Since Chris Hedges’ infamous article was published at the beginning of the week, the debate it created (“Hedgegate”, or “The Hedgerow”) has grown increasingly fierce and spilled out onto the streets. I didn’t want to have to write an article like this, and I honestly hoped I’d never see so much of this come across the newswires, but now that it has, and especially in light of the ongoing actions in Greece, a continuing response is required.

The Surgeons of Occupy – Peter Gelderloos
Activists and Anarchists from Occupy Oakland Speak For Themselves – Suzie Cagle, Truthout
Video allegedly from Anonymous threatens the black bloc (Seriously?)

When Nonviolence Isn’t
Reports are coming in from recent rowdy protests in Portland that members of the “occupy” movement assaulted and even attempted to arrest members of the black bloc. While some at the march had been involved in property destruction (mostly cars and one high-end restaurant) along the path of the march, others were assaulted just for wearing black. What makes this so outrageous is that it wasn’t an action organized by these Occupy protesters, just something they showed up to.

This fits into a larger pattern of co-operating with police to the point of handing people over, reporting them to police and publicly slandering them which certainly isn’t new, but it’s reaching new heights within the Occupy crowd. The fact that it involves physical acts of violence against other participants in a protest doesn’t seem to bother them, nor do the violent acts of police. In this way, guardians of “nonviolence” have set themselves up as police informants, snitches and even deputies. How long until we see the kind of paramilitary action witnessed in Greece where the parliamentary Communist party showed up with a wall of armoured supporters sporting wooden clubs and iron bars to protect the parliament from demonstrators?

Given the substantial damage caused by police repression in activist communities over the past few years, I don’t suspect this will be a popular choice. Having may friends who were attacked, arrested and even sexually assaulted at the G20 in Toronto, I have absolutely no time for this kind of blatant collaborationism. The solidarity shown by wider activist communities has been crucially important for victims of this brutality, and the issues raised have played a very important role in public discourse across the country, no matter how much bad press rioters got, and this story has been repeated many times around the world. Over the past few years anti-police brutality actions have been some of the most popular and effective at bringing attention to an issue that was otherwise taboo and is incredibly important to many marginalized communities. You cannot talk about “peace” in the ghetto without pointing fingers at police – something conveniently forgotten in all the loving-kindness rhetoric lately.

Reinforcing the Narrative
This characterizations of anarchists as only window-smashing vandals intent on chaos is that it totally reinforces the establishment’s myths about protest and society. By fetishizing ‘non-violence’ as the only viable strategy toward social change, it totally ignores the history of social movements. Whether one talks about civil rights, labour legislation, anti-colonial struggles or the long history of squatted community spaces abroad, these struggles have always gone, on occasion, over the line of polite nonviolent protest. You can thank those rioters for (among other things) your weekends, pensions and (partial) independence from the former British Empire. Beyond this, it attributes far too much power to non-violent actions. Don’t get me wrong, I love peaceful protests, I’ve taken peace-studies classes, given passive-resistance workshops and engaged in peaceful actions many more times than I can count. But to assume that because we’re all peaceful, polite and well-behaved that we will be taken seriously is an incredible leap of faith. Nine times out of ten, such actions get totally ignored by authorities and the media, and that’s a sad fact of activism that any veteran activist can attest to. There are more than enough reasons to ignore protesters without broken windows. I’ve seen protests which were written off in the press for being, among other things, too old, too young, too rich, too poor, too white, too non-white, too rowdy, too boring and having too many hippies. The press slanders protesters – that’s their job. If we want better press, we need to understand that fact.

Activism in today’s media-saturated society today is obsessed with the notion of “image”, particularly through the mainstream media and toward “normal” audiences. This obsession is particularly intense among newer activists, and it’s hard to get through a meeting these days without hearing somebody espouse it. This turns its back on much of what activists have learned in the past two decades about community-based organizing, and why it’s important to reach out to all kinds of people on a face-to-face basis. It makes very questionable assumptions about who “normal” people are (and who, by virtue of being “different”, gets left out) and what they want to see. Above all else, it puts far too much faith in fairytale notions of social change which are supposed to emerge magically once enough attention is focused on the issue.

The obvious question here, needs to be asked “what if we’re completely non-violent and they beat us up anyway?” In that case, we’re told, it would only prove our point and undermine the basic legitimacy of power in the public’s eyes. The problem is, it happens all the time, and no such mass reaction occurs. The press is only too willing to claim that protesters brought it upon themselves, no matter what actually happened on the scene, and even when they do report on the injustices, what’s supposed to happen? Anyone with a youtube account can witness countless acts of unprovoked and unjust police brutality – has this sparked any massive non-violent campaign of resistance? Perhaps a more frightening question comes when we’re ignored, as the enormous anti-war movement against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was, leading to a untold numbers of civilian casualties. What are we to do if power refuses to change when we ask nicely? Sit by with candles and watch people die? Was that really the non-violent option?

When candles, flowers and kumbayas inevitably fail to bring this peaceful populist revolution, blame is inevitably cast on whoever wasn’t “peaceful” enough. This attitude all too often is used to explain away failures of movements to grow or make progress based on the bad behavior of a few at one of their marches. This victim-blaming strategy ignores all the bad decisions and ineffective leadership involved in said failures, as well avoiding a look at the systemic reasons that they occur. Scapegoating groups within the movement for collective failures never ends well, especially when it’s followed with discussion of purges.

What, by this definition, is “violent”? There’s quite a range, from wearing masks or the colour black to scowling at police, burning flags or just about anything illegal (up to and including refusing orders to disperse). They can include attempting to “de-arrest” comrades who’re being grabbed, holding sheilds or wearing protective clothing. And yet, for some reason, assaulting other marchers and handing them over to the police doesn’t qualify. Clearly, “violcence” is not the issue here, but disobedience and resistance to authorities. This sets the state up as ultimate moral arbiter and places an incredible premium on total state control of the situation (“order”). Even attempting to sheild yourself from batons or pepper spray is “wrong” in the eyes of this subservient ideology. The question remains, though, how do you resist power without disobeying it?

These strategies betray a deeply authoritarian stance. They objectify participants as simply actors tasked with presenting a spectacle rather than individuals with their own thoughts and opinions on how to proceed. By way of implied consensus, constant judgemental moralism and fear-mongering about those who disagree, these views are imposed on movements as the “one true way to revolution”(TM). What results is an often primary focus on policing discussions and actions within the movement. I’ve witnessed more than enough of this personally and can definitely attest to religious fervour with which it’s espoused. I won’t point the finger at nonviolence itself here, since few of my (true) pacifist friends are willing to conduct themselves in this manner – it’s far more common among those who are new, moderate and have watched altogether too much television, or those who seek to use the movement to catapult themselves into positions of status and notoriety. These traits have always served to isolate movements, both from other struggles and the public at large, and there’s really nothing “radical” about them.

Black Bloc: Grow Up
At this point, I feel it’s important to get a few things off my chest. As someone involved in the anarchist movement, and someone who’s been in black blocs before, and as someone who’s frequently defended people engaged in these actions:

Grow the fuck up.

Breaking windows isn’t a revolution. It barely qualifies as a “direct action” at all, and much moreso as the most dramatic of symbolic actions, crying out for media attention and official response. Attacking storefronts and cars from the cover of a crowd is easy – defending crowds from advancing police lines is not. If you’re going to confront the cops, then confront the fucking cops. There’s a big difference between sheilding a crowd and using the crowd as your shields. That isn’t, and had never been what the black bloc is about, and it’s generally why I tend to wear colours to demonstrations these days. You’re not helping any of this.

Let me be clear – this is not aimed at those who hold up shield walls or build barricades to protect crowds, who knock back tear gas cannisters or to those in the long and noble tradition of black bloc medics who treat injured protesters in the midst of all this chaos. Most in the black bloc have tended to maintain this kind of defensive posture. Even in Oakland, the “smashy” actions were mostly limited to the General Strike last November, and in more recent actions had far more to do with shields than attacks on any businesses. Sadly, there’s often been a few who’re more interested in a big smashy spotlight. Not only is this kind of escalation dangerous to everyone around, but it pretty clearly is very divisive, and often ends in disaster, tactically speaking. Our goal should never be to terrify bystanders – whether they be customers inside a bank/restaurant with a big glass window or other participants in a march – which is exactly the effect these actions are having, especially on those less privileged than ourselves.

(I’m not advocating any illegal actions here – that would be against the law, and very silly to publish online. I simply wish to state that there are some tactics I wouldn’t endorse even if it were legal to do so)

Ten years ago, academics and activists defended (some) of these tactics because in the days of Seattle and Quebec. Back then, this was pretty much the only thing that got attention to some very important issues. However chaotic it appeared, it was ultimately a calculated tactic to create a media spectacle. The performance became a ritualized part of protests. Endless debates raged over whether smashing Starbucks windows was “violent”, totally missing the point of whether or not it was effective. The world has changed a lot since then – these issues now have everyone’s attention, and such vandalism only perpetuates stereotypes that we, as anarchists, badly need to shed, and this is something most anarchists I know are more than willing to acknowledge.

In too many ways, property destruction has been fetishized and ritualized, eclipsing all other supposed goals of actions. The depersonalized spectacle it presents only reinforces the same alienated notions of political action as performance. Its proponents all too often act just as much like a vanguard as those I mention above, and rely on ideological rationalizations which are no less ridiculous. The communiques often written after-the-fact are evidence enough of this, with their more-revolutionary-than-thou condescension and fanciful retelling of events. They call out everyone else, then hide behind a sort of radical “support our troops” attitude when it comes to critical reflection on their own actions. This self-aggrandizing ultra-militancy speaks more to a sense of post-modern angst than any kind of effective organizing or resistance. “Propaganda of the deed” has been tried before, and it didn’t work then either.

If you want to be a revolutionary, think about the example you’re setting. It’s high time the anarchist community had a serious discussion about these tactics.

Boots Riley of the Coup on Black Bloc Tactics (from whom the title of this post is taken)

Rocky Road Ahead
The public and the media have a fairly short attention span, and the novelty of occupied parks is quickly wearing off. A precedent has already been set that these encampents can be forcibly evicted, no matter how non-violent, and considerable violence has already been deployed for this task. If the movement is going to continue with direct action and occupation as a tactic, no matter how non-violent, it’s going to involve escalation. An administrative building at McGill University is now home to a group of dissident students, and local labour councils are occupying Conservative offices across Ontario. A growing wave of squatting has already begun, with some success. The possibility that factories, soon, may also be occupied, or widespread resistance to foreclosures or a general strike. With harsh austerity measures being implemented, factories being closed and the possibility of yet another war, the chances for even more popular unrest grow, so do the chances for ugly conflicts. Whichever tactics protesters adopt, the response is likely to be brutal, and demand incredible amounts of courage and solidarity from all of us. This is not a time to burn bridges.

Militancy is not a force anyone can contain, and this is as true of activists and revolutionaries as it is of cops and courts. Resentment doesn’t go away, and suffering is hard to forget. Without effective channels to address grievances, this can only simmer until it explodes, as happened last summer in London. People in crowds do not like seeing the people around them attacked and dragged off by police, and this is even more true when said crowds are peaceful. These actions do challenge the legitimacy of authorities, immediately, in the eyes of everyone present – and that’s exactly why riots happen. Sadly, when vandalism is presented as the be-all-and-end-all of militant action, whether that’s in the press or by activists themselves, it tends to be exactly where people turn when their frustrations take over. The taboo and verboten nature here only makes this kind of spectacular destruction more enticing, like forbidden drugs and sexual acts. That’s exactly why this narrative has to be challenged, and this false dichotomy laid to rest. There are no clear divisions here – there’s been an incredible spectrum of actions, participants and beliefs involved which simply can’t be summed up with tales of the big bad black block anarchists.

There are clearly tactical discussions which need to happen. This isn’t to call for a purge of any group of comrades, or any kind of public vilification. These people are our comrades and friends, and I have no wish to alienate anyone – that’s how you build cults, not movements. The “St. Paul Principles” (established for the RNC in 2008) should be kept in mind here by both ‘sides’. Working with law enforcement against fellow activists is inexcusable (it puts everybody at risk), but it shouldn’t be forgotten that a separation of time and/or space between militant actions and “family-friendly” marches is also a main principle of “diversity of tactics”. There’s more than enough bad behaviour here to go around here, and it’s time to take responsibility for that.