Spreading the Word: At St. Marks Church, a Protest Movement Wises up to Electoral Politics
Published on Thursday, September 2, 2004 by Working for Change
Spreading the Word
At St. Marks Church, a Protest Movement Wises up to Electoral Politics
by Michelle Chen

New York City -- Few things could pack an Episcopalian church in the East Village on a Wednesday night. Weeknight services tend to lack popularity among the under-30 demographic, particularly the meat-shunning, dreadlocked and/or tattooed varieties that seem especially numerous on the city’s streets this week. But last Wednesday, a group of vocal, ambitious activists managed to pull it off with rumpled grace. While the Republican National Convention delegates planned their soirees and cocktail parties, the publishers of Clamor Magazine staked out the St. Marks Church on 2nd Avenue and 10th Street, something of an activist haven since its christening as a bohemian incubator in the 1960s. The magazine, an activist rag that is to the Seattle generation what The New Left Review was to their radical forebears, jumpstarted its long weekend of anti-RNC hellraising in the holiest of venues by releasing a collection of articles and photographs protesting the Iraqi occupation. The release of “A Call to Mutiny,” a glossy manifesto of anti-Bush, anti-war messages from grassroots voices like radical photographer Andrew Stern and Nation columnist Naomi Klein, was timed to coincide with several days of anti-RNC festivities taking place throughout the city, loosely linked under the coalition United for Peace and Justice. The Clamor entourage, characteristically scrappy as well as resourceful, pieced together an eclectic program of speeches interspersed with gut-wrenching multimedia images to convey to the brutality of the steady deterioration of Iraqi society since the first Gulf War. In the weeks prior to the event, the organizers, self-styled activist publishers Jason Kucsma, Josh Breitbart and Jen Angel, generated DIY publicity with a flurry of postcards along with hailstorm of internet postings. And on Wednesday night, scores of twenty-somethings poured into the cavernous main hall of the church to get a little inspiration.

The elders of the young activist movement in the US evidently know all too well how difficult it is to hold the ever-shrinking attention spans of the youthful masses these days, and their model of mobilizing people is designed with this in mind. Throughout the evening, the cutting video images that flashed across the huge square screen above the speaker’s podium -- emaciated Iraqi babies, a fresh corpse in a spartan casket, civilians struggling to rebuild brick by brick the bombed out headquarters of Muqtada al-Sadr’s newspaper, Al-Hawza -- spoke as clearly to the devastation of a once-great civilization as to the power of the modern image to move people half a world away.

The synergy between the mediated image as an activist tool and the depths of war as the media’s most tragic subject was embodied in one of the night’s speakers, Wafaa Bilal, a delicately handsome, soft-spoken visual artist who came to America fourteen years ago as a refugee of the first US invasion of Iraq. The desperation of his homeland followed him to American soil and inspired his bleak art installations, which depict children’s graves, charred bodies and other gruesome symbols of the destruction wrought by US forces. For him, there is no divide between the most recent Iraq war and the 1991 war; the past decade and a half, for Bilal and for those who were unable to flee, have been a continuum of suffering. “Never was there optimism,” he reflected. “From the beginning, you’ve got to consider that Saddam came to power because of the United States.” Senseless death continues to plague his family: his brother in Najaf was killed in the crossfire between US forces and the Iraqi resistance, and his father, who was hospitalized with kidney failure upon learning of his son’s death, died during a power shortage. As the screen above him streamed a nightmarish sequence of pictures of starving children, he urged the audience to recognize that the American government not only “has no intention [of turning] Iraq over to the people of Iraq,” but has in fact “systematically destroyed democracy” by razing indigenous political institutions and movements in order to more firmly establish its own influence in the country.

The night’s emcee, co-editor of “A Call to Mutiny” Jennifer Whitney, rambled passionately about her recent experiences in Latin America, where she has witnessed the baby steps of indigenous democratic institutions as well as the hijacking of voting processes by greedy corporate interests. She attempted to draw parallels between American democracy’s utter ineffectiveness and Latin American democracy’s admirable if sometimes doomed hobbling forward. Yet her remarks might have been too much of a stretch for those audience members not accustomed to looking at the erosion of democracy as a global, not localized phenomenon. After all, it’s easier to demonize the Bush administration for turning Iraq’s so-called democratic transition into a self-serving sham than to admit that Bolivia might have a more vital democratic process than we do, and that our political disengagement may be just as culpable for this as “The Man.” In this respect, whether Clamor’s message will preach beyond the crunchy choir seems uncertain. But here, between the abstract stained glass windows of St. Marks, a space for dialogue seemed to open up as radicals -- who, years ago, would rather leap into a police barricade than step into a voting booth -- now seriously weighed their choices as part of the electorate. The prevailing message of the evening seemed to be that elements of Generations X and Y were finally grasping the difference between selling out and wising up, electing to reclaim rights they had given up on long ago.

Not that those rallying against the RNC this week have succumbed to the saccharin “Choose or Lose” gospel peddled by corporate youth culture. Rather, they’re beginning to realize that there’s more than one way to choose, and the most obvious one, coming this November, has already been lost to the powers that be -- since both candidates are pro-war, just to different degrees of idiocy. Activists like the Clamor set are nonetheless trying to have the election year both ways, wielding as a catalyst what they see as a bogus “choice” between an asinine incumbent and an irrepressibly dull challenger.

The keynote speaker of the evening, Naomi Klein, encapsulated this tension. With dual-citizenship status as the daughter of draft-dodgers, the Canadian-American political commentator has given a sophisticated voice to a movement often dismissed as the puerility of spoiled college kids. Against the backdrop of Andrew Stern’s harrowing photographs of Najaf in ruins and the faces of protesting Iraqis frozen in hot rage, she described the feelings of guilt with which she and other American journalists fled Iraq to protect their lives as the insurgency escalated earlier this year. But she justified her “abandonment” by telling the audience that there was work to do here. No, it wasn’t voting Bush out of office -- at least it wouldn’t stop there. The US counterpart to Iraqi “mutiny,” she argued, was exposing to the American body politic that this election was just as much a “sham handover” as the “transfer of sovereignty” to Iraqis. Klein lambasted older leftists for telling followers be content with the deposing of Bush rather than express dissent through protests. She warned that because “the more mainstream liberals... now have a lovely ‘get out of protest free card,’” people’s disdain for Bush would never translate into real change. But the answer isn’t blind anger, either, she warned, lest this generation reprise the violence of the 1968 Boston convention. “We owe the Iraqi people... more than rage... We owe them liberation” -- liberation not just for Iraqis from US occupation but also liberation of the minds of a citizenry bored and badgered into complacency. The privilege of activism, she told her peers, is that “we get to sit around in rooms like this... and we get to decide how we’re going to act.”

No one in the room that night was a new convert to activism, but it seemed like at least a few had decided that this November they would step into a voting booth for the first time, using a vote that was, in a sense, theirs to throw away. When the church doors flew open at the end of the night, young people quietly poured out onto 2nd Avenue and wondered what to do next. Although Clamor couldn’t yet lay claim to any glamorous news bytes of flying picket signs or tear gas, they did, more importantly, prove that a movement which previously seemed buoyed on myopic angst had taken a small leap of faith: it acknowledged that there is more than one way to stand up and be counted.

Michelle Chen is a freelance writer who recently returned from China, where she spent a year on a Fulbright research fellowship. Her writing has appeared in South China Morning Post, Clamor, IntheFray.com, Asia Times and other publications.

(c) 2004, Michelle Chen