As shocking as this must be to New Yorkers, in Toronto, the city where I live, lampposts and mailboxes are plastered with posters advertising a plan by antipoverty activists to “shut down” the business district on October 16. Some of the posters (those put up before September 11) even have a picture of skyscrapers outlined in red–the perimeters of the designated direct-action zone. Many have argued that O16 should be canceled, as other protests and demonstrations have been, in deference to the mood of mourning–and out of fear of stepped-up police violence.
But the shutdown is going ahead. In the end, the events of September 11 don’t change the fact that the nights are getting colder and the recession is looming. They don’t change the fact that in a city that used to be described as “safe” and, well, “maybe a little boring,” many will die on the streets this winter, as they did last winter, and the one before that, unless more beds are found immediately.
And yet there is no disputing that the event, its militant tone and its choice of target will provoke terrible memories and associations. Many political campaigns face a similar, and sudden, shift. Post-September 11, tactics that rely on attacking–even peacefully–powerful symbols of capitalism find themselves in an utterly transformed semiotic landscape. After all, the attacks were acts of very real and horrifying terror, but they were also acts of symbolic warfare, and instantly understood as such. As Tom Brokaw and so many others put it, the towers were not just any buildings, they were “symbols of American capitalism.”
As someone whose life is thoroughly entwined with what some people call “the antiglobalization movement,” others call “anticapitalism” (and I tend to just sloppily call “the movement”), I find it difficult to avoid discussions about symbolism these days. About all the anticorporate signs and signifiers–the culture-jammed logos, the guerrilla-warfare stylings, the choices of brand name and political targets–that make up the movement’s dominant metaphors.
Many political opponents of anticorporate activism are using the symbolism of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks to argue that young activists, playing at guerrilla war, have now been caught out by a real war. The obituaries are already appearing in newspapers around the world: “Anti-Globalization Is So Yesterday,” reads a typical headline. It is, according to the Boston Globe, “in tatters.” Is it true? Our activism has been declared dead before. Indeed, it is declared dead with ritualistic regularity before and after every mass demonstration: our strategies apparently discredited, our coalitions divided, our arguments misguided. And yet those demonstrations have kept growing larger, from 50,000 in Seattle to 300,000, by some estimates, in Genoa.
At the same time, it would be foolish to pretend that nothing has changed since September 11. This struck me recently, looking at a slide show I had been pulling together before the attacks. It is about how anticorporate imagery is increasingly being absorbed by corporate marketing. One slide shows a group of activists spray-painting the window of a Gap outlet during the anti-WTO protests in Seattle. The next shows The Gap’s recent window displays featuring its own prefab graffiti–words like “Independence” sprayed in black. And the next is a frame from Sony PlayStation’s “State of Emergency” game featuring cool-haired anarchists throwing rocks at evil riot cops protecting the fictitious American Trade Organization. When I first looked at these images beside each other, I was amazed by the speed of corporate co-optation. Now all I can see is how these snapshots from the corporate versus anticorporate image wars have been instantly overshadowed, blown away by September 11 like so many toy cars and action figures on a disaster movie set.