Global Policy Forum

New York! Saturday and Beyond


by Starhawk

February 15, 2002

The actions over the weekend of Feb 1-3, 2001 in New York City were at the same time empowering and frustrating, a political victory and a tactical morass.

Saturday, in the march, we had something like 10,000-20,000 people out on the streets. We mobilized people in spite of a climate of public fear and official hostility that's hard to imagine unless you experienced it. New York is still in a state of shock and trauma from the attacks of September 11. While many of the activists overcame that state enough to plan and carry out an action, most of the support we can generally count on from unions and NGOs was absent.

In the leadup to the action, the police mounted their usual campaign of demonization, and the media clustered around like ghouls eager to lick blood. In the weeks before the action, even the generally progressive Village Voice published an article that came straight out of the police propaganda factory. (They somewhat redeemed themselves later with a piece on anarchism that was actually quite good.)

In a climate in which the police are widely seen as heroes and the very thought of protest is suspect, getting that many people out on the streets has to be seen as a victory. We reclaimed some political space, asserted our right to dissent, and hugely raised the social costs for the World Economic Forum. We forced the incipient police state to reveal itself, and actually changed the tone of the news coverage so in the end, New Yorkers were asking whether the Forum had any business coming to town, and whether it was the kind of thing we want to support, anyway.

That victory was won at a cost, like all victories. In this case, the price we paid was getting a legal permit for the march. The New York organizers of the march were mostly anarchists who ordinarily would be as likely to organize a Republican fundraiser as a legal, permitted march. Direct action is more their forte. But in this case, they made a political decision that a permitted march was needed in order to provide a safe place for people to demonstrate who were, for whatever reason, not willing or able at this time to risk arrest. The NGOs or unions who ordinarily would take on the role of planning such a march were not willing to do so.

In retrospect, I believe they made the right political decision. There was simply no possible way to take stronger actions in that climate of fear and hostility without first establishing some arena for broader public support to be shown. But the march was undeniably frustrating. The police succeeding in controlling our space, from the very beginning. Not because anyone wanted them to, not because anyone deliberately led people into a trap, not because of any lack of solidarity on the part of the march, but simply because they had the power and the resources to do so, and we didn¹t have the political or legal clout or the tactical ability to stop them. And since our agreement was to keep the march safe, we were limited in the range of our responses.

From the very beginning, we had to fight (verbally, not physically) simply to get the cops to actually honor the legal permit we did have, to give us a space for our sound system, to leave enough space for people to gather. Grand Army Plaza was not an adequate gathering place for the numbers that came‹but the team negotiating the permit did not have other options.

Thousands and thousands of people gathered to begin the march in a space so crowded that people were literally shoulder to shoulder, making it difficult for people to find their contingents or to hear or see what was going on. When the march set out, the police arbitrarily squeezed people through a narrow bottleneck, creating more crowding and making it difficult or impossible to orchestrate where contingents went.

Reclaim the Streets and the AntiCapitalist Convergence joined us from an unpermitted march that began at Columbus circle. The original plan was for them to be in the front of the march, which would have been better tactically and would have allowed the rest of us to be behind them in solidarity. But due to the crowding, the police pressure, the timing, and the difficulties of communication and space, they ended up at the back of the march. That was unfortunate, because it made it harder for the rest of the march to respond when people in those groups were targeted and arrested. Most of us simply did not know what was going on. The march was full of thousands of people who were not experienced activists and may have had no idea of how to protect someone from getting attacked by police. We had taught hand signals to the crowd that gathered early for the rally‹but they were a small minority in the huge gathering and most people simply didn¹t seem to understand the signals.

The march had no peacekeepers¹ or marshalls or any other authority figures. Personally, I¹m not a fan of peacekeepers because they have so often become movement police, attempting to control the marchers. However, in retrospect I can see a need for some people to take on a roll that wasn't filled. We had a small tactical team and a communications team that tried to keep the tactical people informed of what was going on. But we had no way for the tactical team to communicate back to the rest of the march, to mobilize people to go support a group being attacked, or to hold an intersection if necessary. A lot of the time the radio and cell phone communications simply didn't seem to work. Because of the police strategy of corralling the march from the beginning, and because of the geography of New York, it was extremely difficult for bicycle messengers to move outside of the march and return with information. There were so many people on the streets, and the march was packed so closely, that it was difficult to move physically from one section to another. Our cluster finally sent runners up and down the length of the march to see what was happening, but they couldn¹t move quickly through the crowds so the information we received involved long time delays.

In spite of all the frustrations, the march was also beautiful, inspiring and empowering. Giant puppets took the streets, visions of a better world and images of the tools to build it were carried aloft, people drummed, sang, danced and chanted through the streets. For many people, I think especially for people who were stretching their courage to even be out in the streets at all, the march was liberating and inspiring. One of the men in our cluster said that the moment when the Reclaim the Streets march came through the park was one of the high points of his life. Many others I¹ve spoken with who are new to activism came away thrilled and more deeply committed.

But at the end, the police succeeded in segmenting the march, trapping sections with barriers at intersections, and essentially preventing us from gathering for a final rally or closing. The puppets and drummers who were supposed to do a final piece of the pageant were trapped two sections back: together with the Pagan Cluster, we decided to take over the nearest intersection and hold it with a samba band, and a triumphant dance on stilts by a woman representing Argentina. But the two key intersections further ahead were already blocked.

It¹s always easy to see in retrospect what our strategy could have been. Essentially, we needed to have occupied those intersections at the very beginning, in such a way as to make it difficult or impossible for the police to push us out, and still keep the march safe for those who could not get arrested.

Confronting the police, fighting them, would not have worked in that situation. First, it would have endangered people we were trying to protect, and destroyed the core of our solidarity with immigrant groups and others who had come in good faith to a march they were told would be peaceful. Second, it would have been suicidal. The time to fight is not when you are surrounded, outnumbered, and facing overwhelming forces.

We could potentially have held those intersections with a strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience, if we¹d had groups prepared to risk arrest by sitting down and holding the space. The police might have arrested people, but it would have taken them a long time to do so and cost them something politically. To make that happen, we would have needed a different level of preparation, one more consistent with a direct action than a legal march. We would have needed many affinity groups or blocs who were ready to blockade and prepared to go to jail if necessary, (troops of praying nuns in habits would have been nice!) and we would have needed to get them into position early enough to hold the space. Hindsight is always perfect, but should we face a similar situation again, that's what I'd work towards, and I think a number of strategies could be devised.

In this case, nothing worked. The march was segmented, the group that made it to the Waldorf was penned in and only allowed to leave at the will of the police. We were essentially denied the space to do the rally we had a legal right to do, and many of us felt extremely angry and frustrated that we weren¹t able to do anything about it.

We also did not have a fallback plan or meeting place. We had agreed at the spokescouncil the night before to hold an impromptu spokesmeeting at the end of the march, and coordinate plans for further actions. That was my proposal, born partly out of frustration with a long and contentious meeting, and in retrospect it was a mistake, especially not to have planned a second rendezvous. But at the Friday night meeting, nobody was coming up with good options for some mass direct action Saturday night. No one among the organizers wanted the march to be the only action. Everyone also wanted to see some form of effective direct action. The problem was, there was no clear and obvious direct action to take. The ACC was focusing their actions on Sunday. Potential corporate targets or embassies weren't open on Saturday night. The New York activists didn¹t support what might have seemed like the obvious thing to do, block the party at the Stock Exchange. The area was too deeply associated with the trauma of 9-11, and also too isolated. The potential for severe police violence was high. And nobody else was willing or able to either gather support for a Stock Exchange blockade or come up with a powerful alternative. Although it would have been deeply satisfying to disrupt the party on Wall Street, I¹m not sure that it would actually have gained us much politically, and given the climate of fear and demonization, and the proximity to Ground Zero, it might well have cost us heavily. I can't speak firsthand about Sunday's actions. The ACC moved up the time of their action at the last minute, and it conflicted with a cluster meeting we had no way to change. By the time we could head down to the march on St. Mark's, the arrests had been made and it was all over.

Had we organized an action for Friday or Monday, putting the call out early when people were still making travel plans, we might have blockaded a corporate target. But trying to organize a direct action or a civil disobedience for a weekday at the last minute was too difficult. Also, because the anarchists were doing all the jobs usually done by a much wider community of support, our ranks were thin and our energies stretched.

We might have been wise, at that point, to have simply said, "You know what? At this particular moment, just being out on the street protesting is enough of an action," and focused on the march. In fact, we reaped many of the benefits more militant action would have brought us through the what I came to think of as the Red Phantom. Everyone from the police to the media to many of us seemed sure that groups were coming to town who were intent on property destruction and confrontation regardless of what New York activists or anyone else thought. The cops militarized Manhattan, raising the social costs to the WEF and demonstrating the police power that it relies upon. The media gave us enormous attention in anticipation of lots of broken glass and heads. But the Phantom never materialized. Aside from one broken window on the animal rights march, all the rest of our actions were marches, rallies and other nonviolent forms of protest. Although the media deemed this a police victory, in reality the presence of overwhelming numbers of police for such a low conflict event made the police state visible, and I believe raised serious questions in the mind of the public and even some of the police themselves.

No one could reconcile themselves to abandoning direct action altogether, and so people kept attempting to plan actions. Some were planning small, secret affinity group actions, attempting to keep to security culture. Unfortunately, other people then felt excluded and got mad. There is an ongoing tension between mobilizing people and security culture. People can't get excited and prepared for an action if they don't know it's happening, or know when and where to meet for it. And at the same time, it is true that anything publicly announced is announced to the police, who know just when and where to prepare for it.

To be effective, security culture has to be so tight that you can outsmart the paid professionals who spend their entire lives training to break your security and have access to virtually unlimited resources with which to do so. That's barely feasible if you're doing a small, clandestine affinity group action -it simply can't work if you're trying to include anyone beyond your closest circle of friends - and even then, many people have found to their sorrow that one of their closest friends was, indeed, an agent of the state.

The way around security concerns is to go in the opposite direction, to organize something openly, to know that the police will anticipate you and to simply take that into account in your planning. There's a saying in permaculture that "the problem is the solution." If police surveillance is the problem it's also a potential advantage in that we know it¹s going on, and it gives us a conduit for feeding them any information we want them to have. We openly organized a Monday action at Arthur Anderson, Enron's accountants. Our goal, in part, was to visibly demonstrate that corrupt corporations depend on state power to protect them - and soon we had the entire building walled off by a cordon of cops who essentially blocked it for us. We also met our other goals: to continue to claim political space, to hold a successful unpermitted protest, to demonstrate the public opposition to Enron's illegal and immoral practices, to tie Enron and the World Economic Forum together as examples of what¹s wrong with the current global corporate capitalist system, to show that public outrage about these practices can and will find an outlet.

For most of the people coming to Saturday¹s march, I suspect the ending was less than inspiring but not all that significant. They marched, they got as far as they could, they made their statement, and they could go home feeling good about themselves. But for those of us who ideally wanted some stronger action, the ending felt like a failure. We want to believe that a ragged band of anarchists can overcome the massive police power of the state, and it hurts when we don't.

But I think we need to look past that frustration and see the larger victory. When you're in the midst of it, political work often doesn't feel empowering or successful - only when you pull back can you see its larger impact.

Our strategy can't be based on paramilitary victories over the institutions of global corporate capitalism - we might succeed on that level from time to time but generally we are going to be faced with overwhelming force. Our real strategy is to delegitimize these organizations - and on that front we clearly won in New York. We put the World Economic Forum on the defensive, we got people questioning its right to exist, we showed again that these institutions can only meet when they mobilize an enormous police presence to protect them at a huge cost to the public, and we did it all without giving the opposition more ammunition to use against it. We claimed and held a political space that was larger than the physical space we were unable to hold. Moreover, it was a victory for anarchists: it showed that we have the courage to go where the more liberal groups are afraid to go, it showed that we have the maturity and sophistication to adjust our tactics to the situation at hand, and that a big mobilization can be organized nonhierarchically. It stole the thunder of the parasitic sectarian groups that always attempt to position themselves as leaders of the movement, and put the anarchists out in front.

After Saturday's march, many of us gravitated to Grand Central Station, to eat, regroup and get warm. One of the ideas floating around the spokescouncil the night before had been some kind of action in the Station. Michael, who had all along had a vision of doing something in the main concourse, gathered us all up and we decided to do a spiral dance.

So, a few of us joined hands and began singing the chant that I now know has the magic power to invoke riot cops: "We will never, never lose our way to the well of liberty, And the power of her living flame, it will rise, it will rise again."

We began spiraling. One of the MTA police came over and began trying to stop us. Two of our lawyers, who miraculously appeared, were trying to negotiate, I was discovering that I could drum, hold energy, and talk to cops simultaneously, and then for some reason he went away. We continued the dance. More and more cops appeared, until they formed a circle around us. The more cops appeared, the more anarchists joined the dance, and the more spectators ringed the stairways and balconies. We achieved some perfect tension between the cops' urge to arrest us all and reluctance to start something they couldn't control in full view of an audience who seemed to be enjoying the ritual immensely. In the end, they stood back. We completed the spiral, raised what we call a cone of power‹a sustained tone that focuses and directs the energy, sat down and someone began singing "Amazing Grace."

It was a small act, not as significant maybe, as shutting down the meeting or stopping the party. But for me, it was a moment of true liberation. In the face of the enormous police intimidation of the day, we reclaimed our right to take a public space without asking permission or acknowledging their authority. We put them in a dilemma that allowed us to do what we wanted to do. We embodied what we truly stand for: joy, liberation, community, caring, and freedom.

My thanks to all who worked so hard organizing these actions, to all who came out onto the streets of New York, and all who supported them.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.