Thursday, August 12, 2010

Destructive Tactics

The debate over the use of Black Bloc tactics has been happening for years, but was recently thrust into the spotlight by the events of the Toronto G20 Summit. Although I haven't participated in a full-scale discussion on the topic of Black Bloc tactics with my fellow anarchists and socialists, it appears that many people on the radical left are “in solidarity” with the Black Bloc and favour a “diversity of tactics”. On the other side, you have moderate leftists who, for the most part, condemn the Black Bloc. Some even go as far as to blame the Black Bloc for the crackdown that resulted in the arrest and detention of hundreds of “peaceful” protestors. I don't have much use for empty platitudes such as “in solidarity,” and I reserve my condemnation for my ideological enemies. Therefore, I wouldn't classify my position on this matter as typically radical or typically mainstream. Instead, I hope that I've formulated an opinion that achieves pragmatism and avoids the pitfalls of orthodoxy.

Before we proceed any further, let us abandon the euphemistic phrase “Black Bloc tactics” and call a spade a spade. We're talking about property destruction. Whether you believe that “property” is a legitimate concept and whether the property is private or public, we should all be able to agree that what is at issue in the Black-Bloc-at-the-Toronto-G20 debate is property destruction. Whatever else one wishes to place under the umbrella of “Black Bloc tactics” should not be germane to this discussion.

Before engaging in any political act, it is of the utmost importance to first determine the intended goal of the act. In almost every case, the goal of the highest import is to affect change; often, this is impossible or implausible to achieve directly. Therefore, one must frequently resort to to affecting change indirectly; often by winning ideological converts.

Did the property destruction that took place at the G20 affect change directly? The answer is an emphatic no. The corporations that own those damaged storefronts collected their insurance money and continued with business as usual. The agenda of the summit proceeded exactly as planned. The heads of state who participated in the summit were not inconvenienced in the slightest. The headless zombie that is capitalism continues to plod forward with as much cold brutality as ever before.

Did the property destruction affect change indirectly? Again, an emphatic no. Instead of winning converts, the images of burning police cars and broken windows served to alienate a great many potential allies. Those very same images allowed the federal and provincial governments to justify (in the eyes of the public) the billion dollar security budget and the audacious crackdown on protestors. The police didn't need the anarchists to justify the security budget, but it definitely helped. Without the property destruction, that sort of expenditure in the midst of an economic recession would have been much harder to justify and the crackdown may very well have not taken place. If the crackdown had still taken place, a greater number of people would be persuaded to see it as an overreaction.

Another indirect result of the property destruction was that the important messages about human rights, the environment, globalization, etc. that were being expressed by the protestors were lost in the din and more easily ignored by the mainstream media and the public.

There is some good that can be salvaged from the the events of Toronto. We now have a perfect opportunity to openly dialogue about tactics and how protests should look going forward. Also, through a concerted effort we can draw the public's attention to the fact that the vast majority of those who were brutalized by the police were completely innocent of anything remotely resembling a crime. With the right message, this can be used as an opportunity to win converts to the side of anti-statism, anti-capitalism, or at the very least, anti-Conservative-ism.

I long to engage in this debate with my friends on the left. Do tactics matter? If so, how should they be guided? Should we do what feels good or should we do what works? What does “works” mean in the context of protests? What are the goals we are seeking to achieve? I contend that if we are hoping to achieve radical change, then tactics are foundational to that pursuit. The way to achieve radical change is to gain popular support from a wide swath of society. This doesn't mean watering down ideology to make it palatable to the masses, but it does mean that we need to communicate our ideas in such a way that people will be able to hear, understand and consider them.

Some activists and commentators are saying that the property destruction that occurred in Toronto paled in comparison to the violence perpetrated by the police. Of course this is true. But that doesn't make property destruction a good idea or the actions of the Black Bloc justified in any way. Why not endeavour to draw an even greater distinction between the radical left and the fascist corporate foot soldiers that make up the police force? When oppression is blatant and heavy-handed, the response to that oppression can be equally primitive and be successful. In modern Western nations where oppression is subtle and sophisticated, our response needs to be equally nuanced.

Smashing windows and responding to police force with force is primitive. These acts only communicates rage and randomness to the average person. We must ensure that our actions communicate messages that are obvious and unambiguous.

Actions that are illegal are not a problem in themselves. Actions that provoke the police are not problematic in themselves. Breaking laws that can be demonstrated to be illegitimate or bringing about a police response that can be demonstrated to be illegitimate are effective strategies. Instead of burning police cars, let's cover them in flowers or colourful paint. Instead of smashing windows, let's cover them in slogans that will raise the consciousness of the populace. Let's render their security expenditures absurd by appearing completely nonthreatening to the general public. Let's do the opposite of what the police and government expect and want by creating iconic images of non-violent civil disobedience that will resonate long after we're gone.

I hope this can be the start of a productive dialogue. Please post a comment below and let me know what you think.


  1. Well to be quite honest protest doesn't really win many converts at all. But who wants those anyway. Not me.

    What gets allies is power, material security and spiritual community. These are the bread and butter of resistant communities. They come from alternative building, and oppositional institutional creation, not protest. Protest can protect them and highlight the awesomness of these new social places and spaces, but the point is to build a community that is trying to break free but is super inclusive, and all about taking care of each other...

    working class culture and institutions are the missing ingredient to white radicalism of this day and age.

  2. slappy the dolphinAugust 12, 2010 at 3:43 PM

    Much to think about here.

    For me, I don't see how BB type tactics draw people forward to create a community that displaces the old. That displacement will probably need to be done using force to a degree, because, in the last instance, political power flows from the barrel of a gun. But without the above-ground, legal movement, it's just adventurism that maybe puts people in danger. The real political question of our times, in my opinion, is "how do we draw people forward to take power for themselves?" This, of course, is not a question for many anarchists, especially BB types, because they're not interested in People's power. Some are. I wouldn't want to pigeon hole every anarchist. Nobody/nothing is a monolith.

    I think we need a People's power that can make a decisive break from the what-is, and fend off the re-establishment of the old order. At the same time, we'll need to continuously struggle within the movement against forms of oppression that continue until all forms of oppression and exploitation are abolished. That's some historical task. And it's not one that's started and completed as easily as smashing a Starbucks' window.

    Another thought I had recently is this: I see capitalism as the masking of a social relation between humans as the relation of humans to things via the market. Property destruction seems to be the other side of the coin here, where smashing a Starbucks' window is confused for smashing capitalism. Capitalism is a social relation, and it is only smashed when we revolutionize the way we relate to one another. We need to break with commodity fetishism.

  3. Good post. One might conclude that the "Black Bloc" and its supporters are suffering from what Lenin called an "infantile disorder."

    Rather than discuss the topics of property destruction, per se, I'd like to raise the discussion up a notch and ask you to consider whether summit demos have passed their "best before" date. To get this discussion going, I suggest you read a thoughtful critique of the whole idea at Follow that up with a reading at

    Keep the debate alive and maybe we can get past the destructive actions of a small gang of ultra-leftists and devise effective strategies and tactics in the years ahead.

  4. I wish I had time to write in more detail, but I wanted to say that I feel similarly.

    - especially after montebello, we know this strategy is inflitrated by provocateurs wanting only to discredit activists. How do we know *anyone* involved in recent BB activities were actually concerned about the issues, as opposed to just wanting to fuck shit up?

    - corporations don't suffer the way people suffer, and when they file insurance claims, insurance corporations *WIN* ... they justifying increasing premiums for everyone, and justify their existence, as well

    - hope for solidarity I think we need to establish with middle class people who think these issues don't affect them starts to disintegrate... they like "security", and don't differentiate between cozy house/property and police state

    - the state as a tool of the elite destroys, so why don't we counter it with creating, instead? I like flowers and paint on cop cars... it makes a stonger point, in my opinion.

    I wouldn't identify as a pacifist -- I'm with Malcom X about responding when necessary -- but I feel like property damage is obsolete as a tool in this conflict.

  5. I would agree that traditional protest doesn't win many converts, but I don't honestly know either way. All I can say is I was never overly motivated by pictures of people offering flowers to soldiers holding guns. I understand the sentiment but that didn't ever make me want to go out into the streets.

    I think there are a thousand eager protesters who will sit down and hold hands in front of a line of riot cops in hopes of recreating moments and images from decades past. It happened at the G20. They will sing songs and refuse to move when the cops tell them to. Then are seemingly surprised when they are stripped of their rights and arrested.

    The state doesn't care about any of our rights. If you're poor, young, female or trans or a person of color I think they have proved enough times they don't give a fuck about us.

    Personally I don't want to spend my time trying to convince the middle class fence sitters that something is wrong. "Winning" them over to your side it not my fight. I feel as a group the middle class has the privilege to information and the education and environment to understand how fucked everything is. I'd say most of them get it. Aside from the odd super conservative I meet everyone I know is "on our side" when it comes to protecting the environment and equal rights. In my mind the issue is not getting people on our side but showing people what it means to be on our side.

    I care more about poor and working class people who often don't have that privilege to information nor the education or environment to understand it. People who know from their daily experience not university textbooks that the state doesn't care and that the system is fucked. People who feel lost, who think it's hopeless because no one is listening to them even if they do picket or protest. That is who I protest and organize for.

    When I talk to my friends from those neighborhoods and say "look at this picture of someone throwing a rock at a cop" or "holy crap, they beat the fuck out of that storefront" I have never been met with shock or disgust. More often than not it's "Serves them right, fucking pigs" and I tend to agree.

    We should spend our days creating a culture of active resistance coupled with the working class culture and institutions Alex DP mentioned. When we demonstrate we have to show our allies and our enemies that we mean it. That we're willing to risk our privilege and well being for collective freedom.

    I think "destructive tactics" strips the polished veneer from our neighborhoods. Those are the images that inspired me. They remind our allies that there is a war being waged against us and they tell our enemies that we see whats going on. The state wants us compliant, silent or dead and we're not just going to sit, stand or march around and politely ask them to stop oppressing us. Even if that is in line with the Canadian "identity".

  6. Good article, looks at the issue much more clearly than most of the hand-wringing on the issue I've seen.

    I'm like some of the other commentators, I wouldn't rule out property destruction/phyiscal confrontation and probably even violence, but the ends would really have to justify the means. i.e. I think the actors in that scenario would have to be damn good and sure that the merits outweigh the negative consequences.

    Of course, there's also a massive, massive different between largely-white political activists committing property destruction at a summit rally and a directly-oppressed and marginalized community fighting back against the power of the state (Oka/Kanesatake, Gaza flotilla, whatever). But we can also see what happens when political violence goes 'wrong': the IRA had a generally good reputation internationally until they chose to pursue car bombing as a tool.

    Obviously a few broken windows are not anywhere equivalent to a carbombing, but the point is that in both circumstances nothing was gained and something was lost: not exactly a formula for success.

  7. "I don't have much use for empty platitudes such as “in solidarity,” and I reserve my condemnation for my ideological enemies."

    'In solidarity' is not an empty platitude - it expresses a fraternal bond and unity in struggle.

  8. Really good post.
    Do I have your premission to repost it over at Molly's Blog ?
    PS Good luck. 40 years experience has taught me that you are rolling a rock up a very steep hill. Maybe younger anarchists are more intelligent than their older confreres were. I hope.

  9. I'm going to go ahead and post a link because I think it's highly relevant:

    I think one thing that you are not considering is what it means for some people to stare into a few lines of riot cops and not run away; to take a section of the city for a while and express their resentment directly on something tangible.

    Also protests are spoon-fed to the public by the media. I think it might be naive to think that any single message would ever get through to a significant portion of the population. People that consume such media already do not understand anarchism even in theory, never mind direct action.

    I think it more becomes an issue of creating a history of tangible resistance that can be built upon. The more we are oppressed as a society, the more likely these same actions people now condemn, will be used in greater numbers.

    We're also not talking at all about how it wasn't just the Bloc that was involved in the vandalism... I think that's an important distinction.

  10. Oh, and how many of those arrested far away from and at different times from the police facilitated riot were "involved". the "important distinction" to be pointed out here is between those that the police ALLOWED to commit vandalism and those who were arrested afterwards and who had no connection to the police encouraged mini riot. THAT is the ONLY distinction that will fly out here in the real world where those of us who are not wrap up in subcultures know how people think of these things.

  11. By the way there's a huge amount of history of "tangible resistance", and it reoccurs every year. It's just that it is not the property of a subculture. It is the property of the ordinary peiople that subcukturists like to look down on.

  12. What are you going for with this essay? Are you trying to evangelise potential converts from the black bloc? Or convince fence-sitters to join you in what you say is not condemnation but certainly reads like it. Doubt you’ll get very far with such smug condescension, and I consider such a project flawed anyway. Like Greg said above, “in solidarity” is not an empty platitude; instead of lecturing those who choose other means of struggle, how about respecting diversity of tactics?

    Following are responses to specific points of the article.

    “Before engaging in any political act, it is of the utmost importance to first determine the intended goal of the act. In almost every case, the goal of the highest import is to affect change; often, this is impossible or implausible to achieve directly. Therefore, one must frequently resort to to affecting change indirectly; often by winning ideological converts.” Here’s where you construct your straw man. First, you imply that people who engaged in property destruction didn’t think about it or aren’t goal-oriented. That’s certainly true for some, which I don’t consider a big deal, but don’t assume that for everyone.

    Then you narrow the discussion by deciding that winning converts is the only worthy purpose of a political act. Untrue.

    The agenda of the summit did not proceed exactly as planned, as several disruptions did reach it. Even were that not the case, the actions outside would not have been a failure.

    Property destruction did effect change, though, in the hearts of some who were there or saw it from afar. Many who were alienated by the images of burning police cars and broken windows were a lost cause. I heard from people who couldn’t or wouldn’t attend who were warmed by the flames from those cars. People who have directly experienced police violence often feel a visceral reaction of pleasure when they see a blow dealt to the police, symbolic or otherwise.

    Paraphrase: “the message has been lost”? Oh come on. What makes those liberal messages more important to you? Just because you agree with them? How many demonstrations have you been to where your message isn’t “lost”? The media will run a teeny story about your pet cause if you’re lucky, and what do you get from that?

    It’s ironic that you advocate the good protester/bad protester divide as “an opportunity to win converts to the side of anti-statism”, thereby reifying the legitimacy of the state. Non-violence can be a crime, too, whenever they want it to be. That the state often permits it just proves its ineffectiveness as a standalone tactic.

    You say you “long to engage in this debate” but it sounds like you’re settled that non-violence is the way and if only all those fools who failed to see that would just listen. For more on this, see Harsha Walia’s appearance on a panel on diversity of tactics.

    “When oppression is blatant and heavy-handed, the response to that oppression can be equally primitive and be successful.” The word “primitive” is problematic, consider avoiding it.

    Surely you’ve been exposed to the idea that non-violent movements have only historically been effective in concert with “violent” factions? Here is a video with more on that. “Instead of burning police cars, let's cover them in flowers or colourful paint.” I’m not opposed, but it would warm my heart far less than flames.

    Have you read How Non-Violence Protects the State? Or Pacifism as Pathology?

    It’s good that people are willing to talk about tactics, but coming to the table with an air of self-satisfied certainty isn’t conducive to dialogue. I used to believe more as you do but have come to support a more broad range of struggle, don’t pretend as though if only people would think about it they would obviously agree with you.

  13. Testing whether this gets around censorship...

  14. The only 'censorship" involved in cases like this, and it is really strecthing the term to describe it as such, are the desperate attempts of those who support useless showoff violent tactics as a matter of principle by trying to get the cant of "diversity of tactics" adopted as meaning that any criticism of play acting at revolution as beyond the pale. I'm sorry most of the world has no need for religious cults.