Watching the Maidan protests in Ukraine

This post will differ from most on this blog in being more of a pure log of links than an a formulated story or opinion.

I’ve been loosely following the protests in Ukraine and its capital Kyiv since they began in November. No surprise there since my main research topic is how protest movements use urban spaces. The EuroMaidan movement is happening just a bit north to Turkey’s Gezi Park protests, but the ability of the rolling waves of antiglobalization, antiwar, Occupy, Arab Spring, take the square, anti-austerity movements to see it as an extension of or parallel to themselves is much more complicated. Like these protests, EuroMaidan raises questions about how politics is done in the street, the rights (or wrongs) of protesters occupying public buildings and interrupting public life, the ways that mass movements involve an interplay between mass calm gatherings and (smaller) mass confrontation, the tactical interplay between unarmed and armed forces, and the quickening and fracturing of political coalitions. These sorts of questions seem pretty similar across different nations, and there are lessons to be learned from each mass movement for all.

While tactical affinities are obvious, the evidence of the presence or absence of political affinities is contradictory. Is an encampment that began with a defense of a European Union agreement comprehensible to those occupying squares against EU austerity inside the Union itself? Is this a movement for democracy, and is democracy being rethought from the street, as Occupy-ers found? Or are politicians “engineering” the occupations and clashes for their own ends? Is the threat of foreign domination in this case represented by Russia and Putin or by NATO and John McCain? Is this a challenge to corruption and concentration of wealth, or the opportunism of a right-wing and its merely ecstatic allies?

I don’t feel close enough to the situation to sort out all the answers to these questions, but the protesters are not just occupying the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, they’re occupying my thoughts. Here are some sources of insight if they are of interest to you as well:

So you say you wanna #OccupyWallSt? Some lessons from experience — Part I

Note: I started writing this weeks ago, but wanted to share its content now, since plans are being laid for Monday and beyond. Ultimately, as a speaker said at yesterday’s opening rally: “Monday is a work day; and that’s when we have to get to work.”

There is Internet buzz and face-to-face planning going on around a September 17 occupation of Wall Street. With a pitch in the August Adbusters as a grain of sand, this proposal is crystallizing energy around a common action:

  • On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices.

Internet forums have been setup, and in-person general assemblies are taking place in New York City (next one: August 9). The vision and politics behind the event reflect 20 years of Euro-American activism against corporate rule, but the plan and the courage are coming from the success at Tahrir Square. Or as Adbusters puts it:

  • A worldwide shift in revolutionary tactics is underway right now that bodes well for the future. The spirit of this fresh tactic, a fusion of Tahrir with the acampadas of Spain, is captured in this quote: The antiglobalization movement was the first step on the road. Back then our model was to attack the system like a pack of wolves. There was an alpha male, a wolf who led the pack, and those who followed behind. Now the model has evolved. Today we are one big swarm of people.

And at the center of this swarm are places for people to assembly, to debate plans, to envision their futures.

In the coming weeks, key preparations will help to decide the fate of this effort. Aside from enthusiasm, I want to offer some past experiences, all of them from the United States to help people who are making plans. The advice below is almost entirely about tactics, and not about old debates about which tactics are morally acceptable or politically enticing. Rather, this is to open a conversation about what works and doesn’t work on the ground for gathering, holding space, and taking over a place where hostile decisionmakers meet.

1. 2011 Capitol occupation in Madison, Wisconsin

I was a hemisphere away from this when it happened, but the basic structure has so much that could be replicated on Wall Street. Wisconsinites who followed this protest the whole way through should be hosted at least one night in the next six weeks in every community that plans to participate on September 17. One key idea:

  • Interplay of mass marches with more disruptive actions. Taking the Capitol inspired the whole state; bringing tens of thousands to the capitol justified the more confrontational action. Each effort should think about how it can best be a love letter to the other.

2. January 2002 World Economic Forum Protests in New York City

The buzz about #OCCUPYWALLSTREET that isn’t enthusiasm is basically about one thing: NYPD Lockdown. These protests, held four months after 9/11, saw the worst of times for mass deployments of cops and demonization of protesters. The key tool? Not some fancy weapon shooting rubber bullets or piercing sounds, but linkable security fences. NYPD circulated the idea that any legitimate protester needed to put him- or herself inside of a ring of these, or on street blocks enclosed by them at front or back. Then they arbitrarily closed protesters in and pushed them around using them. Options for resistance: It turns out these cages open with a good upward shove and are quite movable, if a crowd isn’t intimidated by the letters N,Y,P, and D in metal on the side.

Despite the clampdown, actions took place across the city. It turns out that Manhattan is a long island with lots of centers for corporate power stretched out along it. Police have to drive up and down it to get to your protest. Overly concentrating makes their life easier; a variety of locations makes your life easier. Also, pop-up actions in public places like forced security forces to play catch-up while locating their actions in view of the general public. Non-participating witnesses are a major deterrent.

Know the NYPD: Thanks to lawsuits, we now have a view of how the police saw their tactics in 2002. Some key elements:

  • “It should be noted that a large part of the success in policing the major demonstration on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2002, was due in part to the proactive arrest policy that was instituted at the start of the march at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, and directed toward demonstrators who were obviously potential rioters.”
  • In another report, a police inspector praised the “staging of massive amounts” of armored vehicles, prisoner wagons and jail buses in the view of the demonstrators, writing that the sight “would cause them to be alarmed.”
  • Indeed, one of the documents — a draft report from the department’s Disorder Control Unit — proposed in blunt terms the resumption of a covert tactic that had been disavowed by the city and the federal government 30 years earlier. Under the heading of recommendations, the draft suggested, “Utilize undercover officers to distribute misinformation within the crowds.”

Extra reading: People with time may find useful information in these reportbacks on the tactical situation from the protesters’ perspective: 1.

3. March 2003 Financial District Shut-down in San Francisco

This large-scale mobilization paralyzed the city’s financial district on the first two days of the invasion of Iraq. In summary,

  • In San Francisco, the Bay Area Direct Action to Stop the War called for a next-day shutdown of the city’s financial district if the United States invaded Iraq. The well-publicized goals of the shutdown said in part, “We will impose real economic, social, and political costs and stop business as usual until the war stops…” (David Solnit and Aimee Allison, Army of None, p. 140)
  • Thousands of anti-war protesters poured into San Francisco on Thursday, fulfilling their promise to disrupt life in the city as they occupied intersections, blocked buildings and tried to shut down the Bay Bridge in protests that occasionally turned violent.Sirens wailed throughout downtown and helicopters whirred overhead most of the day as police in riot gear hustled to keep up with bands of demonstrators. Often they were unsuccessful, as small groups of protesters scurried into place in intersections or dodged around corners to elude police.  (SF Chronicle, March 20, 2003)
  • Up to 1,400 had been arrested before the protests finally began to wind down after 11 p.m., and about 1,000 remained in custody. Most face citations for blocking traffic and failing to follow police orders, but at least 18 face felony charges.”This is the largest number of arrests we’ve made in one day and the largest demonstration in terms of disruption that I’ve seen,” said Assistant Police Chief Alex Fagan Sr., a 30-year department veteran. (SF Chronicle, March 21, 2003)
  • A more detailed view here, and on video in We Interrupt this Empire.

Tactics for organizing: David Solnit and Aimee Allison assign the success of this movement to four factors that make up what they call a “common-strategy framework”:

  •  Clear What-and-Why Logic:  Shut down the Financial District in order to impose a cost on war.
  • Broadly Publicized: Repeated lead-up actions and press conferences, street art, tens of thousands of fliers, a widely utilized Web site and broad community mobilizing made sure a huge portion of the Bay Area knew what was planned and why.
  • Mass Training and Mass Organization:  A few thousand people received civil-disobedience trainings at schools, churches, and rallies, and well over a thousand people were directly involved in the organizing via affinity groups, working groups, and public meetings.
  • Decentralization: Many allied groups who had minimal contact with the initiating organization understood and supported the strategy, and participated in the action without  coming to an organizing meeting or bothering to identify as part of the organizing nucleus, “Direct Action to Stop the War.”

From my experience in this mobilization, it’s clear that all of these things were crucial. But so too was the nature of the overall plan, traditions of taking the streets, methods of responding, and sheer numbers. And one more thing helped incredibly:

  • The civil disobedience pick and roll: Those of us who have gone through conventional nonviolence training usually learned to plan an action around arrests. Maybe not everyone gets arrested, but people who are willing to use that willingness to hold space, shut down an office, or simply make a point (recent example: the Tar Sands protests at the White House). Most normal people, on the other hand, tend to get out of arrestable situations while the getting is good. With an aggressive police force, this results in a very boring game of cat and mouse where people are swept all over town.
    What San Franciscans accomplished in 2003, however, combined the best of both worlds. Committed activists, with our without lockdown equipment sat down in roadways, linked up across the fronts of corporate offices, and surged through semi-private spaces like lobbies and malls, in potentially arrestable actions. They took their places as if ready to get arrested, and they worked together with larger gathering crowds. But when the arrests came, nearly all of them melted back into the crowd. Meanwhile, the larger mass took advantage of the police concentration on one corner, including the really massive effort it takes to lock people up and cart them off to jail, to start taking over the next. Like the basketball move the pick and roll, this let people hold space in one place while setting up the next. It kept San Francisco protest rolling all day, while shutting down the financial district.

There’s much more experience to feed in, but all of this is a good start.

Bolivia: A Year in Ten Protests

I returned this week from nearly a full year researching mass protest in Bolivia. As luck would have it, 2010 has seen protests in greater numbers (67 per month!) than any year since 1971 , when the Center for Studies of Economic and Social Reality (Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Económica y Social) began keeping records on the subject. And based on both a comparative look at Bolivian history and pure population growth, it’s safe to extend that title to the most protests in a single year since the beginning of the 19th century, or even Bolivia’s history as an independent country.

Unlike 2003 and 2005, Bolivian protests did not mount into an overarching national wave capable of toppling a sitting government. However, many of the forces involved in those years are showing increasing independence from President Evo Morales and the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party. Morales was ratified by a 64% majority in the December 2009 presidential elections and his party won the mayor’s office in nearly two-thirds of the country’s 337 municipalities in the April 2010 elections. However, this year many of the voters who backed the MAS in national fights showed their willingness to take to the streets to denounce its policies. Meanwhile, the MAS itself mobilized its base in a spectacular welcome to a global summit of climate change activists and against a 2011 workers’ strike.

Here, then, are the one election and ten mass mobilizations that defined the past year.

Read More »

Bolivia’s Literate Political Culture

While sitting in the midst of the massive coca chew-in in Cochabamba’s central square, the overwhelming mass of people was cris-crossed by two types of vendors: sellers of cloths on which to dry coca leaves, and a ubiquitous Bolivian sight, the hawkers of copies of new laws recently passed by the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. The hot seller of the day was last year’s Law 045, the Law Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination.

Bolivian laws are a widely circulated commodity. Newspapers, both broadsheet and tabloid, publish copies of both draft laws and their final versions as free supplements. Wednesday’s Los Tiempos had the draft statute of autonomy for Cochabamba Department stuck in alongside the sports and fashion sections. On the streets of downtown La Paz, Cochabamba, or Potosí, you can buy bound versions of all the major laws in Bolivia—the laws on criminal procedure, the labor code, and indigenous legal process, for instance—at all the main newsstands. Just by attending social movement conferences, I’ve accumulated three bound copies of the 2009 Constitution.

And that Constitution is surely the most cited text at Bolivian political rallies. You can count on the text of the constitution being referenced (though rarely directly quoted) when a series of political speakers lines up. Always referred by its formal name, the [New] Political Constitution of the State, it is a touchstone of legitimacy for protesters. It comes up as much as the so-called October Agenda, the combined political demands embodied in the 2003 Gas War, the first protests to topple a neoliberal government.

So, it was most surprising to read how America’s diplomats think about Bolivia’s political literacy, as revealed by the Wikileaks release of cables:

Although the opposition is making a mighty effort across the country to rally against the constitution, the forces of inertia seem to be conspiring against them, particularly in the form of a largely uneducated rural base in the Altiplano. Leading daily La Razon interviewed several community leaders from the Altiplano, and their supporters, and reported on January 18 that neither the leaders nor the supporters had read the Constitution.  Instead, the repeated message was that rural communities would take their marching orders from the MAS, and vote for the constitution. … In the countryside, the number of those reading the constitution is much lower.  Post suspects disinterest, blind faith in Evo Morales’ political project, and illiteracy, despite the Cuban literacy program, all play a role. (Cable 09LAPAZ96)

While the length of the new Constitution—literally hundreds of articles—no doubt limited the number of people who read it through, it’s clear that American diplomats have yet to clue in on Bolivia’s grassroots political culture. No one who has sat through a campesino rally, or the well-attended presentations on technical details of pensions or gas production, or who even sat with coca chewers ready and willing to buy the new anti-racism law, could look down so easily on alleged popular ignorance.

Attendees at World People's Conference on Climate Change—25,000 Bolivians and 9,000 foreigners—snap up a free newspaper

International Day of Action in Defense of Coca Chewing Underway

Massive coca leaf made out of coca leaves
On the plaza, a giant coca leaf made out of coca leaves

Coca growers from the Chapare (Cochabamba Department) and the Yungas (La Paz Department)—Bolivia’s two coca-growing regions—have travelled to Bolivia’s nine departmental capitals today to publicly chew the traditional leaf and to support the Bolivian government campaign to end the UN prohibition on coca chewing. Coca leaves are a traditional crop in the Andes and are both chewed in the mouth and boiled into a tea called mate de coca. Both forms are valued for their medicinal properties and cultural role in Andean culture, particularly the protection they offer against altitude sickness, fatigue, and upset stomachs. Bolivia’s demand that a 1961 UN drugs convention be amended has attracted broad support, including from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and Africa, and several countries that had expressed doubts about the move have been won over. However, the United States—a major cocaine-consuming country and the main international sponsor of Bolivia’s once-heavily-militarized war on drugs—and Sweden continue to block the move. The deadline for changing their position is January 31.

Events in Cochabamba are still underway, but here is an early preview of the gathering in the city’s main square, the Plaza 14 de Septiembre.

 

bagging and sorting coca leaves
Vendors from the May 27 Association bag coca leaves to give away
Marchers with coca plants
Two women from the Six Federations of the Tropics of Cochabamba march with young coca plants and bags of coca leaves
TV journalist interviews Leonilda Zurita, president of Coca Growers' Women's Federation

A more complete set of photos from today’s protest is online at flickr.

Change will come from us, when and where it comes…

It’s 19° here in DC this morning, where I will be joining some six or seven digit number of people outside for the inauguration. Washington is an old hometown to me, but it does have a different feel when it’s claimed as a front yard by people from across the country. Walking around last night, I saw more people on the street than I ever have, black folks selling “I was there” sweatshirts, and other black folks dressed to the nines out partying, a big time reception or three in different night spots, people dressed to be dropped off in limos (and clearly used to that too) walking through the cold because of the security perimeter, and a cleared out and brightly lit Pennsylvania Ave. surrounded by security fencing but nonetheless open to the public.

And in the past month, I’ve seen a disastrous war, bought, paid for, armed, and endorsed by my country but carried out in Gaza. I’ve called my black, Democratic Congressman from Brooklyn, Ed Towns, only to hear the exact Israeli line from his legislative aide, calling the deadliest assault in Palestine in three decades an act of “self defense.” Now over 1300 people are dead, and 50,000 are homeless.

I’ve also seen on video a black man shot in the back in Oakland, while waiting to be cuffed by BART police. And Oakland was my city, and New Year’s is my holiday in the Bay, and I had helped break up a fight earlier in the week, so I can sure imagine being swept up when the cops arrived. Oscar Grant could have been me.

These causes for despair can be healed, but it will be us, our actions that heal them by standing up and challenging injustice. I’m proud of so many people for standing up to these two in recent weeks (on Gaza | on Oscar Grant). They are what I have to celebrate today.

A couple months ago, I signed on to a call for a Bloc to be present at today’s inauguration called “Celebrate People’s History, Build Popular Power.” Given today’s mega-concert like feel, it might not be the action with the greatest impact. But I’m grateful for a way to set myself a bit apart today, to say the words “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” in a way that can never be the same as listening to the same words. To make the future we want, we all need to produce rather than consume our politics. See you in the streets, celebrating and fighting.