the television cameras covering the event. Bush avoids any situations where a television camera might show protests against him. He knows that the more protesters are seen the greater the likelyhood he'll lose the election.

He doesn't want to lose the election.

So when you see one of these more-radical-than-thou anti-protest rants ask yourself: Would Bush be happy to see this? Why does the author assume that a protest march would preclude or limit other forms of activity? Where does this come from?

Republican(s) pretending to be liberals/progressives 28.Mar.2004 20:46

ctrl-z

The indymedia open publishing policy is great. Anyone can pretend to be anything. So author DN, a self proclaimed anti-war protester, can tell you why you shouldn't march to protest the war. GB, a self proclaimed anti-Bush protester, can tell you why you shouldn't vote (cause it's rigged.)

GB is not against Bush, GB is against anti-Bush voting.
DN is not against war, DN is against anti-war protests.

An analysis of the long-winded verbiage and format of the opening paragraphs in both posts (Corporate elections: Don't buy this bill of goods/Marching to Nowhere?) indicates GB (the don't vote against Bush person) and DN (the don't march against Bush's war person) are the same person.

Expect more posts like these. If you see a post that tells that you shouldn't do something (like vote, protest, talk to people, write letters to the editor or elected officials, attend meetings etc.) ask yourself this: Who benefits if I do what the poster says? If the answer is Bush there's a good chance it's written by a republican in progressive's clothing.

Be careful out there.

Recent Protests That Made A Difference... 29.Mar.2004 10:38

Show More Dissent

The protests in Spain following the Madrid bombings, with signs asking for the government to "Tell the Truth" were quite affective.

The radical virtue of thinking before you write 30.Mar.2004 12:03

DN

As there is the possibility of real struggle emerging following the police murder of James Jahar Perez, I intend to keep my comments here short. I'd rather be doing other things.

Honest discussion involves paying attention to what is stated by others before responding to them. This is a reminder of what I wrote about protests:

"A debate has raged recently over the importance of street demonstrations to anti-occupation activity. Some have encouraged people to stay on the streets, while others claim that this tactic is meeting with diminishing returns. Although this year's demonstration in San Francisco was anticlimactic and sorely disappointing, a single example is not enough to argue for the complete abandonment of marches and street protests. There may be times when such tactics become useful, especially when there is already large social struggle. These opportunities ought to be seized. However, the elevation of a tactical choice to a matter of strategy or principle is dangerous. At best, protest after protest leads to wasted energy; at worst, skulls get cracked open without any gain being made. Those promoting street protests must articulate what precisely they hope to achieve through them; if their only response is a guilt-trip, or a moralistic appeal to "do something," there is little reason for their advice to be followed."

I did not, therefore, argue that all demonstrations are useless. Writing as if I did is dishonest - almost as dishonest as the "Republican" smear that got thrown at me, or the claim that I am someone other than myself.

More lies don't change preceding lies. 30.Mar.2004 22:37

ctrl-z

From DN's 1st post:

"At best, protest after protest leads to wasted energy; at worst, skulls get cracked open without any gain being made."

DN's 2nd post:

'I did not, therefore, argue that all demonstrations are useless.'

Right. You are all for anti-Bush protests. I thought your other denial (as GB/"Corporate elections: Don't buy this bill of goods") sounded much more sincere.

If you (DN/GB) are not a Bush Supporter ask yourself this: Why would someone think you were? Why are you making arguments that help the rethuglicans?

huh. 01.Apr.2004 11:37

jemma

Some of us recognize that a vote for Bush is a vote for imperialism. And a vote for Kerry is a vote for imperialism. To vote at all just encourages them- there is a reason why such a huge percentage of Americans don't vote (and no, it not that we're all disenfranchised felons, they don't even count them...) WE ARE NOT REPRESENTED.

I can understand your fervor, cntrl (or whatever you call yourself). These are scary times. But for real, it would be good for you to listen to what people are actually saying.

Many people are disillusioned with the entire racist, classist, imperialistic system, and we we think its rotten to the core. we don't want to vote for the lessor of two evils only to have our effort validate the existence of the entire system. We don't want to march around in circles in front of a camera to validate the existence of the RCP or the PPRC or whatever other organization is unfairly co-opting our identities for the benefit of their own power politics. We want to genuinely make a difference that will count here and abroad- because we know a bomb kills the same whether it's dropped by the red or the blue.

So there are conversations opening up about new tactics to achieve this goal of foundamental change. Though the goal is not particularly well defined and neither are the potential options, it is hight time that we began the conversation.

My perspective 04.Apr.2004 21:35

Dean

I'm going to vote and work for Nader this political season.
I haven't voted in any of the past 3 presidential elections, because I would see that as an endorsement of a system that I believe is corrupt and moribund; led by an ignorant electorate.
HOWEVER, these are not the same times as then. Thanks to the combination of disruptive technologies (computers and the internet) with the unbeleivable hubris and arrogance of the Democrats, Republicans, media, intellectual elite, finacial elite, military/industrial complex, Christian fundamentalists, and soccer moms, I think that there is a real possibility for real change this time. I'm counting on these parties to start eating each other while a NADER campaign focuses of true reform. Like oil penetrating seized gears, real issues will penetrate the media/fastfood/fearful/foggy mind of voters. Things are getting that bad that the pendulum is bound to swing towards an era of truly open government so neccessary for democratic processes.
I was a member of Young Republicans and had parents that were very involved in Republican leadership, I was student body president, have a BS (how appropriate) in Business management, and have taken the LSAT (176 thank you very much) but did not become a lawyer because, by that time, I had enough exposure to the USA's political, social and economic system to decide that I didn't want to participate in a game where the rules and playing feild are not just crooked but irrelevant.
Long story made longer....I have since seen republicans of all leanings revolting against the current order, including a life-long republican who is a retired military officer who wrote many significant letters renouncing the entire party because of Bush's actions. Real People are Real Sick of the conservative forces that are driving this nation's policy. We won't be lied to or pandered to any more. Those of us with exposure to those people who make policy are awfully UNIMPRESSED with the capacity that those decision makers to truly lead. They are mostly rich aristocrats or ambitious powergrabbers who think two shits about the most fundamental values of the people they represent.

Back to the "disruptive technologies" part of the issue. These forces are creating chaos in the political envirionment. Whether it is the media storm about Howard Dean's political rise, or Howard Stern's e-mail campaign that goaded the Bu$h admin(FCC) to investigate Oprah, these events suggest that the populace is quickly slipping the grip of control and w/o philosophical leadership will turn to those who offer it for good or for bad.
I hearby proclaim the era of dogma over and greet the rise of the informed electorate with open arms. Its about fucking time you realized that your watchdogs aren't and it is up to you make these decisions for yourself.

At the very least use the web to triangulate your sources of information.
Thanks for listening,
Dean

American Progressives: You are a Joke! 07.Apr.2004 05:56

Anti-American Freedom Fighter

I love reading the clueless propaganda coming from you American "progressives." You have no idea and no understanding of the issues that you claim to be protesting. You should do the world a favor and take your self-serving "solidarity" and shove it. Your so-called activism and protests are more about promoting your own egos and your liberal hippie vision of utopia--replete with Birkenstocks and sustainable DIY coops, right?

Better yet, you cling to the delusion that all you need to do is to vote for Ralph Nader and the Green Party. They are progressive--honestly! In case you didn't realize, Nader is a fraud. This guy has numerous stock investments in the Weapons Industry and other types of predatory US corporations that he so vociferously claims to oppose. But you don't know anything about that, do ya?

The fundamental issue and the fundamental problem is YOUR AMERICAN EVIL EMPIRE and the global capitalist system which your America rules over and dominates. Until you Americans work to bring an end to your 200 year old American Empire, all your "activism," all your political posturing, and your Humanitarian claptrap are lies. Most of you phony White Progressives refuse to face thsi fact because you know that everything that you have--your American privilege, status, and way of life--are based upon the domination and exploitation of the rest of humanity.

It is hilarious that some of you Pro-Americans act all outraged and offended because one of the previous posters put an American Flag with a Nazi Swastika on it. That flag is more true and more telling than you realize.


Knee-jerk hater 09.Apr.2004 02:09

Dean

Then FUCK OFF and eat our DU AMMO!!! Some of us are trying to change things and ASSHOLES like you feed the fear. I suppose you float above the ground; eat sunshine; and shit mana. What does a progressive look like to you?
Yeah, Nader owns war stocks and has little brown boys feed him peeled grapes by his pool. Are you retarded? 'Cuz that's really no defense