“Remember, Depends are your friends. If you’re out there for hours, it can be a really great comfort to be wearing a diaper and know that you can pee.”
This is the final lesson in today’s A16 “lockdown” workshop, and I can’t imagine a better piece of advice. If I were chained to the axle of a truck in downtown Washington with a crowd of surly D.C. cops surrounding me, I’d certainly be wetting my pants.
The workshop is the highlight this morning at “Convergence,” the ground zero for the hundreds of demonstrators who are descending on D.C. to disrupt Sunday and Monday’s International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings. Convergence is a dingy building behind a charter school. It is a mile north of the World Bank and about a million miles away. It is a kind of anarchist clubhouse this week, where protesters are organizing, eating, singing, and learning the subtleties of tear-gas defense. Veteran anarchists are conducting a boot camp for novices, instructing them in how to turn all of Washington into street theater, stop the meetings, and not get killed in the process.
More than 100 anarchists–almost all of them young and white, most of them sporting beards or dreadlocks or both–have collected in a nearby alley to learn how to lock themselves to stationary objects. This is perhaps the crucial tactic for Sunday. A demonstrator locked to a vehicle or blocking a sidewalk can stymie cops for hours. The instructor–whose name seems to be “Sam”–is a thirtysomething woman in blond pigtails, purple-tinted sunglasses, and a T-shirt advertising the Ruckus Society, a West Coast group famous for its direct action. As I arrive, Sam is locking herself by the neck to a metal railing with a U-shaped Kryptonite bike lock. Her neck twisted awkwardly, she continues the lesson: If you’re locking yourself to something, Sam says, always carry the key with you–“but not in your pocket, that’s where they’ll search you. Pin it to your panties, or the underside of your bra. Be sure to wear a T-shirt with your slogan on it, because you may be there for a long time, and you want people to see you.”
As for the locks themselves, Sam says, “just hide them under your clothes as you walk through downtown. Do you hear that, feds?” She stares around the crowd, as if looking for narcs. (The protesters–probably justifiably–suspect that cops have infiltrated Convergence.) Right on cue, a police helicopter buzzes over the alley: A dozen young men at the workshop give the chopper the finger and yell, “Fuck you!”
Someone asks Sam if you can get hurt locking yourself up with Kryptonite. Sam is emphatic: “This is all VERY dangerous. You can hurt your spine and neck doing this.”
She pulls out an alarming-looking contraption. It is a 5-foot length of PVC pipe, wrapped in tar, rolled in chicken wire, and covered with duct tape. It is decorated with a sticker: “Genetically engineered corn kills monarch butterflies. What’s next?” It’s called a lockbox and it’s a fiendishly clever device. You duct tape a chain to your hand, then lock the end of the chain to a pin at the center of the lockbox. Someone else locks herself through the other end of the pipe. There is no way to detach the two people without sawing through the chicken wire, tar, and pipe, and then cutting the chain. Sam also demonstrates a galvanized steel pipe lockbox, then another steel pipe welded into a right angle. This one, Sam says with a grin, “is great for truck axles.”
Back in the clubhouse, an instructor in a bright yellow “Earth First” T-shirt is teaching first aid–specifically, how to avoid getting gassed. “Don’t bother buying a gasmask. The cops will just take it away from you,” he tells the 60-odd folks sardined in a tiny room. “You can make one yourself with two bandannas and charcoal. Sew the charcoal into the outside bandanna. And I don’t mean briquettes! Those are full of toxins. They will make you sick. Buy activated charcoal. You can get it at a pet store, or a Wal-Mart–corporate capitalism!” The students boo. “Then soak your inside bandanna in a little vinegar. I find that the best kind is apple cider vinegar. It costs a bit more, but the smell is nice. Distilled vinegar is fine. If you are a little more gourmet, red wine vinegar is OK. Balsamic vinegar has lots of aromatic compounds. It makes you feel really weird.” The idea of getting stoned off vinegar seems to excite someone in the crowd, who yells, “Cool!”
A diversity training is winding up in the next room. Another room hosts an acupressure class. Downstairs, half a dozen folks are chopping away in the communal kitchen. (Where is the anarchist’s cookbook? Nowhere to be seen.) A team is repairing bikes for a rolling rally. The place feels like a festival of protest. New arrivals sign in and troll the bulletin board for activities: A “Stop the Sweatshops” rally outside the Gap, A “Rally Against Sanctions,” “Stand Up for Mumia”; “Keep Space for Peace,” an anti-Star Wars protest; the Forest Activist Meeting; the “Jews for Global Justice Freedom Seder (veggie pot luck).”
An open box offers free maxi pads made of “non-bleached rayon.” The sign reads: “Menstruation can be a revolutionary act–when you choose not to use chlorine bleach disposable products made by Proctor & Gamble.” Everyone is bedecked with patches: “Hoi Polloi: Defense of Our Earth”; a patch of a cop reads “I am going to kick your ass.” Some are incomprehensible: “We Aliens Squat the Earth.”
My media escort–more on this in a second–steers me over to Patrick Reinsborough, one of the few people authorized to speak to the press. (The three most common words I heard: “I can’t say.”) His card says he is a grass-roots coordinator for the Rainforest Action Network. (His card also says it is made of “waste straw paper.”) Patrick is very tall, very serious, and very polished. He says that this is the “birth of a new movement. It is an act of global self-defense. We are taking the planet back from the rule-makers of the global economy.”
Patrick previews the events of Sunday and Monday: “Affinity groups”–small, independent groups of like-minded folks, will gather at 6 a.m. Sunday at Farragut Square and Washington Circle. From there, groups will fan out across the city, all “engaged in the common goal of shutting down the IMF and World Bank meetings.” The affinity groups agree to abide by the anarchist principles–notably, no violence and no property damage–but they are otherwise free to decide what mayhem and disruption to cause. (Some “black bloc” anarchists are not heeding by A16 principles: Expect broken windows.) “It will be a festival of resistance,” Patrick says. He gives me the cell phone number of “Wes. He’s organizing a guerrilla gardening action today.”
Pause for a moment to wonder at the paradoxical structure of the A16 organization. The anarchists are relentlessly nonhierarchical. There are no leaders, all decisions are made by consensus, each affinity group makes its own plan. Yet these anarchists are also the most ferociously organized group I have ever seen. Meetings go off like clockwork. Every possible need of demonstrators has been anticipated: food, lodging, transportation, etc. Organizers communicate constantly by cell phone and walkie-talkie. This democratic organization inspires awe.
But it can also be sinister, especially in its dealings with the press. These “free-spirited anarchists” boss the press around mercilessly: They have less flex than the Pentagon. Reporters must wear a huge “Press” sticker at all times and cannot walk through the building without an escort. When I walked over to the lockdown rally, my escort–a gentle anarchist from Buffalo, N.Y.,–told me I couldn’t because it was closed to the press. I pointed out that it was being held a public alley. My escort skittered off and returned with another escort. Escort No. 2 told me with much less sweetness that I couldn’t be there and I couldn’t take notes. I noted again that it was a public space. A third escort then surrounded me and barked, “We agreed by consensus that no one would take notes!” I again said it was a public space and that I was not part of any consensus. Escort 2 then threatened, “If you take any notes you won’t be permitted back here at all. You will be barred from here.”
But the guiding spirit of the A16 activists seems much more benign than their press paranoia. All the activities are infused with a kind of infectious good cheer. Their message may be serious, but they are gleeful. I wandered into the puppet-making room and was greeted by a sprite named Robin. She belongs to an “Arts and Revolution” collective in the Bay Area. She glowed as she described the puppet pageant. “First there will be the ‘Structural Adjustment Machine’ with huge cogs and jaws that are chewing up tree stumps. Then three World Bank puppets. All the bad guys come first. Then there will be 110 birds following them. That will be the wakeup call. It is an awesome sight to see 110 birds coming down the street!”
My prediction: This convergence of liberty, organization, paranoia, and good humor will be devastating on Sunday and Monday. They are going to shut the city down and have the time of their life doing it.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.