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.”
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.
There’s an earnestness to their affect that recalls the civil rights movement, or ACT UP in its prime. But despite that group’s dedication to fighting AIDS worldwide, the wealthy white males who dominated ACT UP prevented any global analysis of the epidemic from setting their agenda. And Martin Luther King never lived to link his movement with the anti-war crusade, as he intended to. But in this age of multinational commerce, when governments go with the flow of capital, globalism seems like much less of a reach. It’s the key to all sorts of oppression; the principle that allows these activists to imagine a politics that transcends race, culture, and especially identity.
Though you won’t find anyone in the sea-turtle legion who thinks abortion should be a crime, or homosexuality grounds for discrimination, the new movement doesn’t make a lot a noise about these “social issues.” Most activists step gingerly around any criticism of identity politics, but some are willing to put their disdain into words. “I think identity politics has demoralized a lot of activists,” says David Thurston, the anti-sweatshop organizer. Even as abortion rights slip away, he charges, feminists “have been too afraid of embarrassing Clinton to call for national demonstrations.” As for the gay movement: “The debate has shifted from challenging homophobia to defining people’s lifestyles and scandalizing those who don’t share your values, which doesn’t do much to build a movement.”
This critique will sound familiar to gays and feminists who lived through years of dismissal by the left, on the grounds that they were a bourgeois distraction from class analysis. That line has been a progressive cover for bigotry since the days of Marx, and it remains to be seen whether the new movement will give a fresh face to the old indifference. But there’s another possibility: integrating women and gays into the larger agenda of human rights. A full day of protest at the Democratic convention will be devoted to the principle that “an attack on one is an attack on all.”
For this movement, it’s all about context. Like poverty and pollution, sexism and homophobia should be seen as products of a system that exploits and divides people to maintain its dominance. “Ten years ago I might have been marching with NOW,” says Juliette Beck. “But we see the root as unaccountable governance and overwhelming corporate influence. And we’ve seen the way the media have used the abortion issue to distract people from the global problems of our day.”
You can take these words at face value or wait and see whether they represent a retreat. But one thing is clear: This new rhetoric has a real potential to unite groups that haven’t been seen at the same rally in at least 20 years. It’s poised to take advantage of a moment when the boom economy has produced a willingness to take risks. As in the ’60s, a decade of expansion unprecedented in America—until now—this prosperity has created an opening for a politics that collapses categories. “What’s going on is a redefining of ideology from left/right to bottom/top,” says Kevin Danaher. “I keep coming back to the same touchstone, which is: It’s money rule versus people rule.”
A very ’60s sentiment. So why does it seem fresh again? You might speculate that power breeds resistance, and corporate triumphalism is as absolute a power as exists in the world today. The global economy provides a tangible model for analyzing oppression, even as the World Wide Web makes instant communication between cultures possible on a breathtaking scale. But when it comes to inspiring the young, cool counts. And in this age of hyper-reality, the act of confronting the system f2f seems thrillingly x-treme.
If this is a generation without a cause, the new activism fills that void. It offers something mere ambition cannot: the gratification of being part of something bigger than yourself. To twentysomethings who labor under the illusion that making a fortune is the only thing worth fighting for, now there’s a choice. You can live in the Matrix or struggle to change the world. You can settle for an invented Internet identity or find yourself in an ideal that’s also real. Down with the pony-tailed hegemony of the dotcom masters! Up with tangibility!
Still, for all its real-time vitality, THE movement hasn’t made its mark on electoral politics. (Hey, it’s only seven or two years old, depending on whether you date its formation from protests against NAFTA in ’93 or the sweatshop campaigns of ’98). But that may change with Ralph Nader’s campaign. Nader’s group, Public Citizen, played a major part in organizing the Seattle demonstrations, and every activist interviewed for this piece praised his positions. But as Michael Dolan, a longtime Nader associate who now works with the Citizens’ Trade Campaign, puts it: “It’s unclear whether these people vote. The students probably do, but the anarchists?” An even bigger uncertainty is whether Nader’s association with the movement gains him the support of rank-and-file workers. “Ralph talks about how his campaign has been animated by the spirit of Seattle,” Dolan says, “but the question is, does that incite moderates to reject their slavish devotion to the Democratic Party?”
There’s another way of posing this question: Does a vote for Nader amount to a vote for Bush? This is the classic progressive dilemma, and as the election draws near, many activists will be caught on its horns. It’s significant that most protesters reached by this reporter couldn’t say who they would vote for. Much depends on how both Nader and Gore conduct their campaigns—and then there’s the unanswerable question of how the protests at both conventions will play. This is the ultimate echo of the ’60s.
When my generation went wild in the streets (egged on by the police), we won the media war—and lost the battle for America. We destroyed Hubert Humphrey, whose hypocrisy we rightly detested, and paved the way for Richard Nixon, who in turn laid the groundwork for Ronald Reagan. The consequences of the choices we made are all too evident in retrospect. In fighting for the people, we became their unintended enemy.
Hopefully, these sea turtles are savvier than we were. But that may not be enough. What the movement hasn’t yet faced is the bloody resistance we met when our revolution looked like more than an acid flash. Our leaders were assassinated before our eyes. Our best and brightest were shot down by the police, dragged by the hair down flights of stairs, clubbed and gassed into a frenzy. For all our determination to smash the past and make the future up, we had no tradition to sustain us. At the end of the day, we were exhausted, depressed, and ready for the mercy of the marketplace.
Will the new movement—with its leaderless structure and its penchant for singing “Amazing Grace”—be spared this violent initiation? Don’t count on it. Under the smile of the CEO who knows the words to “Come Together,” there are fangs. Threaten him and he will bite. To survive requires more than a gift for acronyms and analysis. The movement needs to become a culture, as deeply grounded as the one that enabled civil-rights protesters to overcome. That means more than raising a ruckus. It means using the past to make the right decisions through the pain.
What you believe is only the start of the struggle. How you act on that belief is the future you create.
For information about joining the movement, see Act Up! Here’s How.
Research: Julia Gayduk