If some of the world’s dictators, strongmen, warlords and assorted flawed leaders breathed a little easier Wednesday, it could have been because so many of the young activists bent on challenging their authority had descended upon Union Market in the District for an all-day summit of dissent called RiseUp.
One floor above the foodie market stalls purveying Korean tacos, Cambodian noodle soup, Rappahannock River oysters and hormone-free local bison, the loft was transformed into a combination television studio and graduate seminar in progressive protest. A huge bedsheet was lettered with the great slogans of yore and now — “Si se puede. Silence = Death. Tahrir Square” — while videos of recent mass demonstrations in Libya, Syria, Egypt and Ukraine, as well as Occupy Wall Street, played on a screen to one side.
The average age of the few hundred folks who filled chairs on risers facing the main stage, or communed over tablets and excellent coffee in self-consciously designed networking nooks, must have been about 28. They knew one another from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Skype. Many of them were meeting in person for the first time.
Sitting together were Walid Al-Saqaf, a cyber-activist from Yemen, who devised ways to get around government Internet blockers; Cansu Yapici from Taksim Solidarity in Turkey, where she ran the crisis desk and social media during protests in 2013; and Liz Marshall, director of the animal rights documentary “The Ghosts in Our Machine.”
One row behind them sat the Syrian American activist Ala’a Basatneh, who used social media from her home in Chicago to spread the news of rebel citizen journalists opposing Bashar al-Assad, then personally delivered medicine to the war zone.
They, in turn, listened closely to four activists from Mexico, Venezuela, Taiwan and Sierra Leone who were telling their stories on-stage in response to the patient prodding of journalist Jorge Ramos, the news anchor for Univision and Fusion. Ramos wanted to hear about transformative moments in the life of an activist.
“The most important moment happens when you are alone,” said Yon Goicoechea, a leader of the Venezuelan student movement that helped defeat a constitutional referendum that would have given Hugo Chávez more power in 2007, one of Chávez’s only electoral losses. “The decision to do something when you don’t have power.”
Several in the audience nodded, as if they had been in that lonely place, too.
What about tactics, Ramos asked. Is violence ever okay?
No, said the activists, but lesser transgressions are.
“In Mexico, you have to protest against the press and the government,” said Gisela Pérez de Acha. “I do topless protests. . . . You have to find a way to be covered by the press and protest the press. The naked body serves a purpose as a political canvas to express a message.”
The rest of the program included members of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk-feminist band, as well as organizers of demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., and a leader of the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice.
Creating a space for shocks of recognition, and opportunities for exchanging ideas and inspiration, was the point of RiseUp. It was also a splashy and oh-so-hip coming out for Fusion, the television and digital network that hosted the conference (a.k.a. #FusionRiseUp).
Fusion was created a year ago by Univision Communications and the Disney/ABC Television Network. Its target audience exists somewhere in that wired millennial sweet spot where news, pop culture, satire and global humanism meet.
“The underlying theme of the event is, basically, ‘how do you convert political protest into social progress?’ ” said Marcus Brauchli, chairman of RiseUp and former executive editor of The Washington Post.
The midday speaker, Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, provoked an unscheduled practice class. Ramos had just asked her about decisions to use force in response to atrocities abroad when three young women from antiwar Code Pink walked on carrying signs.
“We’re here to ‘rise up’ against war,” declared one of the women. One of their signs read, “Millennials think you’re a war hawk.”
Ramos asked the ambassador’s looming security detail not to push the women off the stage. He wove the protesters’ complaints into the interview.
“One thing about living in a democracy is people also get to listen and talk and don’t talk over one another,” Power said.
What’s an activism conference without a little activism?
After the session, Ramos hustled to get an interview with the Code Pink demonstrators.