(Full Report) State of the Union from a street perspective: The "I'm Proud to Be An American" Mix
January 31, 2006 (written February 1-2, 2006)
Let's start with some political background so that you know what this action was, and perhaps what it was not.
First off, this street action I am talking about in protest of the State of the Union was not a DC Anti-War Network (DAWN) action. Let me get that straight. DAWN endorsed the World Can't Wait protest out in front of the Capitol. I facilitated the meeting where we voted with more than 80% of the vote not only to endorse the World Can't Wait action but also to help with volunteer tasks, a vote I should add that I lost in opposition. During the course of planning, DAWN did not do much to help with volunteering in part because of the insistence of that working group that DAWN and other groups be treated as equal partners in planning, in part because of the lack of good information from World Can't Wait, and in part because some in DAWN like me had serious trust issues about working with a Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP)-initiated group, knowing that the RCP has a poor reputation working with other activist groups and that a fight over working on what was supposed to be a mass action (February 4 being the mass action) was the last thing DAWN needed after the infighting over September 24. So, while some in DAWN continued to support the WCW action until the end, and others seemed to be trying to undermine DAWN's involvement (including one proposal in open meeting to revoke endorsement that was ultimately tabled and never reconsidered), most simply drifted along waiting for details.
While I tried to stay out of things, I realize that my openly announcing that I was not going to participate in the WCW action but would help get announcements out probably had a negative effect on group solidarity. I don't regret that stance - it was not as if I did not do some work on behalf of an action I didn't believe in - but at the same time, it perhaps rubbed some people the wrong way or otherwise confused people. This suggests some internal issues, but what fun is a group without some factions and disagreements over tactics, strategies, and working relationships?
Some of us who have been doing a lot of actions together decided that we as an affinity group would meet up at Judiciary Square at 7:15 PM, would head down to World Can't Wait rally in the hopes that a person who was bringing noisemakers might let us use some of them as we pursued our action, then would head over to Independence Avenue to try and make our point to Bush on his motorcade. After that, we'd play it by ear as the group on the street decided. I was under the impression that DAWN was meeting at a COSI on 14th Street to march down as a contingent, but when I invited people in DAWN to join us at Judiciary Square, it seemed that many active DAWN participants chose to go there. That has lead people to call this a DAWN contingent, which in some ways it might have been. Yet, DAWN as a group was committed to going to World Can't Wait, and the group I was with was only going incidentally and for a very short time.
This admittedly sounds arcane and a little dull, like dirty laundry is being aired out, but I hope what it does is clarify that the process of decision-making in a group like DAWN is quite serious. I cannot simply call a DAWN action. Others in DAWN cannot, either. We respect the decision-making structure and the community of voices, but we don't bind anyone to it. And, the sheer freedom of such a group creates problems, creates divisions, creates personal tension, creates arguments, and creates strife. At times, it creates a perfect mess of paralysis. It is filthy sometimes, and it isn't efficient, and we rarely if ever maximize our potential. That in fact is democracy. Democracy is not efficient, does not make everyone bedfellows, is almost distopian in its analysis of the world. There is nothing idyllic about everyone from every conceivable background, from every conceivable experience, from every conceivable skill set all having an equal part in a group's decision-making structure. It opens itself up to regular abuse, for betrayal, for heartache, and strife. This democracy that we take as so precious is so thoroughly unpolished that it's no wonder that people try to pretty it up and control its wild nature, its seemingly carniverous spirit.
And, yet, this ugliness is in a very different respect beautiful at an entirely different level. If we can see this for what it is, a world founded on a basic respect for the inherent worth of every being, a world founded on embracing tension, difference, disappointment, and heartache, then something new flowers before us. Would we rather have our every need met except our say in the matter? Would we rather have our bodily life secured? Would we rather have food on our plates? Or, would we rather believe that there is something inherently worthwhile about being free? How we answer this question annunciates one way in which we are divided. And, yet, in many ways, it's a false dichotomy; in fact, it's a totally false choice, and somewhere along the way, however you answer the question, one realizes one cannot have one without the other. But, no matter what, you get strife, you have pain, you have struggle, you have dialogue between those who are different and want different things. In a free and secure world, the appreciation of struggle, of the ugliness of our particular interactions is the key to this higher beauty.
So, I highlight this difference within DAWN to suggest that disagreement and confusion over the action is the background of a free people's action however one decides to label it. I do not consider this a DAWN action; others might. Whatever it was, it was a free action.
And, more than being a free action, it was an action in resistance against those who do not value freedom except as a word to be thrown around, a justification for anything and everything, e.g. George W. Bush's claim that we are spreading freedom to the Iraqi people, as though it were some disease that we can simply pass on. (Oh, Agathon, if only we could become wise by touching the clothes of the wise.)
At about 7:30 PM, 15 of us left from Judiciary Square. One of our group asked people one-by-one if she or he felt comfortable taking to the street, and people made an honest attempt to suggest to people that if they did not feel comfortable to speak up, and lacking that, that it was perfectly acceptable to walk along the sidewalk. We took to the street on a non-permitted march from the Courthouse side of Judiciary Square toward the Capitol Reflecting pool not that many blocks away. Our numbers were not large enough to block traffic, exactly, and that did not seem to be our purpose. Our purpose in taking the streets is one of expression and empowerment. Society generally deems the roads for cars and the sidewalks for pedestrians. Although - thanks to those who have come before us - a niche for street use has been carved by those engaging in political protest, I think that attitude still generally holds for most people. Going in the street challenges that ethos and all that it represents, namely the belief that political speech should be kept tucked away in convenient niches. Yet, political speech is always inconvenient by its very nature, and a free society values that inconvenience, that inefficiency as its lifeblood. We may not like what is said, but there it is. Unfortunately, I don't think too many even on the left take that far enough to its logical extreme. When we hear something ugly, something we don't like, we want to shut it away and drown it out. And, yet we must be careful about how and when we drown out something with our noise. What is the reason for resistance? What is the reason for going to the absurd extreme of being so loud that speech can no longer be heard? Where is that point? If you ask me, I believe that point is when speech has become farcical, when the megaphone, of say the Presidency, becomes so loud that no one else matters, when dialogue ceases to exist. That point has also been reached on our very streets that are being ruled by automobiles, by a society "addicted to oil." And, yet, sometimes we step over that line; we use the megaphone against groups who support the power structures we work against and yet have no megaphone of their own. They are just people expressing themselves (for example, our friends with Free Republic, who fail to realize that their leaders don't give a shit about them and therefore should not be identified with the power structures and should generally be left to say the stupid things they say - the same could be said about the Progressive Democrats of America, whose leaders also don't give a shit; these people just happen to say better things).
It did not take long for us to run into trouble. Near 3rd and Constitution NW, Capitol police with batons quickly came after us. Within a few seconds, they yelled to get off the road. Before anyone could react, they began grabbing some of the protesters, throwing them to the sidewalks. I saw one activist near me grabbed and thrown (by "thrown" I mean physically taken, grabbed, and then pushed hard to the sidewalk). This officer, who had not been engaged in any way by the activist, said as he was doing this, "Get on the sidewalk, you fucking asshole!" I went immediately to make sure the activist was not hurt, and she reported that she was okay. Others carrying a banner that said to Bush, "Your Wars Shame Us" had a similar experience. We had been separated onto both sides of the sidewalk. This encounter lasted all of about 20 seconds, but it was violent.
We had been deterred from going back in the streets by the police, but we remained undeterred to our mission. It was yet another instance of the same old tiresome thing. In fact, talking to people at work today, I couldn't help but notice that they assumed that people who spoke out faced risk from the police. People who do not make a life of protesting still have a cynical view about the tolerance of protest in society. Perhaps, that's especially true here in Washington, DC, where we see this firsthand all the time. We do not need to protest to witness protest; we witness so much that you outside of the city never see on your televisions and in your newspapers. We see both the ways that protest is empowered and disempowered. We know that there are things the authorities will generally allow and things that they won't. In fact, in many ways, I suspect that a lot of people believe that protest is even more repressed than it is while others believe we have some dreamworld where we are all simply as free as can be to express our displeasure with the government. In fact, the truth is far more complicated. We are both more free in some respects than people imagine and less free in some respects than people imagine. Yet, in almost every case, the degree to which we are free depends upon our abilities to organize and form affinity groups that can work together. A poor person of color, or a homeless person on the streets who has not organized stands to be abused far worse than most of us have ever experienced. I have seen police beat people of color on the streets of DC in broad daylight; I've witnessed police harrassment of the homeless; I've sat in the courts as one poor person after another faces a petty drug charge that so disproportionately gets levied on people of color. What we as activists face on the streets is nothing, really, and that's in large part because we organize and share our experiences and have processes that protect each other. It also doesn't hurt people like me that I'm white, and that's a sad reality. It's sad also from the standpoint of justice because I know that whatever evils I suffer are frankly nothing compared to what others go through. And, that quantitative difference produces divisions, and tensions, and strife, but these differences are not the differences of democracy but the differences imposed on us to keep us who believe in justice from solidarity. These class and racial and gender divisions are not only ugly because of the ways they complicate our relationships with each other, the way they manifest themselves in our society only produce a deeper ugliness - the ugliness of war and stratified power.
From that confrontation, 20 seconds in the street to minutes on paper to perhaps forever in my memory, we moved toward the World Can't Wait protest at the Capitol Reflecting Pool. There, a small crowd had gathered for this action to symbolically drown out the lies of the Bush Administration in what World Can't Wait says is the start of a new social movement to drive out the Bush regime. I am tempted to skip over my criticisms of this event in part out of fatigue and in part out of the excitement of remembering my other experiences. Yet, since this report in some ways is also a defense and articulation of a healthy kind of factionalism in a truly democratic society, I should not shy away from being controversial for fear of creating divisions in the movement. World Can't Wait has on paper a revolutionary agenda; their aim is to drive out the Bush regime. Their founding parent organization, the Revolutionary Communist Party, takes something of a Maoist revolutionary stance toward society, one calling for armed conflict to overthrow capitalist society. As a pacifist, I find such talk not all that revolutionary and simply an exchange of power from one self-selecting group of rulers to another self-selecting group of rulers. I don't particularly think such language is compatible with anarchism, either, though I know that view may not be popular in many circles. Yet, not quibbling over the language, I take it at face value the group believes in revolution rather than reform. Then, what is it doing using the government's permit system to fight this revolution? Is it, to borrow from my interpretation of the RCP website, an attempt to co-opt the middle class liberal masses in order to use them for the final stage of revolution? If so, then, the group is being disingenuous about its aims. If not, then the group is being self-contradictory in working for revolution by legitimizing a process used by the government to maintain and control the status quo. At the Reflecting Pool, we were herded into a space, accessible only from a couple points, at all times within feet of Capitol Police. While such a confinement of space may be of use to protesters who simply wanted a safe space with which to express themselves, who feel more power with larger numbers of people, or who enjoy listening to speeches - all I might add are legitimate forms of empowerment and expression - it is hard to imagine how a revolutionary group can deal with the inherent contradiction of giving greater legitimacy to a process used to suppress dissent and freedom of expression. If the RCP were basically non-sectarian and believed that revolution is a process catering to a diverse set of groups and tactics, that might be one thing, but when a group is explicitly sectarian in its aims, with a very specific goal in mind, it is farcical to imagine that the group is serious about its central claim, namely that the "world can't wait to drive out the Bush regime." That is precisely why I suggested that "World Can't Wait" was waiting in my preview to this essay; it was in some ways a charitable interpretation of what strikes me as incoherent. Nevertheless, being the only space for a group of people who find enpowerment in larger groups, in that type of action, I congratulate those who joined the action rather than doing nothing on a Tuesday night in January. One hopes that people found the event empowering. Even so, I hope people strongly consider the larger context of the action and consider ways we can do similar actions better without all the pseudo-revolutionary overtones.
After a few minutes and failing to find the person with the noisemakers, we headed out the other side of the pool toward Independence Avenue. I think our affinity group defied some, though not all, of the stereotypes. We were not a male-dominant group; we were not a young group. We had and have had a very good diversity of ages, from high school-aged to senior citizens to many in between. What's more, our group had good gender balance. This was not a group dominated by street egocentric machismo but took time to stop and make decisions. I think we can improve the process of street decisions and strongly encourage dissenting voices to be more vocal, but the fact that we are considering this problem at all suggests to me a group on the right track that isn't intentionally going to drag people into situations they are not prepared for. That doesn't mean that everyone agrees with everything everyone chooses to chant or that even in a small affinity group that there aren't real differences, but it means that there is trust and respect and an appreciation for the commitment to the group. Frankly, if we had more numbers, I wonder what we would have done about it. Factions necessarily split off at some point as people become too small a fraction of the decision-making process. What I would love to see are for factions to form that would split off but would remain in a spirit of solidarity with each other, sometimes joining, sometimes splitting away. Particular groups should stay small, but why not see group growth as cluster growth, as developing more autonomous and small groups? De-centralized groups are much more free and much better able to resist overt repression than centralized groups. The big challenge of such groups is maintaining the networking webs necessary for coming together. Such a challenge is not impossible, but it begins first by recognizing the pitfalls of too much internal growth in the smallest unit. What would we have done in this action with 30 people and no real plan for how to move forward? How would we have made decisions? Who would have made the decisions? I strongly challenge the idea that the best actions are the actions with the most people; I think the pitfalls in that thinking ignore the reason for demonstrating in the first place. We demonstrate first and foremost as an expression of who we are, as a free act. Whatever we are protesting, whether it be war, economic injustice, or the environment, we must value freedom first in order to make those connections. Yet, if we abdicate that freedom, abdicate the responsibility of freedom, abdicate the presence of our voice, who are we? We can build a high number action on the basis of free people, but we do not do so easily. When we cannot, one wonders the degree to which such actions are worthwhile. Those who have hundreds of thousands in the streets and claim to speak for a movement, or worse, the entire people of a country or world, are just as abusive to me as the Lord Bush who spoke from Capitol Hill on Tuesday night.
We walked along Independence Avenue, noticing buses blocking the route and Capitol Police re-directing traffic. While past experience had taught me that the President travels to and from the State of the Union via that street, some in our group began having doubts. Being on bicycle, I offered to bike over to Constitution Avenue to see if it looked like the motorcade might travel that route. A moment or two after that decision, a couple of the activists with us stepped onto the road with their banner in response to a fair number of vehicles going by. I believe they thought that perhaps the President was about to make his way, and they simply wanted to make sure that he saw their banner.
Immediately, a number of Capitol Police drove them back on the sidewalk. Fair enough, if you believe in some kind of minimal security...a fight I am not prepared to get into in this essay. What then happened, though, was stunning. A huge number of Capitol Police approached us and surrounded the sidewalk where we stood facing off with all of us.
All-in-all, we counted about 200 Capitol police officers either in vehicles or standing on the road or on horses. We moved to the corner of Third and Independence NW, and they followed right along with us. One asked me abruptly whether I planned to stay on the sidewalk, a question I frankly hadn't given much thought to. I thought for a second, he cut off my thinking by ordering, "Stay on the curb!" I shrugged my shoulders and stayed on the curb. We kept beating the pots and pans we had brought with us, pans that can pierce the ears of people standing right next to the sound and which carry for blocks. Others began chanting. Some of us in a spirit of revelry started singing a round of "Tony the Rat!" in honor of DC Mayor Anthony Williams. These were not DC Police; there was no context for the song. Yet, absurdity was the point; we 11 were in the face of overwhelming force. Apparently, we were this evening's terrorist threat. 200 police watched our every move. Soon, we even attracted a few press cameras, and of course, some of the officers began filming us.
So, there we were, outnumbered 20 to 1 by the police, somewhat bemused that we seemed to be considered a bigger threat to Bush than the couple hundred people at the World Can't Wait event. Of course, at this point, we were pretty damn sure that Bush was coming down Independence Avenue. I suppose that some might argue that this was appropriate security; what didn't seem appropriate by any standard were efforts by the police to stand as close as possible to any protest signs so that we would not be visible to the motorcade that passed by. As the banner moved so did the police; this was true then, it was even more true later when the DC Metro Police watched us.
Soon, we also receieved word that Cindy Sheehan was inside the Capitol, and this raised our morale. Later, Cindy reports that she ended up at the Capitol almost by accident as a guest of Lynn Woolsey and did not intentionally break the dress code or disrupt the meeting. That, of course, is upsetting in itself for many of the similar kinds of things I have been reporting in this and other reports, though on the other hand, of course, many of us were hoping that Cindy in fact did have hopes of disrupting the so-called speech of the biggest megaphone the world has to offer, the President of the United States of America, the man whose speech trumps everyone else's, who matters more than all of us combined. All the same, outside in the cold wind, I felt kindred toward Cindy and felt knowing that she was in the Capitol breaking script and that we were out on the streets breaking script, that we had a friend in solidarity with us. Many in the movement complain about Cindy, about those around her, about her celebrity status, and I think many of those complaints have some merit; yet, it was her small-numbered action taken on the initiative of her and her friends in Goldstar Families that spoke loudly to many Americans. Ironically, the larger her action became, the less it spoke, especially as other groups of activists were excluded, as others tried to take advantage of the situation, as it became merely a media action. Yet, despite all of that, she still speaks out just as we were speaking out facing off with the front lines of imperial hegemony.
And, I don't know if the police were our enemies or simply victims - I think both are melodramatic and overly stereotypical - the choices we all make are choices we must live with. At some point, we all need to face up to the gravity of our moral choices or become part of the problem, but I can't tell you where that point is. From my point of view, I have trouble appreciating or having much sympathy for people who do not step outside the box and question whether what they are doing is right, and police rarely admit that they struggle with such questions in the confrontations on the street. I hope that they do, just as I do, just as I wonder every day who I am and where I am going and whether my choices might have been better. To me, what is plainly absurd, not just the police but the intentionally absurd way we respond to the police, seems oblivious to the police. "Stay on the sidewalk." "Stay inside the lines." "Listen to me when I'm talking to you." All of that caging feels and looks ridiculous. We are all just people, right? Yet, what happens to make one set of people so mechanical and so rigid and another so baffled by it all? Some get upset; some get amused; some get indignant; some get sincere. Some of us want to convert the police; some want them to all suffer horribly for the way they treat and look at us; some simply want to laugh. Yet, it's all a perfectly logical reaction to an absurdity. In logic, when the antecedent is false, anything validly follows. Where we found ourselves on Independence Avenue waiting for Bush, the antecedent is so obviously false, but from one protester to another, the reactions can be so different. The only thing I can think of that's appropriate is to recognize the situation as absurd and to point it out so that we all resist so that these situations aren't so obviously false and that we have a real place for sincerity and purpose again. After all, where people are really suffering, really dying, really hurting from this fucking crap, it's not a laughing matter, and the longer we stand around facing 200 police officers not only protecting a madman and a criminal in Bush but also preventing any negative speech from reaching him, the longer we all collectively end up fools, caged in our stupidity, and a terror to each other and the rest of the world.
Just before 9PM, Bush's motorcade whizzed by us at about 45 mph. We were very loud, and though he moved by quickly, it's impossible for me to imagine that the sound and vision of the protest did not penetrate him. I doubt he saw the banner, though those who held it stood on a sidewalk barricade, but the message of dissent was there for him. We hope he got it.
At that point, we didn't know what to do or where to go. We held a meeting, and at least one person decided to go elsewhere, which was fine for us and for him. We changed our minds more than once, but ultimately we thought it might be interesting to quiet down and see what might happen if we headed around the security perimeter toward the House of Representatives. I doubt any of us had any illusions that we could actually get very close, but what else did we have to do? As much as anything, we were curious what would happen to us just for walking around, having been labeled as protesters and therefore troublemakers (which was fine by us).
After a bathroom break, we took a circuitous route, ultimately going to First Street and Independence Avenue SE. Several blocks before reaching that point, one Capitol Police officer approached us, one I think I had seen earlier. He asked the group whether he could speak to us for a moment. About 5 or 6 people said in unison without even thinking, "No." Speak to us? How grand speaking truly is; too bad to "speak" with someone comes always with suspicion as to why, or with a clear knowledge of power dynamics. Who does not get nervous when pulled over by a police officer? Is not the fear of authority one of the principle deterrents used by our criminal justice system? Yet, what kind of good speaking is speaking that begins from a relationship of fear. To speak "NO," to speak against, sometimes is the only constructive speech. That is, protest, being against, being anti-, it's not so bad and necessarily lacking in constructive impulse. What was there to say there? The officer continued, "Are you all done for the evening?" We also decided not to answer that question; it's not clear exactly what we had done. So, we kept walking, and he stopped pursuing. We had a couple other adventures likes this, including a humorous "Abbott and Costello"-like exchange with Capitol Police at First and Independence. They would not let us walk on the sidewalk on Independence closer to the Capitol along the side of Independence by the House office buildings. The officer said, "You can't go that way." "Why not? That person over there is walking on the sidewalk." "He's going away." "Well, we're going away from here, too." "No, you can't go this way." "What way?" "Down this street." "You need to go that way." "But, that way is not the way we need to go?" "But, you can't go that way." While there felt like something of a disingenuousness about the conversation, I think all the smart aleck questions and responses pointed toward challenging the rationale. If it were security, then why was that person passing through? If it were security, why not say so and explain? If it's not security, say why. Just don't tell us what's clearly obvious, that you aren't letting us pass through by way of the sidewalk. Again, absurdity...again, absurd responses, and undoubtedly different people react to these things differently. Most probably shrug it off and keep moving, but what's illegitimate about any other approach?
We walked along First Street on the sidewalk instead. Soon, 10 Capitol Police motorcycles followed our every move. We didn't bang pots and pans, but I guess we were the troublemakers, those without the permit, those who dared to do things a little off the script. So, they escorted us all the way around the gigantic block we took, to Constitution, back to Third Street, and across to Independence. At times, we'd stop, or reverse direction, or run to see what would happen. Always, they would make it clear that we were their reason for following. On Third Street, at places, we had motorcycles on the sidewalk in front of us and behind us.
Ultimately, we ended up back on Independence Avenue, this time on the Mall side of the road, near the God awful Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, which is for too many reasons to go into another slap in the face to America's indigenous population. On this side, between Third and Fourth, the DC Metropolitan Police took over. They acted much like the Capitol Police, though numbers ranged in the dozens rather than the hundreds. There were spaces between police officers, though officers continued to move along to try and block view of the banner. We knew that Bush's speech was over, and soon some of the crowd that had been at World Can't Wait began filtering in our direction. The Rhythm Workers Union, a locally-based activist percussion ensemble, came with more noise, though more beautiful than our obnoxious pots and pans. Also, the man with all the noisemakers came by, and we finally got our extra noisemakers. Ultimately, about 40-50 people found themselves trapped at the 4th Street intersection where the sidewalk on the other side of the street was closed. Police at this point were not letting people cross the street, so even if people did not want to wait for Bush, they had little choice unless they wanted to walk back against the direction they needed to go. Soon, Bush's ensemble came by, this time going a tad slower, inundated with more noise than before.
During several moments during this time along the aptly named Independence Avenue, we noticed the hordes of police, the line between us who spoke against and those who enforced what one man is for, and we sang, "I'm Proud to Be An American" (where at least I know I'm free).
From there, my evening ended with a long bike ride home. I came home too exhausted to write but energized by my evening.
These are less report backs than they are interpretive essays of experience. Yet, words do not give us anything but fuel for more discussion. We hope that some words are more provocative than others. Some produce controversy, some speak to harmony, but very few of them are clear cut and reducible. Good and evil, true and false, just and unjust, are all real concepts, are all meaningful concepts, but they are not easily reducible concepts. We all tend to become melodramatic about the things we care about, but reality is much more wild. We humans want to control, to capture, to clarify, to tighten, to make efficient, to produce bigger and more effective means of containing our world. And, yet, many of those concepts are antithetical to the dirty and wild world of democracy. In our quest to make sense of the wild, we cannot help but take sides, and we shouldn't try to be otherwise. There are truly sides to be taken just as 1 and 2 are different numbers. Nevertheless, these sides all breathe and live in an infinitely complex world, and that world is beautiful and is most beautiful when it allows the dirt to raise a cloud. We fight wars to control, to restrain, to tighten; we resist war and power to open up new spaces to practice our messy art of talking.
In simple and small street actions, complex realities reveal themselves to us. From the street during the 2006 State of the Union, these perceptions played in my mind just as they played in the streets, just as they play in our discussions and our fights about what really happened and what we really should be doing.
In the beautiful mess of that discussion and in the face of a world where discussion has lost its meaning, I can only think of one word that rings true: resist. But, what that means, and where we should go with it, oh love, that's the naked beauty of tomorrow.