Thouhgts on the Meaning of the Philly Protest by Leslie Cagan

JSchaffner jschaffner at
Mon Aug 14 23:43:45 MDT 2000

Plese feel free to pass this along to other...
by Leslie Cagan, August 14, 2000


For nearly a week I wrote reports on the many protest activities I
participated in during the Republican Convention in Philadelphia. (All
of my reports can be found at As the demonstrations came
to an end I realized that I needed to offer some thoughts on the meaning
of it all and what we can learn from the experience. But writing this
piece has been harder than putting together my reports -- mostly because

the events in Philly are still not over. As of today 48 people remain in
jail, and all of the more than 450 people arrested  faced very high
bails and ridiculous charges. The full story, and a more thorough
analysis of the meaning on the Philly protests cannot be written until
everyone is out of jail and the court appearances and trials are
completed. In the meantime, here some preliminary thoughts.
#1: Introduction

On August 4th the delegates, alternates and guests attending the
Republican Party Convention - along with the estimated 15,000 members of
the media - packed up and left Philadelphia. Riding high on what they
hailed as a success, these folks all seemed to not care about the more
than 450 people in jail as a result of protest activities during their

For almost a week, people upset with the direction this country
continues to move in, and the role of both the Republican and Democratic
Parties, gathered to raise their voices and call attention to a range of

concerns. Activities included marches and rallies with permits (secured
only after taking legal action against the city) to marches without
permits; from forums and an alternative convention to non-violent civil

Now, as the Democratic Party Convention gets underway in Los Angeles, I
offer some thoughts on the meaning of the Philly protests. In some
respect we are still too close to these activities to fully understand
what impact they will have or how they will be remembered. There is a
great deal that the organizers and participants need to evaluate, and as
a social change movement we all need to consider the lessons from these
events. My comments here will hopefully be useful as part of that larger
#2: Message

The mainstream media over and again claimed there was no clear message,
almost implying that people were protesting just for the sake of
protesting. Of course, this is ridiculous: there were important, clear
issues that were raised throughout the week. Part of the problem was the
media’s refusal to address the issues. For instance, on August 1st there
was a press conference opposing the death penalty and calling for
justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal and at least 80 reporters were in the room.
As best we can tell only 3 or 4 outlets actually ran a story on it.

In another example, the July 30th Unity 2000 march and rally was
designed as a multi-issue, multi-constituency event. The call for the
demonstration offered a solid critique of the many domestic and global
problems before us, offering ideas on how things could be different. A
decision by organizers not to suggest that one issue was central did, I
believe, make sense. The goal was to bring people active in different
struggles together, to show an understanding that our issues are
connected. Did the mainstream media print the call for the Unity 2000
protest, or even excerpts from it? No. Instead, for weeks the Philly
papers ran articles about how the police were ready for any trouble,
etc., etc.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that everything is the fault of
the media. Indeed, precisely because we know how hard it is to get our
message out through the mainstream media it is critically important for
organizers to be creative in developing other ways to deliver the
message. For instance, I believe it would have been possibly to give the
Unity 2000 event more political definition and depth, and to do so in a
way that maintained the multi-issue nature of the day. Articulating an
over-arching demand for justice and democracy, for example, would have
allowed each group to bring its issues and still help everyone see the

Here's another example. The direct action on August 1st was aimed at
calling attention to the realities of the “criminal injustice system”,
linking the death penalty, the expanding prison-industrial complex and
police brutality. The challenge of getting a complex message out to a
generally hostile media was made infinitely more difficult as the
puppets, signs, banners and other items designed to explain the issues
were seized by the police several hours before the action got underway.

But, again,  some of the responsibility rests with the organizers.
Several times during the afternoon I stood on corners as people blocked
traffic and the police cordoned off the streets. Passersby asked what
was happening...a logical question since the mammoth police presence
made it impossible to even see where the demonstrators were, much less
what was being said. I did my best to explain, but certainly having
people on the streets handing out an informational leaflet would have
gone a long way. In fact, I don’t believe any of the demonstrations I
attended had handouts to give people as we marched and rallied on the
streets of Philadelphia.
#3: Independent/Alternative Media

Realizing the limits of working with and through the mainstream,
corporate controlled media has led to the development of Independent
Media Centers around the country. When activists in Philly learned last
summer that the Republicans were coming to town, one of the first
projects to get underway was the organizing of an IMC in Philly.

I spent a lot of time at the IMC and was extremely impressed with the
operation. Every type of media was being used, all in the service of
helping to get out honest and politically supportive reporting of the
events as they unfolded. A daily broadside was printed (although I'm not
sure how widely it got distributed); audio tapes for radio broadcasts
were produced; video journalists got just about everything that happened
on tape; a web site included written articles, audio and video reports.
There was room for reporters from alternative media to file their
stories, as well as access to the most up-to-date information about what
was happening on the streets. In addition, an exciting new effort took
place with the twice daily live radio, web and cable TV broadcasts of
the news.

As was true in Seattle last November and in Washington, DC this past
April, the IMC made it possible to get the real story out - the story
the mainstream media simply will not tell. It was exciting to see the
creativity, the use of older and newer technologies and the clarity of
common purpose. The organizers of the IMC hope the positive experience
will help as they hammer out plans to continue to operate, continue to
provide a serious alternative source of news and information. Of course,
it will help their efforts tremendously if the progressive funding
community could begin to see the importance of media our movement's
media efforts!
#4: Coordination

The fact that the Republicans and their corporate buddies would be in
town for several days offered both an opportunity and a challenge to
organizers. Because the Republican Party is so bad on every issue and
has played such a heavy role in moving the country further and further
to the right (no, I am not suggesting in any way that the Democrats are
good!), there were endless possibilities for issues to address...and
because they would be around for a few days meant there was no need to
everyone to agree on just one form of protest. The challenge was to find
a way for constituency and issue groups to raise their concerns in the
way they felt most comfortable and, at the same time, to develop a
vehicle to increase cooperation and support. How do we build unity and
maintain our diversity? How do we encourage new initiatives and tie our
efforts together?

For reasons I have yet to figure out, putting together an umbrella
structure that would allow all of this to happen was extremely
difficult. For months there were attempts to develop something, and the
baby steps that were taken would collapse. Finally, in the last two
months or so, the R2K network did come together. In addition to helping
everyone know what was being planned, it was also then possible to
figure out what needs the different activities had and develop ways to
work together. In the end, teams of people were put together to offer
medical, legal and media support for all of the protests. That meant
that each demonstration did not have to put together and train its own
legal observers or people with first aid skills.

It was wonderful that this came together in the end, but I can’t help
but wonder how much more effective this umbrella structure might have
been if people had been able to develop it months earlier. I am struck
over and again, not just in Philly, at how deeply activists understand
the need to link issues and yet still have such difficulty when it comes
time to actually work together. Perhaps one of the problems in
Philadelphia (and other places) is that organizers don’t have a lot of
contact with people in other struggles in between the times when outside
forces (such as the Republicans coming to town) throw them together.
#5: Tactics and Outreach

As I said, one of the good things about having a few days available for
demonstrations is that it allows for the possibility of a range of
tactics to be used. And this true in Philly.

The first protests were permitted marches and rallies, and the hope was
that the Unity 2000 demonstration would bring out very large numbers of
people. I know there are disagreements about the numbers, although I
doubt that anyone would suggest that this was a truly massive turn-out.
One of the reasons to use this form of protest is that it allows for
larger numbers of people to participate, including people who for any
number of reasons may not want to do civil disobedience or engage in
other forms of public protest.

I believe the decision of Unity 2000 to aim for that type of event, and
to do it on the Sunday before the Republican Convention opened, was a
good one. The problem was that the organizing did not match the
potential. While there was a list of over 200 groups endorsing the
demonstration, the core group never managed to kick its outreach and
organizing into high gear. Philadelphia was not flooded with leaflets
and posters and mailings and phone banking....the word did not get out.
And without a solid base and strong momentum in Philly it was extremely
hard to build interest in other cities.

On the opening day of the Republican Convention, the Kensington Welfare
Rights Union led a non-permitted march from Center City a full 3 miles
down to the First Union Center where the Republicans would gather later
than evening. KWRU had tried to get a permit and was repeatedly denied
one by the city...but they made it clear they would march regardless.
Both the issue and the tactic were clear: the voices of poor people in
their call for economic justice would not be silenced and the march
would happen.

The event went very well as thousands of people joined the KWRU, and the
success of the day might lead some to conclude that it is better for
groups to organize their own activities, to steer away from coalitions.
But I don’t think it is that easy, and there certainly are no magic
formulas: sometimes coalitions make sense and sometimes a group acting
on its own works best. The real question is what will work best given
the particular circumstances and what will help best deepen and expand
the movement?

Without a doubt, the tactic that got the most attention from the media
was the day of direct action on August 1st. The idea was
straight-forward: given the state of the “criminal injustice system”
there can be no business as usual. The plan was to make it difficult, if
not impossible, for the delegates to get to the convention that evening
- and to do that by blocking traffic in the downtown area packed with
the hotels where the delegates were staying.

As I finish this piece, two weeks have passed since the protests
began...and there are still 48 people in jail in Philadelphia! Most of
the more than 400 people arrested spent at least a week in jails and
since the August 1st direct action extensive time, energy and money has
gone into getting folks out. There have been serious physical assaults
on people (described by some as torture), outrageous charges and unheard
of bails ranging from $10,000 all the way up to $1,000,000 for two
people. As I said earlier, a thorough evaluation of the day will have to
wait until the dust settles on this legal situation. And when that does
happen, I hope such an evaluation will look at the meaning of this new
tactic by the state: making the jail experience and the ability to get
out as difficult as one could possibly imagine. (Just this past week
protesters against the U.S. military occupation of Vieques, Puerto Rico
were hit with $10,000 bails for non-violent civil disobedience, and we
shall see what happens this coming week in Los Angeles!)

Having said that, I do have a few thoughts about the direct action. The
goal of the protest was, at least for five hours in the late afternoon
and early evening, achieved: there was no business as usual in Center
City Philly that afternoon. There were enough people engaged in the
civil disobedience and involved in a supportive way that most of the
main arteries of the downtown area were disrupted.

At the same time, according to reports on the news that night,  the
Republican Convention started about 15 minutes...they were able to do
their business as usual. While people demonstrated amazing courage,
creativity and commitment, we need to be honest: the demonstrations were
not able to stop or even significantly interfere with the business of
the Republican Convention.

I think non-violent civil disobedience is a powerful tactic, and one
that allows for a great deal of creativity. I also am deeply moved by
the process used to organize this and other such actions - a process
based on small affinity groups making their own specific decisions
within the context of an agreed upon political focus and willing to
cooperate on a number of details that make everyone’s effort stronger.
The combination of decentralized and yet still coordinated planning is

There are estimates that as many as 4,000 people took part in the action
on August 1st, either by doing the civil disobedience or as support
people. I don’t know if there will ever be an exact count, and that’s
fine. While that's a significant figure, we need to ask how this form of
protest can made be attractive to more and more people thereby making
such actions even stronger.

In most of the protest activities of this past year, the direct action
was organized primarily by young white activists. What was new here- and
extremely important - was the input and leadership from young people of
color. I assume that the political focus of the action helped attract
young activists of color. But beyond that the people of color brought
the strength of their own organizing experience into the mix, and many
of the white activists understood that anti-racist work begins at home.
I don’t want to sound like this was a perfect situation, far from it.
But it was a giant step in the right direction, something that will be
built on in the years to come.

Much of the organizing for all of the activities in Philly was done via
the internet. Listserves and web sites helped get the word out to folks
all around the country. It’s great that activists are finding ways to
put the new technologies to work and it is clear that the internet will
be used more and more in the future. Nonetheless, and some may call me
old-fashioned, I am concerned that there was so much reliance on the
internet that other ways of getting the message out simply didn’t
happen, or didn’t happen to the extent they might. I mentioned this in
terms of the Unity 2000 event, but I also think it’s true for the direct
action protest: massive leafleting, mailings, calling people, getting
posters up, etc. are all tools that we can’t walk away from, regardless
of the form our protests take. It is not a question of using the
internet OR doing this other all must be used if we are to
really make sure our message is getting out.

Finally, because these activities unfolded over a few days it was much
easier to have the space for different tactics. Now, as the evaluation
process begins, I hope we take a closer look at which tactics work best
for what situations. There is no one perfect tactic and there are lots
of reasons to decide on one or another tactic. The point is to figure
out what we can use to best communicate our message, make our statement,

and strengthen our movement.
#6: Identity Politics?

For years, people have fought hard to bring their different identities
into coalition efforts in the hopes of deepening the common political
analysis and to make sure their own struggles are not lost in the mix.
There is much to say about the strengths and weaknesses of identity, I am not going to do that here.

As I went to many of the Philadelphia protests I was struck by the lack
of, what I would call, identity presence. As an activist in the
lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender movement for many years, I was struck
by the number of lesbians, gay men and other queer people involved in
the organizing for much of the activities in Philadelphia. But I was
even more struck by the lack of a visible queer presence. I don’t know
what this means or what, if anything, should be done about it. The good
news in this is that perhaps at least some folks are moving beyond some
of the limitations of identity-based politics. The problematic is that
we learned long ago there is an assumption of heterosexuality when a
queer identity is not made visible.

I wonder if the new wave of activists have a different relationship to
identity and therefore to identity politics, and it would be wonderful
to hear from folks about their thoughts on  this. The discussion might
help us avoid a dynamic where people put aside their identities for the
sake of the common good, only to have internal struggles erupt in ways
that make working together more difficult.  The challenge is to move
toward a unity grounded in a respect for our diversity, a unity
strengthened by what we each bring to the struggle.
#7: The Other Convention

 One of other main activities in Philadelphia was the “Shadow
Convention” called by a small coalition of groups but essentially under
the leadership of Arianna Huffington. They got some mainstream media
attention, although I assume not what they had hoped for given the heavy
hitters they had speaking. The idea of convening a parallel convention
where several of the major issues of day (the power of money in the
electoral system, the failure of the war on drugs, and the growing
divide between the wealthy and poor) can be seriously examined and new
ideas for addressing these problems can be put forth is great. But I had

a problem with the “Shadow Convention”. That is, someone with a great
deal of money who has already established herself as a media celebrity
(in no small way because of her money), called the shots. Did this not,
in some fashion, replicate the problem that those with money have the
power to make the decisions? Of course, on top of this Arianna
Huffington was for many years a hard core Republican, a friend of Newt
Gingrich. Yes, people do change - if I didn’t believe that I would have
gotten out of this line of work a long, long time ago. But would a tiny
bit of humility not have been in order? Would it have been so difficult
to ask organizers in Philly what they thought should happen, if they
needed any financial support for their activities, how the idea of a
“Shadow Convention” might have been helpful for their ongoing work?
#8: Closing

When all is said and done, the real question is what are we doing
in-between the public protests? It is understandable that our
demonstrations are often viewed as a measure of the strength (or
weakness) of our movements, and I strongly believe in the value of
public action, mass mobilization and street protest. At the same time,
the energy, time and money that goes into these activities needs to be
matched or surpassed by what we put into our on-going organizing
efforts. Are we carrying out educational campaigns, are we reaching out
to people not yet involved, are we training newer activists in a range
of skills, are we consciously engaged in the hard work of movement
building? If not, our demonstrations will not grow, our power will not
expand, or ability to make change will fall short.

Now, two weeks since the Philadelphia demonstrations, I believe it was
important that these protests happen, and that in many ways there were
important successes during the week. Perhaps one of the most important
things is that Philly was yet another expression of the deep commitment,
sometime dazzling creativity and often very sharp political insights of
a new generation of activists. In this past year alone we have seen this
in Seattle and in Washington, DC as young people led the demonstrations
against  the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank; in cities across the
country as young people are in the forefront of the fight against police
brutality and in defense of the rights of immigrants; on hundreds of
campuses in the struggle against sweatshops; the list goes on. I was
glad to be in Philadelphia to be counted as part of the opposition
movement. I was honored to be in the company of so many young activists!

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