Four months away from the Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden, activists are circling their welcome wagons, predicting “a battle for ground zero,” a “Burning Man festival for the city,” “a political disaster,” “a disciplined, organized protest,” “a culture war”—five days that are “part blackout, part Woodstock,” “worse than Miami,” “better than Seattle,” “our Chicago ’68.” Will these five days help push Bush out of office or spark a red-state backlash that cements his reelection? Either way, says 26-year-old activist Brandon Neubauer, “it’s already sort of legendary.”
Neubauer, an environmentalist whose wiry bicyclist’s frame is capped by a spider fern of blond dreadlocks, is one of more than 100 activists packed into the St. Marks Church meeting hall. Calling the meeting to order is Brooke Lehman, all five-foot-three of her, in a burgundy velour hoodie and blue jeans. A co-owner of the radical Lower East Side bookstore Bluestockings, Lehman, 32, is also a founder of the Direct Action Network (DAN), which organized many of the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protests. She explains that she’ll be conducting business in the specialized style that dan pushes to minimize infightinga kind of Robert’s Rules of Order for today’s anarcho-bureaucratic protester. It’s so complex that Lehman needs a board full of bulleted points and four color-coded handouts to explain it.
Tonight, like most other No RNC Clearinghouse nights, Lehman’s the “not-in-charge person” (according to the yellow handout), who will be facilitating the nonhierarchical “consensus decision making” (blue handout) of an assembly that is not an organization, a group, or even a body. “This is only a tool and not an entity,” she clarifies. “Let’s do introductions.”
With the curt professionalism of a boardroom veteran, Lehman jabs her finger toward guests in a quick roll call, revealing only attendees’ first names (because the cops might be watching) and group affiliations (like NYC AIDS Housing Network). Curious first-timers pepper this monthly meeting, but so do many of the all-stars of the Seattle, Genoa, and Miami trade protests, as well as veterans of Vietnam War rallies, City Hall stand-downs, and marches on Washington.
At the back of the room, William K. Dobbs, who participated in ACT UP’s Day of Desperation in 1991, sits next to the disheveled Steve Ault, who co-chaired the first gay-and-lesbian march on Washington in 1979. At the front, Jamie Moran, the skeptical co-founder of the obsessive Website RNCNotWelcome.org, sits near the direct-action specialist Lisa Fithian and Tim Doody, a hyper Ruckus Society alum who just returned from spraying graffiti on the new Israeli wall in the West Bank.
Lehman says it’s time for reports from “affinity groups” (white handout)—small groups of like-minded activists working toward specific goals—and spokespeople scramble to the front. “Two minutes each,” Lehman directs.
What follows is a rapid-fire update on the state of No RNC actions: The Structure group is working on a “Life After Capitalism” conference with academic stars like No Logo author Naomi Klein; Jeff from the Legal group begs for more volunteers; Alex from Arts asks people to locate “street-facing windows for signage”; Hubert from Housing reports accommodations requests for large out-of-town groups; Tim from Trainings advertises a “direct-action salon series”; Deanna lets people know the Bowery Poetry Club “will be open 24 hours during the RNC, as a safe haven from Republicans”; Jonny America announces a “revel-utionary” agenda of “flash mobs” (instant gatherings coordinated by e-mail and instant messages) as well as a ceremonial “Declaration of Independence from George II.”
Others advertise rallies, concerts, the free printing of 10,000 anti-Bush stickers—and many more meetings. When Neubauer steps forward to explain that his bicyclist-environmentalist organization Time’s UP! will hold a “Bike National Convention” the week before the RNC, people begin wiggling their fingers in the air, in some once-removed secret handshake.
Perplexed, a few first-timers giggle.
“We do this instead of clapping, to keep things moving,” Lehman explains, wiggling her fingers skyward in the sign language activists describe as “twinkling.” (Later, some express displeasure by forming a diamond with their fingers in front of their faces, like extras in a Prince video.) Then she speeds things along: “Sorry, your time’s up,” she advises. “That’s on the agenda for later.”
When Lehman tees up a discussion about media access (white handout No. 2), attendees express concern that recordings might be used against them—and wonder whether cops have already infiltrated. (Perhaps with good reason: In February, Massachusetts police reportedly discovered that two NYPD officers had attended a meeting of Boston’s Black Tea Society protest group.) To organize the tense debate, Lehman calls for “stacks” (manageable groups consisting of five comments each) by assigning each raised hand a number, like a deli butcher. Then she calls on speakers by digit—“One!” (Cameras are fine.) “Two!” (I don’t want to be photographed.) “Three!” (I don’t care either way.)—repeating, as necessary, until the matter is settled.
This strict anarchist process is a strange commingling of New Age jargon (the white handout describes a role called “vibes watcher”) and businesslike administration (using the master’s tools to dismantle his house). But if the packed room is any guide, it seems to be an effective way to get strong-minded activists working together.