Direct Action: An Ethnography
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Anthropologist David Graeber undertakes the first detailed ethnographic study of the global justice movement. The case study at the center of Direct Action is the organizing and events that led to the one of the most dramatic and militant mass protests in recent years—against the Summit of the Americas in Québec City. Written in a clear, accessible style (with a minimum of academic jargon), this study brings readers behind the scenes of a movement that has changed the terms of debate about world power relations. From informal conversations in coffee shops to large “spokescouncil” planning meetings and tear gas-drenched street actions, Graeber paints a vivid and fascinating picture.
Along the way, he addresses matters of deep interest to anthropologists: meeting structure and process, language, symbolism and representation, the specific rituals of activist culture, and much more. Starting from the assumption that, when dealing with possibilities of global transformation and emerging political forms, a disinterested, “objective” perspective is impossible, Graeber writes as both scholar and activist. At the same time, his experiment in the application of ethnographic methods to important ongoing political events is a serious and unique contribution to the field of anthropology, as well as an inquiry into anthropology’s political implications.
David Graeber is an anthropologist and activist who teaches at the University of London. Active in numerous direct-action political organizations, he has written for Harper’s Magazine and is the author of Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value, and Possibilities.
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charmed circle. Some elements of this activist culture—the rejection of personal hygiene standards, for instance—were considered downright offensive by most of those with whom they wished to form alliances. Others, like the vegan diets, made it impossible to sit down at the table with almost anyone who was not already an activist. Activist culture was choking the promise of the movement, and anarchists had to make up their mind what they really wanted to do: create a (tiny, relatively privileged)
efforts to avoid anything that could be interpreted as a provocation: none of the anarchists were wearing masks, the woman with the megaphone had not in fact been using it but simply carrying it from one permitted rally point to another (and anyway, as many pointed out, there’s no such thing as a moving sound permit). Still, the fact that everyone knew the arrests were a pretext and consciously intended to sow dissension didn’t really matter. Afterwards, many activists who based their strategy on
All right. We have a proposal. Stand-asides? Dan: Are there other possibilities? Lesley: We’ll get to that if this one doesn’t pass. Ernest: I’m not seeing any stand-asides. Any blocks? Dennis: Can I just ask for clarification—more detail on the proposal? [Ernest restates the proposal ] Dennis: No. I still block. Now, it was the turn of Dan, a young man of South Asian descent who occasionally worked with the legal team (he was, at that moment, sitting on the ground, somewhat anomalously
there, does that… Mark: I will interpret this question as a concern, now. Man: …would it go against respect? Woman: Also, Justin just told me that there will be people coming from all over the Northeast who will be coming straight to Akwesasne, without passing through Burlington. Maybe several hundred. Mark: That’s an appropriate use of point of information, but I’m still looking for any clarifying questions or concerns, here. Enos: Concerning the first proposal: what will be the criteria
pocket watch). The Black Bloc is not in evidence. I’m told they’ve been scattered in small groups for most of the day, going against exposed sectors of the perimeter. I’m disappointed, though, to see that the section of the wall we’d pulled down yesterday was up again. There’s a new, somewhat jerry-built gate. Right behind it, they’ve positioned a water cannon—actually a pretty clever move, since this means we can’t get near enough to trash the thing. The water cannon seems to be set to