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?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ireland: The Arrest of Pat O'Donnell

In a country with the kind of tumultuous history that Ireland has it's not surprising that a man being arrested and jailed for seven months would escape the notice of the media, at least outside of Ireland. What should hopefully pique some interest is that this is a man with a long history of being bullied, intimidated, arrested and treated roughly by the authorities for his nonviolent resistance against Shell Oil's construction of a gas pipeline, and now the judge is calling him a bully and jailing him for seven months on the extremely dubious charge of intimidating an officer.

To be sure, this is not Nigeria, where Shell regularly massacres those opposed to the oil drilling which is destroying the environment and the livelihoods of so much of the population. Shell doesn't run Ireland in the way it controls Nigeria. But at the same time, much like my own country, the Irish government has proven itself to be far from free of corruption.

When I arrived in Dublin last June, on the other side of the country from where Pat O'Donnell's family has fished the bay for the past five generations, the Shell to Sea campaign was a subject that came up regularly in conversation. There was, and is, a buzz around it because, especially for those of us the authorities like to denounce as “professional activists,” the Shell to Sea campaign in County Mayo is inspiring as an example of an effort that has brought together people from all walks of life. To be sure, there are many scruffy young activists involved of all sorts, from Dublin, Cork and Galway, with and without dreadlocks, along with scruffy environmentalists from England, France and elsewhere. But the backbone of the campaign are local school teachers and fishermen.

Despite my GPS it was difficult to find the tiny town of Rossport in Mayo because, well, it didn't seem to exist. Occasionally there was a cell phone signal and I was able to make contact with a very patient volunteer, but between the two of us we couldn't figure out where I was or how to get to Rossport from there. My traveling partner, fellow US musician Shawnee Kilgore and I resorted to asking for directions, which we ended up doing frequently. Once in a pub full of three generations of locals enjoying the craic, then at a little grocery store. The woman in the grocery store was the last little town we came to, then it was all narrow dead-end streets that ended at someone's farm. At one such farm we were met by a very nice but completely unintelligible elderly farmer whose border collie herded us into submission when we got back in the car and wouldn't let us leave for a good couple minutes.

Like everyone else we had met in Ireland, people seemed to have a positive view of the campaign in Rossport. Until now our sample had been fairly self-selecting, the types of folks who come to leftwing folk music shows, but here in Mayo it was a decidedly random sample. The next person from whom we asked for directions was a young man with a wheelbarrow full of shit, a physique that suddenly made me question my heterosexuality, and the humble, friendly manner that gives the Irish countryside its reputation.

Once we crossed into County Mayo, and increasingly as we neared our destination, there were home-made signs of all sorts on the sides and roofs of barns, perched in front of haystacks and all kinds of other places making clear in no uncertain terms that Shell and its pipeline were not welcome here. Finally, getting tantalizingly close to our destination, we stopped in front of the house of a transplant from England, yet another sympathizer, who was the last person from whom we required assistance that day. (After that, finding our way around got a bit easier because I could at least find our way back to the camp by saving our coordinates on my GPS. The GPS had the road in there marked as “road,” which was better than nothing...)

First we found the B&B where we were booked in for the next couple nights, a couple miles down the road where the Shell to Sea camp was now set up. The woman running the B&B was another strong supporter of the campaign. She also had probably the only wifi signal to be found for a hundred miles. We asked her where to find the camp, and she explained that now that we had gotten this far it was easy – just drive down the road a bit further and you'll see all the police vehicles.

The ranks of the police as well as of the campaigners were swelled that weekend for the planned events, which were many-fold – an introduction to the campaign for newcomers, a workshop on how to do civil disobedience, a workshop on how to talk to the media and workshops on other subjects, a mini-festival with an impressive roster of punk, hiphop and acoustic performers from several different countries, and an attempt to scale the formidable steel fence surrounding the nearby Shell base of operations for this stage of the pipeline-building operation.

Within a couple hours of our arrival I found myself sitting around a fire on a field that sloped down to the water fifty meters away. Sitting on logs and chairs around the fire with people from County Mayo and others from England, Lithuania and elsewhere in Ireland, a man sat down and introduced himself to us one by one. This was Pat O'Donnell. He thanked us for coming and joked that a few years ago people in the town would cross the road in fear if they saw someone looking like some of these unwashed feral types, but now they were all good friends. Around the fire there Pat gave us an informal course on why this community had mobilized against Shell.

Although the circumstances are always different wherever you go, I was reminded sitting around that fire of other small gatherings around a firepit where I have heard other people say the same things. Sometimes the phrases are identical. I heard elderly Dineh women around a firepit in Arizona talking about the uranium mines and middle-aged farmers from the Wendlandt area of Germany talking about the nuclear waste transports. I imagined Pat O'Donnell had never been to Arizona, but he'd sure find the discussions familiar there in Black Mesa.

Some people are cynical and just accept that “progress” is inevitable, he said. Some make money from selling property to the corporation. Others talk about the jobs the pipeline will bring in. But what about those whose livelihoods will be lost when the fish becomes toxic? What about the drinking water they're going to poison? They say their operations are safe but we know that's not true, we know their safety record, it's disastrous.

It's when people like Pat start talking about “generations” that I feel like I'm in a David and Goliath type movie – the Milagro Beanfield War or Civil Action or something – my family has been fishing here for five generations and I want to make sure we can fish here for the next five generations.

Certainly the only people visible in Rossport who supported Shell were the police, and there were a lot of them, from all over Ireland. Pat and others from the community gave speeches to those police that would make a fascist cry, one would think, but the police were studiously unmoved. Others protesting were a bit more confrontational at least in their chants, if not in their actions – “Whose cops? Shell's cops! Whose cops? Shell's cops!”

Attempts to scale the fence were beaten back, literally. One young Lithuanian man (a different Lithuanian than the one around the fire the day before) suffered a badly sprained ankle from being shoved down the hill by the police. It seemed like it might be broken. I drove him to the nearest hospital an hour away. Except for the local folks I was one of the few at the camp who knew I could find my way back. (Oddly enough it seemed that half the other people there at that emergency room that day were there for injuries below the knee.)

While some local people will profit from Shell's operations, the company itself stands to make hundreds of billions of dollars from this vast untapped resource off the west coast of Ireland, but these profits will clearly come from the poisoning of the air, land and water of County Mayo and the region. Moreover, the Irish people, ostensibly the owners of this vast resource, are virtually giving it away. In 1987 and again in 1992 laws were passed that decreased the share of profit from such operations tremendously for the Irish public. One government minister was jailed for corruption as a result of the 1987 law but it remains on the books.

Most of the people arrested on the day of the protest that I participated in were released later that day. I found out later that a few days after I visited the Shell to Sea camp Pat O'Donnell's fishing boat was boarded by four masked men who held Pat and a colleague in a room while the four men sank their fishing boat. Pat and his friend only survived because they were quick with getting on an inflatable raft, from which they were eventually rescued. And now, eight months after the sinking of his ship by these mysterious masked men, Pat is in jail. Coinciding with Pat's imprisonment, Shell is making plans to get a lot of work done in his enforced absence.

As Shawnee and I headed towards Belfast for the next gig we had after our weekend in Rossport we were pulled over by the Gardai. They asked to see my license and the ID of the other three people in the car (we were giving a ride to a couple folks who had come down from Belfast for the festivities). They took notes. They didn't say why we had been pulled over. They told me my American driver's license wasn't valid in Ireland (untrue) and that they could take my car from me. They said the car may be legal in Belfast (where it was rented) but not in the Irish Republic (where I had rented cars on many occasions with the same license). Then, out of the goodness of his heart, he decided to let us go – this time.

No, Ireland isn't Nigeria. The outside agitators get harassed, not shot. The community organizers have their boats sunk by thugs and are regularly imprisoned, they're not hanged. But in Ireland as in Nigeria, Royal Dutch Shell lies about their safety record, lies about their intentions, while making obscene profits off of the poisoning of the environment while most of the local people have less than nothing to show for any of it.

David Rovics is a singer-songwriter based in Portland, Oregon. For more information about the Shell to Sea campaign go to