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Reflect and Evolve

Finn Finneran
Date Published: 

Shutdown: The Rise and Fall of Direct Action to Stop The War
Directed by Beca Lafore, Helia Rasti, and Jonathan Stribling-Uss

March 20, 2003 was the day that left me with my knees pulled tight into my chest, rocking myself back and forth on the sidewalk as the sun fell beyond the mountains. I felt defeated and angry. It felt like my friends and I had spent months trying to mobilize our town against the war, but the big day had come and it seemed all we had to show for it was a lot of bruised and battered friends in jail. This was back home in North Carolina, and it was the day after the current Iraq war began.

It was then that a friend came up to comfort me with some good news: “San Francisco was shut down today. Tens of thousands of people made it impossible for business to continue as usual.”

I’ll have to admit that fact gave me a bit of hope. Even though we’d lost our battle in our small town, we won another one in San Francisco. The question that still remained was if and how the war was to be stopped by all of us.

The shutdown of San Francisco’s Financial District is credited to the efforts of Direct Action to Stop the War, otherwise known as DASW. Upon moving to San Francisco last year I started asking, “Whatever became of DASW?” It withered away and died, but why? Turns out that while I was fishing for these answers, a few participants of DASW were making a film all about it.

Shutdown does exactly what I expect any good activist documentary to do. It gives props to our hard won victories and gives time and space to figure out our failures.

Directors Beca Lafore, Helia Rasti, and Jonathan Stribling-Uss interviewed about a dozen activists who were directly involved in DASW to paint a realistic picture of how it functioned (and didn’t), flourished, and ultimately disintegrated. The interviews are interspersed with scenes from the streets of San Francisco on March 20, 2003 and many actions that followed that day.

In the lead up to the bombing of Iraq, DASW had a crystal clear goal in mind: “If the government and corporate war makers won’t stop this war we will shut down their operations. We will raise the economic, social, and political costs of waging this war.”

On the first day after the bombing began it looked like the goal was being reached. Twenty thousand people – using a variety of tactics that ranged from silly to risky, somber to rowdy – clogged the streets of San Francisco, blockading streets and corporate and government buildings. The message was clear. “Don’t go to work. Call in sick. Don’t feed this war machine with your labor,” recalled Jessica Tovar, an environmental justice organizer. “This is the largest demonstration, in terms of disruption, I’ve seen,” said San Francisco Police’s Assistant Chief, Alex Fagen.

Power relations
In the months following March 20, DASW organized action after action. Some were very successful, but many participants began to wonder where they were going with this. “Were we trying to build a base?” wonders Tracy Briger, of the Anti Capitalist/ Anti Imperialist Cluster. “That was never an explicit goal. We were using direct action as a tactic. And using a series of tactics over and over again does not make a movement.” Gopal Dayaneni, of the Orientation Working Group, described DASW as a wood-burning fire. “Wood burning fires are a really big flame and really intense heat and they burn out really quickly.” Coal burning fires have almost no flame but they’re really hot and they last a really long time. Community-based organizing is a coal burning fire.” But he stressed, “It was really, really important to set the place on fire.”

Perhaps what I appreciate most about this film is its willingness to pull out the Left’s skeleton in the closet: We still struggle to take unequal power relations – which fall along class, race, and gender lines – into account when doing our organizing. “Pushing through internalized emotional and political barriers is sometimes harder than breaking through cop lines,” states the narrator, Xochitl Moreno.
Shutdown is about something much larger than an antiwar organization. It’s about reflecting on how we work with each other and learn from our mistakes in order for us to move toward the creation of a truly sustainable movement for social justice.

A lot of extra effort was put into screening the film in its different stages to the antiwar participants of the Bay Area to allow for discussion and critiques. The process of making this film was considered as important as the final product. The directors have hopes that their film might spark critical and thoughtful discussions in communities throughout the nation. I suspect it will do just that.