The Autonomy of an NYC Protest

An urgent shift away from visible organizers is the only way to avoid scene death.

Autozone logo edited to read “Autonomy” with a subline “Notes from within and without.”

On September 16th, an autonomous action popped up in immediate response to a whistleblower leak that ICE is performing mass hysterectomies at a facility in Georgia. The action was at Foley Square, the heart of NYC’s federal buildings, and no one knows who organized it — but that didn’t stop people from showing up that Wednesday. Or the next day. Or the day after for a clout-chasing press conference organized by a grifter cult (RefuseFascism) that wasn’t even there. Wait, let me clarify: One of their members was there, kept distance from the main group, and left long before anything happened.

I don’t know who reached out to who to get the Abolish ICE action to spread across social media the way it did, but I can safely assume reliable people in the protest scene were the ones who reached out to JusticeForGeorgeNYC, since they shared it and they don’t usually share things created by unknown people. But that’s just an assumption. Maybe JusticeForGeorgeNYC shared it because any action was happening at all, which is a rare thing these days. Maybe they shared it because they created it (haha can you imagine?). We don’t know and we never will. That, my friends, is the beauty of anonymity.

For the sake of clarity, it bears considering the definitive differences between “anonymous” and “autonomous” and their synonymic overlap with respect to how they are used in the scene.

Anonymous: Unknown, unnamed.
Autonomous: Self-governed, self-contained.

When we speak on autonomous actions, it is with the intent of signifying that the action is the organizer, not a person who has created the action. What you bring to the action is what makes it so. Organizers will plan, say, a peaceful sit-in. An autonomous action will name a time and place and whether it’s peaceful depends on the people who show up and what they decide to do.

We’ve seen and will continue seeing anonymous actions described as autonomous. This isn’t a collective failure to understand words. Rather, it’s because a self-governed action inherently necessitates anonymity. If you slap a name on it, the action stops being solely about itself and becomes instead a platform for a person or group of people. The action must be the organizer.

Since the Sept. 16th Abolish ICE action, there has been a major shift in the scene. A light flipped on. Personally, it’s a relief to witness.

I’ve watched as the ego eats away at visible leaders, their autocannibalized husks crumbling into dust as they lead yet another lackluster march over a bridge*. The bright spark of light that fueled so many for so long fading into a void. I’ve seen the hope fall away, replaced by fear and that painful question no one is ready to ask: What comes next?

Countless demonstrators have been banging the same drum (and their heads against a wall) for months hoping the scene would figure itself out. Whether they were demonstrators from Day 1 of the rebellion or joined in only recently, the same exact beat has played across hundreds of minds throughout the protest scene. The criticisms always fall on:

  • “Leaders” who just want photos taken, donations given, and fame granted
  • Agitators who just want photos taken, donations given, and fame granted
  • Megaphones and mic checks
  • Peace police**
  • A rush for clout from individuals as well as groups
  • Bridges
  • An incessant amount of in-fighting within organizations and between them
  • A total and complete lack of direct actions with purpose

This is all to say: The scene is exhausted with itself. It has watched megaphones lead people in circles. It has watched peace police do the cops’ job for them, swoopers yell in each other’s megaphones, and grifters strain to squeeze the last few drops of relevancy out of their played out bit. It has watched the city settle into a new status quo, the movement forget why it’s here, and the focus shift to chasing glory through any means necessary.

So when an autonomous action bubbles up where the action itself is the organizer, there’s excitement. Something new! Something different!

I see it a little more cynically. The scene could have been autonomous the entire summer if it had the guts to boot out the peace police looking for clout. It was only after a full month of lackluster events over the same damn bridges that the need to shift became apparent. Because the alternative was death.

Now that we’re here, where do we go?

After the Abolish ICE action, a trend started to take shape: People began creating what they called autonomous actions. Flyers formed with phrases like “This event has no leader!” and “No megaphones — No peace police.” That is an exciting thing to witness! The only trouble is, as we’ve found out, it’s a lot easier to say than to do.

The Eternal Swoop of the Leaderless Mind

After the Attorney General’s announcement of the Breonna Taylor trial, an organizer group threw together a call to action uptown. Another organizer decided to put together a march in lower Manhattan at 5pm. That action marched over the Brooklyn bridge straight to Barclays, where the 7pm autonomous action was underway. I was told that he was instructed to go to the Barclays action and take it over.

While I can’t confirm that, I do know people in his crew were in contact with other organizer groups and coordinated how multiple marches would merge together. At one point, it was shared to me that “We told them they [Warriors In The Garden, whose sound system led the march] could either go back to the bridge or Times Square.” When I asked about whether taking the 2000+ crowd to Foley Square had been considered, since police would be incapable of handling a crowd size that large, they demurred. Times Square? The bridge again? Instead, they went in circles and took the Williamsburg bridge. I skipped on that since I’d just flown back from LA, but reports on the ground indicate once they got over the bridge, things just dispersed and evaporated.

That’s what happens when you follow the leader.

A Lack Of Critical Engagement

With megaphones and flags, a 30-person group joined the crowd of 600-and-growing and began speaking. All eyes turned to them, even if hardly anyone could hear what they were saying. No one questioned who was speaking, if they were saying anything of merit. They just listened and followed along.

Someone got on a megaphone and directed the crowd, which had begun spilling out into the street, to lay down for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Many obliged, allowing all of their energy to be totally sucked out of the space.

Then she read out her Instagram handle, which I could barely hear. At that point, I started asking people around me if they had any idea who was speaking. No one responded. They just stood, uncomfortably, waiting to be told what to do next. Someone did manage to find her Instagram and it turns out it was a teenage girl who is heavy on that promo culture.

The flyer didn’t say there’d be a march, even though an autonomous action means the action is the organizer. But the flyer did say no peace police and no megaphones and both were out in full force. Yelling at each other in front of hundreds of people and boatloads of press. Desperate to be the boss.

The autonomous action spread across the country, with identical flyers popping up in Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh, St. Paul, Las Vegas, Spokane, Nashville, Austin, Philadelphia, Olympia, Waco, Grand Rapids, Eugene, Richmond, Lincoln, DC, Buffalo, Atlanta, and I’m sure plenty more I’ve either forgotten or never found. Swoops were bound to happen. What surprised me was how excited the swoopers were to swoop each other. Petty fights broke out about directions to go in, swooper chants overtook portions of the crowd –– and peace police were at their peak. At one point, a Black woman told me to “get them on camera” as other Black people painted a bank. People yelled “peaceful protest” to get them to stop. No one ever said it was peaceful. They just decided it was. I’ll never shake the disgust when I asked that woman “Are you trying to police how people protest? Are you policing people?” and she responded with a hearty “Yes!” — she accused me of racism, then took my photo. Enjoy telling your friends how some random white girl knows it’s not a good look to try incriminating Black people, I guess?

The point is, emotions were high. The action for Breonna became an action about who’d get to be the biggest boss, and everyone wanted to claim that title. Throughout it all, there wasn’t really any way to stop the swoopers.

In fact, the swooping and vying for power and aggressive peace policing all served one important need: To highlight how poorly they have handled the movement and how desperately the movement needs to get as far away from them as possible.

While the Breonna Taylor action did devolve into a multi-bridge walk in circles around Chinatown, the action opened a lot of eyes and made people realize: Those megaphones have got to go. Those swoopers, when met with a collective force of rejection, won’t be able to swoop. And the next time someone tries to lead you on a bridge — you’ll know not to do it and so will a few hundred of your new friends.

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*Next piece will get in more deeply to peace police, bridges, and swoops :)