MODULE 8: A Movement Grows

Guerrilla Gardens (1990’s)

Perhaps it’s only in retrospect that certain things that were happening in the Nineties later feel like they were somehow naturally precursors to the anti-capitalist movement that would soon seem to grow out of them. In any case, there were certain memes that were spreading, and guerrilla gardening was one of them. By one count at one point there were over 300 illegal garden projects in New York City alone, and it was catching on in other cities across the country as well.

Many purposes were (and are) served by this kind of campaign. Working together on a project such as gardening together is a labor-intensive community activity that can tend to bring neighbors together, to help foster a deeper sense of community. Having a physical space (the garden) becomes a meeting point for more community activities. The garden produces healthy food, which is often a much-needed thing, particularly in the poor, often blighted neighborhoods where community gardens tend to flourish.

And the existence of the garden serves to challenge the basic notion of land ownership, and who should be allowed to own land in an urban neighborhood, for what purposes, to serve which community? When a neighborhood clearly needs gardens far more than it needs more parking lots or vacant lots that aren’t even fit for parking cars, but the vacant lots remain and the gardens don’t materialize, what can people do? In some neighborhoods, the response of some communities was to take over and start gardening themselves.

“More Gardens Song”

The Minnehaha Free State (1997-98)

Earth First campaigns in various forests where clearcuts were planned often involved creating blockades — to blockade a forest road in order to try to prevent or delay the logging operation. The same sort of tactic was applied in Minneapolis in an urban area where a road to the mall was planned.

In Minneapolis, it was both trees and houses that were going to be taken down for the road. Activists started out in the houses, and then after 800 or so cops came to kick them out one winter night, they relocated to trees.

The Free State didn’t succeed in stopping the highway, but it was a remarkable coming together of people from different backgrounds, a community that survived two winters in Minnesota before, in the end, the trees they were occupying were killed while people were still holding on to them.

“Morning at Minnehaha”

Seize the Airwaves (1990’s)

The decline of commercial radio in the US also saw the rise of pirate radio in small and large communities across the country. Some were raided repeatedly by the FCC, who took the whole thing ridiculously seriously. Sometimes the pirate radio stations were very ragtag operations, other times very professionally run.

Regardless of how they were run or of the (usually leftwing) politics of the folks running them, the existence of pirate radio was a challenge to the idea that these frequencies can only be used by corporations with the budgets necessary to buy them. Much like the challenge presented by a squat or a guerrilla garden.

“Pirate Radio Song”

Just Desserts (1990’s)

The 1990’s saw a renewed tradition of delivering pies to the faces of the rich and powerful in symbolic gestures of disgust. Recipients included economist Milton Friedman, billionaire Bill Gates, the mayor of San Francisco and many others. Many of the pie-throwers identified as agents of the Biotic Baking Brigade. Others were just freelancers, joining the meme. Prominent pie-throwing attacks occurred in Belgium, Thailand, and California, among other places.

“Song for the BBB”

Copwatch (1990’s)

A small off-shoot of a small punk scene perhaps, but a powerful idea nonetheless, and of course not an original one (see the Black Panthers for more on that). But before the era of everybody carrying around phones with cameras on them, purposefully going out of the house to look for police who might need to be monitored by people following them around with cameras was (and is) a praiseworthy activity that tends to keep the cops on better behavior than they would be exhibiting otherwise.

“Watch Out for the Cops”

Steal This MP3 (1999)

There are lots of complicated arguments to be made in different directions, but at its core, the online movement around sharing music, movies and everything else, along with the open source movement, and in the analog world, pirate radio, guerrilla gardens, squats – at its core, all of this is about challenging the notion of who owns everything. It’s a way of saying the system is broken, let’s do something different.

With music and the growth of institutions like Napster which saw the collapse of the music industry as it was once known, even as musicians at all levels of the trade were wondering how they might possibly survive in the future, no one was surprised by the widespread rejection of the way things had been by the general public. When suddenly there was an incomparably vast array of musical options freely (though illegally, in the earlier years of the internet) available, most people never looked back to the days when their access was limited by what was on the radio and in the record stores.

“Steal this MP3”

We Are Everywhere (1999-2001)

“We are everywhere” was one of many memes going around during the short-lived anti-capitalist movement in the US around the turn of the century. And we were – not necessarily in large numbers in any particular place, but the movement was pervasive, like movements are by nature. Every town and city of any size had some element of the movement in it, whether it was centered around any physical space or not.

But if it was in a space, it might be an infoshop, a little book store, a cafe, or an Indymedia space somewhere. In one way or another, teach-ins were happening regularly and people were educating each other and themselves about how IMF loan programs worked, how structural dependency worked, why corporate globalization is far from the highest achievement society has to offer humanity.

Exactly what it was that caused a social movement to coalesce around this time was a bit of a mystery, though why it began to fall apart after 9/11/2001 is less mysterious.

“We Are Everywhere”

Shut Them Down (1998-2001)

From the time of the APEC summit in Vancouver, BC and the WTO summit in Seattle in 1999, and then on to the IMF/World Bank summit in the spring of 2000 and this duo’s summit the following autumn in Prague, and at several other big international summits in several different countries – Canada, Australia, Germany and elsewhere – the movement against corporate globalization, or the anti-capitalist movement, or the anti-globalization movement as it was sometimes called (inaccurately in the latter case) shut down or seriously delayed many meetings of the global elite.

There was a lot of organization involved with the more successful efforts, to be sure. But regardless of the level of organization involved, during these years there were certain consistent patterns that you’d find at any significant protest event. There would be independent collectives from different towns coming, who would generally make their own plans for how to get wherever they were going, where to stay, etc. These included Indymedia collectives, street medic collectives, art and puppetry groups, and many others.

The movement of this period was important for a variety of reasons. First, it’s important because it was a movement, and all social movements are worth examining and learning from. It had characteristics of a social movement, separating it from nonprofit or activist groups organizing events and trying to make them look like movement events (which is perfectly fine for them to do, because, who knows, maybe a movement will grow out of such efforts).

When movements grow organically, they have a strength that cannot be replicated by even a bunch of very well-funded nonprofits. When you’re inside a movement, you can see that you’re there (in retrospect even more so).

If activists knew how to make movements happen by some kind of magic formula, there would be a lot more of them over time. What seems to be the common element with the vast majority of social movements that grow legs is they are swimming in a sea of optimism. Why people suddenly become optimistic about a tactic or an idea spreading and changing the status quo is another mystery. But this happens sometimes, and when it does, a lot can change very quickly.

“Shut Them Down”

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (2000)

One of the aspects of the anti-capitalist movement of this period that made the movement feel more real was the fact that it was coming from the left, but it was taking place while a Democrat was in the White House. With the Bush administration coming into power, particularly in such questionable circumstances – a Supreme Court judgment was required to figure out who won in the end – other elements got involved with organizing protests, focusing on what appeared to have been fraudulent election practices in at least two states.


Second Intifada (2000)

Meanwhile in Palestine, renowned war criminal and soon-to-be Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made a provocative visit to a mosque, which then set off a protest, which then was put down by the soldiers who had been expecting it, with live ammunition. This massacre in Jerusalem in September, 2000 set off the Second Intifada.

As with other social movements, no one can say for sure why this particular massacre had the consequence of a sustained, militant social movement for years afterwards. A footnote of the timing of this intifada is that it coincided with the anti-capitalist movement then taking place in many different parts of the world, including Israel, where the group Anarchists Against the Wall was a sort of natural outgrowth of the coinciding of these two movements. There was also a lot of crossover between the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and the global anti-capitalist movement.

“Children of Jerusalem”

Questions/thoughts for further exploration…

Guerrilla Gardens (1990’s)

Although there wasn’t a big squatting movement in the US for various reasons, reclaiming blighted parts of cities and turning them into gardens became a popular phenomenon in the 1990’s in many US cities. Aside from providing a bit of extra food for people to eat, how do guerrilla gardens challenge property relations in society?

Morning at Minnehaha (1998)

Although the highway was ultimately built, actions like the Minnehaha Free State caused transportation departments in the US to change their approach to highway-building at least somewhat.

Pirate Radio (1990’s)

Kind of like squatting (or guerrilla gardening), but on the airwaves.

The BBB (1990’s)

Is depositing a vegan cream pie in someone’s face an act of violence? If the person receiving the pie is a reviled public figure, does that matter? What if the reviled public figure is Black and the pie-throwers are white? These are all questions that BBB activists had to grapple with.

Copwatch (1990’s)

A DIY anti-racist activity that increased in popularity among certain sectors of society in the 1990’s was Copwatch.

Steal This MP3 (1999)

Another aspect of the evolution of the global conflict between the haves and have-nots has been the question of how music and other intellectual property should be treated online. Who should profit, who shouldn’t, and why?

We Are Everywhere (1999)

We are everywhere” became a popular meme in the 1990’s. The intent was to reinforce the idea that seemingly disparate groups and individuals around the world were actually part of a broader social movement.

Shut Them Down (1998-2001)

Large-scale protests at G8 meetings and such continues, but there was a period when these sorts of meetings of the elites were regularly cut short, started late, and occasionally canceled because of the scale of the resistance to them on the streets.

The Best Election Money Can Buy (2000)

The 2000 and 2004 elections were both contested, because the guy who served as president of the US in both cases lost the actual elections. How did Bush become president anyway?

Second Intifada (2000)

Why did Sharon provoke riots and then massacre children in Jerusalem in September, 2000? What was he trying to achieve? Did he achieve it?