Articles posted on January 25 2001
Militants and Moderates
by L.A. Kauffman
Two images from the Washington, D.C. counter-inauguration protests capture, for me, the promise of this moment in time.
The first is the TV footage of George W. Bush's motorcade accelerating, with Secret Service agents jogging to keep up, as it approached the largest concentration of protesters along Pennsylvania Avenue. No matter how much the corporate media underestimated our numbers or marginalized our message, the inaugural demonstrations achieved a major goal: They marred Bush's coronation and unnerved those who made it happen. The commander-in-thief sped past the angry crowd at Freedom Plaza out of fear, no small thing for a protest to accomplish.
The second image was nowhere to be found on television or in corporate news accounts; you had to be there or read about it on Indymedia. Right about the time when Bush was taking the oath of office, the police had boxed in hundreds of protesters on 14th Street between K and L Streets most, though not all, members of the anarchist Black Bloc. Some people managed to push their way out, but mass arrests were looking likely.
Then, as if in a dream, thousands of demonstrators from the reform-oriented Voter March and the National Organization for Women came down 14th Street, smack into the police line. Initially, the police surrounded some of them as well, but they were angrier and feistier than the cops anticipated. Ultimately the police bowed to the force of numbers and backed off, letting the trapped protesters go free. There's a street-action technique used by some radicals called "unarrest," where folks acting in concert literally snatch their comrades from the arms of the police. In this powerful and unlikely inauguration drama, the most moderate participants in the day's demonstrations ended up mass-unarresting the most militant.
These incidents point to larger truths about the historic upsurge of pro-democracy and anti-capitalist protest taking place in the United States and around the globe. Those in power are truly alarmed by these movements' rising strength but the key challenge now is for radicals and reformers to find ways to work together.
What better sign of the jittery state of the global ruling class than the recent decision to hold this year's World Trade Organization meeting in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, an absolute monarchy where protests are illegal? (Even the U.S. State Department notes, with bland understatement, that "restrictions on the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, [and] religion" are "problems.") No other country was willing to host the WTO, because protesters have successfully made it a global pariah: The security risks for the sponsoring nation are too great, the publicity too bad, the expense too high.
Time and again over the fourteen months since the WTO was shut down in Seattle, the authorities have taken extreme measures to prevent or limit protest, only to see demonstrators prevail through a mix of stubbornness, fearlessness, and anger.
It happened in Prague last September, during the meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. There, despite heavy fortifications, demonstrators not only besieged the conference center but actually managed to break into it, leading officials to suspend the talks a day early.
It happened this past weekend at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where demonstrators defied a total ban on protests and faced off against police armed with tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons.
And it happened at the Bush inauguration, where in another almost totally unreported episode the Black Bloc, using a cart pilfered from a construction site, flattened one of the government's vaunted security checkpoints, allowing hundreds of protesters to breeze through. Meanwhile, a few blocks away in Freedom Plaza, other demonstrators matter-of-factly took over bleachers that had been reserved for GOP-friendly ticket holders.
The angriest people at the inauguration protests, though, were the moderates, not the militants. The experience of seeing the Bush family and its cronies disenfranchise black voters and steal the presidency most infuriated people who have some degree of faith in electoral politics, not the jaded cynics who are quick to say that "voting doesn't change anything," or, more anarchistically, "no matter who you vote for, government wins."
A substantial number of these Democrats and independents were demonstrating for the first time but odds are quite good it won't be their last. The checkpoint system and aggressive policing opened many eyes and clearly radicalized some participants. One woman from the Voter March posted a powerful account of coming up against the police line at 14th and L and briefly being trapped inside.
"I was so scared I didn't know what to do. I was looking at the various police, trying to find a face that might be approachable there were none!" she wrote. But then a man next to her convinced a cop to let a few people out, and she quickly slipped through the hole in the line. "This has shaken me like nothing else," she explained.
"I'm a middle class, getting to be middle-aged female American first time ever demonstrating there to participate with my legal, constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech (so I thought until that day). In the face of a threat to this right, what did I do I walked away. I'm so sorry and so ashamed. I'll NEVER walk away again."
There is extraordinary political promise in the broad-based outrage at the theft of this election, anger that is not going away despite the corporate media's rush to make nicey-nice and treat the Bush regime as a legitimate presidency. The utter spinelessness of the Democratic Party from its decision not to mobilize large-scale protests in Florida to demand a full vote count to its acquiescence in Bush's far-right cabinet choices further ensures that at least some of this anger will fuel sweeping critiques of the sorry state of American democracy.
The great irony of the 14th Street showdown is that just the night before, some members of the Black Bloc had been dismissing as wimpy reformists the very folks who ended up saving them from mass arrest on J20. In a dark basement well away from other activist gathering spots, about a hundred anarchists held a surreptitious meeting to coordinate their inaugural activities. The discussion turned to a common critique of previous blocs, the sense that the fuck-shit-up crowd tends to use other protesters for cover, including protesters that passionately disagree with their tactics meaning, for example, that folks committed to nonviolent action get exposed to greater police violence as a result of Black Bloc opportunism. Some folks agreed that was a mistake and a problem; others brushed off the criticism, saying it was perfectly legitimate to "hide among a bunch of reformists."
When the Black Bloc got surrounded on 14th Street, probably the last place they thought they'd get help from was such a bunch. (Exclaimed one Bloc'er, "I never thought I'd be happy to see people with Gore-Lieberman signs!") It would be going too far to say the Black Bloc was humbled by the experience, but in the wake of J20, you could clearly discern a new respect for these unexpected allies.
"This is a big thank you to whoever came to support the Revolutionary Anti-Authoritarian Bloc," wrote one anarchist on Indymedia. "After being trapped at one point by cops and having to push our way out, only to have people trapped again, I'm glad there was some soli-fucking-darity. That's what it's all about. We will stand by you when you need us, and I'm glad to see it's vice versa."
Some folks from Reclaim the Streets in New York came to the inaugural protests dressed in tinpot-military-regime attire. Sporting gold epaulettes and mirrored aviator glasses, they dubbed themselves Students for an Undemocratic Society.
"We are the children of the political, military, and business elites of America," read their manifesto. "We have worked for years to undermine democracy worldwide, and seek to celebrate the fact that with the installation of Cheney and Bush even the pretense of American democracy has at last been cast aside. We march in support of the property-owning, white heterosexual male who rules by violence."
SUDS started the day early at the U.S. Supreme Court, where GOP boosters had been promising to stage a fierce "Patriots' March." Only about fifty patriots bothered to show up, however. SUDS, wearing their silly costumes and carrying signs that said "OBEY," outnumbered them by a factor of two-to-one.
The right-wingers launched into a chant: "Get a job! Get a job!"
SUDS joined in: "Get a job! Get a job!"
The right-wingers tried something new: "Welcome President Bush! Welcome President Bush!"
SUDS echoed them: "Welcome President Bush! Welcome President Bush!"
The patriots tried again, this time with a mouthful of a chant: "Meanspirited, condescending, arrogant liberals!"
SUDS, of course, was quick to mimic.
This went on for a while, through chants of "USA!" and that "Hey hey, goodbye" song. But SUDS must have spoiled the conservatives' fun, because before long, they slunk away.
Throughout inauguration day, there were many occasions like this, where demonstrators outnumbered Republicans and made them noticeably uncomfortable. It was all quite satisfying, until you remembered that, while we made Bush & Co. nervous, they got state power. It's going to be a long and difficult four years.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
L.A. Kauffman (email@example.com) is writing DIRECT ACTION: RADICALISM IN OUR TIME, a history of U.S. activism since 1970. A longtime radical journalist and organizer, she is active in a number of New York City direct action campaigns. Her work has appeared in the Village Voice, The Nation, The Progressive, Spin, Mother Jones, Salon.com, and numerous other publications.
Barricada Collective Recount of the Blac Bloc Anaraction
The Revolutionary Anti-Authoritarian Bloc in Washington, January 20
Over 600 people took part in the Revolutionary Anti-Authoritarian Bloc
in Washington DC on Saturday, January 20th, inauguration day, marching for
over one hour through the streets of Washington before embarking on a day of
direct action against the state, including the smashing of a parade route
The impressive and energetic march, which attempted to re-create the German
Autonome Antifa style of marching by organizing itself into tight lines of
affinity groups and surrounding itself with banners reading, amongst others,
Class War...For a Classless, Stateless Society...Autonomous Resistance,
Not Chaos, Not Violence...Freedom, and Whoever They Elect, We are
Ungovernable, initially headed towards the Presidential parade route. A
police checkpoint was passed without incident and the RAAB then marched one
block parallel to the parade route. However, given that there were still
several hours until the parade began, it was decided to move on.
The RAAB then headed back in the direction of the initial starting point,
but this time with the intention of exposing the role of the corporate media
in sustaining the dictatorship of capital called representative democracy.
To this end the RAAB headed to the central offices of the Washington Post.
Once there several people decorated the front of the Post building with
anarchist symbols and paint bombs, while the hundreds behind them chanted,
Fuck the Corporate Media. This action was merely a warning to the
Washington Post and all other media outlets that choose to defame social
movements, anarchists and other revolutionaries in particular, and
constantly show themselves to be the enemies of the people. Had it not been
for the need to keep moving due to police presence and the dissuasive set-up
of Washingtons wide streets, they would be lamenting a lot more than some
graffiti. Next time they may not be so lucky.
It was however decided to move on as the bicycle scouts tracking police
movements informed those handling communications for the bloc that police
units were beginning to assemble and follow the bloc. In response to this
people began to drag newspaper boxes and construction fences into the
streets as they passed in order to halt the advance of the police.
At approximately 11 am a line of police managed to assemble in front of the
bloc at 14th and I despite the efforts of the scouts. However, the bloc
decided, possibly mistakenly (for analysis read The DC RAAB: Self Criticism
and Self Congratulation), that it was not necessary at this point to engage
the police as they could be avoided by simply heading up the intersecting
street. Once arrived at the parallel street, 14th and K, the bloc was again
stopped by a line of police and this time surrounded. A brief scuffle
ensued during which an unsuccessful half-hearted attempt to break through
the still quite thin police lines was made. Meanwhile, a group of about 60
entered an alley and attempted, again unsuccessfully, to maneuver a dumpster
into the street in order to use it as a battering ram against the line of
police. However, the dumpster proved to be too heavy and difficult to
maneuver, never making it out of the alley.
The end result of this was that about 250 members of the bloc were
encircled by police, while those who had managed to escape, either through
the alley or by breaking through police lines (which about 30 managed to do)
were dispersed around the surrounding area. Most people immediately began
heading towards the first designated re-assembly point, the Navy memorial.
However, word soon came in through the communications people that the
International Action Center march, along with NOW and the Justice Action
Movement, was headed in the direction of the trapped RAAB marchers.
Finally, as word spread about the situation it was the police themselves
that found themselves being slowly surrounded by demonstrators and unable to
move those surrounded into the arrest busses already on the scene.
In the meantime those in the RAAB who had not been surrounded were able to
re-assemble in the park across the street from the police corral, which was
now five lines thick. In order to attempt to put more pressure on police to
release the trapped demonstrators several charges against the police were
carried out in order to take the street, block traffic, and further surround
police. However, the police lines held and the furthest the bloc and allies
made it was halfway across the street. In the meantime a RAAB member
perched atop a streetlight set fire to an American flag and showed those
trapped that they were not alone by raising the black flag. Police then
tried to arrest him but he escaped by jumping into the crowd.
At approximately 12 pm police succumbed to the pressure of the thousands of
protestors and released all the trapped RAAB members, as well as those who
had joined them in solidarity. The RAAB then quickly re-assembled, now
lower on numbers and banners, but no longer isolated and now as part of a
As the march progressed the bloc decided to not repeat the errors of the
morning and better arm itself in case of a future confrontation with police.
Therefore, when passing by a construction site members of the bloc took a
large, and heavy, construction wagon and began filling it with cones,
plastic barrels, and large wooden poles. In order to avoid having all this
confiscated the wagon was placed in the middle of the bloc and surrounded by
banners and people on all sides.
Several blocks later the march arrived at one of the controversial police
checkpoints leading to the parade route. However, scouts informed the bloc
that there was a weaker checkpoint only one block further down, so it was
decided to head there. Once arrived members of the RAAB began asking the
crowd assembled in front of the police barricade to move out of the way as
it had been decided to show the police, in no uncertain terms, that the RAAB
had no intentions of submitting itself to searches, or any other of the
Once the road was cleared of all bystanders and only a metal barricade,
some policemen, and some secret service agents stood between the RAAB and
access to the parade route, the banner in the front was moved out of the way
and the bloc charged. In once of the several inspiring moments of the day
police and secret service scattered for their lives and the metal barricades
of the state were toppled by the power and determination of the RAAB as
hundreds of anarchists and revolutionaries, not 30 as the corporate press
reported, as well as newly empowered and emboldened reformists, surged past
the no longer existent checkpoint. However, in the rush to pass the
checkpoint the bloc lost some of its compactness, leading to several
individuals suffering close calls at the hands of plainclothes policemen and
secret service agents, such as the individual seen being rescued thanks to
the efforts of a barrel wielding RAAB member.
Once past the checkpoint and properly re-assembled the RAAB, now numbering approximately 200 and aided by a group of Revolutionary Communist Party Youth, found itself less than one block, one line of metal barricades, and one line of police, away from breaking into the parade route itself. Rest assured that had it not been for a quick thinking secret service agent who thrust his car in front of the wagon that had been used to destroy the checkpoint, the RAAB would have had no problems storming through the final
line of defense and pouring into the parade route, thus forcing its cancellation and succeeding in its attempt to disrupt the ceremony of the ruling class and proving that, regardless of how many thousands of police are on hand to defend them, the ruling elite will never be safe.
Unfortunately, the sad fact is that the Secret Service agent did react
quickly and manage to rob the bloc of a great weapon, not without losing a
window and earning a nice dent however. Eventually the bloc, once again led
by the Whoever They Vote For, We Are Ungovernable banner made it to the
front of the crowd and found itself face to face with the final line of
police guarding the parade route. A half-hearted attempt to charge through
was made as people began kicking at the metal barricades. However, the
snipers visible on virtually every rooftop and the concerns of many about
getting shot took away from peoples conviction.
At this point the RAAB found itself in a rather odd position in that
retreating was no longer an option, nor did it seem desirable given the
sacrifices made to arrive so close to the parade, yet advancing no longer
seemed possible (by now the final line of police had swelled to five). The
group then assembled into a large circle in order to discuss what to do
next. Eventually, after much discussion, it was decided that it would be
best, given the large number of protestors in the area, to do one of the
things which the bloc does best and try to build allegiances with other
protestors and work them up by being as vocal as possible, while temporarily
staying away from some of the more radical chants and searching for common
ground. The RAAB thus spent the next hour or so milling around and
chanting, with slogans such as Whose Streets...Our Streets, and Bush Says
Death Row...We Say Hell No, among others.
Eventually though word came in that a group of 15 or so members of the bloc
were at the Navy memorial where the NOW protestors where, and that they had
expressed an interest in having the rest of the bloc join them. It was
therefore decided to head in that direction. Once there the RAAB,
emboldened by the presence and support of quite a few members of the
Revolutionary Communist Party Youth and other protestors, began burning US
flags to chants to Yankee, Yankee Go Home. The RAAB then turned its
attention to the Navy Memorial Mast and began taking down all the flags on
it as members of the black bloc and the RCP climbed on it waved the black
flag and the red flag, respectively. Once all the flags had been taken down
a black flag, a red and black flag, and an upside down US flag were hoisted.
Seeing this the police responded by sending a squad into the crowd to
defend the memorial. Once the police had penetrated the crowd they
proceeded to surround the memorial, leaving two unfortunate RAAB members who
did not get off in time stranded, one of which has now been dubbed Super
Anarchist because of his apparent ability to fly (see cover). However,
Super Anarchist did land, and fortunately safely into the midst of the
black bloc who wrestled him away from the hands of the police.
Immediately after this all the protestors, many less radical elements
included, banded together to surround the police and begin advancing on
them. It was again an inspiring sight to behold the force of the people as
the police retreated, looking terrified and tripping over themselves.
What followed was approximately an hour and a half of charges back and
forth between the RAAB and different law enforcement agencies, ranging from
plainclothes police, to shielded riot police, to secret service, as well as
several members of the extreme-right who attempted to pepper spray members
of the RAAB. One of the most violent battles came after plainclothes police
charged into the crowd attempting to arrest several demonstrators, only to
have the RAAB successfully unarrest them. However, despite the many
unarrests, a constant during the day, the police did manage to arrest two
people during the course of the events at the Navy Memorial.
During this time the presidential limousine went by, however it was going
so fast that people barely had time to react before it had whizzed by. It
was regardless met with a decent stream of rotten fruit, bottles, eggs, and
rocks. This also came after the parade was forced to stop for several
minutes before the secret service was convinced that it was safe for the
President to drive by. Regardless, we can only hope that Mr. President saw
the red and black flag flying high as he drove by, and let it be a warning
to him of what to expect these next four years.
Once the parade had gone by it became evident that there was no real
purpose to remaining on the spot, and, with the President gone and the
crowds beginning to dwindle, it was becoming a safety threat to remain on
the spot as it was only a matter of time before polices attention became
focused solely on the bloc. It was therefore decided to de-bloc and
re-group at another location at 5 pm in order to discuss paying a visit to
the inaugural balls. However, when the time came the bloc had dwindled, due
to exhaustion, arrests, stragglers, people lost, and people having to leave,
to just over 60. It was therefore decided to call it a day and go back to
advancing the class struggle in our local communities and workplaces until
the next large gathering in Quebec City in April.
All in all, the inauguration day bloc, which was definitely not without its
mistakes and misjudgments (discussed in other article), can be considered a
smashing success for anarchism, for a variety of reasons. A well organized
and well publicized march of 600 strong was put together with only 2 months
notice, the police were handed several important defeats, the bloc showed
once again just how strong it is and how no matter how many police and how
much scare propaganda we can always adjust, a lot of people were radicalized
by the bloc and very supportive of its actions (even some Democrats), and a
lot of important alliances were either built or strengthened.