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Challenging the WEF in New York City

by Starhawk

The actions over the weekend of Feb 1–3 in New York City were at the same time empowering and frustrating, a political victory and a tactical morass.

Saturday, in the march, we had something like 10,000–20,000 people out on the streets. We mobilized people in spite of a climate of public fear and official hostility that's hard to imagine unless you experienced it. New York is still in a state of shock and trauma from the attacks of September 11. While many of the activists overcame that state enough to plan and carry out an action, most of the support we can generally count on from unions and NGOs was absent.

In a climate in which the police are widely seen as heroes and the very thought of protest is suspect, getting that many people out on the streets has to be seen as a victory. We reclaimed some political space, asserted our right to dissent, and hugely raised the social costs for the World Economic Forum. We forced the incipient police state to reveal itself, and actually changed the tone of the news coverage so in the end, New Yorkers were asking whether the Forum had any business coming to town, and whether it was the kind of thing we want to support.

The march was undeniably frustrating. The police succeeding in controlling our space from the very beginning. Not because anyone wanted them to, not because anyone deliberately led people into a trap, not because of any lack of solidarity on the part of the march, but simply because they had the power and the resources to do so, and we didn't have the political or legal clout or the tactical ability to stop them. And since our agreement was to keep the march safe, we were limited in the range of our responses.

Yet, in spite of all the frustrations, the march was also beautiful, inspiring and empowering.

Yet, in spite of all the frustrations, the march was also beautiful, inspiring and empowering. Giant puppets took the streets, visions of a better world and images of the tools to build it were carried aloft, people drummed, sang, danced and chanted through the streets. For many people, I think—especially for people who were stretching their courage to be out in the streets at all—the march was liberating and inspiring.

Tactical Morass

But at the end, the police succeeded in segmenting the march, trapping sections with barriers at intersections, and essentially preventing us from gathering for a final rally or closing. The puppets and drummers who were supposed to do a final piece of the pageant were trapped two sections back; together with the Pagan Cluster, we decided to take over the nearest intersection and hold it with a samba band, and a triumphant dance on stilts by a woman representing Argentina.

For most of the people coming to Saturday's march, I suspect the ending was less than inspiring, but not all that significant. They marched, they got as far as they could, they made their statement, and they could go home feeling good about themselves. But for those of us who ideally wanted some stronger action, the ending felt like a failure. We want to believe that a ragged band of anarchists can overcome the massive police power of the state, and it hurts when we don't.

But I think we need to look past that frustration and see the larger victory. When you're in the midst of it, political work often doesn't feel empowering or successful—only when you pull back can you see its larger impact.

We claimed and held a political space that was larger than the physical space we were unable to hold.

Our strategy can't be based on paramilitary victories over the institutions of global corporate capitalism—we might succeed on that level from time to time but generally we are going to be faced with overwhelming force. Our real strategy is to delegitimize these organizations—and on that front we clearly won in New York. We put the World Economic Forum on the defensive, we got people questioning its right to exist, we showed again that these institutions can only meet when they mobilize an enormous police presence to protect them at a huge cost to the public, and we did it all without giving the opposition more ammunition to use against it. We claimed and held a political space that was larger than the physical space we were unable to hold.

Moreover, it was a victory for anarchists: it showed that we have the courage to go where the more liberal groups are afraid to go, it showed that we have the maturity and sophistication to adjust our tactics to the situation at hand, and that a big mobilization can be organized nonhierarchically. It stole the thunder of the parasitic sectarian groups that always attempt to position themselves as leaders of the movement, and put the anarchists out in front.

Spiraling at Grand Central Station

After Saturday's march, many of us gravitated to Grand Central Station to eat, regroup and get warm. One of the ideas floating around the spokescouncil the night before had been some kind of action in the Station. Michael, who had all along had a vision of doing something in the main concourse, gathered us all up and we decided to do a spiral dance.

So, a few of us joined hands and began singing the chant that I now know has the magic power to invoke riot cops:

"We will never, never lose our way to the well of liberty,
And the power of her living flame, it will rise, it will rise again."

We embodied what we truly stand for: joy, liberation, community, caring, and freedom.

We began spiraling. One of the MTA police came over and began trying to stop us. Two of our lawyers, who miraculously appeared, were trying to negotiate, I was discovering that I could drum, hold energy, and talk to cops simultaneously, and then for some reason he went away. We continued the dance. More and more cops appeared, until they formed a circle around us. The more cops appeared, the more anarchists joined the dance, and the more spectators ringed the stairways and balconies. We achieved some perfect tension between the cops' urge to arrest us all and reluctance to start something they couldn't control in full view of an audience who seemed to be enjoying the ritual immensely. In the end, they stood back. We completed the spiral, raised what we call a cone of power—a sustained tone that focuses and directs the energy, sat down and someone began singing "Amazing Grace."

It was a small act, not as significant maybe, as shutting down the meeting or stopping the party. But for me, it was a moment of true liberation.  In the face of the enormous police intimidation of the day, we reclaimed our right to take a public space without asking permission or acknowledging their authority. We put them in a dilemma that allowed us to do what we wanted to do. We embodied what we truly stand for: joy, liberation, community, caring, and freedom.

Starhawk is the author of many books on Goddess religion, from The Spiral Dance to Circle Round: Raising Children in Goddess Tradition. She is a feminist, activist, teacher, Witch, gardener, drummer, and one of Reclaiming's founders. Visit her website at