The Yellow Vest signifier is going to attract attention and contention for a long while.
At the end of 2018 the Yellow Vest movement burst into international recognition after a a series of large actions rocked France. While the movement found purchase across France it was the disruptive demonstrations in Paris that captured most of the attention. Dramatic footage emerges nearly every Saturday: a former pro boxer charging police lines, forklifts taking down the doors of government ministries, and Lime scooters turned into projectiles. Even for France these scenes are a different level of intensity.
Now yellow vests appear at protests from Taiwan to Los Angeles forming a loose international solidarity. And it is a very loose coalition. From nation to nation, even from town to town, the demands and aims of the protesters vary wildly. But at the core of the demonstrations is a desire to check the power of the state and give a voice to the working class.
That’s where the tensions really arise though.
For the third year the Women’s March filled the streets of downtown Los Angeles with nearly 100,000 people. It really does give a broad cross section of our city to walk through the crowd. Signs hailing the coming of President Pelosi glide along juxtaposed to calls to ban fracking and signs protesting the very existence of capitalism. Speakers like Eric Garcetti, apparently on a break from the UTLA negotiations, and Katie Hill fill the prime afternoon slots, but the early morning speeches feature local activists like Kait Ziegler and Aura Vasquez. If you’re there early enough you’ll hear speeches that demand an end to our state’s one party rule, that Democratic centrism is the main obstacle to progress. But if you stand in the muddy mess of Grand Park under the hot sun you’ll see the centrist Democrats assuring the crowd that progress, though slow and lopsided, is just around the corner. It’s a weird journey.
This sense that the Women’s March is essentially a centrist march is both a draw and a repellent. Politically connected and powerful people see it as springboard for their issues, a show of solidarity and a chance to make some noise within bounds. For more radical elements there is a definite divide between who makes it on stage and who is going to be stuck in the crowd. Theatrics are on full display by all sides, the chance of getting a well place photo for your sign or dance or performance art is a huge driver of attendance. No one is showing up to be ignored, but it’s not clear what any one group gains from the exposure. The pay off is unclear, but the players are all motivated.
In this saturated media landscape the idea of bringing the Yellow Vest movement to LA makes total sense. For starters the main prop is a high visibility vest, it is literally piece of clothing created to be more noticeable than other pieces of clothing. These vests also bring a sense of authority with them: security guards, construction workers, and cops wear high viz vests, and we’ve become conditioned to understand that someone wearing that vest has answers.
As planning for the larger march was happening a small group of activists came together to create a Yellow Vest contingent. It makes a tremendous amount of sense to bring that energy to LA. Our city is one of the richest cities in the world and has one of the highest rates of poverty. Our city has some of the best universities in the world but some of the most underserved public schools in the nation. Our city is a tremendous economic engine where the median annual salary is not enough to afford an apartment. Our city has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation and yet our police departments kill more than any other in the nation. We are awash in contradictions.
So the Yellow Vest LA movement crafted a broad platform:
Power To Public Schools: Fully fund out schools, support educators, stop privatizing education.
Healthcare For All: We demand a single-payer and publicly funded health care system.
Public Banking Revolution: Divest from Wall Street with a socially responsible L.A. public bank.
Housing Is A Human Right: Stop rent hikes, expand rent controls & strengthen tenant rights.
Green New Deal: Transition into a clean energy economy, green infrastructure & jobs.
Immigration Reform: Justice for all immigrants, path to legalization, end family separation.
Prison and Criminal Justice Reform: End mass incarceration, end cash bail & prohibit private prisons.
For Los Angeles and California these are incredibly bold proposals. Though none of them are especially novel. The broken gears that have seized up resulting in strikes and protests have been grinding themselves dull for decades. Our criminal legal system is a mess of epic proportions: LA County is the largest jailer in the world, arrestees are subjected to a cash bail system that annually extracts billions from our communities, 10% of all deportations in the US happen in LA County (which makes us the most active node in the mass deportation system), and our main courthouse downtown doesn’t have potable water. Decades worth of neglect has created problems so large that anything short of mass mobilization is trivial.
But even mass mobilization brings only movement towards the goals. The 2018 midterms put a host of large, transformative policies before the voters. They were mostly defeated. Proposition 10 would have given us the opportunity to rewrite housing and tenant law across the state. Costa-Hawkins remains in place because the Yes campaign could not turn the more rural and exurb parts of the state. Populous coastal cities and counties voted in favor of rent control. The divide here wasn’t just between rich and poor, working class and capitalist, it was the soft support of the workers outside the cities that defeated Prop 10.
On that same ballot Californians voiced their robust support for the gas tax. Proposition 6 began with a forceful push by the Republican party, tons of money was poured into gathering signatures and securing a spot on the ballot, and then they just sort of forgot about it. California finds itself continually underfunded due to Proposition 13, the 1978 tax reform that has drained local coffers trying to replace missing property tax revenue. In a sense a regressive gas tax is the only solution to maintaining our infrastructure.
While standing on the steps on the north side of Grand Park my medic crew was approached by a right wing livestreamer. I wasn’t familiar with him and he wasn’t very interesting, but he was wearing an Uchiha logo on his hoodie, which is weird because the Uchiha clan isn’t the good guys. His main argument with us was that we were not authentically Yellow Vests. The coalition that built Yellow Vest LA is comprised of groups that endorsed No on 6, but in France the Yellow Vests successfully demanded the repeal of their gas tax. The refrain from the livestreamer was that we simply wanted to raise taxes on the middle class.
To be fair, he’s not entirely wrong. For most of the Yellow Vest LA agenda, and the broader progressive agenda in the US, to work taxes will most likely go up for some workers. Ideally it will go up a whole lot for the wealthy and corporations. I tried to proffer the idea of net cost savings, that taxes aren’t just your money disappearing but actually the way we fund things we need to have a livable society. Policy analysis never really works with these kinds of web personalities, but he was one of the more benign; a conversation haver, a bothsides listener, who just happens to already know that he is right.
Even as the Yellow Vests in France decried the gas tax they simultaneously demanded the return of the “fortune tax” aimed at the wealthiest. In times like this is it really the message that’s unclear, or does the failure lie with the observer? The problem with getting attention is that you lose control of the perception almost immediately. Broad social movements are more like Jackson Pollocks than Modrians.
More dangerous are the weaponized MAGA Youtubers. Bright vests with a drum line are perfect bait. At the end of a long, hot winter day people react and these performers know that they are stoking primed coals. And it works. At the beginning of the march I saw Based Spartan Man wearing his breastplate while towing a large amp in a red wagon blasting “My Country Tis Of Thee” walking against the flow of the crowd with the stern resolution of a man carrying the nuclear football. To an extent what you put out is what you get back, these men are saturated in an aggressive posturing and offensive character, they pay the rent on the dividends they earn by picking fights.
Towards the end of the day we ran into some very well known reactionary Youtubers. One of them was followed by a very nice cinema level camera, I guess apoplectic screaming looks better in 4K.
I recognized one of these more aggressive livestreamers from his fame as a disrupter at city council meetings across southern California. He gained some national press coverage when he brandished a gun while attending a Cudahay City Council meeting. For him our wearing the Yellow Vest was a betrayal of the nativist roots of that protest. He got in several shouting matches with his particularly acerbic style of nationalism. Again a terrible misreading of what motivates people to participate in this movement. An online poll brought about a list of 42 demands. It is also a mess of contradictions, but on immigration it is quite clear. There are demands for addressing the root causes of migration, for providing shelter and support to all migrants, and for bringing protections to non French workers. But these demands are just more noise in the signal, radiation that shifts to a uniformly yellow in parallax.
The Yellow Vest signifier is going to attract attention and contention for a long while. Mass mobilization is as much a personal experience as it is a social experience, the individual doesn’t lose themselves because of their attendance but rather they reaffirm it: though they are atomized they’re not atomized alone. It wasn’t surprising that we were targeted by reactionary entertainers, they target us no matter what we’re wearing. But what was somewhat new this time was the idea that the Yellow Vest movement is owned by someone, that there is some authority on what does and does not align. It is this demand for a cogent narrative from what is a schizophrenic movement that ultimately renders this kind of transnational solidarity incomprehensible.
In encounter after encounter people were curious and receptive, but no one came without a notion of what the Yellow Vest movement actually is for them. For some this was simple reaction to exploit the moment for clicks, for others it was wariness that we were attempting to exploit this movement for ourselves, a quieter few wondered if we actually should play nice. So where do the wheels hit the road here? At what point is there any kind of resolution on a national or international level?
On one hand we have what has amounted to a nearly weekly breakdown of the established order on the streets of Paris, on the other we have the progressive but reformist agenda in the context of a permitted event. Does it speak to efficacy of Paris that Macron would go into hiding, or does it speak to the reach of the movement that it could also slot comfortably into such normalcy in LA? Everyone always seems to be calling for a mass mobilization, but no one wants to address the inherent contradictions that make such calls impotent. When we look at the map of Prop 10 across the state we begin to see the deeper contradictions of our city and our state. As the engines of Los Angeles and San Francisco and San Diego overheat people seeking affordability will come in conflict with workers who have even fewer options all the while facing down the increasing costs of climate change.
Contradiction is watching Eric Garcetti introduced to rousing cheers, while a block away women in pink caps scream “No Borders, No Nations, No Mass Deportations” as a Youtube libertarian tries to corner me with facts and logic in the shadow of a derigible Baby Trump. Somewhere between taking down the doors of the Ministry of France with a forklift and the weak paeans of our mayor lies the point of articulation, but whether any mass mobilization will ever strike it in time is a matter of global importance.