Shutdown: The Rise and Fall of Direct Action to Stop The War

Aug 31, 2010

Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW) was a loose-knit coalition group that essentially shut down the financial district of San Francisco after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Made up of interviews, brief explanations of organizing structures, and a whole lot of fascinating footage of the protest itself, Shutdown serves as a kind of homage to and dissection of both the effectiveness and problems facing the group. It’s a quick, informative, self-analyzing, and humble film.

On March 20th, 2003, there were literally millions of people throughout the world protesting the invasion. The invasion itself had long-since become inevitable—U.S. forces had been amassing in neighboring Pakistan for months. (Many would say it was inevitable the moment planes crashed into the towers of WorldTradeCenter—still others would say that was nothing but a catalyst.) Still, the day of March 20th served as the single largest mass-mobilized demonstration in history. It was protest on a global scale. Shutdown does a good job of looking at the momentum and fury of that time, the sense of helplessness that so many people felt, and how a loose-knit group of organizations, unions, radical groups, and civic clubs were able to work together in an attempt to be heard.

The film’s greatest qualities are two-fold: its brevity and its humility. You never feel overwhelmed (or worse, bored) by the information being presented, and it’s great to see the organizers of DASW willing to criticize themselves. It was also refreshing to see the inclusion of a multitude of people of different ethnicities, orientations, genders, and agendas all coming together to create something that turned out to be incredibly effective. Made up of dozens of disparate activist groups (or unions or close-knit groups of friends or campus clubs or whatever), the people interviewed in Shutdown were the ones directly involved with the group; it was great to see critical analysis rather than shit-talking about various factions and sub-sects, something that could have easily made its way into the film.

And yet it’s also this disparate, far-spanning range of people involved that made it virtually impossible to keep DASW going after the initial shutdown of downtown San Francisco. With all of these different groups with different (some of them very different) agendas, it became much more difficult to come up with a forward-moving plan after the initial shutdown was achieved… and yet the war raged on and on. Some groups believed in direct action and lockdowns, some groups believed in dancing and block parties. Who was right? Everyone had different goals. How did they move forward when no one necessarily agreed on what forward even was? The group eventually splintered and disbanded, fell apart.

Yet while various members of DASW were critical of themselves and the problems with the group as a whole, maybe a lot of that is unnecessary in the sense that forming and then disbanding is the very nature of organizing. Its elasticity is what oftentimes makes organizing such a powerful tool. The various factions of DASW got together, formed something larger and wonderfully dynamic and powerful that performed this tangible thing (shutting down the financial section of one of the largest cities in the United States and giving people a platform to protest a war they viewed as unjust and wrong), and then they disbanded. Poof. Fucking incredible. The self-criticism of the group was great, but recognizing that DASW achieved its initial goal and that disbanding afterwards was maybe the right thing to do shouldn’t necessarily be discounted.

Like I said, the video is smart and critical—and it was so refreshing to see that all the potential for shit-talking and criticism was negated by the fact that the people criticizing were the ones that were directly involved. It’s that kind of accountability that comes across as so refreshing (and rare!) in radical politics, amongst all of the infighting and shit-talking. –Keith Rosson (AK Press, 674-A 23rd St., Oakland, CA94612-1163)