These great documentary films have a simple lesson: effective political protest needs good organisation and smart messaging
So, late last year, I said – to some controversy here – that the violent crackdown against the Occupy movement in the United Statesrepresented the first salvos of a civil war initiated by political and allied economic elites against protesters in a nascent movement whose still-not-fully articulated agenda would represent a threat to their unmediated and untransparent hold on profits. And a civil war it has indeed turned out to be.
Over the weekend, 2,000 citizens marched in support of Occupy Oakland – and were met by flash grenades and, some witnesses assert, rubber bullets. The Los Angeles Police Department is engaging in training exercises with the US military. At a parallel march in support, in New York City, a new apparition – large groups of masked men – joined the protesters, which is, globally, a sign that provocateurs intent on violence have joined the scene; and journalist Tim Pool was assaulted.
And reports continue to surface around the nation, most recently from Atlanta, of heightened local law enforcement investment in military-style hardware to use against domestic dissent. Predictably enough, after theNDAA created a clause allowing for the indefinite detention of domestic terrorists, Oakland council member referred to the Occupy protesters as"domestic terrorists".
In the midst of this escalation, some important lessons have emerged – from, of all places, the glittery and snowy Sundance film festival in Park City, Utah. I was there to appear on a panel titled "Loving the Masses", and in the course of my visit, had the chance to see some of the riveting and important documentaries about grassroots protest movements that distinguished this year's offerings: these included the powerful Never Sorry, about the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, directed by novice 27-year-old filmmaker Alison Klayman; Half Revolution, presenting edge-of-your-seat reportage from the front lines of Cairo's revolution, by young Palestinian-Danish director Omar Shargawi and Egyptian-American director Karim el-Hakim; David France's compelling How to Survive a Plague, about Act Up's rise and fall; the historically significantA Fierce Green Fire, detailing 30 years of the environmental movement, by Mark Kitchell; and the truly infuriating doc about how US corporations cycle their profits out of the country, hiding them routinely in offshore accounts or in their Irish subsidiaries, so as to avoid paying any US taxes whatsoever – and doing so in collusion with their hired hands in Congress – We're Not Broke, by Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce. The news is bittersweet and the lessons are timely.
One thing that emerges from watching these documentaries, in aggregate, is that this narrative is global. As the power of global corporations transcends the political power of nation states, global corporations are simply rewriting legislation in advanced democracies behind closed doors, and leaving the people – of Greece or the UK, America or Italy – out of the decision-making process altogether; then presenting the need for cutbacks as a fait accompli. It is this lack of financial transparency and accountability that Occupy's movement threatens, and there are truly billions of dollars – in untaxed US profits alone – at stake if they become successful.
Also apparent from these films is that the crackdowns against dissent are now globally coordinated: Acta, which allows corporations to block access to certain sites online, was signed recently by a series of governments. In Half a Revolution, Cairenes hold up bullets and tear gas canisters marked "Made in America". As Twitter and Facebook became global routes for "revolutionary" sentiment used by dissidents such as Ai Weiwei – who documented, via Twitter, footage of his being beaten by secret police in a hotel room, as well as tweeting his brain scan images that showed proof of the damage done by the beating – and as Facebook drove the protests in Tahrir Square, both social media have both recently announced policies that limit their usefulness as tools for organizing, that weaken privacy protections, and that can help to put in jeopardy dissidents who run afoul of local censors.
On the organizing side, the lessons are profound from these documentaries, as well. It was heartbreaking to sit on the panel watching clips from A Fierce Green Fire and How to Survive a Plague and see that most of the forms of effective peaceful protest used by these successful movements are now illegal, or else extremely dangerous. Lois Gibbs, a citizen leader in the Love Canal pollution scandal, spoke of holding government officials hostage until the groups' demands were met. Well, these days, that would get you ID'ed as a "domestic terrorist" and shipped to abusive detention.
Act Up successfully put a condom around Senator Jesse Helms' house, blocked access to the FDA, and showed up to disrupt meetings about drug trials that had been held in secret. Especially affecting to me was how long they were given to make their points before being silenced – and how they faced brief arrest processes, at most, but no violence. Act up was, of course, successful and their activism on fast-tracking Aids drugs has saved millions of lives.
Important lessons also emerged, especially from Act Up. Occupy – a movement I love and respect, and which represents our last best hope – also fills me with distress because of how difficult it is for a movement committed to "no spokespeople" to get their message out. Act Up, which was founded by a group that included people who worked in the media and in advertising, were not so self-hobbled: they created a memorable "brand" (the pink triangle) and coined a powerful soundbite ("silence equals death"); and activists accepted media training from a member who was also a news anchor. They were "on message" – labeling the Catholic Church, for instance, "murderers" when it opposed condom use. And it was effective, so the word "murderer" was repeated in dozens of voices and entered the news stream. The Church lost that round; the soundbite won the day.
Also clear was that Act Up did not get bogged down in consensus decision-making – which has derailed every single group I have ever studied that has committed to it – and went with a clear agenda voted on by majority rule. (They also appeared, from footage of meetings, to have been following Robert's Rules of Order.) Most importantly, they worked what every successful grassroots movement needs to create: an outside, disruptive pressure strategy, and a talk-to-and-negotiate-with-the-decision-makers-under-pressure "inside" arm, creating a pincer movement. So Act Up protesters would disrupt drug trials outside the FDA or a private drug company building, or occupy St Vincent's Hospital. Then, after the disruption had smoked out the leadership of the institution under fire, a few designated Act Up representatives would make themselves available to present their clear demands to those in power in those institutions and negotiate outcomes, with more protest and disruption implied if demands were not met.
Again and again, How to Survive a Plague shows that this tactic is effective. Right now, though, the Occupy movement has an ideological reluctance to creating both arms of the pincer. Many see it as "contaminating", in the words of one young activist, to even talk to the decision-makers they are protesting against, or to deal with the mainstream media. I would argue – as I did at Sundance – that the house is burning and we do not have time for this preciousness. The evidence from the French documentary, as well as from the Tahrir Square footage, is that the images in the news media let the world be a witness and, to some extent, protect protesters. But without journalists present, Syria is free to mow down citizens without intereference. That shows that disorganization and a policy of shunning media communication equals political death
Media exposure, a clear message, smart soundbites, clearly stated demands, and, most importantly, tasked, empowered negotiators working on the inside in concert with mass disrupters applying pressure from without – this equals political life.