Saturday, September 27, 2008
Saturday morning my sister, Monica Bicking, and her boyfriend, Eryn Trimmer, were arrested in Minneapolis. Monica was released on Sunday, but Eryn and others are still in custody, and the police will try to keep them detained as long as possible.
They were arrested for "conspiracy to incite a riot". This is the same charge used against the Chicago 8 (or 7) at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Perhaps the police have a sense of tradition?
But more directly she and Eryn were arrested in an attempt to preemptively suppress the protests at the Republican National Convention. They were both very active with the RNC Welcoming Committee, which is a group coordinating and supporting some of the people coming to the Twin Cities for the convention.
Obviously I’m very concerned by the arrests and charges. But there’s been a huge outpouring of support from the community — both from activist in the Twin Cities, and from their neighbors. In Chicago I’m a little unsure about what to do.
Reading articles about the incidents (Glenn Greenwald’s post on Salon is a good one) I find myself mostly avoiding the comment sections. The comments fall into two categories: mean comments against the protesters, and reactionary comments with no real substance ("this is proof this country is a police state!") Activists generally understand what’s going on, and people of a right-wing/authoritarian bend are hardly going to be convinced of anything, but there’s a lot of progressive people out there who’ve never really been involved in any activism like this. There’s very little explaining the protests, the role of activists like my sister, and the philosophies they hold. Certainly the news makes no attempt, and unfortunately the activists themselves often speak from an unexplained perspective.
So I’d like to use this as an opportunity to explain my understanding of the role of protest, what’s going on at the RNC specifically, and what an "anarchist" really is. At the moment I can’t do a lot to help Eryn and Monica directly, but at least I can talk about her personally instead of another story about a named but otherwise anonymous "protester".
The Role Of Protest
It’s challenging to explain and justify protest, at least in this country and at this moment. Probably the biggest blow for protest as a useful form of political expression was the February 15, 2003 protests against the Iraq War. I say this because those were the largest protests the world has ever seen, estimated around 10 million people, and yet they did so little to stop the war.
That war is still with us, and is still the most significant motivation for the RNC protests. The war has gone through many phases since then — purported success, then clear failure by just about anyone’s definition, then ongoing failure labelled as success because of dramatically lowered expectations (the surge). Public opinion has moved several times, but is constrained by what is considered the reasonable options. These "reasonable" options are defined by the Democratic and Republican elite. Balance in news means inviting participation from partisans from those two parties. In this context the Democratic party had a practical landslide in 2006, driven primarily by anti-war sentiments, and then proceeded to do almost nothing to stop the war. If protest has failed, then so has electoral politics.
I don’t have any third path to offer, but I just want to make it clear: none of us know what is best to do, none of us have figured out the way to effect change. People complain protest doesn’t work. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but frankly most things don’t work. Doing nothing definitely doesn’t work, and frankly that’s what most of us are doing. It’s hard to take criticisms seriously when they are made from a stance of inaction.
What might the RNC protests accomplish?
First, it is an attempt to break out of a politics restricted to two perspectives. I believe, quite firmly, that "radical left" opinions are actually quite mainstream. This was also the goal of the DNC protests. This goal has become quite difficult to achieve. News stations generally ignore protest, and when they do cover protest they seldom talk about the actual issues.
Second, protests can attempt to disrupt normal activity. To be fair, this is probably better termed "civil disobedience", and I’m sure there will be civil disobedience in response to the RNC. One possible goal of civil disobedience is to make news — to be so disruptive that you simply can’t be ignored. And even if the news won’t say why you won’t be ignored, at least one message that can be made clear: everything is not okay. Another goals is simply to disrupt the RNC. This is a bringing together of many of the architects and profiteers of war. This is a convention that includes many people advocating torture.
It’s also a convention of people who buy the lines about the Republican party being "conservative" and supporting "family values" and whatever other bullshit. One argument goes: oh, these poor dullards and simpletons! Do not interrupt their harmless partying! Do not interrupt their absurd views! They deserve their delusions as much as anyone! I say: this stuff is too important to defer to the bullshit of this political grandstanding.
Are We In A Time Of War?
It is all too easy to fall into "protesting for the right to protest". Lest I fall into this, I want to make it clear: protest itself is not the goal. 600,000 Iraqis dead. And to what ends? No ends at all? Unlikely! There is a purpose. It is a purpose architected by people who would throw away hundreds of thousands of lives. People may argue about whether war is valid. I don’t believe it is, nor do Monica or Eryn, but whatever your feelings: this is not an abstract war. This is a specific war. And this specific war is a war made by liars, by people who treat human life lightly, by people whose primary ambition seems focused on power itself.
600,000 dead, and what’s so different in America? Do you feel this war? If you didn’t turn on the TV or listen to the news, what would remind you that we are at war? What would remind you of all that’s happened? We are a nation at war, and yet there is nothing to show us this, it has no presence. Our nation is so large, our institutions so abstracted, our military so partitioned from most of society… we are numb to war. Moving around while numbed is dangerous. You can’t feel what you are doing. A cut doesn’t hurt, a bruise is just a faint sensation. We are a numbed nation and this is dangerous.
If I was to give one reason for civil disobedience, it would be this: to acknowledge this war is real. This isn’t just a difference of opinion, this isn’t just a debate. This is about how we exercise our collective power, the power that is exercised in the form of the state. This is our war, whether we feel it or not.
One of the criticisms of civil disobedience is to say it deprives the Republicans of their free speech. First, this is absurd. No form of civil disobedience deprives them of free speech. No one is taping their mouths shut. No journalists are being detained by activists. No debate is stifled. The RNC’s request: we want to speak our lies without interruption, without distraction. The Republicans have through decades of whining managed to frame the debate, to redefine "common sense" and "conventional thinking", to move the Overton Window far to the right. Free speech does not mean they should not be challenged. Protest challenges the content of their speech, it doesn’t deny them of the ability to speak.
This is an aside, but for all the effort put into limiting the bounds of debate I don’t think the Republicans, or Bush, have really changed the country as much as they are given credit for. I don’t think people are as easily manipulated as that. I think our core values are not so easily affected. If we were not so numb I think it would all come rushing back.
If you read the articles you will see Monica and Eryn called "self-described anarchists". This is true, they are anarchists. I will attempt, briefly and probably inaccurately, to describe what anarchism is.
Anarchism is, at it’s core, a belief in the individual, and a belief that good flows uniquely from the individual. Conversely, it believes that bad comes from institutions, from the abstractions we build between people. Anarchism is a belief in the power of empathy instead of laws. Instead of leading our lives according to principles that are passed down to us, anarchism says we should live our lives based on our personal reflections and decisions. We should be deliberate, we should not be obedient.
The RNC Welcoming Committee (the name is ironic) is a "anarchist/anti-authoritarian" organization. Ha ha you say, isn’t an anarchist organization an oxymoron? If you meet an anarchist this is the most tedious joke you could possibly make. Anarchism is, of course, a somewhat chaotic philosophy. And any anarchist should be a human first, and an anarchist second — anything else would be contrary to the very principles of anarchism! More practically, they form groups based on shared understandings and motivations, and there is nothing at all inconsistent about individuals working together — indeed it is interpersonal cooperation that is at the heart of anarchist traditions.
Do anarchists want to tear down all institutions? I guess some flavors of anarchist rhetoric make this claim. Looking in from the outside, it feels like some kind of phase adolescent male anarchists go through. There is an underlying lack of respect for institutions and authority, and this is genuine. But though they see nothing wrong with disrupting institutions, violence against people is not considered acceptable. Some would like to categorize property damage as violence, but I find this rather disrespectful of genuine violence. Things don’t feel pain or fear.
Discussions of anarchism tend to degrade very quickly because people are overly obsessed with self-consistency. For instance: how could an entire society run without laws, governments, police, taxes? There are answers and speculations, but we would all do better to make the world we want now and here. This is what actual anarchists do — running whole societies might be fun to theorize about, but building a community is actually attainable, and among progressive groups anarchists are probably the most enthusiastic community builders.
Lastly: why the term "anarchism"? It’s a scary term, though it’s derivation is simply from the term "without rulers". It’s been a term used to scare people for so long that it’s hard to separate the idea from the myth. People at time suggest alternative terms. But anarchism isn’t just a philosophy, it’s a tradition and culture and shared understanding, one that goes back over a hundred years. And anarchists don’t want to disassociate themselves from that tradition. And usually, what does it matter what other people think of the name? It is however awkward when the police are trying to label you as a dangerous extremist.
Reports have come out about violent protest. First, I want to talk about the facts related to this:
Actual incidents are often exaggerated or fabricated. For instance, in the case of the home raids things like paint, bottles, and rags were labeled as "the ingredients for making Molotov cocktails". I’m sure every reader of this post has sufficient ingredients to make a Molotov cocktail. Also, many people have hatchets, bricks, and other materials. Buckets of urine were particularly attention-grabbing, but the only reason for these was that one of the houses had a broken toilet. The police interpretation of the confiscated material is not credible.
There have also been reports of violence at the protests themselves. First it should be noted that there are no reports of police or by-standards being injured. I personally find it is hard to classify property damage as "violence". If you don’t include property damage then there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of violence.
Protest is confrontational. Some will suggest that protesters should obey police in all situations. They suggest that protesters should obey all laws and only protest where permitted. They suggest protesters should not be disruptive of anyone else. The result would not be protest. In cases like the RNC, where extensive planning was in place to counter protest, non-confrontational protest means protesting according to someone else’s plans, someone who has no desire for the protest to succeed in any way. Once you confront the police, there will be violence — usually by the police. And sure, you can stand with a flower in your hand and get a face full of pepper spray, and of course many people choose that course. It’s a noble choice, but I can’t fault people for making other tactical decisions.
Another protesting tactic is the "black bloq", typically a group of people who try to attract the attention of the police, often through property damage. If the police have nothing better to do, then why not pin down the peaceful protesters and direct them where they can make the least impact? People in the black bloq will try to keep this from happening. It’s unlikely they were at all successful at the RNC as it was so thoroughly militarized. You could debate whether this is a good strategy (and there is lots of debate about this), but probably few people outside activists have any idea that there even is any underlying strategy.
Also, if you wonder why protesters, especially the anarchists, dress the way they do, it is primarily defensive. If you are going to get teargassed and peppersprayed does wearing a handkerchief seem so odd? And if they are tracking people to preemptively arrest, all the more reason to be as anonymous as possible.
Monica and Eryn
I’d like to speak specifically of Monica and Eryn. Talking to Monica about the RNC protests, she was never actually that excited. The RNC isn’t what she wanted to focus on. Why focus on the thing you dislike? Why focus on a political process you don’t believe in? Why focus on the workings of institutions you wish didn’t exist? She would have preferred to work on the scale she felt was valid — to build a community of individuals. But of course events are larger than us, and by whatever coincidence the RNC was coming to the Twin Cities. This is not the sort of thing you can just ignore. And of course it wasn’t up to her whether there would be protests.
Monica and Eryn are competent and diligent, so of course they would become important to the organizing process. It seems that there were infiltrators in many of the organizations, so it’s unsurprising that the police knew who to find when they were getting ready to suppress the protests. The two of them had expected informants from early on. Monica herself worked for a year for the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker charity and peace advocacy organization) at a time when they were being spied on because of purported fears of violent protest. If you are not aware of Quakerism, it is a quite strictly passivist faith, and the pretense for the spying was exceptionally absurd. So Monica was not particularly shocked that there would be spying in the lead up to the RNC.
The RNC Welcoming Committee is itself a coordinating organization. It was inevitable that many, many groups would want to protest at the RNC. There’s no lack of people who are angry. The Welcoming Committee served as a local resource for all those people — so visitors could find a place to stay in the city, so people could coordinate with each other, so people could perform their chosen form of protest in as well-informed a manner as possible. That it is being painted as an organization with criminal intent is a complete misrepresentation; the Welcoming Committee specifically has no intention of direction action.
The preemptive arrest was surprising to everyone. It is normal in the course of civil disobedience that some people expect to be arrested. Civil disobedience is confrontational. You have to go into it knowing that there will be certain consequences. Those are the consequences of the confrontation. They are not the consequences of the possibility might choose to be confrontational. As organizers I know Monica and Eryn weren’t planning on being arrested.
But I haven’t written this essay in anger over their arrest. Protest is conflict. The lines of conflict move, and I find this move to preemptive arrest quite troubling, but I’m also optimistic that they won’t ultimately be charged with anything. I also don’t want to slip into the protest-to-protest mode, more obsessed with the form of protest than the function of this protest. This is a frustrating turn of events, and I’m sure no one is more frustrated than the two of them — one sequestered in a jail, the other in legal limbo, at the culmination of all their work over the last year. But I didn’t write this essay out of anger but because I wanted to recognize what they’ve been doing and do my best to explain it to other people, because I’m proud of them. They are exactly the model of an engaged, ethically driven citizenry.
I see lots of comments like "this country is a fascist state!" and "this is just like Nazi Germany!" But of course this country is not those things. That’s what happens when the citizenry of a country stands down, when they look away from what’s happening right in front of them, when they ignore justice and discard empathy. This country is not those things because of Monica and Eryn and the thousands of people who will be present and paying attention when the RNC lands from on high.
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