In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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With the 1979 publication of her book The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (HarperSanFrancisco), Starhawk became a central figure in the modern revival of indigenous European religions, better known as Paganism. More recently, she has been active in the worldwide movement against corporate-led globalization. Her activism and spirituality come together in the Pagan Cluster, a group whose actions are memorable for their rowdy creativity and panache as much as for their message.
At a recent protest against the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, the Pagan Cluster and other groups filled Market Street, San Francisco’s main artery, waving homemade flags and pounding drums. The activists blocked traffic and handed out fliers describing how the FTAA would allow corporations to take over public resources and sue foreign governments who pass environmental or labor laws that might “restrict trade.” Curious onlookers were treated to a street-theater spoof of “corporate school,” featuring nutrition by McDonald’s, physical education by Nike, and math by the World Bank: we lend you $1 million; you give us your healthcare system, your schools, and your water.
Starhawk has been an activist since the age of fifteen, when she handed out anti–Vietnam War balloons in Beverly Hills, but the 1999 “Battle of Seattle” was a turning point for her. For two days, forty thousand people protested the policies of the World Trade Organization, calling them exploitative and undemocratic; she was among nearly six hundred protesters who were arrested and jailed. The success of the action — they prevented the WTO from meeting as planned — inspired her, and the police violence hardened her resolve.
Since then, Starhawk has participated in many large-scale protests against corporate globalization and has trained activists in Europe and the Americas. But it’s her passionate writing that has drawn her the most recognition and praise.
Her latest book, Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising (New Society), includes some of the journals she kept during anti-globalization protests. The following excerpt begins with an account of her participation in the April 2000 blockade against a Washington, D.C., meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The activists used the same tactics that had worked in Seattle the previous fall, but this time failed to prevent the delegates from entering. The action succeeded, however, in drawing public attention to the debate.
The excerpt is accompanied by an interview in which Starhawk discusses her experiences and suggests strategies for future action.
“Webs of Power” is excerpted from Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising, by Starhawk. © 2002 by Starhawk. It appears here by permission of New Society Publishers, www.newsociety.com.
— April Thompson
We have been blockading all day in a giant spider web: an intersection entirely surrounded by webs of yarn that effectively prevent movement into the street. The intersection is held by a cluster from Asheville, North Carolina, that includes many labor-union members. We are blockading arm in arm with the ecofeminist Teamsters. In front of the police barricade, a group of protesters are “locked down”: sitting in a line with their arms chained together. Their supporters surround them, bring them water, administer sunscreen, and hold the keys to the chains.
I can’t express how happy I am to be part of a movement that includes ecofeminist Teamsters. They ask us for help in shifting the energy, which is loud, raucous, and confrontational. I join the group of drummers in the center. I don’t have my own drum today, just a bucket, which works fairly well, except when it falls off the rope tied around my waist. I start to drum with the group, because the only way to shift a rhythm is first to join it. With the help of some of the singers in our group, we manage to shift into a song: “We have come too far, / We won’t turn around, / We’ll flood the streets with justice, / We are freedom bound.”
This magic is played out against a background of stark but unacknowledged fear. In all our discussions, I don’t think we ever simply said, “I’m afraid.” I haven’t said it because I’ve pushed the fear so far down it doesn’t easily surface, and because what I’m most afraid of is that someone else, someone I persuaded to come to this action, will get hurt. The group seems to project calm and confidence, when really what might help us all the most would be simply to say, “I’m scared. Are you scared, too?”
We’re scared because we are out on the street, risking arrest in a city that has been turned into a police state. Sixty square blocks have been barricaded off. Yesterday six hundred people were arrested in a preemptive strike at a peaceful march. They weren’t warned or allowed to leave. Our Convergence Center was shut down in the morning, and thousands of people were arriving that day to be trained. Our puppets and first-aid supplies were confiscated. Although the puppets were eventually released, the medical supplies remain under lock and key.
I spent the morning wandering in the rain with a group of about eighty people I was trying to train in nonviolence. The church we were headed to was flanked by police and so overcrowded we could not possibly squeeze in. We set off for a park, but a runner informed us that the police were throwing people out of it. Finally I just stopped on a corner and said to the group, “Look, you can come back and be trained in the afternoon, or we can just do it in the road.”
“Let’s do it!” they cried, and so we ducked into an alley, arranged a fallback point in case we had to scatter, and I trained them right there, with police cruising half a block away.
We are afraid of the police: they have guns, clubs, tear gas, pepper spray, and all the power of the state at their disposal. They can beat, gas, or jail us with relative impunity. What’s hard to grasp is how much they are afraid of us. Some of our group are wearing black and covering their faces like the anarchist protesters in Seattle who broke windows and made the police look bad. Mostly, I think the police are afraid of the unknown: Someone in the crowd could have a bomb. Those bubbling vats in the Convergence Center kitchen could be homemade pepper spray instead of lunch. Those bottles of turpentine could have some more nefarious purpose than removal of the paint we used on banners.
Now the two groups, police and protestors, each perceiving themselves as righteous and the other side as potentially violent, are squaring off on the streets of our nation’s capital.
Wilow, Evergreen, and I are returning from a trek to the bathrooms, which are blocks away. We see a makeshift barricade blocking the street. A dumpster has been dragged into the middle of the road, and a few broken pieces of furniture lie atop it. A couple of cars have been lifted up and set down at forty-five-degree angles. Our much-debated nonviolence guidelines state that we will not damage property. The cars are unharmed, but moving them has certainly put them in harm’s way. It is an action right on the edge of what the guidelines allow — but then, many people are unhappy with the idea of having guidelines at all and agreed to them only with the greatest reluctance.
Behind the dumpster, a circle of protesters are engaged in a heated debate about the barricade. David, my partner, is in the middle of them. As I listen, I soon learn what has happened: The young man in black, the tall Rasta from the Caribbean, and some of the others have built the barricade. David has been taking it down even as they built it up. Now they are having a council meeting. A young woman from the ecofeminist Teamsters is facilitating.
The people who built the barricade see it as protection. We’ve heard rumors that the cops are running people over with motorcycles. David sees the barricade as a danger to us, upping the ante of confrontation and potentially provoking violence. Most of the barricade builders are young; he is middle-aged and looks and sounds like somebody’s dad — which, in fact, he is. He’s somebody’s granddad, for that matter. He’s also a man who burned his draft card in the sixties and spent two years of his youth in federal prison. His lifelong pacifism is staunch and unshakable, and I’ve never known him to back down on a matter of principle. Next to him, a young, black-clad, masked protester — his outfit identifying him as a member of the anarchist black bloc — is listening thoughtfully to the discussion.
I look at that circle and see all the tensions, fears, and hopes that have surrounded this action. I’ve been here for close to a week, leading trainings, going to meetings, and sitting in on every council. I know that we have deep divisions among us on the question of how this action should be conducted. In the councils, the strongest voice generally belongs to those who want a more confrontational action, who chafe against the nonviolence guidelines and are ready to do battle in the streets. But in the nonviolence training sessions I’ve held, and on the street itself, I hear the voices of those who feel the guidelines are vitally important and who want a stronger commitment to nonviolence, to communication as well as confrontation.
This is the kind of issue that has torn movements apart. Those of us who are old enough to remember the sixties have seen it happen again and again. We know how easy it is for this energy to turn sour and dissipate. We’ve seen strong organizations come apart over questions of tactics. Much greater than any fear I might have of the police is my fear that this blessed, wild, unlooked-for movement, this rising tide of rage and passion for justice, will founder in the same way I’ve seen other movements founder; that we’ll end up denouncing each other instead of the IMF; or that small splinter groups will take us too quickly into forms of actions so extreme that our base of support will dissipate.
This energy is rare and precious. It’s the one thing that can’t be organized or created. When it’s present, it’s unstoppable, but when it goes, it’s gone. And in thirty years of political activism, I’ve learned how quickly it can go.
“What’s amazing,” I say to the group, “is that we’re having this dialogue at all. Under all this tension and in the middle of the action, we’re willing to discuss this and listen to each other. That may be as important as anything else we do on the street today.”
The black-masked anarchist, the Rasta, the ecofeminist Teamster, and the other affinity-group representatives — even David — all nod in agreement. Eventually, a compromise is reached: David will not take down any more of the barricade, and no one else will add to it or build it up. I don’t know which amazes me more: that the barricade builders agree, or that David does.
By the end of the day, the dumpster has become a giant drum, a symbol both of our differences and of the process we use to resolve them, a living testimony to the true democracy we have brought to confront the systems of political and economic control.
The blockade is over for the day. The march and rally are done. We are lying in the shade, napping after an exhausting day, when someone comes running.
“The cops are trying to sweep the park! There’s riot cops over there in the corner!”
We really can’t believe the police would do something so unprovoked and stupid, but a few of us go to see what is happening. A line of park police on horseback are threading their way through clumps of people seated on the grass. We follow the horses out into Constitution Avenue, where they form a line and begin trying to push the crowd off the street. Half the crowd is panicking and the other half is shouting at the cops and challenging the horses. In a moment, many people are going to get badly hurt. I have to get to the front of the crowd. I catch hold of some lightning bolt of energy and streak through, checking myself as I go: Is this really for me to do? I know it is because suddenly I’m there, yelling, “Sit down! Sit down!” And I sit down myself with enough conviction that others follow suit. In a moment, the crowd is sitting or lying in front of the horses, who stop.
I am sitting with my legs out, and a horse stands with its feet between my ankles. One of my arms is outstretched as if to say, Stop! I can’t seem to put it down. The horse is very big. The policeman on its back will not look me in the eye. Down the line, a cop tells a young woman protester, “I don’t want to trample you, but if my boss orders me to move forward, I’ll have to.” I’ve been teaching people for twenty years in nonviolence workshops that horses do not like to walk on uneven ground and won’t trample you if you sit or lie down in a group in front of them, but I’ve never tested this theory before. The horse shifts its weight. I remember how we called on the spirits of the land itself to support us. I can feel all the rings of magical energy and protection being sent to this action. They surround me like ripples in a pond, except they converge on me instead of dispersing out. I still cannot put my hand down.
Half the protesters around me appear to be part of the black bloc. In this moment, though, we have total solidarity. There are no more questions of tactics or style or guidelines; we are simply there together, facing the same threat, taking the same stand, feeling the same fear.
We all sit, frozen in time. I reach up and let the horse sniff my hand. The horse and I, we’re in complete agreement: he doesn’t want to step on me, and I don’t want him to, either. Behind us, someone from the Committee for Full Enjoyment begins a chant: “It’s not about the cops; it’s about the IMF!” The crowd takes it up, and the energy becomes more focused.
Then I see a second line of horses behind our horses, facing the other way. The crowd facing those horses begins to panic. They’re yelling at the horses and trying to push them back and throwing horse manure at the cops. The horses are dancing and stumbling and being pushed into our horses, who will have nowhere to go except on top of us. We begin shouting at the other crowd to sit down. They don’t listen. “Sit down, sit down!” we chant. Finally they get it. They sit. The horses stop. We breathe again. (At some point in the melee, one young man does get stepped on and is left with a broken leg.)
Now the horses are trapped. They have nowhere to go. I look up at the policeman, who still won’t meet my eye. “Officer,” I say, “you have created an incredibly dangerous situation here: for us, for yourselves, for the horses. What were you thinking? And how can we get you out of this?” I am fully prepared to try to negotiate with the crowd to let the horses out, but he still won’t look at me.
From one side, the riot cops move in. They begin literally throwing people aside until they clear a passage for the horses to file out. We stand up and follow them into the street, chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” At the other end of Constitution Avenue, a line of riot cops stands, batons at the ready. We are willing to be arrested, but they don’t move. They simply hold their position as the drums thunder and the victory dance begins.
© Rachel J. Elliott
On the second day of actions against the World Bank and the IMF, we join a march that takes over the downtown streets. We are drumming, chanting, and singing. Puppeteers with giant puppets march with us, and above our heads float beautiful banners emblazoned with ears of corn and slogans of justice. I am with Culebra, Evergreen, and Lea, who is eighty-three years old. A cold, drenching rain falls, and our voices echo off the storefronts and corporate office windows.
I keep a wary eye on the police, who line each intersection we pass. I don’t want Lea to get trapped and arrested, but she does not want to leave. With every step, she seems to shine brighter with an inner glow. The march swells and grows. A fierce joy rises from our chanting, and I see it reflected in Lea’s eyes.
And then we are trapped in a major intersection where many streets come together. The police have on their riot gear and have covered their badges. “Go with Evergreen,” I say to Lea. “Tell them you’re eighty-three years old. They’ll probably let you out.”
“But I don’t want to leave,” Lea says.
I don’t blame her. I don’t want to leave either. I want to stay in the midst of these thousands of brave and crazy people who are willing to face tear gas or arrest in order to stand up for justice. So we wait. We bring reporters over to talk to Lea. We borrow a cellphone and call the rest of our cluster. The rain pours down.
Lea begins to get cold. At last, reluctantly, she decides to go, and Evergreen goes with her. We have heard that there is an escape route farther down the street. Culebra and I move deeper into the crowd. “Sit down! Sit down!” someone calls, and we do, although the street is wet. We sing, as the rain pours down: “Hold on, hold on, hold the vision that’s being born.” We hear voices chanting in Spanish behind us, and we shift to “Si, se puede!” Someone brings a small sound system over, and Culebra stands up and teaches the Spanish chant to the crowd: “It means, ‘Yes, it’s possible. It can be done!’ ” she tells them. “Cesar Chavez used it in the farmworkers’ struggle.” The Latino affinity group behind us joins in with vigor. The Spanish-language media come over and interview us.
The police put on their gas masks. We put on ours. The rain falls in cold sheets. We sit and wait for some form of violence to begin. I find chalk in my pocket and draw a spiral on the street. I write “Justice.” Next to me is a young man in black, masked and hooded. I hand him the chalk. He holds it for a long moment, then draws an anarchist symbol and writes “Resist!” I find another piece of chalk and begin passing it around. The rest of our cluster joins us, with boxes of chalk, which circulate through the crowd. We draw spirals, though the rain dissolves our marks almost as soon as we make them.
We do not know this at the time, but up at the front of the line, the police chief is negotiating with Mary Bull, whom the media later describe as “a woman dressed as a tree.” Wearing a foam redwood costume, Mary works out a deal. The police uncover their badges. They take off their gas masks. They call for anyone who wants to get arrested to move forward. Someone hands the chief of police a bouquet of roses.
The tension eases. Jugglers appear, and fire eaters dancing with flames, and radical cheerleaders, and drum circles. We stand up, huddled together as the cold rain falls. Under our feet is a labyrinth someone has drawn, which the rain does not wash away.
The police chief, who two days before illegally arrested six hundred people, goes on TV holding his roses and talks about democracy. Meanwhile those who volunteered to get arrested are kept in handcuffs for many, many hours. They are hit in the face for smiling or for asking to see a lawyer. They are kept in wet clothes, though some are shivering with hypothermia. They are not given food or water for so long that some end up drinking from the jail toilets. They are brutalized, intimidated, and lied to. In one holding cell deep in the jail, a protester leaves a spiral torn from scraps of a dollar bill.
In an atmosphere of increasing violence against protesters, global-justice activists assembled in Genoa, Italy, for the July 2001 G8 Summit — a gathering of the eight most powerful industrialized nations. The largely peaceful demonstrations were met with brutal retaliation from the Italian police.
At this point it’s still not clear to me how many are dead. I’ve heard one; I’ve heard two, four. I’ve heard that the police shot into the crowd, that someone was clubbed to the ground and, while unconscious, run over by a car. I’ve heard that it was the White Overalls, the black bloc. I don’t know. I only know what I saw.
The day started as a spirited, peaceful demonstration. I am on the Piazza Manini with the Women’s Action and a religious ecological network called Rette Lilliput. Both groups are completely committed to nonviolence. My friend and training partner Lisa Fithian is down at the Convergence Center with the pink bloc, a group that wants to do street theater, dancing, and music as part of their action. Lisa is a great person to be with in an action: she’s experienced, never panics, moves fast, and knows what to watch out for. She also has a voice that can carry over a huge crowd and a great ability to move people. I wish she were going to be with us, but I feel like we’re using our talents well: I’ll help the smaller women’s contingent with ritual and work some magic; Lisa will help the much larger and more boisterous pink bloc become mobile and coherent. We hope to meet up sometime during the day.
Around 1 P.M., the women march with probably three or four thousand people from the piazza down to the Wall: the barricade erected by police to keep protesters away from delegates. There, we gather in a circle for a spiral dance, singing, “Siamo la luna che move la marea”: We are the moon that moves the tides. We brew up a magical cauldron — a big pot full of water from sacred places and whatever else women want to add: rose petals, a hair or two, anything that symbolizes our vision of a better world. It’s not quite as satisfying, perhaps, as tearing down the Wall, but empowering for the women who take part. The police are relaxed; we are clearly no threat to anyone. Monica negotiates with the police, and they allow us to go up to the Wall in small groups to pin up banners, messages, and underwear: residents in the area were threatened with fines if they hung out their laundry during the G8 Summit; apparently, the sight of washing might unnerve the delegates.
(Helicopters buzz the house as I write this; on the news, talking heads are discussing violence and nonviolence in Italian. I turn to one of the women staying here and search my high-school French to come up with a phrase we never covered: “How many people died today?” “One,” she tells me, “and one is in the hospital in critical condition.”)
The pink bloc arrives, trapped in a cross street by our march. We part and let them through. They are delightful, mostly young, some all punked out in wildly colored hair or dreadlocks or bright pink wigs. Drumming, dancing, and cavorting through the crowd, they filter into the next square over, only a half block from the street we occupy.
While everyone on our street sits peacefully and has lunch, I walk over to visit the pink bloc and see what’s going on. I drum for a while with an accordion player. People are milling about. There’s nothing definite happening when suddenly a line of police blocks one of the exits. Dancing youth are wildly leaping and stomping in front of them, but that’s all. Much of the pink bloc has moved on, a block or two above the square. The police are now trapped between two segments of the pink bloc. I am thinking that this is not a good situation when a tear-gas canister lands in front of me. I start to move away, back to the street where the women are. I’m hit only mildly. I wash out my eyes, then help a few others whose eyes are streaming and red. Lisa appears, and we go back for another look.
This time the gas catches us in a tight spot, with the way back to the other street blocked and the only other exit up a staircase full of people. I am hit heavily. My lungs and eyes are burning, but I remind myself that I can breathe, I really can breathe, and that fear is the most dangerous opponent. Lisa has better eye protection, and she takes my hand and leads me out. I wash my eyes out again. This seems like a good time to leave. While I gather up what’s left of the women, Lisa and some others get the pink bloc together. I begin a drumbeat, and we start up the street, moving uphill. The march feels powerful and joyful. We are retreating, but in a strong way, moving on to the next action.
The good feeling lasts until we reach the top of the hill. Somehow the black bloc has become trapped between the pacifist affinity groups and the police. Monica is on the cellphone, upset and tearful. She has learned that the black bloc has trashed an old part of the city. “It’s over,” she says. “After all our months of work. Let’s go home.”
I am trying to find out what the women want to do when suddenly massive amounts of tear gas fill the square. I am moving down a side street, trying to convince myself that I can breathe, when I notice that I’m somehow in the midst of the black bloc. They run past me: younger, faster, and better equipped. The police are right behind them. I do not want to be here. I’m fifty years old, and I was never very fast, even when I was young. For the first time, I am close to panicking.
Below me is a side street where the wind blows the gas away. I can breathe again. I duck down an alley. It winds around the side of the hill, with a sheer drop on one side, and snakes back to the main street. A small clump of pink-bloc members are sheltering there. I join them, and we wait as the black bloc thunders by one street over. Lisa appears and tells us that the riot cops are coming. They’re beating people brutally. We check the exits, afraid we’re trapped, but suddenly the street we came in on is clear. I and a few others make a break for it and head up the stairway on the other side. Lisa tries to go back to help the rest, but before she can, the police find the alley. They beat people, hard, going for the head. They beat pacifists who approach them with their hands up. They beat women. A battered crowd gathers on the stairs, moves up a flight or two. I comfort a young man with a head wound and a woman who is crying, her thigh covered with the blood of her boyfriend, who has been taken to the hospital. We are all shaken.
Slowly, a pink-bloc contingent gathers on the stairs. We move up and up; in this part of town, half the streets are stairways that rise in endless zigzag flights. Below us, we see contingents of riot cops sweeping the streets. The helicopter above moves on, following the black bloc. Lisa is moving back and forth between the street and the square, checking on rumors, trying to figure out what’s really going on and where we might go. We eventually make our way back to the square. One of the women has been gassed so badly she’s vomiting, but she wants to stay. Another woman from our contingent was hit in the head by a cop and taken to the hospital. Many people have been badly hurt: people who clearly are not rock-throwing, street-fighting youths; people who believed they were going to be in a peaceful and reasonably safe place. Lisa and I had trained the women, trying to give them some sense of what they might face on the streets, but there’s no real way to prepare someone for a cop beating you on the head.
The pink bloc begins a long journey back to the other side of town. We get trapped in an intersection here, a stairway there, but after two or three hours we make it back to the Convergence Center.
I’m far too tired to make sense of this right now. It’s all I can do to describe it. Someone is dead, and the night is not over.
I don’t think I’m in shock, but my fingers are trembling as I write this. We were up at the school that serves as a center for media, first aid, and training sessions. We had just finished our meeting and were talking and making phone calls when we heard shouts and sirens and people yelling and objects breaking. The cops were raiding the center. We couldn’t get out of the building because there were too many people at the entrance. Lisa grabbed my hand, and we went up five flights of stairs to the very top. Jeffrey joined us. People were scattering and looking for places to hide. We weren’t panicked, but my heart was pounding, and I could hardly catch my breath. We found a room that was empty except for a couple of tables, and we grabbed some sleeping bags to cover our heads in case we got beaten. Then we waited. Helicopters buzzed over the building. We could hear doors slamming and voices shouting below. Then quiet. Someone came in, walked around, and left. I had an almost uncontrollable urge to cough, but I suppressed it.
The light went on. Through a crack between the tables, I could see a helmet, a face. A big Italian cop with a huge paunch loomed over us. He told us to come out. He didn’t seem to be in a beating mood, but we stayed where we were and tried to talk to him using the few Italian words we know: paura (fear) and pacifisti.
He took us down to the third floor, where a great number of people were sitting up against the walls. Someone came in and demanded to know whether there was anyone there from Irish IndyMedia. We waited. Lawyers arrived. The police left. By some arcane Italian law relating to the media, we had a right to be there, although the school across the street was also a media center, and they went in there and beat people up. We watched out the windows as they carried people out on stretchers. One, two, a dozen or more.
A crowd had gathered and were shouting, “Assassini! Assassini!” The police brought out the walking wounded, arrested them, and took them away. We believed they brought someone out in a body bag.
The crowd below was challenging the cops, and the cops were challenging the crowd, when suddenly a huge circle of media gathered with bright lights. Monica, our host from the Genoa Social Forum, came and found us. She’d been calling embassies and media and may have saved us from getting hurt. All the while, thrumming helicopters were shining spotlights onto the building. A few brave men were holding back the angry crowd, which seemed ready to charge the line of riot cops that had formed in front of the school, shields up and gas masks on. “Tranquilo, tranquilo,” the men were saying, holding up their hands and restraining the crowd from making a suicidal charge. Finally, the cops left.
We went outside and heard the story: The cops had come into the rooms where people were sleeping. Everyone had raised their hands, calling out, “Pacifisti! Pacifisti!” But the cops beat the shit out of them anyway. There’s no other way to say it.
We went into the building and saw blood at every sleeping spot — pools of it in some places — and computers and equipment trashed. We wandered around in shock, not wanting to think about what was happening to those who’d been arrested. We knew that the Italian police have taken people to jail and tortured them.
One young Frenchman from our training session was badly beaten in the street on Friday. In jail, they took him into a room, twisted his arms behind his back, and banged his head on the table. Another man was taken into a room covered with pictures of Mussolini and pornography, where he was alternately slapped around and stroked with affection in a strange form of psychological torture. Others were forced to shout, “Viva il Duce!”
Just in case it isn’t clear: this is fascism, Italian variety. But it is coming our way. It is the lengths to which the powerful will go to defend their power. They lie when they say that globalization means democracy. I can tell you right now, this is not what democracy looks like.