“This is What Democracy Looks Like”
letter to the editor, Santa Barbara Independent
I’m home for the holidays, so I strap on my cock rocket (a missile-shaped phallus made of cardboard and tinfoil), slip into my George W. mask, and head down to the weekly peace march. I am happy to find the movement growing rapidly. But I am also attacked by a fellow activist who feels justified in destroying my costume because he feels it discredits the movement. Only one witness involves themselves.
It is well known that the WTO protests in Seattle were effective because the only masterplan was trust in the genius of people. The “magic” of Seattle has come to be called “diversity of tactics”, about which I want to convey three points.
First, every tactic accomplishes something and makes a contribution to the larger struggle as we converge. In Seattle, some people secured permits and marched, others blocked traffic with sophisticated lock and tripod systems, some hung educational banners from cranes and buildings, some invaded the newspaper boxes to spread the people’s news, some prepared for civil disobedience to raise the costs to the system, some engaged in “property crime street theater”, others wore symbolic costumes designed for a clear message to the mass media, some “unarrested” people being beaten by police, and some designed their action specifically empower fellow activists. I was one of a great many who just sat or stood with linked arms and did our best to withstand the police onslaught while talking with the delegates and press about why we were there. Humorous costumed performers in the tradition of teatro campesino traveled the weary blockades and long marches to keep our courage up by making fun of the powerful system we dare to fight.
Second, every tactic successfully speaks to some of the people we want to organize and not to others. While I may be much too afraid to lie down in front of a tank, my activist sister may feel totally pointless holding a candle. Some people have difficulty respecting a movement too fearful and comfortable to take action without first getting a city permit. Other people want to see a very rational, dignified argument against the war. Yet others believe it is important to mobilize spiritual power by drumming, burning sage, sacred dancing, or prayer. Nobody has a schtick so good it’ll work for everybody, so step back and let the “wierdos” or the “straights” communicate with their people — cause you’ll never get to them.
Third, “diversity of tactics” is an experiential lesson in “what democracy looks like”. In Seattle we asserted with that chant that what appears to be messy, disorganized, and even contradictory is the social process of solidarity with respect for the contributions of all the people, coming together to work it out. We contrasted ourselves, “THIS is what democracy looks like”, with the second line, “THAT is what a police state looks like” as we pointed at the elitist system which sent robocops to chase the people away from planning the economy. When I heard the chant here in Santa Barbara, I worried that people have learned the chant, but not its meaning.
For those concerned with the fact that US democracy is not functioning, human and civil rights are being violated, and that a serious effort for non-violent conflict resolution is not being made, the movement can be a place to practice commitment to dialogue and democratic process and supporting one another’s rights. Respectful engagement with people who we feel different from is democratic. Harassing, intimidating, attacking, and policing fellow activists, or passively tolerating such acts is anti-democratic. (Anyway, the FBI is paid to do it, so we don’t need to do it to each other.)
If we really want this movement to grow, activists should welcome people bringing new analyses and tactics. When treated respectfully, anarchists actually come out to support state-sanctioned marches while pacifists have refrained from interfering with or persecuting people burning flags at anti-war rallies. Feminist and queer communities are making connections between masculinity, militarism, and patriarchal entitlement which could strengthen the analysis of the larger movement, while also making protest much more fun and culturally up-to-date.
Lastly: The man who attacked me felt that his view of my costume as offensive justified accusing me of being an infiltrator. This is a big concern for activists but we must be careful not to destroy ourselves or use it as an excuse for exclusionary behavior. Brian Glick’s must-read book War at Home: Covert Action against US Activists and What you can do about it emphasizes that the most important action to protect from infiltration is to avoid being suspicious!