In 1999, the WTO protests in Seattle sparked a whole new wave of mass demonstrations and radical activism in the U.S. Really, the anti-globalization movement had been on the rise for years in other countries around the globe. But on those fateful days in Seattle, the slumbering giant of radical action was reawakened on the streets of America.
In the ensuing months and years, many different commentaries and documentaries emerged about the significance of those events in Seattle. One of these was a cult classic called â€œBreak the Spellâ€ that was embraced by many militant young dissidents for its focus on themes such as police violence and property destructions as a means of insurgent revolutionary action.
Iâ€™m not going to examine the movie itself. That would be too easyâ€¦ 🙂 Instead, Iâ€™m going to examine the overall theme of â€œbreaking the spellâ€ â€“ its strengths, its failures, and the future as I see it.
A lot of people who see property destruction at demonstrations donâ€™t understand it. Whatâ€™s the point of smashing a window, or setting a dumpster on fire? In some cases, these are purely tactical actions that are meant to interfere with police efforts at crowd control, or cause financial harm to an offensive organization. But in other cases, they are attempts at communication â€“ what some would call propaganda of the deed, or what others might call militant performance art.
What are such people trying to communicate? Well, since Iâ€™ve never smashed a Starbucks window, I canâ€™t answer this question with any certainty. But since Iâ€™ve often contemplated smashing a Starbucks window, and since Iâ€™ve spoken with people who have engaged in political property destruction, I feel pretty confident speaking on the subject.
One of the primary goals of such actions may be to â€œbreak the spell.â€ What spell, you ask? The spell of whatever the person is opposing â€“ Capitalism, or Corporate Dominance, or Western Imperialism, or Babylon, or Consensus Reality, or the Matrix. Whatever language you may use to describe the world today, itâ€™s clear that some people have much more power than others, and itâ€™s clear that certain institutions are used to serve that imbalance of power. Especially in â€œpost-industrialâ€ societies such as our own, the people in power create an elaborate faÃ§ade that holds this power in place.
Thereâ€™s tremendous inequity and injustice in the world, and tremendous physical, social, economic, psychological, and ecological violence occurring all around us. And yet, the people in power â€œcast a spellâ€ to conceal this violence. They make flashy TV shows for us to watch, shiny toys for us to play with, and dazzling storefronts for us to shop in, all as a distraction from the harm that is often perpetuated by those very same media conglomerates, manufacturers, and merchants. Since everything looks so nice and shiny, the casual observer walking into a Wal-Mart, or a McDonaldâ€™s, or a Starbucks has no way of knowing that anything is wrong. They walk in, get their products, and walk back out in perfect peace and comfort. This allows them to remain either completely oblivious to the harm of the system, or at least completely at ease in pretending that the violence in the world is far removed from their lives.
This faÃ§ade of corporate beauty and tranquility is a spell â€“ a conscious effort to create an illusion that manipulates the hearts and minds of the people shopping there. The goal of property destruction, then, is often to â€œbreak the spellâ€ â€“ to shatter that illusion of comfort and tranquility â€“ as a way of communicating to the people that something is deeply and inherently wrong with the system.
Sometimes this â€œbreak the spellâ€ approach works. Corporations work very hard to create a sense of â€œbrand identityâ€ in our minds, so much so that we see their corporation as having a personality and identity of its own. Since that personality exists in many places simultaneously, it seems so powerful and enduring â€“ perhaps even more real to us than our own personalities, or the personalities of the people we know and love. It all seems so spectacular â€“ and then, a black-clad figure emerges from a haze of teargas and lobs a brick at the face of the corporation. That single brick tumbles through air, as if in slow motion, and kisses the glass. The corporate logo shatters with a shrill squeal of breaking glass, tumbling to the concrete as the brick knocks the products on display into disarray. If only for a moment, the spell has been broken. The supposed â€œbrand identityâ€ of the corporation dissolves into a pile of broken glass, and people come to question the underlying system that is no longer hidden behind a shiny corporate logo.
Thatâ€™s the theory, anyway â€“ and I must admit that it has a certain aesthetic appeal to me. For the right audience, it works brilliantly, demonstrating that the corporationâ€™s brand identity is a faÃ§ade that often masks very harmful business practices and contributes to the overall inequity of our society and planet.
But for the wrong audience â€“ which is the majority of the U.S. population â€“ this form of action does absolutely nothing to break the spell. In fact, it can be turned around into a means of reinforcing the spell! The glass is broken â€“ and yet, it is quickly replaced. The corporation has been publicly shamed â€“ and yet, the people doing the shaming are painted as violent and irrational. In the end, the corporation may be elevated several notches â€“ its enduring power proven by its quick recovery from such vandalism, and its status as innocent victim proclaimed by all of its supporters (and a few moderate opponents as well).
Property destruction, then, is not a terribly effective means of â€œbreaking the spell.â€ Non-violent mass demonstrations are significantly more effective â€“ but even they have not yet captured the imagination of the majority of the population in the U.S. How, then can we break the spell in a way that is both in harmony with our goals and strategically effective in achieving them?
I was hoping youâ€™d ask me that!
I donâ€™t pretend to have all of the answers. In fact, I donâ€™t think that anyone has all of the answers. But what I do have is questions â€“ the very questions that may help us to develop more effective means of breaking the spell.
My first question is this: who is our target audience?
Really, I feel that WE are our first and foremost target audience. The people in power have spent trillions of dollars to control us psychologically, socially, economically, and ecologically. How much of that control do we still have internalized in our psyches and our relationships? Before we go around trying to liberate other people from the controlling effects of our society, we first need to liberate ourselves. How do we do this? Thatâ€™s a good question! I think it varies for each individual and group thatâ€™s asking the question. But really, it involves using a combination of consciousness-raising, narrative storytelling, group brainstorming, and direct action. These and other related tactics can cleanse our consciousness of any lingering baggage and demonstrate to us in a very real and compelling way that another world is indeed possible, right here and right now.
Once weâ€™ve started on that, though, we canâ€™t stop there. So whoâ€™s next? Ideally, I would see this as our allies in our community â€“ the more moderate individuals who sympathize with some of our critiques, but disagree with others, or are too wrapped up in their own concerns and obligations to focus on taking their own radical action. In order to help them to â€œbreak the spell,â€ we need to understand their perspective and supply them with the tools for changing that perspective. What cultural symbols or ideas speak most powerfully to them? How are these symbols tied into the existing system? How could they possibly be tied into a more equitable, just, peace-loving, and ecologically harmonious system? Maybe for them, our tremendous passion for revolutionary change can only be conveyed on a sleek new website, with shiny pastel colors and flashing â€œgreen consumerismâ€ banner ads, coded in the language of flowers, and butterflies, and rainbows, and maybe occasional snippets of slightly dark humor. It may or may not be our first choice in aesthetics â€“ but as long as weâ€™re â€œbreaking the spellâ€ of domination and manipulation by the people in power, do the aesthetic details really matter?
Eventually, we really will have to reach out to people whose perspectives are very different from ours â€“ the people we may currently see as opponents. Weâ€™ll have to find ways to â€œbreak the spellâ€ for them too. I have ideas about how to do that â€“ but thereâ€™ll be plenty of time for that later. In the meantime, our focus is on ourselves and our allies.
How do we go about this work? How do we shift our own consciousness, and the consciousness of our allies, away from the controlling influences of the people in power, and into the new creative expressions of our own reclaimed power?
Good question! To be honest, I donâ€™t really have any answers yet. But at least Iâ€™ve raised the right questions, eh? My only suggestion on this final parting point is that we gather together, in groups large and small, to discuss and act on this question. Really, I feel that itâ€™s going to take a combination of many strategies and tactics, including but not limited to street theatre, radical study groups, creative arts, media activism, and beyond. The goal is not only to expel the unwanted influence in our lives, but also to create positive and independent alternatives. Because really, if our thoughts are dominated by fears of black-clad storm troopers and corporate tycoons walking the halls of power, and thatâ€™s what all of our songs and stories and dances and actions are about, then we are simply lending power to those archetypes. Instead â€“ once weâ€™ve taken fair time to call out and critique what we oppose â€“ it is essential that we focus as much of our attention and energy as possible on the world that we long to create. Only then, with our heartâ€™s positive visions held clearly in our minds, will be finally be able to take action to â€œbreak the spell.â€