Wednesday, June 7, 2000 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
You Can Arrest Protesters,
But You Can't Stop The Free Trade Of Subversive Ideas
by Naomi Klein
"This is David Solnit. He's The Man."
That's how the activist legend from San Francisco was
introduced to me last Friday. We
were at the University of Windsor at the time, both giving
speeches at a teach-in on the
Organization of American States. Of course, I already knew
that David Solnit was The Man.
He was one of the organizers of the shutdown in Seattle
during last November's World Trade
Organization meeting. And I have been hearing his name for
years, usually spoken with
reverence by young activists who have just attended one of
his Art and Revolution
They come back brimming with new ideas about protests. How
they shouldn't be
quasi-militaristic marches culminating in placard-waving
outside locked government
buildings. How, instead, they should be "festivals of
resistance," filled with giant puppets
and theatrical spontaneity. How their goals should be more
than symbolic: Protests can
"reclaim" public space for a party or a garden, or stop a
planned meeting the protesters
believe is destructive.
This is the "show don't tell" theory that holds that you
don't change minds just by
screaming about what you are against. You change minds by
building organizations and
events that are a living example of what you are for.
Not schooled in this theory myself, my speech to the
students was a straight-up lecture
about how the protests against an expanded free-trade
agreement for the Americas is part
of broader anti-corporate movementagainst growing
corporate control over education,
water, scientific research, and more. It was the usual
"inchoate" mess of issues that get
slammed in papers such as this one for lacking a
media-friendly message, such as "Hell
no, we won't go!"
When it was David Solnit's turn, he asked everybody to
stand, turn to the next person, and
ask them why they were here. As a child of hippie parents
and a survivor of alternative
summer camps, these instant intimacy rituals have always
made me want to run to my
room and slam the door.
So, of course, David Solnit had to choose me as his
partnerand he wasn't satisfied with "I
came to give a speech." So I told him more, about how
writing about the commitment of
young human-rights and environmental activists gives me
hope for the future and was a
much-needed antidote to the atmosphere of cynicism in
which journalists are so immersed.
It wasn't until we had to share our discoveries with the
room that I realized this wasn't just a
get-to-know-you game: It was also an effective way to
torment barely undercover police
officers. "Yeah, uh, my partner's name's Dave and he's
here to fight oppression," said a guy
in a nylon jacket and buzz cut.
Less than 24 hours later, David Solnit was in a Windsor
jail cell, where he stayed for four
On Saturday, the day before the large demonstration
against the OAS, Mr. Solnit led a
small puppet-making workshop at the university. After the
seminar, only a block away from
the campus, the police pulled him over. They said he had
been convicted of crimes in the
United States and was thus considered a criminal in this
country. Why? Because 15 years
ago, he was arrested at a protest against U.S. military
involvement in El Salvador; he had
written (in washable paint) the names of executed
Sandinistas on the wall of a government
building. Yesterday, an Immigration Review Board inquiry
found that Mr. Solnit's arrest was
wholly unfounded, and he was released.
David Solnit preaches revolution through papier-mch,
which makes it tempting to dismiss
the police's actions as raving paranoia. Except that the
authorities are right to see Mr.
Solnit as a threat, though not to anyone's safety or
property. His message is consistently
non-violent, but also extremely powerful.
Mr. Solnit doesn't talk much about how free-trade
agreements turn culture, water, seeds
and even genes into tradable commodities. What he does in
his workshops is teach young
activists how to decommodify their relationships with one
anotheran original message for
a generation that grew up being targeted by ads in their
school washrooms and sold canned
rebellion by soft drink companies.
Though Mr. Solnit was locked away, his ideas were all over
Windsor: Art was not something
made by experts and purchased by consumers, it was
everywhere on the streets. Activists
even developed a free transportation system: a battalion
of "blue bikes" repaired and painted
for protesters to use at their discretion.
Communications theorist Neil Postman once wrote that
teaching is a "subversive activity."
When teaching puts young people in touch with powers of
self-sufficiency and creativity
they didn't know they had, it is, indeed, subversive. But
it is not criminal.
David Solnit was the subject of a well-planned,
cross-border police operation. He was
identified as a political threat before he arrived in this
country. His past was researched, he
was followed, then arrested on trumped-up charges. All
Canadians should be ashamed of
the actions of our police. But most ashamed should be the
trade bureaucrats in Windsor. It
seems there is still one aspect of human life not covered
by free trade: the free trade of
Copyright 2000 Globe Interactive
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