A Convergence of Seattle Traditions
I don’t understand last week’s May Day fiasco. Maybe you heard about it? If not, that’s okay, because there really are probably better things to worry about. I’m given to understand that a picture of city-sweeping riots was painted by a certain national news network, but I think trouble was limited to a few hot spots downtown.
There are many levels of frustrating things going on with the whole May Day meltdown that perturb me. First, May Day is often observed as International Workers’ Day, and is essentially synonymous with Labor Day in many countries. As mentioned in the comic, it’s considered a day to observe solidarity amongst workers, advocate for rights, and generally make sure that no one has to live in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Earlier in the day last Wednesday, Seattle had a demonstration essentially in that spirit, focused on immigration reform, and the rights of workers in this country who aren’t from this country. It’s a little harder to find reportage of this earlier event, owing to the circus of the later one, but at least one union had members present (steel workers, if I recall correctly). This, I think, is the gathering attended by the clowns (or, that is, some activist group in clownish attire) and the superheroes, who clashed briefly, if this message is an accurate indication.
Then, in the evening, there was an anarchist-organized (apparently?) event that by some tenuous logic managed to connect to a “traditional” Workers’ Day observance, but it seemed more concerned with, well, being anti-something-and-everything. I wasn’t there, so I’m just working with photos and reportage, but it looks like there were a lot more people holding (expensive) cameras than any discernible signs. Personally, I think the better time to have an anti-capitalism march would be around, oh, Black Tuesday, an occasion of history that can be conveniently remembered as an incident in which reckless, unregulated economic policies contributed to calamitous long-term societal consequences. But maybe the weather is more pleasant in May than October?
The most aggravating thing about this debacle is the apparent short-sighted hypocrisy of the whole thing. Social anarchists advocate a state free of police where citizens will regulate their own behavior, then wreck up the street in acts of impulsive destruction. They howl at the oppressive yoke of the corporations, and then smash the windows of a local sole-proprietor pizzeria. As far as I can tell, the only “corporate” casualty of the night was the broken window in the door of a Walgreens, which was probably coincidental, based on the accuracy of the other acts of vandalism. And you know who’s going to clean it up? A minimum wage worker– the Walgreens CEO or Board of Directors aren’t going to clear their schedule to take a private jet into town this week to replace a window. Vandalism only inconveniences the employees who just want a life of quiet dignity, and have dreams of their own to pursue that probably don’t involve exploitation of the proletariat.
This is why no one takes you seriously, anarchists. When your only tool is violence and destruction, you often make yourselves more irritating than whatever problem you’re trying to solve. I’ve read some allegations that most activities undertaken by anarchist groups consist of general charitable work, such as feeding the homeless, teaching english to immigrants, or hosting reading groups, not unlike more publicly accepted organizations like various churches and faith centers. If this is the case, and ardent yet innocent anarchists find themselves once again scapegoated for the hooliganism of others, then there’s a major public-relations problem going on in your organization, and you guys need to stay away from events where there’s even a whiff of someone causing trouble.
And I think the whole notion of the protest culture is kind of broken these days. This whole thing was a vicious feedback loop between the media, the disenfranchised, and the police, and if you want to think about it in the most conspiratorial of terms, you were all tricked into dancing for the advertising industry, providing a no-cost (to them) floor show for news outlets to wrap commercials around. Was it worth it? Your message didn’t exactly get a lot of air time, regardless of who you were. The police arrested people, deployed pepper spray, and herded citizens around the streets, which never looks flattering for them, so their attempt to be the friendly neighborhood constable looks ridiculous and hypocritical. The protesting masses have now all been reduced to cartoonish anarchists*, regardless of their motivations for marching. And the various media outlets look like cheap provocateurs, feverishly working the public up to a boiling point with reminders of previous events, building a “watch the show unfold” atmosphere, and making sure everyone has a camera to perform in front of.
Now, I’m not seriously saying a shadowy board room orchestrated the whole thing– that’s pretty ridiculous, and maybe comic-worthy in and of itself. But it’s hard for me to not envision this as a case of plebeians fighting plebeians during a squabble in the street, while bemused patricians watch from atop skyscrapers, if they’re bothered to notice at all. Somehow I don’t think Reginald VonTrumpenfeller III opened his newspaper Thursday morning, saw pictures of the protests, and thought “By Jove, that masked young man with the funny haircut has moved my heart. I should give my hundreds of thousands of employees an increased wage, and advocate for healthcare reform to provide affordable medical care to all Americans and their families!”
So, next May Day, let’s all try something else. Let’s break the cycle of impotent protest, and build community instead. Organize a neighborhood clean-up, participate in a letter-writing campaign, or volunteer with a local organization. Make it a time for education and honest-to-goodness discussion: organize a public reading of “Civil Disobedience”, or “The Rights of Man”. This might really be a stretch, given the partisan politics of our era, but what if you had a civil, moderated, town hall debate between an anarchist and an arch-capitalist, where both spokespersons had to frame their perspective in a way to educate and appeal to the audience without resorting to inflammatory hyperbole to denigrate the opposing viewpoint? If you’d like to attend a non-violent demonstration, then don’t throw stuff, break anything, or hurt anyone. Heck, we could even go back to a traditional traditional May Day, and give flowers to your neighbors.
The issues raised last week are all important, but it’s the 21st-century, so let’s focus on building, instead of tearing down. I know changing minds is much harder than making a sign and yelling, but I think we’re up for the challenge.
*Literally, in my case. I’m certainly aware of my own hypocrisy here by not only making a comic about the kerfuffle, but then ranting about it on the internet for over 1000 words.