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Once again America is mired in a national debate about gun control in the wake of horrific and inexplicable mass-shootings. While this is one of the definitive issues of American political culture, I must admit, I find it more annoying than anything else. I can’t really place myself on either side – I’ve never even fired a gun (city boy…), am no big fan of them and would just as soon see every damned one gone. On the other hand, I hardly trust the state to carry out such a task, and in general find suggestions to that effect a little offensive, like any other kind of prohibition. If, someday, communities govern themselves, and people want to pass the idea of a gun free zone by my neighbourhood assembly, I’ll gladly hear it out. As long as those proposing to enforce such a decree have tanks, cruise missiles and war-planes, though, I’ll maintain a healthy skepticism.

This simple but obvious reality overshadows the entire gun debate. The state is, by it’s very definition, a fundamentally violent institution. It maintains kinds and amounts of weaponry which civilians can only hope to glimpse at from a distance. The irony of debates over “assault rifles”, particularly the AR-15(pictured above), is especially telling. The AR-15, for those who aren’t familiar, is better known by it’s military variants, like America’s famous M16 (along with it’s replacement, the M4 carbine) and Canada’s C7. It’s one of the best-known guns of modern warfare, and the main rifle for nearly every NATO and allied army (including Afghanistan’s “national” army). This weapon is synonymous with western imperialism – if the last fifty years had been viewed by aliens in space, it would appear as largely one giant war between those who carry M16s, and those wielding AK-47s. So, frankly, when the US government wants to talk about prohibiting this rifle, I can’t help but giggle.

If it sounds like I’m siding with “right-wing gun nuts” here, it’s because on this matter, they actually have a point. No privately owned firearms means no Black Panthers, no AIM, and no OKA-style stand-offs. Controversial as these groups and incidents might be, the contribution they made to national discussions can’t be denied. Nor can the fact that they were comparatively very lightly armed (mostly old rifles) and rarely fired shots, even against overwhelming odds, armaments and a thoroughly trigger-happy mentality. In the 1995 Gustafsen Lake standoff in BC, for instance, the RCMP fired as many as 7000 rounds, but hit only an older woman (in the arm) and killed only a dog. During the only serious firefight, one older man with a rifle managed to drive off two Armoured Personnel Carriers, allowing the above-mentioned woman and another man to escape to safety (he later escaped to the US, and they refused to extradite!). If it weren’t for a few of these small occupations, we probably never would have had the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and it’s hard to imagine what First Nations politics would look like today, to say nothing of what an actually nonviolent Civil Rights movement could ever have accomplished.

Droning On
A number of recent stories underscore the hypocrisy. First there’s the drones, an issue which is finally getting some official attention, especially after (Republican!) Rand Paul of all people launched a 13-hour filibuster, delaying the appointment of a new CIA director. Paul demanded to know whether Americans could be targeted for assassination by drones, and whether drone strikes are permitted on American soil. To this, the president’s press secretary replied, “the president has not and would not use drone strikes against American citizens on American soil”, for whatever that’s worth. In the context of a global, borderless policy of assassinations unconstrained by either judicial process or formal declarations of war, what would legal or constitutional restraints even mean to somebody with the authority to declare Martial Law? American and Canadian police forces are already being equipped with unarmed surveillance drones and other robots, how long until “concern for officers’ lives” demands some for a combat role? And, as always, why do the moral implications only become an issue when Americans find themselves in the crosshairs?

Then there’s the obviously-relevant story (now a big Forbes op-ed!) of Homeland Security purchasing 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition. As Forbes points out, this would keep the recent Iraq war effort going for over twenty years, begging the obvious questions of who they plan to shoot with them. Along with these bullets, there’s also the recent DHS mass-purchase of surplus MRAPs (heavily armoured vehicles) from Iraq and Afghanistan, now being put to use by local police forces. This fits perfectly into a growing trend of police militarization in which local law enforcement is granted the tactics and equipment of more formal armies, now the subject of a major ACLU investigation.

If you want to see what happens when a government directs serious military vehicles at it’s own populace, a video is now making the rounds online (allegedly) shot from the perspective of a Syrian tank in action. It shows a largely destroyed and almost entirely depopulated Darayya, a suburb of Damascus and “rebel stronghold”. Shot from the position of the main gun, which fires building-shattering blasts as the tank is strafed with (hopelessly ineffective) rifle fire.

On a similar note, there’s the case of Libya, also struck by civil unrest against a notorious (but formerly somewhat friendly) dictator. This is an important cautionary tale about the dangers of arms-dealing and foreign intervention. First, countries like the US and France made their peace (piece?) with Gaddafi and began selling him weapons. Then the Arab Spring broke out and his harsh response shocked the world. When NATO intervened with air-strikes and flooded the area with military aid, the rebels managed to overcome him, among them many militant Muslims and indigenous people from across the region. After defeating Gaddafi, many, including Al Qaeda affiliates and Tuareg separatists, left Libya in the hopes of returning to ‘liberate’ their homelands – places like Mali and Algeria. With them, they brought the arms stockpiles so generously donated by the west, or liberated from Gaddafi’s armories. Now, France’s army (and others) finds itself embroiled in an African quagmire, dodging bullets their own governments supplied.

Bringing it back home, the neighbourhood of Flatbush, in Brooklyn has spent much of the past week under siege, following the shooting death of Kimani Gray, a 16-year-old (black) neighbourhood resident at the hands of police last Saturday night. Gray was accused of pointing a gun at police (which witness testimony disputes) and shot seven times, three in the back. All week there’s been nightly protests, some of which escalated into fairly intense rioting and dozens of arrests, injuries and have brought an enormous police presence in the area.

More Than Just Gun Violence
For America, this violence is structural, and it often takes lives without firing a shot. While Canada’s still reeling from the shock of our own prison statistics and the appalling treatment of indigenous peoples in our justice system, America still exists in that state of national denial over well-acknowledged statistics regarding their own prison’s racial make-up. Even with a black president, little is said about the sad fact that 60% of their inmates are black, amongst a prison population which alone makes up about a quarter of the world’s inmates. Many more are indigenous or Hispanic, poor and/or mentally ill. This tough-on-crime approach, of course, has yielded few results since prison grown started exploding under Reagan. American is still far more dangerous Canadian cities (or most others in the First World). Even in the immediate absence of guns, you’re still more likely to be murdered with a knife in the US than up here in Canada (where knives are used in around twice as many murders).

Why that’s the case goes back to many of the above examples. Maintaining the world’s largest military budget and prison population isn’t cheap, and it leaves little for social programs, which evidence shows are much more effective at curbing “crime” than any amount of prisons. As a result, despite being the world’s richest nation, it has some of the First World’s poorest poor people in truly staggering numbers. Poverty, as Gandhi says, is the worst form of violence. From it stems countless crimes of desperation, which are met by a “justice system” which tends to be hostile to anybody who can’t afford a good lawyer. Along with this comes a culture of violence and machismo, both a result of the national self-image of “the world’s policeman” and daily needs of survival in crime-ridden ghetto hellholes. News, fiction, music and history all reflect this deep-seated violence, as well as the sexism, racism and classism which drive so much of this carnage. Ever look into how many of the victims of American gun violence are shot by their husbands?

Forget the shallow-but-popular controversies. Forget assault rifles, Eminem, Taratino and even gay marriage. If America wants to get at the roots of this problem, it’s going to have to start having serious national discussions about topics like straight marriage. Guns in homes raise the risk women will murdered, threatened or coerced considerably, and are very used very rarely for self defence, comparably. Focusing on the weapons and not the people, though, distracts from more fundamental problems. Guns or not, you are far more likely to be murdered or raped by a partner or family member than any stereotypical “criminal” shown on the news and in action movies. How’s that for “family values”?

This is a fundamentally sick society, and gun control isn’t going to fix it. Until America takes a hard look at the inequalities which pervade it, this violence will continue.

On the subject of guns themselves, it’s time to break out of the limited frame of “gun control” and talk about actual disarmament. Unlike the statist philosophies of a domestic Pax Romana, this would ask something in return from our government. Disarmament, as anybody who’s followed negotiations from Northern Ireland to Washington and Moscow knows, is a matter where you ‘give a little to get a little’. No more “assault rifles”…alright…how about no drones in domestic airspace? No military-style armoured vehicles policing our streets? Perhaps they could even sign onto some landmine treaties as an act of goodwill…

This is the same government, after all, which spends almost half of the world’s yearly military budget. America is the world’s biggest arms dealer, using them to support numerous tyrannical regimes (like the Saudis) and terrorist groups (like the Libyan and Syrian rebels). It maintains a massive nuclear stockpile, much of it atop launch-ready intercontinal missiles, as well as numerous chemical and biological weapons facilities. It flaunts numerous global arms-control treaties, amongst many other international laws. Against it’s own population, it directs the world’s largest prison system, largely as a method of social control against the lower classes and racialized populations.

If we’re going to talk about this, then yes, advocates of civilian “gun control” have my attention. Bringing the American state’s guns under control would save an almost immeasurable number of lives around the globe. If the registration and confiscation of civilian firearms (especially those of military value) is going to take place in conjunction with the militarization of police forces, extension of domestic surveillance and challenging of every serious restriction from Habeas Corpus to international treaties on torture and nuclear proliferation, then don’t expect my support. Restricting firearms does alter the basic civil balance of power, and it’s yet another worrying sign that states are beginning to seize totally unprecedented levels of power, which is in itself a decent argument for resisting such restrictions.

For those who still wish to own guns, I won’t try to stop you. I will say only that safety means a lot more than gun-safes, trigger locks and simple rules (“never at a person”, “always assume it’s loaded”, etc). The power to kill or maim at a distance comes with an incredible responsibility, and that starts with yourself. It isn’t just guns or people that kill people, it’s hatred, anger, carelessness and ignorance that drives them to do it. It’s the “gunstore cowboy” mentality that consumer culture built up around small arms and the ever-present fear of young, urban, males of colour. It’s notions of “the family” which evoke images of East-Asian “honour killings”, viewing disobedient women and children as fundamentally disposable. And, of course, it’s a product of the poverty and twisted justice system that turn inner cities into warzones and make guns a way of life. None of these problems are limited to guns or gun owners, but they all become much more serious once guns are involved. This makes it more important than ever to challenge your own preconceptions and deal with your own issues, before they drive you and your gun to do something you can’t take back. Really curbing gun violence means addressing it’s roots in our society, but the first step towards that change is taking a long hard look at ourselves.

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I came across an interesting little report the other day – an analysis of traffic from Occupywallstreet.org. Studying trends in hits, new/repeat visitors and length of stay, they came up with a very interesting theory. They’re calling it the “riot porn hypothesis”. The second slide makes fairly clear why – the eviction of Zuccotti Park on Nov. 17th generated an immense surge in views, from ~`10 000/day or less to more than half a million. This date and other events led to the hypothesis, which states that traffic spikes after incidents of arrests or police brutality.

Quantatative Analysis of Phase One of Occupy Wall Street – OWS Analytics (Google Docs)

To anyone familiar with the media or activism in general, this should come as no surprise. “If it bleeds, it leads” has just been put to the test, and it got the result everyone expected. Nothing catches people’s attentions like a bunch of arrests, and that’s just as true with new media as old.

Why? Because arrests show that both “sides” were serious. That something “happened”. In an atmosphere of conflicting accounts where most are wary of cops, reporters and protesters, they give a solid number by which to judge the “scale” of unrest. The create a story with compelling characters and conflict, and make normally “boring” issues exciting. “Riot porn” in particular – images and footage from “the front lines” captivates people, whether for or against, and it’s very hard to ignore.

OWSAnalytics didn’t manage much detail on what in particular drives this attention. Is it police brutality per se? Does it matter whether protesters resist arrest or go peacefuly? How about property destruction? How do the effects differ between Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland? Ultimately, this may matter a lot less than one might think, since the coverage of these events is so standard, no matter what actually happened. Papers will write about “clashes between demonstrators and police” whether those demonstrators are seated quietly or burning police cars.

We need to be really careful here of treating these events as simple “spectacles” for the sake of viewers at home. They aren’t. There’s a difference between protests and publicity stunts. Success cannot be measured in “views”, and getting people to read your website is only the first step in changing the world. Focusing too much on publicity obscures real strategic goals. These struggles are newsworthy because people are fighting for a cause, not our attention, and once that changes things start to seem a little forced. When it becomes obvious that a group of demonstrators wanted only to be arrested or break stuff, it’s never quite as interesting. Beyond that, these actions are really frackin’ dangerous, and shouldn’t be undertaken lightly.

How this all relates to debates about “violence” at protests is a really interesting question. Above all else, it certainly does lend some credence to the oft-made claim that the only reason protests get any coverage is because things get broken and people get hauled off. That does kinda suggest that the actions of the Black Bloc aren’t nearly as “unpopular” as often claimed, and that they’ve done a lot more for moderate groups than most would like to admit. It also suggests that police violence is a less popular than we might think, and that these actions are having a serious impact on public opinion of the justice system. None of this, of course, is any kind of “vindication” of one tactic or another – but it also can’t be ignored.

As someone who often writes about rioting, I must say, my own traffic sees the exact same patterns. Posts about riots get at least double the hits of others, and keep getting visits long afterward – seen most recently when I wrote about Quebec students. This kind of attention ensures that these confrontations will keep happening. When peaceful, thoughtful, polite protests get consistently ignored, while a few dozen rock-throwing vandals can capture the world’s attention, this kind of chaos is inevitable. Condemn them if you like, but you’re the ones tuning in every time it happens.

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.

Yesterday the central defendants in the G20 “conspiracy” trial were given their sentences and taken away in handcuffs to serve their time. This concludes another chapter of this sordid ordeal, and hopefully if nothing else brings a little closure to some of those who’ve lived the last year and a half in haze of fear, uncertainty and highly restrictive bail conditions.

You can read their statements, here.

Many of those caught up in this nightmare were friends of mine, some close, and I can personally attest that they weren’t a part of the “black bloc” (most were already in jail at the time of the riot). Their trial has been based on an “extensive history of infiltration and surveillance, where any off-hand comment or dark-humoured joke has become “evidence” of involvement in a criminal conspiracy. All in all, it seems the safest place a protester could be on that Saturday was nestled into the middle of the black block, as so far, the actual rioters responsible seem to have suffered far less than most bystanders or “peaceful protesters”. Nobody familiar with the history of political trails should be surprised by this fact, and the parallels here run right back to Haymarket Square in 1886, where many organizers were eventually hung for their anarchist views in lieu of actual evidence of wrongdoing. Read the trial statement of August Spies here to see how little has changed.

After reading his ruling on the co-defendants’ plea bargain, Justice Lloyd Budzinski gave his two cents on social change. In his statement, the judge talked about how they were being punished for their actions, not their beliefs. He stated that he too, as a judge, knew what it meant to feel excluded from the political process. He spoke of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and how they should have chosen peaceful civil disobedience instead.

I’ve mentioned a few times, in passing, the close relationship between this kind of scornful “pacifism” and state violence, but this statement really says it all. A senior official with the justice system, surrounded by armed men, in the process of sending protest organizers to jail for being on the receiving end of one of Canada’s biggest (and surely most expensive) acts of civil repression since Confederation, wants to talk about peacefully resolving problems? After over a thousand people were mass arrested, brutalized, sexually assaulted and put through legal nightmares with virtually no consequences for those police officers and politicians responsible, he wants to talk about accountability? This would be utterly hilarious if it weren’t so serious or offensive.

Of course the people pointing guns at us want us to object in the most peaceful and inoffensive ways possible. Just like our bosses will tell us day in and day out that unions won’t help us get better wages. Not only is it clearly contrary to their interest for us to resist in any way which is remotely effective, but there’s generally not much in their personal experience to suggest that the establishment won’t do anything they ask.

They myth of Gandhi has reached religious proportions in the West – a view, I’m told, which is not widely shared India. This conception of Gandhi’s philosophies is incredibly shallow (I’ve read most of Satyagrahaa, have you?), leaving out crucial ideas like local governance or economics. Historically speaking, it shows a total ignorance of the context – the fact that the British and American governments were facing fairly serious armed uprisings if they brushed Gandhi or MLK aside. Instead they focus on finger-wagging accusations aimed at “bad activists” for not being enough like their saints, and justifying violent repression on that basis.

Tactics like these aren’t peaceful at all. They acknowledge, accept and utterly depend on powerful violent actors to hear their cries and take action out of sympathy. Whether this means that those responsible for their oppression call off their troops, or neighbouring powerful folks sending in their own soldiers, these tactics don’t work in a vacuum. What if nobody is listening? And what if those perpetrating the attacks don’t care? This has been the case, for instance, in nearly all the world’s repression of indigenous peoples, from the Americas to Australia and everywhere in between. What then?

Equating what is “peaceful” with what the state finds acceptable means nothing but siding uncritically with the state. In conflicts which involve the state in question (Canada, of course, being one of those nasty G20 nations the protesters were so upset about), this is especially true. That anybody can consider two burning cars and a bunch of rocks thrown through windows to be more “violent” than the billion-dollar, thoroughly illegal mass arrest of over a thousand people, complete with beatings, pre-dawn tactical raids and cavalry charges shows this very clearly. The fact alone that an establishment which was (and in many ways still is) at war gives lie to anything they want to say about “peace”.

I know a lot of pacifists. Real pacifists. From the Christian Peacemaking Teams to the Quakers to the Peace Studies department at McMaster. They don’t uncritically accept systemic violence – they do everything they can to call it out and confront it. They don’t limit the actions they see as acceptable to those which are legal. And they frequently challenge the Canadian government and others for their brutality abroad. A perfect example might be the Ploughshares movement, a collection of often deeply religious and entirely peaceful folks who regularly charge onto army bases and begin tearing apart war machines with hand tools (attempting to beat “swords” into “ploughshares”), then willingly submitting to arrest. Many of these people are anarchists, and it’s hard to imagine where the anarchist tradition would be at without groups like Quakers and others. I may not always be an advocate of peace (few people are), but all of these people have my deepest respect. If the first casualty of war is the truth then the first remedy is brutal honesty.

Some very close friends of mine are going to spend the next couple of months in prison. That’s violence. Prisons are some of the most violent institutions imaginable, involving constant and consistent threats and violence from every angle. They’re academies of crime where people are sent to lift weights, get in fights and talk about crime, and it’s no coincidence that high incarceration rates tend to correlate very well with high rates of violent crime – just look at America. They’re some of the most ugly examples of systemic racism and classism, locking up hugely disproportionate numbers of poor, black, or First Nations people while letting anyone who can afford a lawyer get away with far more grievous crimes. Corporations and police budgets, on the other hand, gain huge windfalls of public money. Academically speaking, the “law and order” approach has been publicly acknowledged as a failure for decades. These sentences are the actions of a vengeful, vindictive and greedy ruling class and shouldn’t be seen as anything else.

“I am going to jail today. I have plead guilty and do not contest this. But I remember that whatever happens in the court is not the most important story. Even as this prosecution draws to a close, the truly important stories are ongoing, playing out among allies in liberated spaces everywhere, and in the hearts of my family and the people who care about me. It is those stories I will carry with me as I leave the courtroom today.” – Peter Hopperton (statement)

In the past week we’ve witnessed enormous uprisings across Southern Europe, with six-figure turnouts in nations like Spain, Italy and Greece against the crippling austerity measures now being imposed on them in the hopes of resolving the European debt crisis. In Italy over the weekend, and over the past two days in Greece, violence flared at these protests, leaving one dead (heart failure), around a hundred injured. There are reports of fighting between rioters and other protesters from both. Given the explosion in similar North American protests over the last month, many are drawing parallels to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Many are asking: could it happen here?

That’s not a question I or anyone can answer – it will depend on everyone’s actions in the months ahead – police, parliament and protesters like. So far, things here have been overwhelmingly nonviolent. What I can do is put all of this in some perspective:

First of all, protests over austerity in this region are hardly new – Europe has been raging since the latter half of last year, and Greece for few years longer than that. Protests in general tend to involve 10-100 times more people in Europe (or Asia, Latin America etc…) than North America, and there’s a much stronger tradition of militancy, especially in the south. While North American protester “violence” usually involves broken windows and flying rocks, Europeans are far more likely to resort to barricades, molotov cocktails and large-scale street-fighting. Nor is this limited to “protests”, as recent riots in London and Paris have shown. In many ways European society is coming apart at the seams.

This isn’t to say the situation here is “good”, or that our history of protests has always been friendly. It is, however, a far cry from the post-war horrors of dictatorships in Spain or Greece or the chronic instability of Italian governments. Then there’s the history of radical guerillas fighting the fascists in the region during WWII (or in the case of Spain, just before it). Canadian and American and British radical guerillas, of course, also fought – though mostly in Spain.

It’s worth noting, however, that Spain’s ETA, the militant group which has been fighting for an independent, socialist Basque region for decades has just announced an end to armed part of struggle. So, of course, there are always avenues for peace, and for peaceful resistance.

Second, things are clearly worse in Europe. Economies like Spain and Greece have been characterized by 40%+ unemployment among the young, and banking sectors threatening to implode and take the world with them. In Italy, a major catalyst for the unrest was Silvio Berlusconi’s recent survival of another confidence vote. You might know Berlusconi as the legendarily corrupt Italian leader who’s run their economy into the ground while getting caught up in numerous sex scandals and attempting to pass a law granting himself and his cabinet immunity from prosecution because his many criminal prosecutions were “taking up too much of his time”. In Spain, the recent two-day general strike was a response to their latest austerity bill, which barely managed to pass inside the besieged parliament. In Greece, the cuts, privatizations and tax increases being put forward are now so bad that small businesspeople have joined workers and unemployed in the streets.

Spain, Italy and Greece are threatening to default on their loans, and that would threaten much of the world’s banking sector. This could destroy the European Union as a financial entity and Euro as a currency, as well as set off a(nother) worldwide economic collapse. Their leaders are being leaned on hard to pass nightmarish cuts, despite clear scepticism by real economists that it’ll help them meet their targets (Greece is continuing to fail). Their governments are between a rock and a hard place, and so far have opted to do the best to ignore their indignant populations. This is a clear prescription for civil unrest, and one our governments would do well to learn from.

Riots happen, for better or for worse. It’s easy to sit idly by and critique them (or revel in online riot-porn) from the relative comfort of countries like Canada, but the ugly truth is that in situations like these, they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath them lie buried worlds of suffering and hardship, as well as countless examples of systemic and institutional violence. The fact that some people feel rioting is the only way to bring light to this is sad, but sadder is the fact that it’s too often true. In the absence of meaningful, peaceful means of addressing them, a more emotional and visceral reaction is bound to fill that vacuum. Constructive nonviolent protests on a large scale take extraordinary levels of discipline, organization and coordination. Riots don’t.

So far, North America’s protests have been very peaceful, even by our standards. That fact has done wonders for the ‘image’ of the movement, as well as bringing no end of shame upon police for their heavy-handed responses. This only goes to show the value of these kinds of tactics. Peaceful strategies can work, but passive strategies cannot. As Gandhi stated, “poverty is the worst form of violence”, and it doesn’t stop taking its toll for lack of attention. Every time a peaceful protest gets ignored, violence wins in one way or another.

On a slightly related subject, here’s what one member of America’s military thinks about the police response to Occupy Wall Street, as he told about thirty of them during a recent demonstration. Youtube

In response to all of the public cries over rowdy protests at the G20, I thought it wise to point out that rioting can and has changed the world, many times.

1. Stonewall Riots – 1969, New York – In response to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a prominent Greenwich Village gay bar, and to the general tactic of targetting gays, lesbians and transgendered folk, all of the above rioted. The Stonewall Riots are a considered a turning point in the American history of GBLT rights.
LA Times Link

2. Rodney King Riots – 1992, Los Angeles – one of many famous and influential race riots, it was also unbelievably violent – more than fifty people were killed and over a billion dollars of property damage was done after almost a week of rioting. The riots were sparked by video footage of a brutal police beating of Rodney King. After the riots, the officers involved were charged and he was given a large settlement.
Wikipedia Link

3. Seattle WTO Protests – 1999, Seattle – As the World Trade Organization attempted to meet in their city, tens of thousands of protesters managed to halt the summit with a mix of nonviolent tactics (such as blocking roads to the meetings by sitting down in the street) and black block rioting. Seattle made globalization into a household word, and shone the light of day on back-room trade policy dealing. Since Seattle, more than a decade of other protests like it have rocked groups like the IMF, OAS, WEF, G8 and G20.
Zmedia Link

4. Cochabamba Water Wars – 2000, Bolivial – In the face of water privatization policies which were denying water to the city’s poor, a wide array of protests, including a general strike, rocked the city. Demonstrators clashed with police – 70 protesters and over fifty police were injured. In the wake of the “Water Wars”, water privatization was reversed and the people of the city and the protests have since been a global inspiration to other communities fighting water privatization.
Wikipedia Link

5. Haymarket Square – 1886, Chicago
– During a rally in Haymarket Square to support striking workers and argue for shorter workdays, the police ordered the crowd to disperse. A bomb was thrown at police lines (to this date, nobody really knows who threw it), and fierce fighting broke out, with police firing into the crowd. Organizers of the rally were put on trial and convicted on the basis that they were Anarchists and thus they were guilty. Many, including the original August Spies, were put to death. The trial and executions outraged and infuriated workers worldwide, and to this day, we still celebrate May Day to remember them.
Wikipedia Link

6 .Pakistan – 2007 – The assasination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto ignited long-standing outrage at Pakistan’s brutal and corrupt military dictator, Perez Musharraf, and riots quickly spread across the country. This highlighted Musharraf’s tyranny to the world, and by the end of the next year he had been deposed by a coalition government.
Wikipedia Link

7. Argentina – 2001 – After years of failing economic policy and interference by groups like the IMF, the Argentinian people took to the streets throughout the nation and the government was forced to declare a state of siege. President Fernando de la Rua was forced to step down and flee by helicopter on national television. The new government was forced into economic and social reforms, and the protests stood as an example to developing nations all over the world.
Wikipedia Link

8. DNC – 1968, Chicago – At the height of America’s hippy rebellion in the 1960s, massive protests broke out around the Democratic National Convention, to protest the two-party rule which still strangles democracy in their country. And the shooting death of a black youth, Dean Johnson, by police, ignited a generation’s rage over civil rights and the war in Vietnam. Hundreds rioted in the streets of Chicago for days, injuring over a hundred and fifty cops. The trial that ensued caused the “Chicago Seven” national celebrity – figures who are still famous, like Abbie Hoffman.
wikipedia Link

9. Gastown Police Riot – 1971, Vancouver – prompted by a wave of police drug raids, a group of peaceful demonstrators staged a smoke-in to protest the drug war in Maple Tree Square and were attacked by police. In what has since been called a “police riot” by a federal inquiry, the cops attacked everyone in sight and vastly overstepped their boundaries. Protesters fought back with rocks and bottles, and the The Battle of Maple Tree Square has been rememberd since as a precedent-setting case of police brutality.
Historyofrights.com Link

10 .Tibet – 2008 – After decades of brutal Communist occupation, a large group of Buddhist monks attempted yet another peaceful protest for Tibetan Independence. Chinese police attacked and sparked weeks of rioting across occupied Tibet. With the world’s focus on China thanks to the Olympics, this brought a renewed worldwide attention to a free Tibet.
Wikipedia Link

(A note on Wikipedia sources: I recognize that wikipedia isn’t a terribly radical or academic source, but I like using it because it shows a fairly good glimpse of publicly recognized history.)

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