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photos by Lara Shipley

Weekends of Sound and Fury

September 30th, 2002 · No Comments

First things first: whatever your political orientation, you should be angry right now. Not a sort of abstract, tounge-clicking-head-shaking upset at the willingness of D.C. police to use the Constitution as so much Charmin, but a robust, fists clenched, teeth gnashing, “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” variety of pissed off. Maybe I’m jumping the gun & it’s just bloggers taking the weekend off, but to the extent that bloggers on the right (with the notable exception of Jesse Walker) have seen fit to mention this weekend’s anti-IMF/World Bank protests in D.C., it’s mostly been to sneer at the silly protesters. And I’ll do a touch of that in just a minute. But the luxury of sneering should come a distant, distant second to the necessity of denouncing the ludicrous overreaction of police, and perhaps more disturbing, the complicity of the major media outlets in spinning the story.

Consider the captions on these Washington Post photos from the protests. The standard line we’re being fed is that most of the 600-odd people arrested on Friday were collared for “failure to obey a lawful police order.” That had to be the charge, because you can be ticketed, but not arrested, for mere “parading without a permit,” whereas “failure to obey” is an arrestable offense. The order in question being to disperse and clear the streets. Well, I had friends at the corner of Vermont and K that morning, and the order must have been given in a firm whisper, because none of them heard it, despite being fairly close to the police lines. Not that this would have mattered much, since anyone who attempted to disperse or clear the streets (as many did) promptly got mace-canisters brandished in their faces. Unlike the order to disperse, the order to “back the fuck off” was given loud and clear to anyone who tried to leave.

Now, I’ve nothing against arresting, for example, the twenty-one or so people who cuffed themselves together in the street just before rush hour. Free speech doesn’t extend to preventing others from making use of public streets, after all. But it’s pretty clear that the police used this legitimate function as a pretext to round up hundreds of people indiscriminately, including tourists, spectators, reporters, and folks biking to work. A queer activist was reportedly beaten savagely by “peace officers.” Especially damning is footage the folks at IndyMedia captured of protesters at Freedom Plaza, ostensibly arrested for their failure to disperse, chanting “let us go” and being prevented from leaving peacefully by police.

The pattern in demonstrations of this sort is almost universally that the most chaos is caused, not by the “anarchists” in the streets, but by police putatively seeking to preserve order. In Barcelona this past summer, the crowd was quite placid at a “manifestacion” against the EU until droves of police in stormtrooper gear showed up. A few assholes decided to set trash on fire and throw bottles at the police vans. They certainly should have been picked out and arrested. But that didn’t happen. Instead, police decided to “clear” the Rambla with billy-clubs and rubber bullets, setting off an all too predictable stampede, with far more potential for injury than a couple of teenyboppers in black bandanas. The first act of vandalism cited from Friday — the smashing of a Citibank window — was (according to friends at the scene, anyway) perpetrated by people who panicked as police began closing in, and hoped to excape through the building. Whether that’s true or not, it should be clear that the heavy-handed police actions went far, far beyond what was necessary to protect property and preserve public use of the streets. So, where is the outcry over this on the right? Are we really the staunch defenders of constitutional liberties we claim to be in our PR kits, or do we say nothing when they come for the globophobes, because we are not globophobes? On the basis of an admittedly cursory cruising of the blogosphere, it seems as though our righteous indignation goes missing when the truncheons are aimed at the heads of people we’re out of sympathy with. This silence from the right is deafening. And embarassing.

But enough friendly fire. The protests themselves — or rather, the rally on Saturday which I attended — managed to combine the comic and the tragic in roughly equal measure. On the side of the comic, my friend Möbius got asked by at least a few dozen people where they could get his Adbusters “brands-and-bands” flag. (“How can I purchase that fine consumer good?” I whispered to him, as the fifth or six person inquired. “It’s funny because it’s true” he sighed.) And I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that many people there — e.g. the pair of high school girls who tried to sell us copies of a socialist newspaper — were driven not so much by any coherent political philosophy, but by the combination of an inchoate (though in itself justified) sense that there’s something horribly wrong, and the same desire for countercultural cameraderie that I used to indulge by following Phish around. Actually, I’m waiting to see if that band’s reunion will have a noticable effect on turnout at these events, which already seems to be in sharp decline.

I actually found myself nodding in agreement a surprising amount when speakers moved past vague and general denunciations of “corporate greed.” Abolish the IMF and the World Bank? Yeah, I’m in favor of that. End the drug war? Sounds good. Less foreign intervention? Right on. No corporate welfare? Check. But, as I observed to a couple of college students who were interviewing folks for some class project (and got curious about my “Free-Market.Net t-shirt“), there was an unfortunate totalizing theme in many of the speeches I heard. One speaker explained that you couldn’t work to solve ecological problems without simultaneously fighting racism, corporate power, privatization, state human rights abuses, and a whole host of other evils. As Robert Nozick once observed, this everything-is-connected worldview may be compelling after a few hits from the bong, but it isn’t a terribly illuminating guide to policy change. To some extent, I suppose it’s necessary. Without the it’s-all-connected doctrine, it’s not clear what the free-Mumia people, and the labor activists, and the Greens really have in common, after all. The last two, at least, would seem to have opposed interests in certain cases. Like the Goldsteinian gay-means-left cant I ragged on a few weeks back, it serves a handy coalition-building function that makes its truth more or less irrelevant. It also stands in the way of ad hoc cooperation between the progressive left and the libertarian right on issues where we do agree, something I’ve repeatedly argued would benefit both sides. OK, enough rambling for now.

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