Where do we go after postmodernism? It’s a simple question that writers and critics have debated for decades. Over the last year, I have written a number of dispatches for the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest and Counterpunch that have addressed this topic in relation to activist responces of the use and abuse of the narratives of the ‘War on Terror’. The first outlined the limits of the “straight” activist project, deconstructing the workings of reified chants and protest structures–walk in a circle, scream same old chant ‘no justice, no peace’, repeat – while promoting an “absurd response to an absurd war” in which activists deployed a fresh, creative approach to protest. As the absurd idea of war turned into a very real war with real casualties on the ground, the second essay addressed how the absurd response felt decreasingly savvy or inspiring. We were facing the limits of camp. As Susan Sontag once said, once we know it’s camp, it’s no longer camp. The essay concluded with a call for activists to contribute to other more concrete political narratives, “building counterpublics and liberatory spaces, while expanding on the Patriot Act Free Zones popping up from Hawaii to Alaska.” Yet the need for a fresh approach to protest remained vital.
This third dispatch follows that call. It happens at a moment when the predominant cultural narratives ofthe War on Terror are used to justify curtailed civil liberties for duration of what the Vice President suggests could be a 50-year conflict. Circumstances were and still are such that activists need to turn this narrative on its head. to shift the terms of this story. Irony recedes in relevance when political situations become too dire or when there is an urgent need to engage in dialogue with the political mainstream. The following is a response to such politics from the point of view of a basically anarchist political point of view.
The Patriot Free Zone Campaign
“Patriots Against the Patriot Act,” read the banner held by members of Reclaim the Streets New York, dressed in faux 1776-era garb, as they stood in front of City Hall on the morning of October 20, 2003. Others wore pins stating, “The Patriot Act is Sooo 1984.” Surrounded by City Council members, a Manhattan congressman, members of the ACLU Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a few Green Party members, and more than a handful of system-abiding liberals and direct action anarchist types better acquainted with the streets than the legislative corridors, RTS had joined the campaign to push the anti-Patriot Act ordinance, Resolution 909, through the City Council. The question was, how did this radical direct action group find itself involved with such a bourgeois, reformist campaign?
RTS’ support for the 909 campaign can be attributed to two elements of the group’s history. First, the group has its roots in a global justice movement that recognizes a diversity of tactics, depending on the situation, from non-violent civil disobedience to incremental reform, and in a long history of struggles for access to public space and debate. Second, and more to the point, members of RTS have endured countless illegal arrests over free speech issues. Long before September 11, 2001, the powers-that-be had sought to delegitimize activist groups such as Earth First and RTS as terrorists. On May 10, 2001, FBI director Louis Freeh testified at a Senate committee hearing: “Anarchists and extremist socialist groups-such as Reclaim the Streetsæhave an international presence and, at times, also represent a potential threat in the United States.” This process of delegitimization became a great deal easier after the terrorist attacks the following fall.
For the Bushies, the best way to protect the constitution was to curtail it or bully those who sought to use it. Recall December 2001, when Attorney General John Ashcroft claimed that those who opposed his approach to challenging terrorism “only aid terrorists,” while Bush Administration press secretary Ari Fleischer suggested that Americans “need to watch what they say, watch what they do.”
In the months after the October 2001 passage of the Patriot Act, the law was used to prosecute long-standing targets of the right, including opponents in the “War on Drugs” and various protestors. Further, the Bush Administration labeled U.S. citizen Jose Padilla, a Puerto Rican, as an “enemy combatant,” thereby denying his right to counsel and habeas corpus. Throughout the mobilization against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, activists were targeted. Members of RTS were swept off the streets and into the jails of New York City for protesting outside the Carlyle Group’s offices in Manhattan, asserting that the Bush family was profiting from the war.
By the spring and summer of 2003, the mobilization against the war in Iraq was waning. The group Mobilize New York had worked with RTS to make use of stickers with catchy slogans and an e-mail list of several thousand to help rally opposition to the war. To avoid the post-mobilization letdown, RTS and Mobilize New York focused their next campaign on restrictions of civil liberties. The Republican National Committee was, after all, seeking to capitalize on the September 11 tragedy for political gain by scheduling its convention for New York City in 2004. Thus, activists knew they stood to face even more restrictions on their civil liberties if they failed to speak up. Further, Harlem City Councilman Bill Perkins, who had already sponsored hearings on police abuses during the February 15, 2003 antiwar march, had introduced a resolution before the council calling for the city to affirm civil liberties while opposing the Patriot Act. Cities from Baltimore to Chicago to Philadelphia had already passed resolutions similar to 909.
Players from countless perspectives joined the effort to turn New York into a Patriot Act Free Zone. But the campaign needed a little push. The mainstream left has long needed a shot in the arm from the radical left, both in terms of grassroots energy and flashiness. RTS hoped to bring a bit of its sartorial splendor to this effort, mobilizing direct action folks, whoæalthough strongly affected by restrictions on civil libertiesærarely got involved with local city politics.
RTS began by organizing a poster campaign calling on citizens from all walks of life to create Patriot Act Free Zones where difference was honored and profiling rejected. Members of the group made great posters and hung them up throughout the city. The group also distributed a tool kit of sorts that included the poster and a worksheet, “Ten Ways to Create a Patriot Act Free Zone in Your Own Community.” The worksheet included simple steps along the lines of the old “How to Create a Community” campaign, which instructed folks to introduce themselves to their neighbors. In addition to supporting Resolution 909, the listed suggested:
Remind your friends and yourself: freedom is about acts of freedom, not authority.
Support those fighting for political freedom across the country.
Speak with ten people about the Patriot Act’s attack on constitutionally protected freedoms including:
1st Amendment Rights to Freedom of Speech, Association, and Government Information
4th Amendment Rights against Unreasonable Searches and Seizures
5th Amendment Rights to Due Process & Freedom from Being Held without Charge
6th Amendment Right to Legal Representation and a Speedy Trial
8th Amendment Freedom from Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Remind them, national Security does not justify abuses of the Constitution.
Remember, the best way to defend freedom is with more freedom.
The best way to protect democracy is with more democracy.
Ranting and Partying for Freedom
Next, the group organized a number of community events including a “Rant Off for a Patriot Act Free Zone,” where members of New York City’s Bill of Rights Defense Committee mingled with Lower East Side wing nuts to revel in the First Amendment. The point of the Rant Off was simple. As emcee for the event, I asserted, “To Live is to Rant, To Be Human is to Rant!” The point of the Rant Off was to make room for all the flamers, moaners, groaners, complainers, kvetchers, and spammersæ”all those with something legitimate to say”
The guidelines for the event were simple enough: one dollar per minute, three minutes per rant. Like any good democracy, those requiring more time to speak would need the sponsorship of a financial backer. Throughout the night’s event, I noted that we were also running a fundraiser for the Republican National Convention in New York, shredding copies of the Constitution for $5 a pop with our battery-powered shredder. All proceeds would go to the RNC and its push to turn the country into an Oceania-like Total Information Awareness superhighway and shopping mall. The schtick didn’t work as well as I thought it would. Some people theatrically ranted and preached, others screamed, RTS members passed out Patriot Act Free Zone posters, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee distributed information on 909, and one guy performed a play about COINTELPRO, while others delighted in the improvisation. Between rants, we peppered the event with discussion of the idea of Patriot Act Free Zones popping up across the country. The point of the discussion was to suggest that Council Resolution 909 calling upon federal, state, and local officials and city agencies and institutions to affirm civil rights and civil libertiesæwas a way to realize a Patriot Act autonomous zone. Yet unlike Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones, which had always inspired RTS actions, the point of supporting Resolution 909 was to build something that might last or give civil liberties a bounce going into Fall 2004. Without being heavy-handed, the event served as a teach-in on the legislation. There are certainly limits to such a model . Yet, along the way, the direct action crowd and civil libertarians were finding common ground on which to communicate.
Resolution 909 in Play
Next, RTS tapped into the large e-mail list put together to mobilize people against the war in Iraq, using the Mobilize New York alerts to update the list about the campaign. The first alert in September 2003 announced, “We will be focusing as much attention on the home frontæspecifically the current war on civil liberties being conducted under the veil of the ‘war on terror’æas on the ongoing occupation of Iraq.” The point was to push different constituencies to support the resolution, ensuring that different council members would take a position.
By the end of the summer, RTS worked with the 74th Unwelcoming Committee, a group of recent New York University graduates, to hold a Patriot Act Free Zone Street Party. The unpermitted street carnival was one of the first events promoted with the Mobilize New York alerts. The evening’s theme was a citywide celebration of resistance to the Bush Administration and the Patriot Act. Its aim: to show Bush that the RNC is not welcome in NYC in 2004. Event propaganda stated: “With the RNC planning its latest convention ever in September of 2004 to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary, the RNC plans to turn a tragedy into their policy political convention.” In response, the Unwelcoming Committee planned its own “unwelcoming party” for the Republicans. The aim of the event was to show that resistance to the Patriot Act was spreading. Flyers declared:
nyc today (under the patriot act): paramilitary in the subways, police (& police brutality) everywhere, surveillance cameras on every block, immigrants detained indefinitely without access to lawyers, government spies searching our homes, monitoring our internet use, libraries, financial & medical records, the mass incarceration of people of color, charges of “terrorism” for civil disobedience, government monitoring of religious and political groups…
nyc tomorrow: one year from now, the very same tyrants who brought us this Orwellian nightmare plan to hold their Republican National Convention (RNC) in new york city, capitalizing on our city’s tragedy by scheduling their conference date in close proximity with 9/11.
we believe that even in these times of repression and fear, New Yorkers can refuse to be cowed into submission and scared into silence! We can get together, smile at each other, dance in the streets together, make art & music together! We can create alternatives to the systems we oppose. our varied and dissonant voices will not be silenced! on september 5th, we can and will reclaim NYC as a PATRIOT ACT FREE ZONE!!!
Creating a Patriot Act Free Zone was as elementary as creating a street party. Friday September 5th, activists arrived at Union Square, some wearing party masks, some carrying flags with the familiar RTS party person logo, and some dancing. Nearly 300 revelers then skipped out of Manhattan on the L-train, as a subway party ensued on the way to Brooklyn for the street party in Williamsburg, at Bedford and North 7th Street. Police appeared stumped as the regular Friday night crowd took over the street for fire dancing and the evening was filled with music and bodies in motion and bikers from Times UP! Outnumbered four to one, the police just stood and watched. And with few arrests and little interference from the police, the dancing and joy turned what would have been just another night into a carnival. The party embodied the kind of civil liberties-protected Patriot Act Free Zone the group hoped to see expand and continue. As one member of the 74th Unwelcoming Collective observed, “We have almost a year to let these guys know that New York doesn’t want them hereæand they have a whole year to decide not to come!”
What to Do?
As summer turned to fall, Resolution 909 made its way through the legislative corridors with astounding momentum. And support from the City Council increased. On October 20, hearings on the measure were scheduled.
The hearings presented a telling challenge for RTS. When Bush was elected, activists had employed irony with the pseudo-paramilitary Students for an Undemocratic Society, or SUDS. When Bush escalated towards war, the group morphed into Absurd Response to an Absurd War, dressing as right wing drag queens and kings, playing with irony in the manner of the Billionaire and SUDS concepts. With both, we’d deconstructed traditional protest models, reaching the limits of play and camp. By the time Resolution 909 came along, we were faced with the painful question: What do you do after post modernism? You can’t live on irony alone; there is too little to show for it. So we re-embraced a canonical narrative of “straight” protest.
The question we were facing was a simple one: Why can’t irony work now?
Different people have offered various answers. Author and RTS member Larry Bogart suggests: “Carnival is supposed to be a liberatory action, which means that we shouldn’t be chained to it. It should be used when it best suits the movement or affinity group. In the same way, the use of irony is situationally determined. Depending on the context, irony can be either a posthip cop-out or a challenging, effective way of engaging publics. Irony always includes the risk of a misfire in communication.”
Occasional RTS participant and one of with the leading architects of the Absurd Response concept, L.A. Kauffman has suggested that it is easy for activists to fall into rut in which they repeat the same approaches over and over, confusing a tactic with a strategy. The Absurd Response was a fun tactic for speaking to other activists. But for speaking to City Council members, it was not the most useful approach.
RTS organizer Steve Duncombe suggests that in term of pure politics for many of us, Bush and the Patriot Act appears so absurd that parody comes perilously close to reality. With Bush in office, ignorance really is strength. In the same vein, the Republicans appear so vengeful, angry, and even frenzied over 9/11 and the war that many would likely agree with RTS’ most outrageous, absurd responsesæ”All War all the Time,” “Leave no Billionaire Behind,” etc. Further, while the Absurd Response was a great way to think about politics and fun, the political terrain was shifting. Irony works best as an inside joke to mobilize and appeal to a subculture. Yet Bush has polarized so many issues that there is now a realistic chance to reach a majority of people who think of themselves as thoughtful, not even ironically patriotic, citizens of the USA. In the end, irony is good for critique, but is limited in demonstrating what kind of world we really want to create. If we are going to suggest that another world is possible, we’d better be able to suggest that this world is more than simply ridiculous.
In an essay entitled “Mass Action Since Seattle: Seven Ways to Make Our Protests More Powerful,” George Lakey suggests that actors heighten the contrast between protestors and police behavior. While sophisticated theater audiences might prefer complexity, shades of gray are harder to pull off in the street. “Our power lies in our choices,” he writes. “We can choose to design our confrontations using appropriate symbolism so that the part of the public we most want to influence will see us as the people standing for justice.” With this in mind, RTS/Absurd Response members made a decision not to shred the constitution as a fundraiser for the RNC. Instead we would play it straight dressed like actual age-old patriots, carrying a banner reading “Patriots Against the Patriot Act” at the rally before the public hearings.
Prodding Speaker Miller
The hearings for Resolution 909 were telling. Peter Vallone, Jr. the son of the former council speaker from Queens who was ousted after term limits, was the only council member opposing the measure at the hearing. His testimony offered a revealing glimpse of the cultural anxieties and biases supporting the Patriot Act. Vallone explained that he thought the reason New York City had not been attacked again was because of the Patriot Act. Further, Vallone suggested that protecting the masses from an ambiguous enemy was enough of a justification for the Patriot Act’s encroachment on constitutionally protected freedoms. Fear propelled a zero-sum quest for security over freedom. At one point in the hearings, Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union explained that Jose Padilla, a Puerto Rican, had been detained in the U.S. and held without access to counsel as an “enemy combatant.” Vallone said he was perfectly comfortable with illegal aliens being held without access to lawyers. Lower East Side councilwoman Margarita Lopez repeatedly asked Vallone if he knew that Padilla was from Puerto Rico, and therefore a U.S. citizen. Vallone backed down.
September 11 had created yet another enemy “other” to place in a long cavalcade of villainsæfrom witches to communists to immigrantsædemonized throughout U.S. history. After 9/11, these “us and them” dynamics propelled a new wave of racial profiling as even U.S. citizens were denied access to the U.S. court system because they “looked like terrorists.” Lieberman situated the Patriot Act’s detentions within the long history of encroachments on civil rights, including the internment of people of Japanese ancestry during WWII the anticommunist “witch hunts” of the 1950s, and COINTELPRO, all of which were later regarded as mistakes. “But if you read the history of these outrages, there is always a counter-narrative in which wiser voices respond to the hysteria,” Lieberman testified. “To those who claim the times are so perilous and the risk of harm so great that we cannot tolerate democratic principles of freedom, there are other voices that say: we do not accept the argument that in order to preserve democracy, we must suspend individual freedoms.”
Walking out of the hearings, RTS members knew where 909 stood on the legislative food chain and moved to act. In the weeks before the hearings, it had become increasingly apparent that the resolution’s fate rested in the hands of Council Speaker Gifford Miller, who could allow the measure to die in committee without ever letting the full council vote on it. Calls to the speaker’s office went unreturned. When activists finally reached his office, his staff offered political doublespeak. Miller supported both civil liberties and security, we were told. After the hearings, the goal was to convince the speaker that civil liberties and security are not a zero-sum game, but rather that one cannot exist without the other. In the following weeks, coalition members made use of the Mobilize New York alerts list, wrote letters, and begged friends to beg the speaker to “Pretty Please Support City Council Resolution 909.”
We sent out hundreds of letters stating, “There are 29 supporters out of 50 on the City Council who support the defense of our civil liberties. Please help New York preserve constitutional freedoms and civil liberties for our diverse communities by passing anti-Patriot Act Resolution 909.” We collected some 500 signatures on post cards at the Critical Mass Halloween party alone. And so it went throughout the fall.
Some days the speaker’s office representatives took calls, other times they put calls through to message machines already filled to their limit. Yet his office knew something was in play. They could not get through a day without taking calls.
On December 2, in the midst of a snowstorm, coalition members gathered at City Hall for a “Rally to Defend the Bill of Rights and Pass Resolution 909.” Once again, the patriots arrived, but this time their numbers were dwarfed by the large outpouring of New Yorkers from all walks of life who had been offended by the political misuse of 9/11. Speaker Miller even made a surprise appearance in which, using political doublespeak, he thanked everyone for coming, spoke out against the Patriot Act, but somehow avoided mentioning support for the resolution. Again we inundated his office with calls.
By late December, some 33 of the council’s 50 members had signed on. Miller co-signed a letter with Deputy Majority Leader Bill Perkins committing to bringing Resolution 909 to a vote at the City Council’s first business session in 2004. The letter read, “Res. 909-A makes clear that the government’s anti-terrorism initiatives can and must be undertaken in a manner that respects basic constitutional rights and liberties. We strongly agree with this proposition and we look forward to adopting the resolution with the support of an overwhelming majority of the City Council members.”
Throughout the final weeks of 2003, rumors whirled through the internet that City Council would vote on the resolution by the end of the session in the third week in December. Yet, for many of us, a tenuous feeling remained. We’d claim that victory when the resolution actually passed. December 15th, the date the resolution was scheduled to move came and went. Nothing. Word from the council was after the Capture of Saddam Hussein, they did not want to ‘send the wrong message’ by passing the resolution after the capture of this brutal dictator. “Wrong message?” many grumbled. Maybe the right message would have been to pass a resolution opposing the Bill of Rights, others suggested. Well, at least the Democrats did not have Nader to blame for their inaction. And most of us of us stumbled into the holidays.
Many took heart that Philadelphia had tabled their anti Patriot resolution when its first vote coincided with the start of the war, only to watch it succeed. Yet, New York had to wait. It would be almost two months and countless false starts later before the resolution (renamed #60) was scheduled for a February 4th vote date. By that time, even Los Angeles had passed its own anti Patriot resolution. In addition, portions of the Patriot Act itself were found unconstitutional. Feeling the heat of the burgeoning Bill of Right’s Defense Movement, even the President defended the Patriot Act in the State of Union. Yet that was not enough to keep New York City Council from moving onward. And on February 4, a vast majority of New York City Council responded passing Resolution 60 calling for government to uphold civil liberties, despite the war on terror. With 60’s passage, New York became the 250th legislative body to pass such a Bill of Rights resolution, creating a series of civil liberties free zones from NYC to Los Angeles and Hawii.
Udi Ofer and Glenn C. Devitt of The New York City Bill of Rights Defense Campaign would note: “Given that the Council convened to deliberate on the resolution only a few blocks from Ground Zero, it was hard not to appreciate the historical significance of the vote. It’s largely in the name of the New Yorkers who perished on 9/11 that the federal government continues to push through antiterrorism policies which needlessly sacrifice our most fundamental rights and freedoms.” With the passage of Res. 60 New York said: no more immigrant profiling, illegal detentions, no more harassing library clerks for records of citizens, no more stifling free speech. Not in our name.
Riding home one night through the snow after one of our bi weekly drunken RTS “meetings” and planning sessions, a friend explained that even if the world she lived in was going completely to hell on a macro level, she still had to do something at home. That was the only thing she could see doing. As answers to bigger questions–few emerged. Irony and play would still be necessary fun parts of strategy, to be used when they seemed tactically appropriate, when coordinated with great research and political saaavy. But for now, direct action had successfully coordinated with a legislative campaign to make one city and the U.S. a little bit more free.
February 4th, I sent out a final email congratulating everyone involved: “thanks for all your amazing work, thanks to everyone who sent a fax, signed a card, showed at a rally, a street party or a rant off…. thanks to all of you, New York City just became a Patriot Act Free Zone.”
BENJAMIN SHEPARD is co-editor of From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization (Verso, 2002) and author of White Nights and Ascending Shadows: An Oral History of the San Francisco AIDS Epidemic (Cassell, 1997).
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.