Ethnography and Direct Action: The 99% Spring Activism Project

Download Ethnography and Direct Action: The 99% Spring Activism Project

Post on 04-Apr-2017




0 download




    Ethnography and Direct Action: The 99% Spring Activism Project

    CHRIS DARROUZET Water Cooler Logic


    This workshop is a an introduction to non-violent direct action (NVDA) in the historical context of and with reference to the 99% Spring Activism Project, a nationwide training action project conducted in cities across the USA in March-April 2012. This workshop was conducted in a seminar format to accommodate a small group, with participants including four anthropologists and designers from the USA, one from Spain, and one from India.


    The situations and scenes of such political activism in the US as exemplified in Occupy Wall Street

    (OWS) are clearly important socio-cultural ones, as well as ones that invite the interests of ethnographers and designers. OWS tugs at the intellectual and activist sentiments of many EPIC practitioners, as indicated by the display of OWS posters at EPIC 2012 and the Pecha Kucha presentation on Occupy Washington DC.

    Direct Action events as socio-cultural phenomena feature assemblages of large to enormous numbers of people, intent on expressing and representing through their actions an emergent, popular will. Such formations and actions of crowds represent a response to a call to action and to change, whether explicitly planned or occurring more spontaneously. The huge amassing of protesters in events referred to as the Arab Spring represent recent examples of emergent direct action on a vast scale. Questions about the role and affordances of social media and the Internet in helping with the Arab Spring apply readily to those of social activism targeting corporations or other neo-liberal institutions. One of our discussion points near the end of the workshop was that such larger-scale actions are liable to continue and increase, not diminish. They feature hundreds of thousands of people venturing into the streets or the public square of with the intention of expressing and demanding one major change in the socio-political and economic status quo.

    Where ethnographers stand in relation to activists engaging in direct action events sharpens the general tension between ethnography conceived of either as an objective, social scientific method or a critical analytical project. In either of these two constructs, ethnographic distance from the hosts projects, or objectivity and relativism in respect to their actions and attitudes, are usually considered hallmarks of well-formed ethnography.

    A major foil to the conventional position of ethnographers operating in relation to their host or subject community is found in the position taken up by the contemporary anarchist-activist-


    EPIC 2012 Proceedings| 315

    ethnographic anthropologist, David Graeber (see Direct Action, An Ethnography, 2009). Graeber declares, I make no pretense of objectivity here. I did not become involved as a participant in order to write an ethnography. I became involved as a participant. And: Even when I am critical of the movement, Im critical as an insider, someone whose ultimate goal is to further its goals. As it turns out, unlike many who posture on these issues in academic settings, many EPIC practitioners share a similar interest in furthering the goals of their sponsoring organization. Skin in the Game in Direct Action: Ones Own, Alongside Others

    We discussed a key aspect of direct action: people putting themselves on the line, physically;

    putting skin in the game in a very literal sense, going beyond the rhetorical sense of this idiom. This idiom is usually used figuratively to signify that someone has some stake (often economic or status-related) on the line in some contest or confrontation. In direct action of this socio-political kind, the skin one puts in the game is ones own actual skinagain, in the most existential, embodied sense of being a human being.

    Skin in the Game, Self-craft, Alienation. David Graeber raises the question of the re-appearance of the concept of the self and the subject in direct action. Self and subjectivity reappear on the scene of direct action after decades of post-structuralist work disavowing these concepts. Graeber addresses self and subjectivity mainly in respect of the concept of alienation, which seems require a subject if not a self who is alienated. A tension may arise in direct action in every ones sense of their respective willingness to put ones actual, embodied self in some kind of jeopardy: from that of inconvenience to risk of arrest, to physical danger, even death. One of the more striking aspects of this phenomenon is how people the world over find themselves compelled to leave their regular confines and collect or assemble in such deliberate shows of resolve, if not shows of forceor force often of a non-violent kind. They/we are often doing so now in the face of the forces of the states that assign their police and military forces to confront and deal with these insurrectionist activities. Ones own safety on behalf of some collective purpose generates this sense of oneself-in-action. Contemporary anarchists devoted to direct action cite participation in such actions as a wellspring of meaningful action and an antidote for alienation. Direct action then may be experienced as a project of self-craft, one through which the sovereignty of the individual a concept dear to contemporary anarchism blends into that solidarity, mutual support, and autonomy. (For more on the notion of self-craft, see Evens 2009.) Professional Situations of Ethnographers/Designers

    We began with personal-professional testimonies and observations about the role and position we

    have taken up as anthropologist, ethnographer, or designer (AED), while working for, with or otherwise in socio-economic synch with powerful corporatist-capitalist neo-liberal organizations. The tensions raised for each of us in our doing so are considerable. The organizations and activities of Neo-liberal institutions and corporate-capitalist ventures are chief targets of a great deal of contemporary activism in the US and around the world.1 Our main concern in the workshop was how our work in corporations stands in

    1 They are targets alongside what may be categorized roughly as authoritarian or totalitarian political regimes for example: neo-liberal states and global corporate entities with their Western style liberal democracies as distinct



    relation to activism that challenges the power and activities of these institutions and organizations. We registered among ourselvesinformally, no show of handsthat we do not count ourselves as being among the ranks of the self-declared contemporary anarchists; nor among those who are radically opposed in fundamental, revolutionary ways to the neo-liberal state and its global corporate-capitalist institutions and organizations such as contemporary Marxists or Neo-Marxists. We are among the rest of us who have not adopted these more absolutist, or purest positions. We spoke also of our being not so condemnatory of these organizations in which we work as one finds in the attitudes of contemporary anarchists or Marxists. We hold hope, interest, and motivation in finding ways of helping reform them from within and without. Reform them but also with room to adopt vigilant direct action against them as required. In this light, we discussed this situation as one for which the easy-to-come-by figures of being inside and outside an acceptable organization do not work well. Slow Direct Action / Taming the Leviathan of the Globalized State

    We discussed aspects of our work in terms of what I call slow direct action, where the

    ethnographer/designer works directly with those in powerful positions in an organization in which we are professionally aligned. We make progress, some of the time, usually slowly, and incrementally, but not always indirectly. I contrasted this with a polemical notion of traditional research ethnography as a species of Direct Inaction direct in the sense of the intimacy of the work with ones hosts, but inactive in respect of ones abstaining from involvement in the projects of ones hosts.

    The question becomes one of how we might contribute to what James C. Scott has called the project of taming the Leviathan of the state. Scott argues that History is largely the story of the dialectic between state-controlled societal spaces and non-state controlled spaces, where those in the non-state space have been for ever-so-long now, state evaders. Now, the state has achieved for the first time in world history the world-wide system of state-based administration of so many important aspects of the lives of 6-7 billion human beings.

    We contrasted the incremental successes of reformist-minded slow direct action with that of the ideal of utopian transformation which contemporary anarchism pines foreven as it recognizes it is not going to happen anytime soon. We also contrasted it with some expressions of what mainstream neo-Marxist social revolutionaries call for or await the opportunity to accomplish when the current global, neo-liberal system implodes or collapses under its own weight. I situated these themes of direct action and contemporary anarchy in a framework of utopian social movements, seeing them as manifestations of the will to transcend the contradictions and paradoxes of our creaturely existence. In this regard, we discussed the notion of activism over and against passivism. We cited one prominent activist thinker, the philosopher Simon Critchley, who has labeled such passivism in the face of the situations before us passive nihilism. We noted in passing the vitriolic debates among the Marxist philosopher Slojav Zizek, the anarchist David Graeber, and Critchley on these matters.

    from more blatantly autocratic, military-controlled regimes such as were toppled in the Arab Spring in Libya and Egypt.


    EPIC 2012 Proceedings| 317

    WORKSHOP, PART TWO San Francisco and Oakland Occupy Actions and Police Responses: A Tale of Two Cities, or Good Cops/Bad Cops?

    In the second part of the workshop, Darrouzet introduced consideration of (a) material from the

    99% Spring Training Action event and (b) video from two actions related to various Occupy movements in the US. The training material demonstrated the attempt of US based activists across the spectrum to build on the momentum of OWS. The aim of the nationwide training was to inform, instruct, prepare and en-courage folks living in the US to be willing to take up such direct action in the months and years ahead. The training included material aimed at showing the philosophy of non-violence and how in fact great changes have been accomplished over the decades using these strategically formulated tactics.

    The direct action we considered ethnographically consisted of material Darrouzet developed as an activist (first, rather than as an ethnographer) when I participated in Occupy San Franciscos action to disrupt the Wells Fargo Bank annual shareholders meeting in San Francisco, April 24, 2012. The other action event we looked at was from Occupy Oaklands action following OWS. For the Oakland material we used video supplied by journalist Tucker Phelps of a confrontation between demonstrators and a unit of the Oakland Police Department in November of 2011.

    Our focus in looking at these video materials was on the role of the police as a front line wall against direct action activists: police whose work it is to keep people assembling in the public square or streets from confronting powerful controllers of neo-liberal institutions and corporations, as well as protect the privileges of private property in the face of confrontational actions that violate the law, or enforce rules or policies that direct action events routinely challenge or violate. While this theme of the police as bureaucrats with guns, as enforcers of statist policy is a major one in contemporary anarchism, it is also a hugely important matter in terms of the general situation of the confrontation between the police/military and activists in our globalized-state world. This global phenomenon of people amassing and occupying public places and streets en masse pits people, demonstrators, against those who are called up and outfitted to respond and control the activists. These police forces are also those who have been deputized as the one group authorized to use physical violence against others as an means to the end of keeping social order.

    The videos highlighted differences in outcomes of activist/police confrontations in San Francisco and Oakland. The details of these events and analysis are too complex to address here, and will be the subject of a separate paper. The upshot of our viewing and discussing these materials featured our sense of our just getting a start at seeing the work that lies ahead in taming the Leviathan at this sharp-edge of confrontation between the police and the rest of us; that is: any of us who venture out into the public squares, spaces, and streets to protest, challenge, or contest actively the status quo. Our discussion highlighted the grounded struggles ahead in taming the Leviathan: taming or otherwise domesticating the police. Training in non-violent direct action, even in the face of combative and force-wielding police, is, in its own way a taming or domesticating of activists in these crucial situations. The idea of taming the police to behave in a like-wise tamed way may be part of what lies ahead for all social activism which eschews the use of violence. In a partially tamed environment, we can at



    least envision as a thought experiment that actions may be bound in new ways, boundaries respected, including the boundaries of respect for the many selves whose skin is on the line in these events.

    NOTES I thank Tucker Phelps for his help in preparing the material used in this workshop, including use of the video he took of the street demonstration in Oakland.

    Experience Design Modeling

    MEGAN BOWE Rustici Software

    AARON SILVERS Problem Solutions, LLC

    WORKSHOP OVERVIEW As our worlds become more connected, we have both increasing opportunity and obligation to design experiences that recognize individuals in their context. Such experiences serve to continuously improve our environment and ourselves. Experience Mapping provides a means to surface implicit and tacit information vital to effective design of experiences. Participants in this workshop worked with a variety of "lenses" vital to designing meaningful experiences: storytelling, magic, games and improvisation -- employing these lenses and a design process focused on facilitating experiences conducive to meeting identified goals and outcomes. EXPERIENCE MAPPING

    There is a subculture of magicians who approach stage magic with algorithms that produce effects known as magic. In support of this approach, this group of magicians generated a Magic Modeling Language. This technology serves to support an explicit mapping of experience. The workshop began describing experiences holistically, accounting for the actors, the framing of interactions with media and technologies, the outcomes anticipated to support mapping larger experiences in detail. We explained how pre, during, and post event community management is integral to success. Participants demonstrated a general understanding of an experience design process by and applying a simple modeling language to something they have previously experienced. MAGIC


View more >