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Don’t Mourn, Organize: Joe Hill’s Children

Joe Hill's Children

Benjamin Shepard and Ronald Hayduk (editors),From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization (London and New York: Verso, 2002), 429 pages, $22 paper, $70 cloth.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a long-time activist, university professor, and writer. In addition to numerous scholarly books and articles, she has published two historical memoirs, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), and Outlaw Woman: Memoir of the War Years, 1960–1975 (City Lights, 2002), and is at work on a third, Norther: Re-Covering Nicaragua, about the 1980s contra war against the Sandinistas.

Where were you during the “Battle of Seattle” in late November 1999? Due to my teaching schedule, I wasn’t able to be there, but like many other activists young and old around the world who weren’t there, I was thrilled, jumping with joy in front of my television watching CSPAN while listening to KPFA-Pacifica reporters on the ground, running to my computer to look up the latest IndyMedia news. I knew for sure that nothing would ever be the same. Not even the events of September 11, and their fascistic fallout have shaken that certainty. However, since September 11, I have felt the need for some evidence and encouragement, and I found it in From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization, a collection of compulsively readable analyses, first person stories, and interviews of forty-one activists brilliantly edited and introduced by Benjamin Shepard and Ronald Hayduk.

The book itself looks and feels like an artifact or an example of the movement’s savvy DIY (do it yourself) media productions. Some whole pages and the margins of most of the pages of this square-shaped book are filled with posters, flyers, slogans, and photographs of actions. My personal favorite is the poster that reads, NO JUSTICE NO PEAS (57), in a photograph of a mariachi band leading a joyful crowd of Mexican greengrocer workers and their supporters through New York’s Lower

East Side on May Day 1999. Every page of the book sparkles with life and the often breathless accounts are consistently well-written, each in a style particular to the writer. The editors acknowledge Jennifer Shepard, Liz Highleyman, and L. A. Kauffman, writing, “Without them, the prose would have been unreadable.” Indeed they are to be commended because the prose is marvelous. The organization of the material is key to its avoiding all the flaws that seem inherent to collections and anthologies containing multiple contributors. I can’t think of another anthology, however useful for information, especially for educational texts, that has the feel of art, as does From Act Up to the WTO.

The book is divided into five sections with an introduction and conclusion. The first section contains essays by L. A. Kauffman, Starhawk, Immanuel Ness, and others that delineate what the new social movements are. In the second section, riveting interviews with Sarah Schulman, founder of ACT UP’s clone, Lesbian Avengers, and with veteran civil rights activist Bob Kohler, and with Liddell Jackson, founder of Jacks of Color, are included with several mesmerizing essays on sex, social justice, and new queer organizing. The third section, “Public Versus Private Spaces, Battlegrounds, and Movements” is composed of intense and detailed personal accounts by young New York activists, including their adoption of the British movement, “Reclaim the Streets,” in which groups converge on intersections, wheel up a sound truck, and rave away, moving on before the police show up. The subject of the fourth section is the creation of alternative media and use of new technology, particularly the Internet, with essays by Ana Nogueira of IndyMedia and a previously published essay by Naomi Klein, one of only seven reprinted contributions in the book. Part five concerns race, poverty, and community organizing, and contains a perceptive essay by Bill Fletcher, Jr., a cofounder of the Black Radical Congress, in which he bluntly addresses class and nationalism. Several other interesting essays are important case studies by activists. However, the one academic article in the collection, “Community development and community organizing” by University of Toledo professor, Randy Stoecker, would have been better published in a sociology research journal than in this lively collection.

The time period addressed in the text is 1987 to 1999, from the founding of ACT UP, in response to the AIDS pandemic, to the prevention of the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in December 1999. The editors and publishers took some risks in narrowing both the time period and in making a direct connection between the two events. Some readers may be jolted as I was to read early on in the book the assertion that:

Seattle was the culmination of a thirty-year long process of political reinvention: the creation, in the decades after the 1960s, of an effective, decentralized, multivocal radicalism based on direct action…the single most influential group of people in this thirty-year process of innovation and reinvigoration were lesbian activists, both white and of color, who most often formed the bridge between one movement and the next, transmitting skills, insight, and expertise. The single most important organization, without question, was ACT UP, which introduced a vibrancy and flair to street politics that the left had lost, and created a new ethos of activism that was at once profoundly radical and pragmatic. (L. A. Kaufman, 35–36)

However, by the time I finished reading the book, I returned to L.A. Kaufman’s bold theory and it didn’t seem at all overstated.

ACT UP had been around and making news for two years before my folly collided with their reality in September 1989. I had been away much of the 1980s, mostly in Nicaragua, working against U.S. intervention in Central America. I collapsed in the fall of 1988 with chronic, life-threatening bronchial asthma, provoked by a half dozen bouts of pneumonia contracted in the northeastern war zone of Nicaragua where respiratory diseases, including polio, were widespread. By that time, the writing was pretty much on the wall that the United States would find a way to crush the Sandinista revolution, as it turned out by invading Panama in December 1989, “regime-changing,” as it’s now called, warning the Nicaraguan people they’d better get rid of the Sandinistas or else, which they did at the ballot box the following month. My asthma stabilized by medications, I decided to treat myself for my birthday in September 1989, by attending opening night of the San Francisco Opera, something I’d never done. Even the cheapest tickets were expensive, and I was unable to persuade anyone to go with me, so I went alone. I hadn’t been in the new Davies Hall performing center since it was completed in 1980, a glittering, glass palace of San Francisco’s high society. I knew the minute I entered the place that I did not belong in the crowd—ladies in jewels and gowns, gentlemen in tuxes, white, white, white, rich, rich, rich people, sipping champagne. But I was determined and took my third balcony seat to enjoy the opera. A few minutes into the show, a commotion grew louder and louder from below, and then I could see some wonderful looking people, my kind of people, but very young men and women, hoisting an ACT UP banner: SILENCE=DEATH, the ACT UP slogan, and yelling and chanting, they seized the stage, shamed the wealthy ruling class gathered there and asked the audience to walk out in protest to San Francisco’s unwillingness to provide assistance to people with AIDS. I think I was the only person to walk out, mumbling to myself Dylan’s caution that “one should never be where one does not belong.”

ACT UP’s act gave me a needed boost, hope in a time of desperation. Sixteen months later when the United States went to war in the Gulf, ACT UP seized and closed the Golden Gate Bridge, spurring a militant war resistance movement in the San Francisco Bay Area that christened a new generation of peace-with-justice activists.

I lived in the San Francisco Castro District from 1975 to 1995, before, during, and after the worst of the local AIDS epidemic. I saw many of my neighbors transformed from young and healthy to old and wasted in a matter of months. During the two years of my own health crisis, I attended a weekly support group for the chronically ill, and all the others in the group were dying of AIDS and were grieving the loss of companions and friends. I also had a good friend in Nicaraguan solidarity, Tede Mathews, one of the founders of San Francisco’s Modern Times Bookstore, die very quickly after being diagnosed as HIV positive. Until I encountered ACT UP in 1989, I truly never imagined that a joyful, life-affirming movement could be born of such darkness and death, but ACT UP was such a movement.

Those who hold an image of ACT UP as an all young white gay male movement founded, led, and focused on one man, Larry Kramer, will come away from this book totally disabused of that fallacy. Sarah Schulman came to ACT UP from the pro-choice movement where she had learned organizing skills. She observes:

The main people in ACT UP had been apolitical, totally apolitical. So when this thing happened they really didn’t understand a lot about how to run a meeting, how to do things; and a lot of women had been trained in the feminist movement this whole time and had an incredible skill. So a lot of the women rose to a position of leadership because they had organizing skills. (135)

They also brought with them antiracist and anti-imperialist politics. The genius of ACT UP was its participants’ ability to synthesize and adapt both the style and the politics of other movements, for instance the powerful South African anti-apartheid movement’s political funerals adapted for AIDS-killed activists. This then led to solidarity with Africa in its fight against the pharmaceutical corporations to acquire drugs to combat AIDS.

Contributor Liz Highleyman summarizes the key features of the new movements that emerged in the 1990s, pointing out that the convergence movement sees itself as being grassroots with a leaderless structure and flexible tactics, borrowing from anarchist and feminist principles, rejecting hierarchies and insisting on broad participation and consensus decision making. The activists credit not only ACT UP but also especially the Zapatistas for the attention given to communication, stunning visuals, and use of technologies to eliminate the need for corporate media publicity. “The convergence movement derives its strength from the concerted efforts of multiple autonomous individuals and affinity groups working without a centralized platform or leadership…”(113).

Perhaps the most fascinating issue discussed in the book is the Zapatista’s—and the whole movement’s—use of the Internet, which developed during the second half of the 1990s. In an interview with Ricardo DomEDnguez, “Mayan technologies and the theory of electronic civil disobedience,” (274–289) DomEDnguez presents a highly technical explanation, but perfectly clear to this technophobe, of the theory and practice of what the Rand Corporation has named “Netwar.” Following the January 1, 1994 Chiapas uprising, the U.S. Army commissioned a study at Rand that was edited by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt and published by Rand under the title: Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy (available online: www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR1382/).

Naomi Klein goes even further in her essay, “The vision thing: were the DC and Seattle protests unfocused, or are critics missing the point?” (265–273: The essay was published first in the July 10, 2000 issue of the Nation.)

So how do you extract coherence from a movement filled with anarchists, whose greatest tactical strength so far has been its similarity to a swarm of mosquitoes? [Referring to the Rand study] Maybe, as with the Internet itself, you don’t do it by imposing a preset structure but rather by skillfully surfing the structures that are already in place. Perhaps what is needed is not a single political party but better links among the affinity groups; perhaps rather than moving toward more centralization, what is needed is further radical decentralization. (272)

Klein takes on the critics who complain that the new movement lacks a unifying vision, but rather only targets, to which she answers that we should be thankful: “At the moment, the anticorporate street activists are ringed by would-be leaders, anxious for the opportunity to enlist them as foot soldiers for their particular cause.” Klein sees the possibility of something truly new emerging, rather than repeating the unworkable centralized movements of the past.

In his essay, Andrew Boyd, the creator of the Million Billionaire March and Billionaires for Bush (or Gore), characterizes the result of those twelve years between the founding of ACT UP to the Battle of Seattle:

There was one sublime moment in Seattle when I realized that the wild yet focused energies in the streets could never be resolved into a folk song—we were now part of Hip-Hop Nation…We were no longer mimicking the 1960s; nor were we distancing ourselves from its failures.

Something deep had shifted. This was not a new naivety. Somehow the movement had taken a Hegelian lurch forward—from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. In the 1960s the thesis was: “We can change the world.” In the 1980s came the antithesis: “What good did it all do anyway.” We knew everything was corrupt; we were bitter and defensive; we distrusted ourselves; we were too cool to care—or we played the self-righteous voice in the wilderness calling out, “Everyone else betrayed the ideals but me.”

…Whatever the reason, on the streets of Seattle there was synthesis. Irony was no longer an expression of our lack of confidence; it was a playful tool we could wield and yet be intensely passionate about our politics. We had somehow transcended and incorporated thesis and antithesis. Before Seattle, irony had the better of us; now we had the better of it. We were neither nostalgic nor snide. We had achieved a new attitude—sly and mischievous, yet full of hope for the future. (248–49)

In the conclusion, editor Benjamin Shepard notes that: “…a generation stopped letting what they could not do keep them from doing what they could” (391).