Originally published in URB, October 2000
Public protest, which emerged on a large-scale during the WTO demonstrations in Seattle a year ago, has returned as an increasingly visible component of the political climate in the United States. As the Democratic National Convention unfolded in downtown Los Angeles, the city became a focal point for international politics as a swarm of outspoken activists, ravers, religious extremists, politicians, hip-hop personalities and invigorated pedestrians rose up with a wide variety of things to say.
Words: Daniel Chamberlin
Taking the subway to get around in Los Angeles is kind of disorienting if you’ve lived enabled as a motorist in the city of motorists for much time. LA remains a metropolis known for sluggish rivers of automobiles, so disappearing underground into the newly constructed, sterile subterranean halls of metal and concrete is to enter into a newly realized, geographically scaled transportation conduit. Experiencing the LA trains brings connotations of old-world urban environments like New York, Boston or London, cities where movement is defined as public space — a sharp contrast to the private space of a car moving in formation down a four-lane highway.
Heading to downtown LA in the public space of the train is a fitting prelude to the protest movements happening outside the Democratic National Convention. Delegates are apparent on the train from their badges and patriotic hats, while a lone demonstrator nervously attempts to hold his “Free Mumia” sign nonchalantly as LA County Sheriffs joke around on the platform. Locals curse the scrolling LED signs warning of possible delays resulting from traffic headed towards the Staples Center, home to the convention.
Stepping off of the train into the 90-degree heat on the platform by the Staples Center was to step into an urban sector dulled by a security presence, an expectant frontier where the air vibrated with the harmonic surveillance of a fleet of helicopters which would remain in the sky for the next five days.
The Sound of the Police
“They took this position that they were protecting us from, this is honest-to-God what one of the police officers told a group of us, that there were 40,000 anarchists trying to set fires and burn down the Staples Center so that we could not leave. The point is that when you get inside this Democratic thing, it’s really hard to get a sense of what’s going on outside because there’s so much insulation. They had compartmentalized everything.”
— Hip-hop commentator Davey D speaking at the Shadow Convention on his experience of Monday’s police crackdown from inside the DNC
The Rage Against the Machine /Ozomatli concert/political rally held on Monday, August 14, would be the event that gave the LAPD the opportunity to flex on the protesters with the excuse that they wouldn’t let a group of angry teenagers throwing rocks and water bottles over a chainlink fence turn into another LA riot. A reassuring message for the paranoid viewers at home, but a rather frightening one for the thousands of peacefully panicking rally/concert attendees running from the drifting mists of pepper spray and hails of rubber bullets that preceded a horseback sweep of LAPD centurions.
Monday afternoon is sunny and hot, and at 5 p.m., the protest pit just north of the Staples Center has filled with 500 or 600 sweaty Rage fans. Vendors begin to descend on the scene, hoping to hock Gore/Lieberman pennants and limited-edition Beanie Babies “righty” and “lefty” to the gathering crowd. The only visible signs of protest at this point come from a fairly nondescript group of twentysomethings with signs reading, “Down With Bullshit.” The up-with-bullshit lobby is nowhere to be found, but an anti-breastfeeding clique is also making the rounds with equally confusing messages.
The most activity comes from right-wing Christian agitators: perky athletic types and muscle-headed representatives of the “scared straight” school of evangelism. They draw a small crowd of hecklers with their banners and confusing bullhorn-broadcast accusations that the growing crowd is comprised of drug-addled, pro-Gore “runaways.” That is, until thousands of protesters, on their way from Pershing Square, round the corner.
Huge inflatable nuclear missile floats, courtesy of California Peace Action, dominate the crowd, and massive puppets — from bloody-toothed porcine police and two-headed Gore/Bush effigies to the more benevolent representations of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader — rise above the swelling crowd. Anti-death penalty groups, The California Nurses Union, PETA and the Revolutionary Communist Party are just a few of the dozens of groups joined together for the mass mobilization/carnival. Amidst the organized blocs, a squad of tuba players march by a cluster of old-school top-hat and tuxedo capitalists with signs reading, “screw the poor, vote Bush or Gore.” A group of zombies bleed and slobber on whomever will take a moment to listen to their “the dead hate the living” manifesto. A painted flatbed truck drives slowly through the middle of the crowd carrying a 10-piece band playing funk standards and some drum & bass. An MC rhymes over them, shouting out to the B-boys and B-girls in the crowd marching with huge graffiti murals depicting everything from police brutality to ascending Latina goddesses.
“This is a pretty big moment in LA history. It’s important to show up at things like this and let the powers that be know,” Cut Chemist says when I run into him along with Dilated Person Rakka and graffiti artist MEAR One, who is out with his girlfriend, Aura, and his mom.
“This is one of the most exciting days I’ve spent in my city in my life,” MEAR enthuses. “We’re takin’ it to the streets and stickin’ our hands and our feet right in it. Taking plant and making some conscious growth go down here.”
Contrary to expectations, Rage’s performance elicits little more agitation than the crowd collectively offering a middle-finger salute to the delegates enjoying cocktails on the balconies of the Staples Center. Following their set, speakers from the United Farm Workers lead the crowd in a chant of “sí se puede,” which is roughly translated by a rowdy group of teenagers (eagerly labeled as the “Black Bloc” anarchist darlings of sensationalist journalists everywhere) as “yes we can . . . go throw bottles and rocks at the police who’ve been mad-dogging us all afternoon.” So about 20 or so members of the 5,000-plus strong crowd do just that. “Yes, we can . . . finally get some footage of violence amidst all this boring peaceful political rallying” is the media’s interpretation as they boost the crowd up against the chain links.
After the UFW speakers finish, the master of ceremonies suggests we all chill out as the hurling of debris at the police continues and Ozomatli begins to warm up. The rabble-rousers don’t respond and Green Party members take a break from registering voters to join labor union representatives in an unsuccessful attempt to keep rubber-neckers out of the fray by forming a human chain. Two teenagers scale the fence to wave a black anarchist flag, striking a dramatic pose under a shower of pepper spray which drifts into the nostrils of the bystanders. I wrap a shirt around my face and give up the rest of my water to a desperate woman gasping for air and clawing at the poisonous mist inflaming her mucus membranes. At this point it only feels like a matter of time . . .
“This is LAPD Commander Gary Brennan,” booms over the sound system and the crowd is informed, in both English and Spanish, that the rally has been declared an illegal gathering and that anyone left after 15 minutes will be arrested. So most people start to head out of the area, though media reps and bottle-throwers stay by the fence. Several small fires contribute to the apocalyptic ambience and 10 minutes after the 15-minute warning, as the crowd attempts to make its way out of the pit, a procession of LAPD cavalry comes riding in. Given that I’m only equipped with a tape recorder — and the sound of innocent bystanders geting bashed in the head or blasted with rubber bullets is far less interesting than video of the same thing — I give in and run with the panicking crowd out of the east exit, which the horses are about to block.
The majority of the crowd isn’t as fortunate. Those left in the protest pit area, the 20 or 30 individuals at the fence, as well as several hundred people who were calmly on their way out, are herded north by the horse-mounted cops who repeatedly fire on them, driving them into police round-ups and gradually pushing and pulling them away from the Staples Center for the next 90 minutes. I walk back to the IMC and wait for word from friends caught up in the melee.
Whose Web? Our Web!
“Although anyone can publish his ideas on his own Web site — the Web did represent a tremendous leap for self-publishing — the interface itself is not all that conducive to conversation. But only by compromising its communicative function could the Web’s developers turn the Internet into a shopping mall.”
— Douglas Rushkoff, Coercion
Patriotic Hall is five blocks south of the Staples Center, and most of the street between the two locations is lined with 14-foot-high concrete and chainlink barricades keeping anyone without proper DNC credentials beyond shouting distance of elected officials. Patrols of 20-plus motorcycle cops cruise the street, while more sheriffs sit in the shade of the 110 Freeway underpass with rifles balanced on their knees. Security is warranted, but it’s still evident, as a friend said later, that “a major priority at the conventions is keeping people away from the politicians.”
Patriotic Hall is home to the cooperative media collective that is the Los Angeles Independent Media Center, and the Shadow Convention, Arianna Huffington’s “citizen’s convention.” The Hall is full of sentimental relics of nationalist pride and contemporary artifacts of political dissent. Photographs of U.S. military operations throughout the last 200 years grace the walls behind twin big-screen TVs blaring C-SPAN’s convention coverage and inflatable ICBM’s tagged with statistics reminding the conventioneers of long-forgotten nuclear arsenals.
The Los Angeles Independent Media Center (www.indymedia.org) occupies the entire sixth floor of the Patriotic Hall, its entryway littered with copies of radical newspapers, reminders about marches and a spilled spaghetti-bowl of electrical cords taped to the floor. Newly updated broadcast schedules for their Web-based radio are written in marker on discarded cardboard taped to the walls. As I step out of the elevator, the flow of journalists on their way into the two main areas is disrupted as IMC security detains a camera crew until they are given the proper media escort services.
The scope of their operation, the accomplished guerilla media tactics they’ve employed to one very bad-ass end, are divided up into print, video, Web and radio divisions. Each room is crammed with sound and video equipment ranging from satellite uplink apparatus and a fully operational sound stage for broadcasts on the cable access/DISH Free Speech TV Network (www.freespeech.org) to digital video editing equipment and a pair of turntables for the Web-radio mix.
“Our content is providing a forum for populist civic discourse and a populist civic participatory journalism — anybody can come and get credentials and report as an IMC reporter,” says Alan Minsky, an IMC representative who has been working for the past six months in preparation for the DNC.
“It’s an open space for anybody to get involved in. There’s no room for isolationist politics or any kind of sectarian politics. That’s not what this movement is about,” says Chris Burnett, who has been involved with the IMC since it first toddled through the tear gas and onto the Web at the November ’99 World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle. “It’s about inclusion and openness, having as many people get involved [as possible], and developing these coalitions.”
Burnett went to Seattle last November on behalf of Regeneration TV (www.regenerationtv.com), an LA-based worker-owned media collective. He liked what he saw happening and a creative alliance was formed. Regeneration now hosts the LA IMC alongside parts of the Jurassic 5 site on their appropriately open source, Linux-based servers. “The IMC is to corporate America and the commercial press what the printing press was to the French aristocracy before the French Revolution,” Burnett explains. “It’s a participatory medium — you’re not just a consumer anymore, you’re a producer.”
The participatory forum Burnett and Minsky are talking about is the self-pollinating core of both IMC and Regeneration TV. Burnett’s area of specialization within the Regeneration collective is in networks and system administration, and he’s assisted the IMC in the development of the networks that now span almost 30 different centers that have popped up from Mexico to Congo to Australia. Each of the autonomous nodes within the network features publishing software that makes it possible for anyone with media — MP3s, RealAudio/Video, JPEGs or just good ol’-fashioned text — to upload up to 100 megs from any hard drive with an Internet connection. Regeneration hopes to have the same software up and running on their site later this month. Each news piece on the LA IMC site is complemented with a message board for debate among activists ranging from socially progressive Christians to hard-line Communists, as well as opinions from misanthropic pseudo-Nazi hecklers, LAPD apologists, ’60s-era activists gone day-trader and curious passersby.
Regeneration’s site focuses more on cultural contributions. Originally Regeneration TV was imagined as a cable television station, but the $20-$40 million startup costs, combined with a seven-year waiting list, sent Burnett — and fellow founding members Rob Haworth, Steven Miller and Chris Wicke — online with their idea for incorporating, as collective member Matt Demello puts it, “popular ideas with very unpopular news.” By that, they mean they feature RealAudio documentaries about the pie-throwing insurrectionists of the Biotic Baking Brigade, Disney’s labor practices in Haiti and the WTO protests alongside abstract animated shorts and Gang Starr, Death in Vegas and Ming & FS videos. The jewel in their pop-culture crown? Streaming audio and video of Brainfreeze, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist’s 7-11-themed festival of free Slurpees and 7-inch wax slapping.
“We really want be political, but we don’t want the politics to be something that turns people off to our site,” says Miller, a former Ph.D. candidate who dropped his studies to join the Regeneration project. “Not in the sense that we want to water our politics down, [but] we don’t want people to think that we’re these dour, unhappy Marxists who think that unless a song is explicitly about the working class overthrowing the state,” Miller pauses and breaks into a grin as the others laugh in agreement. “You’ve gotta make life while you’re living it,” he continues. “Even though [Brainfreeze] isn’t explicitly political, there is a kind of subtle cultural resistance that’s there and encourages people to think outside the box.”
“I think the mistake a lot of people make is assuming that music, culture and politics are three separate areas, that there’s these divisions between them,” Burnett says. “I think there’s a lot to learn from labor, a lot to learn from the anarchists, a lot to learn from all kinds of community organizers and a lot to learn from people who are in music . . . Building a network of artists, building a network of activists is something that is gonna really have a powerful force.”
“So far we haven’t moved away from anything that isn’t explicitly political,” Minsky says of the IMC. “But I think that’s always been a very vibrant strand of culture within the U.S., and I think certainly the multi-racialism of hip-hop culture and the non-hierarchical aspects of rave culture have fueled things like the IMC.”
Shut Up and Dance
“If the opportunities which rave culture has to engage in and articulate with democratic struggles are ever to be realized . . . then it is as much the discourses of New Age and pseudo-anarchism as those of bourgeois Puritanism or rock culture which need to be deconstructed.”
— Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson, Discographies: Dance Music, Culture and the Politics of Sound
“We’re doing this in the midst of the Democratic National Convention, right? And there’s been heavy shit going down, and it’s weird ’cause here the police occasionally drive by, and that’s all they’re doin’ . . . Why would they basically pay no attention to us but be on these other people?” Andrew Morin is one of a handful of Moontribe affiliates who’s organized Four Days of Unity (www.moontribe.org) in LA’s MacArthur Park, billed as an electronic music festival and political rally. He’s addressing a crowd of about 500 people, one of whom responds to his question with an eager “Peace love unity respect!”
Morin has the demeanor of a hip youth group leader, dressed in a tank top, baseball cap and running shorts. He’s alternately pacing and squatting amidst an array of lasers and psychedelic backdrops hanging over the DJ booth which has been pumping progressive house and breakbeat all afternoon.
He continues: “Why are the police actions and the battles in the streets which both sides have drawn? Well, that’s kind of the thing there — look at it. The battles in the streets that both sides have drawn. You know what I mean. Both sides are creating a situation where the battle can happen, but what we’ve done instead of doing that — we’ve decided here that PLUR applies to everybody.”
And he’s right, as far as the cops just rolling through their usual reconnaissance runs through the MacArthur Park area, a public space where you can enjoy a tasty corn on the cob slathered in chili pepper and butter, or a hot blast of crack wind, depending on your mood.
Morin’s speech veers from suggestions that the demonstrators downtown have brought violence on themselves with their behavior, to congratulating the crowd of dancers and curious bystanders for not being too fucked-up to drive home, as if not gobbling up a head full of psychotropic drugs on a Thursday afternoon is some outstanding demonstration of personal responsibility.
To his credit, Morin’s helped put together an event which was pulled off flawlessly. LA mayoral candidate Francis DellaVecchia (www.watchthemayor.com) helped the Moontribers get in touch with the political speakers that justify Four Days of Unity’s double-billing as party and rally. Though it drew far fewer attendees than the downtown protests, it’s still an accomplishment that there have been no arrests or major problems. “[Four Days of Unity] relates in the sense that we’re addressing some of the same issues that [the protesters] are addressing in other ways,” DellaVecchia says. “We have distanced ourselves in the sense of we are not looking for confrontation.
“I’ve had my head beat and personally, I don’t think that any good came of the fact,” the aspiring mayor continues. “I’ve got a new approach, I think the same approach that these people have. If you want to promote peace love unity respect, you’ve got to treat everybody that way.” He makes the point more coherently than Morin, but The California Nurses Union, the 60-year-old anti-death penalty organizer, the singing clowns and the “Spock Bloc” of Vulcan anarchists who I talked with during the anti-police brutality march on the previous Wednesday were hardly Molotov cocktail-slangin’ insurgents. Given the bestowal of props to rave culture by IMC reps and protest organizers, the self-congratulatory separatism of the Four Days crowd seems disappointing and shortsighted.
With a booth sitting amongst vendors of Tibetan wares and drug-themed T-shirts, Rave the Vote (www.ravethevote.com) is a grassroots political organization that was put together just days prior to their first appearance at the MacArthur Park gathering. Blue, the organization’s founder, is quick to elaborate on the complex issues underlying club-friendly interests like drug legalization. “We want to stop the privatization of prisons,” he says. “The mere idea of major corporations running prisons to house American citizens for a profit is insane. On top of it, they’re selling stock on the stock market which our Congresspersons own, so our Congress people are making money off of us being placed in prison. That doesn’t seem to work for me.”
The Rave the Vote booth offers literature on both drug legalization and the prison-industrial complex. Blue was guessing that they’d registered close to 80 people to vote. Future activities include raising awareness about California state propositions and creating a defense fund to cover legal fees resulting from parties being shut down “illegally.”
The Libertarians working the crowd were the only other explicitly political representatives with a booth, barring DanceSafe’s non-partisan drug info table. Paul “Radar” Ireland, a self-identifying Libertarian raver, who coordinated the party’s presence, objects to my question of how well the laissez-faire politics of Libertarians fit in with the communal vibe that pervades much of rave culture on the grounds that communal “sounds Communist.” Conceding to the use of “cooperative” as a descriptor, he elaborates: “Ravers are very open to new ideas and new things and they embrace diversity and I feel that the Libertarian party is much the same.”
But info tables and informational speakers aside, it’s the people in attendance who will determine the role electronic music/club/rave culture plays in the political climate. While none of the people I talked to wanted to be identified, their comments indicated that Four Days did resonate with what can be construed as a budding political consciousness.
I can’t figure out why the first group of people I’m talking to are so jumpy about my video camera until I realize that they’re constructing a blunt while I’m annoying them with questions. Once I assure them I’m not going to record their herbal indulgence, the dreadlocked “Johnny” opens up, predicting that rave culture’s political presence will emerge “not any time soon, but probably within the next 10 years.” He’s not voting in the presidential elections, explaining that, “I just vote for the propositions.”
“There’s a lot of folks into raves,” says a young woman lounging on a hillside behind the speakers. “They could do so much if they just spread the information, tell people what’s going on. This is your world; you have a right to vote for it.” She prefers Green Party candidate Ralph Nader but is voting for Gore out of Bush-fear, though conceding that “if the Republicans would just have a rave real quick, if they’d just chill, it’d be all right.”
An honest look reveals that strategically this is a whole new ball game. It’s not clear who’s in charge. No one is in charge. Citizens from the Left and Right are arguing for a renewal of citizen power, media democracy, and environmental sanity. An uneasy gathering of forces — not exactly a coalition — is clearing a space where fundamental questions of sovereignty and power can be openly debated and decided. It is an incredibly beautiful void.
— Kalle Lasn and Tim Liacas, “Corporate Crackdown,” Adbusters No. 31
The relevance of the week was prefigured by campaign finance reformer Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) with surprising clarity in a speech during Sunday’s opening ceremonies at the Shadow Convention: “It seems that this convention nearby here is all about money, and especially, corporate money. This is why I believe there are Shadow Conventions. This is why I believe there are strong protests at both national conventions. The protesters know that the real action is at the corporate and wealthy donor breakfasts, lunches and dinners, and they are not invited.”
It’s this corporate influence on democratic processes that serves as the base from which this new international protest movement has risen. It’s not a terribly radical thing to suggest that citizens should have more say in their government than profit-minded corporations, or to be concerned about, to quote Cornell West, “the richest 225 individuals having more wealth than the bottom 43 percent of all humankind.”
Mass mobilizations against the Vietnam War fell apart as factions fractured off from the anti-war movement in an effort for self-preservation. Hunter S. Thompson pinpoints the downfall of “The Movement” in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a Hell’s Angels attack on anti-war demonstrators, identifying the breakdown of attempts to “reconcile the interests of the lower/working class biker/dropout types and the upper/middle, Berkeley/student activists.” Which still says little about the racist, homophobic and sexist attitudes which failed to carry the anti-war movement full tilt into other human rights struggles. But now the anti-corporate movement is providing a conceptual gathering place for these disparate, multi-generational movements to regroup.
Artist/activist collectives like Ultra-red and Miami’s Beta Bodega Coalition are already taking steps to use the avenues of electronic music and club culture to make messages relevant to a new wave of aesthetic rebels. Ultra-red’s A16 and N30 techno EPs (composed entirely from field recordings of the April 16 IMF protests in Washington, D.C., and the November 30 WTO protests in Seattle), are watershed moments for digital protest music, documents of the demonstrations using conspicuous signifiers of electronic music culture.
Hip-hop culture was clearly a part of the demonstrations throughout LA. Galvanized by artists like Mos Def, The Coup and Dead Prez around issues like California’s youth crime initiatives, the police slaying of Amadou Diallou and Tyesha Miller, and most visibly, the efforts to win a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal, hip-hop artists are making frequent demonstrations of solidarity even when the music isn’t conspicuously concerned with political themes.
Undoubtedly individuals from electronic music culture are a part of these movements and rave culture continues to take stands on issues specifically relevant to its existence — drug legalization and right to assembly issues in particular. But U.S. rave culture has yet to make a statement about the new protest movement, a movement where protests feel more like raves and have endured the same media smear campaigns which rave culture has had to contend with since its emergence.
“They’re understanding what it means to be persecuted. They have to take some sort of political stance, even if it is right to assembly issues, even if it is personal autonomy issues,” Regeneration TV’s Miller offers.
In her speech at Four Days, Judith Lewis, a journalist covering both the Moontribe event and the demonstrations for the LA Weekly, counteracted Morin’s separatism with an invitation to the revelers, conceding that “a lot of the protest, it needs some work. It needs some humor, it needs some magic and it needs some love. It needs some reaching out and not drawing those lines, and you could help them with that.”
The Independent Media Center’s Minsky concurs a week after the DNC: “Experimental radical youth music where people are really willing to push themselves to experiment with new things, new ways of having music that just rocks and gets off, we’re definitely in a territory where that’s very welcome.”
Or as anarcho-feminist Emma Goldman put it in the early 20th century, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.”