Documentary Captures Divisions, Frustrations in Anti-War Movement

A Carnival of Dissent, a documentary on the Milwaukee anti-war movement as of last year, made its debut at the Green Gallery 801 E. Clarke St. on June 12.

Produced by local activist and UWM journalism student Nathan Hall with Mike Neuman, Adriane Hoff, and Naomi Lange, about half of A Carnival of Dissent — and nearly all its action footage — came from people with camcorders on the street in last year’s Critical Mass protest. Although it has been largely ignored in the mainstream US media, Critical Mass is an international movement for non-violent direct action protest that began in San Francisco in 1992.

Critical Mass is a synthesis of radical politics and bicycle enthusiasts (“One Less Car”) who ride their bikes in numbers large enough to shut down urban areas. On March 20, 2003, the first full day of the war in Iraq, approximately 20,000 people engaged in a four-day Critical Mass shutdown of San Francisco’s financial district. 2,600 people were arrested, and similar Critical Mass protests took place concurrently around the world.

On the March 24, Milwaukee’s Critical Mass protest backed up rush hour traffic for several blocks around Water Street while police cleared the intersections with batons and pepper spray, resulting in at least nine arrests (15 by some reports: Hall helped organize the Critical Mass locally and believes that such direct action forms of protest are potentially empowering because they “give a voice to the voiceless.” However, Hall’s final reaction to the protests was largely one of frustration, and he takes seriously the equally frustrated charge of one of his documentary’s protester-interviewees who asks if the protests did anything constructive in the end.

“What Did It Build?”

A Carnival of Dissent leaves this question open and takes a fairly objective approach by balancing footage of and interviews with people involved in Critical Mass with footage and interviews centered on Peace Action-organized protests and organizers. Peace Action cooperates with local authorities and deliberately avoids the disorder and chaos of direct action. As a result, A Carnival of Dissent is a documentary that emphasizes, as its title indicates, the divergent views, chaos, and division in the anti-war activist community.

While Hall and others who favor direct action cooperate with and express their respect for groups like Peace Action, A Carnival of Dissent — and the audience that turned out to see it — strongly illustrates how anti-war activists divide according to age, with younger people tending to favor the more radical energy of direct action, and older people — and those with families of their own — tending to favor protests that are likely to keep them clear of pepper spray and the police.

Hall’s next planned project is a documentary on police shootings in Milwaukee.