Previous posts in this series:
In many ways the controversy over the black bloc intervention in Oakland on November 2nd during a day of protests designed to shut down the port was just the latest involving two wings of the anarchist movement.
In an November 12 article that appeared on Znet titled “Throwing Out the Master’s Tools and Building a Better House”, Rebecca Solnit wrote:
Another Occupy Oakland witness, a female street medic, wrote of the ill-conceived November 2 late-night antics, “watching black bloc-ers run from the cops and not protect the camp their actions had endangered, an action which ultimately left behind many mentally ill people, sick people, street kids, and homeless folks to defend themselves against the police onslaught was disturbing and disgusting in ways I can’t even articulate because I am still so angry at the empty bravado and cowardice that I saw.” She adds, “I want those kids to be held accountable to the damage that they did, damage made possible by their class and race privilege.” And physical fitness; Occupy Oakland’s camp includes children, older people, wheelchair users and a lot of other people less ready to run.
As Oakland Occupier Sunaura Taylor put it, “A few people making decisions that affect everyone else is not what revolution looks like; it’s what capitalism looks like.”
Solnit and her brother David are the co-authors of “The Battle of Seattle”, an AK Press book that attempts to debunk the notion that this battle was an expression of black bloc militancy, something that the bourgeois press sought to propagate for obvious reasons. Not only did the bourgeois press seek to exploit this. Hollywood joined in with its typical mindless bullshit, coming out with “The Battle of Seattle” starring Charlize Theron as a black bloc member. The idiots at Infoshop, who never saw a black bloc provocation that they did not love, posted an item on the movie that sounded positively gleeful:
Charlize Theron Joins the Black Bloc
Wednesday, August 30 2006 @ 12:21 PM CDT
Contributed by: Anonymous
You know that thing in cartoons where someone sees something unbelievable and they blink a couple of times and rub their eyes? That’s what I had to do when I read that not only was there going to be a movie made about the 1999 Seattle anti-WTO protests-turned-riots, but that Charlize Theron would star in it, presumably as a beautiful and committed activist.
Stuart Townsend, the director of “Battle of Seattle” and Theron’s ex-husband, met with Solnit to get her input on the film. After reading the script, she wrote Townsend making a number of suggestions about how to make the film more accurate. Among them was the need to distinguish between anarchists—a group she identified with—and the black bloc, something she described as a militant tactic adopted by European autonomists. Townsend obviously preferred to stress the lurid aspects of the Seattle protests, even when they never occurred. For example, he dramatized protestors throwing bags of urine at the cops even though this never happened, an urban legend much like Vietnam era protestors spitting at returning soldiers.
While Townsend’s script was deeply flawed, it was far better than the reporting in august journals such as the NY Times. In a chapter titled “The Myth of Seattle Violence: My Battle with the NY Times”, Solnit described her attempts to correct a September 2, 2004 article on the Republican Party convention in NY that stated:
The demonstrations, too, have thus far been more restrained than many recent protests elsewhere; five years ago in Seattle, for example, there was widespread arson and window-smashing, none of which has occurred here. Lacking bloody scenes of billy-club-wielding police or billowing clouds of tear gas, the cameras — and the public’s attention — have focused elsewhere.
Challenging the paper’s assertion that “widespread arson” occurred (apparently the worst of it was a garbage dumpster that caught fire, perhaps from a tear gas canister), the gray lady was forced to admit that “there were no reports of widespread arson,” even though it continued to label the Seattle protests as “largely violent”.
The most useful corrective to the mainstream media’s fictional take on Seattle is an article in the Solnits’ book by Chris Dixon titled “Five Days in Seattle: the View from the Ground” (an early draft can be read here: http://users.resist.ca/~chrisd/reflecting/5days.htm).
Dixon makes clear that while the protests were nonviolent, they were bold and confrontational in a positive manner. In other words, they were similar to many of the aspects of the Occupy movement:
Protesters gathering at both meeting sites grew from the hundreds to the thousands by 7:30 am when they began lively processions toward downtown Seattle. In the drizzly early-morning dawn, there was more brilliant color in the crowds than in the entire drab cityscape that surrounded us. Looking around, there was a group of activist Santa Clauses; many returning sea turtles; a sprinkling of expert stilt-walkers; a jubilant squad of radikal cheerleaders; an indescribable number of puppets; an anarchist marching band, complete with matching pink gas masks; and hordes of regular-looking folks, ranging from steelworkers to yuppies.
As the processions neared police lines around the Convention Center, some affinity groups deployed blockades while others were already in progress. By the time marchers had circled the nearly twenty-block circumference, every single intersection, alleyway, and hotel entrance was blocked by nonviolent protesters. Some simply sat across roads with arms linked. Others locked their arms inside pieces of pipe known as “lockboxes,” creating an impervious human wall. Still others used a combination of U-locks and bike cables to chain their necks together. One affinity group successfully set up a tripod with a protester sitting at the top and others locked to the base. By far, the most unique blockade, though, was created by a cluster which carried in a large wooden platform underpinned by metal pipes. Once set down in an intersection, activists locked their arms into each of the pipes and others sat in a circle around them.
However, just as was the case in Oakland, the black bloc stuck their two cents in:
Months before, DAN [Direct Action Network, the group that Solnit worked with] and affiliated organizations had all agreed to a set of nonviolence guidelines that prohibited “violence–physical or verbal” and “property destruction” for the duration of the Tuesday action. However, not everyone in the streets had agreed to abide by them. Since mid-morning, small bands of black-masked anarchists had been carefully busting windows at select corporate targets, including Nike, the Gap, and Bank of America. Using what they called “black bloc” formations, they stuck together and avoided police confrontations. By the afternoon, though, their targeted property damage and sometimes delightful graffiti had gone to the wayside as a handful of random protesters took over. Even the graffiti degenerated. For instance, the spray-painted phrase “FUCK WTO BITCHES” showed up across from NikeTown.
It must be said that the final version of Dixon’s article that appeared in the book was a bit more charitable to the black bloc, quoting their communiqué without comment: “When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds property rights.” He also left out the business about fuck the WTO bitches.
A year later Dixon began to think more deeply about the protests, finding fault it would seem with both the black bloc and the more peaceful majority’s insistence on “raising the ante” through risky confrontations that would lead to being attacked by the cops and a night in jail. In an article titled “Finding Hope After Seattle: Rethinking Radical Activism and Building a Movement“, he wrote:
Anarchism is fundamentally about dismantling systems of power. And promisingly, this critical orientation is cropping up throughout the movement. But while successive mass mobilizations since the WTO have directly confronted a number of powerful institutions, they have also managed to replicate patterns of power and exclusion, especially based on race and class. No doubt, many anarchists and other activists realize this. I’m not the first and certainly not the most articulate to level these criticisms. I think, though, that they’re worth briefly repeating, particularly since many young white, middle-class radicals (myself included) often acknowledge them without really reflecting on them.
Broadly, they can be distilled into a single question: Who can afford to action-hop? And we must understand that word afford with its many meanings: Who can afford to travel across the country, or even the world? Who can afford to risk their bodies in potentially dangerous police confrontations? Who can afford to be away from family and/or work responsibilities for uncertain periods of time? Who can afford to risk their legal statuses with the possibility of arrest? Altogether, not many people.
A key problem, then, with the focus on mass mobilizations is the underlying idea that we, as people who seek radical social change, must each take great risks and make huge commitments in very prescribed ways — and that all of us can afford to do that. Yet this just doesn’t face reality. When many folks are working one, two, or even three jobs, taking care of family members, and dealing with immediate crises, they simply can’t devote all of their time to activist efforts. Indeed, many people are concerned about simple survival — feeding their kids, getting some work or getting to work, paying the rent, keeping out of jail, staying healthy with limited or no access to health care.
More to the point, direct action, as many anarchists tend to define it, can be deeply exclusionary. While it undeniably empowers some — mainly white and middle-class — it disempowers others. Used as a central tactic of mass mobilizations, direct action can in fact implicitly assume a certain degree of privilege, with dire consequences. As anti-capitalist organizer Helen Luu explains, “the emphasis on this method alone often works to exclude people of colour because what is not being taken into account is the relationship between the racist (in)justice system and people of colour.” White working-class and poor people, also frequently veterans of police repression, face some similar forms of marginalization.
Dixon is really hitting on some profound truths in this passage, but it can be expanded a bit. The issue is only partially about involving working class and poor people on a less exclusionary basis. It is more importantly about drawing them into mass actions to the point where they begin to find their own ways to take their own kinds of action, exercising social power in a way that young, mostly student, activists cannot.
For example, the “boring” antiwar demonstrations of the 1960s began to draw in ordinary working people to the point where they felt like they were speaking for the true majority of Americans. It was the government that was acting lawlessly by prosecuting a war clearly against their interests. At a certain point their mood became so infectious that their sons and daughters in uniform began to challenge their officers about continuing the war. This was one of the major factors leading to American withdrawal. Smaller, but more “sensational” actions would have never had that impact.
Supporters of the black bloc had an entirely different take on Seattle, conforming more to the urine-tossing, “widespread arson” fictions of Stuart Townsend’s screenplay and the NY Times. In Chapter two of “The Black Block Papers”, a Weatherman-worshipping book that can be read on Infoshop, there’s this breathless account of what happened in Seattle:
Within this vast array of demonstrators, an Anarchist Black Bloc took to the streets in order to inflict material damage upon corporate banks/businesses, correctly viewed by them as real incarnations of the economically and culturally homogenizing Capitalist force we are beholden to. The Bloc, following police attacks on non-violent protesters, proceeded to move through the streets of Seattle smashing bank and corporate windows. In some cases the contents of the business in question were expropriated from the building and subsequently left in the streets.
It turns out that the black bloc consisted of less than one hundred protestors, according to Paul de Armond, the author of “Netwar in the Emerald City: WTO Protest Strategy and Tactics“, an article that must be placed alongside Chris Dixon’s as an authoritative account of what happened on November 30, 1999.
De Armond, a journalist who focuses on rightwing terrorism in the US, described the black bloc action that day:
While the police were regrouping and preparing to force the Direct Action Network protesters to join the AFL-CIO parade, several groups took advantage of the lull in the battle. They have all been lumped together into a nameless anarchist horde, but the fact remains that there were two distinct groups acting out different agendas, not one “organized” anarchist conspiracy as the myth would have it.
At approximately 1 p.m., the police temporarily stopped trying to push corridors through the protest area. Earlier, the Black Bloc anarchists had entered into an understanding with the Direct Action Network that they would refrain from vandalism at least as long as the streets remained peaceful. But meanwhile, the Black Bloc arrived downtown armed with hammers, crowbars, spray paint, M-80 firecrackers, and paint bombs. Their goal was a “propaganda of the deed,” centering around vandalizing chosen stores—Nike, Starbucks, the Gap, Old Navy, and others—that they saw as fitting targets.
The Black Bloc anarchists were simply biding their time and waiting for an opportunity to vandalize these stores and then get away. They had been closely monitored by the police and FBI since the preceding day. Early Tuesday morning, the FBI had briefed Seattle police on the Black Bloc’s whereabouts and activities. The close observation of the Black Bloc included undercover FBI agents dressed to blend in with the anarchists, right down to wearing masks to hide their faces.
De Armond does not speculate on the significance of FBI agents having infiltrated the black bloc but I would not rule out the possibility that their purpose was not to prevent laws from being broken but figuring out ways to provoke the young testosterone-laden boys into “escalating” their tactics.
Mayor Schell took advantage of the black bloc’s antics in order to justify calling in the National Guard and turning Seattle into a police state. As the NY Times reported on December 1, there were sharp differences between the average protestor and the mask-wearing schmucks:
A small group of men, dressed in black clothing and masks and ignoring cries of “Shame on you!” from other protesters, smashed windows and spray-painted graffiti at downtown stores like Nordstrom, Niketown, Starbucks and the Gap. Both were jarring sights in a city that prides itself on its laid-back image.
“We are here peacefully; we just want our message to be heard,” said Gloria Haselwander, a 21-year-old clerk in a Seattle music store who said she believes that the world trade group’s rulings contributed to environmental destruction and ever-greater gaps between the world’s richest people and its poorest. “We kept saying, ‘No violence, no violence,’ ” she added, “but there was just this mass of gas. My throat hurts, my lungs still hurt.”
Most of the demonstrators were clearly opposed to the window-smashing and other destructive acts by a small knot of protesters, most of whom were young men wearing masks and declining to give their names when asked by reporters.
“Anarchy rules!” said one, carrying a trash can down the street and then using it to smash a window of a Starbucks coffee shop.
Showing absolutely no concern for people like Gloria Haselwander let alone the thousands if not millions who would like to protest without risking tear gas or jail, the black bloc issued a communiqué defending its right to act as agent provocateur:
Unfortunately, the presence and persistence of “peace police” was quite disturbing. On at least 6 separate occasions, so-called “non-violent” activists physically attacked individuals who targeted corporate property. Some even went so far as to stand in front of the Niketown super store and tackle and shove the black bloc away.
Indeed, such self-described “peace-keepers” posed a much greater threat to individuals in the black bloc than the notoriously violent uniformed “peace-keepers” sanctioned by the state (undercover officers have even used the cover of the activist peace-keepers to ambush those who engage in corporate property destruction).
This is the same talking point, of course, heard after the Oakland events. Any attempt by the majority to control what happens on a demonstration that it organized is a “threat” to the rights of 30 or 40 morons who harbor FBI agents in their midst.
While I am far more concerned in these series of articles to put the black bloc under a microscope, there is problem about decision-making that needs to be addressed. It involves some of the operative assumptions of the anarchist leaders of the movement about “consensus” versus majority rule, the modus operandi of both the trade union movement and the organized left.
Within the “affinity group”, friendship and/or shared politics and lifestyle make consensus relatively easy. Their “autonomy” comes first and foremost, a defense against the authoritarians at the gate whether they are real cops or “peace police”. Since the black bloc—by definition—is a coming together on an ad hoc basis for vandalism and confrontation with the cops, you do not have the internal structures for making decisions that you are held accountable for by the larger movement.
One can understand the alienation that some young radicals can feel toward trade unions and political parties that while operating in the name of majority rule tend to in reality serve as instruments of the bureaucratic minority at the top.
But I doubt that this has much to do with the Direct Action Network that Rebecca Solnit and Chris Dixon were involved with. The goal is to build a movement that can operate in unison once a thorough discussion has taken place. Keep in mind that perhaps the greatest expression of direct democracy known in history was embraced by anarchist, socialists and militant trade unionists alike:
The [Paris] Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.
Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wage. The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune.
Having once got rid of the standing army and the police – the physical force elements of the old government – the Commune was anxious to break the spiritual force of repression, the “parson-power”, by the disestablishment and disendowment of all churches as proprietary bodies. The priests were sent back to the recesses of private life, there to feed upon the alms of the faithful in imitation of their predecessors, the apostles.
The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state. Thus, not only was education made accessible to all, but science itself freed from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it.
The judicial functionaries were to be divested of that sham independence which had but served to mask their abject subserviency to all succeeding governments to which, in turn, they had taken, and broken, the oaths of allegiance. Like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable.
The Paris Commune was, of course, to serve as a model to all the great industrial centres of France. The communal regime once established in Paris and the secondary centres, the old centralized government would in the provinces, too, have to give way to the self-government of the producers.
Karl Marx, “The Civil War in France“