Fw: Thoughts on the Meaning of the Philly Protest by Leslie Cagan

Andrew English aenglish at igc.org
Tue Aug 15 17:33:33 PDT 2000

-----Original Message----- From: Michael Eisenscher <meisenscher at igc.org> To: Solidarity4Ever at igc.topica.com <Solidarity4Ever at igc.topica.com> Date: Tuesday, August 15, 2000 10:28 AM Subject: Thoughts on the Meaning of the Philly Protest by Leslie Cagan

>Plese feel free to pass this along to other...
>by Leslie Cagan, August 14, 2000
>For nearly a week I wrote reports on the many protest activities I
>participated in during the Republican Convention in Philadelphia. (All
>of my reports can be found at www.zmag.org.) As the demonstrations came
>to an end I realized that I needed to offer some thoughts on the meaning
>of it all and what we can learn from the experience. But writing this
>piece has been harder than putting together my reports -- mostly because
>the events in Philly are still not over. As of today 48 people remain in
>jail, and all of the more than 450 people arrested faced very high
>bails and ridiculous charges. The full story, and a more thorough
>analysis of the meaning on the Philly protests cannot be written until
>everyone is out of jail and the court appearances and trials are
>completed. In the meantime, here some preliminary thoughts.
>#1: Introduction
>On August 4th the delegates, alternates and guests attending the
>Republican Party Convention - along with the estimated 15,000 members of
>the media - packed up and left Philadelphia. Riding high on what they
>hailed as a success, these folks all seemed to not care about the more
>than 450 people in jail as a result of protest activities during their
>For almost a week, people upset with the direction this country
>continues to move in, and the role of both the Republican and Democratic
>Parties, gathered to raise their voices and call attention to a range of
>concerns. Activities included marches and rallies with permits (secured
>only after taking legal action against the city) to marches without
>permits; from forums and an alternative convention to non-violent civil
>Now, as the Democratic Party Convention gets underway in Los Angeles, I
>offer some thoughts on the meaning of the Philly protests. In some
>respect we are still too close to these activities to fully understand
>what impact they will have or how they will be remembered. There is a
>great deal that the organizers and participants need to evaluate, and as
>a social change movement we all need to consider the lessons from these
>events. My comments here will hopefully be useful as part of that larger
>#2: Message
>The mainstream media over and again claimed there was no clear message,
>almost implying that people were protesting just for the sake of
>protesting. Of course, this is ridiculous: there were important, clear
>issues that were raised throughout the week. Part of the problem was the
>media's refusal to address the issues. For instance, on August 1st there
>was a press conference opposing the death penalty and calling for
>justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal and at least 80 reporters were in the room.
>As best we can tell only 3 or 4 outlets actually ran a story on it.
>In another example, the July 30th Unity 2000 march and rally was
>designed as a multi-issue, multi-constituency event. The call for the
>demonstration offered a solid critique of the many domestic and global
>problems before us, offering ideas on how things could be different. A
>decision by organizers not to suggest that one issue was central did, I
>believe, make sense. The goal was to bring people active in different
>struggles together, to show an understanding that our issues are
>connected. Did the mainstream media print the call for the Unity 2000
>protest, or even excerpts from it? No. Instead, for weeks the Philly
>papers ran articles about how the police were ready for any trouble,
>etc., etc.
>Don't get me wrong: I am not suggesting that everything is the fault of
>the media. Indeed, precisely because we know how hard it is to get our
>message out through the mainstream media it is critically important for
>organizers to be creative in developing other ways to deliver the
>message. For instance, I believe it would have been possibly to give the
>Unity 2000 event more political definition and depth, and to do so in a
>way that maintained the multi-issue nature of the day. Articulating an
>over-arching demand for justice and democracy, for example, would have
>allowed each group to bring its issues and still help everyone see the
>Here's another example. The direct action on August 1st was aimed at
>calling attention to the realities of the "criminal injustice system",
>linking the death penalty, the expanding prison-industrial complex and
>police brutality. The challenge of getting a complex message out to a
>generally hostile media was made infinitely more difficult as the
>puppets, signs, banners and other items designed to explain the issues
>were seized by the police several hours before the action got underway.
>But, again, some of the responsibility rests with the organizers.
>Several times during the afternoon I stood on corners as people blocked
>traffic and the police cordoned off the streets. Passersby asked what
>was happening...a logical question since the mammoth police presence
>made it impossible to even see where the demonstrators were, much less
>what was being said. I did my best to explain, but certainly having
>people on the streets handing out an informational leaflet would have
>gone a long way. In fact, I don't believe any of the demonstrations I
>attended had handouts to give people as we marched and rallied on the
>streets of Philadelphia.
>#3: Independent/Alternative Media
>Realizing the limits of working with and through the mainstream,
>corporate controlled media has led to the development of Independent
>Media Centers around the country. When activists in Philly learned last
>summer that the Republicans were coming to town, one of the first
>projects to get underway was the organizing of an IMC in Philly.
>I spent a lot of time at the IMC and was extremely impressed with the
>operation. Every type of media was being used, all in the service of
>helping to get out honest and politically supportive reporting of the
>events as they unfolded. A daily broadside was printed (although I'm not
>sure how widely it got distributed); audio tapes for radio broadcasts
>were produced; video journalists got just about everything that happened
>on tape; a web site included written articles, audio and video reports.
>There was room for reporters from alternative media to file their
>stories, as well as access to the most up-to-date information about what
>was happening on the streets. In addition, an exciting new effort took
>place with the twice daily live radio, web and cable TV broadcasts of
>the news.
>As was true in Seattle last November and in Washington, DC this past
>April, the IMC made it possible to get the real story out - the story
>the mainstream media simply will not tell. It was exciting to see the
>creativity, the use of older and newer technologies and the clarity of
>common purpose. The organizers of the IMC hope the positive experience
>will help as they hammer out plans to continue to operate, continue to
>provide a serious alternative source of news and information. Of course,
>it will help their efforts tremendously if the progressive funding
>community could begin to see the importance of media our movement's
>media efforts!
>#4: Coordination
>The fact that the Republicans and their corporate buddies would be in
>town for several days offered both an opportunity and a challenge to
>organizers. Because the Republican Party is so bad on every issue and
>has played such a heavy role in moving the country further and further
>to the right (no, I am not suggesting in any way that the Democrats are
>good!), there were endless possibilities for issues to address...and
>because they would be around for a few days meant there was no need to
>everyone to agree on just one form of protest. The challenge was to find
>a way for constituency and issue groups to raise their concerns in the
>way they felt most comfortable and, at the same time, to develop a
>vehicle to increase cooperation and support. How do we build unity and
>maintain our diversity? How do we encourage new initiatives and tie our
>efforts together?
>For reasons I have yet to figure out, putting together an umbrella
>structure that would allow all of this to happen was extremely
>difficult. For months there were attempts to develop something, and the
>baby steps that were taken would collapse. Finally, in the last two
>months or so, the R2K network did come together. In addition to helping
>everyone know what was being planned, it was also then possible to
>figure out what needs the different activities had and develop ways to
>work together. In the end, teams of people were put together to offer
>medical, legal and media support for all of the protests. That meant
>that each demonstration did not have to put together and train its own
>legal observers or people with first aid skills.
>It was wonderful that this came together in the end, but I can't help
>but wonder how much more effective this umbrella structure might have
>been if people had been able to develop it months earlier. I am struck
>over and again, not just in Philly, at how deeply activists understand
>the need to link issues and yet still have such difficulty when it comes
>time to actually work together. Perhaps one of the problems in
>Philadelphia (and other places) is that organizers don't have a lot of
>contact with people in other struggles in between the times when outside
>forces (such as the Republicans coming to town) throw them together.
>#5: Tactics and Outreach
>As I said, one of the good things about having a few days available for
>demonstrations is that it allows for the possibility of a range of
>tactics to be used. And this true in Philly.
>The first protests were permitted marches and rallies, and the hope was
>that the Unity 2000 demonstration would bring out very large numbers of
>people. I know there are disagreements about the numbers, although I
>doubt that anyone would suggest that this was a truly massive turn-out.
>One of the reasons to use this form of protest is that it allows for
>larger numbers of people to participate, including people who for any
>number of reasons may not want to do civil disobedience or engage in
>other forms of public protest.
>I believe the decision of Unity 2000 to aim for that type of event, and
>to do it on the Sunday before the Republican Convention opened, was a
>good one. The problem was that the organizing did not match the
>potential. While there was a list of over 200 groups endorsing the
>demonstration, the core group never managed to kick its outreach and
>organizing into high gear. Philadelphia was not flooded with leaflets
>and posters and mailings and phone banking....the word did not get out.
>And without a solid base and strong momentum in Philly it was extremely
>hard to build interest in other cities.
>On the opening day of the Republican Convention, the Kensington Welfare
>Rights Union led a non-permitted march from Center City a full 3 miles
>down to the First Union Center where the Republicans would gather later
>than evening. KWRU had tried to get a permit and was repeatedly denied
>one by the city...but they made it clear they would march regardless.
>Both the issue and the tactic were clear: the voices of poor people in
>their call for economic justice would not be silenced and the march
>would happen.
>The event went very well as thousands of people joined the KWRU, and the
>success of the day might lead some to conclude that it is better for
>groups to organize their own activities, to steer away from coalitions.
>But I don't think it is that easy, and there certainly are no magic
>formulas: sometimes coalitions make sense and sometimes a group acting
>on its own works best. The real question is what will work best given
>the particular circumstances and what will help best deepen and expand
>the movement?
>Without a doubt, the tactic that got the most attention from the media
>was the day of direct action on August 1st. The idea was
>straight-forward: given the state of the "criminal injustice system"
>there can be no business as usual. The plan was to make it difficult, if
>not impossible, for the delegates to get to the convention that evening
>- and to do that by blocking traffic in the downtown area packed with
>the hotels where the delegates were staying.
>As I finish this piece, two weeks have passed since the protests
>began...and there are still 48 people in jail in Philadelphia! Most of
>the more than 400 people arrested spent at least a week in jails and
>since the August 1st direct action extensive time, energy and money has
>gone into getting folks out. There have been serious physical assaults
>on people (described by some as torture), outrageous charges and unheard
>of bails ranging from $10,000 all the way up to $1,000,000 for two
>people. As I said earlier, a thorough evaluation of the day will have to
>wait until the dust settles on this legal situation. And when that does
>happen, I hope such an evaluation will look at the meaning of this new
>tactic by the state: making the jail experience and the ability to get
>out as difficult as one could possibly imagine. (Just this past week
>protesters against the U.S. military occupation of Vieques, Puerto Rico
>were hit with $10,000 bails for non-violent civil disobedience, and we
>shall see what happens this coming week in Los Angeles!)
>Having said that, I do have a few thoughts about the direct action. The
>goal of the protest was, at least for five hours in the late afternoon
>and early evening, achieved: there was no business as usual in Center
>City Philly that afternoon. There were enough people engaged in the
>civil disobedience and involved in a supportive way that most of the
>main arteries of the downtown area were disrupted.
>At the same time, according to reports on the news that night, the
>Republican Convention started about 15 minutes...they were able to do
>their business as usual. While people demonstrated amazing courage,
>creativity and commitment, we need to be honest: the demonstrations were
>not able to stop or even significantly interfere with the business of
>the Republican Convention.
>I think non-violent civil disobedience is a powerful tactic, and one
>that allows for a great deal of creativity. I also am deeply moved by
>the process used to organize this and other such actions - a process
>based on small affinity groups making their own specific decisions
>within the context of an agreed upon political focus and willing to
>cooperate on a number of details that make everyone's effort stronger.
>The combination of decentralized and yet still coordinated planning is
>There are estimates that as many as 4,000 people took part in the action
>on August 1st, either by doing the civil disobedience or as support
>people. I don't know if there will ever be an exact count, and that's
>fine. While that's a significant figure, we need to ask how this form of
>protest can made be attractive to more and more people thereby making
>such actions even stronger.
>In most of the protest activities of this past year, the direct action
>was organized primarily by young white activists. What was new here- and
>extremely important - was the input and leadership from young people of
>color. I assume that the political focus of the action helped attract
>young activists of color. But beyond that the people of color brought
>the strength of their own organizing experience into the mix, and many
>of the white activists understood that anti-racist work begins at home.
>I don't want to sound like this was a perfect situation, far from it.
>But it was a giant step in the right direction, something that will be
>built on in the years to come.
>Much of the organizing for all of the activities in Philly was done via
>the internet. Listserves and web sites helped get the word out to folks
>all around the country. It's great that activists are finding ways to
>put the new technologies to work and it is clear that the internet will
>be used more and more in the future. Nonetheless, and some may call me
>old-fashioned, I am concerned that there was so much reliance on the
>internet that other ways of getting the message out simply didn't
>happen, or didn't happen to the extent they might. I mentioned this in
>terms of the Unity 2000 event, but I also think it's true for the direct
>action protest: massive leafleting, mailings, calling people, getting
>posters up, etc. are all tools that we can't walk away from, regardless
>of the form our protests take. It is not a question of using the
>internet OR doing this other things...it all must be used if we are to
>really make sure our message is getting out.
>Finally, because these activities unfolded over a few days it was much
>easier to have the space for different tactics. Now, as the evaluation
>process begins, I hope we take a closer look at which tactics work best
>for what situations. There is no one perfect tactic and there are lots
>of reasons to decide on one or another tactic. The point is to figure
>out what we can use to best communicate our message, make our statement,
>and strengthen our movement.
>#6: Identity Politics?
>For years, people have fought hard to bring their different identities
>into coalition efforts in the hopes of deepening the common political
>analysis and to make sure their own struggles are not lost in the mix.
>There is much to say about the strengths and weaknesses of identity
>politics...no, I am not going to do that here.
>As I went to many of the Philadelphia protests I was struck by the lack
>of, what I would call, identity presence. As an activist in the
>lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender movement for many years, I was struck
>by the number of lesbians, gay men and other queer people involved in
>the organizing for much of the activities in Philadelphia. But I was
>even more struck by the lack of a visible queer presence. I don't know
>what this means or what, if anything, should be done about it. The good
>news in this is that perhaps at least some folks are moving beyond some
>of the limitations of identity-based politics. The problematic is that
>we learned long ago there is an assumption of heterosexuality when a
>queer identity is not made visible.
>I wonder if the new wave of activists have a different relationship to
>identity and therefore to identity politics, and it would be wonderful
>to hear from folks about their thoughts on this. The discussion might
>help us avoid a dynamic where people put aside their identities for the
>sake of the common good, only to have internal struggles erupt in ways
>that make working together more difficult. The challenge is to move
>toward a unity grounded in a respect for our diversity, a unity
>strengthened by what we each bring to the struggle.
>#7: The Other Convention
> One of other main activities in Philadelphia was the "Shadow
>Convention" called by a small coalition of groups but essentially under
>the leadership of Arianna Huffington. They got some mainstream media
>attention, although I assume not what they had hoped for given the heavy
>hitters they had speaking. The idea of convening a parallel convention
>where several of the major issues of day (the power of money in the
>electoral system, the failure of the war on drugs, and the growing
>divide between the wealthy and poor) can be seriously examined and new
>ideas for addressing these problems can be put forth is great. But I had
>a problem with the "Shadow Convention". That is, someone with a great
>deal of money who has already established herself as a media celebrity
>(in no small way because of her money), called the shots. Did this not,
>in some fashion, replicate the problem that those with money have the
>power to make the decisions? Of course, on top of this Arianna
>Huffington was for many years a hard core Republican, a friend of Newt
>Gingrich. Yes, people do change - if I didn't believe that I would have
>gotten out of this line of work a long, long time ago. But would a tiny
>bit of humility not have been in order? Would it have been so difficult
>to ask organizers in Philly what they thought should happen, if they
>needed any financial support for their activities, how the idea of a
>"Shadow Convention" might have been helpful for their ongoing work?
>#8: Closing
>When all is said and done, the real question is what are we doing
>in-between the public protests? It is understandable that our
>demonstrations are often viewed as a measure of the strength (or
>weakness) of our movements, and I strongly believe in the value of
>public action, mass mobilization and street protest. At the same time,
>the energy, time and money that goes into these activities needs to be
>matched or surpassed by what we put into our on-going organizing
>efforts. Are we carrying out educational campaigns, are we reaching out
>to people not yet involved, are we training newer activists in a range
>of skills, are we consciously engaged in the hard work of movement
>building? If not, our demonstrations will not grow, our power will not
>expand, or ability to make change will fall short.
>Now, two weeks since the Philadelphia demonstrations, I believe it was
>important that these protests happen, and that in many ways there were
>important successes during the week. Perhaps one of the most important
>things is that Philly was yet another expression of the deep commitment,
>sometime dazzling creativity and often very sharp political insights of
>a new generation of activists. In this past year alone we have seen this
>in Seattle and in Washington, DC as young people led the demonstrations
>against the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank; in cities across the
>country as young people are in the forefront of the fight against police
>brutality and in defense of the rights of immigrants; on hundreds of
>campuses in the struggle against sweatshops; the list goes on. I was
>glad to be in Philadelphia to be counted as part of the opposition
>movement. I was honored to be in the company of so many young activists!
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