April 26th to 27th 2007, Oslo hosted the annual informal NATO summit which was accompanied with a series of protests. I will try to give you an overview of the events surrounding these days from the perspective of an Oslo activist. This is the second part.
One factor in the special way the Norwegian left is handled is the huge amount of media attention it gets — and that is of the positive kind. I believe it is fair to say that the vast majority of the non-parliamentary left, or those who are active in parliaments but do not believe much in parliaments’ abilities to fundamentally change society, there is _one_ common strategy on how to change government policy:
Make your case known in the media -> your proposal gains popular support -> politicians react to opinion polls and more parties are willing to adopt a stance closer to your’s -> the government implements a law or a policy that encompasses what you wanted.
Generally the entire anti-capitalist left agrees on most issues. In this case it would be for Norway to pull out of NATO, for NATO to be shut down, and for all NATO (Norwegian and from other countries) soldiers to be pulled out of Afghanistan as fast as possible. So there is not really a difference in the amount of radicalism among us. However, some groups have to consider other groups outside the anti-capitalist left and they therefore moderate what they can ask for. One example is the left of the Socialist Left Party which, although itself through and through anti-capitalist, has to consider the right in the party, which is social liberal and does not understand much of the ideas of the anti-capitalist left. Other major considerations are how radical ideas one wants to gain support for can be, whether one should prioritize a long-term perspective of changing society fundamentally or a short-term perspective of changing one tiny bit of society, and what kind of measures to gain media attention are productive.
The paradoxical outcome is that with every opportunity to gain both public and media attention such as this, there is a major scramble to gain attention for ones particular versions of how to portray things among people who in reality agree on the direction society needs to move in.
I was dragged into some of that the week before, two days after arriving in Norway. I had contacted Rolf and said I would be ready to help with whatever he needed me to do. It turned out that he had planned one meeting with four well-known speakers on the issue of Norwegian media’s role in war using the label “Blindern Fred.”
Attention seeking in the “inner circle”
The event had been planned forever, and just happened to be on the night before the NATO summit was to commence. Obviously, this evening would be usable as an attractive attention grabber, and so the central committees of the various “big organizations” which had been planned the protest the next day as well, were keen on using the evening as well. And for that they had booked peace researcher Johan Galtung — 7:30pm in the same room that we had booked at 7pm.
Rolf insured me that he had told them about Blindern Fred’s plans months ago, but on the other side the message had seemingly not been fully understood, mainly in that it was assumed that of course would some tiny organization like Blindern Fred move out of the way for a name such as Johan Galtung. Early that week we agreed on me talking to the other organizations while Rolf would speak to our speakers, trying to move our meeting to 6pm. My job was basically to keep the pressure up on the Peace Initiative, whose representatives were mainly responsible for the event and make sure that they would take us serious in the future by not giving in before the very last moment. They had already agreed to move their meeting to 8pm if we could move ours, but while we still had not received confirmation from our speakers, Johan Brox from the Peace Initiative tried to have us agree with a plan of moving our arrangement to a smaller room. We declined, and for about a day the situation got rather tense before we could confirm to move the meeting to 6pm. We thought everything was fixed now, and we put our posters for 6pm up all over the university campus.
But we turned out to be wrong — the Galtung people had decided not to update their information material on when their meeting was to start. Of course, it would have been a bit hard to update posters all over town, but when they sent emails out the last two days before the meeting, these had still the wrong time. At first I believed it to be an error on their part, so I sent emails to the various lists, where the invitation had been sent, trying to correct the times. But when it happened again and again, I finally asked Ingrid Fiskaa directly whether it would be a good idea to update the specified time. She answered that she was aware of it, but that it would be better for people to receive the wrong time rather than to receive two different times, which might confuse them. Twenty minutes later I received another mail from her, again with the wrong time. The result would of course be that people would come in in the middle of our meeting, and so we would have to cut our meeting short.
However, not as the result of any instructions from us, those responsible for scheduling meetings every Wednesday ended up getting mad at the Peace Initiative and they put a few bullies in the door way who would not let anybody while the first meeting was still on. When I left at 8:30pm, they still had not let anyone in. Luckily, both meetings ended up having enough spectators to fill up.
Attention seeking in the “inner circle” is really about saying to everyone else on the radical left “hey, look at this event we’re doing here: we’ve got important people (celebrities) showing up; we have relevant discussions going on (or some that look ‘intellectual’ ’cause our speakers say things that do not seem to be coherent or anywhere close to sufficiently radical given the circles that we usually talk in); you can trust on us continuing to be the ones outlining the politics of the radical left on this theme” (in this case: peace & war politics). It also shows who shows up at these events: the other radicals, although to some degree they might be less organized than the organizers themselves.
Attention in the media
Attention seeking in the media is a somewhat different matter. While the attention seeking in the “inner circle” does not lead to immediate changes in government policy, this latter is supposed to be the real deal and the final result of most organizing efforts, using the above scheme.
However, sometimes it ends up with a somewhat different scheme:
Make your case known in the media -> You get to be a celebrity!
To some degree this is uncontrollable. However, to some degree it also is. This is not to point fingers at anyone; it happens to everybody every now and then to a certain degree. One just has to make sure to suppress it once one catches oneself thinking that way and to seek strategies of diminishing its effect.
The two main groups who were in it this day would again be the Peace Initiative with a bunch of other groups, who had planned “peaceful,” legal demonstrations that night, and the anarchist house Blitz, which had announced an illegal demonstration following the other one. Already in the days before, one group allied with the Peace Initiative, the Red Youth had gone to the media and complained about Blitz and said that they would plan for violent riots. After the demonstrations were over, several other actors from the Peace Initiative directly, such as Ingrid Fiskaa, criticized Blitz in the media again.
So it is fair to say that they were quite busy shouting at one-another.
Also we from Blindern Fred were involved in this type of attention seeking game this time. The week earlier, I had met Aksel Gihle, who had been active in Blindern Fred and he voiced a wish to “go do something again.” Marielle Leraand, who had been active in Blindern Fred as well and who never has been shy of doing activist media-targeted actions was in the middle of a 14 day home exam, so anything we would do would have to be over within just a few minutes, so she could get back to her studies. In a meeting with Aksel and Rolf, where we were to outline all future activities, I therefore suggested to just have some lie-down-dead stunt somewhere in inner Oslo during daytime and call it something fancy (a “die-in”), to make it for the various deadlines and for the media to have some pictures of protests during the summit that day (the other protests would not be before that night).
A few emails and a few phone calls later, we had a meeting arranged an hour before our debate. Although I had sent it out so that 100s of activists should have received it, as usually, it always ends up being the same handful of activists showing up, with everyone else just commenting on what a great idea it was — afterward. We were joined by Sjur from Indymedia/Hausmania, Torgeir from the Socialist Left Party and Kim from Hausmania & more.
Reflecting on the whole power/media struggle thing, we specifically concentrated on a) making up a new organization name, so that it was not us from Blindern Fred getting any credit, b) not to have a leader and to switch among spokespeople, so that it does not end up being one person’s image building thing. You might wonder why to make up an organization name instead of not using any organization, but experience has shown that it is impossible to convince Norwegian media that you are not representing an organization when you are doing some political stunt. The name we chose this time was “Independent Peace Activists.”
The action, the comical
The actions themselves always end up being so unprofessionally pulled through that it borders on the comical. The first few times planning such things it almost drove me mad with embarrassment, but for quite a while I have learned to live with it. And with comical, I do not only mean the other activists; I am talking about myself, the other activists, the police and the media. It almost seems to be part of the nature of stunts like these that nothing works quite right.
First of all the police. Right after posting the invitation for the stunt and the final planning meeting to various email-lists as well as Indymedia.no and BlindernFred.org, I also sent a mail to the planning office of the police, describing what we want to do with two sentences and the pasting the invitation below. A while later I got a call by a police officer. “Very good that you tell us on beforehand, although we have our networks, so we knew about it already, of course,” the police officer, who told me he had been speaking to me earlier, explained. The “networks” they have must be the Internet , I thought to myself. The officer then went on to tell me that we could have an entire square somewhere in front of the house of the newspaper Aftenposten for our action, but that we must then also ask Aftenposten if they mind us being there. Apparently this guy believes we somehow organize a few thousand demonstrators for this action. Has he been working with ME before? Alternatively we could be lying on the sidewalk on the Vaterland bridge. I picked the latter, and I told him that we will with all likelihood be under 10 activists, max 15. I also told him to please, when he comes, not to come over and talk to me, because “those we work together with [Hausmania] are not to keen on the police.” It took some seconds, but then was “is in on it.” He promised only to send undercover agents and to not come over and start chit-chatting with me. (again, honestly, this is what the police man said)
A few hours later a police woman called me and wanted to have a fax number where she could send the permission. The permission she sent was for in front of the Aftenposten building, and it specified that we would be allowed to bring a grill (yes, a GRILL, please do not ask). We had already told the media about the Vaterland bridge, so we continued planning for that. We were to meet in front of Hausmania half an hour before the action and then walk over to the bridge. A few hours earlier, the police man called me again. He told me that in order to get to the Aftenposten house we would be allowed to “march down Storgata .” (yes, MARCH). I answered that we had not planned to march, but rather we would be lying down on the ground, as it was specified in the notice to him and that he had said the day before that we would need more permissions in order to go to Aftenposten rather than Vaterland bridge. He had forgotten about that. And now his chief was in a meeting, so he had a hard time rescheduling us. He asked if we could not go to Aftenposten instead. That I sent out a press release to 300 Norwegian media outlets did not seem to count for him. So instead I told him that I was pressured by some of the other activists who are not too happy about talking to the police at all. Half an hour later he called back and gave us his OK.
Then there is us: The biggest joke is of course the number: 6 activists! Then there is the amount of planning time: We talked about what issues we wanted to focus on the evening before, the first (and final) draft of the flyer is being sent out at 1:08am that morning. I printed forty copies of it, but my printer does not quite work, so they were hardly legible. When we met that morning, we did not wait to see if someone else of those approximately 400 activists who knew about the action by now actually would join us. Instead we went and made more copies. I took time. Two guys operated the paper cutter. One insisted on cutting all the borders of as well, although we had less than ten minutes to go to the bridge. The radio station P4 called, and asked where we were and if we were many. I told them that we were few, and that we were on our way. The guys almost cut one-another’s fingers off. We finally started moving, and I gave up my cell phone, my camera and the flyers to Kim. He had not been in the media before and should be able to represent us without it just ending as a fame-accumulating thing, I hoped. At the first corner we ran into an older man who calls over “hey Kim!” We had to stop a few seconds. It looked as if that is Kim’s first grade teacher who has not seen him for ten years or something. Kim managed to tell him that he needs to go though. It turned out it was his uncle. At the next corner we ran into another activist. Sjur screamed: “hey Akbar, we’re going to do some action, wanna come?” But Akbar had other plans, which he explained. Then we can finally went. Once we got to be just 50 meters from the bridge, we could see the journalists standing there. However, one of of guys figured that “now I need to go and take a piss” and off he went into a restaurant. Marielle showed up, and we stood there waiting for the guy on the toilet and Torgeir together with the journalists. I told them that “it will be bloody,” trying to convince them that it will be worth waiting for us, although they must have figured out by now that we were so few that we really are not all that interesting. “Yeah, I saw you had some ketchup there,” one photographer said. True, that is how bloody it would get that day. Marielle seemed to be shocked by how badly planned this was as well, given that I only had two ketchup packs. It is only when she saw that each of us had two that she felt OK about it. It turned out that Marielle had planned on being the spokesperson rather than lying down. One journalist added that it is good to have a woman, because there are so many males. Good point, and so Marielle was the spokesperson for today. They asked us who we were, and she answered “Blindern Fred.” Two of us corrected her. Of course — she had not had time to read the leaflet yet. Somehow, she still managed to give a brilliant interview though.
The third odd thing is of course the media: they write about us! By now they must have figured out that EVERYTHING we from Blindern Fred do ends up being tiny. Yet somehow they still give us attention time and again. And to our own and their defense I must say: although we are few, our message is probably truer and more coherent than that of most groups, that have to consider all kinds of political constellations around them.
Initially we had done this tiny actions in order to show others that it is possible to do something without a huge organization backing you. However, instead of planning thousands of tiny actions like these themselves, most just end up celebrating us as if we were something special. So the fourth joke are all the other activists. 🙂
Oh well, in the end we are all friends.