After LA: Organizing to Win

Eric Schwartz

the nine months since our unexpected victory at the World Trade Organization
summit, thousands of people have converged on Washington, DC, Philadelphia,
and Los Angeles to protest the International Monetary Fund/World Bank and the
Republican and Democratic National Conventions (RNC and DNC). These mass
actions have expanded the anti-capitalist and anti-globalizations movements
tremendously by tapping in to the energy coming out of the Seattle protests.
The most recent of these actions, the Democratic National Convention protests
in LA, left me both excited by our progress in coalition-building and
disappointed by our de-escalation of tactics. Most importantly, though, the
DNC protests raised concerns that our attempts to “keep the momentum
going” from Seattle may lead us into a stagnation of repeated, dramatic mass
actions at the expense of long-term organizing.

The most
encouraging development to come out of the DNC was the increased participation
and leadership of people of color. Rise Up/Direct Action Network LA (the local
arm of DAN, which has organized the recent mass actions) and D2KLA focused on
local issues and issues affecting people of color, like sweatshops, police
brutality, and the prison-industrial complex. From what I heard at a
post-protest assessment, local grassroots groups like the bus drivers union
felt like the week had given an enormous boost to their ongoing organizing
efforts. The DNC action was far better in this respect than the earlier IMF
protests, where an overwhelmingly white group of protesters took to the
streets in Washington, DC, a mostly African-American city.

However, the
DNC protests also brought home some hard realizations about tactics, the
media, and the value of mass mobilizations. Unlike the previous three mass
actions, which combined legal marches with city-wide efforts to disrupt
business as usual, there was no mass direct action during the DNC protests.
Instead, DAN- LA and D2KLA planned four days of permitted marches and targeted
civil disobedience actions, with each day focusing on a certain theme. The
idea was to keep the media from the issues and only reporting on the familiar
“cops versus protesters” story. A perfectly reasonable plan, but I think
the DNC action showed that the benefits from this strategy aren’t worth the
compromises we were forced to make. As much as we bend over backward to avoid
confrontation with the police, in the end, it is up to the police whether a
confrontation will occur, and it is up to the media whether our issues will be
discussed. On the first day of the convention, a small, non-violent civil
disobedience took place at the tail end of a march to protest Al Gore’s
complicity in Occidental Oil’s displacement of the U’wa people in
Colombia. Immediately after the march separated from the civil disobedience,
the police charged the marchers unprovoked and initiated a series of baton
attacks that forced the protesters back into a downtown park. Most of the
press left the civil disobedience and followed the running confrontation. In
spite of press releases, the several hundred T-shirts that said “Gore out of
Oxy,” and the chants of “Hey, Gore, what about the U’wa?,” the LA
‘s article about the protest devoted only one sentence to the
U’wa, and failed to mention Gore’s connection to Occidental.

I took the same
lesson about catering to the media from the last night of the convention, when
thousands of people marched to the jail to support people arrested during the
DNC protests and to denounce the prison-industrial complex. Marshals tried to
avoid confrontation by forming a barrier between protesters and the hundreds
of riot cops who surrounded us. When the anarchist black bloc moved up to the
very front of the march, marshals stopped the procession for several minutes
and left the bloc to march alone, leaving them vulnerable to police attack.
March organizers abandoned solidarity to separate themselves, physically and
visually, from a group they knew would bring aggression from the police and
distortion from the media.

When marchers
arrived at the jail, we were immediately boxed in and trapped by the police, a
common occurrence during the week. A police helicopter circled close overhead
its roar nearly drowning out the sound system. Once organizers negotiated an
exit route, they directed marchers to leave and quickly took off with the
sound truck. With the sound truck gone, those who were ready to stay and risk
a police-initiated confrontation to support their friends in jail became
demoralized and trickled off. Except for a nasty police attack later that
night in a subway station, the organizers pulled off the entire day of
protests without a single confrontation, including the second-largest march of
the week.

Did the
mainstream media reward our “discipline” by covering our issues? Hardly.
The LA Times carried three photos without an article about the day’s
protests, and one of these was of the wackily costumed “fluoride is good for
you” man. Another major LA paper’s headline described how “Protesters
fail to make message heard” amid the massive police presence. Even when we
are on our best behavior, the most we can hope for from the corporate media is
an erratic, distorted presentation of our message. That’s not a reason to
ignore the media entirely, but future mass actions should not allow the media
to veto one of our most effective tactics—direct resistance to disrupt
illegitimate institutions and undemocratic processes. When it is effective,
direct action is its message; those with power hear us because we force them
to. Even when we can’t “shut down” a target, blocking traffic and
otherwise creatively disrupting a city shows our militancy and makes us
impossible to ignore. It has worked for Ecuadorian peasants, South Korean
union members, and French truck drivers, and it can work for us.

Direct action
also organizes people. Participants in the recent mass direct actions learned
to take responsibility for their affinity group’s role in the direct action
while coordinating with others. In Los Angeles, early planning for the four
civil disobedience actions was semi-secret, in an attempt to prevent the
inevitable police spying. This left the hundreds who had formed affinity
groups and taken direct action trainings wondering how to plug in. The two
civil disobedience actions that ended up taking place, although powerful, were
both fairly small. However, media wasn’t the only reason direct action
didn’t happen. Many LA locals pointed out that for vulnerable populations
like undocumented immigrants and people with two “strikes” against them,
marching face-to-face with the police was “direct action” enough. Although
there still could have been a direct action day coordinated with the marches,
it is understandable that longtime LA organizers decided that a week of
permitted marches would best support their ongoing organizing. The question
is, did it make sense to organize a mass mobilization around marches that
could have happened on a smaller scale with locals only?

mobilizations and direct actions are tactics, nothing more. Yet between our
desire to prove to ourselves and the world that our movements are still strong
after Seattle, and the organizing impetus of the ever-more-institutionalized
Direct Action Network core that has hopped from mass action to mass action, we
have begun to allow tactics to drive strategies. Already, activists have put
out calls to come to Boston in October for marches against Nader’s exclusion
from the debates and to come to Cincinnati in November for direct action
against the Trans Atlantic Business Dialogue. We need to ask ourselves if
these mobilizations are achieving their goals. Mass mobilizations are useful
if they radicalize their participants and inspire them to take action in their
communities; create real resistance to illegitimate authority; and bring
national attention to our issues. In order for future mass mobilizations to
meet these goals, they need to happen infrequently enough that they attract
enough people to be effective, and they need to give the folks who come an
opportunity to do direct action. Mass mobilizations without mass direct
action, as at the DNC protests, take time and energy away from long-term
organizing without giving enough back in return.

For mass
actions to really empower and radicalize the people who take part, we have to
keep struggling for a democratic process that lets out-of-towners and locals
collaborate in a way that strengthens both. We can learn from the DNC protests
and give as much of our strength to local organizing in the city we visit as
we do to challenging international institutions. Especially for white
activists who have the time and money to take off and protest, we need to
support the struggles of people of color and people who can’t afford to risk

Above all, mass
mobilizations have to be part of a bigger strategy of organizing communities
and challenging state and corporate power. The DNC showed us that just
bringing people in to create a bigger spectacle won’t necessarily force the
corporate media to bring our issues to the folks who stayed home. Nor will our
friends and coworkers at home be shocked and politicized by scenes of police
attacks against peaceful protesters on TV. Local police departments have
become masters of propaganda and misinformation, and media outlets cooperate
to distort or black-out police violence. The only thing that will organize our
friends and coworkers at home is, well, organizing. That means long,
undramatic work at our jobs and in our communities to build vibrant structures
of resistance that will survive for the long haul. Most people who go to mass
actions are already radical and active in some kind of political struggle.
Mass actions politicize these folks even more, but they leave behind the vast
majority of our neighbors for whom even working together to stand up to the
boss or march against police brutality is a huge first step.

The risk is
that these mass direct actions will only create a militant core of people
ready to throw themselves onto the gears of capitalism and face down police
violence again and again. Eventually, increasing state repression will scare
away even most of the vanguard, and smash the rest. Already, anarchists in
Eugene and Direct Action Network activists have been hit with escalating
police infiltration, preemptive raids and arrests, and trumped-up char- ges
targeting leaders. These tactics should be familiar to us from COINTELPRO in
the 1970s. The massive police mobilization at the Democratic National
Convention showed us that we’ll need far more people in the streets than
just our radical core if we hope to accomplish another WTO-style shutdown
action. More importantly, we need to be part of a wider movement in order to
survive state repression and make the kinds of radical changes we’re
fighting for a reality. Mass mobilizations can work, but only if they don’t
take the place of local resistance. Only by organizing at home can we build an
anti-capitalist movement broad enough and strong enough to win.