A cop car in Oakland after being lit on fire, graffitied, and smashed after police violence cleared Oscar Grant Plaza. May 1st, 2012. Originally published May 2, 2012.
I have been very critical of street-militancy in the recent past, in various contexts, and I have also been very supportive of it in others. A few years ago I wrote Are We Addicted to Rioting?, a piece that generated an intense online debate and won we a lot of new enemies (some people called for me to be physically attacked, other stooped to name-calling and, of course, making fun of my music). Others emailed me to thank me strongly for “finally saying something about this” issue, and for having the guts to state publicly what many had been thinking for a long time.
Many others, I should note, disagreed with my critique strongly but expressed no personal animosity towards me, which I respect. Debate is critical, and the way in which I was attacked for simply disagreeing with folks I identify with was a bit of a shock.
I have been meaning to write a more lengthy piece re-visiting that article, but haven’t yet. Obviously, I wouldn’t write this piece the same way if I wrote it again (because I don’t agree with everything I said in it, because I could re-word many things to make my case better, and because three years of conversations spurred by the article have evolved my thoughts on the subjects discussed in it). That said, I stand by the fact that I wrote it and that I made my case publicly, as I support open debate and criticism. Below is some thoughts spurred by my experience with May Day in Oakland, and conversations around recent demonstrations within and surrounding the Occupy movement.
I think that ground that has shifted as of the birth of Occupy and the Arab Spring have created new contexts from which both militant and peaceful protest have enjoyed a newfound popularity.
Recent attacks against banks (a Wells Fargo, for instance, was hit with Molotov Cocktails in Seattle on May 1) and, in some areas, police cars/facilities (2 police cars were lit on fire in Oakland on May 1), have, in my experience from both conversations and from internet chatter, have been fairly popular amongst not just militant anarchist friends, but from many people in general. Attacks against banks right now make a lot of sense to a lot of people, since the banks have destroyed so many lives and enjoy almost no reprisals (when done in ways that don’t endanger allies).
In Egypt, dozens of police stations were burned down, as well as countless military and police vehicles and equipment, after the police killed demonstrators in Tahrir Square. This was a key part of the revolution, this escalation and willingness to fight back emboldened people to take further actions that were required to achieved the otherthrow of Mubarak. That said, the emphasis on mass non-violent struggle (as opposed to the all out militancy that has led to civil wars in the past) was avoided, leaving violence and militancy as a tool to use when needed but not abused or obsessed over.
Context is critical, and keeping popular views in mind is key to movements growing. Seeing Oakland’s militant contingent operate yesterday was pretty cool: it’s very diverse compared to any I’ve seen, pretty on-target/focused, and folks in Oakland (like the janitor who had to clean up the glass from one of the banks that got smashed who I talked to) hate the police for their actions especially in the past few years (Oscar Grant, etc). Almost everyone I talked to in Oakland blamed the police for the violence, and were not confused as to why, for instance, cop cars would be lit on fire. But If folks in a city like Baltimore, which is very similar in many ways to Oakland, tried to mimic their tactics, it would probably fail completely to mobilize people. Oakland has a specific context from which the current anger is emerging, as do all areas. Importantly, anarchists really came out in solidarity with Oakland youth after the Oscar Grant assassination, which forged ties that have carried into the present. This context is really key to understand the militancy of Oakland.
Attacks against small business (even Gentrifiers), such as in San Francisco two nights ago when a militant protest smashed shop windows and car windows that they perceived to be “upper-class”, pissed a lot of people off, including fellow anarchists and Latino radicals. A lot of those within militant circles come from these same class backgrounds, and in San Francisco they attacked the property of individuals from the 99%. A lot of poor folks have nice cars too, folks, and actions like this hurt this movement, and they say to me that some people just wanted to smash car windows cuz it looks cool.
I saw Latino organizers from the 4,000 person march from East Oakland get up in the faces of Black Bloc folks who they thought were going to endanger their march earlier in the afternoon and quite militantly tell them to not fuck up their march. And before that there was a near fist fight between communists and anarchists in the middle of Oscar Grant Plaza, after both groups had taken the streets together to push the police off the block. The argument/fight, while I’m sure I’d side with the anarchists in it when it comes down to it, had some classic mob-mentality type bravado in it that lends itself to a general self-righteous internal culture that has emerged time and time again within militant anarchist (and other) circles. Such self-righteousness (which of course also exists within fundamentalist pacifist circles), breeds that type of culture that auto-justifies any actions taken by a group and encourages a closed-minded mentality and even hostility towards outside and even insider-criticism.
Something obvious to most people I spoke with is that Occupy Oakland has been unable to mobilize the numbers it did during the first port shutdown, which was in many ways also a response to the police violence that left Scott Olsen with a broken skull. Some I spoke with point to the escalation of property destruction and the responding to of police violence with force as key factors, while others say the militancy is fine and exciting, and point to the general energy-level nationally of Occupy and the psychology of movement waves as the main factors. Often large events are followed by years or smaller events, that grow steadily and pace themselves for longer-term transformations. I saw this in Barcelona’s Indignados movements recently, when their encampments disbanded and their movement shifted to new tactics/strategies, the outside perception is that they lost power. But they haven’t, they are just being grounded by the reality of their situation, as the mass days of June gave birth to a new movement.
Critical questions need to be asked about tactics as they relate to movement participants (the same questions need to be asked about all tactics, pacifistic ones and militant ones), and about the when/where/whys of such tactics: are our numbers growing or shrinking? Is this related to tactics or the ways in which they have been utilized? Are folks communicating with allies? Are there forums/ways to discuss such things that will help bring folks together around understandings? Is militancy being used because it is catalyzing popular anger or meeting goals, or is it being used because it feels good/look cool? Is “non-violence” being used because it is affective, or because those with idealogical attachments to it are calling for it?
These questions are very important to ask to spur conversations around the effects of how we carry out protest (and it should be noted that both non-strategic militancy and boring, go-nowhere peaceful protests tend to drive many people away when they consistently fail to achieve substantial changes, and that violence/non-violence are less a factor than popular understanding of the direct/successes of methods used.). In my experience, people care less about moral considerations than about the usefulness/effectiveness of actions.