February 16, 2017
December 5, 2012
Up the Anti had something of an experiment-like character. We wanted to build a broad, left wing conference, that appraised the big questions facing radical politics in a fraternal atmosphere of critical debate, where people from different political traditions (and none) could discuss the future of the movement and progressive politics more generally.
By those criteria, the event was a success.
Given that it was co-sponsored by a collection of left wing websites, networks and magazines with a small number of activists amongst them, the event still attracted about 300 people (we had 322 registrations in total but not all advance ticket holders turned up so attendance was below that).
Sessions on debt strikes, trade unions, and Greece attracted good numbers of people with lively discussions. The journalism session was informative and good spirited. Radical interpretations of the crisis had mixed, indeed many negative, reviews that were summed it up by one person as “four middle-aged white men arguing with each other”. The session on the extradition of Talha Ahsan and Islamophobia saw moving, powerful talks from Victoria Brittain and Talha’s brother Hamja Ahsan that were incredibly composed and balanced, given the scale of the injustice discussed.
November 29, 2012
November 28, 2012
rabble.ca sat down recently with Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the former spokesperson for student group CLASSE, and one of the most recognizable leaders of Quebec’s social movements, for a feature interview.
rabble.ca: You were recently found guilty of contempt of court, for expressing the opinion that picket lines were legitimate in a TV interview. That’s a ruling I know you plan to appeal, so can you tell me why you think the ruling was unjust?
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois: Well there are a few things. A problem with the first ruling is that the judge interpreted my words as direct advice to break the injunctions. The point my lawyer and I made is that it was a political opinion I expressed, that those injunctions were not a good way to solve the conflict. I said it was a deception, that those injunctions were used to override the democratic decision to go on strike. That’s one of the main things we are going to focus on during the appeal. I cannot say that I didn’t say what I said. Or that it was not what I meant. I said what I said and I meant what I said. It was a political opinion, not a direct order to tell anyone to do anything. So that’s the main point. It’s very important that we do this, because if the ruling stands, it creates a precedent for other social movements. It will be one of the first times a spokesperson for a social movement could be found guilty for expressing a political opinion. That’s a precedent we don’t want to see created.
What do you think of the PQ government floating the idea of legislating a right to strike for students?
GND: It’s clearly a double-edged sword. The first thing that is important to remember is that the Liberal government created this debate. For decades in Quebec the right for students to have a political strike has always existed. Everyone, including the Liberals, accepted it politically and socially. Mr. Charest himself recognized this right. I think it’s a debate that has been created to delegitimize the student movement by the Liberals. The student movement has shown in the last few years that it is able to take democratic positions on many issues, and is able to make democratic decisions to go on strike.
I don’t see why we have to change the law that’s already quite clear. It gives a monopoly over representation of students to the student associations. It says they are recognized. We are not workers, but students. Our strike is a political strike. I don’t see why we should limit this fundamental right to strike.
There’s been quite an outpouring of support for your appeal through the website appelatous.org, you’re now over $100,000 in donations towards your legal defence fund. So what’s next?
GND: We are expecting the sentence any day now. We will then go and appeal. It’s going to be a long battle, a two-year battle to go in front of the appeal court. That’s why we’ve asked for the people’s donations and solidarity.
We were totally surprised by the amount of solidarity we’ve seen. We now have enough money to pay back CLASSE for the expenses of the case thus far. We also have enough to go forward with the appeal process. There will also be enough money to support other students who are in front of the courts. For me it’s very important to show that solidarity towards the other students. It’s a very beautiful surprise for us. I think even if the mobilization isn’t currently as concrete in the streets, the people are still very vigilant about what’s going on. We have gained this huge amount of money in only two weeks, which I think is indicative of the fact the movement is not dead at all.
What do you think of the PQ government’s budget and performance so far?
GND: I think it’s a deception for the left. We were expecting a lot more. Especially in a context where the Liberals have no leader, and everyone knows there is not going to be an election. I think the PQ had a chance to go forward with progressive measures that they had announced during the electoral campaign, measures that were a first step in the right direction. I think it’s a big deception by the PQ, that they claim they aren’t able to turn things around. The education summit that they have announced is the same type of thing. I think that indexation is the only thing that could come out of that.
I am also preoccupied by the fact that there seems to exist an intention within the Parti Quebecois to continue the privatization of universities that the Liberals started. That’s very disturbing for us. It means we have to be vigilant towards this party. We have to be at this summit, put our positions up front, and be ready to be in the streets if this government does not respect our position.
What do you think the outcome of the PQ education summit will be? Do you think there will be a freeze or indexation? What are your concerns with the commodification and privatization of education? Do you find it hard to communicate this specific problem to students because it’s more abstract than a tuition hike?
GND: The tuition hike was so massive and abrupt that it was a shock for the students. The mobilization was a lot easier because of that. If the PQ do go for indexation it will be difficult for the student movement to mobilize on that issue and on the issue of commodification of education.
The good news is that we began to talk about these things in the last months of the strike. It’s once again proof that the PQ basically share the same ideological foundation as the Liberal party. I hope it wakes up a lot of Quebecers, and left leaning people who are still supporting the PQ. Those who say the PQ are a little bit better than the Liberals. No, this party is part of the same neo-liberal ideology. We have to break this eternal sharing of power between these two parties.
If bad things come out of the summit, how hard will it be to get students to mobilize again?
GND: It will be difficult. Students are now dealing with the consequences of their strike. It’s already difficult for them. One thing that’s also going to be difficult is that we are seeing the common front of student organizations dissolve over the issue of commodification of education.
So we aren’t going to see that alliance. We are going to see once again a student movement that is going to be divided. I think it’s for good reason, but it will be hard to mobilize. It will be a huge challenge for the progressive student movement.
There’s lots of speculation about you becoming the co-spokesperson for Quebec Solidaire, are you interested?
GND: For the moment I have chosen to focus on my studies. I still have a B.A. to finish. I have been very involved in the movement over the last five years. So I feel the need to go back to the books, back to theory. I’m beginning a new degree in Philosophy. I want to focus on that for the moment. I’m still young, I have so many things to do and so many things to learn. It’s not a definitive retreat, only a pause.
I of course will be back in Quebec politics. I’m also writing a book, because I think it’s important to leave something behind and express my own opinions and analysis of the movement. I think it’s important to write about it. It’s a part of history, if we let the mainstream media talk about it, I don’t think they’ll be able to convey the spirit of what the Quebec spring was.
Given the blood on the socialist banner and name in the 20th century, what does a 21st century anti-capitalist movement have to do to be different?
GND: I think there have been two major problems with the socialist experience: a lack of democracy, and a lack of focus on the environment.
A lot of the alternatives to capitalism that were tried during the 20th century were very authoritarian, and sometimes even more destructive to the environment than neo-liberal economies. I think those are the two main challenges. We have to find a way to do this transition progressively and democratically, and with a focus on the environment.
There seems to be an incredible openness right now in progressive movements in Quebec to working with people in the rest of the country. Why do you think that is?
GND: It’s sad to say, but I think it’s because of Stephen Harper. By pushing an aggressive neo-liberal agenda on public services and environmental issues, there is a realization of the importance of what is happening in Ottawa. If all the energy we’ve seen in the last months can be redirected towards the Conservatives, it would lend a big hand to the social movements in the rest of Canada.
This new openness is also one of the consequences of the fact that the political debate in Quebec has become a lot more oriented towards left and right issues than the independence issue over the last number of years. But for this to work we need an understanding by the Canadian left of the national issue in Quebec. Come a referendum, other social movements in Canada will have to respect our right to self-determination. That does not mean they have to be in favor of sovereignty, only respect the fact that Quebecers have the right to make their own decisions on their future. If we agree on that I think we have a beautiful opportunity in front of us to build a truly national movement. Historically this was a problem. I hope it’s behind us.
Do you feel there’s a new sense of urgency to go after capitalism?
GND: I think the ecological crisis is putting huge pressure on our generation. I feel this sense of urgency, and I think many young people do as well. For the first time in history, we have a future for our children that is worse than what we are currently living, in terms of social justice and environmental issues. So I think this sense of urgency is widespread. Now, the challenge is to share this urgency and educate the population. We have to be honest with ourselves. We need systemic change, but have to remember these changes won’t happen in a day. They will happen progressively. We have to begin to democratize and change the structure of our economy. I think that the majority of the population understands that there is something wrong with how things are being done. That there is not enough equality or social rights. Our objective is to take the initiative and say we are the ones who want to change things. This whole idea of “change” is now the slogan of the right wing. The PQ are a good example of that. We need to take back that slogan.
Do you think that building a stronger progressive media capacity is an important part of that popular education?
GND: Yes. It means having strategies for the mainstream media. Having spokespeople to talk to the mainstream media and population. It means concretely mobilizing in our campuses, our workplaces and our communities. It also means creating new platforms and new media infrastructures to begin to deliver an alternative message. We can’t only be in the mainstream or alternative media, we need a complementary strategy.
What were your major influences growing up?
GND: I was raised in a family of activists. My first political mentors were my parents. My father was in the labor movement for years. He was in charge of the environmental issues in one of the major labor unions of Quebec. I was also influenced a lot by activists in Quebec such as Michel Chartrand, Pierre Vadeboncoeur and Pierre Bourgault who were very charismatic activists working with workers and the people to gain rights. They were activists, but also writers and poets.
One of the things that inspired me most in those activists is that they were trying to reach a compromise between the social and national emancipation of Quebec. For me that’s a very big inspiration. I think we have to go back to that influence. Where national emancipation is not only based on a cultural and linguistic level, but also a social level. To present the national independence of Quebec like a political project. That’s what really inspires me in these activists. They were unbelievable speakers and writers, for me they are very big inspirations.
Thanks to Robin Sas for transcription of this interview.
November 23, 2012
Since the financial crisis broke we have seen a rising tide of protest, revolutions and resistance.
One of the driving forces of these movements has been a desire to change the future: to reject the idea that we have no future outside of the logic of never ending austerity, declining living standards and the loss of public services to private profiteers.
Up the Anti is a one day conference to think about and discuss how we lay claim to the future that we want and deserve. It will host an eclectic mix of sessions, ranging from in-depth seminars and debates to participatory, facilitated discussions and workshops. There are many questions we need to ask, including:
- Is there an alternative to capitalism? What might it look like?
- How do we win popular support for new radical projects?
- What can we learn from the social struggles and new movements in Europe?
- And how do we overcome divisions within left and radical movements?
What next after the Occupy protests?
We called the event ‘Up the Anti’ because we all agree that we need to build a bigger movement against social oppression and capitalism. But we are not just against things, we also want to reclaim the future from those in power who seem intent on dragging us towards austerity, growing social inequality and environmental destruction.
The conference will be held in London at Queen Mary university, not far from Mile End and Stepney Green underground stations.
But the day is not just all workshops and seminars, we also have time for a gig at Queen Mary Student Union with comedy, music and DJs. Highlights include the up and coming radical comedian Chris Coltrane and the critically acclaimed blues guitarist Sean Taylor.
UP THE ANTI is a genuine movement event put on by a plurality of groups, websites, publishing houses, and networks. It is sponsored by New Left Project, Ceasefire, Occupied Times, Anticapitalist Initiative, Red Pepper and Globalise Resistance.
May 9, 2012
May 7, 2012
May 2, 2012
Tomorrow there will be special screenings of the documentary #ReGENERATION around the country, including New York. Go to the #ReGENERATION website for a schedule and screening information, including how to watch it on Itunes. Ironically, despite much of the opprobrium heaped on the Internet in this challenging film, the men and women behind it are exploiting social networks and email to get the word out. Despite the tendency for the Internet to isolate people, there can be no argument against its ability to publicize events, especially when you can’t afford $20,000 for an ad in the NY Times.
Despite the inclusion of interviewees like Andrew Bacevich, John Bellamy Foster, Howard Zinn (footage taken before his death but very relevant to the film’s theme), Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert, the documentary is not so much an attempt to educate people about the evils of the system. Instead, it is an unsparing examination of knowing about the evil so few are willing to take a stand.
Foster, who is one of the country’s leading experts on financial crisis, does not talk about how the crisis emerged. Rather he addresses the question of why young people feel like they cannot have an impact on the system (that’s Foster at the start of the trailer). The general consensus among all the polled experts is that a combination of financial insecurity, a surfeit of television and the Internet, hedonism, and a sense of despair conspire to keep people from taking action. The contrast is continually drawn with the sixties, including remarks from Michael Albert who for some peculiar reason wears dark glasses throughout. I hope he is not suffering from eye diseases like me. My guess is that he wanted to look “cool”. Uncool.
One of the more informed commentators is Sut Jhally, a professor of Communications at U. Mass. Even if you don’t get around to seeing #ReGENERATION (but surely you must!), a visit to Jhally’s website is very useful for understanding the film’s concerns. In an article titled “Advertising at the edge of Apocalypse,” Jhally writes:
A culture dominated by commercial messages that tells individuals that the way to happiness is through consuming objects bought in the marketplace gives a very particular answer to the question of “what is society?” what is it that binds us together in some kind of collective way, what concerns or interests do we share? In fact, Margaret Thatcher, the former conservative British Prime Minister, gave the most succinct answer to this question from the viewpoint of the market. In perhaps her most (in)famous quote she announced: “There is no such thing as ‘society’. There are just individuals and their families.” According to Mrs. Thatcher, there is nothing solid we can call society no group values, no collective interests society is just a bunch of individuals acting on their own.
The film also benefits greatly from the insights of Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters and arguably the founder of Occupy Wall Street as well since it was first proposed in his magazine. (He always stresses, however, that he deserves no credit.) Born in 1942, Lasn has obviously been shaped by the 60s radicalization. Like many others from this generation, he is a trenchant critic of “consumer capitalism”. Despite the sense of alienation and futility that permeates much of the commentary heard throughout the film, it concludes on an optimistic note as it shows young people occupying Wall Street.
The film frets over television addiction, stating the average American spends four hours a day in front of the boob tube. It adds that young people are particularly distracted, often using a laptop, watching TV and texting their friends on a cell phone all at the same time. As someone with a deep hatred for cell phones, or talking on the phone at all, I felt somewhat less enchained by the communications nexus. That being said, I am sure that I have the television on at least those many hours but it usually just background noise while I read or surf the Internet. Someone once described color television as having the same charm of a fish tank and that always rang true with me, especially if I have the National Geographic channel on.
On a deeper level, however, I think the basic problem is over the failure of the “heavy battalions” of American society to challenge the status quo. While the film makes much of the student rebellion of the 1960s, the example of 10 years of civil rights protests set the stage for the first big antiwar demonstrations. The idea of coming out into the streets was entirely natural by 1965, the date of the first protest.
The Black movement went into retreat in the 1970s because of an adroit combination of repression and cooptation by the ruling class. With Black Panthers being shot down left and right and hustlers like Al Sharpton getting a seat at the table, a crisis of leadership developed. It was even worse for the AFL-CIO with leaders that happily made one concession after another as the rank-and-file worker got the shaft. If the minor trade union bureaucrats who launched the Labor Party in the 1970s had the courage of their convictions to actually run candidates, fewer people would have become TV addicts, I’m sure. There is nothing like the power of a mass movement to shake people out of their doldrums.
Thank goodness that the May Day action in NYC yesterday showed signs that the old mole is on the move again.
April 14, 2012
I along with a number of other members of Workers Power in Britain, Austria and the Czech Republic have resigned from the organisation. The global capitalist crisis has posed tremendous questions for the radical left about how to go forward. We have increasingly drawn the conclusion that the historical legacy of the post-war left, in particular the Leninist-Trotskyist left, needs to be subjected to far-reaching critique and re-evaluation in light of the contemporary challenges.
The organised left is dogged by sectarianism and opportunism. There are quite literally hundreds of competing orthodoxies, with each sect promoting and defending its own, typically very narrow, conception of revolutionary theory and practice without subjecting their ideas to the critical re-evaluation which we believe is necessary if Marxism is to reach out to far wider layers.
We came to the conclusion that a method of organising exclusively focused on building specifically Leninist-Trotskyist groups prevents the socialist left from creating the kind of broad anticapitalist organisations, which can present a credible alternative to the mainstream parties.
The post 1991 world presents new challenges to the left and the workers’ movement. Marxism is no longer the natural ‘go-to politics’ of radical activists coming into the movement today. The dramatic shift to the right by social democracy and the business unionism of the trade union movement all took their toll on the capacity of the workers to fight. Now the task of regenerating a movement that can overthrow capitalism is serious one, but in a sense the left has barely begun this task.
As a step forward, in recent months we launched a call for a new anticapitalist initiative in Britain as a way of uniting sections of the left around a strategic perspective whilst emphasising the creation of a democratic space that is so urgently needed to debate and test out our slogans and tactics. We did not want to simply declare a new organisation, but to carry out patient and serious discussions with broader forces about what such an organisation should look like.
We launched this initiative whilst we were in Workers Power, and although there was agreement that such an organisation was needed, there was growing disagreement on the role of groups like Workers Power within it. This boiled down to whether we saw it as a tactic to achieve a larger Workers Power, or whether the anticapitalist organisation that came out of it would look very different; more plural, more open, much looser, but still clear on the strategic questions.
As part of this perspective we drew the conclusion that there needed to be an open, ‘blue skies’ discussion on the radical left, involving matters of theory and history, drawing on the new as well as the old, but trying to come to practical conclusions on how we might go forward today. So, we increasingly rejected the model of democratic centralism that states revolutionary organisations should conduct their debates in private and only present their conclusions to the class. While, we don’t reject democratic centralism, our conception of it is unity in action around democratically determined goals, and free and open discussion. We showed in the course of the debate that this was the norm in the revolutionary movement in the decades prior to 1917.
Another problem we encountered was the attitude – far from a problem of Workers Power alone on the post-war left – to how Marxist ideas came to be engaged with. It is to Workers Power’s credit that from its foundation it has sought to address the problems of the post-war Trotskyist left in political and ‘programmatic’ terms; the critique had power in identifying a loss of revolutionary continuity in the pre and post war years. But the way that Marxism came to be conceived as a result led to a narrowness; thinkers outside of the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Trotsky (and partially Luxemburg) axis tended to be subjected to a form of black and white critique that undermined the kind of engagement necessary for a living and evolving body of thought to develop. This naturally places constraints on critical thinking as the concern to “get it right” tends to undermine the development of an attitude that recognises that a degree of plurality in the evolution of ideas is necessary to try and uncover objective truth, something which is needed for Marxism to develop. (Paul LeBlanc makes similar points in relation to the American SWP http://links.org.au/node/2817)
Ultimately, we felt there was a conservative intransigence on a part of the majority leadership to alter course on fundamentals, so a parting of the ways became necessary.
We are committed to taking steps towards an anticapitalist organisation that is opposed to austerity, privatisation, racism, sexism, imperialist war and supports the Palestinians. We believe that mass strikes and demonstrations are needed to bring down the government. We support the building of a rank and file movement across the unions, an essential goal in the context of the pensions sell out by sections of the union movement. We are committed to working towards unity in the anticuts movement and overcoming unnecessary divisions which hinder our movement. We still believe that the working class is a crucial agent of revolutionary change, though we want to explore new and more creative ways of fusing socialist ideas with the kind of struggles that are going on today.
We have no illusions that unity can be created by simple decree, and we are aware that divisions built up over decades can be hard to break down. But we think it is necessary to build a new kind of left, one that overcomes our fragmentation, that unites the best of the (though we seek to critique these labels) new left with the old left.
As part of our commitment to the founding of a new plural and broader anticapitalist organisation we are not establishing yet another group on the left or establish a new orthodoxy in the sense of a new narrowly conceived appraisal of ‘what went wrong’ in the 20th century. While we need to think about historical questions, discuss and debate where we think the mistakes were made, this needs to inform the strategy we choose today, rather than imagining we can simply repeat the past.
Ultimately, the whole left needs to look forwards, not back. To the organisations still around today that were created in the 1950s, 1970s and more recently, all the many splits and splinters, we ask a simple question. Do you think your organisation is up to the challenges and tasks posed by the current crisis of capitalism? We do not think that any left group can honestly answer that in the affirmative which is why we all need a radical rethink.
Although we know we need mass forces to launch a new party, we are not content to merely wait for a new party to be formed by the trade unions – there is a pressing need for the radical left to take steps towards unity in the hear and now. We need an energetic and active campaign to build the kind of organisation that can bring the left into the mainstream. This anticapitalist initiative we see as being a stepping stone for something greater and not an end in itself. Galloway’s success shows what is possible, as does the support for Melenchon in France. Will the Marxists and radical left seize the initiative and prove itself capable of a radical rethink, or will we get more of the same?
We have no bad feelings towards the comrades in Workers Power. We want to work with them and other groups and individuals to build a united, plural organisation in which splits can be avoided and the inevitable differences are factored into the day to day practice of the organisation; we recognise there will be debate, see this as a good thing, and have a practical unity where we agree.
The experiences that we have from our time in Workers Power are invaluable. We were in the antiwar movement, in solidarity visits to Palestine, active in the student movement and reported from Tahrir Square during the early days of the Egyptian revolution. We have taken strike action in defence of pensions and campaigned in defence of the NHS. We learnt the foundation of our Marxist ideas. In particular, the group has played an important role in recent years in emphasising the need for a rank and file movement in the unions, when few socialist organisations took seriously the need for one, nor took practical steps in that direction.
All these experiences help to inform our current views. We believe that there is common ground for large parts of our movement, and that there is tremendous potential in the fightback against austerity to go beyond resistance to discuss new strategies. Any socialists, anticapitalists, radical trade unionists or social movement activists who are interested in discussing these ideas should get in touch and begin a dialogue with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We hope these discussions can inform the building of a healthier radical left.
There is a meeting at University London Union at 1pm on 28 April for anyone who is interested in a new anticapitalist project. We will not be establishing a new group overnight, we know it will take time and a long process of building up trust. But we need to start that process sooner rather than later. If you want to contact the new initiative then email email@example.com.
January 11, 2012
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“