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.