Friday, January 27, 2012

Can They Do it Again?—Adbusters Issues Another Call

When my daughter Maureen was at Columbia College in Chicago finishing up her degree in magazine journalism her favorite publication, bar none, was the quirky, slick Canadian based magazine Adbusters.  She subscribed and would eagerly gobble up new issues and show me the great stuff that caught her attention.

The magazine is the public face of Adbusters Media Foundation, a Canadian organization founded in 1989 by Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz in Vancouver, British Columbia.  It is anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist, pro-environmental and globalist in outlook.  It is philosophically rooted in the broad anarchist tradition but seldom pushes that identity.  Instead it prefers to be non-doctrinaire, persistently subversive, creative, and savvy about modern culture and communications.  It has also been heavily committed to encouraging tactics of direct action and Gandhian non-violence.

Not only have its superbly executed graphics and advertising parodies and satires drawn attention and often gone viral on the web, but Adbusters has drawn a lot of attention to seeding unusual, headline grabbing protests including Buy Nothing Day and TV Turnoff Week.

Last summer they sent out an e-mail to their large list of subscribers and supporters with a simple suggestion—people should descend on Wall Street, the heart of capitalism and the banking and financial institutions responsible for a world-wide economic crisis.  They were inspired by the mass protests earlier that spring in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and by the one-the-scene consensus decision making employed by huge anti-austerity protests in Spain.  September 17 was the appointed target date.  Protestors were advised to “bring a tent.”  

They articulated on one demand, “a presidential commission to separate money from politics,” but made it clear that it was just the beginning of starting to “set the agenda for a New America.” That agenda would be worked out by consensus of the participants in the protest that they named Occupy Wall Street.

To publicize the call, Adbusters created a stunning poster—a ballerina dancing on the back of the iconic Wall Street statue of a charging bull.  

As the creators had hoped both the call and the graphic went viral.  In days they were all over Facebook, Twitter, and the blog-o-sphere.

Then the instigators did something unheard of.  They stepped back.  They demanded no leadership role, put forth no leader/spokesperson/hero to personify the movement in the media, and did not take any part in actually planning or organizing the event that they proposed.  When the appointed day came, no one at all from Adbusters was even on hand.  All of which was exactly what they had hoped for.

The call was taken up by several groups, including the shadowy inter-net presence Anonymous, and several existing organizations, but all supported the original vision of mass protest, non-violence and democratic, consensus based decision making with no anointed leaders.

Despite a huge buzz generated on social media the first day’s protest fell well short of the 50,000 that some had hoped for/predicted.  Attempts to actually march on Wall Street were stymied by police action.  The media took notice and declared the movement a failure.

But the small number of protestors made good their commitment to stay in the streets by occupying Zuccotti Park, a small, privately held open space reasonably near Wall Street.  They would not go away and mounted daily protests.  Slowly over the first week or so more joined them.  Many others could be turned out for specific demonstrations.  The movement really took off and grabbed the nation’s attention when a huge mass march across the Brooklyn Bridge on October 3 where over 700 were arrested and in the mass protests that drew tens of thousands to the streets of New York in the days that followed.

Video shot from cell phone and by Occupy documentarians showing police brutality went viral.

Within days the movement was spreading to other cities and towns who established their own camps and general assemblies.  Within weeks it had spread to hundreds places in the U.S. including medium size and small town which had seldom seen any protest.  Participants said they stood for the 99% against a powerful and greedy 1% oligarchy.  Suddenly the issues of Occupy Wall street were front and center of the American political discussion.

The rest, as they say is history.

Despite a tough winter when many Occupy groups found themselves evicted from the public spaces where they had established communities, the movement forged ahead in new and creative ways.  Protests continued, even intensified.  They also became more creative as in the protection of homes from foreclosure in some places.

Now Adbusters is back with a new call and a new poster:

Hey you redeemers, rebels and radicals out there,
Against the backdrop of a global uprising that is simmering in dozens of countries and thousands of cities and towns, the G8 and NATO will hold a rare simultaneous summit in Chicago this May. The world’s military and political elites, heads of state, 7,500 officials from 80 nations, and more than 2,500 journalists will be there.
And so will we.
On May 1, 50,000 people from all over the world will flock to Chicago, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and #OCCUPYCHICAGO for a month. With a bit of luck, we’ll pull off the biggest multinational occupation of a summit meeting the world has ever seen.
And this time around we’re not going to put up with the kind of police repression that happened during the Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago, 1968 … nor will we abide by any phony restrictions the City of Chicago may want to impose on our first amendment rights. We’ll go there with our heads held high and assemble for a month-long people’s summit … we’ll march and chant and sing and shout and exercise our right to tell our elected representatives what we want … the constitution will be our guide.
And when the G8 and NATO meet behind closed doors on May 19, we’ll be ready with our demands: a Robin Hood Tax … a ban on high frequency ‘flash’ trading … a binding climate change accord … a three strikes and you’re out law for corporate criminals … an all out initiative for a nuclear-free Middle East … whatever we decide in our general assemblies and in our global internet brainstorm – we the people will set the agenda for the next few years and demand our leaders carry it out.
And if they don’t listen … if they ignore us and put our demands on the back burner like they’ve done so many times before … then, with Gandhian ferocity, we’ll flashmob the streets, shut down stock exchanges, campuses, corporate headquarters and cities across the globe … we’ll make the price of doing business as usual too much to bear.
Jammers, pack your tents, muster up your courage and prepare for a big bang in Chicago this Spring. If we don’t stand up now and fight now for a different kind of future we may not have much of a future … so let’s live without dead time for a month in May and see what happens …
for the wild,
Culture Jammers HQ

Can they pull it off again?  Probably.  They now have a movement that is seasoned, experienced, and practiced at both organization and street tactics.

Of course everyone knew that there would be protests, and plenty of them, at this two-fer of international economic and western military power.  The economic summits, in particular, have drawn huge protests where ever they have been held over the last dozen years.  And since NATO, having lost its reason for existence after the collapse of the old Soviet Union, has re-invented itself as an interventionist force in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere massive anti-war protests against it were just as predictable.

All of the major organizations who have participated in earlier protests have already announced plans to be in Chicago.  Most of these organizations plan various types of peaceful demonstrations, some including civil disobedience.

The members of the on-going Occupy Chicago group have been planning for protests this spring as well.  The Occupy movement and representatives of other organizations have been in discussions with the city over permits, camping sites, and limitations on protest.

Mayor Rham Emmanual as Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff helped lure the meetings to Chicago to show off the city, repair the damaged international reputation caused by the humiliating loss of the 2016 Olympic Games to Rio de Janero, and put to rest the stigma of the 1968 Democratic Convention police riots.  In fact, his mantra has steadily been, “This is not 1968.”

The Mayor has made elaborate security plans for the meetings.  He crafted a raft of draconian new restriction on protests with huge boosts in fees for permits, fine, and jail sentences that would become permanently enshrined in Chicago law.  After massive public outcry, some of the worst provisions were stripped from the ordinances before an obedient City Council passed them overwhelmingly.  He still has plenty of legal excuse to clamp down on virtually any protest.

Although he pledges to work with groups to insure “a right to protest” and has even indicated that permits might be issued for rallies and marches near the meeting venues, he warns that the Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security might over-ride these concessions by establishing wide security zones.

Protest leaders know what that means “They’re trying to set up a good cop-bad cop scenario and we’re not stupid enough to fall for that.”

The city is keeping its exact preparations closely under wraps, but the Chicago Police Department has been receiving new training and is being equipped with the latest riot gear, armor, surveillance equipment, and crowd control weapons.  Plans for detaining mass arrests are being made.  In addition to Chicago Police, other Illinois law enforcement agencies, and perhaps the National Guard word has gotten out that out-of-state police forces will be deputized.  The mayor will have a virtual army at his command.

The protests at international events have always been volatile because they are a target of relatively small groups of self-avowed anarchist street fighters.  The peaceful marches and actions of other protestors have often been disrupted by anarchists breaking away and going on sprees of breaking windows, setting fires, and fighting with police.  This has routinely caused an often violent crackdown on all demonstrators. 

Other demonstrators have had no influence over restraining the street fighters.  The Occupy Movement has generally been more successful at it.  But by now the street fighters are probably made up by at least 50% police spies, plants, and agent provocateurs.  Authorities need the pretext of violence to move against the larger groups.

The Adbusters poster for the May protests features a photo of the police attack at the Band Shell during the ’68 Convention Week protests—an open taunting of the Mayor’s attempt to “put that behind him.”  

I was there that afternoon and again that evening in front of the Conrad Hilton when, “The whole world was watching.”  There were probably only 3000 protestors in Chicago that Convention week.  We did not even catch the attention of the media until those two events on Wednesday finally occurred before network television cameras.  Prior to that police by sheer intimidation, including the routine beating of reports and the smashing of their  cameras, and the bulkiness of video and film cameras, kept most of the violence at Lincoln Park and other locations from the eyes of the public.  When the images of the beatings at the Hilton hit TV screens, the national conversation about the war got a huge boost.

Now modern electronics and video equipment make it impossible to keep those images a secret.  Even if rumors of the ability of authorities to “turn off” cell phone and Wi-Fi service in the protest zones is true, they can’t keep things from getting out one way or another.

Can the Adbuster folks really lure 50,000 in addition to the thousands being mobilized by other organization?  Can they keep up an announced presence for a full month? Can they contain the provocateurs?  How will they change the very nature of protest?  Only time will tell, but I wouldn’t bet against them.


  1. Patrick, I wonder about something. When you say this:

    'They articulated on one demand, “a presidential commission to separate money from politics,” but made it clear that it was just the beginning of starting to “set the agenda for a New America.” That agenda would be worked out by consensus of the participants in the protest that they named Occupy Wall Street.

    'To publicize the call, Adbusters created a stunning poster—a ballerina dancing on the back of the iconic Wall Street statue of a charging bull.'

    are you certain about the bolded part? The breadth and openness of that poster--well, what is our one desire, anyway ?--is a breath of fresh air, while a demand for a presidential commission is cyanide and razorblades all the way down. They just don't jibe.

    1. John --I was quoting from the original call. But things moved fast and the movement self-identified quickly in new ways. I suspect that if they could time travel back, they would have listed something more systematic. Still the detachment of money from politics and governance remains a central demand even if the 'presidential commission" part might have fallen by the way side.