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Action Not Division: Some Thoughts on Tactics for A16


Brian Dominick It’s

unfortunate that so little progress has been made, in the wake of last fall’s

Seattle/WTO actions, on the front of bridging a perceived chasm between

practicing "pure nonviolence" and "property destruction" as

appropriate tactics for massive demonstrations. On the one hand, perhaps more

people than ever are advocating property destruction as a viable and sensible

tactic, often to the extent of denouncing as “liberals” and otherwise

ridiculing those who oppose or at least refuse to advocate it. And on the other

extreme, some of those who argue against property destruction as a tactic are

focusing more energy on opposing "trashers" than on opposing the

police.

To

some extent, each side is right. Property destruction, in the form of wonton

window smashing, is not an appropriate tactic for demos like N30 and the

upcoming A16, for a host of reasons I’ll delve into in a moment. But direct and

indirect intervention in cases of property destruction is also unacceptable as

an activity in the streets.

A

group of people calling themselves "Keep the Peace" is upset because

the leadership of the "Mobilization for Global Justice" (the main

group organizing actions for April 16 and 17) have announced that "Any

affinity group organizing ‘peacekeepers’ in the traditional sense for the A16

direct action component is disregarding the consensus of the mobilization."

This has been taken as something of a threat by some, particularly the

above-mentioned Keep the Peace contingent, which is organizing autonomous

affinity groups, in part to operate as "peacekeepers" during the

direct action and civil disobedience portions of the A16 events. Keep the Peace

claims autonomous groups should have the prerogative to intervene when other

activists get out of hand.

While

the position quoted from the A16 organizers’ statement seems to have an awful

lot of vehement dissent for a "consensus," it was ostensibly arrived

at through a desire to preserve a diversity and tolerance of tactics during the

more militant parts of the actions. The position sounds very dictatorial as the

stance of organizers, and it does seem to leave affinity groups and individuals

the option of carrying out actions with harmful effects on other parties. But it

is also probably the most sensible approach, all options considered.

Keep

the Peace, as represented by an anarchist named Carol from DC, is concerned

about "protect[ing] demonstrators from outside agitators and disruptive

passerbys [sic] during the civil disobedience." Carol later clarified that

by "outside agitators" she is actually referring to black bloc

participants and others who may engage in property. I can’t think of a more

devisive term by which to refer to folks who will be, as they were in Seattle,

integral to the success of A16 as organizers and as militant activists prepared

to erect barricades and assist in civil disobedience. I have become familiar

over the years with black bloc organizers, and while we may disagree on one

particular tactic, it is without hesitation that I insist many are among the

most dedicated and capable activists and organizers I’ve ever known. Dismissing

them as "outside agitators" essentially guarantees that no

understanding will be achieved between self-proclaimed peacekeepers and those

who might smash retail store windows at actions.

Even

more disturbing on a practical level, by omission in her statement and later

responses to my queries, Carol’s group is not outwardly concerned about

protecting demonstrators from the police. Their focus is on others who share

their goals and common struggle, not on the agents of state and corporate power

who will be bent on thwarting any and all militant tactics used against their

masters on April 16 and 17. The target of our resistance should be those who

oppose our cause, not those who disagree about how to pursue it.

Why

don’t folks who feel disposed to act as "peacekeepers" of any kind

commit themselves to less divisive activities? Medics are sorely needed, and

will be thoroughly and gladly trained in the days leading up to A16. Affinity

groups who wish to keep the peace could also help contain, divert or return tear

gas canisters or protect protestors from gasses and plastic bullets, or unarrest

activists who have been captured by cops. The possibilities which might be

presented by law enforcement are rather limitless — why anyone should focus on

resisting other protestors’ actions, at risk of inflaming conflicts, is beyond

me…

At

the same time, although I don’t accept the “moral” reasons some opponents of

property destruction argue against attacking inanimate objects as a tactic, I do

wish those who are riled up to start trashing downtown DC would be a bit more

thoughtful. Morality aside, there are a number of reasons it makes no sense, or

is in fact counter-productive, to attack storefront windows and the like as

"fragile symbols of multinational capital."

For

starters, at a time when our movement needs to grow, engaging in tactics which

turn huge numbers of people off to our cause (right or wrong!) only hurts us.

The main argument against this concern is that, understandably, many of the most

oppressed are not turned on by giant puppets or privileged white students

getting arrested intentionally. Instead, some want to see or participate in more

active, militant forms of resistance.

But

standing up to cops and resisting them by any means sensible, it would seem, is

pretty militant, and a realistic common denominator of acceptable behavior among

a broad range of people in our society. Just about anyone can break a window and

run; it isn’t impressive, but cowardly. Only a strong and well-organized social

movement can resist thousands of police officers in riot gear. By working

together on common objectives — but not otherwise — we can achieve the primary

goals of the day, which should be disrupting the World Bank/IMF meetings and

propagating a coherent statement of "Enough is enough!"

There

are also some rarely-mentioned questions regarding who suffers most when a

Starbucks or McDonald’s gets attacked. It certainly isn’t the franchise owner or

the corporation, insured to the hilt for such activity (or just plain not

affected by such a brief, trickling drain from their financial pool). Instead,

it is the people who work there, mostly young people and the elderly, for

minimum wage or barely above, unable to miss a single day’s work.

Meanwhile,

corporate headquarters and government buildings are usually left unscathed by

black bloc participants who later brag about having shut down stores on which

people rely for livelihood, and in the case of McDonald’s and many other

restaurant chains, convenience for working families. How can self-proclaimed

anarchists justify destroying places that provide for people’s basic necessities

before we have constructed viable alternatives? Destroying without building is

severely counterproductive. When people are otherwise fed and employed, we can

tear it all down. But not before.

As

to the issue of attracting media attention, often cited by people who claim

Seattle wouldn’t have been covered as much as it was by the mainstream news

outlets had there not been serious vandalism, I’d like to ask on what planet

such people were watching television November 30, 1999. The "additional

coverage" by mainstream media was so blatantly biased and inaccurate, it

can’t possibly have served to inform people about the WTO or our movement

against corporate globalization. Ironically, Keep the Peace, in their argument

against property damage, reprinted a disgustingly inaccurate tirade from the NY

Times about events in Seattle (12/2/99). Each side of this debate seems to have

a very limited understanding of the situation.

If

you don’t think the networks and major dailies would have covered Seattle had

protestors not broken Starbucks’ windows, think again. The police started

rioting, firing tear gas and plastic bullets, herding and arresting

demonstrators and onlookers en masse — of course there would be coverage. There

was substantial coverage before the property destruction even began! And without

giving the media a bullshit excuse to latch onto in order to rationalize

atrocious police behavior, the coverage would have drawn sympathy and admiration

from far, far more people throughout North America.

More

useful than attacking inanimate objects which pose no immediate threat to the

day’s actions, it would seem sensible for black bloc type affinity groups to

engage in diverting police attention from those aggressively or passively

engaged in trying to shut down the streets and the meetings. Moreover, such

affinity groups could engage in all manner of offensive actions to penetrate

police lines, spontaneously construct barricades where needed, and so forth.

Remaining focused on that goal — which many black block activists began the day

with on N30 in Seattle but were themselves diverted from — would go a long way

toward ensuring the sustainability of protest, and the success of civil

disobedience.

But

short of heeding any of these practical suggestions, I hope people on all sides

of this debate will learn to respect one another’s opinions and preferences

without physically interfering in each other’s activities. Our adversary’s

favorite tactic is to divide and conquer — why would we want to achieve that

goal for them? 

Brian

will be in Washington, DC on April 16 & 17, with his affinity group, On

the Ground. He will be operating as a field medic.