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I suppose it was inevitable. Two years ago, Egyptian youths captured our attention and, for a short time, became the world’s darlings. In the years that followed, though, they were sold out by the military, the parties, the west and most of all, the Muslim Brotherhood who now rule the country. Their revolution had become nothing but a regime change, and they had every reason to be angry.
As the world watched the revolts in Egypt, similar actions began to break out from New York to Hong Kong. Egyptians watched these too, and played close attention. From Athens to Oakland, one group/tactic must have stood out…
As the second anniversary of the revolution approached, something very different emerged on the streets of Egypt. Large groups of masked, black-clad youths began to appear, holding demonstrations, blocking railways, storming government buildings and unleashing a hail of molotovs onto the offices of the Brotherhood. Enter the Egyptian Black Bloc.
News so far has been extremely sketchy, and it seems most of the world’s media still doesn’t know what to make of them. Bloc participants have said very little to the press other than to identify themselves as anarchists and refuse pictures or interviews (good choice). Instead, YouTube video was released a few days ago, introducing the movement with a dramatic soundtrack, riot porn and plenty of Fawkes-masks.
Anarchism in Egypt, is of course nothing new. The first records
date back at least to the 1870s when the country became home to Errico Malatesta and other Mediterranean anarchists (often exiles), who soon became involved in the nascent Egyptian labour movement. More recently, anarchists played a small but notable role in the Tahrir square protests, as did the “ultras”, militant football fans (often with
radical politics) who did much of the front-line streetfighting.
At this point, it’s still hard to tell much about this mysterious movement. Is it a backlash against the increasingly repressive governance of the Muslim Brotherhood? The latest fashion statement by rebellions football hooligans? Or could it be the beginning of something else?
Egyptian Anarchist Movement Emerges with Wave of Firebombings and Street Fights – If Your Voice Shakes (Ryan Harvey’s blog)
A Black Bloc Emerges in Egypt – NYT Blogs.
Since Chris Hedges’ infamous article was published at the beginning of the week, the debate it created (“Hedgegate”, or “The Hedgerow”) has grown increasingly fierce and spilled out onto the streets. I didn’t want to have to write an article like this, and I honestly hoped I’d never see so much of this come across the newswires, but now that it has, and especially in light of the ongoing actions in Greece, a continuing response is required.
The Surgeons of Occupy – Peter Gelderloos
Activists and Anarchists from Occupy Oakland Speak For Themselves – Suzie Cagle, Truthout
Video allegedly from Anonymous threatens the black bloc (Seriously?)
When Nonviolence Isn’t
Reports are coming in from recent rowdy protests in Portland that members of the “occupy” movement assaulted and even attempted to arrest members of the black bloc. While some at the march had been involved in property destruction (mostly cars and one high-end restaurant) along the path of the march, others were assaulted just for wearing black. What makes this so outrageous is that it wasn’t an action organized by these Occupy protesters, just something they showed up to.
This fits into a larger pattern of co-operating with police to the point of handing people over, reporting them to police and publicly slandering them which certainly isn’t new, but it’s reaching new heights within the Occupy crowd. The fact that it involves physical acts of violence against other participants in a protest doesn’t seem to bother them, nor do the violent acts of police. In this way, guardians of “nonviolence” have set themselves up as police informants, snitches and even deputies. How long until we see the kind of paramilitary action witnessed in Greece where the parliamentary Communist party showed up with a wall of armoured supporters sporting wooden clubs and iron bars to protect the parliament from demonstrators?
Given the substantial damage caused by police repression in activist communities over the past few years, I don’t suspect this will be a popular choice. Having may friends who were attacked, arrested and even sexually assaulted at the G20 in Toronto, I have absolutely no time for this kind of blatant collaborationism. The solidarity shown by wider activist communities has been crucially important for victims of this brutality, and the issues raised have played a very important role in public discourse across the country, no matter how much bad press rioters got, and this story has been repeated many times around the world. Over the past few years anti-police brutality actions have been some of the most popular and effective at bringing attention to an issue that was otherwise taboo and is incredibly important to many marginalized communities. You cannot talk about “peace” in the ghetto without pointing fingers at police – something conveniently forgotten in all the loving-kindness rhetoric lately.
Reinforcing the Narrative
This characterizations of anarchists as only window-smashing vandals intent on chaos is that it totally reinforces the establishment’s myths about protest and society. By fetishizing ‘non-violence’ as the only viable strategy toward social change, it totally ignores the history of social movements. Whether one talks about civil rights, labour legislation, anti-colonial struggles or the long history of squatted community spaces abroad, these struggles have always gone, on occasion, over the line of polite nonviolent protest. You can thank those rioters for (among other things) your weekends, pensions and (partial) independence from the former British Empire. Beyond this, it attributes far too much power to non-violent actions. Don’t get me wrong, I love peaceful protests, I’ve taken peace-studies classes, given passive-resistance workshops and engaged in peaceful actions many more times than I can count. But to assume that because we’re all peaceful, polite and well-behaved that we will be taken seriously is an incredible leap of faith. Nine times out of ten, such actions get totally ignored by authorities and the media, and that’s a sad fact of activism that any veteran activist can attest to. There are more than enough reasons to ignore protesters without broken windows. I’ve seen protests which were written off in the press for being, among other things, too old, too young, too rich, too poor, too white, too non-white, too rowdy, too boring and having too many hippies. The press slanders protesters – that’s their job. If we want better press, we need to understand that fact.
Activism in today’s media-saturated society today is obsessed with the notion of “image”, particularly through the mainstream media and toward “normal” audiences. This obsession is particularly intense among newer activists, and it’s hard to get through a meeting these days without hearing somebody espouse it. This turns its back on much of what activists have learned in the past two decades about community-based organizing, and why it’s important to reach out to all kinds of people on a face-to-face basis. It makes very questionable assumptions about who “normal” people are (and who, by virtue of being “different”, gets left out) and what they want to see. Above all else, it puts far too much faith in fairytale notions of social change which are supposed to emerge magically once enough attention is focused on the issue.
The obvious question here, needs to be asked “what if we’re completely non-violent and they beat us up anyway?” In that case, we’re told, it would only prove our point and undermine the basic legitimacy of power in the public’s eyes. The problem is, it happens all the time, and no such mass reaction occurs. The press is only too willing to claim that protesters brought it upon themselves, no matter what actually happened on the scene, and even when they do report on the injustices, what’s supposed to happen? Anyone with a youtube account can witness countless acts of unprovoked and unjust police brutality – has this sparked any massive non-violent campaign of resistance? Perhaps a more frightening question comes when we’re ignored, as the enormous anti-war movement against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was, leading to a untold numbers of civilian casualties. What are we to do if power refuses to change when we ask nicely? Sit by with candles and watch people die? Was that really the non-violent option?
When candles, flowers and kumbayas inevitably fail to bring this peaceful populist revolution, blame is inevitably cast on whoever wasn’t “peaceful” enough. This attitude all too often is used to explain away failures of movements to grow or make progress based on the bad behavior of a few at one of their marches. This victim-blaming strategy ignores all the bad decisions and ineffective leadership involved in said failures, as well avoiding a look at the systemic reasons that they occur. Scapegoating groups within the movement for collective failures never ends well, especially when it’s followed with discussion of purges.
What, by this definition, is “violent”? There’s quite a range, from wearing masks or the colour black to scowling at police, burning flags or just about anything illegal (up to and including refusing orders to disperse). They can include attempting to “de-arrest” comrades who’re being grabbed, holding sheilds or wearing protective clothing. And yet, for some reason, assaulting other marchers and handing them over to the police doesn’t qualify. Clearly, “violcence” is not the issue here, but disobedience and resistance to authorities. This sets the state up as ultimate moral arbiter and places an incredible premium on total state control of the situation (“order”). Even attempting to sheild yourself from batons or pepper spray is “wrong” in the eyes of this subservient ideology. The question remains, though, how do you resist power without disobeying it?
These strategies betray a deeply authoritarian stance. They objectify participants as simply actors tasked with presenting a spectacle rather than individuals with their own thoughts and opinions on how to proceed. By way of implied consensus, constant judgemental moralism and fear-mongering about those who disagree, these views are imposed on movements as the “one true way to revolution”(TM). What results is an often primary focus on policing discussions and actions within the movement. I’ve witnessed more than enough of this personally and can definitely attest to religious fervour with which it’s espoused. I won’t point the finger at nonviolence itself here, since few of my (true) pacifist friends are willing to conduct themselves in this manner – it’s far more common among those who are new, moderate and have watched altogether too much television, or those who seek to use the movement to catapult themselves into positions of status and notoriety. These traits have always served to isolate movements, both from other struggles and the public at large, and there’s really nothing “radical” about them.
Black Bloc: Grow Up
At this point, I feel it’s important to get a few things off my chest. As someone involved in the anarchist movement, and someone who’s been in black blocs before, and as someone who’s frequently defended people engaged in these actions:
Grow the fuck up.
Breaking windows isn’t a revolution. It barely qualifies as a “direct action” at all, and much moreso as the most dramatic of symbolic actions, crying out for media attention and official response. Attacking storefronts and cars from the cover of a crowd is easy – defending crowds from advancing police lines is not. If you’re going to confront the cops, then confront the fucking cops. There’s a big difference between sheilding a crowd and using the crowd as your shields. That isn’t, and had never been what the black bloc is about, and it’s generally why I tend to wear colours to demonstrations these days. You’re not helping any of this.
Let me be clear – this is not aimed at those who hold up shield walls or build barricades to protect crowds, who knock back tear gas cannisters or to those in the long and noble tradition of black bloc medics who treat injured protesters in the midst of all this chaos. Most in the black bloc have tended to maintain this kind of defensive posture. Even in Oakland, the “smashy” actions were mostly limited to the General Strike last November, and in more recent actions had far more to do with shields than attacks on any businesses. Sadly, there’s often been a few who’re more interested in a big smashy spotlight. Not only is this kind of escalation dangerous to everyone around, but it pretty clearly is very divisive, and often ends in disaster, tactically speaking. Our goal should never be to terrify bystanders – whether they be customers inside a bank/restaurant with a big glass window or other participants in a march – which is exactly the effect these actions are having, especially on those less privileged than ourselves.
(I’m not advocating any illegal actions here – that would be against the law, and very silly to publish online. I simply wish to state that there are some tactics I wouldn’t endorse even if it were legal to do so)
Ten years ago, academics and activists defended (some) of these tactics because in the days of Seattle and Quebec. Back then, this was pretty much the only thing that got attention to some very important issues. However chaotic it appeared, it was ultimately a calculated tactic to create a media spectacle. The performance became a ritualized part of protests. Endless debates raged over whether smashing Starbucks windows was “violent”, totally missing the point of whether or not it was effective. The world has changed a lot since then – these issues now have everyone’s attention, and such vandalism only perpetuates stereotypes that we, as anarchists, badly need to shed, and this is something most anarchists I know are more than willing to acknowledge.
In too many ways, property destruction has been fetishized and ritualized, eclipsing all other supposed goals of actions. The depersonalized spectacle it presents only reinforces the same alienated notions of political action as performance. Its proponents all too often act just as much like a vanguard as those I mention above, and rely on ideological rationalizations which are no less ridiculous. The communiques often written after-the-fact are evidence enough of this, with their more-revolutionary-than-thou condescension and fanciful retelling of events. They call out everyone else, then hide behind a sort of radical “support our troops” attitude when it comes to critical reflection on their own actions. This self-aggrandizing ultra-militancy speaks more to a sense of post-modern angst than any kind of effective organizing or resistance. “Propaganda of the deed” has been tried before, and it didn’t work then either.
If you want to be a revolutionary, think about the example you’re setting. It’s high time the anarchist community had a serious discussion about these tactics.
Rocky Road Ahead
The public and the media have a fairly short attention span, and the novelty of occupied parks is quickly wearing off. A precedent has already been set that these encampents can be forcibly evicted, no matter how non-violent, and considerable violence has already been deployed for this task. If the movement is going to continue with direct action and occupation as a tactic, no matter how non-violent, it’s going to involve escalation. An administrative building at McGill University is now home to a group of dissident students, and local labour councils are occupying Conservative offices across Ontario. A growing wave of squatting has already begun, with some success. The possibility that factories, soon, may also be occupied, or widespread resistance to foreclosures or a general strike. With harsh austerity measures being implemented, factories being closed and the possibility of yet another war, the chances for even more popular unrest grow, so do the chances for ugly conflicts. Whichever tactics protesters adopt, the response is likely to be brutal, and demand incredible amounts of courage and solidarity from all of us. This is not a time to burn bridges.
Militancy is not a force anyone can contain, and this is as true of activists and revolutionaries as it is of cops and courts. Resentment doesn’t go away, and suffering is hard to forget. Without effective channels to address grievances, this can only simmer until it explodes, as happened last summer in London. People in crowds do not like seeing the people around them attacked and dragged off by police, and this is even more true when said crowds are peaceful. These actions do challenge the legitimacy of authorities, immediately, in the eyes of everyone present – and that’s exactly why riots happen. Sadly, when vandalism is presented as the be-all-and-end-all of militant action, whether that’s in the press or by activists themselves, it tends to be exactly where people turn when their frustrations take over. The taboo and verboten nature here only makes this kind of spectacular destruction more enticing, like forbidden drugs and sexual acts. That’s exactly why this narrative has to be challenged, and this false dichotomy laid to rest. There are no clear divisions here – there’s been an incredible spectrum of actions, participants and beliefs involved which simply can’t be summed up with tales of the big bad black block anarchists.
There are clearly tactical discussions which need to happen. This isn’t to call for a purge of any group of comrades, or any kind of public vilification. These people are our comrades and friends, and I have no wish to alienate anyone – that’s how you build cults, not movements. The “St. Paul Principles” (established for the RNC in 2008) should be kept in mind here by both ‘sides’. Working with law enforcement against fellow activists is inexcusable (it puts everybody at risk), but it shouldn’t be forgotten that a separation of time and/or space between militant actions and “family-friendly” marches is also a main principle of “diversity of tactics”. There’s more than enough bad behaviour here to go around here, and it’s time to take responsibility for that.
In a new article by Chris Hedges, “The Cancer within Occupy“, he calls out “black block anarchists” in a very big way. With an extensive set of half-truths and utter fabrications, he’s going on the attack against those who refuse to play by his liberal sensibilities, and the internet is now awash with responses.
Among the numerous questionable “facts” brought up by Hedges are claims that “Occupy encampments in various cities were shut down precisely because they were nonviolent” – a curious statement, since Oakland (which clearly was not) has seen some of the harshest repression. Other include claims that anarchists oppose environmentalists, unions and intellectuals (where exactly were liberals during the Nine-Hours movement?). Most laughable is his statement that anarchists oppose “populist movements such as the Zapatistas” – obviously missing the black masks, machine guns and autonomous indigenous villages run by consensus (as one friend remarked the other day – this is pretty much a quintessential anarchist rebellion). With all of these errors in the first two paragraphs alone, one has to wonder: Does Hedges even know what an anarchist is?
Beginning the third paragraph, it’s blatantly clear that Hedges does not. Virtually all of his research seems limited to back issues of “Green Anarchy” magazine (a primitivst publication many anarchists find more than a bit embarrassing). Claiming that “black bloc anarchists do not believe in organization”, he makes his own lack of research and comprehension clear. The “black bloc” is not a ideology, it’s a tactic. Most black-blockers are anarchists (though not all), and there’s never been a coherent set of “black block beliefs”. The black bloc has never been any more unified in ideology than the rest of the anarchist movement. Hedges picks and chooses from different fringes of anarchist thought (John Zerzan, anti-organizationists), creating a straw-man dogma. If Hedges wants evidence that John Zerzan doesn’t represent most anarchists, he need look only at the conflict he cites with Noam Chomsky – who is, by the way, also an anarchist.
Throughout the article Hedges continues to cite mainly Green Anarchy, yet strangely he has no problem taking the word of “his friend”, Derrick Jensen, who writes consistently about the moral importance of “taking down civilization” in thoroughly violent ways. The guy is a one-man pacifist wrecking crew. Jensen’s views and writings aren’t all that different from the most militant ends of the primitivist or insurrectionist fringes of anarchism (though he generally avoids the “anarchist” label and is often accused of being an authoritarian) – for anyone who’s actually read Zerzan, it’s almost impossible to read Jensen’s work without wondering where all the footnotes (and real analysis) went. As someone who’s met Chomsky, Zerzan and Jensen, it’s obvious that Hedges just doesn’t get the nature of anarchist infighting (and puts a little too much faith in Jensen).
Derrick Jensen can bash the black bloc if he wants – he’s free to contrast their petty insurrections with the broad-based coalition of eco-terrorists he proposes in his books (“Endgame”, “Deep Green Resistance” etc), which despite their best-selling status have yet to be conclusively linked to a single bombing, shooting or arson. It may be easy to write off rioters as “amateurs revolutionaries”, but if some would the real “insurgents” care to step up and demonstrate some “real rebellion”, then perhaps their condescending attitude might be a little more convincing. For an avowed moderate like Hedges to use Jensen as evidence here is really nothing but embarrassing.
As for “violence”, the definition Hedges is working by seems to include burning flags and holding shields – but does it include wrestling with black-blockers and handing them over to the police? What about Tahrir Square? Did throwing stones “discredit” their revolution? And if black-clad anarchists rioting is really so bad for movements, why did it prompt him to write such flattering things about Greek protests a short while ago?
Then there’s his paragraph about “hypermasculinity”, another testament to his faith in media stereotypes. As someone who’s been in, near, and around many blocs, they’ve never been exclusively male – women have even more reasons to hide their faces from (mostly male) police. The Oakland actions which Hedges complains about had a “Feminist and Queer Bloc” participating – something he left out. What we have here might be described in today’s popular internet lingo as a “white male gender-baiting fail”.
Hedges basic point contains a fatal contradiction. On one hand, he valorizes nonviolent protests which end up on the receiving end of police violence and openly acknowledges that nonviolence has not prevented many cities from facing brutal evictions. On the other hand, he continues to claim that “violent” protests by the black block instigate (or justify) such repression, which then isn’t valourous. The goal of nonviolence, supposedly, is to de-legitimize the establishment – but doesn’t explain how change is supposed to happen once people have lost their faith in power. Nor does he explain why countless examples of such violence haven’t galvanized the public yet. Worst of all, he claims that a few disorderly protesters “discredits” the hundreds of thousands around them, while ignoring how his own writings perpetuate this sad state of affairs. By essentially taking the side of riot police in these cases totally glosses over what actually happened on the ground, and reinforces all the same stereotypes authorities use to discredit radicals.
People are up on charges, Chris, because they dared stand up for the ideals you claimed to write about. Many (most, in all likelihood) weren’t “violent” at all, however you want to define it. They don’t need one of their self-appointed spokespeople publicly siding with the District Attorney. These words have consequences, and you should know that.
If this were a critique of the illegalist, insurrectionist and primitivist aspects of anarchist actions, like so much of what’s come across the anarchist news-wires in the last few months, I’d be glad to read it. Such an approach might require research with an adult reading level, and the admittance of other (often more prominent) anarchist traditions such as platformism or prefigurative politics. Sadly, Hedges draws no distinctions here – an anarchist is an anarchist in his eyes. There’s lots of problems with most black black block actions, which I have no problem admitting – but these types of critiques have a tendency to “co-opt” movements in far worse ways by shunning less-priviliged participants for not obeying their professional leftist strategists (like Hedges and Jensen), and showing a total willingness to co-operate with the establishment when it suits them. If anarchists frequently oppose leftist organizers, this is why – and any look at the largest unions, environmental NGOs or academic bastions of “radicalism” will yield countless examples of how ineffective and corrupt these self-proclaimed “leaders” can become.
There is a cancer growing within the Occupy movement. Like the environmental, labour and others before it, large parts of the struggle are hurtling towards irrelevance as the ideals it was founded on are being systematically stripped in the name of moderation and “unity”. This implied consensus never needs to be discussed since it’s trumpeted by all the mouthpieces of the status quo already. Opposing ideas treated as taboo, threatening to drive “normal” (ie: middle class, white and very privileged) people away, while the same questions are never asked about the effects of turning popular struggles into political parties and registered charities. The self-serving careerism of writers like Hedges is obvious here – more than willing to invoke revolutionary symbolism for their own purposes, but harshly critical of any actual radicals in their midst. This cancer, if it is allowed to grow, will eclipse all real potential the organization has, like so many before it, and “the masses” (and press) will move on to something more exciting.
Sorry Chris, but in this game, class war is a force that gives us meaning. Anything else, like a Che Guevara tee shirt from Old Navy, is just entertainment.
Some other excellent responses to Hedges’ piece:
Colonizer: A Postcolonial Reading of Chris Hedges – OLA Antisocial Media
I Respectfully Disagree, Chris – Bat County Word
To be Fair, he is a journalist – A Short Response to Chris Hedges on the Black Bloc – Facing Reality
The Folly of Christopher Hedges – Nihilo Zero
I am the Cancer. I am not a Human Being. I am the Beast – Birds Before the Storm
This might my favourite article ever from the Toronto Sun. It certainly ain’t known for breaking stories, but this one is just…golden. The mainstream press directly cites insider police sources stating that cops were told to “stand down” during the G20 protests in Toronto, while the Black Bloc smashed up Queen Street and trashed a few cop cars.
“The officer said that eventually there was “a clear order from the command centre saying ‘Do not engage’ ” and, at that point, smelling weakness and no repercussions, the downtown was effectively turned over to the vandals while police, up to 19,000 strong, were ordered to stay out of it.”
Of course we all know what happened next. Over a thousand virtually random arrests, massive human rights violations, and an almost unbelievable number of clear violations of Canadian law. There are still people in jail on trumped-up “conspiracy” charges – why is nobody investigating the police? Who will police the police?
At the time of this posting, the top comment is from a restaurant worker who was arrested, beaten and witnessed some ugly stuff. He concludes with “I will protect myself from police from now on even if it means prison or death. I am not alone.” I don’t know that I’d ever have the stones to post something like that online – I know people being accused of bomb-making for baking cupcakes.
This kind of repression does not work. It only enrages people. If the bloody and violent history of our species shows one thing, it’s that people eventually compensate for fear with anger and aggression. 19000 cops can easily handle some anarchist rioters – admittedly, most of us ain’t that big. There’s a few million more people in Toronto, though, and many of ‘em are a lot bigger, and a lot tougher (look at the Stanley Cup Riots). They gave these cops a billion dollars to stop rioters, and not to go overboard on everyone else. Not arresting people at random with make-believe charges is a basic request of police – they’re trained for it. And now that the summit’s over, they have to walk the streets without a Roman Legion backing them up. How will they, personally, be able to make this up to everyone who trusted them?
More News updates:
The Federal Conservatives are fillibustering to prevent the the opposition (a majority in parliament) from launching an inquiry into policing during the summit, and their role in particular. Link.
A Globe and Mail Timeline of the Make-believe “five metre rule”.
Provincial liberals backpedal, claim they gave the police no extra powers, and are condemned by the conservatives.