By P. Wingnut
To inform and encourage mass protests of the mainstream party conventions this summer, following is an account of my experience protesting at the 2000 Democratic Convention in LA. Slingshot is publishing several accounts of past convention protests on pages 10-12. This isn’t meant to be just nostalgia. What we need are lessons about what might work this year plus inspiration to get ourselves off facebook and out into the streets. When so many people are seduced by the empty promises of electoral politics, street action is particularly crucial.
Direct action during an election year isn’t just about the conventions. Black Lives Matter-inspired protests are popping up everywhere and are powerful because they are focused on local police killings. Or what about the hundreds who were arrested trying to shatter the collective stupor during Democracy Spring protests in Washington, DC.? And from May 4-15, thousands will blockade fossil fuel infrastructure in support of a just transition to renewable energy during the Break Free protests. Resistance outside and against the system is where the action is.
When I think back to the 2000 DNC, I want to start off by admitting that I went mostly for the spectacle and the idea of street action — which is always a good thing. Street chaos is exciting, empowering and it exposes the violence inherent in the system. I tend to think that a riot organizes more people than 10,000 fliers. Most people understand that they are oppressed and inherently connect with ruptures in acceptance of this shit.
The convention was just an excuse — which is what it ought to be in 2016, too. The two party system stopped bothering me years ago — it is a part of the mainstream reality along with freeways, corporate food, soulless jobs, climate change, meaninglessness and ugliness. Electoral politics aren’t better or all that much worse than the things listed above — the shit is all terrible. To stay sane and happy, I ignore as much as I can, refuse to participate if possible, and do what I can to fight and undermine this horrible reality.
The electoral system is a distraction from the real forces that shape the world — capitalism and techno/materialism. Don’t believe the hype! Electing someone “better” to lead a fundamentally bankrupt system is as meaningless as thinking you can reform consumerism buying the right thing or defeat the employment system by joining a union.
This year, racist violence associated with the election is boiling right below the surface — and many are concerned that bringing chaos to the streets in this context will only inflame dangerous forces. But the racist anti-Muslim/anti-immigrant rhetoric is a flawed response to real economic and political forces that have ground down the lives of millions of people for the last 40 years — declining wages, income stratification and betrayal. What’s desperately needed are inspirational sparks that help turn anger away from racial scapegoats and towards the real enemies: the economic elite, corporations and the systems of economic exploitation that steal and concentrate the wealth that regular people toil to create. Now is the perfect time to bring the spirit of Occupy and the 99% back into the picture as a positive response to divide-and-conquer racism. Working people of all races united against the 1% are an unstoppable force.
To understand the 2000 DNC protests, you have to realize how things felt just after the massive uprising at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in November, 1999. 50,000 people seized downtown Seattle shutting down the meeting and block-after-block of the business district despite thousands of heavily armed police who were on a rampage all day — emptying their cans of pepper spray on us, shooting us with rubber bullets and filling the air with tear gas and flash bang grenades. The WTO was probably the high point of my life (so far, anyway) — an inspiring rupture in the fabric of business as usual.
Radicals were so used to being invisible and atomized before the WTO but suddenly, all our isolated, tiny, ragtag communities of anarchists, environmentalists and labor militants came out of the shadows and for the first time in our lives, we mattered. We controlled the streets. Not only that, but I don’t think we ever felt so alive and in the moment before. It was profoundly sexy. I remember being out in the street until 3 am dodging police and tear gas and having to force myself to leave. The WTO protest brought up fundamental economic issues and transcended single-issue politics through leaderless mass action similar to Occupy years later.
Based on that electric sense of excitement and power, a few of us headed to Los Angeles the following summer. No doubt about it — we were looking for trouble. We wanted to do everything we could to disrupt the convention and expose the bullshit of the two-party system and we knew if we succeeded, it was going to be fun and fucking intense. Facing riot cops and the real threat of violence is scary, but mostly it is exciting. After the WTO, I couldn’t calm down for two months — I dreamt of police lines and explosions and probably had a little bit of PTSD.
When we showed up in Los Angeles, we quickly learned that the police had been thinking about the WTO a lot as well. They were determined not to ever let what had happened in Seattle repeat itself.
There were 2 or 3 marches scheduled per day during the convention — each organized by various interest groups focusing on labor, the environment, war, etc. It was blazing hot but we went to all the marches anyway — even though they felt pretty pointless because our numbers were small and we were surrounded by unlimited lines of police.
We couldn’t do shit. You could march around in the abandoned downtown LA heat knowing no one could see you and you couldn’t disrupt anything. If you wanted, you could charge the police line and get arrested, but so what? It was totally different than Seattle — we controlled nothing, the cops had total control and it wasn’t sexy or exciting. I guess the best we could say is that we were exposing the violence inherent in the system — perhaps images of the massive police overreaction would help shake the legitimacy of corporate democracy.
We went to every march anyway because we were all waiting for a chance — a mistake by the police. We hoped against hope that something was going to give and we wanted to be in the right place at the right time. Overall, this is an excellent strategy not only for a particular protest, but for the radical movement and even for life in general. You can’t be in the right place at the right time if you’re alone at home with your computer. Despite the hopeless situation, people did go on little rampages even though it meant certain arrest.
At night, somehow there was going to be a Rage Against The Machine concert in the protest-pen right in front of the fucking convention hall. Even though the pen was surrounded by police and a 14 foot chain link fence, it seemed like the concert had a lot going for it. It attracted an extra-large crowd — so lesson #1 is that having large numbers really does help even when the police are heavily armed and you are trapped in a tiny fenced-off area.
The crowd wasn’t necessarily mostly radicals — I think a lot of them just wanted to see a free show. Lesson #2: to get large numbers we need to draw folks outside the radical scene. Cliques, security culture, activist jargon that isolates us, refusal to associate with people who have different political perspectives — all of this suffocates the openness we need to pull off big things.
The concert was at night — which almost always works to encourage disorder. Although I don’t think there was a plan, a few people started throwing empty plastic water bottles and other small objects over the tall fence at the police. It was a laughable and totally symbolic act. The bottles had to be thrown straight up in the air to clear the tall fence, so they fell harmlessly on a huge stretch of empty concrete between the fence and the police line. I am pretty sure my friends and I were making fun of the masked macho-types throwing stuff. But then somewhat to our surprise, this modest act worked!
Around 8 pm while Ozomatli was playing, “police suddenly shut down the lights on stage and LAPD Commander Gary Brennan declared the gathering an illegal assembly and ordered the audience to leave. Ten minutes later 400 police officers, most on motorcycles or horseback, began to wade into the crowd. Another group of police began firing ‘non-lethal munitions’ into the crowd, including rubber bullets, small bean bags fired from shotguns and pepper spray,” according to WSWS (who recall more details than I do.)
My friends and I made it out into the street to avoid getting surrounded in what looked like it might be a mass arrest. Some people ran away but a lot of people stood up to the police, maybe falling back a little when there were bullets flying, but then coming back. We finally all got hit with rubber bullets and the crowd got pushed back and dispersed. For a lot of people, what happened was terrible, scary or didn’t represent a dignified way to protest. Many people howled about the police brutality. A lot of people were there for a concert and were outraged that the police charged them even though 99.9% of the crowd hadn’t thrown anything. The police ordered everyone to disburse but then didn’t let people leave.
We had spent the whole day waiting for something to happen, and in the end, the police overreaction did our work for us. Lesson #3: the system always seeks order and management and often a win will be creating disorder — and this can be by mistake because you can’t organize dis-organization. Normally our strength isn’t a direct confrontation with power, which we’ll usually lose, but rather changing the game or even running away from the police. The police are happy when they know where you are and understand what you’re up to — but when they don’t, that’s chaos and that’s what really undermines an authoritarian system.
As far as I can tell, the 2000 DNC didn’t change the course of history, undermine the two-party system, or whatever. But if you live your life only measuring your experiences that way, you’re missing the point. It ended up feeling like it was worth it — a memorable experience. Since 2000, the police response to convention protests has become more and more intense, and the number of people willing to protest seems to be falling. But there’s really no telling what will go down this year if someone doesn’t try. The sense of danger and desperation is at an all time high — racism, immigrant bashing and violence are in the air, class inequality has never been so in our face in our lifetime, and the planet’s ecosystem is breaking down. We may be getting close to the point where no one has anything left to lose and if enough people get out into the streets, you never know what might happen.