Jan Slakov

Date: Thu, 27 Apr 2000 16:29:50 +0530
From: TASC <•••@••.•••> [Toronto Action for Social Change, great group!]

FREE RADICAL: weekly chronicle of the new unrest
by L.A. Kauffman
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WHOSE MOVEMENT? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Issue #6

A couple days ago, I was talking to an editor at a certain
look-down-its-nose-at-activism newspaper of record, when
I referred in passing to "the movement."

"Which movement?" she asked impatiently. "The sweatshop
movement? The environmental movement?"

I paused, realizing with surprise what I had just said.
"No," I answered. "For the first time since the late 1960s,
I think it's becoming possible to talk about 'the' movement,
something greater than the sum of its parts."

She wasn't convinced. (No surprise there.)

But, I wondered, was I?

Everyone who cares about such things is pondering
the state of activism, in the wake of the plucky D.C.
protests against the World Bank and International
Monetary Fund. Are we witnessing the birth of something
truly historic, or is it only a blip? Are disparate fights
amassing into one mega-movement, and do we want
them to be?

It's worth taking a closer look at what this current
upsurge of activism is, and is not, in order to clarify
what it might become.

Direct action is the driving force behind the new unrest.
Direct action can entail civil disobedience -- the deliberate
breaking of an unjust law -- but it's a far broader category.
It encompasses everything from blockades and banner
hangs to strikes, boycotts, and pickets: the whole
panoply of pressure tactics that are not mediated
by the political or legal system.

Engaging in direct action doesn't necessarily mean
breaking the law or getting arrested. It can involve,
for example, jamming the telephone lines of one's
opponents, as supporters of the jailed protesters in
D.C. did for days after their arrest. When direct
actionists do break laws, they're often benign ones
like traffic rules, rather than laws that are intrinsically
immoral or unjust.

The key is action: not dull rallies where one speaker
after another drones on, or meetings that just lead
to more meetings, or studies that never end. The
most dynamic movements today -- from the most
daring segments of U.S. labor to grassroots campaigns
against police brutality -- spend very little time debating
doctrine. They generally lack manifestos, programs,
or platforms, relying instead on shared values as the
basis for action.

"A lot of us feel that the issues that we're faced with
are so urgent that it's not about arguing over this and
that ideal, but it really is just getting to work," explains
Lilianne Fan, an activist with the New York-based
Students for Solidarity and Empowerment, one of
countless new groups formed after the Seattle WTO

Some activists feel that there's too little political
discussion happening in political circles today; it's a
concern I've heard repeatedly voiced about the
New York City Direct Action Network, for example.

But the emphasis on action over ideology has helped
facilitate a range of novel political collaborations in
recent time, perhaps the most distinctive feature
of the new unrest.

I'm not talking so much about the vaunted "teamsters
and turtles" alliance on view at the Seattle WTO actions,
but about the earlier pairings that laid the groundwork
for such an alliance.

Since at least the mid-1990s, an array of activist
agendas and styles have been converging in potent
campaigns. The movement against sweatshops,
for example, has brought together not only students
and labor, but also Central American solidarity
activists and women's rights advocates.

"There's an understanding that these issues are
tied up together," notes Laura McSpedon, a student
anti-sweatshop organizer at Georgetown University,
"that to separate culture and identity and race and
gender from class and the concerns of working people
is artificial, and divides us in unproductive ways."

The character of U.S. environmentalism, meanwhile,
has changed dramatically in recent years. In many
parts of the country, the leading edge of current
on-the-ground organizing is environmental justice
activism, which links the fight against economic
and racial inequality to concerns about pollution,
toxic wastes, and dumping.

Earth First! now combines social issues and radical
ecology as a matter of course. This radical
environmental network was infamous in the 1980s
for the misanthropic sputterings of its self-styled
spokesmen (and I do mean men), who heralded
AIDS as a useful form of population control,
among other too-deep-ecology nonsense.

But at the instigation of the late Judi Bari and d
ozens of less prominent activists, EF!ers in the
1990s began to build unlikely alliances at the
grass roots: between tree huggers and timber workers,
white hippies and Native American elders, forest
blockaders and urban community-based groups.

Still, however powerful these blends are, the strength
of contemporary activism lies in the autonomy of
the agitators. There neither is nor will be a single
organization -- be it a political party or a movement
group like the 1960s Students for a Democratic
Society -- that can remotely claim to represent
the many strains of action.

Forget stifling calls for "unity": Activism now is neither
singular nor unitary. It is the combined product of many
small and independent groups, rooted in many different
communities. It's not a single coalition but a spectrum
of self-determined movements -- who are finding each
other, and figuring out how to collaborate.

That's what made me hesitate after I invoked "the
movement" to that editor the other day. When
activism is as decentralized as it is now, does it
make any sense to talk of "the movement"? The
term is so easily and often employed to exclude --
as when people use it to refer to globalization
activism alone.

But there's an electric appeal to the phrase
"the movement" when it expresses an aspiration,
still a good way out of our reach. Not an aspiration
to unite and homogenize, but to combine and
augment. I don't know if I'll keep saying it, but I
sure like the dream.    [4/27/00]

Earth First! Direct Action Manual
ACT UP & War Resisters League Direct Action Manual
Direct Action Network (www.directactionnetwork.org)
What is Environmental Justice?
Judi Bari Memorial Website (www.judibari.org)
Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment (www.asje.org)

L.A. Kauffman (•••@••.•••) is a longtime radical writer and
activist. Currently, she is working on a history of American radicalism
since 1970, and organizing with the NYC Direct Action Network, the community
garden movement, and the Lower East Side Collective. Her work has appeared
in the Village Voice, The Nation, The Progressive, Spin, Mother Jones,
Salon.com, and numerous other publications.
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All contents Copyright © 2000 by L.A. Kauffman

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