A year ago, on April 17th, 2000, I wrote a Future Hope column which likened both the forms of action and the relative organizational coherence of the April 16th actions in D.C. against the IMF/World Bank to a regular army without violent weapons, a “non-violent army.” After being in the middle of the April 20 (and A21 and A22) Day(s) of Direct Action against the FTAA in Quebec City, I think some questions must be raised and addressed as to if that description is still accurate, and the political implications.
Make no mistake about it: the battle we are waging against the global capitalist order is a political battle, first and foremost, far and away. It is not a military battle because if it were we’d be snuffed out in a New York minute. It’s not an economic battle because, even with all of our coops and alternative economic institutions, as important as they are, our “economy” will never just grow and grow to the point at which the corporate economy is supplanted; it’s not in the cards. Our primary work, the touchstone of all of our discussions concerning tactics, must be about winning the hearts and minds of literally tens of millions of North Americans. It is only that broad base of support, out of which can grow a bigger and bigger movement of organizers and activists, which will make the changes we seek possible.
Based upon my experiences in Quebec City, as well as in D.C., Philadelphia and Los Angeles last year, I don’t think all of those involved in this righteous struggle share the view that it is primarily political, that we need to develop and adjust tactics with the hearts and minds of those tens of millions in the forefront of our thinking.
I’m referring specifically to many-not all, but many, it seems-of those who are commonly seen as making up the Black Bloc.
Don’t get me wrong. I view the Black Bloc and individual members I know as friends and allies. As I have gotten to know some of them individually over the past year, I have come to respect their commitment, their courage, their willingness to be on the front lines in the confrontations with the police and the military. I cheered on April 20th in Quebec City when young people (all young men, from what I observed), often dressed in black and wearing gas masks and insulated gloves, repeatedly pounced on the tear gas canister shells shot by the police and hurled or kicked them back from whence they came. When one young person dressed in black, standing 10 feet from me, was hit directly by a canister and knocked in great pain to the ground, so badly hurt that he had to be carried away by others, the angry language I used would not have made my parents proud.
Yet I saw other things involving Black Bloc members.
After our huge march arrived at the Wall of Shame close to the FTAA meeting site, and after portions of the fence were torn down and tear gas began to be used, I watched as young men on the front lines threw snowballs, bottles, sticks and stones at heavily padded police guarding the now-open area. As the battle went on, it turned uglier, and not just on the police side. Our front-line warriors picked up foot square paving stones, broke them in half and threw these chunks at the cops. I saw none do any observable damage; the cops’ clear plastic shields, and their helmets and padding, seemed to frustrate any direct hits. But what if there had been direct hits?
Early the following morning, during a temporary lull in the battle for control of the hilltop plaza close to the FTAA meeting site, I checked out the situation. I took a picture of the area where the paving stones had been picked up and broken. As I did so a man who talked and looked as if he were a local Quebec City resident said to me, “Those stones could have badly hurt one of the police, and what if he were a father?”
I agreed with him, while also commenting on the violence of the FTAA.
Or what about this: toward the end of the afternoon, I watched as a young man from within our ranks, without gas mask, bandana or any other protection, courageously moved within ten feet of the police lines at one point, saying something to them, then turned to walk back to where hundreds of people were sitting. Before he got back he was hit by a large stone with a glancing blow to the side of the head. The stone was thrown at the police by one of us, someone who had little common sense and a not very accurate arm. The young man who was hit staggered for a few yards, then sank to the ground. He had to be helped away by others.
And others have told me about seeing the use of molotov cocktails by those from within our ranks. Whether these were Black Bloc’ers or agent provocateurs is unknown.
Which brings us back to the “hearts and minds” issue.
It may be that individual Black Bloc’ers wouldn’t have been bothered if serious injury had been done to one of the cops as a result of their actions. I don’t think that is a good thing, but I can at least understand it. But they should care if the tactics they use are directly responsible for injury to those of us who are also out there putting our bodies on the line, and they should care about the effect of their tactics on those broad masses of working-class people who know little about either the FTAA or us and who, unfortunately, rely on the corporate media for their information. And although we don’t control that media, we can have some influence over how and what they report depending upon what tactics we use.
I can just hear what some would say in response: pacifism and non-violence aren’t militant enough. We can’t trust the media. We need to kick ass, let them know of our anger, provide an example to oppressed people of willingness to fight the agents of repression.
I think of something Dave Dellinger once said about non-violence. He was referring to the Cuban Revolution, and he described it as “essentially non-violent,” even though Fidel, Che and his compatriots were armed and attacked the military forces of the Batista dictatorship. Dave explained this by talking about how, after a battle, the Cuban revolutionaries would take care of the wounded Batista soldiers, bandage up their wounds, encourage them to support the revolutionary cause. Although armed, they understood that their struggle was primarily political, and they did not have a macho, militaristic mindset.
Che Guevera himself, according to an article by Dellinger in a recent issue of Toward Freedom, is quoted as saying that in the U.S., “the most heavily armed nation in the world. . . the only way to succeed was through nonviolent protests, including civil disobedience.”
And look at the Zapatistas! This is a present-day example of a movement that understands clearly the limits of violence and use of arms, that comprehends at the core of their being the overwhelmingly political essence of their struggle and acts accordingly.
But we don’t have to look beyond our shores for examples of militant alternatives to Black Bloc tactics. All we have to do is look at what was really the most impressive and politically powerful-if it could get through the media spin of “violent protests”-aspect of the FTAA battles this past weekend: the heroic, unarmed, non-violent persistence of the overwhelming majority of the direct actionists.
For upwards of four hours on A20 we held onto significant portions of the Boulevard Rene Levesque hilltop plaza area. Despite repeated use of tear gas, and though we often had to retreat, thousands of us kept coming back. We kept moving closer and closer to police lines, using the weapons of non-violent mobility, music, drumming, frisbee-playing, to reclaim, little by little, lost ground. One police line area, near Avenue Turnbull, was essentially taken by us through the use of these tactics. It was at this point, around 6 P.M., that the police must have decided that more was needed from their side, and they unleashed a massive barrage of tear gas while advancing with dogs to force us off the plaza and down into the side streets.
How did we accomplish this limited, tactical victory of holding at least some of the plaza all afternoon?
1) We had massive numbers, in the many thousands, possibly as many as 20,000 people at the height of the action.
2) Many of those thousands were organized into affinity groups that had gone through training in non-violent action.
3) There were people willing and prepared to risk themselves by immediately picking up the tear gas canisters and throwing them away from our ranks, minimizing the tear gas effects. And there were people willing to go up to the front and tear down the fence, risking arrest or police attacks.
4) There were medics available to help with injuries, and there was a spirit of cooperation and mutual support within our ranks when someone was injured.
5) There was extensive media presence with lots of cameras.
6) We had drummers, whistlers, musicians, chants, radical cheerleaders, dancers, frisbee players and flags and banners to keep our spirits up.
None of these elements involved violence against people.
We need to look a little more deeply into this question of non-violence as it applies to our movement against global capitalism.
As I have observed and experienced it, non-violence can mean one of several things:
It can be a lifestyle, a conscious effort to, as much as humanly possible, make one’s day-to-day thoughts, actions and living patterns do no damage, physical, emotional or spiritual, to any living thing. This means everything from refusing to engage in physical fighting, to serious reflection on racism, sexism, heterosexism, class privilege and other forms of domination/oppression, to vegetarianism and veganism. The aim is to practice what we preach, in a wholistic way, to be a love-and-life-centered person.
It can have to do mainly with the tactics used in campaigns and movements for social change, as referred to above.
Or it can be seen as a strategy for revolutionary change, THE way that, over time, we will overcome and replace an unjust and oppressive social order. Alternative economic institutions, boycotts, strikes, non-violent direct action are the main ways this would happen.
It is important that we separate out these different aspects of what people mean when they say “non-violence.” It is important because we need clarity when we are discussing the question at hand, how to win the hearts and minds of millions.
Personally, I don’t see “non-violence,” non-violence alone, as a potentially winning strategy. There is much more that we have to be about, including the formation of an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, one which runs independent candidates and is grounded in and accountable to grassroots, broadly-based social movements. On the other hand, I do believe that we should all be striving to become as non-violent as possible in the way we live our personal lives, and I believe that, in the United States context, creative, militant, mobile, non-violent direct action is the appropriate set of tactics we should be using in situations like A20.
What might this have meant in Quebec City? What if, in advance, there had been an agreement that only those types of tactics would have been acceptable? What might have happened?
The fence would have been torn down. Non-violence, to me, does not foreclose a limited amount of focused property destruction. Some property should not exist or should not be used in the ways it is.
In response to the police use of tear gas, instead of throwing increasingly dangerous projectiles at them, we would have done what we did later in the afternoon: throw the tear gas back, hold our ground as much as possible, come back from the tear gas attacks, use creative tactics like music and dancing to “calm the savage beasts” in their Darth Vader uniforms, and get up close to police lines. We would have talked to the cops-and been overheard by the many reporters and cameramen swarming all around-about why we were there, how they also stood to gain from our efforts to prevent the destruction of our environment and to end poverty and starvation. If those would have worked, at some point we might have begun moving in an organized way to attempt to push through those lines, determining the best place to do so based upon the responses we were getting from the other side. If, for example, one of the police smiled at us, or indicated in some other way a sympathy for what we were saying, that would probably be the place where we would make our first effort to deliberately break through.
Almost certainly, once we did this, or before things got to this point, those higher up in the police would react. They might well react aggressively, either arresting or beating us. They might use tear gas in massive quantities, although they would be somewhat constrained by the mass media being so close. Indeed, they would probably have difficulty deciding what to do. Whatever they did, they would be seen as the “bad guys.” More than likely, a good bit of the media spin would be not about “violent protests” but, instead, “violent cops.”
Throwing dangerous stones, glass and sand-filled bottles, molotov cocktails, using sling shots-these are tactics our enemy welcomes.
Indeed, it is an established fact that historically, agent provocateurs have infiltrated movements like ours and done whatever they could to get the rest of us to use violent tactics. This allows them to more easily obscure our message, come across as anti-violence themselves.
Disciplined, militant, creative, non-violent tactics, in contrast, make it much more likely that our basic message will not be as distorted. We will gain more sympathy from neutral observers who will want to learn more as they see us being willing to face tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, plastic bullets, arrests, beatings, dogs, horses or whatever else the rulers decide to use. Less militant and partial allies will be emboldened to speak up and take stronger action themselves.
What does this mean as far as our relations with the groups/individuals who make up or relate to the Black Bloc?
We need to separate our personal friendships with individuals within this sector of our movement from our strategic and tactical views of what is necessary if we are to be ultimately effective in our objectives. Families have internal differences, even fights, and they still stay together. They work out arrangements.
But we do need more conscious back-and-forth over these questions:
-How can we convince tens of millions of people of the justice of our cause?
-How can we integrate growing numbers of those tens of millions into our organizations and actions?
-How can we build upon our tactical experiences since Seattle and make adjustments?
-Is mimicking the tactics of the U.S. military and police consistent with the goals we have, the new society we are striving to bring into being?
-How should those of us who believe that, yes, a “non-violent army” is what we need get ourselves connected so that our views can be put out more broadly within the overall movement?
-How should we relate to the Black Bloc?
Quebec City was a victory for our movement. It could have been a bigger victory, but it was a victory. Bush, Cretien, Fox and their ilk were on the defensive because of the hard work of thousands of people and the depth of support for our basic message. But this was only one battle in an on-going war. Before the next battle, let’s check ourselves out. The need is urgent.