Some thoughts (including those posted publicly) on the Repugnican National Convention, the likely violence, and the fallacy of solidarity with knuckleheads

Republicans are in large part suburbanites who loathe cities. The pluralism of the city, ethnic and otherwise, is not to their taste, and their fetish for economic privatization clashes with the high value that urban communities place on public spaces and public services. It is no accident that a Republican president, Gerald Ford, was pilloried in the headlines of the New York Daily News for telling the city in a moment of crisis to "drop dead." And it is no accident that in 2004, with the nation cloven by ideological warfare and a criminally incompetent, ideologically deranged regime, the supporters of this regime have chosen to inflict their national convention on New York City. This attempt to exploit 9/11 -- by the people who, evidence overwhelmingly suggests, allowed 9/11 to happen and have obstructed efforts to prevent it, understand it, pay for responses to it, speak truthfully about its environmental consequences, and reduce the chances that it could happen again -- is cynical in the extreme.

Whatever its intentions may be, in its likely effects the RNC will probably amount to nothing less than an urbicidal assault on New York. It may be no accident that it is being organized in ways that provoke extremist responses. Should those extremist responses result in a police riot like the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, Repugnicans* stand to gain propaganda points through another level of cynical exploitation, a law-and-order stance against the alleged breakers of local windows and perpetrators of counterproductive forms of anarchy. I stand with the likes of Eric Alterman (referenced below) in deploring this possibility.

Opposition to the RNC is sane. Violent opposition to the RNC is astonishingly immature and promises to serve Repugnican interests; in the context of the meme-warfare that may affect the outcome of this election, the stance of some anti-RNC posers (I am striving to avoid using harsher terms here) suggests comparisons to the time-honored provocateur tradition. Do I know for a fact that Karl Rove or other confirmed dirty-tricksters are behind this? Of course not. Does it make sense that they might be, or at the very least might applaud the most short-sighted expressions of righteous rage? Well, to twist a much-abused phrase a bit further: we report, you decide.

From the position of "unaffiliated concerned citizen" I posted some remarks, perhaps with some naivete, to a listserv called "noRNC-discussion" on August 13, 2004. I believed, and continue to believe, that explicit repudiation of violence is consistent with the interests of legitimate peaceful protest. I subsequently became a minor source in a major article by Michelle Goldberg in Salon, available here. For reasons of context, I'd like to make the full version of my posts publicly accessible.

*I choke on this regime's use of that party's name, as this crowd has little in common with the party of Lincoln, the party some of my family members still identify with, though I decidedly don't. As cowardly as common conservatism may be, the Bush/Cheney/Bandar/Ashcroft/Rove regime is anything but conservative in any useful sense of that term. Hence the neologism.

Here's the first post I offered on August 13, after reading a maddening Newsday article on that list earlier that day:

One useful answer to the sort of fearmongering and scapegoating that Parascandola's Newsday piece reports would be for everyone in the anti-RNC community to pledge -- publicly, loudly, with absolute seriousness -- to avoid and repudiate idiotic actions like triggering blackouts, harming horses, etc. That's right-wing provocateur behavior, not principled protest. Karl Rove couldn't think up a better way for this whole event to play right into the Repugniks' hands.

As Jesse Lemisch points out, and as everybody on this list knows, the whole world is going to be watching. As Eric Alterman's "Altercation" blog (required reading, I think, for informed opposition to this criminal regime) pointed out on Wednesday, there's a long grim history that we don't want to repeat. Here's Alterman (

"Chicago '68 unquestionably helped elect Nixon.... as with Johnson, Nixon and Reagan, it hardly requires an act of imagination to prepare for the possibility that Republican conservative spies and thugs will infiltrate these protests and cause the violence themselves, with the knowledge that it will be blamed on the protesters and their cause. I would be surprised if they don't do this, but of course, it will be years if not decades before we ever found out that those crazies who wanted to start fires and break windows were actually right-wing operatives. The media will treat this possibility as beyond the pale, just as they did when the CIA and FBI did it to the anti-war movement under both Johnson and Nixon, and when the FBI did it to the anti-intervention in Central America movement under Reagan."
You don't have to agree with everything Alterman says elsewhere about protest locations (I don't) to recognize his point here. The world, as it watches, has to know beyond any doubt that anybody perpetrating violent adolescent bullshit rather than intelligent, powerful, imaginative free speech is acting in Bush's interest, and with his henchmen's implicit or explicit approval. The line has to be absolutely clear between counterproductive feel-good rage and the kinds of protest that will do some real good: outsmarting the bastards with facts, logic, humor, art, technology, eloquence, conviction, and courage. There's no courage in smashing a window or throwing a cue ball and handing propaganda points to the regime.

The Repugniks have no business coming to this city; a fortiori, they sure as hell have no right to come here and pick up political points from a law-and-order pose when they have a consistent history of being the aggressors. It looks like there are two weeks left to make sure the national media can't miss (or marginalize) a critical soundbite that goes something like this: IF THERE'S VIOLENCE, IT'S THE BUSHIES, NOT US.

--Bill Millard

I was responding to this piece, which continues to strike me as paranoid, delusional, repression-justifying tripe:

Cops expect unexpected with GOP

Staff Writer

August 13, 2004

Water balloons. Sleeping dragons. A drummer really into the beat.

These are some of the tools of anarchy that police have been told to watch for as they prepare for protests during the Republican National Convention.

According to an NYPD guidebook printed for the convention and obtained by Newsday, cops assigned to convention duty are likely to have their hands full with strident protest groups that don't have permits to march and generally don't play by the rules.

The 35-page booklet, "Legal guidelines for the Republican National Convention," was printed to let cops know what to expect when the protest groups that police generally call anarchists roll into town the last week of August, police sources say.

The booklet deals in great detail with First Amendment issues, media accessibility and what cops should and should not allow. It also lays out the various tricks, tactics and methods that police say many protest groups use to get their message out.

Rigged balloons and more
Seemingly innocent balloons may not be so harmless, the booklet says, as protesters have been known to fill them with metal shavings and launch them "towards electrical power lines" in hopes of causing a blackout.

Cops are also told in the booklet to expect protesters to hurl objects at them. Weapons of choice for the protesters, according to the booklet, include frozen water balloons thrown off buildings, as well as billiard and golf balls and hockey pucks hurled from street level, often with slingshots.

The problem with the groups coming here with no permit and intent to wreak havoc is that police do not know where or when some of them are likely to act.

Hurling projectiles, on cue
Police sources say undercover cops have infiltrated at least some of the groups they expect to cause trouble. That should help them nip some of the problems in the bud, but there is still some concern, according to the booklet, that protesters may hide items on the streets that they intend to hurl at police. Often, the signal to start throwing or to rush to a predetermined location is the faster beat of the drummer from the band that accompanies many groups.

Eric Laursen of A31 Coalition, a group organizing civil disobedience on Aug. 31, said that the warnings in the NYPD booklet are "urban legends" that only increase the likelihood of conflict.

"The unanswerable question is how conscious the top brass are that these are basically urban legends," Laursen said. "If they aren't, they need to be more responsible. If they are aware, then you have a really reckless, nefarious effort to discredit people who haven't done anything wrong."

The booklet also warns cops that protesters have been known to target police horses by stringing wire at street level to trip them, tossing marbles in their paths or slicking streets with vegetable oil.

Police expect to make hundreds of arrests, but even then, protesters have plans, according to the booklet: faking police brutality, with protesters impersonating cops and beating other protesters; falling limp; securing themselves to others or to fixed objects with bicycle locks or by inserting their arms into "sleeping dragons," concrete-enforced pipes often rigged with chicken wire.

Words will be rubber
The booklet also serves as a legal primer for cops. It explains the First Amendment, warns cops against arresting someone if they don't like what they are saying, and tells them they must have "thicker skins and tolerate verbal abuse that would otherwise constitute harassment if directed at an ordinary citizen."

"With few exceptions," the booklet notes, "a person may say anything he or she wants, no matter how offensive."

Staff writer Daryl Khan contributed to this report.

Copyright c 2004, Newsday, Inc.

Flames appeared in my in-box, but so did thoughtful, constructive, peaceful responses. There were more of the latter. Organizer Eric Laursen's response was somewhere in between; I disagree intensely with his valorization of some forms of "direct action" (the euphemism of the century, in my book), and those who really want to read his ideas can contact him. I followed up with this post:

I'll respond here to Eric Laursen's critique posted on the main list. Eric, thanks for the comments, and I think a lot of the things I agree with you on (particularly the "rhetorical jujitsu" idea) may ultimately be more important than the things I don't.

One point, however, calls for a pretty quick response: I'm not pointing to any actually existing "protester violence" at all. *That's the point.* It's hypothetical, and the hypothetical situations the Newsday piece describes are pure hallucinatory defamatory bullshit. My suggestion of a nonviolence pledge struck me, and still strikes me, as a completely clear and simple way of making sure that this bullshit can't stick to a legitimate protest movement.

There's nothing that justifies the barbarian things that a lot of cops do in these situations, but if some self-righteous jerk decides he's starring in "Do the Right Thing" and puts a barrel through some plate glass, it's just going to give the cops a pretext (something different from a justification), not to mention feeding the media's bullshit machine. Renouncing "protester violence" in advance, as I'm calling for, makes it clear that there really isn't any of it, or none of any consequence -- in other words, that any violence that might happen is coming (as it so often has) from the cops, provocateurs, isolated lunatics, et al. It gets out in front of the cops, puts the ball in their court, rhetorically disarms them (we all know it's futile to talk of physically disarming them: the point is to win the idea-battle, not engage in physical battles), and places responsibility for stupid actions where it belongs, not with the dissenters whom the Repugs and their sympathizers want to scapegoat. Claiming the high ground is exactly the type of rhetorical jujitsu that would challenge the NYPD to approach the event peacefully or face the public consequences.

I think the dichotomy that matters here isn't "good protester vs. bad protester" but "smart protester vs. dumb protester." Nobody around here is buying into the acid- or dung-chucking bogeyman mythologies described in the Newsday piece, but let's also not pretend that the dimmer species of protester doesn't exist at all -- in the short time since I posted my suggestion this afternoon, my in-box has unfortunately sprouted some pretty glaring evidence of that -- or that there's no such thing as an action with counterproductive consequences. There may be plenty of theoretical justification for breaking a bit of glass at a Starbuck's or McD's (aside from the sheer adrenalined-up punk-rock fun of it), but at the same time it's a colossally stupid tactic when everybody knows in advance how the media presents that type of incident to voters out there in the swing states. And those voters are the ultimate and critical audience here, not the local pols or the national Repugs, who in any event are beyond redemption and beyond reason.

"The whole world is watching" means exactly what it says, and under that microscope, it's the grandstanding lightweight hothead -- not the nonviolence-pledging dissenter -- who is taking the bait and playing right into the hands of the suppressors of dissent. Are there going to be zero grandstanding lightweight hotheads in town at the end of August? Great! Then a nonviolence pledge will hamper nobody and will have the advantage of putting the right-wing mythologizers (and the corporate media who'll sensationalize anything they can get their hands on) on the defensive.

And if a couple of grandstanding lightweight hotheads (or, far more likely, Repug-thug provocateurs) do turn up and pull the kind of stupid stunts that cops seize as an excuse for their violence, then it's already clear in advance who did *not* do it or condone it or rationalize it away. A commitment to nonviolence doesn't impede free speech or street theater or any other smart peaceful powerful expression, like, say, the Billionaires for Bush, or some clever detournement of those idiotic Ed Koch elephant posters. (Hey, folks, why are so many of those damn things still out there unaltered?) All it requires is something that ought to be part of everybody's life every day anyway: nonviolence. Anybody who even has to wonder whether their anti-RNC statements take a violent or nonviolent form should seriously ponder which team they're really playing for. This applies in particular to those who have privately flamed me as some kind of Enemy of the People for proposing avoiding exactly the scenario the cops want and expect to see.

The renunciation I've proposed amounts to anti-scapegoating insurance. It does require that people pay attention to consequences and rhetorical cause-and-effect, not just their own ideological purity -- that people take a stand against both Bushite criminality and other forms of stupidity that consistently serve the interests of the Bush regime. I hope a collective refusal to play the escalating-provocation game, a game only the NYPD can win, isn't an unreasonable thing to suggest.

Finally, I'd also like to recommend reconsideration of any hostility toward Eric Alterman, who's done the country an invaluable service by patiently and rigorously documenting the lies of the corporatist regime in his writings, particularly The Book on Bush (with Mark Green) and What Liberal Media? Some would say a responsible scholarly approach like Alterman's and Green's is at least as powerful an instrument of opposition as a gung-ho "hey-ho" rally, maybe more so. Let a hundred flowers bloom, including the ones that are easily disparaged by terms like "armchair" but remain part of the useful public record well after the bullhorns have fallen silent.

Respectfully, but not carrying pictures of Chairman Mao,
Bill Millard


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