Anarchy, NonViolence, and the Seattle Demonstrations
One of the most contentious points likely to arise out of the past week's actions is older than the concept of world trade itself: the question of tactics in demonstration and direct action - in particular, violent vs. nonviolent.
The apparent duality presented by this question, as most people seem to look at it, is simply an illusion. Let's dive right in using Seattle as an example. I haven't been able to find a single note from a reliable source which has indicated protestors initiated any of the countless violent incidents reported on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Which is not to say no activist, anywhere in Seattle, engaged a police officer before s/he was engaged by the police; but in reality, the consistent and predominant explanation has been that police hungrily attacked protestors during countless incidents.
So even pondering the question of holding nonviolent protests - at least in cases where confrontation with police will be militant and escalatory - is often an unrealistic luxury, and by now we should all be able to accept that truism. There will often be violence, there will not be nonviolence.
Yes, this seems like an elementary fact which doesn't bear on the "real" questions: What is the role of the protestor? Should s/he be violent or nonviolent? Of course, there are no objectively true answers to this. We each arrive at our own conclusions in given situations. But I've been finding myself on seemingly two separate sides of the argument with regard to the happenings in Seattle, in two separate kinds of discussion.
In one case, someone is arguing that the protestors - at least some of them - have been too violent in Seattle, that property destruction and violent resistance to police is unwarranted, that it negatively affects the image of the demonstrations more generally. Folks positing this argument are sometimes pacifists who feel violence is always wrong, no matter who employs it in what context; or they don't oppose violence per se, but they think it is senseless in contemporary situations. While I'm sympathetic to this opinion, I find it oversimplified.
This week I've found myself verbally defending some of those who have engaged in violence against police or property. I saw one video clip in which protestors clearly threw debris at cops who were firing rubber bullets and tear/pepper gas into crowds of demonstrators. I have trouble seeing such actions as anything but a very instinctual self-defense reaction. Put in the context of large assemblies consisting mainly of peace-seeking protestors (with little peace to be found), the acts become objectively questionable, as they have residual effects on others. But it's hard to condemn the reaction as a "lack of discipline" among radicals. Maybe that's precisely what it is, but it's tough to judge, not being there myself. This, of course, hasn't stopped most of the population from forming its own opinions.
That popular opinion is of chief concern of most progressive critics of the more extreme tactics employed in Seattle. They don't want massive demos to be tarnished by the actions of a small minority. I too am concerned about public opinion of our movement activity. But the real blame for these disproportionate public perceptions must be put on the shoulders of the media. We should be focusing more on congratulating - indeed lauding - the incredible discipline and solidarity displayed by a vast majority of demonstrators. Why is so much time being spent, even on the Left, pointing out and criticizing the actions of a few?
Let's look at how that minority perceive their own actions, and the context in which they are behaving. The generalization that most folks engaging in violent resistance and property damage are self-proclaimed "anarchists" is probably true. It's also likely the case that many of these folks lack a sensible understanding of protest strategy and the social context in which their actions take place, implying they're anarchists in name only. As an anarchist long critical of these attitudes among some of the more rebellious and militant tendencies within the contemporary youth anarchist scene, I understand the frustrations of having to deal with certain folks, often referred to inaccurately but not altogether irresponsibly as "nihilists." A lot of them, especially a particular crew from Eugene, OR, according to all accounts (including their own), are individualist anarchists who aren't really demonstrating for the same reasons as the rest of us. And, to be blunt, they probably don't belong there, even in this most inclusive of events.
But there are others, many radicals who have reached a point in their own, personal development, where increased militancy seems natural. I am probably among these, at least in spirit. In too many cases, this is not tempered by a realization of where most Left activists and movements are at right now, at least in North America. Just because I may be "ready" and willing to escalate a given confrontation with police, that doesn't mean everyone around me is. (I learned this the hard way years ago.) Sometimes our level of passion and willingness to risk harm or arrest are simply not matched by those behind us. The problem being our actions have repercussions for others in the vicinity, including passersby who don't realize they're involved in the struggle.
Another question that's arising is the actual value of confronting police. It's been pointed out regularly and responsibly with regard to the Seattle events, that police are not supposed to be the adversary of the day. In actions against neoliberal globalization (and most other issues, too), our real target is elites, not working class cops. Unfortunately, police tend to form the elites' second line of defense (the first being the mass media outlets).
What happened in Seattle on November 30, then, is of tremendous significance. Without using any violence whatsoever, activists on the frontlines demonstrated more than just their opinions vis-à-vis world trade: they also demonstrated how to immobilize an entire police force. Huge groups of dedicated protestors effectively shut down the entire convention, using their bodies. The police response and ensuing melee (let alone the residual tear gas affecting delegates, not just demonstrators) further restricted access to the convention site.
The media are dutifully reporting the Seattle PD was "forced to respond" using violent tactics - the protestors, we're told, drove the police to this kind of response, still remarkably restrained. What really happened, though, is protestors forced the mayor and SPD to choose between popular assembly and elite assembly. They made the entirely predictable choice, but make no mistake, that was the actual choice. Once that decision was made, the only logical conclusion was to employ excessively violent tactics and an impressive, sub-lethal arsenal. But the important decision was to favor the establishment over the people, whatever the risk.
So we're back to that question of violence, and I think the question was essentially answered on the streets of Seattle, for three days running. Protestors initiate confrontations and remain nonviolent, at least until agents of the state unleash violence against them. There is obviously still a long way to go before tactically planned responses can be formulated and adhered to by large bodies of civil disobedience activists. The divisions and confusion experienced this week show ample room for improvement by organizers and individual participants. But the model has been presented to us, by tens of thousands, in a way not seen here since the Vietnam era. Preparation and discipline are key. Whether the response to police attacks is passive, militantly nonviolent, or aggressively violent, the important part is to demonstrate cohesion, consciousness and solidarity.
As for the anarchy factor, it's about time some anarchists learn a few lessons. First, one's degree of "radicalness" is hardly determined by their behavior at a demonstration. Blanket condemnation of people as "liberals" or "reformists" for avoiding hazardous confrontation is inappropriate. Second, one's behavior at a demonstration doesn't say fuck-all about their views on whether the state needs to be smashed or not; nor do one's views of what should happen eventually, in a revolution, necessarily inform how they carry themselves in a demonstration. Wearing all-black clothes and balaclavas covering our faces does more to intimidate fellow protestors and isolate us from them than it does anything positive. If you don't want cops to identify you, don a wig and Groucho glasses. If you want to intimidate cops, do it by building and participating in mass movements, not by dressing or acting like they do.