One reason I've started this blog is to put some of the stuff that I've written over the years back into public circulation. This is an article that I wrote for a small, free, leftist publication, the Arise! Journal. The Journal was associated with an all volunteer bookstore that I was involved with for a number of years, which recently closed. (The bookstore recently closed, not the journal, which has been defunct for years, now.) This piece gives a good sense of my thoughts on critique and activism at the time of its publication, although I will leave it up to you to determine its present relevance. It was written in response to the coverage of the anti-globalization protests, focusing on independent media. I had evidently discovered Weiss' play Marat/Sade around this time, but decided to falsely attribute the quote to the old revolutionary, rather than the playwright. I've corrected that. Here goes....
Protest Narrative/Protest Praxis
Jean Paul Marat: The important thing is to pull yourself up by your own hair. To turn yourself inside out and see the world with fresh eyes.
--Peter Weiss (Marat/Sade)
There is an interesting phenomenon that is worth discussing within the realm of what I will call the 'post-Seattle era of activism which seems to be upon us, that is the phenomenon of independent media. Its imagination has been captured by a series of non-contiguous mass based protest internationally acting as a counterpoint to a totalitarian narrative of globalization. I'm not interested in discussing the merits of those events in and of themselves (whether they are the proper tactics, the issues of various tactical uses of non-violence, etc.). Rather I want to discuss the literature produced in the aftermath of these events in an attempt to legitimize and explain the events that occurred within the protests.
Within the mood and logic of the movement at this time, a mood in which valorizes and emphasizes action and spontaneity above all things, it may seem strange to put so much emphasis on an activity that is at best deemed marginal within the dominant themes of activism today. The best example of this exists in the fact that we no longer “have protests”, but rather “engage in actions”. But I believe that the production and distribution of a body of “protest narratives” is as important an element to the movement as the protests themselves.
The vast majority of us weren't at Seattle. And if we were at Seattle then we missed D.C. or L.A. or Prague, but this didn't change the fact that these events were monumental in our lives as activists. We confronted them through a myriad of narratives that were reproduced on the Internet, on various fanzines, magazines, and even the occasional radio or television show. The perceptions that we take from these narratives had and continue to have a deep impact on activism.
The dominant large media’s narrative on these actions is well known. It goes something like this: There is a protest, it starts off peacefully. At this point in the presentation of the narrative there will be a number of shots of happy people walking on the street, puppets, etc. But as things go along according to the story, people get tired, tempers flare, AND VIOLENCE ERUPTS. This violence is generally attributed to a few violent troublemakers amongst largely peaceful protesters. The police then have to respond to this and the conflict ensues. Eventually the police are able to get things under control and the media discusses with the police on how things went, and occasionally there is a rebuttal by an activist.
It’s remarkable that the diversity of protests manages to follow such an established pattern: Mayday is ISAG is Seattle is a police brutality rally. And marches and rallies that don’t get into conflicts with the police, well they don’t occur by and large within the narrative of the dominant media. This amnesia is true of truly explosive events as well. For instance, is the coverage of the remarkable events in Argentina?
Within this narrative there are implicit messages that tie in with a liberal hegemony. The police enable two things within the narrative: The first thing that they do is to assure the liberal right of freedom of speech, but more significantly they control the demiurgic powers that try to push liberal rights into the power of the mob. This narrative is written to assuage the fears of a white middle class audience that is both bathed in the logic of a rights based discourse and trained to fear the ‘other’ in its gendered, racialized, classed, and cultured forms.
So, we have a narrative in which the massive diverse energies and experiences of protests are shoved into a monolithic form to maintain the status quo in the moment of crisis. But these aren’t the only narratives constructed on this terrain. There are also the narratives of the email list serves, independent media, etc. It may have become a cliché to point out that the Independent Media Center rose during the protests of Seattle, but it is nonetheless still worth mentioning. So it’s worth asking, do these forms of minor media truly cover the protests in all their diversity and complexity? Looking at the evidence, I would have to say no: While there is a response to the dominant media within the minor media, this other narrative, by in large acts as reflection of it and only offer a very shallow alternative to it.
What is this other narrative? We begin with the same image as the dominant media, the happy protester, et al. However there is a shift at this point, a shift in the blame for the conflict: Instead of being presented with a vision of the violent protester, we see the violent police officer. These officers are the ones guilty of the violence. The few violent actors within the protesters are still there, but they have been recast as agent provocateurs. In short the same middle class audience is being addressed, and the same attempt at domestication occurs.
I am not suggesting that this mode of discourse should be abandoned completely. There are certainly moments when working on the terrain of liberalism is valuable if not essential, but these moments are not when we are producing our own media for ourselves. These opportunities occur in letters to the editor, call in talk shows on NPR, etc. and other moments of confrontation that are allowed or forced to occur within the dominant media.
But what we discuss with ourselves should be different matter completely. Are we trying to be good liberal subjects, working within its logic? No. No matter our views on revolution or reform, it would seem that we are trying to do something much different than that. Our protests, our spaces, our communities should act as sorts of laboratories for the production of new kinds of being: The narratives that we produce should reflect back upon our experiments, their successes, their failures, and indecisions.
I’ll try to unpack what I mean by that. It means, for example, that we need to stop acting surprised that the police attack us. This surprise may be a mask we put on for the liberal media, but we should stop lying to each other. Instead a confrontation with the police can be thought about and presented in different ways: What were some successful responses? Where were our weaknesses? Were there ways that we could have avoided a confrontation with the police, or at very least had that confrontation with the police on grounds that were more advantageous to us? In short, the series of questions that we ask ourselves in our own media needs to moves us from a liberal ideology into the process of a constitutive praxis.
There may be discussions of the dominant media, but only on the terrain of tactics. For instance, what were interesting ways that the dominant media was positively utilized? In what ways, can there be improvements in utilizing this flawed resource, etc.? In other words, the act of not operating within the ideological norms of the dominant media doesn’t mean that we act like ostriches and pretend it doesn’t exist. Instead we should see it as another element operating within a very complex field of power.
We also need to break away from the murky forms of mystification that occur within the dominant media. These events didn’t just occur. A complex series of interactions, including planning, advertising, etc. must occur in order for the possibility of the events of the day to even occur. These moments need to be explored as well if we are to create a tool that will aid in the constitutive process I discussed above. In many ways, this area of exploration is considerably more difficult than the day itself. Alliances are fragile and tempers run high. There is a considerable amount of paranoia on the part of many participants, both justified and not. But if we want to use independent media to open upon new possibilities then we need to start discussing the processes that will get us there in their failures and successes.
There are examples of this type of reporting already. For instance, in the April issue of Z Magazine there is a very good article on the Pacifica crisis (Pacifica Radio Crisis Is Settled, By Andrea Buffa). The article moves beyond the easy territory of claiming victory for the progressive forces of Pacifica. It instead looks at the successes and problems that occurred within the process. It gives a very good history of the conflict and asks very difficult questions. For instance, it constantly examines the dimensions of race within the process. Why is it that the democratic processes of KPFA are so incapable of getting activists of color involved? Why is it that well-known activists of color were so often on the other side of the debate? In other words, it examines a contradiction that exists within many activist circles and points out the way that it operated in the Pacifica situation, while trying to think of ways of dealing with the contradiction.
I recognize that what I am calling for is not easy. If it were easy, independent media wouldn’t fall back on recognizable narratives. In effect, I am trying to advocate an attempt to represent what is unrepresentable within traditional representational forms. I am advocating a course that will take alternative journalism from the safe course of abstract advocacy into the dangerous waters of playing a part in the process as a reflection on it. The traditional approaches to covering protests are not particularly contentious. They don’t challenge us or demand anything of us, and we need a media that does those things. New possibilities for action, alliances, and forms of being already exist. We need to excavate them from the morass of the dominant media and the logic of this society.
(The International Society of Animal Genetics held its conference within the Twin Cities in the late-summer/early autumn of 2000. Direct action street protests were organized in response. The expected national turnout didn’t pan out, and there were very few demonstrators, perhaps 150. The disaster around this protest lead to the freezing of the militant spirit that had came out of the Mayday demonstration. The earlier Mayday protest had been a highly successful and militant street demo, that had brought together anarchists, HERE Local 17 workers and activists, along with a large section of other Minneapolis activists.)