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Reclaim the Commons
Wrap-Up Account, Parts One and Two
this is no longer an update but a wrap-up. The last
three days of Reclaim the Commons were so full,
and I was so tired at night, that I just couldn't
force myself to stay awake and write, and then I
got hit with the flu which laid me on my back for
a few days reading old mystery novels, dozing, and
shuddering at the very thought of opening my computer.
But here's a wrap-up:
Monday [June 7] was the Racial Justice Day of action.
In the morning, we gathered at the Federal Building
for a rally linking the torture at Abu Ghraib with
the beatings and brutalizing of kids here at home
in our own California Youth Authority. Our liason,
Lori, was arrested as she handed our permit to the
cops, on some old warrant which they had never informed
her of during the three weeks she'd been negotiating
with them, and which proved to be a bureaucratic
error, but not before she'd spent three days in
The rally was small, but represented an important
moment of alliance building between the global justice
activists--mostly white--and the racial justice
activists--mostly black. Books Not Bars cosponsored
it, and many local youth stood up and spoke about
their own experience in the California Youth Authority.
We heard from the families of victims of police
violence, from kids who had been killed in the CYA
to kids killed on the street by cops, and finished
with a very moving address recorded by Mumia Abu
Jamal, that did a brilliant job of linking all the
issues, and urged us all to Reclaim the Commons.
We then marched to the State building to demand
that guards at the California Youth Authority who
were caught on tape beating bound and handcuffed
youth be prosecuted.
Later in the day we held trainings back at the Convergence
Center, including a packed session on Movement Building/Anti-Racism.
We marched to the Mexican consulate to demand that
our compas in Guadalajara, arrested in May for protesting
a trade summit and subjected to beatings and torture,
be released. And we held our last pre-action spokescouncil
to finalize our plans.
At the council, it became finally apparent that
our numbers were not strong for the direct action.
The Greenbloc and Pagan Clusters were taking one
key intersection, at 4th and Howard. We managed
to form up a cluster to take the second key intersection,
at 3rd and Howard, and a plan for how to gather
up any stray people who would turn up at the gathering
point at 5th and Market. And we formed up our communications
system to use in deciding in-the-moment on various
options for plan B. I went to sleep in a mood of
exhausted resignation. Either we would have an effective
action, or we wouldn't--but I had done all I could
I really, really hate early morning actions, and
Tuesday's started with a 5:00 a.m. wakeup call.
Somehow I made it to the Pagan Cluster's meeting
point with drum and plants in hand. We gathered
up a group, consulted with our Greenbloc friends
who were approaching from two other directions,
and marched to 4th and Howard, where we stayed on
the sidewalk, drumming and chanting, until Sonoma
They had managed to unload and carry their plants
and other equipment to the intersection. A policeman
had observed them pulling out many heavy bags with
plants sticking out and stopped and questioned Erik.
"What are you doing?"
"Oh, just carrying plants," Erik said. "They represent
the world we want."
"A world of plants?" the officer asked. Erik nodded,
and he walked away, which was fortunate as the plants
sat atop the lockboxes they were about to deploy.
The Greenbloc reached the intersection, we stepped
up our drumming, and in a swift movement, they rushed
into the center, and unfurled a big banner that
said, "Grow Your Sovereignty" in English and Spanish.
Behind its shelter, they whipped out long tubes,
inserted their arms, and inside, locked their wrists
into metal rods so that their arms were locked together.
They sat in a wide circle with their tenders inside.
But Hilary, a small, slight woman, was grabbed by
the police before she could get her second arm locked
to her partner. The cops began pulling her, twisting
her shoulder and locked arm. She was screaming in
pain, and all of us were shouting, "Don't hurt her!"
and "Nonviolence!" until finally the cop who had
her let her go. They pulled back, and for a moment
we had a beautiful image of a green island of plants
in the center, the living, organic world we're fighting
for, topped with a waving, Greenbloc flag, protected
by the locked circle.
Then the cops moved in and began taking the plants.
The corners of the streets were crowded and I attempted
to lead a spiral dance into the intersection, but
each time we moved in we got shoved back by police
batons. Busses full of conference-goers and traffic
were backed up for blocks and in spite of our small
numbers, we were having more of an impact on the
conference than we'd had on many similar events
with much bigger crowds.
We held the corner for a long time. Conference-goers
with badges began arriving, trying to push through,
and we were able to nonviolently block them, on
both sides of the street. Eventually, the police
brought in furniture dollies, flat boards on wheels,
loaded our locked-down friends onto them, and rolled
them away from the intersection. We noticed a line
of police lunging at us from behind each time we
stopped a conference-goer, and decided to march
our corner out while we still could.
We marched down Howard and around the south end
of Moscone Center. I was stuck, as always, with
the practical difficulties of getting even a relatively
small group of people to march through the streets
in a coherent fashion. You would think that, with
riot cops to the left of you, riot cops to the right
of you, the small intrepid band of marchers going
forward would be on the alert, paying attention
to each other and all the subtle cues of escalating
danger in the environment. But in fact, people are
more likely to be happily marching along, oblivious
of everyone else. The faster marchers in front stride
off without ever glancing behind to see if everyone
else is keeping up. The strollers in back get involved
in conversations and lose track of the front. No
one wants to do anything as authoritarian as follow
a leader, yet they aren't organized into any democratic
decisionmaking process either. A few of us who have
lots of street experience and were hooked into the
communications network did our best to suggest directions,
check the reports of our scouts, and consult with
other groups that we encountered. The fleet of bicyclists
who had gathered that morning swept by. We heard
reports that the cluster at 3rd and Howard had blocked
busses, that several people had dived under busses
and locked down to them. We encountered conference-goers
and blockaded them and avoided lines of police,
and somehow made our way back to 4th and Howard,
coming in this time from the north and spreading
out into the street.
A line of cops began pushing us back. I'd been buddying
up with Kirk, one of the medics, and we were doing
a slow bit of passive resistance, moving back at
a glacial pace as a very polite cop tried to persuade
us, "Just a little more. One more step." But then
another group of protestors swarmed in behind the
cops. Red-haired Nyx was playing her finger cymbals
and everyone just danced into the street, leaving
our line of cops trapped between them.
"Don't worry, everyone is completely nonviolent,"
I assured them, and they shrugged and left us the
So for hours we carried on a beautiful demonstration
right at the key intersection to Moscone Center.
Conference-goers passed by, and got engaged in dialogue
with demonstrators. We danced, chanted, held meetings
and drum circles, and maintained a bright and peaceful
presence. While it didn't shut the conference down,
it made clear to everyone involved that strong resistance
exists to corporate control of our food supply and
of medical research.
And here I should perhaps make clear some of the
subtler points of our protest which are hard to
convey in a four-line chant or a two-minute soundbite.
Most of the conference was focused on pharmaceutical
biotech, not agricultural biotech--and many of the
researchers who work on medical issues in fact agreed
with us about the dangers of uncontrolled contamination
of our food crops. Our issues with pharmaceutical
biotech are not that we are against research or
anti-cures for cancer, nor do we think those who
work in the field are evil. What we are against
is the corporate control of research, the influence
of the profit motive in setting its direction, the
privatization of the building blocks of knowledge
that might lead to cures, and the efforts of the
pharmaceutical industry--which has one of the highest
profit margins in the world!--to protect its economic
interests at the expense of the sick.
Of the 30,000 genes in the human body, 1,000 are
patented by corporations who thus can control and
profit from all research that involves those genes.
Plants and herbs used for generations by indigenous
people have been patented by drug companies with
no compensation to the communities who discovered
their uses, and genomes of whole populations, such
as the Tongan islanders, have been patented as well.
Drug companies lobby to prevent Brazil and Africa
from producing cheap, generic AIDS drugs, causing
the death of millions to safeguard that high profit
So, for example, Bayer, which funds cancer research,
is also one of the world's leading producers of
pesticides. How much of that research do we imagine
is being directed at environmental causes of cancer?
Now, one of my friends who works in the field informs
me that the medical arm and the pesticide arm are
entirely separate, that the people she works with
are good people who feel good about finding cures
for cancer. And of course they are, and no one would
dispute that cures for cancer would be a good thing.
It's not the individuals we are protesting against--it's
the overall system that constrains our collective
choices and priorities, so that billions are being
spent on high-tech diagnostics and potential cures,
but are NOT being spent on diagnosing the environmental
causes, nor on removing toxins from the environment.
And the fact that the same corporation makes the
toxins as funds the research IS relevant to its
direction. For that matter, even the biotech industry
admits that so far there have been relatively poor
results for all that money spent. That's not necessarily
a sin--scientific research does often take years
to bear fruit. But consider for a moment how many
lives could have saved if those billions had been
spent on providing universal health care for everyone
in this country. And then ask, who decided on these
None of this is the fault of the researchers. It's
the fault of a system that makes short-term profits
the main goal and responsibility of corporate executives,
removes corporations from roots and accountability
to real communities, and then determines that this
same profit motive should ultimately set the direction
of scientific research.
All of this is hard to convey on the street, which
is why we also organized teach-ins and press conferences
and Biotech 101 trainings as part of this mobilization.
Still, getting a nuanced message through the corporate
media is about as likely as shooting an arrow accurately
through about five layers of chain link fence. Not
utterly impossible, but not too likely either. We
have articulate speakers available to the media
who can make our case with elegance, but they seem
to prefer quotes from wandering tourists or irate
motorists. We have our own media, from Indybay to
KPFA, but to the average TV watcher or SF Chronicle
reader, probably the only message that comes through
is that we're saying "Biotech bad" with only the
vaguest indications of why. And I'm not sure what,
if anything, more we can do about this--it's the
constant frustration of these actions, and one reason
why I write my own chronicles.
Around noon, the cops suddenly decide they've had
enough. Perhaps it is the presence of the anarchist
marching band, a small group of drummers in black
and punk regalia--who are doing nothing more menacing
than drumming, but who look to cops like they might
someday be planning to do something, just as Saddam
Hussein looked to Bush as if he might someday be
eager to acquire those elusive WMDs. Kirk and I
try to gather a quick spokescouncil in the street,
both to decide how to respond and because a circle
of people sitting in the road would be a deterrent
to a police sweep of the anarchists down the way,
but the cops move in before we can get people to
form up and hold the space, and push everyone off
but us. We are left, sitting together, looking up
at the boots and knees of the cops that surround
"If you don't move, you'll be arrested," they warn
We look at each other. It's so tempting! I'm tired.
I'm tired of marching and chanting, my throat is
sore and my drum arm is wilting and I'm really,
really tired of trying to get people's attention
and get them to do things and feeling responsible.
And here is this kind policeman offering me a way
out! But then we sigh and shake our heads. Something
tells us both that we need to stay on the street--if
only because so many other experienced people have
already been arrested. We get up and walk over to
the sidewalk, just in time to see a line of cops
charge the demonstrators further down who are gathered
around the anarchist drum corps. The cops are swinging
batons and beating somebody with real force, and
shoving the happy, dancing, peaceful demonstrators
onto the sidewalk. A few newspaper stands get knocked
over, and the cops form a line on the street. Some
of the protestors are yelling at the cops, and the
cops are doing their best to provoke a riot.
"Shut up you fucking bitch," I hear a cop say to
the young woman next to me. His name is Officer
Johnson and he has a little smirk on his face. I'm
in between, trying to calm people, when a young
woman with wild red hair jumps in front and begins
a wailing, wordless, magical song, spinning a spell
of sound that changes the energy. I've never seen
her before, and I don't know where she's come from,
but she knows how to work magic. Some of the Pagan
Cluster join her and begin drumming, using the newspaper
stands as drums. Much of the Black Bloc is now crushed
against the side of the building, blocking the sidewalk
where conference-goers continue to thread their
way through, pushing between the protestors. Nobody
molests them--but had anyone in our crowd actually
been violent or dangerous, the police move would
now have pushed them directly in the way of their
We decide to march out, and do, after awakening
the drummers from their trance. We march around
the conference center to 3rd and Howard, and then
decide to disperse and regroup back at the Convergence
Center for an impromptu spokescouncil meeting. A
group of us grab a quick sandwich at a donut shop
where half the police force is also refreshing themselves,
and head back.
At the meeting, we decide to rest for an hour or
so, then join the Reclaim the Streets anti-G8 march
that begins at 5:00 p.m., at UN Plaza near City
Hall. I grab a short nap in the Wellness Center,
which has come into full use, a magical, quiet,
healing space just off the big meeting room. Entering
it is truly like entering another world--with people
dozing on the carpets, incense and soft music filling
the atmosphere, a few people receiving massage and
others curled on soft couches. I lie down and an
angelic woman gives me a beautiful foot massage
as I drift into sleep for an hour or so. The Wellness
Center was a brilliant idea and I hope we do it
for other actions--a great model of care and self-care,
that maybe counteracts the less exemplary example
of all the key organizers who are overworked, overstretched,
and pushed far beyond our limits.
I wake up with enough energy to go out to the march.
Reclaim the Streets has gathered at UN Plaza, farther
up Market Street. The march is supposed to be a
Mutant's Ball in honor of biotech and the G8, but
few people have had the leisure or energy to construct
costumes. A couple hundred of us start off, with
the loud, thumping sound system pulled on a bike
cart, in a festive mood. I am hanging toward the
back, partly to keep away from the sound system,
which is too loud for what's left of my already
faulty hearing, and partly because I'm tired and
fortunately, not responsible for anything on this
march. The march attempts to turn up Hyde Street
into the Tenderloin, but a line of cops push us
back. We continue down Market Street, until at 5th
and Market we run into a solid line of cops.
I'm walking with Joan, another middle-aged woman
like myself who is part of Sonoma County Greenbloc,
and I pull her to the side and quickly scan the
scene in case the cops are planning to surround
and arrest all of us--something the San Francisco
police are fond of doing. We head to the sidewalk
on the south side of the street, and move back along
Market. Sure enough, a second line of cops has us
trapped from behind. We go up to one of the officers
and ask politely if we can leave. He tells us "no."
At this point we have heard no warning, no order
to disperse. I look around for another exit, don't
find one. Then suddenly the line in front of us
moves away, to close in on the demonstrators still
in the middle of the street. We quickly slip past,
and hear an announcement over the police bullhorn:
"Do not attempt to break through police lines, or
you will be met by police batons. You are under
We wait and watch. At this point, the police have
thoroughly blocked Market Street. Busses are backed
up, and a big traffic jam paws and snorts behind
their barricades. The march would have passed through
in fifteen minutes: they continue to keep the street
blocked for five hours as they slowly book something
like 150 protestors. I was glad we'd escaped--we
had a whole day of ecoprojects planned for the next
day, and never enough experienced gardeners.
We watch and wait. The sun sets, and it's getting
cold. Food Not Bombs arrives and tosses sandwiches
into the trapped crowd. We mill around, talking
to our other friends who have escaped the net. A
number of our friends who were arrested in the morning
are already out of jail--most have fortunately escaped
being arrested again. Finally a few of us go to
get dinner and start the spokescouncil meeting,
another necessary task, where we can arrange jail
support and solidarity.
[to be continued]
Copyright (c) 2004 by Starhawk. All rights reserved.
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