This is a response to a post-Seattle debate troubling many folks regarding movement tactics. As a preface, it goes without saying, I hope, that we all understand that as far as violence is concerned, the violent parties in
I have been involved in demonstrations in which trashing grew organically from the event’s logic and intentions–for example, clearly enunciated assaults on particular draft boards or ROTC buildings. I have also been in demonstrations where trashing was counter-productive and irresponsible–for example endangering innocent folks and diluting the message and solidarity of the event. Which was true in
I remember all too vividly some sixties demonstrations in which over-eager dissenters would taunt and otherwise provoke police and then disappear, leaving others, often utterly unprepared families, to bear the brunt of the response. I was always far more impressed with the courage of knowing folks who could easily see what was coming and escape if they wished to, but who instead used their talents to help protect their less well prepared co-demonstrators, then with the self preservation instincts of those who brought down repression and then fled the scene. In the sixties, such trashers’ behavior was caught up in a set of mistaken expectations and hopes. I suspect that the same holds nowadays.
Imagine that the various contingents in
Does this mean, however, that there cannot be a time and place for confrontation and property damage? No, it doesn’t mean that at all, at least not in my view. Instead, the time and place for such behavior is when it will meet widespread approval and increase the power of protest rather than providing an excuse for folks to tune out or become hostile to protest. Up to the trashing, anarchists in
In other words, what tactics at an event are warranted and will help a movement grow and strengthen, and what tactics at an event are unwarranted and will hurt a movement and its cause, is very rarely a matter of unyielding principles but depends almost always on how the event has been portrayed and organized, who is at it, what their expectations and consciousness are, what the event’s prospects are for impacting social outcomes, and how the event and the tactics are likely to be perceived by and to impact non-involved constituencies. Regrettably, once activists enter a trashing mindset, they most often don’t care about such calculations. To trash is good, they feel, exuberantly, because, after all, the targets are criminal corporations and damaging them is a step toward demystifying and destroying them. Anyone against that must be pro-corporate, they announce. The mindset isn’t about discriminating the impact of possible tactics, but only about what target to hit. But it is not the acme of wisdom to deduce that McDonalds and Nike are better targets than random passersby or a family grocery store. As far as Seattle is concerned, despite other fantastically valuable contributions to the event, for a relatively minuscule number of participants to impose on a massive demonstration tactics contrary to its definition was undemocratic behavior that should be transcended in the future.
The events in Seattle had, before any trashing occurred, already entirely hamstrung the WTO. They had already evidenced militant creativity and creative organization and knowledge. They had already begun to generate new allegiances and ties among diverse constituencies. They had already combined many levels of creative and militant tactics in a mutually supportive mix. Speeches at rallies already in many instances made the obvious leaps from opposing free trade to opposing free markets, and from opposing global profiteering to opposing capitalism per se. The ground was laid for the work we all now need to do. The addition of trashing had no positive effects. It did not win useful visibility that would otherwise have been absent. It did not enlarge the number of folks participating or empathizing with the demonstration. It did not cause more substantive information to be conveyed either in the mainstream or on the left. It did not respect much less enlarge democracy. What it did do, instead, was (a) divert attention from the real issues, (b) provide a pretext for repression which would otherwise have been unequivocally seen as crushing legitimate dissent, and (c) and arguably most important, cause many to feel that dissent is an unsympathetic undertaking in which instead of actors respecting one another, some, at least, feel that they have the right to undemocratically violate the intentions and desires of most others.
Just so we are clear: again, the issue isn’t is trashing per se good or bad. Suppose that the trashers hadn’t embarked on breaking windows but had become a support group for those suffering police assaults, rallying spirit and protecting bodies. Suppose that hundreds and then thousands more students and workers had joined the civil disobedience efforts. Suppose that the state had used gas and charging cops repeatedly to break up such efforts. And suppose in this context a good part of the city’s population and of the "audience" around the country and a large majority of the constituencies in Seattle to demonstrate felt solidarity with the law-breaking demonstrators. Now imagine, in this context, that the police charged and folks didn’t run, but instead suddenly stood their ground. More, suppose they then turned and decided it was time to push the police back. Imagine that this led to battles, and then to cars turned over, barricades built, and so on. The property damage by protesters in such massive melees would dwarf anything committed by the trashers in Seattle and it would no doubt extend beyond corporate targets and damage even the property of innocents. Some would say this couldn’t possibly be to the good, but I would say, instead, that as described this would have a completely different flavor and logic from the trashing in Seattle — and would expand rather than diminish the involved movements and constituencies. There is therefore a judgment call in the use of tactics.
Sometimes a tactic is wise, other times the same tactic is mistaken. What was wrong about the political folks who self-consciously trashed in Seattle was that (1) despite their other genuine and valuable contributions to the events, regarding trashing their judgment was horribly faulty. And (2) they egocentrically thought that their judgment alone was sufficient justification for them to dramatically violate norms accepted by tens of thousands of other demonstrators.
Changing society isn’t a matter of breaking windows, it is a process of developing consciousness and vehicles of organization and movement, and of then applying these to win gains that benefit deserving constituencies and create conditions for still further victories, leading to permanent institutional change. Cultivating movement coherence, trust, and solidarity — not just in a small affinity group but far more widely — is a big part of this agenda. Coherence, trust, and solidarity are not furthered when small groups undemocratically violate the agenda of massive demonstrations to pursue their private inclinations, even when the small group has a plausible case for its preferences, unlike in this instance.
The fact that corporations are so vile that attacking them is warranted if it will do good, doesn’t mean they are so vile that attacking them is warranted if it will do harm. When I was a college student organizing against the Vietnam War I used to appear in front of very large and animated audiences, give long talks, and then field questions. It was a tumultuous time and I was often asked, for example, "would you burn down the school library if it would end the war?" My reply always took more or less this form — "What moral midget wouldn’t burn down a library to save a million lives? Of course I would, in an instant. But there is no connection whatsoever between burning a library and helping the victims of U.S. imperialism in Indochina, nor is there any connection between burning a library and altering the fabric of our own society so that the U.S. no longer engages in such pursuits. Worse, such behavior would have exactly the contrary impact, benefiting those committing the vile bombing. Can we now please get on to something serious such as how to communicate effectively to new constituencies about the ills of the war, and how to build sustained and serious resistance to it, and leave the posturing and baiting behind?"
Back then, it was often very brilliant, well-trained, and highly capable minds that drifted into Weatherman and other such formations. What was always quite notable was that these individuals could engage carefully, critically, and caringly in many domains, but reverted to odd leaps of faith and fancy regarding their out-of-touch lifestyle and "activism" choices. I really hope we do not have to witness and suffer a replay.
The events in Seattle were stupendously successful in bringing the WTO into the awareness of people in the U.S. and all over the world, in making clear to tens of millions that there is great opposition and therefore that there is something here to look into and have an opinion on, and in laying seeds for further effective activism of many diverse and powerful constituencies willing to respect and relate to one another, to multiple agendas, and to diverse tactical options. This was all achieved, however, not via the trashing, but in spite of it.
Some of the pronouncements of defenders of the trashing remind me of a very brilliant and eloquent friend of mine, who came to my apartment one 1969 night, about 2 AM, and with three or four others snuck in and said "We are the Vietcong, we need a place for the night…the revolution is imminent, we are underground, don’t mind us, go back to sleep. Wake to a new society." They had as excuse for their delirium that they hadn’t done just one demonstration, but had been enmeshed in full-time activism for years. Their environment was almost exclusively their friends in Weatherman and they had all lathered themselves into a well motivated but utterly out of touch turmoil of hope, rage, desire, paranoia, anticipation, and abstract rationalization that was so divorced from reality as to render them, so long as the mindsets persisted, virtually useless as positive agents of social change. These were in many cases the best minds and best hearts of my generation. So please note: those who read this essay or others about Seattle or who were there and are angry at the political people who trashed–do not make the callous and ignorant mistake of thinking the trashers were by nature anti-political, uncommitted, insensitive, or unsympathetic, much less police agents. Life is not so simple. It isn’t the case that those you disagree with are always in some way abhorrent. These are overwhelmingly movement people, indeed some of our best movement people. For those who were involved or supported the trashing to sharply disparage those who didn’t, or vice versa, isn’t going to get anyone anywhere useful. There is misunderstanding on both sides, but the distance to unity and progress is much less than the distance was between "turtles" and "teamsters" before Seattle. We all ought to be able to quickly bridge that gap and agree on the broad logic of how to assess tactics — if not to agree on every judgment about every single specific tactic, of course — and especially on how to abide collective norms at our demonstrations. This accomplished we can move on to Philadelphia, NYC, SF, Chicago, Denver, Miami, LA, Boston, Cleveland, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit…in unity and without fear of one another.
I hope those who did trash won’t take these words as disparagement of your potentials and aspirations. I hope you will seriously consider, instead, that perhaps with the best intentions you are mistakenly repeating one part of sixties movement history–the saddest and least functional part–and will in reaction rise above the temptations and confusions that bedeviled many of the best of my generation.