In Defense of Wheat Paste:
E-organizing vs. Postering
By Derrick O'Keefe
I remember back last winter and spring, due to the massive anti-war rallies occurring worldwide, there was a lot of talk about how the internet had been a decisive factor in the size of the mobilizations. At one point, there were a couple of pieces floating about the matrix celebrating the fact that the epoch of messy outdoor postering was over. Wheat paste -that simple yet incredibly effective "revolutionary glue" made with flour and water -was to be relegated to the dustbin of history, replaced by email groups, websites and other on-line wonders of information dissemination.
Here in Vancouver, Canada, the internet euphoria extended even to the naming of the anti-war coalition, which at a fiery four-hour meeting was named StopWar.ca in a democratic vote (over the strenuous objections of an indignant minority). At one point in early spring I even got the opportunity to do an interview on a mainstream radio station; not to talk about the war or the protests per se, but to discuss the role of the internet in mobilizing people. Going along to some extent with the angle the interviewer was taking, I remember explaining that yes, obviously, emailing 1000 people at once is more efficient than individual phone calls. And a significant amount of time, postage and airfare were being saved by our ability to consult webpages throughout the world to determine international days of action, themes for demonstrations, and to obtain graphics, slogans, articles, etc. This, I believe, has been the biggest benefit of the internet -coordinating nationally and internationally.
The internet is also home to a mushrooming number of discussion lists, where leftists can debate strategy and the finer points of theory. Often, too, the lists can take on the feel of support groups, as refugees from a myriad of sects and other failed organizing projects take refuge and assess their past experiences. This e-activism, though, is dangerous precisely because of this high comfort level. Going to bang one's head against the walls of local coalitions and the objective and all-too-unromantic constraints faced by real movements begins to seem an undesirable alternative to debating and commiserating with e-comrades throughout the world.
As for local organizing and mobilizing, then, I'd argue that people willing to do consistent legwork, and willing to sit through many a boring meeting, are still crucial. Postering -that time-honored leftist tradition unrecognized by the MSWord spell-checker and unappreciated by those whose causes receive easy publicity in the mainstream -remains a critical form of outreach. An email is easy to disregard or delete, becoming easier as spam increases exponentially. A few thousand, or a few tens of thousands of posters throughout the city are harder to ignore. Incidentally, a friendly phone call from a real person, and not from one of those terrifying recorded voice messages, is also harder to dismiss than an email.
Few activists seem keen to poster. Fewer still are proficient at the skill. Many assume that "postering" consists of taking a couple dozen posters and taping them up at the odd bus stop. The kind of "postering" I have been introduced to over the past couple of years involves serious hours (usually very late night), putting up hundreds every night. For major events, two to ten or even twenty thousand posters can be produced and put up. Aside from hitting lampposts in important neighborhoods and campuses, it is also important to have people willing to consistently visit shops, restaurants and cafes to inquire as to their willingness to post materials.
There are other benefits to postering, including the physical activity it forces upon the sedentary lifestyle that frequent meetings imposes upon many activists. Instead of having a small, informal meeting or discussion over coffee (or beer), have it over a couple of hours of moderate aerobic exercise, all the while publicizing your cause. The activity also reinforces unity and fraternal relations amongst activists. Ie. Exchange posters rather than exchanging sectarian gossip; put up both anti-poverty and anti-war posters at the same time. Better yet, poster at the same time for two groups with differing positions, or no position at all (gasp!) on the Kronstadt rebellion -it can be very therapeutic.
At the risk of embarrassingly overstating my case, I will conclude by asserting that the lack of a culture of postering reflects a generalized lack of activist and revolutionary culture here in North America. As valuable and as international as the internet activist community has become, it can not replace the critical (and often messy) local work, putting up posters and putting back together coalitions and movements that can challenge the imperial monolith and that so-often-unnamed dominant system, capitalism itself.
Now then, please forward this article widely…
Derrick O'Keefe is an activist with www.StopWar.ca and the Palestine Solidarity Group (www.palsolidaritygrp.org) in Vancouver, Canada.