July 2002
volume 1, issue 1


Part One: Pre-WEF Culture Clash? Peaceniks and Globophobes- can they get along?

Last summer the Journal was having lunch with a friend in NYC. Around chomps of hamburgers, we pickled the conversations with news of recent activities. Our friend, Frida Berrigan (arms policy advisor for the World Policy Institute and member of the board for the War Resistors League), was telling us about a protest at Vandendberg Air force Base in California. She had helped publicize it from her Manhattan office. We were particularly interested since we’d recalled seeing an announcement for this anti Star-Wars demo make appeals to globalization’s activists by naming this form of militarization as arm-and-arm with issues surrounding globalization

In a letter we asked Frida about this; if the peace-groups she worked with felt that a collaboration with the globalization community was possible? Both groups come from distinct histories; one versed in Gandhian civil disobedience the other in DIY direct-action. Her reply confirmed that the relationship promised great things, but she premised that it would be a challenging road. In her letter she told us that the WRL had just lost one of its best organizers to the globalization movement’s superstars, the Ruckus Society. In addition, she spoke of an incident she’d witnessed in Connecticut.

Activists of both traditions attended a protest at a weapons manufacturing plant. Tactical discussions and meetings were difficult and drawn out. The direct-action folks thought the non-violent civil disobedience folks where to reform minded and hierarchical. The civil-disobedience folks, on the other hand, felt the direct-action folks were disrespectful of the workers and blind to the consequences of their actions.

Jump ahead several months and the world had changed inexorably. In the aftermath of September 11, reality had conspired to make our initial conversation fancying a unified front of political action an inevitability. This past January, journalist Allen Minsky caught up with Frida in New York City. He started his interview with the initial letters passed between the Journal and Frida. Allen then conducted his interview before and after the World Economic Forum protests. They provided the opportunity to explore with Frida the issues of collaboration between the peace and the globalization movement.

AM: What role has the established peace movement played since Sept. 11? By the established peace movement, I mean the groups that you refer as having a long history. It’s been my sense that within the radical activist community, the more established peace groups have had a higher profile since Sept. 11.

FB: It’s easiest for me to speak about the War Resisters League, which I have a real direct connection with. I sit on the executive committee of the War Resisters League, which is in downtown Manhattan right off of Bleeker, about a mile from the World Trade Center. On Sept 11 we were able to get out a statement right away that I thought seemed really prescient. We were writing as people were streaming north from the World Trade Center covered with ash and traumatized. Recognizing already that this was some kind of terrorist attack and calling for the U.S. to have a non-violent response to it, a response that immediately addresses the roots of terrorism instead of the knee-jerk bellicose, let’s go bomb someone, attitude.

In the days after Sept 11 in NY, we had a lot of trouble with the phone system, the computers. Tons and tons of people were calling the War Resisters League; just finding it in the phone book, or seeing it on the web, or I don’t know, finding some old flyers that they might have had around. They were trying to find out what was happening, to connect with other people and get a sense of what to do now. How could we know in the days afterwards what to do other than give blood, mourn, or try and help the people who were clearing the rubble? But the phone lines were constantly clogged with people calling up, and I think that energy has been sustained.

The War Resisters League started a vigil in Union Square that actually continues now (Jan, 2002:ed.), even though Union Square’s no longer… I mean there were these images right after Sept 11 with the Square just full of people, flowers, and little candles burning; little memorials for people who died. We’re still doing a vigil in Union Square, passing out flyers every week. I think we have become a lot more visible since Sept 11. We’ve been doing a lot of public speaking, a lot of training on non-violence conflict resolution. There’s been a lot of interest in the history of pacifism in this country and also in Afghanistan. There have been a lot of people calling up to get draft counseling. A lot of people in the military, the reserves, who are very concerned about being called up, and who wanted help becoming conscientious objectors or being educated about their rights. The War Resisters League has a project that does all that.

People were looking for answers, and us trying to at least provide something with this concrete service for people who are in the military now. And then concern because the war is continuing. People in the Reserves, who six months ago never thought there was going to be a war, thought the military seemed like a good career option. And now all of a sudden it becomes very clear what their purpose is, and they want to get out. So we’ve been helping on that level too.

AM: It sounds like in terms of, "the movement", the post-Seattle movement that you were addressing directly in the letter you wrote, that perhaps the War Resisters League and the established peace groups might feel a little bolstered and more confident about bridging the gap between the non-violent action role that they’re committed to playing and the groupings that were prominent at demonstrations in and after Seattle- who were less committed to traditional civil disobedience. Do you have a sense of that?

FB: Yeah. I think in some ways that’s true. I believe The War Resisters League played a really good role here in New York in the different anti-war coalitions that rose as a response to Sept 11 and Bush’s call for war. We then played a good role in trying to bring those coalitions, which are made up of real disparate groups of people with all sorts of different political ideologies and varying commitments to non-violence to some agreement around some commonly held ideals. In New York, as in a lot of other big cities, those coalitions have now sort of broken down into different factions. But, I think we had a clear sense of our role and what we have to contribute; you know, that non-violent witness still has a real central place in movements for political and social change.

AM: Since we’re speaking on the eve of the convergence of demonstrations in NYC for the World Economic Forum, I saw an article on FAIR.org, which talked about the various editorials in the New York newspapers and how they are aggressively telling the "anarchist-demonstrators" that if there’s any kind of turmoil in central Manhattan, that NYC will expect the NYPD to have very little patience. In this kind of environment do you think it is conducive to bring demonstrators who are maybe more aggressive in their tactics towards more traditional non-violence tactics? Are you perceiving that?

FB: I think that the New York newspapers are making it clear that there’s going to be an open season on protesters here at the World Economic Forum, especially any of those who have the trappings of a black bloc.

There’s been this really interesting discussion that I’ve listened to on one of these convergence list serves about the issue of masks. The New York Police Dept has dug deep into their rule books and found this law that three or more people wearing masks is somehow illegal. They’ve vowed to arrest people wearing masks. So there’s been this whole conversation- do we wear masks or do we not wear masks? Is wearing a mask just an invitation to get beat up or arrested? And if that’s the case, than shouldn’t we all wear masks and see what happens? And then this idea that maybe people can wear masks in solidarity with the Zapitistas, or in solidarity with the invisible victims of economic globalization, or whatever. Than the whole issues was "Ok let’s talk about this at a spokes council meeting" and consense around it. But it’s been really interesting just to be hearing this because… "We also want to do non-violence civil resistance at the World Economic Forum."

I’m listening to all of this, when you’re just reading all of these e-mails it’s hard to know how grounded it is. I just found the whole thing very alarming because the environment that we’re all going into at the World Economic Forum and the protests surrounding it are so charged. It seems like the police are so primed for violence and are going to be so. And certainly the mainstream media has played a part in this. They’re not all that sympathetic at this point to the protestors. The media has successfully characterized the protesters as outsiders, the globetrotting anarchists coming to mess things up. That is the sort of characterization that has been pretty successfully created. A lot of people nonetheless have been drawn to the demonstrations.

AM: Your anticipation is that there will be somewhat of a sizable demonstration?

FB: Oh yeah, we’re talkin’… the numbers that I’ve been hearing are tens of thousands. Which seems like a lot to me.

AM: Right, especially because a lot of people have chosen not to go because they’re intimidated by exactly what you’re referring to.

FB: So looking at the history of non-violent resistance and non-violent civil disobedience, things take a long time. There’s planning that goes into it. There’s trust that’s built amongst people. There are alliances that are made between the people who are willing to take these risks and the people who aren’t, but who respect and value the witness that’s taking place. So just knowing this history, being steeped in this history, and seeing these WEF protest come together so fast, everybody’s saying "We’re going to do non-violent civil disobedience at the World Economic Forum." I have a hard time believing that this can really happen.

AM: Are there plans amongst a group of people affiliated with the War Resisters League, a small disciplined group, who are planning this?

FB: No.

AM: You don’t know of any groups of a Ghandian non-violent civil-disobedience tradition that will be doing any actions?

FB: Right, correct.

AM: So it’s really a large amorphous group that’s having these spokes-council meetings?

FB: Right, and then planning disciplined non-violent protest out of that. It just seems really counter to everything that I’ve been taught to believe is the non-violent way of going about this.

I think that one of the things that I admired so much about the Seattle protest was that work went into planning the protests so far ahead of time, and I think that some sort of groundwork was laid. There were these new coalitions, and these new dynamics of trust and respect that were built. Something really exciting and new happened out of that. Something that hit the mainstream totally by surprise. The mainstream was like "where does this come from!?" And when you really looked at it, you saw that it had been building up for a number of years, and that there were these organizations that were behind it which had been laying this groundwork for a long time.

AM: My sense is that the people who were on the initial front lines who were sitting in and blocking the streets out in front of the hotels in Seattle had practiced what they were doing for quite a while. My sense is that they largely came out of the Northwest’s environmental movement.

FB: Right.

AM: So your sense is that in these spokes council meetings that will be taking place over the next few day in advance of some kind of direct-action/non-violent civil disobedience, there won’t be much presence from people who have a long experience with this? Or they’ll be present, but they’ll be in an extreme minority.

FB: I can think of a handful of people that I think will be there. People who have long histories of non-violent civil disobedience who have carried out actions in the past and served time in prison for them, and have an ethic of non-violence that is foundational for them. As far as I know, none of those people are facilitating or in any leadership positions. And you know, I think some of that is our fault.

I was talking to a friend of mine who works with the American Friends Service Committee and he was saying, "We didn’t start thinking about what our role was going to be in these meetings until two weeks ago when somebody called us and wanted to use one of our buildings for meetings." And he’s like, "this wasn’t on my radar screen at all. Like this is coming, and this is an opportunity for us." I think you can say the same thing for the WRL

AM: Do you think that’s partly because it has been a period of great activity in these groups?

FB: Yeah, for those of us who are working in New York. I’m kicking myself for not having thought of this earlier, and at the same time, I’m wondering when the heck would I have done any of this work? Since Sept 11, through the WRL I’ve been reacting to peoples needs with all of the requests that have come into the office and doing vigils. We helped organize a really big demonstration on Oct 7, the day that the bombing started in Afghanistan. We’ve tried to build on that by holding forums. We’ve been doing a lot! It was one of those things that fell through the cracks. It makes sense in terms of everything else we’ve had to do, and then at the same time you really wish that we had a bit more strategic vision and long term planning.

AM: And yet my guess is that at the last moment many people from your community, the non-violence civil disobedience community will actually go ahead and try to attend the spokes council meetings even without coordination. Because it’s taking place in the next few days.

FB: Yeah, I think we’ll be there to try and shape things, but who knows how?

AM: You’ll also be participating in a panel up at Barnard and Columbia, is that correct?

FB: Yeah, We’re going to be doing a presentation on the nuclear weapons industry, and how that’s been shaping the Bush administration’s policy on nuclear weapons. Also, and this fits in to what you’re interested in, some stories from the anti-nuclear movement from the Seventies and Eighties— the successes of that movement and some of the lessons that are there for us now.

AM: Any reflection on what you’re anticipating for the street demonstrations during the WEF?

FB: Oh my God, I’m such a sissy, you know. I’m totally nervous. I’m going there with other people, some friends who are connected with the WRL. We don’t really know what to expect.

AM: I tell you what, I’ll follow-up in a week’s time and I’ll talk to you then. Good luck.

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