On Funnels and Pens

As dissent grows and diversifies, the tactics and strategies for containing it must grow and diversify right along with it.

Today, in New York City, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators united in a cry of outrage against war in Iraq and their protests were met by police tactics meant to separate, dissipate, or at least contain expressions of dissent.

It is instructive to notice what they do when they don’t like what we are saying, and when we say it in ever growing numbers.

As the scores of feeder marches from around the city turned onto First Avenue to attend today’s rally, protesters discovered the wide avenue narrowed into a funnel by police barricades. Police controlled the surging crowds by forcing everyone through the barricades, and allowing only a certain number to fill each block along the avenue before “penning” the demonstrators in. After closing the barricades around each filled-in block of demonstrators, the police left the side streets clear, and filled in the next block. By 3:00 in the afternoon, there were 20-30 blocks of penned-in demonstrators — the vast majority of whom could barely see the stage. Many thousands more were herded along 2nd and 3rd Avenues by police. They never made it to the rally site at all, but were left to stage their own spontaneous rallies, street-takeovers, and protests.

At the corner of 53rd and 3rd Ave., the news was that the police would not be letting us turn towards First Avenue for another 12 blocks. Protesters, including me and my own family, stopped and challenged police with chants of “Whose streets? Our streets.” The nonviolent crowd, which included many children, outnumbered the police, and managed to dismantle the barricades and proceed one block East. At 2nd Avenue, however, we met a reinforced police blockade. When dozens of mounted police pushed at the crowd from behind, the protesters were forced through the blockade. Many fell and were beaten by police. Many more were able to proceed on to First Avenue where they joined the rally.

Such scenes were replicated all along the East Side avenues today, as protesters responded to being herded like animals into pens and forcibly prevented from attending the rally.

Yet the demonstration was overwhelmingly peaceful. The crowd was clearly there to say “No” to war in Iraq. The diverse crowd, which included labor, religious groups, queers, anti-capitalists, welfare rights groups, and many more brought powerful messages arguing for radically revised foreign and domestic policies that put peace and justice before war and greed.

Despite police containment tactics, our sheer numbers — the power of the people — immobilized miles of city streets today as police found it impossible to keep every “funnel” and every “pen” fully functional.

There are probably many lessons to extrapolate from today’s experience, but I am taking away one lesson in particular. And that is, you can’t protest in a pen.

Yet we can count on more “funnels” and “pens” in our future — more containment tactics meant to narrow not just our activism and our public expressions of dissent, but our thinking as well.

As more and more people give voice to misgivings about war, Bush and his cronies will be more and more vigorous in their attempts to use fear and hysteria to distract people from their doubts. As millions express despair over the humanitarian disaster that awaits the Iraqi people in the event of an invasion, the masters will drum up “humanitarian relief” plans in an effort to squash moral qualms. As we step out en masse in cities all around the world to protest a pending massive crime against humanity, the media will go to great pains to ignore us, stressing instead that decisions are made by the elite few.

As more and more protest the U.S. plan to blow Iraqi civilians to bits, our righteous anger will be more and more energetically funneled into the holding pens of fear, false comfort, and cynicism.

The point of the “funnels” and the “pens” is to control us — to showcase power over participation. The containment tactics — whether enforced by police barricades or delivered in a steady stream by the corporate media — reveal just how dedicated they are to muting our voices, stifling independent thought, and blockading dissent.

We must respond as we did today in New York City — flexibly, creatively, peacefully.

We are so much more powerful than they are precisely because funnels and pens are not among the tools we use. We are decentralized; we support debate and democracy; we push back against containment with greater numbers, renewed commitment to nonviolence, and wider diversity.

Let’s return to our communities, now, with the lessons of New York in hand, ready to study how to continue asserting our power — the power of participation, which cannot be penned.

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