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Anarchy, NonViolence, and the Seattle Demonstrations


Brian Dominick

One

of the most contentious points likely to arise out of the past week’s actions is

older than the concept of world trade itself: the question of tactics in

demonstration and direct action – in particular, violent vs. nonviolent.

The

apparent duality presented by this question, as most people seem to look at it,

is simply an illusion. Let’s dive right in using Seattle as an example. I

haven’t been able to find a single note from a reliable source which has

indicated protestors initiated any of the countless violent incidents reported

on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Which is not to say no activist, anywhere in

Seattle, engaged a police officer before s/he was engaged by the police; but in

reality, the consistent and predominant explanation has been that police

hungrily attacked protestors during countless incidents.

So

even pondering the question of holding nonviolent protests – at least in cases

where confrontation with police will be militant and escalatory – is often an

unrealistic luxury, and by now we should all be able to accept that truism.

There will often be violence, there will not be nonviolence.

Yes,

this seems like an elementary fact which doesn’t bear on the "real"

questions: What is the role of the protestor? Should s/he be violent or

nonviolent? Of course, there are no objectively true answers to this. We each

arrive at our own conclusions in given situations. But I’ve been finding myself

on seemingly two separate sides of the argument with regard to the happenings in

Seattle, in two separate kinds of discussion.

In

one case, someone is arguing that the protestors – at least some of them – have

been too violent in Seattle, that property destruction and violent resistance to

police is unwarranted, that it negatively affects the image of the

demonstrations more generally. Folks positing this argument are sometimes

pacifists who feel violence is always wrong, no matter who employs it in what

context; or they don’t oppose violence per se, but they think it is senseless in

contemporary situations. While I’m sympathetic to this opinion, I find it

oversimplified.

This

week I’ve found myself verbally defending some of those who have engaged in

violence against police or property. I saw one video clip in which protestors

clearly threw debris at cops who were firing rubber bullets and tear/pepper gas

into crowds of demonstrators. I have trouble seeing such actions as anything but

a very instinctual self-defense reaction. Put in the context of large assemblies

consisting mainly of peace-seeking protestors (with little peace to be found),

the acts become objectively questionable, as they have residual effects on

others. But it’s hard to condemn the reaction as a "lack of

discipline" among radicals. Maybe that’s precisely what it is, but it’s

tough to judge, not being there myself. This, of course, hasn’t stopped most of

the population from forming its own opinions.

That

popular opinion is of chief concern of most progressive critics of the more

extreme tactics employed in Seattle. They don’t want massive demos to be

tarnished by the actions of a small minority. I too am concerned about public

opinion of our movement activity. But the real blame for these disproportionate

public perceptions must be put on the shoulders of the media. We should be

focusing more on congratulating – indeed lauding – the incredible discipline and

solidarity displayed by a vast majority of demonstrators. Why is so much time

being spent, even on the Left, pointing out and criticizing the actions of a

few?

Let’s

look at how that minority perceive their own actions, and the context in which

they are behaving. The generalization that most folks engaging in violent

resistance and property damage are self-proclaimed "anarchists" is

probably true. It’s also likely the case that many of these folks lack a

sensible understanding of protest strategy and the social context in which their

actions take place, implying they’re anarchists in name only. As an anarchist

long critical of these attitudes among some of the more rebellious and militant

tendencies within the contemporary youth anarchist scene, I understand the

frustrations of having to deal with certain folks, often referred to

inaccurately but not altogether irresponsibly as "nihilists." A lot of

them, especially a particular crew from Eugene, OR, according to all accounts

(including their own), are individualist anarchists who aren’t really

demonstrating for the same reasons as the rest of us. And, to be blunt, they

probably don’t belong there, even in this most inclusive of events.

But

there are others, many radicals who have reached a point in their own, personal

development, where increased militancy seems natural. I am probably among these,

at least in spirit. In too many cases, this is not tempered by a realization of

where most Left activists and movements are at right now, at least in North

America. Just because I may be "ready" and willing to escalate a given

confrontation with police, that doesn’t mean everyone around me is. (I learned

this the hard way years ago.) Sometimes our level of passion and willingness to

risk harm or arrest are simply not matched by those behind us. The problem being

our actions have repercussions for others in the vicinity, including passersby

who don’t realize they’re involved in the struggle.

Another

question that’s arising is the actual value of confronting police. It’s been

pointed out regularly and responsibly with regard to the Seattle events, that

police are not supposed to be the adversary of the day. In actions against

neoliberal globalization (and most other issues, too), our real target is

elites, not working class cops. Unfortunately, police tend to form the elites’

second line of defense (the first being the mass media outlets).

What

happened in Seattle on November 30, then, is of tremendous significance. Without

using any violence whatsoever, activists on the frontlines demonstrated more

than just their opinions vis-à-vis world trade: they also demonstrated how to

immobilize an entire police force. Huge groups of dedicated protestors

effectively shut down the entire convention, using their bodies. The police

response and ensuing melee (let alone the residual tear gas affecting delegates,

not just demonstrators) further restricted access to the convention site.

The

media are dutifully reporting the Seattle PD was "forced to respond"

using violent tactics – the protestors, we’re told, drove the police to this

kind of response, still remarkably restrained. What really happened, though, is

protestors forced the mayor and SPD to choose between popular assembly and elite

assembly. They made the entirely predictable choice, but make no mistake, that

was the actual choice. Once that decision was made, the only logical conclusion

was to employ excessively violent tactics and an impressive, sub-lethal arsenal.

But the important decision was to favor the establishment over the people,

whatever the risk.

So

we’re back to that question of violence, and I think the question was

essentially answered on the streets of Seattle, for three days running.

Protestors initiate confrontations and remain nonviolent, at least until agents

of the state unleash violence against them. There is obviously still a long way

to go before tactically planned responses can be formulated and adhered to by

large bodies of civil disobedience activists. The divisions and confusion

experienced this week show ample room for improvement by organizers and

individual participants. But the model has been presented to us, by tens of

thousands, in a way not seen here since the Vietnam era. Preparation and

discipline are key. Whether the response to police attacks is passive,

militantly nonviolent, or aggressively violent, the important part is to

demonstrate cohesion, consciousness and solidarity.

As

for the anarchy factor, it’s about time some anarchists learn a few lessons.

First, one’s degree of "radicalness" is hardly determined by their

behavior at a demonstration. Blanket condemnation of people as

"liberals" or "reformists" for avoiding hazardous

confrontation is inappropriate. Second, one’s behavior at a demonstration

doesn’t say fuck-all about their views on whether the state needs to be smashed

or not; nor do one’s views of what should happen eventually, in a revolution,

necessarily inform how they carry themselves in a demonstration. Wearing

all-black clothes and balaclavas covering our faces does more to intimidate

fellow protestors and isolate us from them than it does anything positive. If

you don’t want cops to identify you, don a wig and Groucho glasses. If you want

to intimidate cops, do it by building and participating in mass movements, not

by dressing or acting like they do.

 

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