Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I'm A Better Anarchist Than You

Some Thoughts on Vancouver and the Black Bloc

I love a good riot. The distant sound of things breaking, the smoke billowing from whatever is burning, the young men and women busily smashing whatever they can find into fist-sized pieces, launching the objects over the heads of their fellow rioters (if all goes well) and into the ranks of the black-clad police with their Ninja Turtle armor, translucent plastic shields and their array of far more sophisticated weaponry. I love the scent of tear gas (if I'm just on the outskirts of the cloud), it's exhilarating, the scent of possibility, of the situation's volatility, the thrilling uncertainty. The excitement of seeing the barricades get lit on fire, knowing that no police vehicle, no matter how well-armored, is going to drive through that.

They're going to have to put the fire out first, and until they manage to get some big hoses to the scene (which might require the participation of the fire department, which might not want to participate), this is our block. Maybe the police even retreat a couple times under particularly heavy volleys of rocks and bottles, the crowd surges and cheers, meanwhile the more experienced rioters stay busy gathering wheelbarrows full of more things to throw at the cops, knowing they'll be back soon. My neighbor says it's because I'm an Aries, but whatever it is, if I find myself in the midst of such a situation, the memories are all fond ones of the rush and the togetherness of the moment. It's a warm, fuzzy feeling, really.

However, most people in most of the countries with which I'm fairly familiar – the US, Canada, England, Germany, Denmark, Australia, Japan – don't feel that way. For most people I meet riots are scary things and they don't care or notice much whether it was a chain store's windows smashed or a local one, whether only SUV's were torched or hybrids, too, whether any passersby got hurt in the process or not. The major news outlets don't pay much attention to what the underlying reasons for the rioting is – just enough about the situation for people to associate the riot with the cause and the cause with scary people who aren't like them.

I've been home in Portland over the past couple weeks, not in Vancouver for the Olympics and the accompanying protests that tend to materialize when a gigantic corporate event and the international media covering it rolls into (and over) the town. By European standards the event the media was focusing on sounds like it was a pathetic little riot, a few smashed windows and overturned newspaper boxes, but it managed to attract the lion's share of Canadian and even international media coverage, as usual – it's sensational, but more than that it serves the purposes of corporate media outlets who, for political reasons, want to make most protesters look bad and don't want people going out to rock the boat in the first place.

By my informal count traveling around, I'd say that most people in many countries are afraid to go to protests, even if their sympathies are with those protesting. They're afraid of what they've heard in the media about how things get out of control. They'd rather avoid lines of police in riot gear, and they feel unsafe at the thought that what they believed was going to be a nonviolent event might suddenly get scary when a small group of people decide to start throwing rocks through store windows.

Some of the rock-throwing anarchists (as opposed to the far more numerous non-rock-throwing variety of anarchists) will now ask, who cares? Who cares if lots of people are afraid to come to protests because of us. They're “liberals” anyway (anyone who doesn't support your right to riot is a liberal, in case you didn't know).

But here's the thing: we need a mass movement, and contrary to what certain popular primitivist authors like to say, a few thousand dedicated people are not going to accomplish much of anything, let alone revolutionary change, without the support of a mass movement. That is, whatever tactics you're using to organize resistance groups of any kind, the tactics need to be ones that don't completely alienate the general public (very much including the “liberals”). And the general public tends to be freaked out by groups of people committing acts of violence (or forms of property destruction that seem violent to them). In recent decades lots of people in lots of places have embraced all kinds of militant and often effective tactics – strikes, bus boycotts, sit-ins, building take-overs, nonviolent civil disobedience of all kinds. Those of any political persuasion who would say that tactics like these are universally ineffective are simply ignorant.

Equally, there have been some pretty darn effective movements that have employed violence around the world over the past few decades and centuries, and you'd have to be an extremely ideological pacifist not to recognize that. But these movements that have employed violent means have used a lot more than rocks. It takes a pretty desperate situation (say, Cuba in 1959) for movements like that to garner popular support, and there's not a serious guerrilla movement anywhere that wouldn't admit that the fish need the sea in which to swim, or they quickly die.

In the context of most modern, relatively well-off countries, it seems quite evident that rioting – even if it's not much of a riot – only impedes anyone's efforts at building a movement. It is, in fact, a much-used strategy of the police, as we've seen time and time again certainly throughout North America, Europe and elsewhere. I have no doubt that the first rock thrown is thrown by an undercover cop at least half the time in most situations. I also have no doubt that most of the young people participating in Black Bloc and advocating for “diversity of tactics” (translation: “don't tell me not to throw rocks, you oppressive, ageist liberal carnivore!”) are well-meaning people doing a lot of good work in their communities when they're not throwing rocks through windows. But whether or not they want to believe it, when they start throwing rocks during a march they are doing exactly the same work as the police provocateurs – I mean literally, not figuratively.

Black Bloc: doesn't this make you wonder about what the fuck you're doing?


Anonymous said...

We have a mass movement.

The people in this black bloc are likely also involved in many other tactics in this movement.

Anonymous said...

David thanks for this. I have yet to hear a coherent response to the fact that these 'black block' actions are literally doing the work of undercover police. Also, I gather you are referring to the writing of Derrick Jensen who seems to imply that individual 'eco' terrorism might be the only way to go. Too bad each time this type of thing happens we have to go back to square one in our debates.

Anonymous said...

We DON'T have a mass movement. Black Bloc people should focus on trying to create one.

Anonymous said...

I wish we had a mass movement. We have a lot of people doing a lot of important work--and as the first commenter says and as David said in his essay, those in black blocs are often doing that work too. But we don't have a mass movement--not in numbers, not in momentum. And with any tactic, we need to ask how it's contributing to furthering a cause, and whether it's drawing people toward or away from that movement.

Anonymous said...

Also wanted to say that David cuts right to the point in his description of "diversity of tactics". It's been used to tell people to just shut up for too long. If you are in the minority that thinks smashing windows is a good idea for 'the movement' at least be ready to hear some criticism.

Been there, Done that said...

Thank you SO much for this piece. It is without doubt the best thing I have read on the subject. Seriously.
And to the first commenter - No. you don't have a mass movement. Not even close.

mac said...

I think it's good people are discussing this topic. However i think being condescending, using morally loaded language like saying "But whether or not they want to believe it, when they start throwing rocks during a march they are doing exactly the same work as the police provocateurs – I mean literally, not figuratively." Is not moving the discussion forward.

I am assisting with the G8/G20 organizing and hope to see it adopt a diversity of tactics. I believe, for better or for worse, that part of the beauty of diversity of tactics is a humility, an understanding that maybe there is no one way to build a mass movement, one way to win the revolution.

I am not entirely sure the black bloc alienated everyone during the Olympics in Vancouver. Just as our movement, at its strongest is diverse, so is our society (of course run through by privilege and division as capitalism works)some people may have been inspired by the picture of a newspaper box through the hudson bay window, others may have been alienated. But to blanket dismiss actions organized by our comrades, our friends, our fellow organizers as having alienated all of the masses, well I am not sure I know enough to categorically state that.

All I am saying, is have some respect. This is not a bunch of kids who are not thinking or planning what they are doing. Sure they might have been able to do their actions better, i have yet to plan the perfect demo. Sure, maybe there are better times and situations to use certain tactics. Though I have yet to figure that one out perfectly, but if we are to be a movement we need to develop some support and respect for each other, and not start calling each other cops.

Anonymous said...

Nice one david. It's a reflection thats needed by the movement.

During the youthhouse rioting in Denmark (wich lasted for a year and sometimes got ugly too) we had the backing of a larger movement.

Diversity of tactics only makes sense of the people who doesn't want to throw bricks wants you to do it as well. This is why we had a huge movement of brick-throwers and pacifists alike and that's what made rioting make sense in 2007 in Denmark. The black block strategy doesn't make much sense at media-hyped over-policed international events anymore. Try think of new ways to build a movement.

RabbleRouser said...

I'll post some more comments when I'm a little more coherent but I just wanted to say that this piece really disappoints me - especially coming from someone whom I had previously respected. If anyone is doing the work of the police it's those who bad jacket and further marginalize militants and radicals by creating the suspicion that they may be cops. Shame on you David - you should really know better.

Another David said...

I agree with David. In Montebello, for the Summit of the three amigos (Bush, Harper and Calderon) the police in Quebec/Canada hired young thugs to dress up in black, cover their faces and try to convince others to pick up rocks and create a scene where the police could move in. If a "false riot" strategy only helps the cops and reinforces the massive spending and social control by governments, then I think this "tactic" needs to reconsidered. I don't want to do things that the police and media use against. Building movements one person at a time, and keeping them mass and open, is a lot harder than following the orders of some provocateurs and throwing a rock through a window!

Anonymous said...

No one is "backjacketing" here -- that would involve naming an individual as a cop (falsely). Let's get serious, the fact of using an anonymous tactic that involves the type of things that undercover police would try to provoke is just stupid. The fact that we can't even talk about this without being called names shows us that this "diversity of tactics" mantra has taken us down a blind alley.

Anonymous said...

No one is "backjacketing" here -- that would involve naming an individual as a cop (falsely). Let's get serious, the fact of using an anonymous tactic that involves the type of things that undercover police would try to provoke is just stupid. The fact that we can't even talk about this without being called names shows us that this "diversity of tactics" mantra has taken us down a blind alley.

Anonymous said...

There is a direct relationship between the denunciations and the refusal of solidarity with the subsequent Olympic Tent Village action (that is part of the overall convergence). It's annoying that the only ones coming down to help out at the tent city are the anarchists, indigenous militants, students and migrant justice people who supported the Heart Attack. Where is everyone else? Oh yeah: you're at home building the mass movement. Gee thanks. The cops love you.

RabbleRouser said...

A couple of more points. First - the feelings one ascribes to the masses usually has more to do with ones own political outlook than any real consensus by the general public. Most poor and working class people I know are either supportive or ambivalant about corporations getting their shit smashed. I'd contend that it represents a middle class perspective to say that most people are alienated by property destruction.

Speaking from personal experience - the black bloc is what first attracted me to the anti globalization movement ten years ago. To see people actually on the offensive was empowering. Even more so when I went to DC in April of 2000 to participate in the A16 actions against the IMF and World Bank. I wasn't a part of the bloc at the time - I was in the middle of an intersection with my neck u-locked to three other guys. At one point during the morning, the bloc marched by offering vegan cookies to us. Later in the afternoon a bus full of riot cops pulled up and began indiscrimiately beating those of us engaged in non-violent civil disobedience. My first instinct was to get up and resist them but I allowed myself to be held back by the pacifists in the crowd. The police didn't stop the beat down until several minutes later when a large bloc came running around the corner after being alerted to what was happening at our intersection. The police retreated but they had acheived their goal - a bloody, confused and disempowered crowd left in their wake. In the newspaper the following day it was reported that we had provoked the beatdown when a traffic cone was thrown at the police - an outright lie.

I think that experience illustrated a number of things for me. First was that the police don't respect non-violent civil disobedience. They will assault non-violent protesters and invent justifications for their actions. The second was that the media will accept those justifications in their reporting and will paint protesters in a bad light regardless of the actions they take. Winning the PR game with the corporate media is not possible - they are not objective reporters of fact. They represent interests that will always be opposed to an anti-capitalist perspective. I've seen this dynamic play out countless times since at other protests.

As for mass movements - speaking for myself as an anarchist - I don't think that anarchists and liberals are on the same side. They share different goals and values. It's been a long time since I've expected solidarity from liberals. They are a conservative force in mass movement building - arguing that rhetoric and tactics must be toned down so as to appeal to the mythical mass. I'm interested in building a movement that is openly and explicitly anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist and one that isn't afraid to use or defend property destruction as one of a number of legitimate tactics. If that puts us on opposite sides of the barricades then so be it.

I just want to close with a quote -

"But if you want to know the truth
What warms my aching heart
Is to see the masked avengers
Come to tear the road apart"

"They'll tell you that it's violent
To destroy a logging truck
These are the very people
Who'd kill the planet for a buck"

"But in such an ugly situation
So sinister and dire
There's nothing quite so lovely
As a Wal-Mart on fire"

Here's a toast to the David Rovics I used to respect.

Anonymous said...

David, you are right on. I'm afraid this Black Bloc action made no sense whatsoever and has hurt the movement against the Olympics industry.

Unknown said...

When we threw things in the 60s people got really mad at us, and maybe sometimes they were right. We were not necessarily interested in movement-building, we were just frustrated. But at least there was mass sentiment and mobilization against the war at the time, and revolutions nearly happened in western countries. So there was some rationale then that there may not be now - regrettably.

I don't think this is about winning liberals. It's about constantly broadening the base of discontent and finding ways to organize, or help others organize, or just encourage them to organize themselves. Shock troops willing to engage police and break windows might win some support, but not nearly as much as if they were part of a larger community. I fear that full-time radicals are usually not immersed in the communities that need mobilizing in order to build for power and change. Anarchist or not, you have to be part of the people, not a vanguard cut off and modeling what you wish they would be or do.

Anonymous said...

If people are serious about revolutions actually occurring (rather than just talking about them and acting out) then they have to realise that they occur only when the vast majority of the population are prepared to take action.

Liberals and anarchists are identical in their lack of belief in the majority of the population ever doing that. Liberals look for a deal with the rulers, negotiated by a charismatic leader (Obama, for example) to soften the oppressive conditions.

When their illusions are shattered they can swing into a rock throwing frenzy.

Anarchists, as evidenced by some of the posts here, believe that they can throw rocks on behalf of others. They, as individuals, have the charisma to express the desires of others. In fact, it reads like they are mind readers, able to discern what thoughts others have.

Far better to base our activities upon what people evidence by their actions (is there a rising tide of radicalism shown, perhaps by strikes, demonstrations, election results, opinion polls etc).

Obviously, in building a mass movement a whole range of tactics will be appropriate at particular moments. Malcolm X was famous for talking about “by any means necessary”. The word “necessary” essentially means that you have to think through what you do and act intelligently or appropriately to the circumstance and the longer term strategy.

Malcolm X was the supreme revolutionary. I know of no occasion on which he threw a rock at anything.

Anarchists and liberals reify their particular schemas and insist of repeating the same foolishness, no matter the result.

Anonymous said...

Both arguments make sense in certain contexts, and it is the job of activists to guage the specific conditions in which they operate and whats possible.

There are cases where 'ultra-leftism' has frustrated the development of a mass movement and those where a movement has been blunted by its adherence a liberal conception of legality or 'non-violence'.

Results and potentialities from the actions of 'Black Blocs' are as diverse as the blocs themselves which are difficult to pin down do to their heterogeneous ideological commitments.

Anonymous said...

Depends on the historical circumstances and level of struggle generally. Throwing stones has been a damn effective method of struggle in some places and at some times.

Whether it be the students defending their occupied universities in Paris during May 68 or the critical role of militant students in the current uprising in Greece.

It may be right that in Vancouver this last month the Black Bloc was out of context but we shouldn't generalize from that a theory of violence which belittles the contributions of what is often the lefts most inspiring wing.

Anonymous said...

It is error.

Phlipn Page said...

Rovic seems to romanticize the Black Bloc, just like a liberal, but walks away like so many of the "picnic protesters", their buckets of organic free range fried chicken, tofu salad and bottled water, now carried in metal flasks because the plastic was so "revolting"... Those were the days of the big movements, the "liberal yuppie" plastic bottle revolt of the 21 century. Now that was a huge anti-capitalist revolt. Who would want to take the baby stroller kids in the fuel efficient min-van or SUV along with the golden retriever, "Marley" to the protest if those rowdy "black bloc" people might show up - "oh my!".

These do nothing people are cultural comfortable protesters, they have no
interest in mass movement, they just want to make themselves feel good
so when they go into work on Monday they can they can suck down their
lattes in peace.

No one is keeping the mass movement at home, thats not they way mass movement work. Mass movement comes about when the "working class" feels so much
pain at the hands of the capitalist they get serious about tearing it
down... It's not something you fit into your "soccer van" schedule.
What naive crap and handy excuse to put inaction off on the rowdies.

This isn't the "latte movement" who finds a few "tea baggers" annoying, it's about making you, the pathetic middle class, wake the fuck up, as
the capitalist manufacture more homelessness, drain retirement savings
and leave only the "blessed" with health care and raise your taxes to
manage the short fall.

No one is forcing anyone to throw with the "black bloc", you can jump in
and raise hell in all kinds of "non-rowdy" efforts. I suspect more
protesters are lost to the "soccer schedule" than those scary "block
bloc radicals". The last I checked the "stroller protesters" were doing
a damn fine job raising hell in the closet and pretending to do good by
getting their congress-persons attention with all their angry emails,
all the while whining about the mis-guided "black bloc".

Rovic is barking up an anecdotal tree, making hyperbolic arguments that
reinforce a totally "bull-shit" position so people excuse themselves
from their responsibility for their communities and themselves.

...ain't it just like a liberal, as I long as I have "mine" I sympathize
in my comfort, when you take "mine" I'll fight. ...see ya on the fire
line, but leave the kids and the dog at home and I would not park the
mini-van on 3rd street.

David Rovics said...

as far as phlipn page goes, i thought about responding to your various accusations but it's really pointless. you're actually not even talking about me or anything i said. you're just projecting, making me out to be some kind of person i have nothing to do with, simplifying tactical thinking into something resembling, well, a coin, as if there are only two sides to just about everything. news for ya -- it's a lot more complicated than that.

joe said...

David, why not bother to respond to RabbleRouser's much more solid critique of what you've said, which even uses your own lyrics to show how you're opinion seems to have changed? is it just easier pretending like comments as garbled as phlipn's are the only possible response against what you've said?

David Rovics said...

his commentary was more solid? "the david rovics i used to respect"? please. i haven't changed my opinions and saying so is simplistic. the point in my article was about the pointlessness of certain types of actions in certain contexts, not about whether the black bloc has helped attract people to activism or ever done anything useful!

i didn't add it to the comment section here but i also expanded on what i wrote in response to comments like these in the comments section on my facebook page where i also posted this essay. if people are interested i can find that and re-post it here.

Anonymous said...

Give it up David. Maybe it's living in Portland that's done it, maybe you've realized that it's easier to make a buck off of progressive liberals rather than crusty anarchists. But you've watered down your politics to the point where they're not even recognizable anymore. Fucking poser.

Well I go from town to town
Just me and my guitar
You can see me at all the protests
Up on stage I'm such a star
But when the cops start charging
You can find me at the back
I'll be keeping safe my fingers
While all you kids' skulls get cracked
And afterwards I'll write songs poking fun at your whole crew
I'm a better folk singer than you

All this time spent traveling
It gets lonesome on the road
And you know I can't stand these rockstars
But I've got these seeds to sow
Why should I consider the power and privilege I possess
Baby when I get nervous up on stage, how 'bout I picture you undressed?
Save your talk of patriarchy, I'll go out and screw
I'm a better folk singer than you

And why eat dumpstered food that at Whole Foods could be bought?
And why wear patched up clothing when there's new clothes from sweatshops?
Your cultures of resistance are just silly and passe
Unless, of course, those cultures support gigs for me to play
Trite exaggerations of anarchists are cool
I'm a better folk singer than you

Anok said...

I came about this article because I had just posted a quick video talking about different direct action tactics and what works and what doesn't - I'm in agreement with David that while there are successful riots, and while there is a time and place for violent reaction - it often alienates too many people.

And I'm not just talking about riots at protests, but various other types of property destruction type direct action that occurs even outside of protests.

Riot porn is tempting, but I tend to favor the more organized long term goal types of action in lieu of straight out property destruction and violence.

Again, I'm no pacifist, and believe it has it's place - where I find I get most annoyed is when it is used at inappropriate times. That's when it's alienating, that's when it garners the wrong type of attention.

It's the difference between throwing a well timed and deserved punch to the face and simply running amok trying to hit everyone in the place for no reason when nothing good will come of it.

Not all of the "violence" of course is caused by the black bloc and of course the black bloc provides essential protections and actions during protests when things do get out of control. SO it's unfair to pin it all on them. I find that there are far more young-ish unaffiliated people doing this who are lured in by the riot porn and potential for acting out than organized black bloc protesters.

But we shouldn't alienate them either, but rather bring them in, and help them focus their energy and passion on aptly timed action, organization, and attaining long term goals.

Anyway, I'm rambling now - I just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed and agreed with much of what you wrote.

E.cigs said...

When we threw things in the 60s people got really mad at us, and maybe sometimes they were right. We were not necessarily interested in movement-building, we were just frustrated. But at least there was mass sentiment and mobilization against the war at the time, and revolutions nearly happened in western countries. So there was some rationale then that there may not be now - regrettably.

make extra money online said...

Unfortunately good riots became a rarity in our days.