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Shutting Down San Francisco’s Downtown

by SCOTT HANDLEMAN

Thursday, the day after start of bombing, was the long-anticipated day of direct-action protest in San Francisco. For weeks, the flyers were circulating from Direct Action to Stop the War, and weekly spokescouncil meetings were held, alternating between San Francisco and Oakland. The de-centralized planning paid off: Thursday morning seemed like Sunday morning in large parts of San Francisco’s financial district.

The most noteworthy thing about this day of protest, I think, was the effectiveness of the new strategy of protest by small, autonomous clusters. A little after midnight yesterday, I got a call to report at 7am to 9th and Bryant for legal observation. Arriving a few minutes late, I saw a freeway off-ramp blocked by debris and large objects (old sofas, etc). CHP officers were pushing back protesters and hauling the obstacles aside, while rush-hour traffic honked in irritation. I understand why some might question the nobility of blocking drivers from getting to work, far from the seats of power that are the true targets, but what was surprising was that, here in Police State America, a group of 20-30 openly created a fairly serious (though brief) disruption, and not a single one got arrested. As the cops cleared the ramp and things started looking hot, the crowd started shambling up 9th Street toward Market, taking the wide street and chanting. This bunch, incidentally, was Queers Against Capitalism, marching under a giant pink flag.

Upon reaching Market, the militant queers took over the intersection, still unbothered by cops. Meanwhile, a block away in the intersection of Van Ness and Fell, a small group had occupied the intersection, linking arms in lock boxes. Van Ness was silent as Market. A block further on, a similar group had the intersection of Franklin and Fell occupied. I fed a banana to a supine young woman in a lock box, and felt a stirring in my subconscious. Upon returning to Market, the perambulating homosexuals had somehow taken over the major intersection of Van Ness and Market, and the cops had still made no move to arrest. “Move aimlessly,” a woman on bullhorn directed, and the group moved on.

Bear in mind that there were small numbers at each of these sites. The Queers had perhaps grown to 50 by this point, and the lock-down sites, counting the surrounding supporters, probably had less. Dispersal, and the simultaneity of many happenings, meant the cops’ resources were spread thin; they were too busy clearing the sit-down intersections to deal with the troublemakers on foot.

Riding my bike down Market Street, empty of cars, I encountered similar scenes. A sparse crowd, around 20 people, had taken over 6th and Market. This was a guerilla-theater group in costume, called Dead Against War. Scary horse cops approached, and the group walked off.

At Montgomery and Sutter, in front of the Schwab building, another tiny cluster had taken the intersection, including a core group locked down. A couple of fellows sat in lawn chairs in the middle of the street. This group included a hippyish contingent, joined in a soothing hum. But argument broke out between protesters and an angry driver, a scene that I saw repeated several times today.

At Montgomery and Pine, a group of only seven persons in lockboxes closed Pine on one side; on the other side, protesters sat on overturned newspaper bins. At Montgomery and California, another tiny group held the intersection. I waited while 2 busloads of cops arrived. The cop’s leader came and said, “You are in violation of the traffic law. I am ordering you to move to the sidewalk,” etc etc. The mystery is why this group did not take advantage of their warning and walk around awhile to another intersection, in conformity with the emerging principles of fourth-generation protest. This group sat there and let themselves get arrested.

Montgomery and Clay, the corner of the Transamerica Pyramid, saw another blockading group; some in lock-boxes. Hay was mysteriously scattered in the street, a warm pastoral touch. A firetruck showed up and menacingly took out its hose, but only used it to fill plastic trench plates with water. They drove away, protesters dry. I talked to two white-collar onlookers, mildly sympathetic.

Back to Market, where a group was locked down in boxes, surrounded by a fairly large crowd of protester-onlookers (maybe 100). Sparks flew copiously as the firemen cut through a lockbox. It was here that I first saw ugliness on both sides. Someone threw a glass bottle which hit a cop square in the helmet. (He didn’t even flinch.) Protesters booed. A line of cops marched briskly into the crowd, and looked around. From my perch high in a tree, I saw the cops’ body language. They walked around for a while acting unconvincingly like they in pursuit of somebody, then the victim-cop pointed at a fellow standing on a bench, and the cops went and grabbed him. I did not see who threw the bottle, but a legal observer later told me it was not the young man who got arrested. It stands to reason that the fellow who threw the thing would try to blend away and not stand in high view. I think the cops just decided they had to punish and deter, so better to arrest an innocent person and show eye-for-an-eye retribution.

(As they were pulling away their unfortunate victim, one of these cops backed into the misplaced bicycle of yrs truly and fell over; another cop somehow fell with him. This severely warped my back tire and broke three spokes. Safe in my tree, I declined to request compensation.)

Meanwhile, the lockbox extractions had been continuing-but the firemen did not break open the box linking the last two protesters. The cops dragged them off, still linked together. This was a piggish move on their part, for it was causing those arrested visibly to shout out in pain, and looked like the sort of thing that might do them lasting physical damage.

I continued down Market, where Christmas trees in big cement planters had been dragged to the middle of the street, and many newspaper vending boxes were overturned. At this point, I stopped taking regular notes. It was probably around 10 in the morning, and anarchy reigned downtown. Unwarping my tire, I rode to the Federal Building; protesters had shut it down. Red, white and blue vomit puddles all over the sidewalks.

Back downtown, Market remained in chaos; I hooked up with a large and rowdy bunch on Mission St., around a thousand or so rejoicing in their numbers, Spearhead blasting from bike-ferried speakers. We went back to Market for more intersection facedowns with riot-ready cops. It was 11:45 and I noticed, strangely, that Old Navy was open for business. I went to Civic Center for the noon rally; there was plenty of room and no one listened to the speaker. Ready for home, I headed back down Market. At around 5th Street was a confrontation noteworthy because the cluster of perhaps 100 protesters consisted almost entirely of youth of color (many of high school age).

From my observations today, I think that small, mobile clusters are a good way to go to make numbers have their maximum effect. The linger-then-escape method of blocking intersections seems ideal in that it frustrates cops and minimizes risk of arrest. It creates thrills and a sense of defiance that a permit-obeying march does not. On the other hand, the cat-and-mouse confrontations of the fourth generation lack a certain dignity and moral high ground associated with the sit-downs. Hard to picture Rosa Parks pull a sofa onto an off-ramp and scram.

I saw a lot of graffiti and overturned newspaper racks, but no smashed windows; I had a feeling the hard-core vandals were planning to let loose at another time, perhaps after the 5 p.m. convergence at Powell and Market.

By 1:00 I had had enough of the noise and chaos. Our government is still bombing Baghdad, and reflecting on that, I wonder what it all means. None of this is going to Stop the War. Of course, but what will? The day of protest didn’t have to stop the war to be a good in itself. Not freedom, but defiance was in the air. People were starring in their own movies, circumstances were revealing the blend of human nature: people honorable and craven, among cops and protesters alike. People got a chance to get together and blow off steam. Last but not least, they sent a strong signal that business will not be tolerated, not if that business is war.

SCOTT HANDLEMAN is a law student at Berkeley. He can be reached at: scotthandle@yahoo.com

 

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