Monday, October 18, 2010

Feeder Marches and "Diversity of Tactics" in Northeast Ohio Anti-war Activism

The time period of Fall 2002 to Spring 2003 saw unprecedented anti-war activism throughout the world. In Cleveland, an organization called the Northeast Ohio Antiwar Coalition (NOAC) formed to counter the US push for war against Iraq. Cleveland anarchists organized with NOAC, but also independently, sponsoring “feeder marches” that “fed into” the official NOAC events. Feeder organizers did this to project an autonomy of action and promote a broader philosophy. Their un-permitted and radical events marched under the banner of “Stop the War – Fight the System!” The public announcement of the first feeder provoked a long-standing fear from mainstream peace activists of “anarchist violence” and property destruction, concerns that were eventually proven to be un-substantiated. These events grew the anti-authoritarian movement in Cleveland and helped to lay the groundwork for mass civil disobedience after the war began.

Anarchism and Social Movements
The anti-war movement in the US has included the organized presence of anarchists. Anarchists believe in and work towards the two-fold goal of (1) dismantling oppressive institutions, hierarchies, and authorities, and in their place, (2) creating cooperative and horizontal social relationships based upon the principles of self-determination, mutual aid, direct action, and voluntary association.

Fitzgerald and Rodgers (2000) offer one of the best scholarly models for classifying anarchist organizations. Radical social movement organizations (RSMOs) are non-hierarchical and participatory organizations, which use diverse tactics and alternative communication channels, and are very likely to have few resources and intense institutional opposition. This typology works well even with anarchistic “non-organizations”.

There are two main ways in which anarchists have contributed to radical activism in recent history. First, anarchists themselves have become an important presence in protest movements. Secondly, anarchist thought has influenced the general aesthetic of direct action politics. For example, affinity groups, spokes-council arrangements, black blocs, and now feeder marches – tactics widely known in radical activist circles – are either modeled upon or owe a substantial debt to anarchist principles.

Two of these key anarchist principles are autonomy and solidarity. Although it may seem contradictory, anarchists regularly practice both concurrently. These two ideas converge most with the concept of a “diversity of tactics” (DoT). This concept suggests that activists will respect and not publicly criticize others who chose tactics different than what they chose. Some recent large demonstrations have been organized with this concept in mind; the anti-Free Trade Area of the Americas demonstrations in Quebec City in 2001 had a “three-tiered, color-coding of events to indicate varying possibilities of arrest risk and militancy” (Milstein 2001).

Very little has been written in academic circles about DoT specifically, possibly since it is a relatively new term.[1] Albertani (2002) and Starr (2006) stand in relative isolation in academic literature when favorably discussing the use of aggressive tactics in protest situations. In activist literature, however, the debates surge both strongly against (Lakey 2002, Schutt 2003) – though often on pragmatic grounds – and loosely in favor of (Starhawk 2002).[2] Lakey and Schutt conclude that “DoT” is code for “violence is permissible if not recommended”. Starhawk does not make this assumption, but instead demands more clarification. None of the above writers embrace the concept fully or without clarification.

To further muddy the waters, social movement theorists regularly conflate property destruction with “violence”, in fact so repeatedly that I will not reference the scores of works doing so. Yet, since anarchists are a central component to the upcoming discussion, I will adopt the basic anarchist assumption that property destruction is nothing other than property destruction, while violence is harm caused towards living beings.

... in Northeast Ohio
Cleveland activists began organizing against the Bush Administration’s “War on Terrorism” after the US invasion of Afghanistan began. Disputes within the local anti-war movement, specifically between anarchists and liberal anti-war-veterans, spurred a publicly-held activist dialogue to discuss differences and look for common ground. An event entitled “Building Bridges” was, according to some activists, later dubbed by some as “Burning Bridges” for the way that “conversations” took place without others listening, particularly in regards to DoT.

Faced with the growing need to counter the Bush Administration's intensified saber-rattling regarding Iraq, the Northeast Ohio Anti-war Coalition (NOAC) was formed. Participation was drawn from traditional leftist groups, anti-war and pacifist organizations, socialist and communist parties, ANSWER and NION-affiliates[3], and anarchists circles.

Social movement participants often have very strong preferences and assumptions for organizing.[4] Those who participated in NOAC were no exception and conflicts were clear from the start, with debates over whether to apply for a city-approved march permit. Interviewed activists pointed towards age/generation and ideology as the greatest source of conflict within NOAC. But the two primary differences between NOAC at-large and the anarchists were in the area of message and tactics.

NOAC's general message is reflected in the slogans it eventually settled on for its first permitted march (and all subsequent events): “Stop The War On Iraq!”, “No War for Oil!”, “Not In Our Name!”, and “Money for Jobs, Health Care & Education ... Not for War!”.

Approximately 10 days before NOAC's planned anti-war march in Cleveland November 16th, the Burning River Revolutionary Anarchist Collective (BRC), composed mainly of young adults in their twenties, made a general call on the Internet to activists for an unpermitted “feeder march” to begin beforehand, that would “feed into” the main NOAC march:

The Burning River Collective hopes to see everyone that opposes this war [at the NOAC event]. In addition to the demonstration, we are calling for a feeder march and contingent within the march under the slogan, "Stop the War, Fight the System!"

At the same time as the Bush administration is threatening war on Iraq, it has already bombed Afghanistan, stripped Muslims, Arabs, and South Asian immigrants of any semblance of civil liberties, passed policies nearing police state-like measures, and rained batons and bullets on the urban warzones of our communities. We say that we not only need to stop this war but we need to fight the entire system that is pushing it!

Join the "Stop the War, Fight the System" contingent and feeder march on Saturday Nov. 16th at 11:00am at W.44th and Lorain as we march through communities drumming up opposition to the war on our way to the larger demonstration. (NEO-RAN message 2308.)

This declaration sparked immediate concern with NOAC activists. Some thought it was a call for street violence (possibly due to the words to “fight” the system). Some were likely concerned because it was an anarchist group that had called for it. Others feared that demonstrators were cryptically declaring their intention to destroy property or cause confrontations with police. One expressed a strong concern about the anti-war movement being marginalized by “extreme messages/tactics” that would “scare off” those who were just entering the anti-war movement (McLellan 2002).

The main NOAC concern ended up being a fear that media attention would be distracted from the NOAC event, since such a march organized by anarchists was guaranteed to attract the attention of the Cleveland Police Department. NOAC organizers felt that conflict with the police – especially if resulting in arrest – would have surely become the media story of the day, blotting out the rest of NOAC's message. This concern was informed by other large protests in the US that had recently resulted in mass arrests.

Thus, concerns over public image and “protester violence” dominated the attention of key organizers in NOAC during the last week of planning the march and rally.[5] One NOAC leader later estimated that these concerns could easily have been put to rest with a face-to-face meeting amongst key organizers of NOAC and the feeder.

In response to many of the above concerns, the BRC circulated the following notice on various activists email lists:

Organizing for the "Stop the War, Fight the System" feeder march and contingent on Nov.16th in Cleveland are going well. There have been concerns brought up to us about our intentions and message. While our message may very well be different than others, we think diversity in the anti-war [movement] is a strength not a weakness. We will be marching into the larger to be a PART of it. This feeder march is to create more of an effect in the community and to bring forth our politics at the same time. (NEO-RAN message 2362)

As one anarchist elaborated, opposing a single war is not itself enough, since war is “tied to the systems of capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and unnecessary hierarchies”, and to not oppose that entire system is to miss that “war is the health of the State”. BRC members hoped that the feeder would inject this more radical critique into the anti-war movement and also reach other Clevelanders along the feeder route.

About 30 activists showed up for the feeder march, which went without police engagement until it turned onto Lorain Avenue a few blocks from the NOAC march's starting location. Police attempted briefly to contain the feeder, but quickly gave up and settled on blocking traffic for the marchers. The march lasted just under one mile in length (Turner 2002). Feeder organizers and participants stated that most activists responded favorably to their actions and analysis (when it was offered) during and after the event.

The NOAC march ended up being the largest anti-war event in Cleveland since the Vietnam War—the Cleveland Plain Dealer estimated that nearly one-thousand people took part (Stephens 2002), while other local media estimated more. As the march crossed over the Detroit-Superior Bridge into downtown, the crowd swelled to the point where the Cleveland Police Department had to close down the entire 4-lane bridge. This closing was, in addition to an earlier incident with the feeder banner briefly in front of the NOAC banner, the only problem cited by NOAC organizers about the march.

Anarchists wanted to expand their ranks and chose an “exciting” method for doing so. Traditional anti-war activists were in the majority within NOAC and were concerned mainly with the overall anti-war movement’s public portrayal in the mass media and with attracting more mainstream participation. These differences in method, with slightly different short-term goals, had similar long-term goals. The usage of both tactics – large march and smaller feeder – clearly constituted the practice of DoT, as well as a diversity of messages.

BRC called for another feeder march for a second NOAC march and rally in Cleveland in December. The call issued beforehand hinted more clearly at the organizers’ strategic motivations:

We... are appalled by the blatant disregard for humanity that imperialist war, imperialism and capitalism entail. We want to see a lively, militant, creative movement emerge that paves new ground on the road to liberation.

Although the typical, formulaic protest is a good way to show the U.S. government the sheer numbers of people who oppose its policies and is a needed demonstration of solidarity among progressive, radical and revolutionary forces, there are also many other forms of protest we can engage in and a plethora of tactics we can use that might be just as effective or more effective. Furthermore, using a wide and creative assortment of tactics allows us, as a movement, to not stagnate. (NEO-RAN message 2501)

These non-permitted marches laid the groundwork for a “day-after” march that started at downtown Cleveland’s Public Square.[6] Anarchists and other anti-imperialists led a crowd of 300 – mainly youth – into the streets, marching throughout downtown for approximately an hour. The marchers faced a strong police response, but no resistance and were essentially escorted through the streets by police on foot and squad cars blocking intersections. After these subsequently larger and larger youth-based responses to the war, the police struck back a few days later, arresting half a dozen people for doing essentially the same thing.

Olzak and Uhrig (2001) point out that the viability of a social movement increases when there is no competition from other movements. In this case, the feeder and NOAC organizers were drawing upon (usually) separate resources and audiences. The tactics used reflected a choice of repertoires, which is based upon the breadth and structure of the tactical options available. Ideology and cost-benefit analysis can influence how a protest repertoire is chosen (Ennis 1987), an analysis that rings true in Cleveland's case.

There was a general consensus amongst the activists I interviewed that the feeders were not “a problem” – at least in retrospect. Most lamented not conversing more with each other or being more involved in solidarity organizing. They appreciated the need for diverse methods of resistance and personal expression, and gained (or retained) a tolerance for each other's choices. As a Vietnam-era activist put it plainly, “anarchists are part of the anti-war movement in Cleveland” and that anarchists always participated within the accepted parameters of the NOAC events. Thus, despite their different approaches, both liberal and radical tactics permitted diverse people the opportunity to participate in protesting war on the basis of their interest and comfort level.

Activist debate on the efficiency and effectiveness of certain tactics in creating mass movements of resistance will likely continue. As with other movements, this injection of radical participation and action can and did re-frame the typical mode of anti-war protest and organization. The experience in Cleveland shows that diverse tactics and messages can be useful to social movements, granted there is a certain degree of transparency and dialogue between activists.

End Notes
[1] However, it is often pointed out that few tactics are actually “new”, and DoT is likely not an exception.
[2] Incidentally, all three are nonviolent direct action trainers.
[3] ANSWER (Act Not to Stop War and End Racism) and NION (Not In Our Name) are national organizations, initiated by the International Action Center/World Worker's Party and Revolutionary Communist Party, respectively.
[4] What James S. Coleman might refer to as “zealotry”... which is not to denigrate the level of their concern and passion.
[5] Later, the usage of profanity would also become a key concern. See McLeod and Detenber (1999) on media selection bias.
[6] Many communities through out the US preplanned “day after” protests (that often included civil disobedience) that would go into action the day following a US invasion of Iraq – an event that activists had been predicting for months prior.

  • Albertani, Claudio. 2002. “Paint It Black: Black Blocs, Tute Bianche and Zapatistas in the Anti-globalization Movement”. New Political Science, 24 (4): 579-595.
  • Ennis, James G. 1987. “Fields of Action: Structure in Movements' Tactical Repertoires”. Sociological Forum, 2 (3): 520-533.
  • Fitzgerald, Kathleen J. and Diane M. Rodgers. 2000. “Radical Social Movement Organizations: A Theoretical Model”. The Sociological Quarterly, 41 (4): 573-592.
  • Lakey, George. 2002. “Diversity of Tactics & Democracy”. clamor, March/April: 62-63.
  • McLellan, Nina. 2002. “Open Letter”. Distributed via email, by
  • McLeod, Douglas M. and Benjamin H. Detenber. 1999. “Framing Effects of Television News Coverage of Social Protest”. Journal of Communication, 49 (3): 3-23.
  • Milstein, Cindy. 2001. “Something Did Start in Quebec City: North America's Revolutionary Anti-Capitalist Movement”. The Northeastern Anarchist, 2, Summer.
  • Northeast Ohio Radical Action Network [NEO-RAN] electronic mailing list. Yahoo!Groups.
  • Olzak, Susan S. and C. Noah Uhrig. 2001. “The Ecology of Tactical Overlap”. American Sociological Review, 66 (5): 694-717.
  • Schutt, Randy. 2003. “Well-Designed Strategic Nonviolent Actions”.
  • Starhawk. 2002. “Getting Our Tactics Right: Lessons from the Calgary G8 Mobilization”., July.
  • Starr, Amory. 2006. “’Excepting Barricades Erected to Prevent Us From Peacefully Assembling': So-Called 'Violence' in the Global North Alterglobalization Movement”. Social Movement Studies, 5 (1), May: 61-81.
  • Stephens, Scott. 2002. “Many Voices, 1 Message: Avoid War”. Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 17.
  • Turner, Patrick. 2002. “1000 People Take to Streets, Oppose War on Iraq”. Cleveland Independent Media Center. November 17.

Thanks to the unsung activists who organized against war and gave their time to be interviewed. And, for all those who continue to make the effort to resist the Bush Wars – using all tactics. Paper also presented to the North Central Sociological Association (NCSA), Cleveland, Ohio. April 2, 2004.

This piece was accepted as an entry in a yet-to-be-published book, edited by Nom(a)d, entitled The Anti-War Movement and its Discontents: A Reader on Social Movement Theory and Practice. It was/is to include other essays by: Clive Gabay, Lori Baralt, Tom Good, Bill Weinberg, Jim Macdonald, Jeff Gibbs, the Catalyst Project, Nom(a)d, and Peter Gelderloos.

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