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Archive for July, 2010

I haven’t posted here for some time – not because there is nothing to say, but simply because I’ve been busy and mostly concentrating my energies on local community-building projects. I’ve said nothing here about police repression at the G20/ G8, about the latest from Israel, the attacks on Libby Davies for her comments and the entirely-expected-but-no-less-infuriating-for-that response of the New Democrats. And even now, I don’t really feel like writing anything. But I have to, because I’m feeling pretty frustrated and concerned at the moment with a tendency I’m seeing more and more in local activism.

Last Friday, we were at Rhizome for a report-back on the G20, an event put on by Resist! Communications, Upping the Anti, the Vancouver Media Co-op. This was billed as both a G/20 reportback and an alt-media/legal defense fundraiser.

I like Resist!. I like Upping the Anti. And I am all about generating support for the G20/ G8 arrestees. I gotta say though, it’ll be a long time before you get me out to any event associated with the Media Co-op again. Not because a co-operatively run media isn’t a great fucking idea, not because there aren’t good people working with the media co-op, but because it has increasingly become a venue for hostile and hateful attacks upon some long-time and committed activists and upon anyone who questions the tactics and strategies  of the ‘black bloc’.

Now, I have my own thoughts on the black bloc and the diversity of tactics debate. I always have felt there is a role for that kind of political engagement, but not without recognizing that it is wide open to criticism because it too often devolves into vandalism for vandalism’s sake and too rarely comes out of any coherent strategy to support and engage with other movements and the broader public. But I’m not getting into that at the moment. Today I’m thinking about something that has emerged from that debate – a censorious and a quite vicious attack from a small group of people on anyone and everyone who puts forward a critique of the black bloc.  Derisive and offensive, this response has become all too common in recent months and is entirely incompatible with any meaningful resistance or community-building.

The Rhizome event opened with a film, available here for anyone who wants to watch it. I won’t bother with a deep analysis of the film because it’s a pretty juvenile piece of work with no real analytical content. Not to mention its having nothing whatsoever to do with movement-building. Watch it through. There’s a whole lot of excitement about the smashy-smash, a claim that the windows falling is “the sound of capitalism smashing”, and a string of attacks on other activists who expressed various levels of concern with the tactics of the black bloc or impact of those tactics on the protests more generally.

In the film, Derrick O’Keefe, a long-time Vancouver activist, is ridiculed for his outspoken position on black bloc tactics, even though he has spent the weeks since the G/20 garnering support for arrestees. Judy Rebick – one of the country’s leading feminists – is subjected to demeaning and sexist ridicule. And Naomi Klein, who stood up forcefully and publicly to defend No One Is Illegal organizer Harsha Walia in the face of criminal charges, was accused of having finally drunk the cop kool-aid.

At this point in the film, I should have just walked out of the room. Not because there isn’t criticism to be made – particularly of Rebick’s suggestion that the police should have arrested vandals early and let the rest of the protest go on. But because the tone of the whole film was one of disrespect, snitch-jacketing, and just plain abuse. This was no analysis of the protests, of the interaction between mainstream labour and non-governmental organizations, radicals within those movements, and the black bloc, of how they inform and very often rely on and benefit from one another. This was no engagement with those who did frame their criticism of police repression with a nod to order – whether due to real conviction, or rhetorical or political reasons. This was no call to those on the mainstream left to understand diversity of tactics with a parallel recognition and respect for the tactics others employ due to their own personal, organizational or logistical boundaries.

It was little more than a screed intended to send the message that critics of the black bloc are sell-outs, traitors, class enemies and – in keeping with the bullshit machismo of the film – pussies. And while much of the crowd seemed distinctly uneasy, those this sophomoric chest-pounding played to took only one thing away – encouragement to further dismiss other activists and a general indication that snitch-jacketing, slander, and perhaps even assault are good’ol revolutionary traditions and the mark of real radicals.

If it’s not clear yet, I was fucking disgusted.

Today I woke up, checked my email, and came across a blog post by Franklin Lopez, aka the Stimulator, maker of the fine piece of cinematography we were treated to at Rhizome and increasingly a spokesperson of the Vancouver Media Co-op. The post is here.

To be fair, this post is not nearly as offensive in tone as the film. It begins with a personal story, which though it doesn’t contribute much to the critical analysis of the piece, does speak to motivation and why issues of prisons and policing are so important- on a personal as well as a political level. And it does make arguments, some of which we can and should engage with seriously. Ultimately, though, its purpose is the same – to identify as ‘enemies’ activists who are critical of the black bloc, to discredit as irrelevant anyone working with organizations of the traditional left, and to implicitly threaten those who have publicly disagreed with the author –  even where Lopez needs to distort the truth in order to do so. (In the case of Derrick O’Keefe, for example, Lopez accuses him of publicly calling for people to identify members of the black bloc who may have been engaged in some smashy-smash and cop-car burnings. The tweet he refers to is in fact an in-joke that circulated among a small group of activists. Nowhere and at no time, that I am aware of, has Derrick ever called for arrests. He’s been pretty damn clear that he thinks BB tactics are at best unhelpful and at worst actually destructive to movement building, but that ain’t the same as working with the cops.)

You can read the piece for yourself and make what conclusions you will. You can watch the video above and do the same. But I could not let it all pass without saying something. So let me say it, and I’ll be sure to give plenty of reasons to attack me for those who are looking.

I’m a white-bread, straight Canadian male. with too much education for his own good. I’m also employed as a union rep, and get paid well for it,  for about the most liberal kind of organization you’ll ever come across. So, I’m prime for the pickings if you’re looking to dismiss all this as bullshit liberal leftism.

I’m also an anarchist and a Marxist, and I’ve been around workers’ organizations and the left my entire life. Let me define that a bit more clearly – I’ve been around multiple lefts my entire life. From at-first-glance-apolitical neighbourhood gardening groups to at-best-social-democratic trade unions to socialist organizations and anarchist networks. And because of that, I think resistance and community and struggle and anti-capitalism are pretty broad and complex things that almost-always contain within them some of the best and worst of what makes us human. And because of that, because our struggle is one of people in relationship against machines of discipline and control, I think those broad and complex movements always and everywhere contain, as well, pieces of the revolution and pieces of reaction.

My neighbourhood gardens group is made of random people who happen to live in the several blocks around me. Some renters, some home-owners. Families, couples, single folks. Professors, psychologists, gardeners, tradespeople, parents and home-keepers. Radicals, social democrats, liberals, and perhaps in the mix we’ve even got a Tory voter or two. I know for certain we have some non-voters – not conscientious objectors, but just people who don’t think the political has anything to do with their lives and want nothing more than to go to work, come home and have a safe park to take their kids. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these neighbours condemn any disruptive protest, black bloc or not, and pretty much of all of them would almost certainly encourage the arrest of someone who threw a brick through a window or spray-painted a car.

These are the folks who live in neighbourhoods across the city. And they don’t want nothing to do with what we call resistance.  But there’s a whole lot more to it than that. These are also people who want to tear up our concrete streets to grow food and flowers. They voted, unanimously, to work collectively to build streetside gardens, and to make those gardens explicitly a public good, a commons, open to anyone and everyone who passes by. They watch out for each other. Across lines of race or ethnicity, income or occupation, political or religious belief, they watch out for each other. They want to know their neighbours. They want their kids to play together. They want to develop common places to gather. They want to share food and eat together. My neighbourhood gardening group is an apolitical and pretty random assortment of what calls itself Canada’s middle class. My neighbourhood gardening group is also in its own way, a little Bolivarian circle. A small example of what stateless organizing looks like. A reminder the world is way bigger than the left I know so well and that the revolution is not getting made anywhere anytime anyhow without average folks like this.

The union I work for is a union of the most highly-privileged workers you can imagine. Most of them don’t consider themselves workers at all, in fact. But at the end of the day, they are a union like any other, for the good and the bad. Unions, like my gardening group, represent a cross-section of the population, folks from a wide range of places who are brought together only by the fact that they work for the same employer. Some may make 5 or 6 times what others do for work that you might find it hard to tell apart. There is no political consensus. There is no fundamental unity of purpose. A union is a collection of people who happen to share some employment characteristics in common and who every now and then find common purposes to overcome their differences. But mostly it is an organization, a business, to collect dues in exchange for some legal and professional services. An insurance-scheme, if you like. In one part of my life, I devote my time to pretty harsh critiques of the model, to exploding the myth that the union as an organization has anything whatsoever to do with the relationship we call the working class or the struggles that emerge from that relationship. In another I represent that organization, I write its agreements, I defend its decisions, I shuttle its grievances through the legal process, I limit the expectations of its members to what is feasible and practical within the confines of the system. Contradictory? You bet. But as different as these two positions vis a vis the union are, they are also both critically important. The union is just another business, and sometimes just another boss. The union is also counselor, friend, convener of social gatherings, educator, and defender. Sometimes I can’t stand it, the bureaucracy, realpolitik, the mealy-mouthed fence-sitting. Other times I see workers walk out, sit down, fight like hell to defend a co-worker from discipline. Sometimes I see the unions get 20,000 people on the streets. And I know that matters.

And then there’s socialists and the left as we broadly understand the term. Anti-capitalists of different varieties, mostly vested in the creation of a better state rather than the abolition of such. Sometimes they stand on corners and flog crappy newspapers no one but their friends will ever read. They fight and bicker among themselves one day and show up to protest together the next. But sometimes, too, they pick up a gun to take on the paramilitaries that enforce corporate rule in their communities, or endure torture in jail cells because they formed a collective of peasant women or organized a strike of Coca-Cola workers. Or they go on the news to call for inquiries into police repression, trying to walk the line between the always-required distancing from violent protest while keeping the focus on the cops in some small hope that an inquiry will keep real issues on the agenda for another day or week, just long enough for a few more people to pay attention. Or they steal time and resources from the employer to print up leaflets for a rally against homelessness or keep their email networks informed about the latest police intrusion onto native land. Or they go bankrupt defending themselves in the courts against charges of hate speech or libel or god knows what because they won’t shut up about Israel’s apartheid machine.

And the anarchists are equally diverse. Defenders or disavowers of the black bloc, brick-throwers and extreme pacificsts who deem even property damage violence.  Some wage war on developers who tear up what remains of the forest, some hide underground to strike back quiet and silent in the only way they can think to do it. Some work standard office gigs and keep their opinions to themselves for fear of losing their jobs, some work for unions or NGOs and don’t mind talking about the strange dynamics of it all. Some come out of years in jail and just want a place to live, a job to pay the bills, and friends to laugh and talk with. Mostly they organize in their communities alongside neighbourhood groups, unions, socialists of all stripes. Mostly they build community gardens, form radical tech collectives, organize their workplaces, volunteer in prisons or youth detention centres. Above all else, they organize, struggle, and demand – a world beyond capitalism, a world beyond the state, communities of care and respect and mutual aid where we grow our own food and make our own beer and spend far less time working and far more time becoming human.

So here’s the thing I ask myself. Where do these kinds of videos and blog posts fit into all this? Where do the derision, threats and posturing of the film find a home? Nowhere. Because this kind of abusive attack has nothing in common with community building, solidarity or with relationships of kindness and mutual aid. It has nothing in common, period. It is anti-commons. It is arrogant and divisive and has no interest in talking about ideas, in finding out where the points of shared experience or shared interest are, in learning new things and changing one’s opinion. It cannot build any alternative to capital or the state because it cannot build the relationships of trust on which any alternative must be based. Anti-commons, anti-people, anti-revolutionary. Well, that ain’t any kind of resistance movement I want to be part of.

I wrote a little piece up after the Olympics, after the February Heart Attack action, on this site. I was a little dismissive myself, in that piece, I confess. But I was frustrated the snitch-jacketing and attacks on critical activists that had already begun at that time, because I did want to talk about these issues, to engage in the conversation. I wanted to do so because I think radicalism is necessary. Voices that push us further and push the cops and force the issue and refuse to settle for less than everything – these are abso-fucking-lutely critical, and I value them. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean anything goes. And it certainly doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to mount verbal or physical assaults on those who disagree or raise questions. We need those radical voices to recognize there is something just as precious, just as inspiring, in the block party to plant gardens and share seeds. We need those radical voices to show up when hotel workers strike and say all they want is a fair collective agreement even though we all know there’s no such thing. We need those radical voices in spaces of welcoming and respect.

I know that the vast majority of the anarchist and communist communities do all this, and work hard to maintain links to real people in their day to day struggles and to small-scale efforts at community-building. I see it every single day. But I also know that, for the past several months, we on the left – whatever left that is – have allowed a few voices to dominate our conversations, to set the terms of debate, to turn us from resistance-building to name-calling. And I know that folks across the spectrum are getting pretty fucking tired of it. There is nothing revolutionary about personal attacks on other activists. There is nothing revolutionary about deriding the women and men who go to work, do their jobs, pay their union dues and just want a fair deal. The revolution is made in social relationships, in hands together and meals shared. Yeah, we argue. Yeah, we bicker and fight. And our tactics are diverse. Sometimes we write letters to politicians cause our allies ask us to write letters to politicians and sometimes we blow up pipelines that are carrying poisons to our communities. But whatever we do and whenever we do it,  we ain’t making any revolution by ourselves. We’re making it with every relationship we build, and by demonstrating that the opposite of an alienating and hateful capitalism is not an alienating and hateful rage but a respectful, caring, and welcoming community of resistance.

All I know is that I want my radical movement to be about all the best of anarchism. Sadly, what I’m seeing of late is reminiscent of all the worst of Stalinism.

Oh, I should note that there are other voices also speaking in defense of black bloc tactics, but with far greater sophistication, far more of a critical eye, and a tone that combines solid argument with respect. For an example of this, see another Media Co-op blogger’s March piece here.  Yes, it is possible to take a position forcefully without denigrating all those who disagree. Thanks, Oshipeya, for the contribution to the discussion. A conversation much worth carrying on.

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