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L.A. Kauffman Gets The Goods

Issue 223

Steven Sherman Mar 29, 2017

Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism

By L.A. Kauffman
Verso Books, 2017

"Whole bookshelves groan under the weight of histories of the sixties, and both the old left and the new left have been extensively studied,” organizer and journalist L.A. Kauffman states at the beginning of her new book, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, “yet, while significant waves of activism have punctuated the history of the last forty years, the story of American radicalism in recent decades remains almost untold.”

Direct Action seeks to remedy this situation partially by focusing on one major strand of radicalism in this period — the disruptive but basically nonviolent style of protest epitomized by the blockading of the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle in 1999. On these terms, the book is clearly a success, and activists attempting to understand their own history and the strengths and weaknesses of this tradition will return to it time and again.

Kauffman begins her story in 1971, describing the largely forgotten May Day protests against the Vietnam War, which converged on Washington, D.C. to shut down the federal government. A sort of response to the Weather Underground — an effort to be as disruptive as their bombing campaign, but in a nonviolent manner that could better include widespread participation — it failed to “stop the government,” as 14,000 protesters were pre-emptively arrested, but did intensify pressure on the Nixon administration to end the war. The action’s approach owed more to anarchist thought and practice — from which it drew the idea of affinity groups — than to socialist practice. Civil-rights movement veterans mobilized to support detained activists, representing something of a passing of the disruptive-protest baton from a generation exhausted by government repression to a new tendency.

She continues by describing a series of high points over the next 40 years, including the Clamshell Alliance’s sit-ins at the Seabrook nuclear-power plant in New Hampshire, the protests at the 1984 Republican convention in Dallas, ACT UP, the South Africa divestment movement, Earth First!, the “Battle of Seattle,” Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Care is given to outlining the precursors, mood, tactics and dilemmas each faced. This sort of describes an arc, as the revolutionary dreams of the early 1970s give way to a more internally focused, defensive posture in the later ’70s and the ’80s, and then growing confidence leading up to Seattle.

The aftermath of 9/11 drove disruptive dissent off the streets, but it returned with Occupy Wall Street and then Black Lives Matter, in some ways stronger than ever. Several threads run through this narrative. The book notes the central role of queer, in particular lesbian, activists, throughout this period. A more nonpolitical or antipolitical focus early on — such as the tendency to zoom in on the immediate needs of people living with HIV or defense of the environment outside of a larger political framework — eventually gives way to a tendency to see commonalities in struggles and the potential for larger-scale radical change. Above all, the challenge of the racial segregation of this part of the left looms large. Kauffmann sees the earlier movements as more inept at posing this question and responding to it, but depicts some progress by the time of Occupy and in particular Black Lives Matter, an African American-led movement supported and informed by direct-action stalwarts.

There are some unfortunate exclusions. The mobilization of thousands of activists to New Orleans to support Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts under the aegis of the Common Ground Collective is not mentioned at all, although it probably represented the most prominent direct-action mobilization between the start of the Iraq War and Occupy Wall Street, and as it was largely white activists taking leadership from an African American group, would have fit in well with the narrative.

Similarly, the U.S. Social Forum of 2007 and 2010, spearheaded by mostly non-white groups but attracting participation from considerable numbers of the sort of activists Kauffman is describing, is not mentioned. And Occupy Oakland, the one Occupy encampment where Black Bloc tactics were not marginalized, is also absent. Occupy Oakland was one of the largest and most militant of the movement’s occupations, and its proponents typically said its roots were in the response to the 2009 police shooting of Oscar Grant, again linking it to non-white struggles.

Although she handles the question of race well throughout, she doesn’t comment on this movement’s other demographic limitations. One is the question of class. How many of the blockaders of the WTO were not college-educated (to take one way of identifying class), aside from the union members who broke from the union-sanctioned march to join the blockade? I suspect not many.

A second question centers on geography. Like the Democratic Party vote, the direct-action tendency is highly concentrated: Almost all the actions cited here took place in a handful of metropolitan areas and around prestigious universities. On the other hand, Occupy Wall Street showed some signs of breaching these limitations during its brief heyday.

These questions are not addressed, I suspect, because they have never had much prominence in debates within the movement. But they are relevant nevertheless for building effective mass movements. These are, however, quibbles, as Kauffman has drawn a vivid narrative in its own right.

After the election of Donald Trump, it is difficult to not feel that the terrain of protests has changed dramatically. For a time, it made sense to debate intensely about how to have an effective spokescouncil that would incorporate ideas from all the affinity groups, or how to lock down an intersection near an International Monetary Fund meeting. Direct action also often seemed the best strategy, in a time of political isolation, to get the goods such as testing of new AIDS drugs. Since November 8, 2016, the question of who is sitting in positions of power, and the fundamental direction of U.S. society, looms larger than ever.

These questions are likely to insert themselves into even the most localized protest, not just major mobilizations. How and whether the direct-action tendency, responsible for some of the most creative and high-impact movements and protests of the last 40 years, will respond to this new terrain remains to be seen.