Photos from a 2004 vigil outside the SF Metreon called Stolen Lives: Killed by Law Enforcement – a forerunner of Black Lives Matter.
Stolen Lives was organized by community activists from Hunters Point neighborhoods.
Reclaiming folks including Kevyn, Bill, Starhawk, and others brought potted plants to create a living altar. You can see the Pagan Cluster circled up on the widest shot below, and creating altars in others.
Seattle activists have seized control of a neighborhood and declared an autonomous zone.
This is a novel development, perhaps not attempted since the 1960s. It’s hard not to feel some excitement.
Still, Seattleans, I had to wonder:
Are you trying to spark revolution across the continent and around the world?
Or is this one of those “society of the spectacle” things where you never expect to succeed – you’re trying to dramatize resistance without too much concern for how it might play out in the end?
If it’s the latter, best wishes. Hope you have good lawyers or fast feet when the time comes.
But if you think this is “the revolutionary moment,” and that your seizure of power is going to spark an uprising, well, I think you’ve jumped several steps ahead of concrete possibilities.
From a materialist perspective, that’s never a good idea.
Emergencies In Utopia
My gripe isn’t with vision or tactics – it’s with timing.
Before I tear down capitalist institutions serving primary needs, I’d like to see viable alternatives functioning on a scale bigger than a farmers’ market or a free clinic.
As practical strategy, it makes little sense to seize an autonomous zone when you have no way to feed or give medical care to any sizable number of people for any length of time.
Suppose capitalism takes you seriously and folds up shop. You get to sack the store one time – then no more groceries.
You can seize the hospital – but the technicians don’t come with it. Good luck running an emergency room.
Even in utopia, people have medical emergencies.
Minimal Requirements for Revolution
Here’s three minimal requirements I would like to see before we attempt a revolutionary seizure of power:
creating open and democratic decision-making structures. If those exist among the radical left, someone forgot to mail me my ballot. Presently-existing processes are not open – we are presented with a fait accompli and expected to play along (or go home).
creating broad progressive coalitions capable of organizing vital services such as health care and education, not simply for a short-lived spectacle, but for the open-ended future. This means organizing labor, not relying on volunteers, however talented and compassionate.
creating food and supply networks capable of feeding and caring for thousands of people. This is currently a pipe dream on any scale larger than a farmers’ market.
All Love to Seattle
I love the spirit of Seattle activism, from the 1990s to this day. No compromise – justice now.
On the down side, last time I checked, Seattle is not exactly a demographic cross-section of America. And revolutionary communes don’t do so well when have to go it alone. They need allies.
Still, my bigger concern is for lack of viable alternative institutions.
I doubt that Seattle activists, for all their undeniable brilliance and dedication, have built post-capitalist alternatives on a scale to serve even a neighborhood, let alone a city or state. If they have, it’s a well-kept secret.
If not, is there an openly-agreed-upon plan for how and when to end this spectacle? Or do we leave that up to the police?
Don’t Mimic the Paris Commune
Back during Occupy Oakland days, a certain faction liked to refer to us as the “Oakland Commune,” a reference to the revolutionary seizure of Paris in 1871.
Like today’s communards, the Paris claque jumped far ahead of their material foundations, believing that good will and dedication would carry the day.
Never mind feeding thousands of people – the farmers will flock to our banner! Never mind that the military has cannon – we have heart!
It didn’t work. As the military recaptured the city, 20,000 people were slaughtered. Not a great inspirational model, in my book.
My fear is that instigators and many participants know this experiment will fail. It is intended as spectacle, not revolution.
A certain number are confident that their families will hire lawyers, or that pro bono attorneys will come to their rescue.
For the rest, don’t sleep too soundly. Don’t get trapped in a debacle unless getting beaten and going to prison is your chosen way of resisting.
Because for all the dedication, for all the courage and heart, there is no way that the foundations have been laid for this quixotic effort to succeed.
Blessings to all.
June 23 update – city govt has ordered people to leave the zone. So – you can stay and wage a hopeless fight – or you can do what the Zapatistas did in this situation. Ordered to disperse, they melted away overnight – to reappear when conditions were right.
July 21 update – and so the bullet was dodged, so to speak. Your allies breathe a bit easier. Congratulations to level heads who managed to defuse the situation without too much lasting damage to people’s lives.
After all, if people’s lives are negatively impacted, we know what color heads that comes down on first. And black lives matter. Even in Seattle.
The nationwide outpouring of protests during the last 10 days has provided a historic moral response to the murder of George Floyd. In one city after another, people braved tear gas, pepper spray, clubs and other weaponry — as well as mass arrests — to nonviolently challenge racist police violence. Those same people were also risking infection with the coronavirus.
Photos from around the country show that a large majority of protesters have been wearing masks, often under very difficult conditions. By doing so, they aren’t only protecting themselves to some extent — they’re also protecting people nearby. As the New York Times just noted, “most experts now agree that if everyone wears a mask, individuals protect one another.”
In other words, wearing a mask is about solidarity.
Unfortunately, some protesters have not worn masks, perhaps unaware that they were putting others at risk. Meanwhile, some police officers have disregarded orders to wear masks.
With latest research indicating that about 35 percent of infected people have no symptoms at all, unwillingness to wear a mask jeopardizes the health of others. That jeopardy is far from evenly distributed. Older people and those with underlying health problems are at higher risk of dying from the coronavirus. African Americans and other people of color are also dying at much higher rates, due to structural racism.
“UC San Francisco epidemiologist Dr. George Rutherford described the protests as a kind of uncontrolled experiment, one that will test what happens when people are wearing masks in an outdoor setting, but yelling and not maintaining their distance,” the Los Angeles Times reported this week. Said Rutherford: “If you have breakdowns in social distancing and don’t have masks on, then you’re deeply in trouble.”
Addressing the chances of exposure to the virus while protesting, California’s Department of Health is urging caution: “Even with adherence to physical distancing, bringing members of different households together to engage in in-person protest carries a higher risk of widespread transmission of COVID-19. . . . In particular, activities like chanting, shouting, singing, and group recitation negate the risk-reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing. For this reason, people engaging in these activities should wear face coverings at all times.”
Also, if you’re headed to a protest, you might want to consider giving away some masks.
“The virus seems to spread the most when people yell (such as to chant a slogan), sneeze (to expel pepper spray), or cough (after inhaling tear gas),” The Atlantic reported as this week began. “It is transmitted most efficiently in crowds and large gatherings, and research has found that just a few contagious people can infect hundreds of susceptible people around them. The virus can spread especially easily in small, cramped places, such as police vans and jails.”
In Minnesota, the Star Tribune reported, “state health officials will be encouraging people protesting the death of George Floyd to seek COVID-19 testing — regardless of whether they feel sick — due to the increased risk of the disease spreading at mass gatherings.” The newspaper added that “a key recommendation will be when asymptomatic protesters should seek testing, because the incubation period of the virus following infection is around five days — with a range of two to 14 days.” Testing too early could miss the virus.
Protesting is crucial at a moment like this. But protesting must be done without ignoring the pandemic.
While some hazards probably can’t be avoided at demonstrations, wearing a mask remains vital. The reality that it’s difficult if not impossible to maintain six-foot social distancing at a protest makes wearing a mask all the more important. The life you save may not be your own.
At campaign rallies last fall and winter, Bernie Sanders struck a chord when he asked: “Are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” It was a powerful statement that resonated deeply and became a viral rallying cry. The ethical core remains. And by speaking out and protesting in the wake of George Floyd’s death, large numbers of people have been answering that question with a resounding Yes.
At the same time, those who wear a mask at protests are making clear that they’re willing to undergo some discomfort to protect people they don’t even know.
There are many things we have no control over as we keep pushing to change the political direction of the United States. Whether we wear a mask isn’t one of them.
Norman Solomon is co-founder and national director of RootsAction.org. He was a Bernie Sanders delegate from California to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Solomon is the author of a dozen books including “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” He is the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.
Direct action has a long and honored place in American history – from the revolution itself through abolitionists, suffragists, union organizers, civil rights advocates, feminist and gay rights activists, and on to today’s vibrant climate and social justice organizing.
Join author Luke Hauser for a profusely illustrated 25-minute journey through our past. We’ll focus especially on nonviolent organizing from 1980 to the present, with sections on the 1980s anti-nuke movement and 2011’s Occupy actions.
Originally created around 2000, the show has been updated with a revised text and many new images.
So make a big bowl of popcorn, pull up your beanbag chair, and get ready for a journey through our history!