ps/o4.e. democraticnationalconvention(forthcoming)
ps/o4 public trading | value system | anti-imperialism and boombox politics

23 August 2000

ultra-red reflects on the "festival of resistance in los angeles"

After months of preparation, members of the audio-activist group, Ultra-red emerge from the protests around the Democratic National Convention (DNC), held in Los Angeles August 14 to 17. Collaborating with guerrilla cartographers, the Independent Media Center's radio collective as well as assisting in organizing a queer rights march, Ultra-red members reflect on how a week of protests transformed the city from a militarized zone to a patchwork of sovereign public spaces.

a city on two axes

Los Angeles has been considered by many the paradigm of urban fragmentation. It's somewhat emblematic that the urban grid which organizes LA's Downtown runs at a radically different axis as the vast expanse of most of Los Angeles. Skewed to the northeast, the original Spanish grid of LA's center offers a clear demarcation for the rest of the city which is laid out along strict north to south and east to west boulevards. The city's center is not only skewed differently, it is, by most accounts, a hollow center where janitors occupy the Downtown towers at night and evacuate to their homes before white collar types invade from their gated suburbs.

The booster class (the Mayor, their chief cheerleader), has spent millions remodeling downtown Los Angeles as the capital of global capital. As a result, LA is home to more billionaires than any other American city. What a rusting military industrial complex left behind, has now become the centerpiece of Pacific Rim finance capital, real estate, entertainment and media and, as always, oil. These are the pillars in both the southern California contemporary miracle and its myth.

For in addition to the billionaires, Los Angeles is also home to the largest number of sweatshops in the United States. The fifty wealthiest Los Angelenos have a combined wealth equal to the three million poorest Los Angelenos. Los Angeles has the highest number of working poor and low-wage manufacturing workers in the United States. In other words, Los Angeles truly is representative of the existing economic geography under today's corporate globalization.

the global becomes local

By turning its sites from global financial institutions to Party politics, the anti-corporate globalization movement (for lack of a more universally agreed upon term) navigated the road from the global to the local. Following the protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, the protests surrounding the Party conventions provided anti-globalization activists the opportunity to connect with local struggles.

As a result of this collaboration, domestic issues and those mobilizing around them acquired a focus not seen before in Seattle and DC. A prominent player in the RNC protests was the anti-poverty struggles of the Kensington Welfare Rights Organization. In Los Angeles, organizations affiliated with the October 22 coalition dedicated an entire day for protests against police brutality, heinous three-strikes laws and the general assault on civil liberties represented by the war on drugs. In the context of international resistance, both of the these local efforts found a very real affinity with anti-poverty and anti-militarism struggles on a world scale.

It's not that local activists have been unaware of these connections prior to the RNC and DNC. But now there is a movement in which to articulate and connect local and global struggles and, in effect, bring the conflict home.

mediating dissent

Not that we can count on the evening news to introduce the issues into people's living rooms. From watching the coverage of the week's events surrounding the DNC, one would get the impression that the only street news worth covering are those (all too infrequent for the media's tastes) street tussles between police and anarchistic youth. We would also get the impression that the "protesters" are in fact an undifferentiated, lumpen mass possessing neither specific demands nor internal disagreements. In the end, the news media concluded:

  1. After a week of street protests, the conventions and the entire election campaign industry has proceeded, politics as usual,
  2. Protesting has no ultimate effect except on city coffers,
  3. The protesters should doing something positive like registering voters,
  4. The absence of violence is testament to the fact that the police had everything under control.

From the vantage point of the streets, these observations couldn't be more indicative of the very thing which brought us into the streets to begin with: the absolute control of public space by self-interested corporate monopolies. The very notion of "politics as usual" conceals the assumption of what is meant by politics. When was the last time a news analyst reminded the viewers that popular sovereignty is protected by the constitution and that corporate influence is not?

If, as the mass media claims, protesting has no effect on the course of events, then our democracy truly is dead. After all, all positive social change in America from women's suffrage, voting rights for African-Americans, the 8 hour work day, the criminalization of child labor, all resulted from social movements and street protest. On this account, politics as that which is controlled by corporate-funded political parties is nothing but a "mockery of democracy".

Compounding this attack on the public sphere, the protests in Philadelphia and Los Angeles witnessed a frightening waive of police repression. Contrary to the media's sorry obsession with peace keeping, the real story surrounding police tactics was the grim resemblance between what it means to keep the peace in LA and keeping the peace around the globe Pax Empire. If only media coverage bothered to ask why Department of Justice observers, an LA City Civil Rights Attorney and large numbers of journalists were also the targets of plastic bullets (as John Sellars reminds us, "the emphasis is on the noun, not the adjective"), tear gas, mace, swinging batons and stampeding horses. Rather than arresting a few lawbreakers, police strategy targeted entire crowds bringing injury, confusion and a crushing hand on everyone gathered outside the Staples Center. Not on one occasion, but both Monday and Wednesday nights.

Welcome to the local manifestation of the global police state.

the vision thing

In the months that expired between the DC actions in April and those actions surrounding the Republican and Democratic Conventions, numerous articles and conferences sought to address the question of "the vision thing." Observers on the left (many associated with traditional left parties or institutions and/or veterans of the 60s), began faulting the nascent anti-corporate globalization movement as lacking a unified vision.

It is significant then, that the RNC and DNC protests took shape not around a singular goal or issue (such as campaign finance reform, or even the Nadar candidacy). Instead, in contrast to the call for a single vision, the Philadelphia and Los Angeles protests embraced a wide range of issues; corporate control of the democratic process, the right to organize a union, pay equity for women, queer rights, police brutality, the war on drugs, immigrant rights, militarism in Columbia, the sanctions against Iraq and Cuba, homelessness and others. The resulting diversity did less to further fragment disparate struggles than to energize local struggles within a global context.

But still, "the vision thing" does have one legitimate target of complaint. Unlike Seattle in November and, to a lesser extent, DC in April, Labor chose to keep its full weight out of the RNC and DNC protests. Granted, the Pennsylvania State Labor Council endorsed the Unity 2000 March during the RNC and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor helped organize labor actions during the DNC around a teachers' strike and a pending strike for public employees. But neither actions assumed the scale equal to that of Seattle. Obviously, Labor had a vested interest in refraining from raising its fist at the Democrats. If Bush and Gore differ on anything (and that difference shrivels each day), the latter has made consistent promises to continue a hands-off approach to Labor. In sharp contrast, Bush has sworn to launch an executive-branch assault on organized Labor, picking up where Reagan and Bush, Sr. left off ten years ago.

Nonetheless, where there is no absence of vision in the street protests, one can't help but wonder about the long-term strategies of those institutions organizing working people. In other words, will organized Labor embrace, in Khalil Hassan words, "social justice unionism" (not all that dissimilar from Negri's "social workerism") whose own objective is building working class power. That, more than anything, was the one vision missing from the streets of Philadelphia and Los Angeles no fault of rank-and-file union members who took part in protest organizing.

From this point of view, the question isn't whether the anti-corporate globalization struggle has the vision to become a movement. The more pertinent question is whether Labor itself has the vision to join that struggle in the streets as a way of building working class power.

For more information on the RNC and DNC protests, check out the following websites:

Independent Media Center of Philadelphia:
Philadelphia Unity 2000 Mobilization:
Philadelphia Direct Action Group:
Los Angeles Independent Media Center:
Los Angeles D2K Mobilization:
Rise Up/Direct Action Network Los Angeles:

This dispatch is fifth in the Ultra-red series, "Value System." Founded in 1994, Ultra-red are audio activists producing radio broadcasts, street actions, performances and installations. The group's work radicalizes the conventions of electro-acoustic and ambient music to explore acoustic space as enunciative of social relations. Membership within the group changes according to collaborations with grass-roots political organizations. Ultra-red have released CDs and albums on Comatonse Recordings (Oakland, California), Mille Plateaux (Frankfurt, Germany), True Classical (Los Angeles) and Beta Bodega Coalition (Miami).