An analysis of militant-street protest, movement strategy, and the state of anarchism. Based around the G20 Pittsburgh demonstrations.
The G20 is upon us, and though BBC world news featured some of “the troubles” in Pittsburgh, on the ground reports hardly match up with the media-inflation, police-inflation, and activist-inflation of the actual thing.
As is often the case, the media makes things look a whole lot crazier than they actually are, if it’s in the interests of higher ratings. And though most Americans if surveyed would be against rioting, they love to watch it on TV. So the media is hyping the G20 protests up enough to get some extra points, but not enough to anger their parent companies.
The police of course have to inflate the threats posed by relatively small numbers of protestors to justify the gigantic amount of city, state and federal tax-payer money used to buy new weapons, vehicles, chemical munitions, and armor. They get to keep all these goodies to use against whomever crosses their path in the future. So little pebbles getting tossed at robo-cops become boulders and little marches becoming security threats.
To match these two forces, the protest groups, especially my own comrades in the anarchist groups, inflate their stories, numbers, and actions to try to gain support and build momentum, and to make them feel better. So a dumpster getting rolled down a street into an intersection will be heroized in well-designed pamphlets to come and talked about for years the way my generation still talks about the fence-chasing incident at A16, (World Bank/IMF protests on April 16, 2000 in DC).
What is so crazy about all of this, this inflation is that it doesn’t seem to help. As an organizer with a decade of experience in all types of work, from anarchist organizations to peace groups to labor organizing, I don’t think over-hyping our actions does anything for us. In fact, I think it works to our disadvantage. It adds to a culture of dishonesty, of not addressing our shortcomings, of not reflecting and refining our work.
Now Pittsburgh had a crowd of 4,000-10,000 people according to different reports. While this is a big number in general, it’s not so big compared to public opinions on such issues at the bailout, corporate executive bonuses, or the global economic order in general. Most folks in the U.S. are pretty angry, from the far left to the independent right/libertarians. Instead of congratulating ourselves on a “large turnout”, we should be asking why it wasn’t nearly size of most anti-war demonstrations that have happened. Not to put ourselves down in anyway, but to consider the factors so that we can go about building a stronger movement for economic justice. When we don’t look into these factors, we are walking blind.
Another major issue in these protests is that when militant groups over-hype themselves before-hand, to make themselves seem bigger, more powerful, and often more willing to use violence or property destruction, they invite and allow public justification for large, well-funded and well-equipped police action… And they are not prepared to take it. They are usually fronting, thinking that talking big will make the actual thing big. This is not how organizing works. You actually have to do the work, not just front like you have. You end up in dangerous situations when you do this.
A flimsy PVC-reinforced banner is not going to last long against a few riot-police, it never has. I’ve seen it many times and it’s never done anything more than look cool in a photo to those who’ve never seen the damn things break on impact. I once saw a cop beat an anarchist with a piece of his own broken PVC “shield” banner.
I came from this scene, learned all the tactical terms, and met many good people who I ran in the streets with, and we got into some crazy situations. I have been around the bloc a few times. I have inhaled tear gas and pepper spray, heard the close-up clicks on the infamous taser, and heard the sobering sounds of riot batons breaking human bones. I once saw a guy almost burn a hole in his hand throwing a tear gas canister back at the police in Quebec City in 2001. At the beginning of the Iraq war, I helped drag a 16 year-old girl away from a group of police who were beating her in DC. Both her ankles and one of her arms were broken. In Miami in 2003, I heard the explosion of “less-lethal” weapons and heard a loud pop next to me. As I turned, a middle-aged woman was starting to run away with blood literally pouring out of her mouth. She had been hit in the face with a rubber bullet.
After that incident I began a long reflective process, one that started in the bloodstained streets of Miami and hasn’t stopped yet, hopefully it never will. Something clicked when the blood poured out of this woman’s mouth; this is for real. I am really here and we are really getting the shit kicked out of us. What before seemed sort of fun, sort of therapeutic, sort of educational, now seemed totally dangerous, serious, and life-threatening.
It also became clear that our actions in the streets were not usually connected to any real strategy to achieve change, no goals that we could attain, no real meaning for being there at that time, besides to ruin the party for the bigwigs. Not that that’s a bad thing to do, it’s just not worth my eye, hand, or life. It went on like this for years for me before I sobered up, took a step back, and realized I was in the middle of a big mess, a mess with very few details. It was like a messy room that only has large furniture in it, no scraps of paper, no old dishes, no crumbs. Everything upon observation was really clear, it was obvious what was wrong.
I began to think about my purpose for protest, my desire for economic and social justice, peace, and equality. As I reflected, I became disillusioned with protest, burned out, depressed, and lost. It took a while to crawl out of it, but I came out on top. I learned a lot during my down time and came to some understandings.
One of the clearest understandings I reached, one that was really solidified recently after reading a book called War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges, is that me and many friends were pretty much addicted to these intense street situations. We were engaging in “combat scenarios” and really, to a scary degree, creating mini-war scenes where we could play out some strange fantasies.
War is A Force That Gives Us Meaning talks about the strange attraction that people have to war, even those highly opposed to it. Even those scarred by it, terrified by it, and deeply effected by it. Some go into war and get real messed up, vowing to never return, only to soon find themselves desiring that adrenaline, the fear, the intensity. Hedges was a journalist in Bosnia, El Salvador, Lebanon, and Iraq. He realized after many years that he was experiencing a type of addiction, seeking a high that can only be attained in a combat situation.
I fear that we too, anarchists and street militants, have similar symptoms. We intentionally go into situations that we know are dangerous, that we often know don’t really have any solid plan. Maybe it’s part machismo, maybe it’s part desperation, maybe it’s part legit too, but I think it’s a lot of high-seeking. We desire the intensity, the rush. We get to enact roles that we don’t get to enact in our everyday lives, heroism, bravery, sacrifice, quick thinking, fear-testing, and some forms of solidarity. We also get to experience prison, pain, and life-changing trauma.
All of this is well worth it if we have our eyes on the prize and are fully aware of the risks, reasons, and responsibilities of these types of actions. The risks are obvious, the reasons usually are few and far between (meaning we usually don’t have a very sound strategic approach to protest that results in the real changes we desire). The responsibilities are usually totally missing, aside from street medics and basic legal support. But larger ones, like trauma support for years afterwards, support for those abused in prison, networks of real care and compassion like those veterans have created with groups like Vets 4 Vets and Homefront Battle Buddies to heal from the painful experiences of violence, don’t exist yet.
I have seen all of this go pretty much unnoticed by those of us who organized actions that resulted in the trauma, like those of us who helped organize in Miami. A lot of us who were there learned that lesson real quick afterwards, but a bit too late. I know a woman who has full audio/visual flashbacks from Miami, another parallel with war, and a common symptom of PTSD. Many of my friends have PTSD from their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would not be surprising if many of us have been coping with similar effects from Philadelphia, Miami, DC, and St. Paul and didn’t know it because we are not in a movement that is prepared to handle or reflective enough to admit such things.
While the experiences of violence can easily change you, I don’t want to dwell on this too much. I don’t want my point to get blurred. I’m not scared of violence all the time. I’m not against violence all the time. I’m not against riots all the time, and I’m not against folks putting themselves in harms way just to prove a point all the time. But I am no longer lending my support to these acts if they are not solidly rooted in an organizational and movement-wide foundation, supported by large numbers of people who understand their purpose and the steps to take afterwards. If we are “stepping it up” or “escalating” without the massive numbers of people that we were previously standing with, we are losing people, and are thus destined to fail. I don’t want to be in a people-less movement, I want to build strong movements that can take bold and seemingly dangerous steps together, growing as they move forward. This can justify the risk.
On the question of “Violence VS Non-Violence” I opt out. I respond with a better question: “What is your goal?”. Then I consider the goals, how they link up to a larger strategy, and how it effects its movement as a whole. “Will it make you stronger?”. “Will it hurt your organizing efforts?”. These are the relevant questions. Then I ask, “What do you need to do to achieve your goal?”. Then I consider the question of violence or non-violence. It’s more of a tactical concern, and tactical concerns stem from a goal, which usually stems from an even bigger goal, which stems from a strategy.
If you roll a dumpster at the police, why are you doing it? To prove a point? To block a street? To open a street? To cause a diversion to pull off another action? To impress the media? To impress your friends? To get it out of the way? To get it in the way? These are relevant questions, far more relevant than whether or not it’s morally acceptable to roll a dumpster around. But then you must ask yourself why you are trying to achieve that tactical goal. Are you blockading a meeting? Are you causing chaos to make the summit look bad? Are you trying to get media attention? Do you want revenge on the police? Then you must ask yourself why you are blockading the meeting or causing chaos or trying to get on TV. Who are you trying to effect? Who’s your base? If you want media attention, who are you trying to reach out to? What is your message for them? If you are trying to cause chaos, what is the purpose? Who is it serving? How is it advancing your goals? What effect will it have on your movement next week, next month, next year? What is the follow-up to all of this?
That’s how winning movements think. Those are the critical questions to ask, among others. Unfortunately, I never experienced a single anarchist group that considered any of this. We just went out and did the craziest stuff, had a few parties/events in the next few months, and started the next round of last-minute militant protest organizing, building for our next street-fantasy, the omnipresent and mythological “next Seattle”. We were chasing a high that we didn’t even understand.
In pursuit of this high, we got lost in our own imagery and rhetoric. We convinced ourselves that we, the anarchists, were the movement. We were the ones who were important, the ones who made the difference between a dinky permitted march and a history-making mobilization. We used Seattle as the ultra-reference, where a group of a few dozen black bloc anarchists caused over 4 million dollars in property damage. Nevermind the other 49,000 + people in Seattle’s actions, sacrifices, and hard work. Nevermind the union workers rushing into downtown to defend those doing civil disobedience. Nevermind those who locked down peacefully or used human chains to blockade delegate hotels. We were too obsessed with ourselves to let other folks steal out glory. We called them all “liberals”, and this was the ultimate diss.
A recent Crimethinc report on the Pittsburgh G20 says that the black bloc-portion of the protests “signifies the survival of militant street resistance in the Obama era.”. But I ask to what end? Militant street resistance against what? For what? What kind of vague movement are we part of if we discuss our tactics as if they are the very point of using them? Is “militant street protest” an end in itself? Why? What about the “survival of a sustained movement for economic justice”? Why don’t we discuss the things we are working for? Are we working for “militant street protests” or are we working towards a broad social goal? Do anarchists no longer think in terms of issues, goals, or things they care about? Just vague notions of “freedom” (like the freedom to light a dumpster on fire) or “resistance” (a habit of attending and organizing semi-annual pre-staged battles with the police)?
This insurrectionary rhetoric that is so popular today among us young anarchists is belittling and destroying anarchism. It’s turning it into a mythic fantasy world, where things magically change because someone breaks a window or quits their job. And it’s pulling a lot of young people into situations where they are often hurting long-term movements for change, rather than reinforcing them. Today’s “Anarchism” is too disconnected from larger movements, too fragmented in it’s own, and too carried away with it’s own romanticism.
These are serious critiques and questions from a comrade, someone who throws their heart into positive work every day for serious, radical social change. I write not to piss my friends off or put people down, but to challenge -urge- my friends to think very critically, very… Critically enough to make a meeting suck. Enough to make you really frustrated. Enough to spark heated but respectful discussion. Enough to make the work hard and controversial. It’s not supposed to be this fun. The fun comes from the struggle. The fun is in light of the struggle. We don’t struggle enough. We play around issues, organizing these events where we experience “street liberation”, the high, and then spend the next few months coming down from it until we re-up. Crimethinc mentions the great high later in the same article, without admitting the contradictions of this strange addiction: “No words can do justice to this experience, but it is real”.
Is that why you take the streets, fellow anarchists? Are you searching for that feeling that cannot be explained? That adrenaline rush, that fear? Ask yourself this, and ask it in a serious way. Because if you, are you should reconsider your role in social movements, how you participate, how your actions reverberate, what effects they have on others. And perhaps you should take a deep breath and consider your priorities and those of the people around you. There’s too much at stake to waste our time and energy preparing for and executing these theater-like confrontations.
The anarchist groups are full of good people, committed, and hopefully those who will help contribute to positive social changes in our lifetimes. It is for you, the committed anarchists, that I write this. I want you to take my words seriously, because we have a lot of work to do, and most of it is not going to get done in the streets. It’s going to get done on the doorsteps, the libraries, the churches, the labor halls, the schools, the military bases, the parks, the prisons, the abortion clinics, the neighborhood associations, the PTAs. And whatever it is, it’s not going to be called Anarchism and it’s not going to look like what you think it’s going to look like. It’s going to be new, fresh, original, organic, unique, and real. And it’s going to be a combination of all of our society’s best politics, ideas, experiences, and sincerity. And we are going to help make it happen.
Let’s take anarchism out of the streets for a while and put it back in the communities where it was born.