Protest 2000

It Thinks Like the '30s and Rocks Like the '60s. But It Acts Like the Future

It's not easy interviewing Alli Starr. The signal on her cell phone wavers radically as she careens through the Malibu Hills, on her way to ruckus camp. At this weeklong training session, young activists learn about everything from talking to the media in positive sound bites to dealing nonviolently with the hard rain of pepper spray. Alli, who is 32, teaches them how to use music and dance to defuse a violent vibe. "When we sing 'amazing grace,' it has this profound effect," she says, recalling the moment in Seattle when police closed in on the crowd occupying an intersection. "We did a slow-motion dance in unison—a prayer—and the whole energy changed. People started singing, the police stopped spraying, and the sun broke through the clouds."

A very '60s moment. And from a distance, that's what the new movement looks like. There's the same manic yet mellow energy, the same emphasis on affinity, the same affection for agitprop. Those giant puppets hovering over the demonstrators in Seattle and Washington D.C. Bore a striking resemblance to the bread and puppet theater creations that once regaled antiwar marches. Even the sight of protesters, dressed as sea turtles and other species threatened with extinction, puts you in mind of yippies decked out in (then illegal-to-wear) american flags.

But something about these activists doesn't fit the '60s model. They're polite, even when charging down a street. They don't throw cow blood at the cops, or holler "kill the pigs!" And they don't spell america with three ks. "We were unnecessarily anti-american," says organizer Kevin Danaher, who cut his teeth in the '60s. "People understand now that it's about an alliance of elites around the world. You don't say 'america sucks!' You say the people running this society suck."

November 29, 1999: five activists unfurl a 2000-square-foot banner in Seattle to protest World Trade Organization policies.
photo: Dang Ngo
November 29, 1999: five activists unfurl a 2000-square-foot banner in Seattle to protest World Trade Organization policies.

These days, Danaher works at Global Exchange, whose mission is to make Americans care about the rest of the world. Though he's a founder of this group, Danaher wants you to know he has no power to command it. Nor can his colleagues order up the mass mobilizations being planned around both the Republican and Democratic conventions. But organizers are crisscrossing the country in a traveling activist caravan known as the Democracy Road Show. It's not exactly Lilith Fair, but this festival of speeches and performances aims to bind together an activism that has fragmented into dozens of colliding causes. The goal is to instill in unlike-minded people a common conviction that the problems besetting them are tied to the same corporate dominance that torments the third world (or, as these organizers like to call it, the Global South). That kind of talk hasn't been heard since the days when Commies chanted "Workers of the world, unite!"

"I'm a fan of Marx, myself," says David Thurston, a 21-year-old coordinator for United Students Against Sweatshops, a key group in the resurgence of campus activism. But, as Thurston proudly notes, "there's a lot of ideas out there." In this movement, it's legit to be a socialist, but it's also cool to be a member of the Black Bloc, as young anarchists who dress as Rothko painted are known. Some of these people are fighting for a hunter-gatherer society, but there are also mainstream Democrats and even a few Republicans. This profusion of beliefs is the result of a movement that thinks a lot like radicals did in the '30s, but rejects a defining part of their ideology.

The new movement has no use for centralized authority. Instead, it cherishes the word convergence, leaving ample room for lefties, libertarians, and synthesizers of every stripe. Ask organizer Juliette Beck, 27, whether she's a socialist and she replies: "It's hard to say, because socialists don't support fair trade, but as internationalists, we back poor communities that want to sell their products to the U.S. for a fair exchange. I guess we're also very skeptical of the government. There's no ism to describe my politics. Maybe humanism."

On July 31, the whole ruckus will descend on Philadelphia, haunting the coronation of George W. Bush. The streets will be alive with people marching against "the prison-industrial complex," the perils of genetically altered food, and new laws that make graffiti a felony. Turtles will join forces with Teamsters, hip-hoppers with Greens. "It's a movement of movements," says Beck. From this principle flows everything that makes the new wave of activism distinct.

Here's a scene that could never have happened in the '60s. Police bear down on demonstrators chained together in the street. The response is to take a vote. If everyone consents, the action is on. If anyone objects, the protesters walk away.

This emphasis on process—sometimes painful to behold—has the advantage of putting real conviction behind the risks activists must take in this era of rubber bullets and hose-fed pepper spray. It also embodies an organizing strategy that can reconcile the postmodern sense of personal freedom with the pre-war idea of a popular front. And it's tech-savvy to the core. As writer Naomi Klein has pointed out, the new movement is modeled on the Internet, with its web of linked interests and instant affinities. At strategy sessions, each group sends a "spoke" to stand—sometimes literally—in the web that plans an action.

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