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Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.

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    Thursday, June 08, 2006

    In response to several frequent criticisms of home demonstrations

    The DC Anti-War Network (DAWN) has engaged in dozens of home demonstrations this year at the homes of many policy makers responsible for various war and economic crimes, connecting the dots between issues of war and militarism and other issues related to economic imperialism and gentrification. While some have agreed with the aims of the protests, they have criticized the tactic. This is my beginning of a response. ***

    In response to several frequent criticisms of home demonstrations:

    1. They do not appeal to the media.

    Reply: Actions whose primary focus is the media are already actions that lack substance. This is true for several reasons. Activists are in the business of being for or against something and use their energy in order to make some kind of change or to block some kind of change. Their primary focus, then, must be on actions related to what makes them activists. The more intricate that someone’s worldview is, the less likely that media can be seen as the primary vehicle for action. Since media, specifically mass media, is reductionist in its presentation, reducing worldviews in time and space (whether by sound or video byte, photograph, or article), it will always distort the reasons for the action.

    Effective change, then, must occur in living, breathing situations that allow for repeated dialogue and discourse. While one criticism of the home demonstration is that it puts up walls against dialogue and discourse, we believe that it actually has greater tendency to break down those walls. This is discussed more in the next section. Mass media, on the other hand, has a tendency to trivialize dialogue. For instance, these reports to indymedia have often been written with the larger focus in mind; however, people pick out the police confrontations, which are merely the most sensational moments of any action. If the home demonstration merely depended on the reporting of the home demonstration, they would fail in all ways to be effective.

    Mass media also is outside of our ability to influence in any way that is consistent with our own ideologies. Should we have to beg to be reported, cater to a reporter’s time and schedule, and in essence shift our energies into a medium we have no control over? Using mass media is like voting, not only thoroughly ineffectual but also fraudulent in its proponents’ claims that we can craft the message. Besides the fact that we do not have any real power over that, except through the use of diluting sound bytes or clever visual images, the notion of “crafting a message” is anathema for another set of ideological reasons. We are here to deconstruct craftwork, freeing our constructive impulses to live without the façade that our crafts are what are most important. Instead, if we get in the business of “crafting messages,” we must always acknowledge that there’s something a little farcical and incomplete about what we have done.

    This does not entail that we shun mass media or do not use it. In fact, we may use it all the more, if it’s available to us. What it entails is that mass media is not a metric by which to measure the purpose or efficacy of an action. It makes mass media irrelevant to the interaction. It also exempts much of the alternative media, which we use as a communications mechanism to foster dialogue among those who might be receptive to what we are doing. Independent media, for example, is a means of communication that has been set up along more or less anti-authoritarian lines and does not really constitute “media” as we understand it today but rather in the truer sense of being a “medium” for communication.

    2. The home demonstration tactic has, rather than draw attention to the evils of the person being protested, a strong tendency to bring sympathy to that person since it reminds us that they are human and vulnerable.

    Reply: There is no doubt that this is true. Even in Washington, DC, where we are definitely more prone to receive sympathy for these sorts of actions (even next door neighbors have supported these actions), the vast majority of people witnessing these actions are irritated by them and have more tendency to lash out against the protester than the person being protested. We hear stories of children trying to sleep, pets that are frightened, and have had people come out challenging us to fights. If this is true, why go forward with them? Isn’t this as tactless as Fred Phelps protesting the funerals of returning soldiers with signs that say, “God hates you”?

    All things being equal, no one in their right mind would consider home demonstrations. In an ideal society, we talk through all our problems, discussing them and respecting each other, all with a voice, all with a sense of accountability toward each other.

    We do not live in a society where all things are equal, although many people labor under the myth that we are all free and equal, and sometimes there are qualifiers thrown in like “under the law” or “in the eyes of God.” In fact, we live in a society where if one man is responsible for the murder of another, he may get the death penalty, especially if the murderer is a person of color. Yet, if another man drops a bomb that kills hundreds or thousands of people, it is not only lawful, but also the person is decorated as a hero. We live in a society where few people control the resources that allow the rest of us to live, and they use the control of those resources in order to get us to change our behavior. In the United States, even if the so called democracy were real, much of the nation’s wealth, resources, and therefore decision-making is in the form of private property, that the state itself is forced to oblige by and protect—unless they need to build a baseball stadium or a new road.

    No one can doubt that we are not equal before each other, not simply in terms of our material conditions, but in terms of the decision-making and accountability before each other that goes with it. If you are a director of the World Bank like Luis Marti, a mayor of a city like Tony Williams, the Secretary of State like Condoleezza Rice, or World Bank President like Paul Wolfowitz, you have special powers that the rest of us don’t have. If you are Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Rainey, John Negroponte, or Jim Sensenbrenner, the rules change. And, if you are a group of mostly white activists, the rules are different for us than they are for the poor and working class, especially those who don’t have strong family or community networks. We live in a society of vast privilege, and we who undertake these actions are no less exempt from the world of privilege. The inequality is pervasive in every group to which we belong.

    Being unequal ruins the ability for dialogue; it simply fails to exist so long as power is used as the determining factor of that dialogue. It is a fraud. There is no dialogue.

    The situation is unjust. It is more than that; it is fully absurd.

    Now, what, or rather, who are the most direct causes of this absurd situation? Are they not the people who benefit and use the system of privileges most for their own advantage? I should think so.

    Now, facing that situation, we can do one of two things. We can either go at the problem indirectly by trying to rally as many people to challenge the system of privilege and do our best to make those in power irrelevant, or we can go directly to the source of the problem. We have seen the first example used in mass demonstrations, or in voting campaigns, petition campaigns, and boycotts. Unfortunately, there has not truly been a radical mass movement in this country that has succeeded in large part because like it or not, we are all wedded to the system. We are all still at the mercy of those who control the resources, and therefore we ALL make compromises with the system. The larger the campaign, the more diluted and compromised it becomes so much so that most large campaigns tend to focus on a single issue. They also tend to use means which have a greater tendency to perpetuate the same systems of injustice. Leadership structures emerge, a new classism appears, and we no longer have a movement that is capable of making anything more than cosmetic changes to the systems of oppression.

    If we go the direct route, we obviously have much longer odds but perhaps much greater rewards. Since the aim of such actions is to go after those who most benefit from the system directly in a way that does not put a premium on outreach to society at large, it makes the task that much more difficult. The advantages, however, are that compromises with the system can be kept to a minimum, and if there are such actions that are possible, they are more likely to be far more dangerous to the system.

    Yet, a house demonstration, even if it drives someone batty, is only going to make people mad, right, and actually allow for people to more easily be co-opted to act against you, right? No, not exactly. Here is the key assumption. We assume that people are naturally as disaffected with people in power as they are with those who protest against them. It is not their support we are looking for but rather a resistance against their apathy. If people are angry with us, we take that as a positive step because people who are angry are much more likely to try and figure out what makes them angry. They are that much more likely to consider the issues causing their anger, and they are then that much more likely to be acting more deliberately, even if they use those deliberate actions for repression. What must sound unbelievable is that anyone would consider this a step in the right direction, but it is. The primary problem facing people is their own lack of empowerment. If people feel empowered to take action, this is a significant cultural change. It is in many ways the most important cultural change we can effect through our actions.

    The minutemen are racist scum, but there is one thing about them that should be admired, namely that they feel empowered to take action. The problem, of course, is that they take action against oppressed peoples, and that is inexcusable, just as the reactionary tactics by those in power against those who speak against them is inexcusable and just as it is ridiculous for someone like Fred Phelps to speak so vehemently against gays and lesbians in America. Ironically, there is a place for protesting the troops, since their decisions as troops perpetrate greater oppression than any they might have suffered for refusing, but doing so in a manner that endorses relationships of oppression can never be condoned and is so dangerous that it must be protested against everywhere.

    We do not protest against the tactic; we protest against the aim of the tactic when used by people like Fred Phelps or the minutemen.

    When we see dogs barking, we generally try to stop; if we hear of children crying, we are respectful, but we do not believe that this is any kind of cost to anyone and that we should not be blamed for speaking out against those who use positions of power to perpetrate oppression and mass murder. And, to the extent that they hold us accountable for speaking out and not themselves for failing to join us in taking action against their neighbors, we believe that they are to that extent complicit and have no reason to take offense at our noise.

    This confrontational attitude will produce repression over time, as it has to the limited extent we have seen it, and will even produce some grassroots repression, which we have not seen to any extent. Yet, a community that feels empowered to act, even for the wrong reasons, even for reasons that we must resist, is a community that’s taking a significant step away from capitalism. Isn’t that why there are these misplaced and misnamed racist populists who urge people not to protest the minutemen because they are resistors just like us? They use some of our tactics; they use our sense of self-empowerment, but they do not target the causes of oppression.

    The house demonstration may in fact lead to decreased sympathy, but it will produce dynamics that are not necessarily beneficial to the maintenance of hierarchical society. In fact, where house demonstrations have been successful, communities have been empowered, AND those who are responsible for oppression have been diminished. When this sort of campaign has a strategic aim over time, the movement wins.

    What’s more, we should not need 300,000 people to be empowered against those who have power over 300,000,000; they are humans just like us and should be dealt with where they are humans just like us. But, to pretend that we can talk, that the power equation has somehow changed, is absurdity in the extreme.

    In fact, it’s this human quality that makes the home demonstration more attractive rather than less attractive. They are in their homes, and yet it is we who are caged by the oppression of society. What better reaction than to scream like the caged animals that we all are? Why should we pretend that there’s anything civil about civilized society? The world is their zoo; so why not take the zoo to their door? And, it is a zoo. We have all been put in our place, but the reality is very ugly. We have not totally lost our minds; in fact, it’s because we are fully rational that showing the absurdity can make so much sense to us. Now, here they are in their self-imposed and grand cages, complete with gates, or security cameras, or police protection, and now they cannot escape. How dare we take a man’s castle away from him? Yet, we have done no such thing. We haven’t smashed it with a bomb, come in and shot it up (warrant or no), put it next to a leaky nuclear dump. All we’ve done is give him something ugly to see, disrupt his night, make him a little more agitated. Furthermore, what’s really agitating is that if the tactic ever caught on with other like-minded activists, then there would be a real social problem. Not only would policy makers of both the private and public type get little sleep, but their communities would be abuzz with what’s going on. In fact, because people still are human, still reduced to 24 hour days just like you and me, they can be reduced back to the same state of power that we find ourselves and more easily than we might imagine.

    There is one worry, of course, and namely that we use tactics that allow ultimately for the self-autonomy of the world we want to see. We cannot ultimately take away someone’s agency to act, especially in so far as they can think and make decisions. This is one of the problems with murder and assassination as a tactic, in that there is no greater oppression than taking control of someone’s very agency, and taking the agency of even a murderer does nothing but perpetuate a material privilege. The goal of empowerment knows no bounds or class, and even John Negroponte would be more empowered if he gave up all his power, though such a thought needs more unpacking.

    3. Home demonstrations aren’t for everyone and tend to exclude people.

    Reply: This is true, and it should be pointed out that those who support home demonstrations do so under a belief in a diversity of tactics. Not everyone can take the risks entailed by home demonstrations, and no one who uses home demonstrations should be considered better or more radical simply by virtue of using the tactic. It does suggest privilege when people are able to take these risks.

    But, privilege in today’s society is a fact of the matter no matter what—a mass demonstration that calls on people to travel is for a different kind of privilege, and we could go on and on. If someone can run a mile, should that person stop running simply because someone else doesn’t have any legs? The home demonstration as a tactic should not therefore be stopped simply because it isn’t for everyone, as though all actions needed to be for everyone in order to be worthwhile.

    This does not therefore mean that those who do home demonstrations do not have a responsibility to reach out to the broader community. The tactic may be somewhat exclusive most of the time, but that does not mean the community using the tactic needs to be exclusive.

    4. The home demonstration is violent.

    Reply: The home demonstration is no more violent than breathing or eating is violent. And, if you think this is in jest, when we ingest we are in fact engaging on a kind of violence against a status quo, disrupting the air, taking in perhaps what was once alive. The issue of violence arises only when people raise certain kinds of values as being beyond reproach. So, while eating chicken does not constitute violence for many, hitting someone across the wrist is violence to many others. The only thing that separates the two acts is a value in the integrity of the human being over and above that of a chicken, even a chicken’s life. So, violence, as we use the term, is relative to a person’s values. That is why the definition floats to the extremes it does. It can go from the extreme of simple motion to the other extreme of absolute annihilation since all violence involves a change of some kind. And, that also accounts for what people call “emotional” violence.

    The point is not that violence may not have a meaningful definition but merely that the use of the word violence is value-dependent, and those values are different depending on who is using the term. Some values may be better than others, but we will not get anywhere on the question of violence in the movement without talking about the values people hold. So, right from the start, to say that an action is “violent” is something of a red herring.

    Even so, given how we understand the term “violence,” we do not believe that being angry is violent; we do not believe that yelling in protest against someone is violent; we do not believe that doing so at his or her house is violent. None of what we do changes the fundamental autonomy of the people being protested. What we do is disrupt, but disruption is not tantamount to violence anymore than a lunch counter sit-in is. Rape and murder is violence, assault is violence, anything is violence that uses force in order to maintain a distinct hierarchical relationship between people. Yelling at a house at night has no tendency except to break down that hierarchical dynamic, if directed at the causes of hierarchy.

    The home demonstration no matter how angry, no matter how loud, is nonviolent, using the word in a way that’s meaningful and consistent with an anti-authoritarian worldview.

    This is not the end-all of this discussion, especially given what has been said about media. Thoughts and worldviews are packed into limited space, even responses as long as this. They are incomplete, and to some extent we should not take responses like this seriously unless we can engage in dialogue about them. So, let’s be hopeful that a discussion that is robust and more encompassing of the complexities involved emerges, rather than one that picks and reduces and narrows the point. The former tends toward the anti-authoritarian worldview while the former is what we resist against.

    What shall emerge from this demonstration?

    Jim Macdonald
    (not writing on behalf of the DC Anti-War Network with whom he participates in home demonstrations)


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