Protesting everything

This week, the continent's roving antiglobalization protest party—the one begun so memorably in Seattle last fall—alights in Calgary, Alberta, for the World Petroleum Congress. Sponsored by the hopefully entitled "The End of Oil Action Coalition," the Canadian street presence hopes to replicate what happened in Seattle and DC.

Heck, everyone in the protest Left does these days. The question of how to follow up two events that brought people together from around the country and world will be answered, in part, by the protests that will greet the Republican and Democratic conventions in (respectively) Philadelphia and Los Angeles this summer. (The Republicans meet to crown the Shrub July 31-August 3; the Democrats get Gored two weeks later, from August 14-17.)

Strategists for both protests—"Unity 2000" in Philadelphia, "D2KLA" in LA— intend to avoid the direct action trap of "shutting down" an event that backfired somewhat in Washington. With the IMF and World Bank protests, a memorable and wildly successful mobilization was painted by media critics as a failure because it didn't meet the stated aim of closing the meetings. With political party conventions, not only would protesters have a nearly impossible task re-creating the improbable feat of Seattle, but more importantly, what would be the point? It would be like storming a TV stage—attention-getting, to be sure, but for what purpose is anyone's guess.

Instead, the usual marches and assemblies are being billed as a "festival of resistance." Activists are hoping such a strategy will focus attention on issues, rather than on tactics or confrontations with police. Most of Seattle's activist community is concentrating its attention on Los Angeles for reasons of simple accessibility; one local activist estimates that between 100 and 200 Seattleites will make the trip south. The D2KLA Web site, still mostly under construction, illustrates well both the breadth of issues this generation of activists wants addressed, and the difficulty of summing their agenda up in sound bites. "A Call for Celebration and Action for Global, Social, Economic, Racial and Environmental Justice!" gets even more unwieldy in the specifics.

The site goes on to list literally dozens of things that are inarguably wrong with our society. It's interesting that the current protest movement has been galvanized in an age of relative prosperity (at least in this country). Historically, protest happens when expectations are raised and not met. Oddly, the very success of an economy producing seemingly instant millionaires is also producing the most sustained radical protest movement in a generation.

So what issues make the list and which ones get left out? And who decides? And how will a call to "resist genocide" or "resist exploitation of the disabled" be enacted in the specifics? The bridge between marching in the streets and crafting public policy is still to be crossed, and the political conventions seem like an unlikely venue for making the changes.

One issue notably not on the list, but on everyone's mind, is the bankruptcy of the electoral process itself and the sham of the conventions. Both political party nominees essentially sewed up their nominations over a year ahead of time (well before any votes were cast) by the very nondemocratic means of cutting deals and raising tons of corporate money. More than ever, democracy in the US is very broken and everyone knows it. The most urgent problem with the laundry list expressed by D2KLA is that neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush are likely to do anything about any of the problems listed, and nobody can force them to. Nonetheless, many will make the pilgrimages. Radicals need their conventions and networking opportunities, also, and folks will march for all sorts of reasons.

Another issue not directly named on the list, which has nothing to do with political parties but which will be a factor at both sites, is the impending execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Philadelphia is Mumia's home and the site of both the murder for which he was convicted and of his own judicial lynching. A matter entirely in the hands of the state of Pennsylvania will thus be a key part of protests that largely exist for the same reasons the conventions themselves exist—not necessarily to be logical, but to hopefully draw the attention of the nation's assembled, and bored, media.

The political party protests don't seem to have the momentum and enthusiasm behind them—at least to this point—that the WTO and IMF/World Bank shindigs did. The newness of this youthful wave of the protest movement is gone and a "what now?" question hangs palpably in the air.

But more problematic is the irrelevance of the conventions themselves. They've devolved into coronations and extended infomercials, devoid of real meaning or drama. As a place where powerful people congregate, a convention draws media and protesters of all stripes, but for an overarching critique of international corporate control of our lives it's rather lame—sort of like protesting National Secretary Week when you're mad at bosses. Corporate CEOs know better than to advertise their conventions.

 
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