Where Do We Go from Here? The G20 Summit, Black Bloc, and the Canadian Left
Public outcry continues to grow across Canada over the widespread abuse of civil liberties during the recent G20 Summit in Toronto. Over 1,000 people were rounded-up and arrested between June 26th- 27th, resulting in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. While the majority of those arrested have since been released, at least 16 people remain under strict bail conditions and face a variety of serious criminal charges. Countless others who managed to avoid arrest were indiscriminately searched, detained for hours, and even violently attacked by police.
Indeed, all the warning signs of a ‘police state’ were present: a pervasive state of fear and paranoia loomed over the city; freedom of movement was heavily restricted; massive police presence was encountered at every turn; ‘Big Brother’-like CCTV cameras closely watched over every move; and demonstrators stayed tightly together in groups, too afraid to travel the streets alone.
Yet what is particularly troubling about the G20 Summit is not so much the unprecedented $1 billion security cost or sweeping police power put on display but the new ‘age of austerity’ that promises to follow – one that will look to fully exploit the new precedent of state violence now in place. Just like any ‘moment’ of crisis, whether the long-term fallout will translate into the normalization of a new austerity regime or the mobilization of a new Canadian Left in response remains to be seen. The immediate question before us now is where do we go from here?
A new Canadian Left?
Much of the ongoing controversy about the G20 Summit surrounds the events of the ‘People First! We Deserve Better’ march and rally on June 26th, which saw a small contingent of Black Bloc ‘anarchists’ split from the larger crowd and proceed to vandalize corporate property throughout the downtown core, including major banks in the financial district. The spectacle of smashed store windows and torched police cars was a key turning point during the G20 Summit, at the same time alienating the public, polarizing the Canadian Left, and providing a convenient pretext for the brutal and indiscriminate wave of police repression that would follow.
But before we too quickly denounce or defend (or dismiss altogether) Black Bloc, and the wider question of ‘diversity of tactics,’ we need to be willing to ask the simple question: what exactly is the political void that gives rise to such actions in the first place? In reality, Black Bloc are neither simply ‘heroes’ nor ‘villains’ but a glaring symptom of the overall weakness of the Canadian Left today. In spite of themselves, whatever our opinion may be, they actually offer us a valuable entry point to interrogate the given limitations of our own activism.
Whether police in fact used agents provocateurs to incite vandalism or simply did nothing in response seems to be largely beside the point; so long as routine mass demonstrations fail to seriously challenge the status quo, small-scale targeted property attacks will continue to exist. Yet the duality between ‘peaceful’ protest, on one hand, and Black Bloc ‘violence,’ on the other, is fundamentally a false choice. Rather than limit our activism to a mass base without militancy or militancy without a mass base, we need to fully reject both in favor of a viable alternative – a ‘mass militancy’ – that actually confronts power and helps renew the struggle for radical social change.
Balance of forces
There is no easy shortcut to social change. In reality, the prevailing social order relies far more today on a broad measure of ‘democratic’ consent than on any (real or perceived) threat of state violence. In order to radically transform the given balance of forces, a prior mass awakening is needed. The G20 Summit naturally raises many more questions than answers, but this much by now should be clear: both routine demonstrations and targeted property attacks, in and of themselves, are unsuccessful ‘tactics’ in galvanizing the working class poor to action – much less swaying public opinion.
If routine demonstrations consistently fall short of the radicalism that many among us would like to see, it is not necessarily due to any lack of political will on the part of organizers but more likely because the objective conditions at present are simply not conducive to do much else. Yet if we remain too fixated on the optics of staying ‘peaceful’ – even in the face of unparalleled state violence, such as was witnessed during the G20 Summit – how can we realistically hope to advance social change? The overall failure of the Canadian Left to meaningfully engage the broader public (and oftentimes each other) inevitably limits the range of ‘tactics’ that will be available to us. As a result, the basic goal of the Canadian Left so far has been not so much social change but simply looking to avoid the loss of any more ground politically (the labour movement being a particularly clear example of this troubling trend).
By contrast, whether targeted property attacks amount to a morally legitimate ‘tactic’ is not the question per se but rather, under the given balance of forces, are they at all strategically effective? When ‘tactics’ must operate outside of the general body of protest, any political coherence, democratic accountability, and organic link to the majority sentiment on the ground is automatically lost. The idea that a loosely-defined group of anonymous individuals may take it upon themselves to decide the outcome of protests is not only irresponsible but highly undemocratic. By fundamentally discounting any consideration of public opinion, such ‘tactics’ only help to legitimize police repression of protests under the familiar banner of ‘security’ and ‘order.’ Accordingly, Black Bloc in many ways unwittingly play into the hands of the very same system they aim to overthrow. The response of the Canadian Left, however, cannot be to single-out Black Bloc alone but any ‘tactic’ that does nothing to help build our overall capacity as a movement.
A careful consideration of the strategic value of all ‘tactics’ does not divide a movement so much as it helps shape and define it. Not all ‘tactics’ are inherently equal. Unfortunately, the way in which the debate over ‘diversity of tactics’ has evolved to date has been hopelessly sectarian and short-sighted, only further dividing us at a time when exactly the opposite is needed.
Who is a ‘radical’ anyway?
While it is impossible to defend smashed store windows and torched police cars during the G20 Summit, anyone at street level at the time could not help but find themselves (if only reluctantly) awestruck at the sight. No matter how futile or strategically ineffective such ‘tactics’ may be, how can we fault ourselves for refusing to feel sorry? Without even the basic goal of marching towards the security fence to strive for, the feeling that at least something – anything – was achieved at the protests was itself a token consolation. Despite a $1 billion security budget and over 10, 000 officers deployed in the city, we saw that, to some extent, police are not ‘untouchable.’ Black Bloc may not have won the ‘hearts and minds’ of very many people, but they managed to stir up a sense of indignation, particularly among a majority of youth, that should not go ignored.
It is important to recall too that it was hardly only Black Bloc (or for that matter, agents provocateurs) who openly engaged in vandalism; many of those who smashed store windows, torched police cars, and looted throughout the downtown core were ordinary demonstrators with no overt political motive. Why would anyone with conceivably little to gain feel compelled to carry out such actions? Here Black Bloc offer no easy scapegoat. Without any constructive outlet to channel a legitimate sense of rage, individualized cathartic release will be the likely, if not inevitable, result.
Above all, the G20 Summit helped to highlight the inherent limits of our own ‘democracy.’ Indeed, over the course of a single weekend, simply speaking out against the G20 agenda became a ‘radical’ act. The widening scope of what is considered ‘radical’ may actually represent a key political window in which to begin to mobilize ordinary Canadians who have now experienced police repression firsthand – a majority of them introduced for the first time to the kind of police repression that passes daily without scrutiny in poor, marginalized, at-risk communities.
Since the G20 Summit, several protests in support of ‘civil liberties’ have occurred in major cities nationwide in an effort to keep the broader public engaged politically. While the affront to our basic rights must be taken seriously, it is particularly important now not to limit our message to the language of ‘civil liberties’ alone (which are themselves not a product of state benevolence but a long history of sustained struggle, it must be stated). Until the Canadian Left is able to put forward a political agenda that fundamentally questions the legitimacy of the status quo, even our ‘civil liberties’ will never fully be safe – a fact only confirmed by the G20 Summit.
Moving forward in a ‘moment’ of crisis
Still, we cannot overlook the scale of popular resistance put on display during the G20 Summit. The city came closer than at any other time in recent memory. A vast and diverse array of people united to mobilize against the G20 agenda, including: anti-poverty, migrant rights, Indigenous sovereignty, climate justice, and countless other groups from across the country. The problem, however, is that any basis of unity that occurs only in response to a ‘moment’ of crisis is bound to be fatally short-lived, lacking not only a necessary review of ‘tactics’ but a clear political agenda overall.
Although the difficulties facing the Canadian Left today come with no easy answers, ‘moments’ of crisis give us a unique opportunity in which to evaluate our strengths, weaknesses, and overall capacity. The mass mobilization of 15 – 20, 000 people is no doubt an impressive total, but far short of the immense challenge opposite us. Our dilemma today is hardly new: so long as the broader public is unable to imagine the possibility of a world without capitalism, they will continue to favor the relative stability of the status quo over the risk of social change.
Yet it is important to keep in mind that ‘moments’ of crisis do not exist in isolation; they are a reflection of inherent conflict in the prevailing social order. Inasmuch as the ruling elite can exploit them to reconstitute themselves, so too can the Left. For instance, at the peak of the recent global financial crisis, the ruling elite was able to take advantage of the overall weakness of the Left internationally to surface from what certainly looked to be the imminent collapse of modern capitalism as we know it even more consolidated, coordinated, and steadfast than before. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Left internationally. What will be our response to the G20 Summit fallout? Will we continue to play a losing game of ‘divide and conquer,’ or actually look to use the ‘moment’ of crisis before us to begin the much needed project of building a new Canadian Left? Under the current circumstances, the decision, it seems, is easy; the difficult part is the work that lies ahead.
Any polarizing debate over ‘diversity of tactics’ that simply seeks to denounce or defend Black Bloc without addressing the root cause of the problem is missing the point. A prior acknowledgment of Black Bloc as a symptom of our own overall weakness is a necessary precondition for moving forward. Indeed, the debate over ‘diversity of tactics’ is only relevant insofar as we remain weak, divided, and isolated politically. Imagine for a moment if during the march and rally on June 26th we actually committed as a ‘united front’ to attempt to break through the police line and amass outside the security fence in protest. Although by no means an end in itself, arriving en masse at the security fence would be a symbolic gesture of actual merit. At a minimum, we would be having a very different type of conversation right now.
The key organizing work done by the Toronto Community Mobilization Network (TCMN) in the lead up to the G20 Summit was vital, but too long overdue. If the Canadian Left is to build anything like a viable ‘mass militancy,’ we need to first promote a space in which activists of all backgrounds – labour unionists, grassroots community organizers, and youth alike – can come together in open solidarity to exchange ideas, discuss strategy, and develop a shared political agenda. Launched only last year in response to the global financial crisis, the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly is a promising new initiative where much of this important work is already beginning to take shape. Similar initiatives surfacing in major cities nationwide would potentially lay the basis for a model grassroots democracy of national significance. But the vision of the Workers’ Assembly will not build itself; in order to move beyond the very obvious question of what we are against, we need to begin to define as a movement what exactly we are for – and more importantly, how together we may foresee getting there.
The G20 Summit may be the ‘moment’ of crisis that finally provokes us to face the present political void and begin to imagine a united, non-sectarian, and militant Canadian Left in the process. Whether we are ready to meet that challenge is now up to us to decide.
Ali Mustafa is a freelance journalist, writer, and media activist. He is also an editor of the New Socialist webzine. He resides in Toronto. His writing can be found at: http://frombeyondthemargins.blogspot.com/