Recovering the Power of the Global Grass Roots
(Written December 2003)
The global day of antiwar protests on February 15 was remarkable for several reasons.
First and foremost, of course, was the fact that some 12 million people came out in over 600 cities spanning every continent to express their outrage at a potential preemptive strike on Iraq. So enormous and unprecedented were these demonstrations that even the New York Times was forced to admit, no doubt grudgingly, of “a new power in the streets.”
Then too, the face of that new power defied categorization. There was no single agent of social change, no all-encompassing political ideology. It was difficult to typecast dissent based on color, age, gender, class, and so on. Those who rallied together on that Saturday in February mirrored the rich diversity of humanity itself.
Most noteworthy of all, though, was the democratic impulse that reemerged on this particular day of activism. In the reactionary months since 9-11, especially in the United States, resistance has been marked by a clampdown of its own. The period of a transparent politics-from-below that interlinked a multiplicity of uprisings from the Zapatistas to Genoa in a global movement against capitalism seemed to disappear with New York’s twin towers. Certainly, the nonhierarchical forms of organization that defined the “anti-globalization” movement lingered — from consultas and spokescouncils to a do-it-yourself infrastructure of media, medics, and legal aid — but now only among anti-authoritarian leftists, who had introduced such utopian notions in the first place. In the post-September 11 culture of fear, liberal social justice activists and orthodox Marxists alike raced away from the grassroots practices that had become normative at the mass direct actions of the recent past.
Yet they didn’t run far. Here in the States, progressive and Marxist-Leninist groups pushed full steam ahead with an antiwar movement as if — and this is pivotal — there was not and never had been an anti-globalization movement, particularly one structured along egalitarian lines. One could perhaps applaud them for their willingness to take charge, relying on the belief that, “well, somebody’s got to do it.” How else could tens of thousands descend on Washington, D.C. or New York City to hinder the present military juggernaut without the single-minded, centralized coordination of an A.N.S.W.E.R. (no matter how politically despicable) or a United for Peace and Justice (no matter how politically docile)?
But that’s where F15 proved them wrong.
By making use of inclusive structures that allowed diverse individuals to collectively reclaim social and political space, the direct action wing of the anti-globalization movement had forged a desire for self-organization. Whether one identified with anarchists and other libertarian radicals who espoused these prefigurative practices was immaterial. It felt good to shake off the alienation of everyday life and join together with others to actively shape a better world, if only temporarily. Moreover, such experiments in mutual aid and confederated direct democracy seemed to point beyond themselves, toward forms of social organization that could daily institutionalize freedom for everyone. Even after the anti-capitalist movement’s promise seemed to be eclipsed by a draconian “war on terror” and a top-down antiwar movement in response, the decentralist sensibility was not forgotten.
Which brings us back to F15. New York City was the metropolis perhaps most symbolically crucial to the day the world said no to war. The UN Security Council meetings in Manhattan had taken on larger-than-life proportions as a contest of wills between nation-states. The so-called terror alert was upped to orange, or high, with New York coincidentally named as a prime target that weekend. And on the island watched over by the Statue of Liberty, no matter how tarnished, NYC’s police department, with the later backing of federal courts, would not sanction a permitted march to express political dissent. If there was ever a time for an activist group to seize the moral high ground and, permission or no, announce a march route, February 15 was definitely it. But United for Peace and Justice (UPJ) meekly acquiesced to a relatively small legal rally spot.
In the void created by this failure of nerve, the eagerness to organize from the bottom-up reappeared. Tens of thousands of people were emboldened by the participatory praxis of the seemingly bygone anti-capitalist movement. They formed themselves into varied blocs intent on feeding into one big unpermitted march. Unfortunately, because UPJ had dragged its heels for so long in hopes the authorities would relent, these autonomous contingents had only a few days to attempt any sort of federation. And such short notice certainly proved limiting. Given a bit more time, we could have converged together from all corners of the city and brought NYC to a near-standstill. But as it was, in the last couple days before F15, almost hourly a new bloc would add its name to the list (hosted, to its credit, on the UPJ website), which eventually totaled 70 feeder marches: from the Militant Moms Bloc, Housing and Green Space Feeder, and the NYC People of Color Contingent, to the Educators Feeder, Queer Anti-War Contingent, and Doctors, Nurses, and Health Care Workers March. And these feeders did shutdown dozens of streets for hours on F15, opening up space for everything from free expression to work stoppages.
Two such moments leap out. When demonstrators brought stretches of Third Avenue to a halt, a U.S. Postal Service truck (along with other vehicles) found itself unable to go any farther. The driver got out and stood back as people clambered to his van’s roof for an impromptu dance. Rather than getting angry, however, he gladly enjoyed the performance along with everyone else. Later, when groups of protesters stopped to warm themselves at a chain sandwich-and-coffee shop, they found a packed communal café instead. The “employees” brought vats of steamy soup out, and they and the “patrons” literally ate freely, while other people passed out antiwar literature, pulled homemade lunches from their backpacks, or engaged in political dialogue while sprawled out on the floor.
Such instances of pleasure may seem trivial when compared to the deadly seriousness of warfare, but they are part and parcel of what we should be fighting for. Stepping back from the micro-level of Manhattan to the macro-level of the world, February 15 again revealed the strength of voluntary cooperation in league with global solidarity, perhaps on the largest scale yet in human history. Contrary to what those bent on directing this antiwar movement would have us believe, F15 proved that it is possible to utilize grassroots organization and still be highly coordinated. It is also a much more powerful form of opposition. For starters, police and governments can easily block the actions of any one single organization, as happened time and again with regard to UPJ’s plans in New York City. It is much more difficult to hinder the activities of thousands of independent yet interconnected groups. More significant, though, F15 stands as persuasive testimony to the capacity of human beings to craft resistance of their own in concert with differentiated others. This, in turn, offers a sliver of what freedom might look like for us all.
It doesn’t, however, mean that war against Iraq will be averted; nor that the U.S. government’s designs at unilateralist, Christian fundamentalist control will be rethought anytime soon. Sadly, even as I write, a full-out attack looms likely within a week or so. And just as likely, it will only be the first of many proactive aggressions in a quest by the United States, but also others for global domination. The power of F15 lay not in its ability to stop war but in its potentiality to again make self-management the norm for contemporary political struggles. Such a commitment to nonhierarchical social transformation is absolutely necessary to build an antiwar movement capable of abolishing those structural relations (such as capitalism, statecraft, and racism) that make war possible — an antiwar movement that models, if only partially, notions of the good society in the process. Nowhere is this perhaps more important right now than in the United States, where principles such as freedom are only trotted out by the government as the flimsiest of covers for state terror at home and abroad.
This past fall in Washington, D.C., a day before the World Bank/IMF protests, the police used preemptive tactics to arrest almost five hundred people milling around a public park near Freedom Plaza at a low-key “drumbeats against war” circle. After some thirty-plus hours of handcuffing, body searches, fingerprinting by the FBI, little food and less sleep, the traffic-ticket-equivalent charge of “failure to obey” was dropped. Despite the injustice of jailing those deemed guilty before being proven innocent, the state’s allegation should, to its everlasting dismay, be picked up and worn as our movement’s badge of honor.
The coming New World Disorder is already facing delegitimation by those unwilling to blindly follow orders. Such ethical acts of defiance include librarians refusing to tell the government who’s checked out which books, soldiers resisting the call to arms, and high school students skipping classes on March 5 for a civic education of their own. In the hard months ahead, principled noncompliance will likely continue to escalate, becoming more broad-based as well as creative.
Yet this same “failure to obey” shouldn’t just be reserved for entities outside an antiwar movement, as F15 made clear. Be it at the hands of social democratic NGOs or party-like Marxist-Leninist groups, resistance too will not be controlled from above. Indeed, we should deliberately expand on the emancipatory practices of the anti-globalization movement; we should self-consciously cultivate directly democratic and confederated forms of organization as a basis of unity that equally allows for diversity. A successful antiwar movement will be one that openly disobeys self-appointed authorities — no matter who’s issuing the commands.