I’ve always had a mixed opinion of Michael Moore. On one hand, he’s done a lot of good work bringing attention to many issues, from deindustrialization to health care, and played a pretty major role in getting political documentaries back into homes and theatres. On the other hand, he often embodies the worst traits of activist film-makers, practising ambush journalism and playing fast and loose with the truth when it helps make a scene sound better.

Moore was one of the first and loudest supporters of Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement, and for that I can’t fault him. Some of his most recent comments, though, are incredibly off base. Responding to “violence” in the rapidly escalating protests in Oakland, he’s parroting the now-familiar line that the rioters were really just undercover police.

There’s a lot of problems with this kind of analysis. First off, is it true? I doubt it. Is there any evidence? Of course not. Whether somebody is or isn’t an undercover Homeland Security agent isn’t relative, subjective or a matter of perspective. Either they are, or they aren’t. I’d expect paranoia and conspiracy theories like this from Alex Jones, but Moore is better than this. We do ourselves no favours by making wild and unprovable accusations.

These are very serious allegations and shouldn’t just be thrown around. I’ve been a part of too many groups destroyed by “snitch-jacketing”, and this kind of behaviour can be every bit as disruptive as the infiltrators themselves. Do “agent provocateurs” exist? Of course they do, I’ve met some, and there are more than enough documented examples to be wary. If somebody you don’t know well enough to trust with your life starts talking about bombs, guns and murder – chances are they’re either a cop or dumb as a post, and you should absolutely give those people as much distance as possible. That, however, does not prove that everybody involved in militant activities is a cop, no matter how useful that claim might be to your agenda.

Since the G20 riots in Toronto, we’ve seen lots of this nonsense in Canada. After the protests there were endless claims that the destruction was really the work of police agents, much like those busted at Montebello, Quebec a few years before. Evidence was provided in the form of video stills which showed the yellow diamond logo of Vibram boot soles, who do a lot of contracting with the Canadian military. This goes beyond ludicrous – and those making these claims obviously know nothing about boots or anarchists. Vibram does extensive work in all kinds of footwear (my bike shoes have the infamous diamond on their sole), and of course, anarchists wearing army boots is about as unusual as surfers in sandals. Similar claims have been made about all kinds of attire (including a few who probably are cops), but all jump to the same kind of ridiculous conclusions based on the what a bunch of Youtube viewers think rioters “should” wear.

There’s a very consistent narrative followed by the media when it comes to protesters. These stories are so predictable they write themselves – human interest tales about organizers, bland descriptions of rallies (with a standard 20% cut in headcount) and of course the standard “poke fun at the hippie protesters” pieces where journalists get to point out how strange and different the demonstrators are. The point is to marvel at our “great democracy”, re-enforce our idea of “normal” and as always, side-step the real issues. When “violence” occurs protesters are divided into good and legitimate peaceful protesters, and nasty radical troublemakers right out of cold-war propaganda films. The familiar story about how “violent elements hijacked the protests” gets repeated in the press no matter what actually happened on the ground.

A good example of this would be last week’s clashes in Greece, where the press reported the black block “turning on peaceful protesters” associated with a communist party and trade union. The reality seems a little different – they definitely weren’t “peaceful”, and can’t be easily grouped in with protesters. Not only did they show up dressed for a rumble, with helmets, gas masks and clubs (as this video clearly shows), but their intention was to surround and protect the parliament from the demonstrators, while the government passed the dreaded austerity bill. The KKE (Greek parliament’s Stalinist party) and PAME (their union associates) have had a mostly adversarial relationship with the Syntagma Square protesters throughout this year, and there are reports that they attacked the peaceful, moderate protesters began before the anarchists arrived. Eventually police needed to intervene on their side, turning the battle in their favour, and one PAME unionist died of a heart attack (most likely due to tear gas). It’s worth noting that here, too, the Stalinists have accused the black block of being riddled with police infiltrators, and therefore being police agents by proxy. This only goes to show how totally ludicrous and one-sided these arguments can get. The witch-hunt for violent police agents among the black bloc is so intense that everyone’s failed to notice the enormous ‘red bloc’ clad in riot gear, swinging truncheons and fighting alongside police.

When Michael Moore claims that “we’re not in the minority here”, is he speaking for the large non-white populations of Oakland? When he says that nonviolence is “the only way this is going to work” – is he basing this on the example of Egypt? Libya? Greece? Where exactly have the global uprisings of the last year or so been entirely peaceful? Did we condemn the protests against Iran’s government for fighting back? How about Tibet? England’s Uncut movement? Or is violence ok only when it happens somewhere else?

I’m not saying that the rioting in Oakland was “right”. I can’t say that it was right – that would put me at risk of losing everything from blog hosting to spending some serious jail time. This subtle fact often gets left out of the “debate” about nonviolence: it isn’t a debate at all. Pacifists can make whatever claims they want with little or no dispute precisely because men with guns are waiting silently to back them up. For the record, I wouldn’t claim Oakland’s riots were “right” regardless, but that’s not the point. All of this takes place within a context of widespread systemic violence, and ignoring violence never serves the interests of peace.

Nonviolence, so far, has proven enormously successful in the American struggle. That’s an incredibly good argument to continue with it. There are others, too, including the potential disaster that could come of a failed attempt at violent insurrection, the incredible arsenals held by our opponents and our near-complete lack of training (excepting, of course, the marines and a few kids in black sweatshirts). With these kinds of robust tactical, strategic and ethical arguments, why bullshit? Michael Moore may get some (more) cheap publicity for his ‘daring’ remarks, he’ll be able to score a few points with moderates at the expense of his radical fellows, and help establish the notion of a “good protester” for his loyal followers. On the whole, though, his nonsensical accusations only really benefit the status quo, and the notion that “good protesters” must be obedient, passive and unthreatening if they want to be safe or effective. Sorry, but that ain’t solidarity, it’s selling out.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and I suppose the same can be said for burning cop cars. Seeing conspiracies lurking behind every corner denies all agency to the people involved. I’ve seen riots, and they’re just never that simple. Out of millions of autonomous actors, some, inevitably, will choose to do something dramatic. I’m not going to pretend that that “discredits” the millions of people who weren’t “violent”, or that it’s only ever the work of nefarious infiltrators. Never believe anybody who offers up such easy answers, and for that matter, be careful what you trust from anybody who can’t see the differences between militant anarchists and cops.

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