This is not a call to violence, symbolic or otherwise, but the fact remains that there is no more effective way to seize the public screen. If we want to abandon all violence in today’s America, we must use the same tactics the corporate state wields...
The writer, post gaybashing
Aside from being a part of the Southern California Jewish Karate Boom of the mid-90s, I’ve been about as non-violent as a dude can be. I can count on one hand the amount of punch-having situations I’ve been involved in—three to be exact. When I was in 6th grade, a bully shoved my sister to the ground. I punched him in the ear and he couldn’t hear for a few minutes and thought he was deaf so he started crying and it was hilarious. The other two times, I’ve been the fist-receiver. Once, I was blackout drunk in a hotel room in Vegas and woke up to see my friend fucking my other friend’s ex, so I, apparently, stood over their bed and mumbled “this is weird” enough times that we eventually got into a wrestling match which lead me to bleed all over the hotel room. The other time, I was blackout drunk in Anchorage and I, as a straight dude, got gay bashed. A group of teenage punks hurled all sorts of slurs at me like “Go back to where you came from, faggot!” I responded by getting close to one of them and, smiling, floated these words at their faces: “It’s a shame that such terrible things come out of your mouth... when such beautiful things could go in it.” Their fists broke my glasses but not my spirit, and I somehow blindly groped my way back to my hotel. The rest of my life has been a modest attempt at achieving social justice and just plain existing through exclusively nonviolent means.
After Prop 8 passed in California, I went door to door raising money for gay rights causes. During the Occupy Movement, I brought comedians to the steps of LA’s city hall to entertain and share ideas with the weary masses. I’ve marched on Mormon temples because of their involvement in the passage of Prop 8, the streets of Hollywood during multiple anti-whatever-fucked-up-thing-is-happening protests, and been a part of a human blockade of a Long Beach port owned by Goldman Sachs. I sat in a human chain on the penultimate night of Occupy LA, guarding a ceremonial tent in the middle of the park at City Hall. I had the national lawyer’s guild phone number sharpied to my arm in preparation of my imminent arrest. Bandana covering my nose and mouth from pepper spray, vinegar soaked rags in my pockets to combat the tear gas, I was prepared to do whatever it took for the cause. I saw thousands of my neighbors form a wall of life to protect us. Our arms were linked around a symbol of free expression, alone together in the park. They kept the cops at bay. We won that night. I’ll never forget the feeling of watching the sun come up over downtown. We’d done it.
I woke up the next afternoon more depressed than I’ve ever been. As soon as I opened my eyes it hit me—the LAPD was going to continue to raid the park, night after night, until the morale and resolve had shrivelled to the point where the cops could easily clear us out. I was crippled by that revelation. I drank two bottles of wine and couldn’t leave my bed. I watched live, on my computer, that very night, as the city achieved its goal of silencing the people.
In my life, that was the closest thing I’ve seen to the citizenry accomplishing major change, and it was an utter failure. Every form of activism I’ve engaged in has meant nothing—the war’s still happening, the banks continue to eat our future, and gays are only people in a handful of states. Protests have become glorified parades, following strict routes, with drums, music, and the vibe of a street festival. What we’re doing just isn’t working.
In the months and years since the fall of the Occupy Movement—though I was quite busy with drinking heavily, breaking up with my long-term girlfriend, and gaining close to 40 pounds—I found time to grow exponentially more cynical. Every single day, through innumerable drone strikes, Christopher Dorner, the GOP’s War on Women, the massacre of the Voting Rights Act, Trayvon Martin, Congress making it easier than ever for lunatics to get a military grade assault weapon—every single day, I take one step away from my pacifism. I started reading up on turn of the 20th century struggles of the workingman, like the Haymarket Affair, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the May Day Riots of 1919. One thing that tied the vast majority of these together was the intense violence perpetrated by the state and retaliated by the socialists and anarchists. Could violence, in some way, improve our vain (in both senses of the word) attempts to fix our country?
The Haymarket Affair, for those unaware, is the basis for May Day (or International Worker’s Day) and is widely regarded as the turning point in the fight for the eight hour work day. A peaceful gathering of striking workers and supporters met at Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 4, 1886. Various speakers addressed the crowd of roughly a few thousand people, and it was so passive that even the mayor walked home early. Around 10:30 PM, just as the last speech was wrapping up, the police marched on the rally and ordered the crowd to disperse. Before the cops could advance, a homemade bomb was thrown and it detonated, ultimately killing seven policemen. The fuzz fired on the fleeing crowd, and though the numbers vary, many historians agree that approximately four workingmen were killed and 70 were wounded. One police source told newspapers that during the madness, because of the darkness and confusion, many cops actually shot their colleagues: “It was every man for himself, and while some got two or three squares away, the rest emptied their revolvers, mainly into each other.” To this day, nobody knows who threw the bomb. Cases have been made that it was a prominent anarchist, a Pinkerton agent provocateur, a hired goon from a wealthy industrialist, or simply an angry worker.
Illustration of the Haymarket Riot from Harper's
In the aftermath, the Chicago Police, objectively, acted like complete thugs: ransacking homes without search warrants, arresting hordes of workers with little-to-no ties to the bombing, and conducting an eight week shakedown of labor activists. The trial that followed was a complete circus. Judge Joseph Gary didn’t even attempt to hide his disdain for the eight defendants, and the lead investigator was eventually dismissed by the police force for allegedly fabricating evidence. None of this mattered to the press who called the defendants "dynamarchists," "bloody monsters," "cowards," "cutthroats," "thieves," "assassins," and "fiends." The fact was, seven of the eight defendants had legitimate alibis ranging from them being on the speaker’s wagon at the time of the bombing, to being at home playing cards. Facts weren’t important—all eight were convicted and seven were sentenced to death. Before the execution, one of the defendants, Louis Lingg, committed suicide by detonating a blasting cap in his mouth—which didn’t immediately kill him, instead turning his last six hours of life into utter agony. The governor commuted two of the accused’s sentences to life in prison, but four of the remaining leaders of the worker’s movement were to be killed by the state.
On November 11, 1887, the day of the hanging, the families of the condemned were arrested and searched for bombs. The four stood on the gallows and awaited their fate. The instant before their execution, August Spies screamed "The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!" The men were hanged, but they did not die immediately, instead they, ironically, slowly strangled to death in front of the horrified crowd.
The lasting effect of these tragic events served to unify the workers in Chicago and around the world, and the workers of America eventually won the eight hour workday. It would’ve never happened without violence—both by and at the citizenry. But this was the 1880s, when police and hired gorillas thoughtlessly mowed down workers by the barrelful—and the bullets in their guns were not made of rubber.
Despite the fundamental problems that plague modern America, we are not being categorically struck down simply for fighting for our basic rights. Therefore, when citizens aim to use deadly force as a form of protest against government oppression (McVeigh, the Unibomber, etc.) it not only spectacularly fails to spread the message, but creates a (rightful) outpouring of support for the victims. More than capable of possessing basic human empathy, what if instead of reckless violence against people, the modern protest movement utilized targeted, symbolic “violence” against property?
Watching thousands of people take to the streets last week to protest the institutionalized racism that lead to a trial acquitting a man who instigated a fight with an unarmed teen, lost the fight, then killed the boy with a gun, I couldn’t help but feel a confusing brew of emotions. I reached out to my friend, acclaimed comedian and union organizer Nato Green, and asked him his thoughts on incorporating violence into our current disheveld state of political unrest.
“I'm not a pacifist, but I think the goal of protesting is to broaden the movement.” He continued, “Violence and rioting only works if that's what people are ready for. If you have a million people that want to smash the windows at the bank, then by all means do so. If you have 20,000 people who want to march peacefully and 20 people who want to smash stuff, then those 20 people are dicks for dragging the rest of the group into their thing.”
1999 Seattle WTO protests, Photo via Wikipedia Commons
His words evoked images of the broken Starbucks windows and dismantled Niketown signs that dominated the airwaves during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. “The Battle in Seattle” achieved about as much as any individual days-long direct action possibly can. The protests disrupted the meeting to the point where titans of globalization failed to adopt a single resolution, and the citizens made sure the WTO wouldn’t think about occupying their city again. However, if you ask the majority of activists, cops, and press, it was a failure. Why? Because the media narrowed its gaze on some shattered glass and burnt debris, instead of the protesters’ message. But is that entirely true?
According to the phenomenal, albeit slightly outdated, essay “From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the ‘Violence’ of Seattle” by Kevin Michael DeLuca and Jennifer Peeples, no, it’s not true. Their analysis shows that because, not in spite of, the symbolic “violence” of a handful of anarchists, coverage of the protests more than doubled. Let me be clear, not just the coverage of the vandalism, coverage of the entire affair. In order to explain the chaos happening on the streets of Seattle, the media were forced to inform the masses exactly why it was happening—and therefore shine a light on criticisms that the WTO is an “undemocratic organization with a pro-corporate agenda that in practice overrules national labor, environmental, and human rights laws.”
They argue that the internet and television’s “public screen” has supplemented and essentially eclipsed the old fashioned notion of the “public sphere.” The nostalgic notion of politics as a civil, face-to-face dialogue has been replaced by a distracting, publicity-driven, image centric broadcast:
“Citizens who want to appear on the public screen, who want to act on the stage of participatory democracy, face three major conditions that both constrain and enable their actions: 1) private ownership/monopoly of the public screen, 2) Infotainment conventions that ﬁlter what counts as news, and 3) the need to communicate in the discourse of images.”
If young people, your regular Joe Mustache or Jane AmericanApparel, want their fair share of the Public Screen, DeLuca and Peeples say they should follow the old news motto “if it bleeds, it leads.”
“Since the civil rights and antiwar protests of the 1960s, activists have learned the lessons of images. They understood Seattle as an occasion not for warfare but for imagefare. The protesters’ chants of "The whole world is watching" clearly echo the 1960s. The whole world did watch—not because 30,000 protesters gathered in one location, but because uncivil disobedience and symbolically violent tactics effectively disrupted the WTO, shutdown Seattle, provoked police violence, and staged the images the media feed upon. An analysis of media coverage of the WTO protests reveals such tactics as necessary ingredients for compelling the whole world to watch.”
They conclude their paper with a sobering assessment of the obstacles inherent in our corporate controlled media landscape.
“The airwaves in the United States are by law the property of the public, but they are leased in such a way that media companies own them for all intents and purposes. The Walt Disney Co. need not grant us a soapbox from which to air our views... In addition, both theoretically and practically the very distinction between public and private has eroded. Still, the public screen, though privately controlled, is public. The complexity of the public screen warrants neither bemoaning a lost past nor celebrating a technological utopia. The charge for critics is not to decry a lacking present or embrace a naive future. The charge for critics is to chart the topography of this new world.”
While the lasting effects of the WTO protests were almost entirely consumed by 9/11, the following wars, and economic meltdown, the anger and frustration at corporate dominance remains and is, if anything, compounded by this century’s rollback of civil rights. Yet still, with few exceptions, violence, symbolic or otherwise is widely dismissed as ineffective.
Nato seems to believe that violent protest works better abroad:
“There are times and places where it works. In Europe there appears to be more mass support for more militant tactics. When I was in Guatemala, I met ex-guerrillas. Their villages were being destroyed by death squads no matter what they did, so they may as well have taken up arms. But here and now, we'll always be outgunned.”
Nato’s right, we will always be outgunned. The way to fight back isn’t by throwing rocks at local businesses or killing cops, but it’s also not by planning sterile, flaccid protest-parades that stay on the sidewalk along pre-approved routes. So how can we commandeer the public sphere without resorting to physical destruction?
One of the worst elements of my generation is that every meatmouth with a Twitter account feels they must craft a “personal brand.” This is how the dominant 21st century advertiser-controlled dialogue has affected the majority. I hate it, however, I feel that our current wave of activists can learn something from the companies we so hate—we must control our brand. That is the only way we can achieve the mainstream success on the public sphere it takes to accomplish our goals. According to Nato, that’s our biggest problem.
“We think it's better to be righteous than relevant, better to be smug than successful. We aren't developing strategies and organizations that are even trying to reach a majority of people. Most people know that [things] are fucked up. If you ask them, most people can imagine a better world. What they can't imagine, and what activists totally fail at offering, is a compelling story about how we get from here to there, and that the way we get from here to there depends on everyone pitching in. So people just drift into apathy and cynicism.”
A big reason why I think the Occupy Movement failed was because of a fundamental lack of organization. We couldn’t stay on message, so we certainly couldn’t broadcast that message to the masses. Part of the beauty of the movement was the rational, open discourse that harkened back to the days of the wobegon public sphere, but even within the sphere, there were too many conflicts of interest. Animal, LGBTQ, and immigrant rights all have a much-needed place in the national dialogue—but not during a months-long direct action about our criminal financial industry. Had we only focused on issues specific to banks such as reinstating Glass-Steagall, moratoriums on foreclosures, capping interest on student loan debt, etc. we may have accomplished something. Hell, at the time, I wasn’t able to see the forest for the trees, either. In a speech I gave to a rather large gathering of occupiers and supporters, I remarked, "Think of America as a car. Alright, so our car is in pretty bad condition—and by that I mean at this point it’s actually just an old wheezing dog wearing a saddle that somebody drew a frownyface on. Now… How do you fix that fucking car?"
If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve started by at least cleaning off the frownyface. Focusing on one goal, or a select few if they’re completely related, until that goal is met is the only way to affect change. If we couldn’t control our message in the realm of the public sphere, how could we protect it from being contorted on the public screen?
This is not a call to violence, symbolic or otherwise, but the fact remains that, right now, there is no more effective way to seize the public screen. If we want to abandon all violence in today’s America, we must use the same tactics the corporate state wields to find a way to connect to the people, while remaining sensational enough to seduce the media. We can do it, afterall it is we, the young and societally “hip,” who have been informing companies with our music, style, and lexicon on how to rip money from our own pockets. We can use these powers of persuasion for good, and if it doesn’t work, then I guess a few dudes can break some windows to bait the cameras.
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