-------------------- Action Not Division: Some Thoughts on Tactics for A16 By Brian Dominick
It's unfortunate that so little progress has been made, in the wake of last fall's Seattle/WTO actions, on the front of bridging a perceived chasm between practicing "pure nonviolence" and "property destruction" as appropriate tactics for massive demonstrations. On the one hand, perhaps more people than ever are advocating property destruction as a viable and sensible tactic, often to the extent of denouncing as liberals and otherwise ridiculing those who oppose or at least refuse to advocate it. And on the other extreme, some of those who argue against property destruction as a tactic are focusing more energy on opposing "trashers" than on opposing the police.
To some extent, each side is right. Property destruction, in the form of wonton window smashing, is not an appropriate tactic for demos like N30 and the upcoming A16, for a host of reasons I'll delve into in a moment. But direct and indirect intervention in cases of property destruction is also unacceptable as an activity in the streets.
A group of people calling themselves "Keep the Peace" is upset because the leadership of the "Mobilization for Global Justice" (the main group organizing actions for April 16 and 17) have announced that "Any affinity group organizing 'peacekeepers' in the traditional sense for the A16 direct action component is disregarding the consensus of the mobilization." This has been taken as something of a threat by some, particularly the above-mentioned Keep the Peace contingent, which is organizing autonomous affinity groups, in part to operate as "peacekeepers" during the direct action and civil disobedience portions of the A16 events. Keep the Peace claims autonomous groups should have the prerogative to intervene when other activists get out of hand.
While the position quoted from the A16 organizers' statement seems to have an awful lot of vehement dissent for a "consensus," it was ostensibly arrived at through a desire to preserve a diversity and tolerance of tactics during the more militant parts of the actions. The position sounds very dictatorial as the stance of organizers, and it does seem to leave affinity groups and individuals the option of carrying out actions with harmful effects on other parties. But it is also probably the most sensible approach, all options considered.
Keep the Peace, as represented by an anarchist named Carol from DC, is concerned about "protect[ing] demonstrators from outside agitators and disruptive passerbys [sic] during the civil disobedience." Carol later clarified that by "outside agitators" she is actually referring to black bloc participants and others who may engage in property. I can't think of a more devisive term by which to refer to folks who will be, as they were in Seattle, integral to the success of A16 as organizers and as militant activists prepared to erect barricades and assist in civil disobedience. I have become familiar over the years with black bloc organizers, and while we may disagree on one particular tactic, it is without hesitation that I insist many are among the most dedicated and capable activists and organizers I've ever known. Dismissing them as "outside agitators" essentially guarantees that no understanding will be achieved between self-proclaimed peacekeepers and those who might smash retail store windows at actions.
Even more disturbing on a practical level, by omission in her statement and later responses to my queries, Carol's group is not outwardly concerned about protecting demonstrators from the police. Their focus is on others who share their goals and common struggle, not on the agents of state and corporate power who will be bent on thwarting any and all militant tactics used against their masters on April 16 and 17. The target of our resistance should be those who oppose our cause, not those who disagree about how to pursue it.
Why don't folks who feel disposed to act as "peacekeepers" of any kind commit themselves to less divisive activities? Medics are sorely needed, and will be thoroughly and gladly trained in the days leading up to A16. Affinity groups who wish to keep the peace could also help contain, divert or return tear gas canisters or protect protestors from gasses and plastic bullets, or unarrest activists who have been captured by cops. The possibilities which might be presented by law enforcement are rather limitless -- why anyone should focus on resisting other protestors' actions, at risk of inflaming conflicts, is beyond me...
At the same time, although I don't accept the moral reasons some opponents of property destruction argue against attacking inanimate objects as a tactic, I do wish those who are riled up to start trashing downtown DC would be a bit more thoughtful. Morality aside, there are a number of reasons it makes no sense, or is in fact counter-productive, to attack storefront windows and the like as "fragile symbols of multinational capital."
For starters, at a time when our movement needs to grow, engaging in tactics which turn huge numbers of people off to our cause (right or wrong!) only hurts us. The main argument against this concern is that, understandably, many of the most oppressed are not turned on by giant puppets or privileged white students getting arrested intentionally. Instead, some want to see or participate in more active, militant forms of resistance.
But standing up to cops and resisting them by any means sensible, it would seem, is pretty militant, and a realistic common denominator of acceptible behavior among a broad range of people in our society. Just about anyone can break a window and run; it isn't impressive, but cowardly. Only a strong and well-organized social movement can resist thousands of police officers in riot gear. By working together on common objectives -- but not otherwise -- we can achieve the primary goals of the day, which should be disrupting the World Bank/IMF meetings and propagating a coherent statement of "Enough is enough!"
There are also some rarely-mentioned questions regarding who suffers most when a Starbucks or McDonald's gets attacked. It certainly isn't the franchise owner or the corporation, insured to the hilt for such activity (or just plain not affected by such a brief, trickling drain from their financial pool). Instead, it is the people who work there, mostly young people and the elderly, for minimum wage or barely above, unable to miss a single day's work.
Meanwhile, corporate headquarters and government buildings are usually left unscathed by black bloc participants who later brag about having shut down stores on which people rely for livelihood, and in the case of McDonald's and many other restaurant chains, convenience for working families. How can self-proclaimed anarchists justify destroying places that provide for people's basic necessities before we have constructed viable alternatives?
Destroying without building is severely counterproductive. When people are otherwise fed and employed, we can tear it all down. But not before.
As to the issue of attracting media attention, often cited by people who claim Seattle wouldn't have been covered as much as it was by the mainstream news outlets had there not been serious vandalism, I'd like to ask on what planet such people were watching television November 30, 1999. The "additional coverage" by mainstream media was so blatantly biased and inaccurate, it can't possibly have served to inform people about the WTO or our movement against corporate globalization. Ironically, Keep the Peace, in their argument against property damage, reprinted a disgustingly inaccurate tirade from the NY Times about events in Seattle (12/2/99). Each side of this debate seems to have a very limited understanding of the.
If you don't think the networks and major dailies would have covered Seattle had protestors not broken Starbucks' windows, think again. The police started rioting, firing tear gas and plastic bullets, herding and arresting demonstrators and onlookers en masse -- of course there would be coverage. There was substantial coverage before the property destruction even began!
And without giving the media a bullshit excuse to latch onto in order to rationalize atrocious police behavior, the coverage would have drawn sympathy and admiration from far, far more people throughout North America.
More useful than attacking inanimate objects which pose no immediate threat to the day's actions, it would seem sensible for black bloc type affinity groups to engage in diverting police attention from those aggressively or passively engaged in trying to shut down the streets and the meetings. Moreover, such affinity groups could engage in all manner of offensive actions to penetrate police lines, spontaneously construct barricades where needed, and so forth. Remaining focused on that goal -- which many black block activists began the day with on N30 in Seattle but were themselves diverted from -- would go a long way toward ensuring the sustainability of protest, and the success of civil disobedience.
But short of heeding any of these practical suggestions, I hope people on all sides of this debate will learn to respect one another's opinions and preferences without physically interfering in each other's activities. Our adversary's favorite tactic is to divide and conquer -- why would we want to achieve that goal for them?
Brian will be in Washington, DC on April 16 & 17, with his affinity group, On the Ground. He will be operating as a field medic.