The Portland Anti-War Movement in retrospect
I wrote this while studying with the Zapatistas in Chiapas last semester. I believe many aspects of the Anti-War movement apply to the Occupy movement in Portland. Let me know what you think.
On March 23rd 2003, only hours following the illegal invasion of Iraq, over 30,000 Portlanders had blocked off the majority of the city's bridges and Interstate Highway Five, effectively shutting down the city for several hours. Portland's anti-war movement was subsequently labeled as one of the most progressively radical movements in the United States by media outlets worldwide. During the next five years, I witnessed a struggle once recognized for its organization and strength deteriorate into a movement plagued by paranoia and the alienation of many different sectors of the movement. The text of this essay offers a critical analysis of the radical war resistance effort in Portland during this time frame and furthermore provides a prescriptive template to improve organizational strategies in future mobilizations. The basis of this essay emphasizes the importance of the formation of a collective identity through establishing alternative educational means, efficiently representing both sides of a dialectal praxis, maintaining an organized structure, and safely analyzing security culture as the underpinnings for any successful popular uprising.
One of the greatest shortfalls of the Portland anti-war movement and anti-war movements nationwide was the disconnection from and dehumanization of potential allies. The bipartisanship between the radical faction with which I associated with and the more liberal leaning groups created a splinter in the movement. Instead of working through each other, the two groups often isolated themselves and even worked against each other. The differentiation of tactics, culture, age, and ideology left the two sides seemingly alienated, fighting their own battles. This practice of seclusion eventually infected the inner structure of each group until both sides were virtually defunct. This essay does not propose that either side should have sacrificed their values in order to create a common bond, rather it offers a constructive alternative of how either side should have organized itself to best facilitate communal dialogue, stability, and a forward progression of a collective social conscience.
The greatest catalyst of social fusion and solidarity is dialectical education. Freire writes that this type of collective education breaks down social barriers and stigmas while advancing a common political conscience. In my experience with the radical contingent of the anti-war movement, I witnessed individuals unite regardless of age, creed, or class through communal understanding and teaching. Skill shares and informational workshops allow people of all experience and comfort levels to work together and input their experiences collectively. One of the greatest dividers of social movements is alienation through arbitrary power struggles. Freire's educational model counters traditional hierarchal educational models by allowing students to act as both teachers and learners. Not only does this serve to include various types of activists, it also serves to include information that would otherwise be overlooked. For example, I saw people like professors, moms, and retirees who otherwise could not take part in any direct action offer classes in legal support, healthcare, and living stability among other things. These types of workshops build a stable community base whose participants engage with each other based on any given number of interests. Like Gramsci's writing on Proletarian Culture, and through my personal experience, I believe education should be at the forefront of any revolution.
One of my greatest critiques of the radical faction of the anti-war movement in Portland was the absence of an equalized praxis. Paolo Freire defines praxis as a constant cycle of both practice and reflection. Under his terms, action without reflection is activism, while reflection without action is purely verbalism. The major flaw I witnessed in the radical contingent was that it neglected to practice any form of reflection. It served to satisfy the most basic needs of the activists involved on a very temporary level. For example, instrumentalized victories such as occupying a major intersection or building were viewed as the ultimate outcome, rather than anticipating the effect it would have on the surrounding community and the broader movement. Furthermore, a large majority of actors in the radical movement viewed any deconstructive measure against the state as being conducive to the greater cause. This mentality was severely flawed in that it did not include any consideration of problem-posing on a dialectical level. It generated a simplistic formula for social progression while largely ignoring room for improvement or reflection. This routine welcomed a degree of spontaneity as the tactical foundation of the movement. More often than not, this resulted in unsuccessful actions at protests followed by significant displays of police violence. For example, on the third anniversary of the war, March 2006, radicals in black bloc and I tried to occupy Portland's most frequented bridge without any previous planning. Almost half the squad was arrested while the other half was subjected to intense police brutality. Traffic was only shut down for a matter of minutes and no outside bystanders seemed to know the political message behind the action.
This type of spontaneous action also wedged a divide between allies of the anti-war movement. Organizations and persons who strongly opposed the war refused to attend protests out of fear of being grouped with the radical sect and receiving the same maltreatment by the police. This does not mean direct action should be discouraged at protests, only that it should be better organized. In order to best coordinate direct action, a number of steps must be taken to follow the praxis model. First, while the action is being planned the organizing group must discuss the foreseen problems at hand and the desired outcome in a dialectical format. This includes weighing the advantages vs. risks, establishing targets, generating an easily understandable message for bystanders and the press, and reducing the potential negative repercussions of the action. Most importantly, every action must be followed with reflective discussion regarding what worked and what did not. These discussions serve to solidify action-oriented groups by building bonds of communication and learning from mistakes to improve planning for future actions. The success of these actions will naturally draw a larger participatory audience, thus strengthening and expanding the influence of the movement.
Any activist movement must consider its stability and longevity as its ultimate outcome. During my time with the radical faction in Portland, I witnessed a growing number of activists withdraw from the movement because of their frustration felt by their lack of self-purpose. The two principle causes of this were the individualization of the movement and taking on unrealistic goals. The weakest form of organization is through individualization. Individualization stubbornly asserts the self-righteousness and ultimate authority of the individual. Determination, in this way, is based on personal worth rather than being communally manifested. An action based solely around individual gain does not reflect the greater interests of the group and can furthermore be detrimental to the movement. As well as personalizing ideology and tactics, individualization personalizes victories and defeats. With no stable base of support to connect themselves with, the individual can be easily toppled by failures in the movement. This was exemplified when a large number of radical activists submitted themselves after being targeted by members within the anti-war movement, but more will be discussed about this later.
The second greatest cause of burning out I witnessed was the disappointment felt by not accomplishing farfetched goals. As mentioned earlier, the most immediate goal by many activists in the radical faction was to deconstruct the state and economy however possible. This was sometimes done by vandalizing corporate storefronts, protesting outside of police headquarters, attempting to shut down major areas of business, and storming government offices. Although these efforts were at times effective at propagating a message, more often than not, they would be stopped by police before they began because of poor planning and downright impracticality. In combination with the effects of individualized activism, these heavy defeats took large tolls on the activists involved and increased burn out rates.
The key to building stability within a group and reducing burn out rates is redirecting an individual's worth and desirable outcomes into a collective organization. Rather than working through oneself, an activist can maintain worth through the achievements of the group. This builds a collective identity through community building. For example, Portland Indymedia (an independent activist news group) organized communal political movie screenings, activist parties, and informational seminars which worked to positively reinforce the activist community. This organizational method also localizes goals by measuring accomplishments by how they serve the community rather than how they disrupt large-scale political affairs. [It also provides forums for people to informally reflect on how things are going and to come to informal agreements regarding future plans- coordinating work that can then be actualized by engaging in more explicit reflection.] Melucci writes that this type of New Social Movement focuses on what can be done productively by creating new social values and collectivity, rather than the forcible deconstruction of existing values (overthrowing the state). He continues by saying that this organizational model encompasses a more stabilized base because it functions to build an ideology rather than destroy one. Instead of trying to work individually and attempt to accomplish large-scale goals, we must work through our community and focus on constructing an infrastructure from within.
As I mentioned earlier, the greatest fault in the radical movement was the lack of communal organization due to the individualization of the movement. In many direct action meetings I attended, the stark objection to hierarchy and establishing positions of power within the group often resulted in disorganization. Even in a group without formal structure there existed an informal individualized structure. As noted before, this type of organizational strategy faulted in being personally based and resulted in a degree of spontaneity. Spontaneity, as Lenin writes, is the unorganized act of riding on the coat tails of a random revolution or protest to serve a political purpose which results in chaos. For example, on October 5th 2006, I witnessed the decisive clash between liberal and radical groups that virtually ended any relationship they had as the result of a spontaneous action. On October 5th, the Portland chapter of World Can't Wait (WCW), a group of anti-war activists mostly stemming from liberal ideologies, loosely organized a protest through downtown Portland. After a brief period of confusion at the head of the march, some radical activists redirected the protest to block a highway without any previous planning. The mayhem that resulted was the most violent display of police brutality I have ever encountered. But what Portlanders would remember that day was not who got hit with which baton but how the liberal organizers helped the police arrest the radicals at the protest. It seemed that the WCW organizers had taken the "hijacking of their protest" so seriously, that they were willing to turn in other anti-war activists to the police. The following week, both groups attended a meeting where they could discuss some of the underlining concerns they had about the protest. After a long debate regarding the "ownership of a protest", the two groups agreed that they could no longer work alongside each other and split into separate factions.
The fundamental problem between these two groups was not their difference of values and tactics, but their lack of organization and leadership. The divide between the two sides originally unified the radical sect of the anti-war resistance. Over one hundred radicals in the Portland area attended weekly meeting following the initial split. As weeks passed, however, paranoia and disorganization caused the meetings to fall through. Radicals estranged themselves from one another over frivolous details such as whether or not to make an internet listserv and how to properly facilitate meetings. After only two months of regular meetings, the greatest display of radical organization since the beginning of the war fell apart and ceased meeting.
The most important precautionary step against this form of disorganization is establishing roles of leadership within the struggle. Different activists naturally differentiate in the amount of time and effort they can allocate towards the movement. Therefore, activists should be able to assume roles of responsibility within the group based on their level of dedication. This is not to say there should be some sort of elitist vanguard directing the group, only that there should be an establishment of elected positions of leadership that work towards maintaining the group's stability. This will eliminate the time wasted arguing about trivial organizational details and allow meeting time to be spent solely on the most important issues at hand. Roles of leadership and duties also inspire activists to submerge themselves in the group's organization. As mentioned before, the creation of a collective organization redirects one's self determination towards the group's focus. In this format, an individual finds importance through their contribution to the group rather than their own secularized actions.
The last and greatest concern among many activists is security culture. Poor judgment and police infiltration can leave an activist at risk of persecution. For this reason, it is necessary for one to take protective measures to secure their identity and safety. However, the culture of paranoia spawned from this fear is the most incapacitating function of this type of infringement. Distrust and speculation breaks down solidarity between activists while severely debilitating any organization of direct action. This fear rationalizes the use of spontaneous activism by the fact that it cannot be predetermined. Additionally, over-analyzing personal security causes immobility and can easily break down existing organizations. For example, before the radical splinter group mentioned earlier could organize any action, its meetings fell apart due to the hesitancy felt around being personally identifiable by creating an email list serv. Moreover, I think that infiltration's chief goal isn't even to arrest leaders or find out plans (even though these goals are no doubt important), but to induce this type of paralyzing and fratricidal paranoia that breaks down entire groups.]
The solution to this does not lie in compromising one's security to eliminate paranoia, but creating a safe place where different activists can safely build trust with one another. The creation of a common space through an organized group enables activists to understand and grow more comfortable with each other. Communally teaching security culture also leaves less room for errors and flaws in judgment than if it were to be learned independently. Most importantly, familiar communal settings offer a stable ground for generating smaller direct-action- oriented affinity groups. Large-scale direct action groups have a greater likelihood of becoming infiltrated, while smaller groups eliminate this risk and have a more coordinated focus. Like the leadership model discussed earlier, these affinity groups manifest themselves by the level of dedication the activists involved are willing to contribute. In a larger group context, affinity groups balance praxis by representing the equally essential component of action.
In order for a movement to be successful it must manifest itself through a collective identity rather than through a group of secularized individuals. Community building interweaves an individual's everyday life with the struggle, instead of existing solely as an ideology in the back of one's mind. Being part of this community requires one to reflect on their actions and how they will positively affect the greater well-being of the group. Reflection, communication, and organization within the group diminish the likelihood of inefficient self serving actions. In the five years I spent with the anti-war movement, the most noticeable advances I witnessed were not made through destructively toppling state power, but through the autonomy constructed within the activist community. I witnessed people build friendships with one another based on their shared passions as well as the formation of a loving community that beneficially supported and shaped the lives of every individual it encompassed. Future mobilizations must organize these communities by exercising dialectical praxis, advocating collective education, and assembling communal leadership. The practice of these features places the group in a constant state of evolution and expansion. Furthermore, the inclusive organization of these communities works to unite all sects of a movement and shape a unified and fortified collective identity.
The recent fractionalization of the Occupy Portland Movement in many ways parallels some of the fundamental problems with the Portland Anti-War Movement. I believe that through the creation of community and dedicated organizational committees, the Occupy movement has the potential of seriously impacting the world. Remember, revolution is a constantly evolving process, don't hold yourself to ideals or preconceived notions.
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