Tonight is the finale for insiders and outsiders in Los Angeles this week: In a few hours, Al Gore will be giving his acceptance speech at the Staples Center. A few feet away, thousands of activists will hold a rally outside. Yet at the Community Convergence Center, a four-story warehouse on Seventh Street in the Pico-Union neighborhood, the mood is more melancholy last day of camp than first day of the revolution.
In the rooms upstairs, activists are collapsed on their knapsacks, sleeping. Downstairs, pacing up the middle of the floor, is a cranky punk with a bullhorn: “Somebody took my black hoodie,” she booms, referring to that indispensable anarchist accessory, the black hooded sweatshirt. “I want it back now.” She pauses to shoot a death stare at a reporter from Channel 22.
Nearby, the antisweatshop banner-making sessions seem to be taking place in slow motion, and the mood isn’t improved with the return of a handful of activists, back from a demonstration outside Citibank. “How was it?” asks Yuki Kidokoro, one of the LA organizers of the Direct Action Network.
“Lame,” someone replies.
During the Democratic convention, protesters attempted to recapture the legendary energy that erupted on the streets of Seattle this past November during the World Trade Organization meeting. It was the third Seattle re-enactment in the country in nine months–first, Washington, DC, for the World Bank meeting in April; then Philadelphia for the Republican convention in July; now, in August, here in LA. And there have been at least as many self-described “next Seattles” outside the United States.
Inside the movement, debates are raging about whether the emphasis on mass street protests is beginning to squander the energy of Seattle rather than build on it. So much time is going into mobilizing the next dramatic direct action that little is left over to think strategically about how to turn a new taste for radical protest into a movement that’s not only about confronting power but also about getting some. The irony is not lost on organizers who, even while making their giant puppets and filling buses for events, have taken to engaging in relentless self-criticism. Ruckus Society director John Sellers recently warned against “leading with our tactics instead of our message”–this from the man best known for cultivating the art of dropping banners from very tall buildings. On the Los Angeles Independent Media Center website, there is an editorial charging that the protesters yelling “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” are less interested in changing the political landscape than in simply expressing their sorrow with the status quo–protest as “a frantic cry from our cage.”
For months leading up to the Democratic convention, the organizers of the D2KLA Network have been trying to deal with all the criticisms that have come up since Seattle, inside and outside the movement. At the Convergence Center, antiracism is made the number-one priority, a response to earlier failures to attract people of color. The street actions themselves–as many as four a day during convention week, the largest attracting as many as 8,000 people–focus on immigration crackdowns, violent cops, the death penalty, homelessness, homophobia, sweatshops and youth criminalization. “Local issues,” Kidokoro says pointedly. “In Seattle, people said the issues came in from the outside.”
Unfortunately, these efforts at times seemed to cancel each other out. The emphasis on antiracism meant that the protests were more racially diverse. On the other hand, making a target of the Democratic Party proved far less inclusive in other ways–the AFL-CIO was inside the convention, working for Al Gore, not on the streets as in Seattle. And it wasn’t only the Teamsters and turtles coalition that took a hit: With the emphasis on local issues, there was little room for the internationalism that was the hallmark of Seattle, when US activists marched with Indian farmers and Mexican maquiladora workers.
At the same time, the decision to focus attention on the two major conventions was an important post-Seattle development. For many of the younger protesters, until now it has been an article of faith that party politics are so corrupted that engaging with the electoral system is a waste of time. Better to go after Nike directly, or Monsanto, or Occidental, or the WTO. But by trying to “out” the money in politics, the LA protesters were joining the fray, attempting to turn an anticorporate backlash into a pro-democracy movement. On the streets, the protests’ “meta-message” about the corporate takeover of democracy was delivered by theater troupe Billionaires for Bush (or Gore), by young activists gagging themselves with fake million-dollar bills and at demonstrations against Gore’s ties to Occidental Petroleum.
The umbrella demand of reclaiming democracy from corporate interests could certainly have housed all the issues on the D2K agenda, from private prisons to environmental racism. And yet, despite the self-awareness of many organizers, far more effort went into recruiting bodies and training them in civil disobedience than into developing a coherent economic framework for all the protests and a political strategy for what comes next. Protesters thus fell back on familiar rhetoric and slogans, and D2KLA at times came off as a laundry list of grievances, a colorful parade of complaints. Protest, in very short order, has gone postmodern: less about the issues than the tactics, the permits, the police response, the trials afterward–protesting about protesting itself.
It’s a lesson of particular interest in Boston, which will host the first presidential debate this October. Ben Day, one of those plotting the local activist response, says actions will focus on educating the public and “on demands for specific [electoral] changes.” He reports that “the group here unanimously agreed that the obsessive attempt to replicate Seattle hasn’t been a fruitful method of trying to build a popular mass movement.”