In 1848, from Paris to Prague and Berlin to Budapest, Europe was on the brink of revolution.
Behind the surprising strength of the uprisings was a novel technique of street protest that gave the people a tactical advantage over their governments. To all observers it appeared as if the old order would be overthrown.
“The most audacious dreams were to be fulfilled,” wrote Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, “the old politics of the kings had vanished; a new one, the politics of the peoples, was coming into life.”
Barricades transformed the narrow, windy streets of 19th-century Europe into fortresses of discontent. Marc Caussidière, a participant in the Paris rebellion, describes the scene: “The insurgents were in the streets … scaffolding and masonry of houses in the course of construction or under repair were cast into the middle of the road; rafters, blocks of stone, wheelbarrows, were jammed between formidable walls of paving stones.” Multiple barricades, several to a street, were constructed one behind another. If the first was destroyed, another was occupied a short distance away. The balconies and roofs of buildings were commandeered by stone-throwing and gun-wielding protesters. French writer Victor Hugo reported that one barricade “defended by eighty men against ten thousand [soldiers] held out for three days.” And historian Mark Traugott documents that at the height of the rebellion, Paris alone had 1,500 barricades, some two stories tall and nine meters thick, giving insurgents control over half of the city’s surface area.
The European rebellion of 1848 was not a unified revolt with a central leadership or ideology but instead a widespread political awakening in which the people demanded liberty. “The common thread among these movements,” according to Traugott, “was the aspiration for national self-determination, although that goal was capable of manifesting itself in apparently contradictory forms …” Bakunin too emphasized this shared spirit: “Italians, Poles, Slavs, Germans, Magyars, Walachians from Austria and Walachians from Turkey – all those who suffered under the yoke of foreign powers – arose, thrilled with joy and hope.” This sense of joyous optimism gave the people revolutionary confidence. In Paris, Caussidière felt, “it was quite evident that the revolution was on the eve of accomplishment, and that at worst it was now merely a question of time.” Even Alexis de Tocqueville, who opposed the uprising, concurred: “This time it was not a matter of overthrowing the government but simply of letting it fall.” Everyone believed, in the words of Traugott, that “the established order would either accommodate [the peoples’] demands or be swept away” – in large part because the barricades were invulnerable.
Tactically the barricades were both a defensive and offensive weapon. From the perspective of defense, barricades were highly effective in holding off the army, disempowering mounted troops and disrupting the government’s lines of communication and supply. But they also served an equally important offensive role because they gave the rebels the time and opportunity to explain their cause to the soldiers. This is why Russian communist Leon Trotsky would later write that barricades were primarily “a way of halting the movement of troops, thus placing them in contact with the people.” Protesters developed a strategy of fraternization that weakened the resolve of the opposing army, increasing defections. Therefore, once barricades were constructed, it was nearly impossible for the government to quell the rebellion through force. In February, 48 hours of insurrection in Paris was enough to compel the king to abdicate, ushering in the Second French Republic and a series of reforms – including universal male suffrage, the abolition of slavery in French colonies and the introduction of laws guaranteeing employment. News of this success spread, taking the barricade model with it, and with “unprecedented ease,” Bakunin later reminisced, the “popular uprisings triumphed over the army in almost all the capitals of Europe.”
But then, in June, a French government on the brink of a second collapse handed General Louis-Eugène Cavaignac dictatorial powers to suppress the Paris rebellion at any cost. Cavaignac coupled merciless destruction with a new understanding of street fighting. According to Friedrich Engels, Cavaignac’s innovation was the counterstrategy of blasting through houses in order to confront the barricades from their flank. Engels understood this strategic shift as perceptual as well as tactical: “The spell of the barricade was broken; the soldier no longer saw behind it ‘the people,’ but rebels, agitators, plunderers, levelers, the scum of society; the officer had in the course of time become versed in the tactical forms of street fighting, he no longer marched straight ahead and without cover against the improvised breastwork, but went around it through gardens, yards and houses.” For Bakunin, Cavaignac was noteworthy for being “the first to have the audacity to use cannon to destroy houses and entire streets occupied by the insurgents.”
Utilizing Cavaignac’s model, governments across Europe crushed the peoples’ uprising by the year’s end.
At dawn on November 30, 1999, hours before the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference was scheduled to begin, small groups of protesters assembled at 13 strategic intersections across downtown Seattle. Moments later they reinvented the barricade, pulling off a first-of-its-kind urban lockdown that cut the city in two. “Everything you can imagine turns into a barricade,” an anonymous participant recalls, “Bodies, puppets, lockboxes, a fifty-foot tripod, barrels full of concrete, dumpsters, cars. We [began] to form a human chain around the convention center.” Delegates staying in hotels were separated from the convention center where the WTO meeting was to be held. The police lacked an effective counterstrategy. Seattle was paralyzed.
With the convention center encircled, with all access roads blocked, with protesters steadfastly refusing – even under pepper spray – to allow delegates to pass through their barricades and with the streets clogged by joyful crowds, the Paramount Theater, where the opening ceremonies were to be held, was empty. By midday, the World Trade Organization was forced to admit defeat and cancel the first day of their conference. Osha Neumann, an activist and lawyer, remembers the mood of victory that night: “We are winning … We have prevented one of the most powerful organizations on Earth from holding its meeting. We have held Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state of the world’s dominant superpower, a virtual prisoner in her hotel room. And we have all, it seemed to me, been aroused to a great aliveness by the threat of danger and the thrill of victory.” The success in Seattle was due to the innovative combination of the lockdown tactic and a festive mood.
Pioneered by anti-logging activists in the 1980s, the lockdown tactic was originally developed to blockade forest roads using a combination of lockboxes and tripods. Lockboxes are PVC pipes reinforced with chicken wire and coated with gravel embedded in tar. A group of protesters form themselves into a circular human chain by inserting each arm into the apparatus and locking themselves to a bolt in the middle of the pipe using a carabiner shackled to their wrist. A tripod is constructed out of three long pieces of wood that when erected suspend a single protester dozens of feet in the air. An eyewitness in Seattle described how these two techniques were combined to block the road: “I first see a tripod, ringed by a circle of 30 people joined by lockboxes. A small support crowd mills around. Around the corner another group of people is holding hands, circling an intersection.” These human barricades were nonviolent. Instead of being defended by musket fire, they were protected by tens of thousands of snarky sign-waving protesters whose radical cheers, street theater antics and giant puppets gave the scene a carnivalesque vibe.
That spirit of playfulness had been introduced five months earlier at the antiglobalization movement’s inaugural protest, the June 18 day of global action. In London, activists had organized a “Carnival Against Capital” modeled after Reclaim The Streets, a series of spontaneous anticapitalist street parties that had been occurring frequently since the mid-90s. An observer explains the unique strategy that made the day a success: “Eight thousand carnival masks were produced in advance, two thousand each in red, green, black and gold. On the back of the mask was a poetic text about the importance of carnival, rebellion and masking up. There were also instructions to follow the colored streamers that matched your mask.” The tactic confounded the police, as a different organizer explained to Earth First! magazine, because “the crowd went off in four different directions and all of a sudden there were four lots of police relaying messages back to two control centers. The control centers couldn’t cope with that number of messages and they crashed. The police had no command structure and no one giving orders.” A sound system blasted party music, samba bands marched along and thousands of masked protesters danced through London’s financial district. Someone opened a hydrant at the London International Financial Futures Exchange, flooding it and forcing it to close early. “The whole thing was a carnival and it was amazing because it was the whole world turned upside down,” an organizer recalled. “Imagine it, you look out a window and … you see someone in an immaculate pin-striped suit spraying ‘fuck corporate scum’ across the window of an office … It was just ludicrous. Mad stuff.” After June 18, mischievousness became an integral part of the antiglobalization movement.
Post-Seattle, disrupting international finance meetings by preventing delegates from reaching their meetings was the new model. Protesters hopped from summit to conference to meeting. Wherever transnational organizations congregated, the people were there dancing. Protests shadowed the IMF and World Bank on April 16, 2000, in Washington, DC; the World Economic Forum five months later in Melbourne; the G20 in Quebec a few weeks after that. The World Economic Forum was hounded from Switzerland in January to Austria in July to Brazil in February. And in Genoa on July 20, 2001, Carlo Giuliani became the first martyr of the movement, revealing the growing intensity of the moment.
Yet, despite its early victories, the power of the antiglobalization movement began to wane as early as a year after Seattle. The first sign of decline was the increasing failure of the lockdown technique. For David Graeber, an anarchist anthropologist, the August 1, 2000, protests against the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia marked the decisive turning point when “the lockdown/blockade strategy [had] largely run its course.” To neutralize the lockdown, police had developed a counterstrategy of preemptive arrests, infiltration of protest groups and aggressive criminalization of civil disobedience.
First, in the weeks leading up to a protest a public campaign of fearmongering alienates people from the protesters. As Tim Ream, a longtime forest activist, explains, “police and city government press releases … demonize protesters by painting them as dangerous and destructive spoiled brats, hiding behind masks and unaware of what they stand for.”
Once the protests have been criminalized in the eyes of the public, the police then preemptively arrest presumed leaders. An early example of this tactic was the case of John Sellers, a leader of the Ruckus Society, who, days before the RNC protests in 2000, was preemptively arrested, charged with 14 misdemeanors, including “possession of an instrument of crime” – his cell phone – and held on $1 million bail. All charges were dropped three months later. Likewise, in 2009, UK police preemptively arrested 114 climate change protesters who were allegedly planning to shut down a coal-fired power plant.
With leadership behind bars, police then subdue the crowds of dancing, carnivalesque protesters using the counterstrategy of “kettling.” The London police learned quickly from their failure to control the movement of joyous, masked protesters during the Carnival Against Capital, and they have since become the chief innovators of this strategy. The kettle is formed by riot police who surround the crowd and slowly, aggressively push it into a smaller and smaller area. Eventually, protesters find themselves locked in a preselected square confronted on all sides by rows of baton-wielding cops. Laurie Penny, who experienced a kettle on the coldest day of the year in November, 2010, tells what happens next: “At first, the cops give curt answers to the kids demanding to know why they can’t get through. Then they all seem to get some sort of signal, because suddenly the polite copper in front of me is screaming in my face, shoving me hard in the back of the head, raising his baton, and the protesters around me are yelling and running back … When they realize they are trapped, the young protesters panic … the second line of police advance, with horses following behind them, as a surge of teenagers carry a rack of iron railings toward the riot guard and howl to be released … I scramble up a set of traffic lights, just in time to see a member of the Metropolitan police grab a young protester by the neck and hurl him back into the crowd.” Once the crowd has been intimidated, demoralized, denied food and water and forced to wait several hours in the freezing cold, they are finally allowed to leave … one at a time, after showing their identification papers.
Six days before protesters shut down Seattle, Matthew Arnison, an activist and programmer from the Catalyst Collective in Sydney, posted the inaugural message on a website he had helped build. Displaying the utopianism that would become characteristic of a generation of digital activists, he declared, “The web dramatically alters the balance between multinational and activist media. With just a bit of coding and some cheap equipment, we can set up a live automated website that rivals the corporates. Prepare to be swamped by the tide of activist media …” With this digital call to arms, Indymedia was born.
Within days, Indymedia’s on-the-ground reports of the lockdown of Seattle had been accessed over a million times. Even mainstream, corporate media were relying on Indymedia for accurate accounts of the protests. Indymedia’s open-publishing model empowered citizen journalism with an ethos of antiauthoritarianism. For the first time, anyone could write the news, anyone could be an investigative journalist, anyone could challenge corporate control of information. Within two years, Indymedia sites bloomed in 125 cities and on every continent.
The advent of Indymedia signaled the political maturation of the internet. It proved that a handful of maverick programmers could leverage the power of information to reshape the flows of power. And it did not take long for most activists to experience firsthand the profound political potential of the web. At Adbusters, Buy Nothing Day grew exponentially from an event primarily limited to the Pacific Northwest into a global phenomenon celebrated in over 70 countries. In those exciting days, similar stories of memes going viral and protests flaring up abounded.
For years, the most promising model for combining activism with the internet was MoveOn. Founded in 1998 by a Berkeley couple, computer programmer Wes Boyd and marketer Joan Blades, MoveOn was one of the first political organizations to experience the kind of viral growth that would later become synonymous with digital activism. From a simple website that cost $89.50 to set up and an email sent to friends protesting the impeachment of Bill Clinton, MoveOn grew into a powerful organization with millions of members. “We were blown away by the response we got,” Blades remembers. “The first day we had 300 petitioners, then 1,500, then 9,000, then 25,000 by the end of the week. The growth curve was amazing.” MoveOn may have started as an online petition, but they very quickly found their calling in using the web to organize offline actions.
MoveOn pioneered the tactic of turning everyday people into political activists by connecting their members on a local level. With this decentralized, grassroots network in place they pulled off surprising nationwide feats. In 2003, their members held voter registration house parties in which they collectively made 300,000 calls in a single afternoon. That same year, volunteers made personal visits to the office of every US senator to voice opposition to the impending war. Then, with only six days notice, they organized public peace vigils on every continent and in thousands of small towns. “When I first heard about MoveOn,” one member in Marin, California, told her local newspaper, “I had an enormous sense of relief that someone was stepping into the arena and mobilizing people in such a conscious and exciting way. It gave me hope and faith in the internet that I’d never had before.” Logging onto MoveOn’s website was an exhilarating experience: members used an “ActionForum” to sway the direction of the larger organization by posting suggestions and voting up or down on the ideas of others. It felt as if there was a vibrant activist community emerging, a movement of engaged citizens all pushing in the same direction and reinventing democracy in the process.
Tactically speaking, digital activists achieved their early successes through the combination of the logic of marketing with computer programming. Their organizations were built on large databases that meticulously tracked which members were opening their emails, signing petitions, going to house parties or donating money. Then, personalization followed. Instead of sending the same email to every member, digital activists learned to tweak response rates by A/B testing subject lines and messages to determine which email would be most frequently opened. Further data was collected by cross-referencing their members’ information with large commercial voter databases, such as the one provided by Catalist LLC, that yielded full contact information, income levels, ethnicity, magazine subscriptions, voting history and more. It was all done in the name of increasing participation rates.
The emphasis on data collection and metrics skewed organizations toward leadership that privileged technical wizardry over revolutionary passion. Former and current MoveOn employees cofounded behemoth copycat organizations, like Joan Blades’s MomsRising, Eli Pariser’s Avaaz, Ben Brandzel’s GetUp and James Rucker’s Citizen Engagement Laboratory, the umbrella organization behind ColorOfChange, Presente, GetEQUAL and Food Democracy Now!, that choked out the less technically adept competition. These organizations received substantial mainstream praise and huge philanthropic donations, but their “asks” were watered down, their emails read like marketing and their political agendas felt uninspiring and mundane. From the passionate application of cutting-edge technology to organize, agitate and mobilize, digital activism devolved into clicktivism: a rehash of “best practices” borrowed more from advertising than activism.
As activism started to look like advertising, advertising companies started to run activist groups. In 2010, TckTckTck, a purported climate change organization with 17 million members, won We Media’s “Game Changer” award and was nominated for a Webby in the category of “Best Activism Website.” But … TckTckTck was a project of Havas Worldwide, the world’s sixth-largest advertising company, whose clients included corporations directly responsible for climate change. Similarly, as a greater share of online activism moved to commercial social networks like Facebook and Twitter, clicktivism became a game of monetizing traffic spikes rather than a path to organizing offline actions.
By the middle of last year, upwards of 90% of emails sent by clicktivist organizations were ending up unopened, deleted or marked as spam by their members. That was an alarming decline from the days of 2004, when Wired praised MoveOn’s “startlingly high” response rates.
THE FUTURE OF ACTIVISM
In the closing months of 2010, a network of hackers, journalists, cryptographers and whistleblowers mashed revolutionary fervor with high technology and dealt the United States a terrific, unexpected blow. Days later, in the face of tremendous pressure from the world’s declining superpower, the international whistle-blowing organization tweeted a defiant self-description: “WikiLeaks is the first global samizdat movement. The truth will surface even in the face of total annihilation.”
From a tactical perspective, the importance of WikiLeaks has less to do with the content of the cables than with what it forecasts for the future of activism. Leveraging the symbolic power of the act of leaking, WikiLeaks divided the world into two camps and thrust the censorial regimes that are normally invisible into the spotlight. As Amazon, PayPal, Visa and MasterCard goose-stepped behind the US government to deny access to the leaked cables, the founding mythology of democracy – freedom of speech, government transparency, the necessity of an informed populace – came under attack. And in response, a global internet community rose up in defense of liberty. The passion so long absent in digital activism was revived as anonymous hackers waged denial-of-service wars against the websites of crony capitalists and sycophantic politicians. WikiLeaks, and the volunteer hacktivist army it inspired, signals that the future of activism will involve the internet in creative, still unimagined ways.
At the dawn of 2011 there is again hope that technology can birth the barricades of the 21st century. Perhaps the most exciting direction for activism is the increasing politicization of flashmobs. First capturing the public imagination in 2003, flashmobs are the sudden appearance of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of individuals who carry out a synchronized action that ranges from the absurd to the disobedient. In recent years, flashmobs have been used to organize spontaneous pillow fights, eerie frozen moments, rush-hour parties and macabre zombie walks. Now, they are becoming an outlet for social discontent. In Philadelphia, for example, unruly youth have exploited cell phones to organize flashmob swarms that appear without warning, looting stores and leaving police mystified. Fun, easy to organize, and resistant to both infiltration and preemption because of their friend-to-friend network topology, flashmobs are positioned to be the next popular tactic with revolutionary potential.
So far, the tactical significance of flashmobs has been limited by their local scale. They typically happen in a single city, on a single day and at a single time. If the magic of Seattle was due to the innovative transposition of anti-logging barricades to an urban environment, the power of the second generation of flashmobs will lie in the upgrade of a local happening into a global phenomenon. Imagine activism globalized: synchronized intercontinental crowds that flare up spontaneously at noon – to throw rancid butter at each of the 737 US overseas military bases, to blackspot each of the 32,000 McDonald’s golden arches or to block the entrance of each of the 8,500 Walmart stores. With flashmobs, activists have the potential to swarm capitalism globally, stinging it incessantly until the bloodied beast falls to its knees. Making it happen may take a new breed of techno-visionaries who build an advertising-free social networking app developed exclusively for pulling off ever more sophisticated jams against consumerism.
A similarly promising direction lies with integrating the principles of gaming into activism. Initial steps in this direction have been made by “alternate reality game” designers, such as Jane McGonigal and Elan Lee, whose work re-enchants everyday life by layering a fictional universe atop reality. Think of the 1997 film The Game. One notable example is SFZero, a San Francisco-based game in which players earn points by interacting with the city in impish ways. Missions include “find roof access,” “add a colorful bulb to a public socket” and “steal something from a wild animal.” For culture jammers, the essential big idea is that activism can come alive if the key components of what makes games immersive – heroic narrative, the quest for experience, increasing levels of difficulty, social engagement, adventure, etc. – are applied to sparking a revolution.
The tactical potential is limited only by our imagination. Companies like Twilio, also in San Francisco, allow anyone to build scriptable, automated phone numbers that can receive and make calls, send text messages and pull information from databases to play personalized messages. Combine this with a rousing storyline, clues left in public spaces and a series of missions that take players up the ladder-of-engagement from inexperienced activist to master culture jammer, and there is no limit to the kinds of “games” revolutionaries can play. One example would be a game where participants use their phones to interact with fictional characters and, in order to unravel an anticorporate storyline or solve an anticonsumerist mystery, earn blackspot points by putting up Buy Nothing Day posters, throwing stink bombs, recruiting comrades and organizing flashmobs. When activism is “gamified,” reaching level 50 could start an insurrection.
Just as no one could have predicted the power of the barricades – or the spectacular success of the urban lockdown – there is no way to know which tactic will lead to victory. Some may dedicate themselves to WikiLeaks-style initiatives, others may develop a P2P flashmob application or a culture jammer game, while still others may discover previously unseen leverage points by which to challenge capitalism. What is clear, however, is that we are entering an exciting time of activist innovation – like 1848, 1999 and 2003.
After surveying the near victory of 1848, Mikhail Bakunin wrote that to achieve a global revolution we must first convince the populace “that an invincible force lives in the people, which nothing and no one can withstand, and that if it has not yet liberated the people it is because it is powerful only when it is concentrated and acts simultaneously, everywhere, jointly, in concert, and until now it has not done so.”
Today, we are closer than ever to unleashing our invincible power.
— Micah White, PhD