by Benjamin Shepard
|"...and I woke up in a fever
so delirious I'm in a patriotic panic...
where the fuck at 5 o'clock in the morning can I buy a big American flag?"- David Wojnarowicz, 1992
"WE ARE SO FUCKED!"-that was Reclaim the Street’s (RTS) slogan in the days after 9/11; one of countless bratty,“better to laugh than cry”screams that our group grasped for with dear life as the 9/11 slaughter was played as justification for more killing. RTS had used absurd responses to the situation as long as we could. After a while, we started to wonder,“where do we go after irony ceases to be effective?”
Over the last year, I have written a number of dispatches for the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest that addresses activist responses to the use and abuse of the narratives of the War on Terror. My first essay promoted an“absurd response to an absurd war”where activists deploy fresh, creative approach to protest2while outlining the limits of the“straight”activist project- deconstructing the workings of reified chants and protest structures. As the“absurd”war turned into a very real war with real casualties, my second essay addressed how our response felt decreasingly savvy and inspiring. Susan Sontag once said,“…once we know it’s camp, it’s no longer camp.”Facing the limits of camp, the essay concluded with a call for activists to contribute to other more concrete political narratives,“building counter-publics and liberatory spaces, while expanding on the Patriot Act Free Zones popping up from Hawaii to Alaska.”3
This third dispatch answers that call for a continued and vital protest culture. I am writing it at a moment when the predominant cultural narratives of the War on Terror are used to justify curtailed civil liberties for the duration of what the Vice President suggests could be a 50-year conflict. Irony recedes in relevance when political situations become too dire, when there is an urgent need to engage in dialogue with the political mainstream. The following is an anarchist response to such an imperative.
The Patriot Free Zone Campaign
“Patriots Against the Patriot Act,”read the banner held by members of Reclaim the Streets New York as we stood in front of City Hall dressed in faux 1776-era garb on the morning of October 20, 2003. Others wore pins stating,“The Patriot Act Is Sooo 1984.”We were surrounded by City Council members, a Manhattan congressman, members of the ACLU Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a few Green Party members, a handful of system-abiding liberals, and direct action anarchist types better acquainted with the streets than the legislative corridors. RTS had joined the campaign to push the anti-Patriot Act ordinance Resolution 909, sponsored by Harlem Councilman Bill Perkins, through the City Council. Perkins, who had sponsored previous hearings on police abuses during the February 15, 2003 antiwar march, introduced this resolution calling for the city to affirm civil liberties while opposing the Patriot Act. Cities from Baltimore to Chicago to Philadelphia had already passed similar resolutions.
How did this radical direct action group find itself involved with such
a bourgeois, reformist campaign? RTS’support for 909 can be attributed
to a number of elements of the group’s history. First, we are rooted
in a global justice movement that recognizes a diversity of tactics, depending
on the situation, from nonviolent civil disobedience to incremental reform.
We are rooted in a long history of struggles for access to public space and
debate. More to the point, members of RTS have endured countless illegal
arrests over free speech issues. Throughout the mobilization against the
U.S. invasion of Iraq, activists including members of RTS were swept off
the streets and into the jails for protesting. Even before 9/11, the powers-that-be
sought to delegitimize activist groups such as Earth First! and RTS as terrorists.
On May 10, 2001, FBI director Louis Freeh testified at a Senate committee
hearing:“Anarchists and extremist socialist groups- such as…Reclaim
the Streets- have an international presence and, at times, also represent
a potential threat in the United States.”Their process of delegitimization
became a great deal easier after 9/11. The whole movement we’d worked
for felt directly endangered and felt that its unique cultural expression
was facing state-mandated extinction.
For the Bushies, the best way to protect the constitution was to curtail
it and bully those who sought to use it. In the months after the October
2001 passage of the Patriot Act, the law was used to prosecute long-standing
targets of the Right. By 2003, it was time to fight back.
With the coming Republican National Convention (RNC), we realized that the work we did now would pay off during the protests surrounding the convention. Players from countless perspectives began joining the effort to turn New York into a Patriot Act Free Zone. There was no guarantee of success. The campaign needed a little push. That’s where RTS came in; we hoped to bring a bit of sartorial splash to the effort.
We began a poster campaign calling on citizens from all walks of life to create Patriot Act Free Zones where difference was honored and profiling rejected. These great posters were hung up on the street, in bars, in our homes; everywhere. We distributed a sort of tool kit including the poster and a worksheet,“Ten Ways to Create a Patriot Act Free Zone in Your Own Community.”The worksheet included simple steps along the lines of the old Syracuse Cultural Workers“How to Create a Community”campaign. Our first suggested step was to support Resolution 909. Another addressed the longstanding use of fear as a justification for control:“Remind yourself, freedom is about acts of freedom, not authority. Remember, the best way to defend freedom is with more freedom. The best way to protect democracy is with more democracy.”
The group then organized a number of community events including a“Rant Off For A Patriot Act Free Zone”Prop 909 Fundraiser, where members of New York City’s Bill of Rights Defense Committee mingled with Lower East Side wing-nuts to revel in the First Amendment.“To Live is to Rant, To Be Human is to Rant!”The guidelines were simple: one dollar per minute, three minutes per rant- those requiring more time would need the sponsorship of a financial backer. Between rants, we pointed out that Council Resolution 909 was a way to realize a Patriot Act autonomous zone. Throughout the night, we also ran a fundraiser for the RNC, shredding copies of the Constitution at $5 a pop with our battery-powered shredder. All shredding proceeds went to the RNC and its push to turn the country into an Oceania-like Total Information Awareness superhighway and shopping mall. Yet the event didn’t come off well. We were feeling the limits of camp…
At summer’s end we began working with the 74th Unwelcoming Committee,
a group of recent NYU graduates, to hold a classic RTS street party to reclaim
NYC as a Patriot Act Free Zone! Event propaganda stated:“With the RNC
planning its latest convention ever in September of 2004 to coincide with
the 9/11 anniversary, the RNC plans to turn a tragedy into their policy political
convention.”Our event’s theme was a citywide celebration of resistance
to the Patriot Act and the“tyrants who brought us this Orwellian nightmare”.
Our“unwelcoming party”for the RNC aimed to show that resistance
to the Patriot Act was spreading. Our proposed alternative was to,“refuse
to be cowed into submission and scared into silence! To create alternatives
to the systems we oppose…"
On September 5th, revelers appeared at Union Square. The crowd moved from the street to the subway, skipping out of Manhattan on the L-train, opening up carnival space. The party careened to Brooklyn and back out of the bowels of the city into the street of Williamsburg. We took over the corner of Bedford and North 7th Street, dancing, congesting the night with bodies in motion. The police just stood and watched as grooving people turned an ordinary Friday night into a night of resistance. The party embodied the kind of civil liberties-protected Patriot Act Free Zone we had hoped for. It also expanded our Patriot Act-fighting network.
Unlike Hakim Bey’sTemporary Autonomous Zonesthat inspires RTS actions, the point of supporting Resolution 909 was to build something lasting- a city resolution. With the passage of the bill, we hoped to give civil liberties a bounce going into the election year. While there are certainly limits to this legislative model, it did allow for the direct action crowd and civil libertarians to find common ground and communicate. Through our preliminary efforts, we had gathered a consensus for action, and people walked away with concrete information about how to fight the Patriot Act.
What to Do?
As summer turned to fall, Resolution 909 gained considerable momentum. Support from the City Council increased with plans for hearings scheduled. The hearings presented a telling challenge for RTS. When Bush was elected, activists had employed irony with the pseudo-paramilitary Students for an Undemocratic Society (SUDS). When Bush escalated towards war, the group morphed into Absurd Response To An Absurd War, playing with irony in the manner of the Billionaire concepts. With both, we’d deconstructed traditional protest models, reaching the limits of play and camp. By the time Resolution 909 came along, we were faced with the painful question:“What do you do after post-modernism?
You can’t live on irony alone; there is too little to show for it.”So
we re-embraced a canonical narrative of“straight”protest.
The question we were facing was a simple one: Why does and doesn’t
irony work? Author and RTS member Larry Bogard suggests:“Carnival is
supposed to be a liberatory action, which means that we shouldn’t be
chained to it. It should be used when it best suits the movement or affinity
group. In the same way, the use of irony is situationally determined. Depending
on the context, irony can be either a post-hip cop-out or a challenging,
effective way of engaging publics. Irony always includes the risk of a misfire
Occasional RTS participant and one of the leading conceptual architects
of The Absurd Response, L.A. Kauffman has suggested that it is easy for activists
to fall into rut in which they repeat the same approaches over and over,
confusing a tactic with a strategy.4The
Absurd Response was a fun tactic for speaking to other activists. For speaking
to City Council members though, it is not the most useful approach.
RTS organizer Steve Duncombe suggests that in term of pure politics, for
many of us Bush and the Patriot Act appears so absurd that parody comes perilously
close to reality. With Bush in office, ignorance really is strength. In the
same vein, the Republicans appear so vengeful, angry and frenzied over 9/11
and the war that many of them would likely agree with RTS’most outrageous,
absurd responses-“All War all the Time,”“Leave no Billionaire
Behind,”etc. Further, while The Absurd Response was a great way make
politics fun, the political terrain was shifting. Irony works best as an
inside joke to mobilize and appeal to a subculture. Yet Bush has polarized
so many issues that there is now a realistic chance to reach a majority of
people who think of themselves as thoughtfully ironic (and even some non-ironic)
patriotic citizens of the USA. In the end, irony is good for critique but
is limited in its ability to demonstrate what kind of world we really want
to create. If we are going to suggest that another world is possible, we’d
better be able to suggest that this world is more than simply ridiculous.
In an essay entitledMass Action Since Seattle: Seven Ways to Make Our
Protests More Powerful, George Lakey suggests that actors heighten
the contrast between protestors and police behavior. While sophisticated
theater audiences might prefer complexity, shades of gray are harder to
pull off in the street.“Our power lies in our choices,”he writes.“We
can choose to design our confrontations using appropriate symbolism so
that the part of the public we most want to influence will see us as the
people standing for justice.”5With
this in mind, RTS members made a decision. We would play it straight dressed
like Colonial American heroes, carrying a banner reading“Patriots
Against the Patriot Act”at the rally before the public hearings.
Prodding Speaker Miller
The October 20 hearings for Resolution 909 offered a glimpse of the politics of fear supporting the Patriot Act. Peter Vallone, Jr. the son of the former council speaker from Queens who was ousted after term limits, was the only council member opposing the measure at the hearing. Vallone’s opinion was that that New York City had not been attacked again because of the Patriot Act. For him, security from an unknown enemy was justification in and of itself. Fear propelled a zero-sum quest for security over freedom. At one point in the hearings, Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union explained that Jose Padilla, a Puerto Rican, had been detained in the U.S. and held without access to counsel as an“enemy combatant.”Vallone said he was comfortable with holding aliens without access to lawyers. Lower East Side councilwoman Margarita Lopez asked Vallone if he knew that Padilla was from Puerto Rico, and therefore a U.S. citizen. Vallone did not, and backed down.
September 11 had created yet another enemy“other”to place in
a long cavalcade of villains?from witches to communists to immigrants?demonized
throughout U.S. history. After 9/11, these“us and them”dynamics
propelled a new wave of racial profiling as even U.S. citizens were denied
access to the U.S. court system because they“looked like terrorists.”Lieberman
situated the Patriot Act’s detentions historically,“But if you
read the history of these outrages, there is always a counter-narrative in
which wiser voices respond to the hysteria,”Lieberman testified.“To
those who claim the times are so perilous and the risk of harm so great that
we cannot tolerate democratic principles of freedom, there are other voices
that say: we do not accept the argument that in order to preserve democracy,
we must suspend individual freedoms.”
Walking out of the hearings, RTS members knew where 909 stood on the legislative
food chain and moved to act. After the hearings, the goal was to convince
the speaker that civil liberties and security are not a zero-sum game, but
rather that neither exist without the other. In the following weeks, coalition
members made use of the Mobilize New York alerts list, wrote letters and
begged friends to beg the speaker to“Pretty Please Support City Council
Resolution 909.”In the weeks before the hearings, it had become apparent
that the resolution’s fate rested in the hands of Council Speaker Gifford
Miller, who could allow the measure to die in committee without ever letting
the full council vote on it. Phone calls and emails to the speaker’s
office went unreturned. When activists finally reached his office, his staff
offered political doublespeak. Miller supported both civil liberties and
security, we were told.
We sent out hundreds of letters stating,“There are 29 supporters out
of 50 on the City Council who support the defense of our civil liberties.
Please help New York preserve constitutional freedoms and civil liberties
for our diverse communities by passing anti-Patriot Act Resolution 909.”We
collected some 500 signatures on post cards at the Critical Mass Halloween
party alone. We sent cards to Miller all fall long. Some days the speaker’s
office representatives took calls, other times they put calls through to
message machines already filled to their limit. His office knew something
was in play.
On December 2, in the midst of a snowstorm, coalition members gathered at
City Hall for a“Rally to Defend the Bill of Rights and Pass Resolution
909"organized by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. Once again, the
patriots arrived, but this time their numbers were dwarfed by the large outpouring
of New Yorkers from all walks of life that had been offended by the political
misuse of 9/11. Speaker Miller even made a surprise appearance in which,
using political doublespeak, he thanked everyone for coming, spoke out against
the Patriot Act, but somehow avoided mentioning support for the resolution.
Again we inundated his office with calls.
By late December, some 33 of the council’s 50 members had signed on
to 909. Throughout the final weeks of 2003, rumors whirled through the internet
that City Council would vote on the resolution by the end of the session
during the third week of December. Yet, for many of us, a tenuous feeling
remained. December 15th, the date the resolution was scheduled to move, came
and went. Nothing. Word from the council was that they wanted to hold the
passage off until news of the capture of Saddam died down because they thought
passing it concurrently would send the wrong message. Would the right message
at the time of his capture be a bill to oppose the Bill of Rights?
Miller co-signed a letter with Deputy Majority Leader Bill Perkins committing
to bring Resolution 909 to vote at the City Council’s first business
session in 2004. And finally, Miller responded to the thousands of emails
sent imploring his support.“Res. 909-A makes clear that the government’s
anti-terrorism initiatives can and must be undertaken in a manner that respects
basic constitutional rights and liberties. We strongly agree with this proposition
and we look forward to adopting the resolution with the support of an overwhelming
majority of the City Council Members.”
It would be almost two months before the resolution (renamed #60 with the
new year) was scheduled for a vote. By that time, even Los Angeles had passed
its own anti-Patriot resolution. Feeling the heat of the burgeoning Bill
of Right’s Defense Movement, the President defended the Patriot Act
in his State of the Union Address. Yet the City Council moved forward. On
February 4, a vast majority of New York City Council responded passing Resolution
60 calling for government to uphold civil liberties. With 60’s passage,
New York became the 250th legislative body to pass such a Bill of Rights
resolution, creating a series of civil liberties free zones from NYC to Los
Angeles and Hawaii.
Udi Ofer and Glenn C. Devitt of The New York City Bill of Rights Defense
Campaign noted:“Given that the Council convened to deliberate on the
resolution only a few blocks from Ground Zero, it was hard not to appreciate
the historical significance of the vote. It's largely in the name of the
New Yorkers who perished on 9/11 that the federal government continues to
push through anti-terrorism policies which needlessly sacrifice our most
fundamental rights and freedoms.”With the passage of Res. 60 the City
Government caught up with the citizens who were already saying no more immigrant
profiling and illegal detentions, no more harassing library clerks for records
of citizens, no more stifling free speech. Not in our name.
Riding home one night through the snow after one of our bi-weekly drunken
RTS“meetings”and“planning”sessions in the midst of
the campaign, a friend explained that even if the world she lived in was
going completely to hell on a macro level, she still had to do something
at home. Taking care of her own community was the only thing she could see
doing. As answers to bigger questions, few emerged. Irony and play would
still be necessary fun parts of strategy to be used when they seemed tactically
appropriate, when coordinated with great research and political savvy. For
now, street aesthetics had successfully complimented a legislative campaign
to make one city and the US a little bit more free.
February 4th, I sent out a final email congratulating everyone involved:”thanks for all your amazing work, thanks to everyone who sent a email, signed a card, showed at a rally, a street party or a rant off.... thanks to all of you, New York City just became a Patriot Act Free Zone.”
1Thanks to Liz Highleyman, Steve Duncombe, Larry Bogart, Jason Grote, and Elizabeth Bernstein for their comments and careful reading of this essay.back
2Ben Shepard,“Absurd Responses Versus Earnest Politics.”Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, vol. 1, no. 2. January 2003. www.journalofaestheticsandprotest.org/1/BenShepard/index.html.back
3Ben Shepard,“From Global Justice to Antiwar and Back Again: A Personal Chronicle of a Season of“Better to Laugh than Cry”Antiwar Activism.”Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, vol. 1, no. 2 extended online edition. August 2003. www.journalofaestheticsandprotest.org/1/shepard2/index.html.back
4L.A. Kauffman.“A Short, Personal History of the Global Justice Movement.”InConfronting Capitalism, Edited by Eddie Yuen, George Katsiaficas, and Daniel Burton-Rose. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2003.back
5Lakey, George. 2002.“Mass Action Since Seattle: Seven Ways to Make Our Protests More Powerful,”fromThe Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Capitalist Globalizationedited by Eddie Yuen, Daniel Burton-Rose and George Katsiaficas. Soft Skull Press..back