Oakland, California—It’s not quite eight on a predictably temperate San Francisco morning and the guy behind me is discoursing on heat. “It doesn’t hurt,” he says, loudly but with a reassuring calm. “There are sparks. It gets a little hot.” He’s actually talking about friction, specifically the friction a circular saw will cause as it hisses through the PVC where we’ve linked our wrists. “Pour some water on it to cool it down. When you’re out, rinse off your hand—there’ll be plastic shards that can be like splinters. Stay calm. It doesn’t hurt,” he reiterates. The firemen cut through the lockboxes; the police attend with zip cuffs. The people nearest the saw look anxious and steadfast, a seemingly paradoxical condition which has come to be the default emotional state of San Francisco’s resistance movement.
Much coverage divides the anti-war movement into good protesters (who march an approved route and head home) and bad, even after it’s clear the song of Seattle won’t be reprised here. The concept of a “loyal opposition” must be maintained by every immoral power, to double-blind themselves to their own immorality. It lets them pretend they believe in dissent, while directing moral scrutiny elsewhere. Laying our bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, we’re the bad ones. You can tell, because the city trumpets the supposed $900,000 a day cost to remove us from our streets. That’s big money, JDAM money—funding the mayor perversely hints he will steal from social services.
Eighteen days later, after jail time and meeting time (with competing levels of frustrated ennui, of ethical imperative, and of dubious snacks), we will stage a peaceful community picket across the Bay at the Oakland docks, during which police reach out to the community with “non-lethal” ammunition: wooden bullets, bean bag rounds filled with metal shots, tear gas, and concussion grenades. It’s all over the news, it’s CNNtastic—but, as we’ve neglected to embed reporters appropriately, we’re subjected to absurdities one after the next: that we attacked the cops, no wait, that we wouldn’t disperse (a shooting offense now), no, uh, that the cops were worried that if they didn’t shoot us, more protesters might come out. On national radio, I am called a traitor, a disgrace, and am told that I’m giving aid and comfort to the enemy. It’s as close as I’ll ever come to Jane Fonda.
A couple days later some geniuses in a Baghdad tank finally figure out how to jerk the statue of Saddam off its pedestal. Language has toppled as well, under the weight of quotation marks. All we can say is that the “war” is “over”; this country’s been bombing Iraq since the President was the First Son, and the fighting continues and the civilian body count climbs. Nonetheless, when the press calls through to our loose coalition, Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW), they want to know what we’ll do now, now that the war is over, and the moment has passed.
Our city, of late, is rarely called by its loveliest nickname: Baghdad by the Bay. Still, certain relationships emerge: Baghdad is for the moment at the center of the war’s objective course overseas; SF is the epicenter of democratic resistance at home. That’s the word people keep using, and we mostly feel weird. It’s not supposed to be about us, but about kids getting shot by soldiers, and “regime change” as an extremely beneficial corporate restructuring for Carlyle Group and Bechtel and Halliburton, and about the national and global resistance to an unjust war.
On the other hand, we all know the numbers. Adding up the people of conscience committed to nonviolent civil disobedience—”the folks who brought you civil rights, women’s suffrage, and the 40-hour work week” as one sign reads—the Bay Area has sent 2,500 people to prison, and then some. And there is something incredibly powerful about this—not the raw numbers, but the sense of kinship, of recognition even in the face of an utterly estranging new world order. A friend of mine, a soft-spoken and often solitary English professor, spoke of walking down the street on March 21 and suddenly being confronted by hundreds of kids rounding a corner, largely in black, shouting their fury and dismay. “And I remembered that I loved people,” he said.
New York, where the eyes of the nation cannot stop turning these last 19 months, has seen civil disobedience numbers an order of magnitude lower. And there’s no doubt that, within the war resistance movement, there’s been a measure of disappointment. From holding cell H5 the day after the war started, we called in to a local radio station for news: Lakeshore Drive shut down by Chicago protesters, DC acting up more than anyone expected. Where was New York?
It’s not as simple as imagining that the Big Apple and SF are playing Emerson and Thoreau: “What are you doing in there, Henry?” asked the former, earning the famous rejoinder “Ralph, what are you doing out there?”
One thing recent history suggests is that epicenters of resistance migrate: In 1999, it was Seattle. Right now it’s San Francisco. When the U.S. Army marches into North Korea, perhaps it will be Iowa City, or Manhattan. In the long unshadows of the World Trade Center, no city has a sharper sense of the immediacy of danger; it’s a feeling that can slow anyone about to confront people more violent and better-armed than themselves, as is the balance with protesters and police. Objectively, it’s worth saying that New York had an awful winter: the freezing rain on March 20, the day after bombing started, made achieving critical mass difficult. The April 7 action at the Carlyle Group, organized by the upstart m27coalition, encountered a surprise snowstorm (not that this stopped police from a street-sweep arrest of protesters peaceably standing on a sidewalk, having never received an order to disperse).
It may also be that New York’s initial tactics had flaws: The “day after” call for a grand convergence on a single point (Times Square) was easily countered by a few police lines. At that point the protesters had a single choice: leap the barricades and cozy up to the billy clubs of Tompkins Square Park veterans, or stand in the downpour feeling grave.
In San Francisco, the action was structured like the coalitions that organized it. “Decentralized” is the watchword: There was no one in charge, and no single plan. A long list of locations—federal buildings, corporate offices, intersections—was posted to the Web and distributed on handbills during marches. Affinity groups autonomously chose where to go, and how to be. Beyond expressing the unacceptability of the almost elected regime’s imperial adventurism, the tactics may have been about “shutting down the Financial District,” under the rubric “No Business As Usual.” They might have been about chaos, as often described by conservative commentators. I think it was about not being in the army.
Being in the army demands giving over your freedoms in return for something like efficacy. This can be discomfiting, but you get paid a little, and you’re cradled within state power in its purest form. I have no interest in critiquing that soldier’s bargain here. More troubling is when that logic is extended outward—for example, when journalists make the same deal, call it embedding, and imagine themselves still a free press. But again, that’s Koppel’s option. It is intolerable when citizens are inducted into the martial logic without a choice, are told they will accept the degree of freedom assigned to them; that it will be more efficacious that way; that the state will cradle them; and that to do otherwise is traitorous. And unethical. And arrestable.
That’s the news these days. The degree of freedom you get is color-coded: Today you have an orange amount of freedom, which isn’t as much as yellow. You should be grateful for days of yellow freedom, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the “war” “started.” Green freedom? Won’t we have to change a lot of regimes before that seems even conceivable? We’re all in the army now.
Unless we choose actively not to be. Many professionals of realpolitik would have you know that blocking an intersection in front of, say, ChevronTexaco headquarters (and this is merely a suggestion) will not win the heart and mind of the beleaguered commuter, as if it were somehow about hearts and minds and shock and awe. It is not. It’s about stating, in terms that cannot be ignored, that one’s freedom is not assigned by the guys with the guns. That is the very liberation the military is supposedly pursuing through the oil fields of Kirkuk right now—the idea that one might dissent without violent repression. The Oakland police have earned, if nothing else, their merit badges in irony.
The time is not past for resistance and dissent, and for the anxious and steadfast work song that accompanies it. Not as long as the government’s unofficial crest is IraqBodyCount rampant; not as long as its farthest-flung outposts, the forward bases of the 101st Airborne, are nicknamed “Shell” and “Exxon,” and, coincidentally, the great liberator and former Shell CEO Phillip Carroll stands to run Iraq’s oil monopoly; not as long as freedom is a grant from armies and corporations, and the architects of the New American Century are preparing to sing their own song of Pyongyang, and their song of Damascus.