Protests About Abstractions

Greenpeace banner drop in Pittsburgh

I remember that, nearly a decade ago, the Global Justice movement was under fire for the way it organized. It seemed to be a moveable carnival of activism, known only by its dates (N30 for the WTO on November 30th, 1999 – Seattle, A20 for the Summit of the Americans on April 20th, 2001 – Quebec City, and so on).

The insider nomenclature, it was said, mirrored the politics. Activists hopped from one city to another, discussing globalization among themselves in a code that never really connected with the people living in the places where protests happened. Although the accusation was much truer about the conferences we were protesting against – the WTO, G8, G20, the IMF and World Bank’s Annual Meetings and so on – there was a sliver of truth in the criticism.

It’s a criticism that has been trotted out in modified form by, er, Barack Obama who’s in Pittsburgh today at the G20 meetings. In this interview he says:

“I was always a big believer in – when I was doing organizing before I went to law school – that focusing on concrete, local, immediate issues that have an impact on people’s lives is what really makes a difference and that having protests about abstractions [such] as global capitalism or something, generally, is not really going to make much of a difference.”

So is it all terribly abstract and above peoples’ heads? If you’re listening to local talk radio, you might believe it to be. The shock jocks are howling about ‘anarchists’ with all the grace and the spittle that once only belonged to ‘Communists’ – see Monty Python below for a demonstration.

But front and centre in the teach-ins, media, and protesting that I’ve seen so far have been people from Pittsburgh. The churches (of which there are many in the impoverished parts of town), unions, and local action groups have come together, hammered out some principles of collaboration and action, and are protesting everything from Obama’s failed promises on AIDS to the city’s chronic homelessness.

Looks pretty concrete to me. And very clearly articulated to the failures of capitalism. I don’t know a single community organiser who doesn’t think that their local issues are intimately bound up with ‘abstractions’ like class, empire and patriarchy.

I’m off now to see how protest and dissent is tolerated in Obama’s America – more from me soon.