January 2003
volume 1, issue 2


Absurd Responses vs. Earnest Politics; Global Justice vs. Anti-War Movements; Guerilla Theater and Aesthetic Solutions.

“Start the bombing now!!!!!” “Start the bombing now!!!! “Two four six eight, we are people who hate, hate, hate!!!!” A cacophonous block of church ladies in drag calling themselves ‘Perms for Perma-War” screamed with the formally earnest crowds throughout the anti-war march in Washington DC on October 27th. What was going on? Different people had different explanations. But for most involved, the feeling was the world was witnessing an absurd situation – a “war on terrorism” a sitting vice president predicted could last 50 years – which required an absurd response. 1984 slogans, “war is peace” and “freedom is slavery,” had skipped from civics lessons to the front and center of a national political consciousness. The notion that ‘ignorance is strength’ had ceased to be seen as a cautionary tale but was now considered an asset. “When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were… it was us vs. them and it was clear who them was,” the future president explained on the campaign trail back in 2000, continuing, “Today, we are not sure who they are, but we know they are there.”

9/11 was his salvation; the threat was clear. For here on pesky problems could be blamed on the new national enemy. For Orwell, it was Goldstein; for Bush it was Osama bin Laden and Saddham Hussein. Arguments about social democracy, increased social control and other pesky problems could be dismissed with the mere reminder, “Don’t forget, Osama bin Laden,” (Pilger, 2002). “Remember, Saddham Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction.” “Weapons of mass destruction” the National Security Secretary Condolezza Rice repeated over and over, plugging her case like the Madison Ave marketing guru. There was a product to sell: Perma-War.

The job of activists is to spell out the logic of the nation’s movement toward Perma-War. For many, the best way to do this is with guerilla theatre that illustrates the buffoonery. There have been absurd wars before, yet unlike the Gulf War, this conflict began with a mobilized movement already on the ground and running. At the same time, there are different movements. As the global justice movement flirts with becoming an anti-war movement, questions about theater and aesthetics have everything to do with political strategy and movement building. Politics of didactic authenticity have to contend with the defiant absurdity of the carnival of the Seattle era protest model. The following offers a series of impressions and examples of the increased utility of street theatre; shifts in its plot structure from global justice to anti-war and back again, and how they effect the activist stage. In the current activist climate righteous confrontation with police translates to almost certain political repression. As such, the need for colorful festive revolutionary theater, full of earthy vitality, joy, humor and carnival, has never been more essential.

Why Absurd Responses?
The enduring strength of the post-Seattle activist project involves the joy and vitality of the Bakhtin (1965) model of protest as carnival. The point of this model is to create a festive energy that dismantles social hierarchies. We’ve all laughed along with a great joke. Everybody wants to be at a party where everyone is free to have a good time. The point of a really good joke is to punch holes in social pretensions. When all else is lost we have our sense of humor. After a whole year of the politics of mind numbing seriousness, the possibility of a joke’s capacity for catharsis was considerable. The first 9/11 anniversary marked this. Somewhere within our public life, some of the sentiment of the better to laugh than cry spoofs as witnessed on Saturday Night Live and the John Stewart Show, had to be unleashed. The liberating daring of satire had to become part of movement work. The point of such a brand of protest would be to re-link protest with optimism and a feeling of possibility or rejuvenation. The festive atmosphere of a great action could be bridged with the transformative aspirations of the carnival. Beyond the
status-quo ceremony of the usual protest, the carnival could create the liminal in between spaces, the communitas generated within rituals capable of shifting power hierarchies. We’d seen images of those protests during the anti-war movements of the past as well as the extreme costume balls which reclaimed streets throughout the previous five years (see Boyd, 2002).

The aim of an absurd response would be to create a brand of protest which merged the joyous ecstatic spirit of exhilarating entertainment with a political agenda aimed toward progressive political change. Within this festive revolutionary theater, progressive elements of political change would be linked with notions of social renewal. Moving spectators to join the fun, to become part of the concrete action of social change. Spectacle is linked to practical shifts in people’s lives (Ornstein, 1998, xiv-xv,6-9). Party as protest thus becomes an invitation to a possibility. From the IWW dictum that, “Direct Action Gets the Goods” to ACT UP’s righteous anger, when activists took the streets without asking for permission, they produced results in peoples’ lives. The lesson became that well-timed creative street theatre could re shape power structures. And along the road, ACT UP brought the dramaturgical lesson that to be successful good actions had to be good theatre.

In the years after Seattle, activists had worked to build upon this insight. While dramatic, the macho, quasi-militaristic posturing of the black block did not appear to be a long-term solution. Faced with force, police tend to use more force. “My weapon is bigger than your weapon.” In the months after the confrontational Quebec protests, spring 2001, activists planned to stage a silly block to pump a little more color into the movement during the IMF/World Bank meetings scheduled for the end of September 2001 (see Herbst, 2002). That was until two planes crashed into the world trade center.

Anti-War vs. Global Justice Strategies.
In the months after 9/11 the dullness of hierarchical protest re-reared its tired head. Instead of a silly block at the IMF protests, the International Action Center planned their own action, which few attended. The following year, I watched one of the International Socialist Organization speakers pull out a bullhorn and scream for everyone to get in order as activists began the International Monetary Fund “Drop the Dept March” in Washington in September 2002. The I.S.O.ers, who had been busy selling their cardboard signs and newspapers, lined up and marched off in a quasi-militaristic single-file. In a moment, what had been merely tacky became a replica of the worst kind of militaristic protest theatre. It seemed a marked contrast to the global justice movement’s carnivalesque coalition actions, in which the participants were all free to be the leaders, not somebody’s designated speaker. Once again sectarian organizations (IAC, Answer etc) were barking orders and protest was becoming shrill. The year after 9/11 (with the exemption of the January ’02 World Economic Forum Protests) actions seemed reminiscent of the 1980’s anti-nukes or Latin American solidarity protests, with staged acts of civil disobedience that felt like stagnant ceremony. Old chants were repeated at anti-war rallies. Again speakers not seen in years droned on to the converted. Again members of the crowd were separated from leaders. Heavy-handed one size fits all anti-imperialist analysis overshadowed pragmatism. And along the way, protest stopped being fun. Many of those who had hit the streets over the previous two or three years, left the activist stage. Frustrated resignation re-entered the fray.

After 9/11, the challenge remained just how far to take the movement for global justice as it intersected with the aesthetics of the anti-war movement. There were many who had little interest in reacting to a war. Local struggles required attention, war or no war. In October of 2001 Steve Duncombe of Reclaim the Streets New York wrote a short manifesto on the rhetorical implications of the global justice movement’s evolution into an anti-war movement. Duncombe explained that in the days after the bombing movement activists mourned for victims of the terrorist attacks at home, for the victims of the US military retaliation, for eroding civil liberties, and most certainly “for the movement for global economic justice that many of us have been building over the past few years.” Following the attacks activists put all of their energy into preventing George “This is a Crusade” Bush from following out bin Laden’s wishes and starting World War III. Duncombe continued, along the road global justice activists “built a peace movement. But the Peace Movement we’ve built is very different than the movement we had before. For all its faults – and there were many – the Global Justice Movement was flexible, anti-authoritarian, creative, fun, increasingly popular and hence effective. The current Peace Movement is none of these things.”

Despite itself, activism continued. The World Economic Forum protests of January 2002 succeeded in part because activists choose to create a mega samba band instead of confronting police. A focus on local actions took precedent as activists concentrated on the global components of the local struggles. By fall 2002 the Global Justice Movement re-flexed it muscles with a successful series of marches during the IMF/World Bank protests in September. Having lost the possibility of insurgent surprise in the days after the Seattle, the Global Justice Movement’s cacophony of voices was able to bring its message to the world through the theater of righteous protest. The evening news/war pep rally was constantly interrupted in September with countless images of activists willing to be arrested to fight corporate globalization. One news segment showed a group of smiling activists stripping down to their skivvies in front of a GAP store accused of selling products made in a sweatshop. Crowds of Georgetown students chanted, “Take it off” in a back and forth with protestors. The media was offered a good-natured theatrical display that highlighted a major problem of human rights. This they faithfully recorded during their evening news. “It must be spring,” one commentator noted. People around the world saw the image of a group of light hearted activists make an important point as well as produce a positive representation of movement work to a mass public.

Shortly after the September IMF protests, the president won support from the Senate for a preemptive attack on Iraq. Just when protesters had successfully placed global justice issues back on the public’s agenda the call for war eclipsed their substantive advances. While the administration was prepared to spend $100 billion to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, it was unwilling to spend more than 0.2% of that ($200m) on a Global Fund to Fight AIDS among other issues. There would be no room for “weapons of mass salvation” to fight for global justice if the administration’s war plans were successful (Sachs (2002). For many in the Globalization Movement, priorities became clear: the struggles against war had to be successful if activists hoped to push other issues back on a public agenda. The question remained how?

Speaking to Multiple Publics
In the days after the September IMF protests, anti-war rallies in European cities witnessed hundreds of thousands of protestors. Of 400,000 protestors in London, only two activists were arrested. This is in stark contrast to the 650 of 5,000 arrested in Washington, D.C. on September 27th (their offense, standing in a public park). These activists had made the message clear that they intended to engage in a street blockade. While certainly the police counter acted, if not upstaged anarchic protest with a massive display of fascistic theater, the arrests should not have been a surprise. Since Seattle, RTS, and Carnival against Capital had regularly been talked about as "terrorist groups.” A movement whose hallmark was creative approaches to protest had re-used tactics which have already been mediated, massively criminalized, and upstaged by cops. In the current activist climate, righteous confrontation with police translates to almost certain political repression.

Part of what movement players were seeing was a strangle hold on public space, a rigid segmentation of the street corners, the parks, and by extension the public commons for debate. This made it harder to get that message out there. The challenge remained how to creatively speak to multiple publics. If one of the strengths of the global justice movement was reclaiming public space through their burlesque of DIY activism, these qualities appeared particularly necessary for an anti-war message in its struggle to find its footing. With mounting rhetoric of war, in the first week in October 2002 thousands converged in Central Park for a quiet day of speeches with little drama. The urgency of the anti-war struggle was lost within the long speeches. For a number of us, the call for a less structured theater of protest was becoming paramount.
As Irving Goffman instructs, an underlying point of the presentation of self is to make a point. The same sentiment takes place within social protest. Movements are essentially constructions of countless performances. If the protest is sterile, it gets bad reviews. The gestures involved within protest can be understood as a means to influence other participants. To achieve a given goal, movements present themselves to at least six specific publics, all which are capable of accepting or rejecting a given message. They are:

1) Potential recruits
2) Those already working within the movement
3) Movement fellow travelers, allies, and potential coalition partners
4) Over-saturated media outlets
5) Public opinion and good will as opposed to calls for restriction of public space
6) Public policy makers controlling state action (McAdam, 1996, 339-40).

Successful movement strategy involves retaining the allegiances of those already involved as well as working to attract those who may want to join or serve as coalition partners. In order to appeal to the rank and file as well as begin to make a dent in the policy public (understood as politicians, the media, and by extension the democratic public), an effective anti-war response would need to appeal to outsiders as well as be media friendly. For many of us, the best way to speak to so many publics was to cultivate a far more festive brand of protest than we’d seen in recent years. A protest with a sense of joy that could be seen on the faces of all those involved.

Forms of Protest
In the days after the staid Central Park rally, activists from the old Lower East Side Collective, Reclaim the Streets New York, and the NYC Direct Action Network began quietly meeting to discuss ways to foster the possibility of just such a politics. The time seemed right for a shift in movement direction. A national rally was scheduled for October 26th. Many of us from this forming coalition would usually skip an action organized by ANSWER, a post-9/11 formation of the International Action Center; their leadership had after all supported the Chinese Government during the Tianamen Square democracy protests of 1989, held rallies for Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War, and supported Slobodon Milosovich (Goldstein, 2002). The IAC embodied everything wrong with an American left supportive of any government willing to stand up to American “imperialism.” Yet, a movement wedge was unfolding. Our thinking was we could create a joyous, less righteous, even ironic response – an alternative to the IAC’s wingnut response.

Our first meeting produced a simple commitment for us to organize a festive ironic feeder march to join the larger Answer anti-war march. By the end of our second meeting our ad-hoc coalition had agreed to create “An Absurd Response to an Absurd War” to counter the potentially alienating ANSWER march. Two years prior, in the days after Bush succeeded with his supreme court 5/4 shuffle, Reclaim the Streets New York had formed the Students for Undemocratic Society (SUDS), a satirical play off of the sixties SDS. Dressed as campus preppies wearing “W” hats, we drove down to Washington on January 20th, 2001. “Tell Us What to Think - Obey!” was our slogan. As we chanted we offered both a lampoon of the old left slogans as well as commentary on the new plutocratic regime, “Whose Street? Wall Street? No Justice, No Problem,” and the crowd pleaser “What do we want – fur coats? How do we want them – full length!!!” When a counter protestor chanted at us we would counter or agree with them. When a group of actual collegiate right-wing preppies sang “Nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey hey hey goodbye …President Clinton,” we interjected with “democracy.” At the time, we stole a lot of the media coverage from these right-wing groups.

Instead of campus preppies our October 26, 2002 action would highlight the movement of a group of patriotic ladies with bouffant permanents whom supported the war. “Perms for Perma-War” would be the slogan. In the spirit of SUDS, our collective drafted a call to action. It stated: “The Jaded and Converted and Dicks For Dick invite you to Washington: October 26, 2002.” It continued: Break out your beehive, your two-tone shoes, your cardigans! Too hip and cynical to pin a flower in your hair and hold hands with strangers? Well then, you are invited to join A.B.S.U.R.D. Response and Party for Perma-War for a festive, ironic, theatrical march that will eventually feed into the anti-war rally in DC. For the real fun, assemble with DICKS FOR DICK at the BIG DICK (aka the Washington Monument) at 11 am on Saturday, October 26. Because everyone from James Baker III, to Nelson Mandela, to CIA director George Tenet has said this war is absurd. In the tradition of the first Absurdists we will create our own Theater of the Absurd as our Idiot Boy King continues his relentless drive to pitch the world into a state of permanent warfare. The festivities will commence with a ritual "Bowing Down To The Mighty Phallus," followed by a "hoisting of the balls of war" presided over by Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Bombing Gospel Choir. Bring costumes, Bring INSTRUMENTS, Bring posters and banners. Bring lots of friends. Be prepared to mock the Axis of Oil and Defense Funding without mercy. Please do not bring "No Blood for Oil" signs or Mimes. NO MIMES. Party for a Perma-War is brought to you by LESC, SUDS, RTS-NYC, OPP, The Converted & Jaded, Billionaire Liberation Front, Future Veterans for War, and You!

Spoofing the practice of legitimizing protests through organizational co-sponsorships, every time we offered a new draft call we would add on group names. The suggested slogans built on themes from Orwell’s 1984 and a lampoon of bad anti-war theatrics. We began with the old John and Yoko street billboard:

War is Here, If You Want It (signed by Blood and Iron, Dick & W)
Exxon Mobil: These Colors Don't Run!
War Is Globalization
We (heart) Harkens
God Bless Boeing
Pre-empt The UN
Ignorance Is Strength

Our final slogan “OBEY” embodied much of what the group felt was being said by the current administration. Our message was simple and silly enough. I explained to one reporter, “Basically, this war frenzy is so blatantly short sighted, so focused on supporting the narrow ends of Lockheed and the General Dynamics Corporation and other defense contractors profiting on the war. Very few in power are considering alternative ways of creating energy or sustainable development without raping the environment. War is the answer, war is the answer. Twisted times, deserve twisted responses. Yet, after a year of memorials, many of us felt it was time to get a
sense of humor back. War is not going to get my sense of joy. An absurd war deserves an absurd response, a response capable of shifting power hierarchies. We have to be effective at drawing attention to alternative ways of building sustainable communities. The carnival is a great way to do that..."

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