Source: The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi - SEE http://www.mkgandhi.org/
Today, the Reverend Al Sharpton called for a series of non-violent mass actions to shut NYC down in protest of the Sean Bell verdict, to denounce the prison-industrial complex and the structural racism that leads to injustices in the economic and criminal systems. I have been asking myself: Why is it that so many of us seem to have given up on non-violent civil disobedience as a tactic? Are we stymied by the police state instituted under the Bush regime and especially following 9/11? Or are we simply complacent?
Seeing Jesusa Rodriguez speak about Mass Cabaret in Mexico at Columbia University a few weeks ago inspired me and depressed me at the same time -- in Mexico millions of people have refused to accept a stolen election (sound familiar?) and are actively resisting economic policies that favor multinational corporations at the expense of Mexican citizens. Artists like Rodriguez have joined the effort, orchestrating performative, carnivalesque, and free-form manifestations as a way to recruit and empower participants and divert energy away from violence. This particular aspect of her talk impressed me - she said that once you get millions of people somewhere and tension rises, you have to be able to avoid any eruption of violence. She added that women tend to lead affinity groups and the heads of marches which makes it harder for the police to attack the group as a whole.
She described the movement as comprised of smaller groups that then gather to make interventions - for example a group will show up at a Wal-Mart, appear to be shopping and then suddenly erupt into a protest of the chain's corporate policies in Mexico, effectively paralyzing the store for several minutes. Or, small affinity groups orchestrate actions and travel together to meet other small groups - adding up to hundreds of thousands or millions depending on the event.
When I talk to younger people about what it was like to participate in ACT-UP many have no idea what it is, and it seems to me like they see me as as a pitiful older person going down memory lane, discussing a palpably unrealistic situation. But I have friends that were shutting down Ivy Leagues with SDS, marching in the South in the 1960s, Quakers blocking off nuclear power plants in the 1980s (does anyone remember that?), or going on hunger strikes in Vieques a few years ago.
And I participated in a number of protests led by ACT-UP and other groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so I know that it is possible to organize non-violent civil disobedience actions that will raise consciousness and make an impact on political and economic elites that leads to change. ACT-UP infiltrated the mass media and health care industry like a virus - and participants such as the late artist and one of my heroes, Felix Gonzalez-Torres referred to the term "viral strategy" of infiltration as relevant to both art and politics. ACT-UP continue to create change to educate about the disease and make drugs accessible to more people.
For example, on January 23, 1991, I was one of hundreds of people that walked into Grand Central Station a few minutes before rush hour. Each of us was part of a small group, lawyers took our names, in order to assist us in case of arrest. Leaders within the crowd choreographed the action, and we knew that if a whistle blew, we had to lie on the floor, and if it blew again, we had to rise. Like a virus we infiltrated the public space, as in a ballet, we lay down and got up, again and again. Others handed out flyers to startled commuters explaining that we were shutting down mass transit for 8 minutes, one AIDS death every 8 minutes was the message of this action, part of several that took place to mark a Day of Desperation. ACT-UP linked the debts incurred by the US Government to pursue the (first) Gulf War, and its neglect of domestic issues, among them the AIDS crisis.
When the 8 minutes passed, a banner was draped over the board with the slogan, as you see in the photo above. At some point, groups of us then moved to the entrances and exits and linked arms, preventing anyone from going to their trains or exiting the space. We held our ground for what seemed like an eternity but could have been minutes, I remember being knocked to the ground by a big White guy carrying a briefcase. He tackled me but when I hit the ground, my arm was still linked to my friend's. God forbid that he should be inconvenienced, his progress to Stamford fucking Connecticut interrupted by thoughts of a few faggots dying. Then we moved outside and sat on the street, paralyzing traffic. At this point, the police paddy wagons pulled up and I got up and walked away. We always had a choice to be arrested, or not. Over 200 people were arrested that day.
Now we're in the middle (?) of the Second Gulf War and things have changed:
After 9/11 NYC became a militarized zone. Emulating London, surveillance cameras were placed in most public and private spaces. (I have such a system in my own apartment building, a channel on my TV allows me to see movement in several areas, my own little panopticon) The day before yesterday, they announced that military type police units with "rifles, submachine guns, body armor and bomb-sniffing dogs" (source: Alison Gendar, "Doomsday police units to patrol city subways," Daily News, 4/24/08, p.5) will occupy certain subway stops in the city. I had noticed the bomb-sniffing dogs lately but these groups, which almost out-numbered passengers on Thursday at mid-morning when I exited at Union Square, sending me into a momentary panic. Why? Because I grew up living in and visiting Spain under Franco's dictatorship, when paramilitary forces patrolled with machine guns in tow.
After 9/11, the city was patrolled by National Guard and police and my neighborhood was part of the "Frozen Zone" for a week and later shut down on and off to check for bombs (or to rehearse for such a possibility, one never knew but the fear factor was the same). In the past few years we have seen how the Bloomberg administration has eroded the notion of "public space" and "freedom of speech" when for example bicyclists riding on city roads calling for environmental awareness are arrested for doing so, or when during the Republican Convention open spaces and subway stations leading to them were literally barricaded by phalanxes of armed police (I had to cross such a phalanx to participate in a non-violent candle-light anti-war vigil in Union Square!) and of course when activists were held in improvised holding cells for days until the convention ended, a clear violation of their civil rights. And commuters are subject to bag searches as they enter city subways. In some places in the USA, people are sometimes asked to show ID as a way to persecute undocumented immigrants. (in Spain under the Aznar administration- a successor to Franco under a "democratic" veneer, police carried out searches in public spaces and racially profiled people whom they interrogated and ask for ID; under Franco, all people had to carry their ID at all times and were subject to searches).
Due to the paramilitary-like occupation of city streets here, constant surveillance, and refusal to issue protest permits, many actions seem impossible to carry out today. My guess is that a small group of people gathering to conduct a non-violent act of civil disobedience will arouse suspicion and be apprehended prior to carrying out their purpose. Under Franco, the secret police known as "los grises" would watch public spaces and move in any time a small group gathered and/or conversation veered towards certain topics. I think this is where we are headed.
I don't think the ACT-UP Grand Central action could happen now. I always acted in a way that was legal given my understanding that we have freedom of expression and assembly in this country. This is what I admire about the USA and do not take for granted, given my own experience with dictatorship. I believe peaceful action and dialogue are the only means to bring about change. So what do we do? Can we organize in large enough numbers so as to make it impossible to shut down public protests? Can we make small interventions such as the Wal-Mart actions in Mexico described above? Is the only sphere of action virtual - for example, viral strategies to interrupt website operations? Are economic boycotts the answer? I have bowed out of action, save for a few instances where I march to the UN against the war, or participate in small candle light vigils in my neighborhood, for example. I sign petitions, I write letters. I donate money. Is that enough?
This is the description of the "Day of Desperation" from the ACT UP website:
January 23, 1991: ACT UP declares a "Day of Desperation" in New York City. This action, designed to target every aspect of City life, demands that everyone realize that every day is a day of desperation for those in the AIDS community. Day of Desperation begins when activists invaded PBS and CBS Evening News broadcasts on the night of the 22nd. On the 23rd a morning demo begins on Wall St. and more than 2000 protesters marched with coffins that were delivered to City, State & Federal officials responsible for perpetuating the AIDS epidemic. An action at the State Office building in Harlem demands an end to the City homeless shelter system. The housing Committee joins Stand Up Harlem, Emmaus House and various Harlem religious leaders in protesting the lack of housing and services for people with HIV. The march goes down Martin Luther King Blvd. to the State office Bldg, carrying coffins with a demonstration at the plaza. Several people are arrested. The Latino/a Caucus invaded the Bronx Borough President's office; the Alternative and Holistic Committee videotapes Dr. Emilio Carillos as he promises to add immuno-enhancing nutritional programs and acupuncture to City hospitals. At 5:07 pm, Grand Central Station was the setting for a spectacular and massive act of civil disobedience as ACT UP took over the station. A banner announcing "One AIDS Death Every Eight Minutes" was hung over the arrivals board. 263 people are later arrested as the group attempted to march to the United Nations.
ACT UP CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE MANUAL:http://www.actupny.org/documents/CDdocuments/CDindex.html