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Posts Tagged ‘Olympics’

Tactical Considerations

The apoc-olympics have hit Vancouver, and many good folks have been organizing protest and resistance for a long time leading up to this.  Late last week the real action began, with several opportunities to express our collective rage at this spectacle of capitalism in our communities and the legacy of stolen land, repression, heightened security and debt that the big show leaves in its wake.

We had some awesome actions, my personal fave being the relatively spontaneous gathering on Commercial Drive to prevent the torch relay from parading through the streets in one of Vancouver’s centres of resistance, immediately after another and equally successful action in the downtown eastside. We were a couple of hundred on the Drive, ranging from folks in full-on black-bloc gear to street performers to union folks to high school kids to moms with strollers. And it was awesome.

Then more protest, much discussion, many plans, and a crowd of thousands on the streets of downtown Vancouver on Friday night, our own gathering of resistance to contest the opening ceremonies of capital’s great circus. So good to be back in a throng, so good to see the diversity and scope of this movement, so good to see some fight on that kind of scale once again.

But now it is Saturday morning that is getting all the attention. A protest quite explicitly intended to provide an opportunity for those who wanted more direct action, more direct confrontation, to take to the streets. This was to be a space  for what we call diversity of tactics. Me? I was all for it, and though I stayed home with the family, having previously made the decision together that we weren’t up for that kind of action this time round, I was certainly hoping it would be a success. Whatever that means.

Now, we’ve all seen the news, mainstream and alternative. Some folks in the streets, blocking traffic. Some windows of the corporate sponsors smashed. Lines of cops, arrests, and a few people charged with pretty minor offenses – mischief mostly, and one guy with brandishing a weapon cause he had a bike chain. Whatever.

But I have been thinking about this scene a lot lately, because my reaction is at odds with many others in my community. Because not only can I not see it as any kind of success, but I have also found myself entirely unsympathetic to the calls for support that followed the arrests. Rather, I watched the Saturday action shaking my head, thinking this was a pointless exercise and wondering why spraying-painting cars and smashing a few windows would pass as political action in this context, let alone be in any way helpful. Then, after the cops moved in, I found it really difficult to be responsive to the outrage and calls for solidarity, instead thinking, “OK, there were arrests – what the fuck did you expect?” and “Hmm,  arrests, yes, some take-downs, yes. But nothing like what cops are capable of. They looked menacing with their automatic weapons, to be sure, but actually seem to have had a pretty controlled strategy. The cops are learning about playing to the media. Maybe use a provocateur or two, but generally just wait til one or two people do something stupid and use that as a legitimate excuse to shut them down and haul them off. Smart on the cops. Looks like they won this one.”

So I’m thinking about diversity of tactics. I’m thinking about struggle and what it means to resist across sectors, across actions, across the wide range of engagement we can imagine. And I’m thinking that I am not satisfied with either of the responses I’ve most often heard in the wake of Saturday. I’m thinking that most folks who have commented – whether critical of the action or supportive of it – are missing the crucial point: that tactics flow from strategy.

Voices from the boardrooms of the union and NGO community – Outrageous, criminal behaviour, these hoodlums have no place in our movement and should be ashamed of themselves. We’ll have nothing to do with direct action. This is an embarassment and we’ll be first to condemn it.

Voices from many in my community – Outrageous, the cops are brutal, this was legitimate protest and how dare anyone criticize the brave young women and men who put something fierce behind their words, who made our rage apparent for all to see.  How dare the state criminalize them, how dare the cops arrest them, how dare those others on the left condemn them for their fight.

And y’know what? I don’t care for either response.

I’m no pacifist. I have no objection to actions designed to confront, designed to provoke a reaction. I have no moral judgment against property damage, or even violence for that matter, if the context is right. But that doesn’t mean anything goes in any circumstance. Rather, it means that everything from letter-writing to peaceful protest to blockades to armed resistance may have its place, and how and when we engage depends on who we are, where are, and what we’re trying to achieve. But mostly it means that all of us, no matter where we fall on the action spectrum, recognize that our resistance is part of something broader and seek to respect alternate ways of organizing and struggling.  But all of us, too, need to act with some clarity of intention, and whatever tactics we engage in need to flow from an understanding of the movement overall and a strategy for moving toward our objectives.

Does that mean rules? No. Does that mean proscribed agreement? No. But something that we can actually comprehend as resistance would be nice, wouldn’t it?  I’m missing what was accomplished here, or what anyone even hoped to accomplish. And if I’m missing it, I figure there’s no way in hell the general public is getting it, and no way in hell most of our allies are, either. No, I’m not complaining that breaking some windows discredits the movement as a whole. There is a time for pushing boundaries to shift the political terrain. And I’m not surprised that some people wanted to break windows. There is a time for the unleashing of rage, pure and simple. However, I am finding it really hard to see where the strategy was here, and that is leading me to look at it all and think, “Huh. A couple of people spoiling for a fight, apparently, and nothing more. I can’t see the link to the struggle. And so I can’t muster a hell of alot of support for you now. Sorry.”

I wonder: is this just a ‘grow up and act responsible’ response I am having, indicative of some increasing conservatism? I don’t think it’s that simple. But it is true that to some extent I am less willing to accept the complaining now and more inclined to say, “buck up and take some fucking responsibility’. Not responsibility as in ‘don’t engage in such tactics’. But responsibility to do so when and how it makes sense, with a reasonable notion of one’s overall goals and one’s target and some work to make sure that there’s a point to the action – that it resonates as politics rather than random flailing about for attention. And responsibility, too, for the consequences.

Cops are the armed force of the state. We know this. They are an institution of state violence. That is what they do. So if you choose to confront the cops, and they react with violence, it seems a bit disingenuous to react with surprise and outrage. How did you expect them to respond? They’re cops! I mean, if you confront the state, the state comes in and arrests you and uses some force to do it – that is only to be expected. So, when that happens, you can respond in a different ways. One is what I’m seeing in this instance – “Outrageous, how dare they, we have done nothing wrong and the cops are brutes and nothing more! Demand our freedom, demand that we be recognized as victims of the security state!” Or, alternatively: “Yes, we broke the law. Yes, we engaged in X action. We did so for the following reasons, and we will continue to do so because we believe that confrontation achieves X and we are prepared to face the consequences. We are not victims. We engage with full understanding of what we are doing, with a clear purpose, and we are accountable to our communities and our allies.” That’s a very different response. That’s a response I can weigh, consider, and respect. But I haven’t heard much of it.

Now, to be fair, a statement has been released to try to articulate motivation and strategy for the action on Saturday. And some of the points made line up 100% with my own thoughts on this. Yes, the emphasis on a few broken windows downplays the daily violence – economic and otherwise – experienced by thousands in this city every day. Yes, attacks on property and attacks on human life are very different things, and we need to recognize that. Yes, the security apparatus in this city has indeed made it a city under siege in many respects, and there is a value to confronting that apparatus for this reason alone. But as much as I appreciate this, my questions on the strategic value of it all linger. Perhaps the purpose was indeed to prove that the community will not be cowed by state violence, and that no amount of security can stop resistance. OK. Valid point. But I don’t think that message was sent at all. And in the larger context of the anti-Olympics organizing – i.e  the organization of protest to draw attention to the very real issues in this city and the hugely negative impacts of the Games – did the actions accomplish anything? I’m doubtful. They didn’t draw any more attention to the issues at hand, but instead gave the media a spectacle of criminality rather than helping to highlight and build support for the motivations of resistance. The action didn’t successfully communicate a point of connection with community resistance more generally, the way the Drive gathering did on Friday morning – which included a significant black bloc contingent, by the way. And if what occurred was in whole or in part a response to concrete police provocation – which is critical to make some headway in the media war that follows such actions – then that has not come out even in the participant’s own statements so far as I can see.

So, I’m left wondering what was achieved, really? Did it really prove anything about the community fightback? Or did it simply appear – whatever the motivation of the individuals themselves – that a few people smashed windows just cause they wanted to smash windows? Methinks the latter. And so, while I’m fine with property damage as a tactic in struggle, I’m not really all that convinced that what went down here was anything more than a few people playing at being radical. I may well be wrong in some objective sense. And I am almost certainly wrong in the minds of many of those who were there. But whatever their motivations were, an action needs to build the momentum of struggle, to resist in ways that engender more and greater resistance in future. And individual acts of vandalism just don’t do that. Period. And – giving folks the benefit of the doubt –  actions that intend to be meaningful but only appear as individual acts of vandalism to others? They don’t do it either. They fail as political actions.

I was thinking about all this today as I came up to work on the bus. I was thinking about direct action in the context of Canada, and whether I would react differently in other circumstances or whether I’m just going soft. And the best example I can come up with of direct action that works in this province today is the Encana bomber.

Over the last couple of years someone or some group of someones has been targeting the Encana natural gas pipeline in northern BC, setting off a series of explosions to challenge the corporation’s intrusion in the area. That’s some serious direct action. That’s some serious confrontation with the state and capital. And  I am hugely sympathetic, and I have a hell of a lot of respect for the anti-Encana actions, though I have no idea who’s behind them or what the specific moral or philosophical drivers are for those actions. But the Encana bombings have the following going for them: they are targeted; they are strategic actions that take place in the context of a larger goal and are always directly connected to that goal; each action communicates clearly what it seeks to achieve, why it is directed where it is, who it intends to confront, etc etc etc. That is, the Encana actions are more violent than rock-throwers and spray-painters on any scale. But they also have an identified purpose, a clear target, and take place within a well-articulated strategy. Those bombings succeed as political actions. And for me, that’s all the difference in the world. In other words, it ain’t direct action that’s the problem. It’s the context in which that action takes place, its place within a larger strategy and the accountability taken by the actors.

I’ve been rambling here. And no doubt some who read this are just gonna scream sell-out at me. But so be it. Because diversity of tactics, it seems to me, doesn’t mean anyone anywhere can behave however they want and get my support. It means that I am open to supporting people engaging in a wide range of different ways to further our struggles, and I understand that there is a value to resistance of many forms, organized and spontaneous, peaceful and not. But I don’t see a value to spraypainting peoples’s cars or kicking shit down or getting themselves beat up by cops just because it makes them feel revolutionary. I’ve got no time for it.

Final point: there’s nothing I hate more than the conservative leftism that demands order and regulation and discipline in the movement. That kind of shit did nothing to build freedom. And sadly, that’s what we see from alot of the traditional left after moments like this. But it’s not the point of what I’m saying here, and I have just as much criticism – and perhaps even more – for those who use something like this to isolate radicals generally. But just because we want to respect a diversity of tactics, that doesn’t mean that anything goes. That doesn’t mean there is no responsibility for our actions. That doesn’t mean I have to support everyone who undertakes any action and claims a political motivation for it. I remain convinced that it is indeed possible to respect diversity of tactics while looking for some recognizable strategic logic. But I need to see that the action was in some meaningful way a politics; I need to see more community than  individualism in the way the action unfolds; I need to see acting up rather than acting out. And right now, I’m not finding it.

Oh, and there’s lots of debate on this going round, now, obviously. One such piece, out of an anarcho-communist network in Ontario, can be found here: http://linchpin.ca/English/We-need-mass-movement-not-black-bloc

And from rabbletv, video of comments by David Eby and Chris Shaw.

http://rabble.ca/rabbletv/program-guide/2010/02/features/bc-cilvil-liberties-eby-defends-his-criticism-protesters

http://rabble.ca/rabbletv/program-guide/2010/02/features/chris-shaw-comments-diversity-tactics-analysis-saturday-acti

I’ll try to remember to post more related links in the next little bit.

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There are few things better than stepping of a plane, locking eyes with the one you love, and meeting in a kiss. ‘Nuff said.

But what’s really on my mind today is the announced intensive-monitoring of activists being justified by the 2010 Olympics. News reports today are raising alarm bells that Vancouver’s Olympic dreams might just provide an opportunity for activists from a range of movements to come together. It’s worth reading the coverage in full, so I won’t bother paraphrasing it all here. Rather, what I’m noticing today is how my own hopefulness grows as the security-types get worried.

It’s been a long time since Vancouver has seen a real challenge to social order, the last being the anti-globalization struggles of the mid to late 1990s. At that point, I was working within the labour movement, spending alot of energy and time in trying to get the mainstream left off its fear of the radicals and – if not to radicalize its own position – to understand the critical role played by anarchists and the so-called black bloc in forcing the state to display its violence nakedly, in opening public debate, and by extension in allowing social democrats to be heard at all.

It was an amazing time, a rekindling of broad-based social struggle, a concrete resistance to the mantra “there is no alternative” which had dominated popular culture for so long. But something happened, particularly after the attack on the World Trade Centre – that mass resistance collapsed, as many retreated into patriotism, many more moved towards anti-war organizing. And for the last decade, nothing has really brought together radicals, unions, churches, indigenous actvisits and so on and so in anything near the same way.

Enter the Olympics. I’ve had this conversation with numerous people over the last couple of years – does the Olympics represent an opportunity for a renewal of mass resistance? Seems to me it has the potential. Questions of land claims, ecological devestation, surveillance and security, public spending, labour and more, all come directly to the fore in the build-up to an event like this. What is more, the initial state- and self-censorship that arose in the wake of 9-11 has worn off in the last few years, opening a cultural space for various shapes of protest to emerge in ways they haven’t for some time.

Now, whether any of this will actually happen is a whole other question. But it does seem to me that resistance to 2010 is an incredible potential. Corporate and security forces certainly appear to be concerned, and that in itself should make us take a closer look at where the fault-lines are in the social order, and how these might be made yet more unstable in the Olympic build-up.

For my part, I’ll be with Meg tonight at Britannia community centre, for a public forum on whether 2010 will see a formal Olympic site housed in the eastside. But as much as the debate, I’ll be interested to check out the overall numbers of people and the various communities and activist group that turn up. Tonight might just provide a glimpse into where we are sitting on that line from potential to actual resistance, from isolated protest to generalized struggle. And, perhaps, too, tonight we’ll want to raise a toast to the cops and  security advisors out there who, by the front page of the Province,  reminded us all this morning that these Olympics are indeed a worthy target of our resistance.

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