On the surface at least, one might expect New York activists to fully support Rojava, that is to say an area comprised of Kurdish cantons within northern Syria. The Kurds have been promoting arguably the most radical experiment in direct democracy in recent memory, from feminist empowerment to eco-socialist revolution to ethnic pluralism to economic cooperatives. Though perhaps not all Syrian Kurds would choose to define themselves as such, Rojava displays many core anarchist beliefs from conducting business on a barter system to neighborhood communes to sustainable farms.
Rojava has taken on patriarchy with a vengeance, and women must comprise at least 40 percent of all governing bodies. Moreover, women serve in Kurdish military units along their male counterparts. Meanwhile, local assemblies must include not just Kurds but other minorities. Determined not to repeat tired old political models of the past, Kurdish leaders believe the nation state itself is bankrupt. In line with such notions, Rojava has proclaimed a “social contract” rather than a constitution, which places great importance on environmentalism and equality while rejecting state, religious or military-style nationalism.
Now that Donald Trump has given Turkey the green light to invade northern Syria, which has placed the overall future of Rojava in some doubt and led to a humanitarian and refugee crisis, some activists in New York have organized rallies in Union Square while protesting at Turkish airlines, whose offices are located within the Empire State building. On the whole, however, the political response from those who would define themselves as leftists has been sorely lacking.
Making Sense of Rebellion
Such inertia is even more jarring in light of the rapid advance of world-wide revolt from Lebanon to Chile to Hong Kong and beyond, suggesting that rebellion is spreading and could prove difficult to contain. Like the Arab Spring of 2010-11, which leapt from country to country, toppling dictators in its wake, the current ferment seems poised to sweep aside corrupt elites intent on preserving the status quo. But unlike the Arab Spring, which was limited to one specific region and later sputtered out, today’s rebellions are broader in both political and geographical scope and could give rise to more profound structural changes.
On the superficial level, today’s most recent rebellions seem to share certain traits in common. Fed up with the rising cost of living and simmering inequality, Chilean students and young folk have protested by taking to the streets of Santiago. But despite government pledges to tackle social-economic disparities, such moves have failed to quell waves of unrest. In Lebanon, meanwhile, protests broke out after the authorities tried to impose a charge on voice over internet protocol use, a feature used by Whatsapp and other applications. But as in Chile, official promises to scrap the tax and implement other reforms failed to mollify protesters, who are fed up with crony capitalism and want the government to disband.
Other rebellions, however, have been sparked not so much by economic inequality but rather by political repression. Take, for example, the case of Hong Kong, where young protesters have once again taken a leading role. Incensed by a bill which would have allowed extradition to the Chinese mainland, citizens took to the streets while battling the police and thug-like elements linked to organized crime. But as per the cases of Chile and Lebanon, government moves to address protesters’ demands — in this case scrapping the extradition bill — failed to reassure many Hong Kongers, who now seek full democracy and greater police accountability. Concerned about Beijing’s greater encroachment, demonstrators want to secure the right to protest, a free press and independent judiciary.
Lack of Environmental Consciousness
On the positive side, the current wave of leaderless global protest eschews traditional political power brokers and the partisan divide while embracing militant tactics. Taken as a whole, however, the rebellions can be inchoate from one region to the next, and fail to articulate a coherent radical vision. Most glaringly, with the exception of Britain and isolated protests in the United States, where climate action group Extinction Rebellion has been making steady progress, environmental issues haven’t surfaced as a concern for the latest generation of protesters, thus highlighting the growing gap between protest culture within the global north and south.
Indeed, some demonstrators have seemingly thumbed their noses at the environment, for example in Ecuador where citizens revolted after the government announced it would end subsidies which have helped to keep fuel prices low. The Chilean government, meanwhile, has announced it will cancel next month’s United Nations climate change summit, COP25, out of fear the meeting would be disrupted by street protests. The cancellation throws South American environmental concerns into some doubt, since previous plans to hold the summit in Brazil had also been shelved, notwithstanding forest fires in the Amazon rainforest, a dire situation which will have global consequences.
Convenient and Inconvenient Victims
Given that protests can now spread rapidly over social media, with protesters exchanging information and advice from country to country, the need for greater coordination has never been greater. In light of such underlying needs, I have been baffled by the almost complete blackout, indifference and even open contempt for what has been happening in Rojava, where Kurds have managed to articulate and give voice to disparate political strands in contrast to many other areas of the world where rebellions have taken place.
There may be several different explanations for this lackluster response. On the one hand, progressive-liberal folk are ill-served by the likes of cable news and narrow-minded MSNBC, which serve up a daily diet of parochial fare amidst the latest ins-and-outs of the Trump presidency. Even Rachel Maddow, the network’s most thorough and dogged news host, tends to steer clear of foreign events, only choosing to mention the Kurds in the midst of the Turkish invasion, and even so failing to utter the word Rojava or provide vital context about the region’s radical political accomplishments.
Other folk, who may define themselves as more hardened leftists as opposed to simply progressive, are similarly ill-served by a daily diet of ideological fare, from The Nation to the Intercept to “Jacobin” magazine (whose mere title, evoking proto-Stalinists of an earlier era, should be instantly disqualifying). To a greater or lesser degree, all of these outlets tend to reinforce a rather “statist” view of the world which gives Russia and other backward actors the benefit of the doubt, that is to say, “we” should deal with the Kremlin, “Turkish interests” or strive to get along and cut deals with the likes of Assad, all of whom are viewed as somehow more legitimate than the Kurds, who are a complete afterthought or marginal footnote.
Within such a black and white perspective, there are convenient and inconvenient victims. In accordance with the leftist playbook, Palestinians are viewed as worthy of support, but others, such as Uighurs and Hong Kongers, who are being repressed by the “Communist” Party of China, are viewed as undesirable. There’s been a similar lack of outcry over the plight of Crimean Tatars, whose territory was annexed by Russia and who have also been persecuted. In this sense, Kurds too fall on the wrong side of history, since up until recently they were military allies of the United States. Ridiculously, and in line with post-modernistic nonsense, many leftists claim that “it’s not my right” to speak up for repressed groups unless they are being targeted by Israel or the United States.
From Kurds to Anarchists
What are the prospects of injecting a greater appreciation for foreign struggle within activist circles? Here in New York, Syria protests have drawn together the Emergency Committee for Rojava, a group of scholars and activists based at City University of New York, as well as Kurds and anarchists. The Kurds constitute a small immigrant group primarily based in New Jersey, while anarchists operate within different “scenes,” i.e. the “Bushwick scene,” the Ridgewood “Woodbine scene,” etc.
In this sense, New York is quite different from, say, Berlin where whole neighborhoods are taken up by leftists and housing collectives, or for that matter Exarcheia in Athens. Though Ridgewood hosts a kind of anarchist hub, including the Woodbine political center and a café/bookstore, it’s a far cry from European cities which display more of a real leftist “counter-culture.”
With the exception of a few elder statesmen and women, the anarchist scene is made up almost entirely of twenty somethings or ex-Occupy Wall Street activists. There doesn’t seem to be much of a real discussion within such circles about how to expand or conduct genuine political organizing beyond the usual black leather contingent, which serves to put a brake on overall effectiveness. Judging from recent history, anarchists don’t seem particularly interested in sparking creative protest which will elicit interest from the media, thus consigning righteous demonstrations to obscurity.
The View From New York
Perhaps, anarchists could learn a thing or two from the Democratic Socialists of America or DSA, which has been more successful at organizing. Like anarchists, DSA has attracted many young participants from Occupy. Unfortunately, however, the group has invested most of its energy in electoral politics, which saps endless time and resources. The organization is probably split between left ideologues and some rogue members who express interest in self-indulgent foreign struggles.
In this sense, DSA takes after its two heroes, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortéz, both of whom fail to express any political curiosity about leftist struggles beyond their predictable and immediate playbook. At long length, in the midst of the Turkish invasion, Sanders spoke out about the need to support the Kurds, though he failed to even utter the word Rojava. AOC, meanwhile, who boasts 5.5 million followers on Twitter, likes to engage in pointless spats with Ivanka Trump on social media. Reluctantly, it seems, she finally condemned the Turks though she too conveniently neglected to mention Rojava.
Extinction Rebellion, a more recent environmental group, has been growing steadily in New York and could breathe more dynamic life into this picture. Though activists don’t seem particularly informed about social struggle abroad, let alone eco-socialist revolution in Rojava, and some members are apocalyptic crackpots with others embracing a kind of “kumbaya” touchy feely sensibility, nevertheless Extinction Rebellion has engaged in vital non-violent civil disobedience tactics. The outfit doesn’t call too many actions, but Extinction Rebellion gives a lot of thought to its protests which always manage to get into the media spotlight, from Rockefeller Center to Wall Street to the New York Times.
Return to the United Nations
Without getting too sidetracked about New York and its various leftist sub-cultures, it’s worth considering how to recapture militant politics which has been noticeably absent since Occupy. Part of an activist’s responsibility is to cover his or her home base, and New York is unique in playing host to all countries of the world at the United Nations. While activists who know this area of Manhattan well may shrug at the suggestion, it makes sense to think about the United Nations and how it might fit into a wider strategic vision which could revive and improve upon the earlier history of actions here.
Currently, Rojava is calling for a no-fly-zone over its territory, as well as additional pressure to be brought to bear against Turkey. The logical place to start is the United Nations, home to the Security Council as well as the Turkish Mission to the United Nations. But given that most New Yorkers have never even heard of the Kurds, much less Rojava, activists cannot marshal large numbers of people. In the past, however, activists have been able to maximize their impact through small and pointed actions which have elicited attention from the media.
In the run-up to George Bush’s war in Iraq in 2003, I was briefly active in a political group called No Blood for Oil. With few members, the outfit wasn’t able to organize large anti-war protests. However, our group shrewdly decided to call for ongoing protests outside the United Nations at certain fixed times and days of the week, so that all activists knew where and when to show up. Gradually, the momentum started to grow as curious foreign correspondents working nearby at the United Nations came out to interview us.
Finally, in a carefully choreographed action, we marched up to the gates of the United Nations with a petition asking Kofi Annan to observe the UN Charter and call on the United States to halt its plans to invade Iraq. Once we reached the gate, we sat down in an act of non-violent civil disobedience. Though the police arrested us, images of the protest were beamed around the world by the BBC, thus reassuring the public that not everyone in America was on board with Bush’s designs on the Middle East.
Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza and Environs
Historically, Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza and the surrounding area have witnessed countless human rights protests, from demonstrations highlighting the plight of Tibetans, Uighurs and Hong Kongers to Kashmir to the Rohingya of Burma to Ambazonia (not to be confused with Amazonia). In addition, important and historic civil rights protests highlighting women and gay rights have occurred here. And it’s not as if Rojava activists are unfamiliar with the area, as they too protested Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to the UN in 2017. The trick, however, is to figure out how to build momentum, as opposed to conducting “one-off” actions which quickly dissipate.
Rojava is now entering into a period of shifting geopolitical flux, and organizers might want to think about how the area allows activists to uniquely interact with key regional players ensconced at the Turkish mission, the U.S. mission, the Russian mission, the Iranian Mission and the Syrian Mission. If activists can bring in more people from the groups I previously mentioned, while approaching the situation creatively, perhaps in a kind of “tyranny tour” displaying props of leading authoritarian leaders and strongmen, then journalists at the UN Correspondents Association might take note, thereby creating more visibility.
Admittedly, the UN is isolated on the east side of Manhattan and there’s not a lot of foot traffic in the vicinity. On the other hand, Grand Central, Bryant Park and Times Square are just a short walk away, and the area presents interesting opportunities for activists to engage with other international campaigners determined to bring attention to their own human rights struggles. Perhaps, such interactions can help shape meaningful dialogue about the current wave of global protest and how these demonstrations might fit together in a more cohesive fashion. To be sure, an activist strategy built around the United Nations could easily fail, but as recent history has shown, protests can emerge all across the globe in areas that few would have initially anticipated.