Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Catch Our Anti-Corporate Puppet Show!

Nicholas Riccardi is a Staff Writer for The Times' Metro Section

Breakfast is over and it's time to get back to the Revolution. The vegan bread, snatched from a bakery's discard pile, sits on the table, next to the tubs of organic yogurt and cups of certified Fair Trade coffee. Two dozen members of the Student Alliance to Reform Corporations (STARC) hold hands in a ring around the center of a room in Eugene, Ore. Many have just met after months of conference calls and e-mails. Some got to know each other last night as they crashed at strangers' houses and watched

a video of activists trying to block logging of Oregon's old-growth forests. "This," says Jocelyn Furbush, a 19-year-old Portland State University student with an eyebrow ring and serene smile, "is what I want the rest of my life to look like."

To Furbush, life will take one of two forms--either a world of friendship, community and ecological living or one of sterile suburbs, environmental destruction and soulless corporate affluence achieved on the backs of others. Want a closer look at those options? Come to downtown Los Angeles this week. Inside an arena named after an out-of-town company, where luxury suites cost $307,500, Democratic Party delegates will nominate a preordained, soft-money-fueled, white male candidate for president of the United States. Outside, if all goes according to plan, thousands of students, artists and veteran activists--in a loosely knit coalition of progressive organizations--will sing, dance, wave towering papier-mache puppets and perhaps shut down City Hall or somehow slow the capitalist juggernaut. In a rolling, collective stream-of-consciousness critique, these anarchists, socialists, environmentalists and trade unionists will strive to illuminate every dark problem under the sun: the disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos on death row . . . Asian children earning $2 a day making chain-store clothes for yuppies . . . Occidental Petroleum's efforts to displace the indigenous people of the Colombian cloud forest by drilling for more oil that will go into more cars that spew more exhaust and heighten global warming. If all this sounds like a scalding geyser of angst, well, it's been building for 30 years. And if it seems unlikely to be changed by dancing and marching, just remember that anything is possible nowadays. If iVillage stock can go from 24 to 80 in its first day, the economy can grow for 42 consecutive quarters and a ragtag crew of environmentalists and unionists can actually shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organization, maybe the radical street party in Los Angeles this week will change the world.

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"FOR ME," MICHAEL EVERETT TELLS THE JUBILANT crowd, "the '60s ended last week when I saw the torch get passed on to this generation." It's mid-December, about a week after the Battle in Seattle, and the Southern California Fair Trade Network is celebrating in a cramped downtown community center. More than 200 people, their name-brandless clothes festooned with bright buttons--"People Before Profits" and "Stop the WTO"--are wedged in the steamy second-floor meeting room, listening to protesters' war stories.

The week has been a vindication for people such as Everett. Decades back, he participated in lunch counter sit-ins, "resisted" the draft, marched on the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Then he watched the country get self-satisfied, the rallies dwindle, the media lose interest. He continued to do union organizing and fight for rent control in Santa Monica, but mainly focused on his career as a Hollywood set-lighting electrician. Until the North American Free Trade Agreement dispersed much of the work to Canada. He thought it was over. Little did Everett, 58, suspect that the magic was coming back. These kids in Seattle, he tells the crowd, were fearless. And funny.

Seven months later the veterans are still marveling at the resurgence of protest. Leone Hankey, who is in her mid-40s , stands outside a two-story stucco Hancock Park manor where the Fair Trade group is holding its July fund-raiser, talking about how long she's been waiting for people to take note of "the war on the poor." Bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay sit by the Pepsi and tequila at the buffet table. But this movement remains cash-strapped. People slip wadded-up bills into the passing plastic bucket, and few bid on the silent auction items, not even the bag of genuine Cuban sand. On a table in the back of the garden lie pamphlets and fliers on the problems of globalization ("Median U.S. hourly wages have fallen steadily as the economy has become more globalized . . . . ") and inviting participation in causes such as lifting the U.N. embargo against Iraq, which foes say is causing the starvation of thousands of Iraqi children. Like many others these days, the party wraps up with a video of the Seattle protest. Beaming, Hankey says it was the best demonstration she's been in since 1972. "I've been waiting a while to feel that dynamism of a mass movement."

Where did the momentum come from? Han Shan, an organizer for the Ruckus Society, a sort of roving boot camp for activists, has an answer. He speaks to teenagers fluent in the lingo of the global economy and its effects on the gap between the rich and poor. "There's a phenomenon that comes from being completely overwhelmed by the symptoms," says Shan, 27. "There's only so long you can stand on the shores of the river watching the babies float down. You start asking, where did these babies come from? Who is responsible for them?"

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TREE BRESSEN STANDS BEFORE TWO DOZEN students, members of STARC who are at the University of Oregon in Eugene this June for their annual Convergence. They sit on plastic chairs in a fluorescent-lit room, before windows framing sky the color of lint. Tree talks about her time in a self-sustaining community in Virginia, then it's down to business. "This is part of the transformation of our world, these skills. Being able to make decisions in an egalitarian way, not a hierarchical way."

The consensus-based process, the subject of today's workshop, was used extensively by the Quakers. Indigenous tribes may have been the first to try the complicated methodology, in which no one is ignored and groups strive for unanimity. Too often left out themselves, these activists are willing to listen for hours if that's what it takes. It's part of the process that has helped activists pull off the highly coordinated protests in Seattle, Washington and Philadelphia and, they hope, this week in Los Angeles. Democracy in action, they say.

The basic unit in the protests is the affinity group--generally a cluster of seven to 20 people who know and trust each other. Each group sends one representative to a "spokescouncil," and that group agrees on what the mass of people will do. It is the same organizational structure, modern-day activists note with pride, used to fight fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Nobody mentions that the Left lost that war.

Such thoughts are not on the STARC members' minds as they trudge over to a nearby Methodist church to dine with a local progressive group and introduce themselves to the Pacific Northwest.

Terra Lawson-Remer was an overachiever with a bleeding heart. At her high school in affluent La Jolla she joined every student activist group around. She moved on to Yale and helped organize local workers into unions. But it was a semester studying in Ecuador that opened her eyes. Austerity measures required by the International Monetary Fund were preventing residents in small towns from starting educational programs. It all clicked. "The problems the people in the rain forest were worrying about were the same problems the farm workers in California were worrying about," she tells the modest crowd at the Alliance for Democracy dinner. "They were the same problems"--and here she smiles sheepishly--"that the surfers where I grew up were worried about--not wanting to get sewage in their ears . . . The problem was corporate dominance and lack of democratic accountability."

In the fall of last year, just weeks before the WTO protests in Seattle, Lawson-Remer helped organize a conference at Yale to solve those problems. STARC was launched. Lawson-Remer does not consider herself part of Generation X, a demographic group she views as depressive and formed by the recession of the early 1990s. Hers is a generation with a booming economy and the Internet's infinity at its fingertips. She's "e-generation." "It's a different mind set," she says. "People aren't feeling sorry for themselves."

Granted, many e-geners' optimism stems from six-figure online jobs. But at the same time, the world is coming into perspective. The Internet makes it as easy to find out about the massacre of Zapatista supporters in Mexico as to buy Cisco on Etrade.com. With the threat of communism gone, it's less risky to confront capitalism head on, to tackle "corporate dominance."

"You see it everywhere you go," says Kristy Bayman, a suburban Maryland native who just graduated from the College of William and Mary and is also a guest at the dinner. "Your options are so limited because corporations are taking over . . . . It's so hard to be vegan. It's hard to buy clothes not made at sweatshops." At those words, STARC members at the Alliance dinner explode into a litany of complaints about the light-speed capitalism that conventional wisdom holds as the era's only option: Working people are evicted as dot-com money gentrifies the Bay Area. Families don't know how to spend quality time except at the mall. Broadcasting companies merge until every radio station plays some combination of Ricky Martin and Britney Spears.

Jonah Zern, a Cornell University graduate who has just moved to the Bay Area, chimes in. On his way to this event he visited his mother, who is enthusiastic about the new wave of activism. She's an amazing woman, he says. Still, when she talked about a new type of computer, she said "we'll be able to buy them soon." People can't even imagine a world where computers are simply there for the use of those who need them. "That's symbolic of an entire culture that looks at existence for sale," Zern says. But there are other ways to live, as they are demonstrating now: eating a potluck vegan meal of food in reused plastic containers. Conversation with strangers who are becoming friends. If people just understood and worked hard enough . . . .

Listen to Zern's story about a friend at Cornell, a folk singer whom a corporate label wooed with a $500,000 contract. The catch? She would have had to change her hairstyle, dress like every MTV vamp, stop singing about her lesbianism. "They wanted to take away everything that made her her." The singer said no.

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IN 1993, A GROUP OF RAVERS, ANTI-CAR TYPES AND SQUATTERS blocked a highway extension in London by occupying the East End neighborhood involved, building underground bunkers and holding impromptu street parties to a pulsing techno beat. Called Reclaim The Streets, the group, which formed in 1991, was living up to its name, shutting down parts of London with giant street parties complete with hastily arranged sculptures and sand pits for children. Their point: to retake public places gobbled up by global capitalism. David Solnit, a roving artist/activist, hopes for something similar this week. "We're going to take over downtown Los Angeles and turn it into a giant festival," he proclaims in the hallway of a Santa Monica art center, where he and other artists are preparing the props for the party.

Solnit is the puppet guru. The 36-year-old Portland native tapes up sketches of plans for Los Angeles' visuals. First come people holding signs listing community problems such as police brutality and pollution. Then comes a giant puppet, a star-spangled moustachioed face with a maniacally evil grin. He's "the Mask of Democracy." Finally, another giant puppet will follow, a benign-looking woman representing "real democracy." Swarming from her as if she'd just given them birth are puzzle pieces covered with such phrases as "civilian police review boards"--the solutions for society's ills.

This sort of creative touch is firing people up. In another part of the city on another day, Margaret Prescod rants about the impact of globalization on women and children--women do two-thirds of the world's work for 5% of the income . . . blue-collar minority women like her raise their children in polluted environments that cause asthma and other ailments . . . . "We are literally dying," the longtime Los Angeles activist says. "It's very, very serious, but it's serious in a new way, with people saying we want a right to dance, we want a right to sing, we want a right to tell these corporations to get off our planet."

Prescod uncorks a satisfied chuckle. Laughing while you work, laughing in the face of life-and-death issues, is something the activists surrounding her in this small house in South-Central Los Angeles fully embrace. Among them is Shawn McDougal, 29, a polished spokesperson for D2K, an umbrella organization for those activists hoping to upstage the 2000 Democratic Convention. No stranger to 12-hour days and a constantly chirping cellular phone, he juggles interviews with the Boston Globe and KCRW's "Which Way, L.A.?"

"The problem with corporate culture," he says, "is that it reduces us to . . . people sitting in front of a box watching TV. The sense of joyful living and people being in control of their own lives is being lost, is being sapped by our profit system." To bring some levity back into an otherwise sterile corporate world, his affinity group in Seattle called itself the Care Bears. Still, as the meeting winds down, McDougal and fellow activists wind up chatting about a standard 21st century topic--their frenetic, energy-sapping schedules. When an activist declares how much easier her laptop has made her nomadic life, McDougal sighs. He's got to get one, he says.

*

THIS IS A WORLD OF ANXIOUS DREAMERS. THEY PRANCE ABOUT WITH puppets and drums. They devour the works of Noam Chomsky and grasp the lethal effects of Third World debt. Their glass is half full if they concentrate on the positive energy and the quantum leap taken in Seattle. But look around. There is still suffering. The capitalist machine grinds on. The hard work remains. Just remember not to let what you're trying to build get entangled in what you need to tear down.

Fearful of police surveillance, the 22-year-old anarchist wants to be known as "Redneck." She is the daughter of '60s activists.

It's after midnight and Redneck and her fellow STARC members are unwinding outside a Eugene apartment after two long days of consensusing. Time to talk. Redneck's family lived in a village in Iceland for much of her childhood, then returned to Delaware when she was 16. The transition, from a community where everyone knew their neighbor and could go out at all hours to one where you had to stay inside at night convinced her something was wrong with the United States. "We don't have a real good quality of life right now," she says. Society is missing the simple things: "Community, talking to each other, having a barbecue with your neighbors, time with your kids." Hobbies? Her father gave them up his because he was too busy working.

Redneck has to catch a plane at the crack of dawn for Philadelphia, where she will protest with the Direct Action Group at the Republican convention. This movement, she says, is no lark. "I don't have a boyfriend. I haven't had one for a long time now. I would like one. But I'm too busy with this."

At some point, Marc Hinz and Dimitris Desyllas, two Portland State University students, head out to catch some sleep. Redneck grabs them and they exchange hugs so warm that you'd never know they just met that weekend. Now they're her friends for life, as are people with whom she faced a wall of riot police in Washington, D.C., marching in April against the IMF and World Bank. "I would put my life in their hands," she says. "We share something so fundamental, this vision we have for a better world."

As Hinz and Desyllas vanish into the Oregon night, it's easy to remember an earlier scene. They are at a brainstorming session, visualizing STARC's future. Win Swafford, a young consensus facilitator, jots suggestions on butcher paper. Hinz weighs in from the back of the room. "It's important that through our action we create community," he says, "so that in the unlikely event that we fail--and I do not believe we will--we don't lose each other."

The group murmurs enthusiastically. Swafford jots the vision down. "That," he says softly, "was really beautiful."

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