[Reader-list] Protesting in the Post-WTC Age / Naomi Klein

Sanjay Kak octave at vsnl.com
Mon Oct 22 06:07:16 IST 2001

Protesting in the Post-WTC Age  Naomi Klein,
The Nation October 10,  2001


As shocking as this must be to New Yorkers, in Toronto, the city

where I live, lampposts and mailboxes are plastered with posters

advertising a plan by antipoverty activists to "shut down" the

business district on October 16. Some of the posters (those put up

before September 11) even have a picture of skyscrapers outlined in

red -- the perimeters of the designated direct-action zone. Many have

argued that O16 should be canceled, as other protests and

demonstrations have been, in deference to the mood of mourning -- and

out of fear of stepped-up police violence.   But the shutdown is

going ahead. In the end, the events of September 11 don't change the

fact that the nights are getting colder and the recession is looming.

They don't change the fact that in a city that used to be described

as "safe" and, well, "maybe a little boring," many will die on the

streets this winter, as they did last winter, and the one before

that, unless more beds are found immediately.

And yet there is no disputing that the event, its militant tone and

its choice of target will provoke terrible memories and associations.

Many political campaigns face a similar, and sudden, shift.

Post-September 11, tactics that rely on attacking -- even peacefully

-- powerful symbols of capitalism find themselves in an utterly

transformed semiotic landscape. After all, the attacks were acts of

very real and horrifying terror, but they were also acts of symbolic

warfare, and instantly understood as such. As Tom Brokaw and so many

others put it, the towers were not just any buildings, they were

"symbols of American capitalism."

As someone whose life is thoroughly entwined with what some people

call "the antiglobalization movement," others call "anticapitalism"

(and I tend to just sloppily call "the movement"), I find it

difficult to avoid discussions about symbolism these days. About all

the anticorporate signs and signifiers -- the culture-jammed logos,

the guerrilla-warfare stylings, the choices of brand name and

political targets -- that make up the movement's dominant metaphors.

Many political opponents of anticorporate activism are using the

symbolism of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks to argue

that young activists, playing at guerrilla war, have now been caught

out by a real war. The obituaries are already appearing in newspapers

around the world: "Anti-Globalization Is So Yesterday," reads a

typical headline. It is, according to the Boston Globe, "in tatters."

Is it true? Our activism has been declared dead before. Indeed, it is

declared dead with ritualistic regularity before and after every mass

demonstration: our strategies apparently discredited, our coalitions

divided, our arguments misguided. And yet those demonstrations have

kept growing larger, from 50,000 in Seattle to 300,000, by some

estimates, in Genoa.

At the same time, it would be foolish to pretend that nothing has

changed since September 11. This struck me recently, looking at a

slide show I had been pulling together before the attacks. It is

about how anticorporate imagery is increasingly being absorbed by

corporate marketing. One slide shows a group of activists

spray-painting the window of a Gap outlet during the anti-WTO

protests in Seattle. The next shows The Gap's recent window displays

featuring its own prefab graffiti -- words like "Independence"

sprayed in black. And the next is a frame from Sony PlayStation's

"State of Emergency" game featuring cool-haired anarchists throwing

rocks at evil riot cops protecting the fictitious American Trade

Organization. When I first looked at these images beside each other,

I was amazed by the speed of corporate co-optation. Now all I can see

is how these snapshots from the corporate versus anticorporate image

wars have been instantly overshadowed, blown away by September 11

like so many toy cars and action figures on a disaster movie set.

Despite the altered landscape -- or because of it -- it bears

remembering why this movement chose to wage symbolic struggles in the

first place. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty's decision to

"shut down" the business district came from a set of very specific

and still relevant circumstances. Like so many others trying to get

issues of economic inequality on the political agenda, the people the

group represents felt that they had been discarded, left outside the

paradigm, disappeared and reconstituted as a panhandling or squeegee

problem requiring tough new legislation. They realized that what they

had to confront was just not a local political enemy or even a

particular trade law but an economic system -- the broken promise of

deregulated, trickle-down capitalism. Thus the modern activist

challenge: How do you organize against an ideology so vast, it has no

edges; so everywhere, it seems nowhere? Where is the site of

resistance for those with no workplaces to shut down, whose

communities are constantly being uprooted? What do we hold on to when

so much that is powerful is virtual -- currency trades, stock prices,

intellectual property and arcane trade agreements?

The short answer, at least before September 11, was that you grab

anything you can get your hands on: the brand image of a famous

multinational, a stock exchange, a meeting of world leaders, a single

trade agreement or, in the case of the Toronto group, the banks and

corporate headquarters that are the engines that power this agenda.

Anything that, even fleetingly, makes the intangible actual, the

vastness somehow human-scale. In short, you find symbols and you hope

they become metaphors for change.

For instance, when the United States launched a trade war against

France for daring to ban hormone-laced beef, José Bové and the French

Farmers' Confederation didn't get the world's attention by screaming

about import duties on Roquefort cheese. They did it by

"strategically dismantling" a McDonald's. Nike, ExxonMobil, Monsanto,

Shell, Chevron, Pfizer, Sodexho Marriott, Kellogg's, Starbucks, The

Gap, Rio Tinto, British Petroleum, General Electric, Wal-Mart, Home

Depot, Citigroup, Taco Bell -- all have found their gleaming brands

used to shine light on everything from bovine growth hormone in milk

to human rights in the Niger Delta; from labor abuses of Mexican

tomato farmworkers in Florida to war-financing of oil pipelines in

Chad and Cameroon; from global warming to sweatshops.   In the weeks

since September 11, we have been reminded many times that Americans

aren't particularly informed about the world outside their borders.

That may be true, but many activists have learned over the past

decade that this blind spot for international affairs can be overcome

by linking campaigns to famous brands -- an effective, if often

problematic, weapon against parochialism. These corporate campaigns

have, in turn, opened back doors into the arcane world of

international trade and finance, to the World Trade Organization, the

World Bank and, for some, to a questioning of capitalism itself.

But these tactics have also proven to be an easy target in turn.

After September 11, politicians and pundits around the world

instantly began spinning the terrorist attacks as part of a continuum

of anti-American and anticorporate violence: first the Starbucks

window, then, presumably, the WTC. New Republic editor Peter Beinart

seized on an obscure post to an anticorporate Internet chat room that

asked if the attacks were committed by "one of us." Beinart concluded

that "the anti-globalization movement...is, in part, a movement

motivated by hatred of the United States" -- immoral with the United

States under attack.

In a sane world, rather than fueling such a backlash the terrorist

attacks would raise questions about why US intelligence agencies were

spending so much time spying on environmentalists and Independent

Media Centers instead of on the terrorist networks plotting mass

murder. Unfortunately, it seems clear that the crackdown on activism

that predated September 11 will only intensify, with heightened

surveillance, infiltration and police violence. It's also likely that

the anonymity that has been a hallmark of anticapitalism -- masks,

bandannas and pseudonyms -- will become more suspect in a culture

searching for clandestine operatives in its midst.

But the attacks will cost us more than our civil liberties. They

could well, I fear, cost us our few political victories. Funds

committed to the AIDS crisis in Africa are disappearing, and

commitments to expand debt cancellation will likely follow. Defending

the rights of immigrants and refugees was becoming a major focus for

the direct-action crowd in Australia, Europe and, slowly, the United

States. This too is threatened by the rising tide of racism and


And free trade, long facing a public relations crisis, is fast being

rebranded, like shopping and baseball, as a patriotic duty. According

to US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick (who is frantically trying

to get fast-track negotiating power pushed through in this moment of

jingoistic groupthink), trade "promotes the values at the heart of

this protracted struggle." Michael Lewis makes a similar conflation

between freedom fighting and free trading when he explains, in an

essay in The New York Times Magazine, that the traders who died were

targeted as "not merely symbols but also practitioners of liberty....

They work hard, if unintentionally, to free others from constraints.

This makes them, almost by default, the spiritual antithesis of the

religious fundamentalist, whose business depends on a denial of

personal liberty in the name of some putatively higher power."

The battle lines leading up to next month's WTO negotiations in Qatar

are: Tradeequals freedom, antitrade equals fascism. Never mind that

Osama bin Laden is a multimillionaire with a rather impressive global

export network stretching from cash-crop agriculture to oil

pipelines. And never mind that this fight will take place in Qatar,

that bastion of liberty, which is refusing foreign visas for

demonstrators but where bin Laden practically has his own TV show on

the state-subsidized network Al-Jazeera.

Our civil liberties, our modest victories, our usual strategies --

all are now in question. But this crisis also opens up new

possibilities. As many have pointed out, the challenge for social

justice movements is to connect economic inequality with the security

concerns that now grip us all -- insisting that justice and equality

are the most sustainable strategies against violence and


But we cannot be naïve, as if the very real and ongoing threat of

more slaughtering of innocents will disappear through political

reform alone. There needs to be social justice, but there also needs

to be justice for the victims of these attacks and immediate,

practical prevention of future ones. Terrorism is indeed an

international threat, and it did not begin with the attacks in the

United States. As Bush invites the world to join America's war,

sidelining the United Nations and the international courts, we need

to become passionate defenders of true multilateralism, rejecting

once and for all the label "antiglobalization." Bush's "coalition"

does not represent a genuinely global response to terrorism but the

internationalization of one country's foreign policy objectives --

the trademark of US international relations, from the WTO negotiating

table to Kyoto: You are free to play by our rules or get shut out

completely. We can make these connections not as "anti-Americans" but

as true internationalists.

We can also refuse to engage in a calculus of suffering. Some on the

left have implied that the outpouring of compassion and grief

post-September 11 is disproportionate, even vaguely racist, compared

with responses to greater atrocities. Surely the job of those who

claim to abhor injustice and suffering is not to stingily parcel out

compassion as if it were a finite commodity. Surely the challenge is

to attempt to increase the global reserves of compassion, rather than

parsimoniously police them.

Besides, is the outpouring of mutual aid and support that this

tragedy has elicited so different from the humanitarian goals to

which this movement aspires? The street slogans -- PEOPLE BEFORE

PROFIT, THE WORLD IS NOT FOR SALE -- have become self-evident and

viscerally felt truths for many in the wake of the attacks. There is

outrage in the face of profiteering. There are questions being raised

about the wisdom of leaving crucial services like airport security to

private companies, about why there are bailouts for airlines but not

for the workers losing their jobs. There is a groundswell of

appreciation for public-sector workers of all kinds. In short, "the

commons" -- the public sphere, the public good, the noncorporate,

what we have been defending, what is on the negotiating table in

Qatar -- is undergoing something of a rediscovery in the United


Instead of assuming that Americans can care about each other only

when they are getting ready to kill a common enemy, those concerned

with changing minds (and not simply winning arguments) should seize

this moment to connect these humane reactions to the many other

arenas in which human needs must take precedence over corporate

profits, from AIDS treatment to homelessness. As Paul Loeb, author of

Soul of a Citizen, puts it, despite the warmongering and coexisting

with the xenophobia, "People seem careful, vulnerable, and

extraordinarily kind to each other. These events just might be able

to break us away from our gated communities of the heart."   This

would require a dramatic change in activist strategy, one based much

more on substance than on symbols. Then again, for more than a year,

the largely symbolic activism outside summits and against individual

corporations has already been challenged within movement circles.

There is much that is unsatisfying about fighting a war of symbols:

The glass shatters in the McDonald's window, the meetings are driven

to ever more remote locations -- but so what? It's still only

symbols, facades, representations.

Before September 11, a new mood of impatience was already taking

hold, an insistence on putting forward social and economic

alternatives that address the roots of injustice as well as its

symptoms, from land reform to slavery reparations. Now seems like a

good time to challenge the forces of both nihilism and nostalgia

within our own ranks, while making more room for the voices -- coming

from Chiapas, Pôrto Alegre, Kerala -- showing that it is indeed

possible to challenge imperialism while embracing plurality, progress

and deep democracy. Our task, never more pressing, is to point out

that there are more than two worlds available, to expose all the

invisible worlds between the economic fundamentalism of "McWorld" and

the religious fundamentalism of "Jihad."

Maybe the image wars are coming to a close. A year ago, I visited the

University of Oregon to do a story on antisweatshop activism at the

campus that is nicknamed Nike U. There I met student activist Sarah

Jacobson. Nike, she told me, was not the target of her activism, but

a tool, a way to access a vast and often amorphous economic system.

"It's a gateway drug," she said cheerfully.   For years, we in this

movement have fed off our opponents' symbols -- their brands, their

office towers, their photo-opportunity summits. We have used them as

rallying cries, as focal points, as popular education tools. But

these symbols were never the real targets; they were the levers, the

handles. They were what allowed us, as British writer Katharine

Ainger recently put it, "to open a crack in history."   The symbols

were only ever doorways. It's time to walk through them.


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