3- Subverting the system from Within: Life of a paper wrencher

By Charles Winston

When I say the word “activist,” what image comes to mind? People locking arms around a pipeline? Protesters being hosed down in Birmingham, Alabama? Hippies occupying a tree canopy with signs to protect the forest? When I hear the word, I think of Greenpeace oil rig blockades, the Zapatista guerillas, large plumes of teargas funneling through a metropolis, and a million other things. About the last thing I think of is a business suit at City Hall.

I’m here to hopefully spark your interest in the least exciting form of activism of all: pencil-pushing, time-wasting, form-submitting, “diplomatic” floor-debating, legal-posturing, civic-engaging monotony. Or what one friend has recently described as “paper wrenching.” This phrase was published in the Earth First! Direct Action Manual in 1997. The very idea, the very imagery itself, is about as exciting as a W-2 form. I’m here with the hope that you might find enlivening activist work within this strange bureaucratic web of nonsense that I navigate. Although it’s not for everyone, I hope to inspire your curiosity, or enlist your support for the work that myself and others do.

Not everyone can (hashtag)occupy the federal building, the oil refinery, or smash a window (if that’s your thing). In the egoist culture of one-ups-manship it’s easy to judge each other for not “going all the way” and becoming the ultimate martyr for the cause. Self-care, preservation, and activism look different for different people, though.

Some activists may prioritize raising a child as a single parent, others might be on parole or dodging a warrant. Some might be overcoming addiction or have debilitating PTSD (especially from police abuse), some might be disabled and some might be just plain scared. Whatever the reason, I share a deep respect for all of my comrades. I love the people that are out there “defacing” property (wait, property has a face?) and challenging authority in the streets just as much as I love to know people phone banking. Smashing the state takes on 1,000,001 forms.

When I look at the activist community today, I see a large divide between the paper wrenchers and the direct-actioners; between the people locking their arms to cement blocks and the people that block the arms of the State. My goal is to get these two groups to work and support one another: to love and respect each other so that we can fight for a better world together.

Being a paper-wrencher is an entirely different reality of activism than the yelling-in-the streets-at-police-barricades kinda work that I used to do. I love both equally, but personal circumstances have made the later kind of activism a lot more unlikely. For a time, I thought I would quit being an activist, since I never believed that paper wrenching (going to City Hall meetings, filing forms, etc.) was really “activism.” It seemed like a fa├žade and a tool of the oppressors, which it often is.

However, I’ve also grown to appreciate paper wrenching in ways that people might not realize or know much about. So much of the deplorable and draconian laws that are passed, so many of the drastic changes made in policy that affect our everyday lives are done with such an incredibly small amount of bureaucratic resistance. When I first started going to meetings at City Hall, I was amazed to find how few activists (zero) attended them. Day in and day out I found a panel of council members deciding the fate of the community without so much as a peep of public comment opposition. It makes sense, as City Hall is designed to be imposing, uncomfortable, and to feel like a complete waste of time. I expected all of these things, but what I found was also something very different…

Facing down the enemy, you get to learn a lot about how they think and operate. At the end of the day, these are people too- they have their own lives and agendas, their own loves and hates, and their own vision of “progress.” What I’ve learned to do is to simply be a translator. To speak their language and to communicate radical opposition within that language. I work as a translator between City Hall and the community itself, publishing information and fighting for transparency. I work to expose the idiocy of “public” policy, the disenfranchisement and marginalization of people’s, the lack of outreach, and the lack of inclusion. Most of all though, I guess I’m just a giant thorn in the ass of all the bureaucrats. Most of them had a clean slate and a blank check before I arrived on the scene.

The beauty about engaging through these (often tedious) paper wrenching processes, is that it’s often irrelevant whether or not you “win” or “lose” at a particular hearing. The goal of bureaucracy and the job bureaucrats is to induce apathy and depression. To wear you down with paperwork and make you mush through a bunch of nonsense so that, on the outside, it looks like you just didn’t care enough to use the “democratic” process. If you abandon the process they have available, then they (City Hall and nonprofit bureaucrats) get to act like the “good guys” holding the door open – you’re just too lazy to go through.

One of my goals as a paper wrenching is to expose the facade of this false Western “democracy.” In truth, the door is actually behind several feet of infrared lasers, barbed wire, security cameras, and attack dogs. Just ask women like Angie E. and Kylie A. who spoke out against sexual violence in the film It Happened Here by Lisa Jackson. This documentary, released in 2014, covers the painfully sociopathic response of the bureaucrats at Amherst, Vanderbilt, and other Ivy League universities in response to reports of sexual assault on campus. In disgusting public relations pencil-pushing fashion, their meetings were kept secret, unrecorded, and swept under the rug as much as possible. It wasn’t until these brave women came forward, along with many others exposing the bureaucrat smoke screen to create a community movement that things began to change.

I translate “legaleez” jargon for the community and relay how people can be more engaged in civic life, letting them know which meetings are a complete waste of time and which ones are not; which ones to protest at and which ones to send a single representative. I’m that chameleon on the inside, looking like the next idiot in a business suit but giving the politicians and the pencil-pushers a lot of hell every step of the way.

For whatever reason, I found myself highly adaptable to this environment. My background has given me the tools to “infiltrate” this pseudo-democracy to try to turn it into real democracy. In the process, I’ve learned to appreciate the things I used to hate without compromise. I’ve learned to appreciate some of the things that government *gasp* does correctly, to appreciate some of the benefits of our activist forefighters’ gains. I learned to see what America can be, if it really had a chance to live up to the ideals that some people believe in.

As an internationalist, it’s a strange way to feel. As someone who has mocked patriotism at every opportunity, it’s an interesting new lens of compassion. Not that I’m about to go marching in the Fourth of July anytime soon (I prefer to read Frederick Douglass’ speech to the abolitionists on that day), but I can see why other people do. As a translator, I feel like I can sometimes see the intricacies beneath the conflicts that wage everywhere in this class war and environmental siege. Sometimes, you find out things can improve by opening a dialogue. And sometimes you just get to clog up and work to defuse the ticking time bomb that is the PTB (Powers That Be).

Bureaucracy is a dangerous cloning machine though, I do have to caution people against that. Anyone that works in city government has to fight day in and day out not to be consumed by the legitimized exploitation of “public” policy. This applies to “nonprofits” as well, which prey upon the compassionate and very human desire to “do good while making a living at it”. These are nefarious systems that are constantly evolving (or devolving) to consume as many souls as they can. For this reason, and many others, people that work in this trite little necktie world are labeled as “sellouts” “hacks” and “spin doctors.” Most of them, of course, are exactly that. But the question is, which ones aren’t and which ones are capable of change?

One thing I’ve learned as a paper wrencher is that people that do this kind of work “on the inside” are extremely isolated from the rest of the activist community (including me). It’s tragic, really, because the people fighting this uphill battle (sometimes for decades) tap out and quit, resign, or otherwise retreat from the world. Bureaucracy is a desert without humanity breathing love, music, and passion into it. It’s like you’re playing CPR with your soul every day, knowing that you’re doing the right thing and that you’ll never be thanked for it, or feel the “Solidarity Forever” vibes that come from being in the picket line.

Working “on the inside” you learn about the ‘cheat sheet’ though – the people who are actually fighting against the bureaucratic madness in support of the community. These people are the rare few that I spend my time personally checking in with, emailing frequently, and strategizing for how to confront the rest of the beast. In the “nonprofit” world, these are the people that work in low-pay legal defense (i.e. National Lawyers Guild), privacy protection law (i.e. Electronic Frontier Foundation), tenants rights groups, homeless services, etc.. At City Hall, these people could be literally in any department and in any branch, doing their best to keep the insanity in check.

To say that these people are “unsung heroes” is an understatement to the nth degree. Imagine spending decades of your life confined to a soulless cubicle surrounded by coworkers that are bigots and racists, fighting day in and day out to protect the lives and well-being of the most oppressed and marginalized people, to work lethargic long-hours with a room full stacked paper and a computer screen, to see all your coworkers get promoted and massive public praise for their exploitative policies while you fight to barely keep your (increasingly agonizing) job, all for moderate to shit pay.

I’m not saying this is harder than the millions of sacrifices that activists make every day, but it is a sacrifice rarely ever thought of. An activist without solidarity can quickly rot and die, just like a bean sprout without a trellis. I share these thoughts with the hope that we can support all of our brothers and sisters who struggle against the machine, inside and out. Not necessarily because of some moralistic sentimentality, but because that’s one way that we keep the movement alive (and growing!)

I hope to encourage you to attend a meeting at your local City Hall sometime. Learn how your local government works, how it responds to protests and how it organizes itself. Learn your enemy. Learn who are the chameleons on the inside engaged in the complex theatrics of “public” policy, fighting for you possibly without you even knowing it. Spread the solidarity branches and intertwine the roots. Together, we can wrangle the weapons from our oppressors and make this world a more compassionate and loving place.

In the process, I’ve learned to appreciate the things I used to hate without compromise. I’ve learned to appreciate some of the things that government *gasp* does correctly, to appreciate some of the benefits of our activist forefighters’ gains. I learned to see what America can be, if it really had a chance to live up to the ideals that some people believe in.