Dec, 2001 NYC
Yellow Overalls Must Rise! (in order to lay
TFG Casper, former member of dissolved NYC
Ya Basta! Collective
By Mira Jovanovich
MJ: I'm wondering if you can give us a little
background on Ya Basta and the yellow overalls, as it has played out
here in North America.
TFGC: The New York City Ya Basta! Collective
formed just a few weeks after the pictures and stories from the protests
in Prague [IMF meetings, Sept 2000] were transmitted across the Atlantic.
Like many people inspired by these communications, we were interested
in understanding the dynamics of this relatively new and somewhat
poetic tactic of civil disobedience, and attempted, as far as possible,
to gather intelligence on the efforts of the "tute bianche".
We had the fortunate privilege of having an Italian activist as a
member of our local collective, one who was more than familiar with
the developments of the white overalls and the Ya Basta Association,
specifically as things evolved in cities like Milan and Genoa. We
received greatly informed reports as developments would happen.
Our first attempt to organize some sort of formation, on more than
just an affinity group type scale, was during the Quebec City mobilization.
Our original intent was to organize a "block" of yellow
overalls made up of clusters from all over the States, as well as
Canadian affinity groups. This attempt was met with certain interesting
resistances. We called for, and carried out, several formation type
trainings at a location just south of the Canadian border, in the
small college town of Burlington, Vermont, which had become a sort
of way station for those trying to get to Quebec from many points
south. This experience of pulling together these trainings (at this
point none of us had a direct experience of the kind) was a bit problematic.
At one point these trainings developed into a sort of sports try out,
in which a few overly enthusiastic jocks tried to rally "the
troops" to a cause celebre, and unfortunately for the majority
of participants became another forum for a sort of street fighting
bravado. It gave some participants the valid impression that what
was playing out within this "tactical movement" was the
same dynamic frequently extent in other tactics that tend to become
or appear to be male oriented. What was equally frustrating was that
the greater collective was lacking a meaningful political consciousness
to resist these manifestations of machismo, even though many of us
were aware and disgusted by it. Ultimately, while we had committed
to counter the repression of the cops, we failed to counter the inner
tendencies, within the group, of similar oppressions breaking out.
And on top of this, most of the NYC crew never
made it to Quebec. We had immigration problems.
One related question that developed out of the trainings, a tendency
that never really resolved itself, was our inability to come to an
understanding about what exactly we were. That is, were we an affinity
group, or a tight collective of individuals adopting the tactics and
partial rhetoric of the tute bianche, or were we more appropriately
trying to foment a broader and specific political project, a tactic
AND a philosophy of action? It's an interesting question if viewed
within the context of the way activists organize in North America,
or specifically in NYC, as opposed to more European flavors. We uprooted
the language from its political and historical context, and in this
way gave short attention to this question of transplantation.
MJ: The rumor is that the collective has dissolved.
Has Ya Basta! come to an untimely conclusion? What of the North American
TFGC: I can't really speak about the situation
in North America in its entirety, but I can say that it's yet to be
seen what effect it could still have across the continent. I can also
say that it was hardly a movement per se, we hadn't reached that point
quite yet. Unfortunately for the NYC group of yellow overalls, two
occurrences stopped it in its tracks. One was of course the collective
decision of the Europeans to take off the overalls, made just before
Genoa, which directly influenced many in the NYC collective. The other
is the strange environment coming out of the September 11th tragedy
here in New York, and the assumed repression that will most definitely
come about as a result, which many members felt had neutralized the
efficacy of the transparent nature of the tactic.
Unfortunately the idea of yellow overalls barely
got off the ground before these troubles set in. As for New York,
there was no "dissolving" action in any sense, the collective
simple fell apart for these reasons, which may have exacerbated our
lack of vision and clarification about what exactly it we were trying
to do, and with an additional bit of personal intrigues. There are
still remnants of the notion of Ya Basta! floating around, but nothing
like the transparent political project that characterized some of
the initial thinking on the part of the collective. Whether or not
the outward project that characterizes yellow overalls will rematerialize
is a matter of the will of whoever decides it's a worthy pursuit,
More generally speaking, "Where for art
thou, direct action?" is the question many are asking now that
"everything has changed" following 9/11. In New York City,
so called "ground zero", we are coming upon a semi-mass
mobilization of thousands from all across the country who will find
out for themselves what the cops have in store for disobedience, now
that the lines are more clearly drawn between what is "right",
or "patriotic", or simply "American", and criminality,
even downright "terrorism". In this environment, I believe
the tactic, in its entirety, is more appropriate than ever. What better
way than to come out of this darkness, shinning forth so brightly?
MJ: Will you be surprised if we see a large
group of people wearing yellow overalls?
TFGC: My feeling is that the visualness of
wearing the overalls is problematic at this point. Many people are
afraid of being picked out for this reason, although I don't agree
with the naive assessment that we should, say, take into account the
fact that those anthrax decontamination outfits resemble, symbolically,
our overalls, and that we would be disrespecting or offending these
workers by wearing them. It seems obvious to me that the Yellow Overalls
are more appropriate now than ever, as another visual symbol for the
invisibleness we're all becoming in the face of Empire, after 9/11.
Although it's not simply a media tactic, but also a way to camouflage
the individual in a sea of similarity, becoming a force recognizable
by our numbers and force, an "adelante humanity", a "non-violent"
wall of bodies. How else can one view this collection of Big Birds
with elaborate padding and bright colored helmets? Will there be a
mobilization of efficacious size to offer this protection? I don't
It's important to note at this point that "Ya
Basta" never meant a creative tactic alone. To think of it as
a fashion of practicality, of how to be more successful in "getting
away with it", is to misrepresent such a complex political project.
Ya Basta in its entirety means so much more than this, and the return
of the "street fighting man" was hardly part of the picture.
MJ: What's your hope for the future of the
yellow overalls idea?
TFGC: In Genoa the "disobedience"
block was the product of years of organizing, including a media blitz
that at times got out of hand, using media manipulations thought to
"play with the language of the state". On this, Ya Basta
was criticized severely, essentially accused of taking a central,
hegemonic position in relation to the more broad coalition against
the G8. This criticism particularly targeted Luca Casirini (it's still
a bit confusing as to the way in which he was to become the main spokesperson)
holding press conferences and declaring "war", and so forth.
Of course these were all valid criticisms. But the tute bianche has
always interacted with the media in creative ways, understanding its
power, most of the time. They refuse to ignore it, which is seemingly
practical when such monopoly exists. It's this notion of "negotiation"
that is central to the project of the overalls, a process by which
one understands the overarching power of the state, or the media,
turns that power around against these entrenched power structures,
but also knowing when to say, "Ya Basta!", or enough for
now, let's pull back and regroup and discuss the successes and failures,
and go at it again when the time and energy is right.
In a sense, this is probably the single most
important idea the tute bianche can leave us, the idea that there
is a time and a place for everything, and backing off, or knowing
ones' limitations, or that regrouping for another day doesn't translate
into a "reformist" approach, or "not militant enough",
and so on. If we look at the act of throwing off the overalls, just
before the mobilization, as it plays with the notions outlined repeatedly
regarding this, then the point was made, that the position of visibility
was attained, 300,000 people and the worlds' attention was enough.
As far as the specific tactical utility here and now, I think it's
obvious that we have neither the time nor effort behind us, as far
as our place in the movement is concerned. But to also think that
we could simply do away with the overalls because our Italian friends
found reason, is to miss the larger point of why we would wear them
in the first place. We've only just begun a process of proposing the
idea as it could relate to resistance in North America.
I think the focus on the tactics alone misses a much larger picture
of a language that the overalls communicates, what it has meant to
the Italian political landscape. With that said, there are indications
that the tactical utility of defensive protection that characterizes
overalls has had an immediate impact on the North American scene,
evident by the paddings and gear many bring to mobilizations like
Quebec City. The drawback is of course that we've seen this development
before, and history has shown that the "street fighter"
alone, withdrawn from the type of informed political project that
tute bianche attempted to forge, may just develop into a boys' club
of toughs, divorced of any larger picture
Mira Jovanavich can be contacted at email@example.com