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I never did write to y’all about the anti-inaugural protest I went to last week. I’ll give you the dime tour.
This protest was taking place in downtown San Diego. I drove down after work, but was nervous for several reasons:
- I don’t know downtown San Diego very well
- I don’t know the San Diego activist scene at all
- this planned protest was against the law
It was a two-part event. The first part would be a cacerolazo in front of the Horton Plaza shopping center, followed by a “Day of the Dead”-themed Reclaim the Streets event.
A cacerolazo is a stle of protest taken from the streets of post-collapse Argentina, where people make a ruckus, primarily through the noise of banging pots and pans together. It can get deafening.
The “Day of the Dead” theme was supposed to be about honoring those who had died due to the Bush administration. The organizers encouraged folks to come in either the Latin American Dia de los Muertos tradition, or Irish wake style. As it turned out, there was very little of either.
Reclaim the Streets events are politically-themed block parties in which activists take over city streets with clever tactics. The main goals of RTS actions are: demonstrate that public space belongs to the public; make people see how different things can be than they actually are; and general disobedience. No one gets permits for RTS events, they either happen or the police scare everyone away (or arrest them).
Not too long after my arrival at the protest, I stopped protesting. I felt like I was learning. The activists who were helping to stage the RTS action were smart, and I watched how they helped set events in motion. People with video cameras were set up near all the large cop contingents, to discourage the police from harassing or hurting the protesters. Sound systems were hidden in small hand carts and wheeled around. The plans spread informally by several activists going through the crowd and saying “at 7:20, everyone go out into the middle of the street.” Growing crowds of people crossed the street at the crosswalks, increasingly blurring the lines between “walking on the sidewalk” and “marching in the street”. And then, bicyclists snaked through stopped traffic, again blurring the lines of where people and machines are “supposed” to be.
When the crowd finally walked into the street, the cops went nuts. Maybe 100 of the 400 or so noisy activists stepped off the sidewalks, and a half dozen cops chased them back. Then the cops closed down the entire city block, leading to the most surreal moment of the day: the police protecting an empty strip of blacktop. They were keeping us off because, I guess, we’d be in the way of traffic. But they were already stopping the traffic from entering this block anyway. The activists were crowded onto two narrow strips of cement, connected by asphalt, but separated by invisible barriers. Weird.
I should mention that the cops were all wearing their uniforms, as opposed to the riot gear-clad cops I’ve become used to. This made me feel more relaxed, although as a friend of mine said later “doesn’t make a difference. I’ve been beaten by uniformed cops too.”
Our noisy throng piled onto the north west corner of one intersection, and threatened to overflow it. Then– BAM. The cops give up, and let the protesters start marching down the street. No permit, no sanction, and we’re blocking traffic, but the cops seemed to accept that they couldn’t stop us.
It went on like this for dozens of blocks. Activists banging pots and pans, dancing and chanting (I’m no fan of chants, but I gotta admit that “Whose streets? Our streets!” is pretty satisfying), while the police try (and mostly fail) to corral us and determine our path. Protesters unveiled boomboxes in their handcarts, and amplified the music with bullhorns, making impromptu sound systems. Beachballs were inflated and batted around. The only real trouble we caused (that I saw, anyway) was when police tried to guide us into turning right, and we said “fuck that” and turned back the way we’d come. The police had already let cars drive back onto that street, so we were walking among, and interfering with, oncoming traffic. Hell, I guess we were traffic, in a way.
Around this time I headed for home, hoping not to fall asleep while driving. But I’m told the march lasted another hour or two after that.
So what was the point of all this, what did we accomplish? I dunno. I feel like I learned a few things about planning and tactics that might come in handy in the future. I was heartened to see people break the law, even if in a minor way, as part of a political protest. We shut down small parts of the city for small amounts of time. We had fun.
If there’s anything that the Iraq war should have taught us, it’s that big rallies and marches and celebrity endorsements will not change government policy. This is not a lesson that most liberals seem to have learned. They’re like the gangsters in the old 1950s Superman TV show who shoot their pistol at Superman, watch the bullet ricochet off his chest, fire another bullet, watch it ricochet away too, and then prepare to fire another bullet. A smart gangster would say “I’ve gotta get me a bigger gun.” A reallly smart gangster would say “I’ve gotta find me some green glowing rocks.” Well, let me take some of that back. We don’t have dumb gangsters, we have scared gangsters. Gangsters who know damn well that if they fire a bigger gun at Superman, then he might get pissed off and crush some heads. I guess the smart, scared gangster fires all six shots and then throws the gun at Supes, because they’d rather fail than get hurt.
If we want anything to change, we’ve got to take some risks. And this San Diego protest made me think that there are folks willing to do just that.
Pics of the event available at the link above.
I suppose I should clarify that in my Superman comments above, I am not actually saying that people should go out and buy guns and start shooting people. It was a simile, in which “gun” represents “tactic designed to bring about political change.” Regardless, I’m sure someone is going to quote me out of context and point out how those “hypocritical liberals” claim to be so peaceful yet advocate violence when they don’t get their way.