In 1989 the Greens held their national gathering in Eugene, Oregon. That was before they had entered national electoral politics, when they still focused on grassroots organizing, and what we now call ‘movement from below.’ I was sitting on the stairs of the U of O campus, where the event was held, chatting with George Katsiaficas and an ecological organizer from India, when the subject of the next years’ 20th anniversary of Earth Day came up. We talked about how it would be good to radicalize the event, and counter the attempt by corporations to co-opt it. I would soon be moving to New York City, and mostly as a joke, I suggested that we shut down Wall Street for Earth Day. George liked the idea, and made me a deal: He would suggest it when he addressed the gathering that evening and, if it was well received, I would have to make sure it happened. Well, he did present the idea, putting forward a vision of using abandoned cars chained to light polls to block the streets around the stock exchange, and the Greens loved it, giving him a standing ovation. We were on.
At the time I was part of an organization called the Youth Greens, made up of anarchist, socialist and generally radical, Leftist youth. We sought to counter those who thought the Greens should become a national political party, instead emphasizing direct action and the creation of counter-institutions and dual-power. We had a good number of ideological battles with older reformists, and often aligned ourselves with the Left Green Network, with whom we shared many political principles. We were in part influenced by the work of Murray Bookchin, in particular his understanding that the ecological crisis was based in the crisis in society, and that to end the attempt to dominate nature, we would have to end forms of social domination. We understood that social relations like capitalism, patriarchy and racism were at the root of the ecological crisis.
The Youth Greens were born at a gathering at Antioch College in 1989, adopting a set of politics that included Gay, Lesbian and Bi-Sexual Liberation, Social Eco-Feminism, Revolutionary Dual-Power, Anti-Racism and Anti-Capitalism. These political principles were developed through a directly democratic process, in which working groups would write principles, bring them to a general assembly for discussion and debate, then back to the working group for further development. We wrote our founding documents this way over the weekend.
We would go on to develop five active local groups, and individual members across the US and Canada. The Youth Greens proposed an Earth Day Wall Street Action for April 23rd, 1990, the Monday morning after the huge 20th Earth Day celebration. Pretty quickly the Left Green Network endorsed the action, as did the revolutionary anarchist Love and Rage group, and eventually over forty other social justice, ecological, and Green groups from around the country. We saw this action as an opportunity to push a social movement direction for the Greens and broader environmental movement.
Former members of the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance in New England got involved, and a group in Vermont produced a fifty-page action handbook with essays from various organizers, information on forming affinity-groups, write-ups about the grassroots groups involved, and even a bibliography for further reading. At the time, corporations put forward the idea that it was individual behavior that was responsible for environmental problems, so the cover of the Action Handbook proclaimed: “Who is destroying the Earth – Are we all equally to blame? NO! We say go to the source. We say: Take it to Wall Street!”
We rented office space from Love and Rage and held regular meetings in New York and New England. Young folks from The Guardian, the Leftist national newspaper that is now defunct, got involved, and groups like Bhopal Action Resource Center, Dine Green Alliance, the Love Canal Homeowners’ Association, ACT UP and other groups endorsed the action. A Youth Green local in San Francisco organized a solidarity action for the same time, and other actions were planned to coincide around the country.
At the time, mass actions were usually characterized by permitted marches, with ‘Peace Police’ keeping people in line. We wanted to break out of this model. There would be no permit, and no one in charge. Instead, we encouraged folks to form affinity-groups, and to show up at 6am to block the traders from getting in to the stock exchange. Mind you, this is almost ten years before the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle.
The weekend leading up to the action, we held huge organizing meetings and direct action trainings at Charas/El Bohio, the squatted Lower East Side school that was home to Puerto Rican cultural and political groups.
The Youth Greens, who were in part influenced by the German autonomen, organized a black bloc, a ‘mobile cluster’ of affinity groups, with everyone dressed in black, using black bandanas to cover their faces to deter the police from singling people out for surveillance and arrest. The meet-up point for the black bloc was Liberty Plaza, which later would be renamed Zuccotti Park, and become home to the Occupy Wall Street movement. This was one of the first times the black bloc tactic was used in the US.
Dozens of young folks showed up at Liberty Plaza at 6am, and quickly got to work building barricades on Broadway with bicycle racks, garbage cans, and pieces of wood from a nearby construction site, before the sun had even come up. Meanwhile, hundreds of additional folks arrived, and affinity groups began sitting down in front of the entrances of the police saw-horse mazes erected to make sure Wall Street opened for business. Six hundred police were mobilized for this purpose, in effect shutting down Wall Street, surrounding it with saw horses and riot cops so no one could get close. Over 1,500 people showed up for the action, which lasted till the late afternoon, blocking entrances and causing mayhem. Over 200 were arrested. In San Francisco, 600 people showed up at the Pacific Stock Exchange, blocking entrances, scuffling with police and unarresting people. The windshield of a police car was broken, as were several bank windows and several people were arrested on charges of assaulting a police officer. It felt like the beginning of a new ecological direct action movement, targeting capitalism for the social and ecological crisis.
In 1990 those of us who confronted 600 police guarding Wall Street felt we were part of a new movement. That summer, Earth First!, through the efforts of Judi Barry and others, would organize Redwood Summer in California, seeking to bridge the gap between the working-class, labor, and environmentalists. Hundreds of young people went to Northern California for a series of direct actions to protect old growth forests. That fall, the Student Environmental Action Coalition would hold its second national conference, with more than 7,000 students from all 50 states and eleven countries attending. We felt optimistic about the future of the movement.
When one is in the streets with hundreds and thousands of others, part of a sustained movement – think of Occupy at its height, or the recent movement against police violence – it feels timeless, like the movement will go on until we’re victorious. It’s easy to get infatuated with our collective power. Yet, this youthful social ecological insurgency died down over time. In 1992, the Youth Greens, disgusted with the Greens’ entry into national electoral politics, would seek to change their name, but eventually fizzled out. The journal the organization produced, Free Society, would continue to publish until 1996, but after that it too was finished.
The Youth Greens were limited in their makeup, primarily white, working and middle class, mostly college students. While having a relatively sophisticated understanding of patriarchy, racism and class exploitation, the group was new to organizing, and mostly made things up as they went along. They were caught between older Greens, who often thought they were too radical, and younger anarchists and other Leftists, who questioned why they thought the Green movement had revolutionary potential. Eventually, the Youth Greens began to question this as well and most, such as the Minneapolis AWOL collective, dived deeper into anarchist politics. AWOL began working with local Native peoples against radioactive waste storage on a nearby reservation.
For an organization of mostly people in their twenties, with some high school students also involved, the Youth Greens are significant for what they tried to navigate and figure out, namely the relationships between social forms of domination and ecological collapse, attempting to both think through these things, and organize an oppositional movement to create a new society. That’s a lot for a bunch of folks in their early twenties to take on. That they failed says more about the depth of our situation and the size of the tasks involved, more than anything else, but it also proves how difficult it is to sustain organizing with a demographic inherently in flux, unable to commit to long-term projects.
Twenty-five years later, the social and ecological crisis is even worse. In 1990 climate change was a minor concern, just one among many other ecological issues. Today it is preeminent in many people’s minds. Naomi Klein, in her book This Changes Everything, names capitalism as being responsible for climate change, which is important, yet she backs off this insight with too many qualifications and ultimately recommends primarily reformist solutions. Rather than addressing how capitalism is inherently an anti-ecological social and economic force, she blames “unregulated capitalism” and leaves the reader believing that a Green capitalism is a possibility; that reforms can solve the problem. It is this type of muddled, misdirected thinking that the organizers of the Wall Street Action sought to counter. We need to talk about how climate politics really does change everything, and just how profound a restructuring of society is required.
We can learn much from the experience of the Youth Greens, and the Earth Day Wall Street Action. The politics they advanced, based in directly democratic process, is now common amongst radicals. The Youth Greens’ understanding of the inter-connections between various forms of oppression, and that the ecological crisis stems from the crisis in society, is widespread. But how do we translate that into a sustained movement to transform society? How do we maintain our movements when people stop showing up? How do we build institutions to weather the inevitable lulls in activity? How do we go on, despite the odds, and the pulls of needing to survive, to pay the bills, in a society that leaves so little room for devoting oneself to working for change? These are some of the questions we need to address, and that today’s movement against police violence, for example, must answer.
One thing we can draw from the experience of the Youth Greens is the importance of forming study groups. Study groups can help organizers to develop collective understandings and political cohesion, while countering isolation and despair. Study groups can also lay the basis for growing into political collectives that can take action together, and confederate and work with other collectives.
The Youth Greens lasted about four years, but we need to develop political organizations that can continue when movement activity dies down. Between upsurges, it’s important to have groups of radicals and revolutionaries that have a common analysis, and can act together when people begin to mobilize. Having revolutionaries in organizations can have a positive influence on the development of new insurgencies.
The Earth Day Wall Street Action, like the later Seattle protests against the WTO, the Occupy movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement, demonstrate the way in which militant direct action can influence public consciousness. In the case of the Wall Street Action, the following morning, newspapers across the country proclaimed thousands of people turned out to indict capitalism for environmental problems, and helped counter the corporate attempt to Greenwash Earth Day.
Today, we need an ecological movement against capitalism even more than we did twenty-five years ago. Looking back at the Wall Street Action, we can look forward to the future.
Paul Messersmith-Glavin is an organizer with the Hella 503 Collective, an organization that grew out of the Occupy movement, in Portland, Oregon. He was a founder of the Youth Greens, and is a part of the Institute for Anarchist Studies and the Perspectives on Anarchist Theory journal collective. Twitter: @glavin_paul