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February, 2001, Volume 8 Nr. 6, Issue 90


 by JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski, RN

On January 20th, Jozef and I joined dozens of others on a midnight bus to Washington, DC. We converged with tens of thousands of others on the streets of the capitol to protest the coronation of George the 2nd, Duh-bya, the president-select.

The "inauguraction" exposed wider issues of the crackdown on democratic speech and actions since Seattle, both in the US and its allies in the (relatively) free world, both on the streets and on the airwaves. This includes official police policies during events, as well as policies and attitudes of corporationist media that lead to internalizing the values of the police state over those of democracy, and to self-censorship on the part of journalists who want to be players in the Washington press game.

The corporate media, in response to direct action by radical leftist activists, has been taking two tactics in the past year: ignoring us completely, or taking miles of footage by thousands of journalists and then, in the way they edit and use it, effectively ignoring us.

There is paradox that we carry pithy signs and chant short slogans in our attempt to speak out about issues that require analysis and context. These demonstrations and direct actions are just a piece of the work, and everyone out in the streets knows that. But they are reported by the big press as the main event, and belittled as the antics of bored and privileged college kids and a few graying hippies caught in a time warp.

The tactic of the Big Lie is simple: repeat it over and over until it becomes the conventional wisdom. The best propaganda is internalized, so that the target audience stops seeing it at all and it becomes part of the national myth. In order to streamline this process, omission is a key component. Contradictory information is ignored. When someone, through dramatic action or luck, manages to break the barrier of this silence, he/she is quickly marginalized, explained away with a chuckle as a kooky radical with no relation to the rest of us, regular Americans. Millions buy this notion without question, as if the mass of folks in our nation, struggling to pay the bills, have more in common with millionaire anchorclones.

Militaristic Police Forces:
Reneging on the Social Contract

From Seattle to Switzerland (where the recent meeting of World Economic Forum in Davos saw historic crackdown on dissent), an ominous new martial response is apparent in the ways that city and national police are greeting popular protest, both legal actions and non-violent civil disobedience. The turning point seems to be the November 30, 1999, mass protests of the WTO, although a closer look reveals that in recent years, unwatched by the major media, there has been a general, gradual erosion of civil rights and of citizen-police relations, evident in police reaction to environmental, anti-racism, anti-poverty and shelter rights activists. Of course, brutal and militaristic police tactics are not news to poor and minority folks, but there has been an expansion of martial attitudes that perceive citizens as enemies. Such local problems do not often receive national coverage.

The World Trade Organization is an international body. Seattle was ready to spend a great deal of money to welcome the WTO, to put the city on the map as a world-class city worthy of the presence of the world ruling class. Therefore the spectre of mass protests presented a dilemma to the city. The choices were made to respond with intimidation beforehand and excessive force later. Non-violent protesters doing civil disobedience by blocking intersections should have been simply arrested and carried away, but they were instead assaulted with tear gas, pepper spray, batons and rubber bullets. Such police action became so pervasive that some citizens uninvolved in protest were gassed and even beaten within their neighborhoods, by police.

Property and Image over People and Imagination: Modern TV "News"

Although even the corporate media covered the Battle in Seattle, they had inordinate emphasis on property damage, which was a very small part of the story. While Teamsters and Turtles marched together, while folks made passionate, informed and creative arguments about issues that affect everyone in the world, issues of labor and environmental justice, the television media (where most Americans get their news) focused on the handful of targeted acts of vandalism on transnational corporate criminals such as Old Navy and Starbucks.

In July of 2000, as we gathered before the march to protest GWBush and the Republican Convention, a television reporter interviewed me. Her question: Was I concerned about prospects of violence such as happened in Seattle? I asked her to clarify: what violence? Breaking windows at Starbucks. My answer was, "Breaking windows is vandalism. The real violence in Seattle was excessive use of force, beating and gassing and shooting peaceful protesters. If you are asking am I concerned about excessive force by police, yes. While targeted property damage is not a tactic I agree with, it is not violent bodily assault."

People, with the exception of the super-rich, are disposable items, an inexhaustible resource to be exploited. Property, real estate, image…these are of far more importance to the Big Market Monster. Thus the newsfood emphasis on property damage. This is ironic in the face of the much wider property damage caused by the corporations themselves. How do you calculate the environmental, social and economic damage of the coffee trade? Compare this to some folks in Seattle trashing a Starbucks, taking care not to injure staff or patrons and encouraging the café quaffers to visit the independent coffee shop across the street. Where are the calls to prosecute the directors of Starbucks for their complicity in a corrupt coffee industry? (On the up side, a campaign led by Global Exchange did convince Starbucks to offer Fair Trade coffee at their shops.)

Freezing Drizzle and Hot Emotions

I used to work in this block, 14th at Pennsylvania Ave, officially named "Freedom Plaza". The only thing that is left of the block is the place I worked a quarter century ago, the National Theater, though it has been completely swallowed, on all sides, by hotels and offices and shops, as one great ugly mass of 1980’s utilitarian concrete architecture. All that remains the same is the façade of the National, looking tiny and out of proportion. Again, the notion of art is overwhelmed by the culture of the market.

Thousands gather here, most to protest, a few to support, and an army of police from all branches of city and federal authority. Here in the District of Columbia, where there is no congressional legislative representation, the voices of disenfranchised people ring out. And we are surrogates for those who could not be out here, including the people of color working a coffee stand inside the nearby Marriot, who say, "If I didn’t have to work, I’d be out there with you."

Watching the Black Bloc, a chanting solid mass, keeping rhythm with their feet and many plastic bucket drums, I know that many folks - not here - are frightened by these strong children with masks. I find the masks symbolic. It is not a case of being afraid to show their faces, nor of being a flock of sheep. It may be homage to masked liberators of history, fiction and today, from Zorro to the EZLN. It may be a way to say "No!" to a silly media trick of focusing on a photogenic individual to diffuse the effect of the mass. Masks are a way to become anonymous en masse, a mass masque, where they may not be used or branded.

This is, as all movements for civil and human rights, the work of many individuals.

Celebrity, starmaking, is a function of the mythmakers, the ones who control so much of widely available information. As though M.L.King, Jr. was the top billing in a mini-series. The series would end with the August ’63 "I Have a Dream" speech, ignoring the last 5 years of his life, and those inconvenient Black Panthers, and the too-complex-for-formula-dramatics Malcolm X. That’s the way of the mass media; simple, unchallenging tales that give pseudo-excitement and vicarious experience, encouraging the watcher to feel like he was as noble as those who risked life and liberty in the pursuit of liberation. Leave him with a satisfied, wrapped up story, lest he look out his window and realize the real story, the struggle, is still on. As for the vague desire that remains, the sense that there is something missing, exploit it with stuff to buy.

That, after all, and not art or truth, is the purpose of the big media: the cultivation of consumers, not citizens. Of cynics, who wear an unthinking sarcasm, mistaking it for sophistication, but not skeptics, who may question and analyze the methods and predicates of big media itself. The media-made cynic thinks he is in on the joke. The media deconstructionist, the skeptic, knows that the silly cynic IS the joke.

One of the great annoyances our movement presents to the big media is this lack of celebrities. There are a few individuals who symbolize parts of the struggles, like Jose Bove and Mumia and Subcomandante Marcos and Nader. But this is a movement with no stars, no center, no hierarchy. As such it is flexible and organic. Since the institutions of domination are pyramids and ladders, it is hard for the voices of those institutions to tell stories of webs and circles. Our lives are not a series of simple stories, with a beginning, middle and end, although that is by far the favored narrative form of our culture.

Although there is an enormous amount of money spent on graphic design, and great creativity in making commercial culture, the work is performed within strict parameters. The creation of art for the purpose of selling artifacts no one needs by exploiting emotions everyone has is an ignoble profession. If one depends upon mass media for art, they will only encounter great art occasionally, and it will be secondary to the mission of the medium.

Impounding the Puppets, Intimidating the Protests

Art, like hope, springs eternal in the human. And some of the most moving, useful art comes from the Movement. This is why the police have cracked down on creative direct action and non-exploitive, non-commercial art in particular. In Philadelphia, before the Republican National Convention, and in Washington, before the WTO/IMF protests, police raided and evacuated places where people were planning actions, feeding activists, training in non-violence and making props. Puppets, those marvelous creations that stand high above the crowds, were confiscated, as were sign making materials, chili peppers and personal belongings including vital prescription medicines.

Another popular tactic is to make parts of public streets off-limits to the public, lest the invited power elite - Democrats, Republicans, "Free" Traders - see the disapproving rabble ("The peasants are so revolting, don’t you agree?") or even be moved by their arguments ("Maybe we should rethink our Asian labor contracts and get an honest environmental policy…").

By the time of the G.W.Bush inauguration, this squashing of free speech and assembly had developed into a pre-emptive strike on civil rights. A fitting opening to the administration of the man who rode the horse Disenfranchisement into the White House. A lawsuit was filed days before the event because the police planned such neo-fascist things as "No Free Speech" zones. (One day before the event, a U.S.District Court struck down as unconstitutional a regulation that required permits for all speeches.) There were checkpoints, with bag search and body searches, established by the Secret Service and other police agencies, which anyone wanting to be next to Pennsylvania Avenue along the route of the official inaugural parade had to pass through; no other U.S. presidential inaugural has ever had such a thing. Puppets and stilt-walkers were prohibited. A legal counter-inauguration march was disrupted by police, who also beat demonstrators.

Since Seattle, heavy-handed, and often unconstitutional, tactics have increased. Preventive detention arrests, outlandish bail for non-violent activists (arrested in civil disobedience actions, or as suspected domestic terrorists – this is a scary word used for radical environmentalists), infiltration of organizing groups by undercover agents (spying), the chilling affect of checkpoints for bag and body searches, refusing (or delaying till the last minute) parade permits for protest marches, massive police presence with unprecedented military hardware are some of the ways that free speech is discouraged.

With puppets prohibited, many protesters became the puppets: costumed as polar bears and wearing caribou headdresses to bring attention to Bush’s threats to the Alaska Wildlife Reserve; others, garbed like ancient imperial Romans, declared "Hail Emperor!" The simplest puppets, proliferated by imitation, were gloves held aloft on sticks, middle finger eloquently raised.

As for media coverage, many activists have stopped courting the national and local commercial organs. With the Internet and portable, affordable camcorders, cell phones and handheld two-way radios and a few notebook computers, protesters become the media, and the coverage is live around the world on the Web, as well as providing records later used in courts to prove illegal police actions. We have been filmed for decades by the FBI, Secret Service and local SWAT teams. It is nice to return the favor. (The presence of so many indy journalists has led to police officers sometimes illegally removing their identification badges; there are lots of photos on-line from April 16th of last year – WTO/IMF protests - with riot police who had removed badges.)

This is not a movement that will go away. No matter that the advertising culture tries to co-opt it, or that intimidation by the powerful keeps ratcheting up. No matter that pundits repeat the tired Thatcherism mantra of globalized exploitation, TINA ("there is no alternative"). This movement is a worldwide call to democracy and human rights, to save the sickened planet and those who cling to her surface, to dignity and interdependence. Perhaps never before have so many acknowledged the interconnectedness of so many injustices: prison, labor, environment, health, speech, gender, food, art… We are not against global analysis, not against global trade, as we have been accused; we are more likely to identify as global citizens than as nationalists, and we want to globalize justice.

 © 2001 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski, RN

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