Friday, August 27, 2010

Response to "Destructive Tactics" comments part II

The following is my response to a comment left by someone using the pseudonym “B”. I apologize in advance for its ridiculous length.

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.

Yes, my purpose is two-fold. Firstly, to convince the black bloc to refrain from utilizing tactics which result in a net loss in the battle for a just society. Second, to convince activists on the left who do not engage in property destruction to voice their opposition to failed strategies.

I tried to keep the tone of my essay dispassionate and focused on the effectiveness of tactics. If the essay in any way appears to be condemning the black bloc as people, then that reflects a failure of my ability to communicate my ideas clearly. This essay was not meant to chastise, admonish or condemn. It is meant to be a frank explanation of why property destruction of the sort we saw in Toronto only helps those forces that we oppose.

Doubt you’ll get very far with such smug condescension, and I consider such a project flawed anyway.

I'm disappointed that you've chosen to attack the tone of my essay before addressing its arguments.

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?

This sentence belies the fact that you've missed the very thrust of my essay. It is meant to undermine the notion that “respecting diversity of tactics” should be the default position. Instead, I assert that the default position should be to regard every tactic with a critical eye in order to determine whether it effectively attains our goals.

I've elaborated on the “in solidarity” issue in the previous post, but allow me to reiterate. As enlightened class-conscious individuals, we must see ourselves as being in solidarity with all victims of capitalism and authoritarianism. No person on the planet is exempt from being victimized by those forces. Therefore, to single out one group and to declare solidarity with that group is at best redundant, and at worst a coded phrase implying no questions allowed.

“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.

No straw man is constructed and no such implication is made. I'm only setting out my ideal formula for deciding upon a course of action. I will grant you that most people who engaged in property destruction were thoughtful and had specific goals in mind. However, they were either flawed in their goals or flawed in their tactics. The disastrous results of the G20 protests speak for themselves.

Peaceful” protestors are also susceptible to having flawed goals or flawed tactics. I am making the assertion that everyone should examine their goals and tactics in order to ensure that they will bring about the desired societal transformation.

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

Again, you have misinterpreted my words. I don't say that winning converts is the only worthwhile goal. I only say that it is often the only way to achieve radical societal change. This is especially true in a society such as ours with such a dearth of class-consciousness in the populace. Consciousness must be raised before direct action is taken. Otherwise, the populace will be frightened and appalled by the direct actions, which is exactly what we saw during and after the G20 protests.

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.

What do you mean when you say that the actions taken (property destruction?) were not a failure? Are you saying that you think the G20 protests were successful at achieving their goals? I find this particular line of thinking quite consternating.

I have not heard anything about the summit being disrupted in any way. Please provide evidence of such a disruption. If in fact any disruption did take place (which it very well may have), the disruption was insignificant. The summit did not end early, the discussion amongst the G20 leaders occurred, photo ops happened, and Harper was able to claim that the security expenditure was necessary and successful.

I'm tempted to even go a step farther and speculate that the summit proceeded even better than planned. Due to the property destruction that occurred and the media's focus on the burning police car, both the exorbitant security cost and the neo-liberal austerity policies that were negotiated during the summit disappeared from the public discourse.

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.

You live in a very small, very opaque bubble if you can't see that the burning police car image turned away more people than it brought in. I will readily admit that some people – myself included – enjoy seeing police property destroyed. On the other hand, many are disgusted by actions such as the property destruction in Toronto. This includes marginalized individuals who experience police brutality on a regular basis and whose hatred for police is stronger than you can imagine. They see smashing storefront windows in front of cops as petulant provocation by a bunch of selfish rich kids.

With regard to the alienated populace being a “lost cause,” I'm saddened by your pessimism
. To me, no one is a lost cause. I'm not willing to give up on anyone. There are certain terrible truths about society that are so obvious, anyone can be made to understand them if we are persistent.

Paraphrase: “the message has been lost”? Oh come on. What makes those liberal messages more important to you? Just because you agree with them?

Promoting human rights, defending the environment, and decrying the evils of globalization are liberal messages? That's news to me. I thought the radical left all agreed on these principles. Are these not the same messages that the black bloc are attempting to communicate with their property destruction? It's hard to imagine that anyone outside of the radical left could have gleaned any sort of message from the black bloc's property destruction besides anger and violence.

How many demonstrations have you been to where your message isn’t “lost”?

Many. When the protest is peaceful, organized and focused the message is rarely lost.

The media will run a teeny story about your pet cause if you’re lucky, and what do you get from that?

I will admit that many peaceful protests such as International Day Against Police Brutality or Prisoner Justice Day also fail to raise public awareness or affect direct change. I am highly critical of these bland, once-per-year, going-through-the-motions type events. They allow weekend activists to pat themselves on the back because they think they've done something decent and then go about their daily lives guilt-free. Depending on the specifics, I'm actually more perturbed by these sort of demonstrations than the property destruction that I'm decrying in the article. This is why I challenge the readers of the article to come up with new creative strategies of protest.

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.

Nowhere in my essay do I ever come close to slipping in to the “good protester/bad protester” debate. The question is one of good tactics/bad tactics. I agree that “non-violence can be a crime whenever they want it to be” (they, being the state, I assume). However, I say again and again in my essay that the question is not what does the state view as violent or criminal, but what do the masses view as violent or criminal. I defy you to find anyone who genuinely believes that sitting in a park chanting or standing on the street singing O Canada constitutes a crime.

That the state often permits [non-violent protest] just proves its ineffectiveness as a standalone tactic.

Wrong. The fact that the state allows something says nothing about its effectiveness. The state is not omniscient nor is it omnipotent. It can't always understand which protestor tactics are effective or ineffective. It may understand that crushing non-violent opposition with force would undermine itself more than letting it be, but that does not mean that the non-violent opposition does not undermine the state. This only means that non-violent protest undermines the state to a lesser degree than the state committing violence in response to non-violence would undermine the state.

Here is how I would lay out a punnet square of possible protestor behaviour and possible police response and what the results would be in a context similar to Toronto during the G20:
  1. Non-violent protest (of the creative variety which I advocate) without police response somewhat legitimizes the state by showing that the country is free and democratic, but also somewhat undermines the state by promoting ideas that run counter to the state's agenda.

  2. Non-violent protest with a violent police response undermines the state to a great degree by demonstrating that the country is not truly free or democratic and that they are threatened by opposing ideas.

  3. Violent action by the state in response to violent protest is the most effective way to reify the legitimacy of the state. This situation allows the state to be seen as a heroic force that brings about a much sought-after orderliness by disposing of violent thugs.

  4. The state not reacting to violent protest is a very unlikely scenario, but I believe it would result in the populace yearning for a more powerful authoritarian state, and thus buttress the state's legitimacy.

As you can see, the commonality of the two undermining tactics are non-violent protest. Regardless of how the state will react, non-violence is the best option.

I mentioned above that the state is not omnipotent. This means that it does not have unlimited resources to quell protest whenever it occurs. The state must pick and choose when and where it will respond to dissent. Therefore, even though a given action undermines the state's authority, it might not be acknowledged due to a practical decision about the allocation of resources.

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.

I am simply putting forward my opinion. I might be swayed if I were presented with arguments that defeated my own and demonstrated that property destruction was a positive element of the G20 protests. My argument may be bluntly worded, but that is simply the style in which I write. I have watched that video several times while I was researching for the original essay and was not persuaded by her arguments any more than I am by yours. I may respond directly to her comments in a future post, but right now I'm feeling pretty G20-ed out.

“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.

The words 'smug' and 'condescension' immediately spring to mind. I am fully aware of the dubious history of the word 'primitive'. However, the context in which I used the word is entirely non-problematic. Failing to take into account the context in which words are used 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.

This video is a attacking a position that I do not hold. The scope of the original essay was meant to be very specific: property destruction performed in a way similar to how it was performed in Toronto in a context similar to the context in Toronto is ineffective and should be discontinued due to its ineffectiveness. My wording may not be as careful and precise as I would like it to be, but that is what the thesis of the essay boils down to.

I do not preclude the possibility that militant or violent political action can be effective and has been effective in the past. I did not mention MLK or Gandhi in my essay because I understand that their version of protest was not the only one happening in during their struggles. Also, I understand that Toronto was a very different sort of place than the U.S. was during the Civil Rights struggle and India was during the struggle for independence. In those times and places, the oppression was more 'real' and the resistance movement involved a much larger percentage of the population than we have in the resistance movement against capitalism and authoritarianism today. For those two reasons, comparing those contexts to our context is a case of apples and oranges. Our actions must take a different form than theirs did. If a large enough portion of the population gains class-consciousness and the state/capitalist forces become reckless in their response to the resistance, then violence and property destruction will have a much better chance of helping rather than hindering.

“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.

Your views (and mine) are not those of the majority. You are not the target audience. Your heart does not need warming.

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

No, but consider them added to my reading list.

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.

It seems to me that you perceive “an air of self-satisfied certainty” as a result of your disagreement with my position, rather than as a direct result of my tone. Obviously, the way I wrote my essay has been conducive to dialogue; 14 comments and counting says it all.

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.

I pretend no such thing. I believe that I am correct in stating that the property destruction that was carried out in Toronto resulted in a huge setback for the radical left and I believe that my arguments effectively communicate that fact. Furthermore, I believe that if people read my arguments they may come to agree with me. Is this not the underlying assumption of any essay that is meant to convince its readers?


  1. I still don't think "in solidarity" is a meaningless platitude. Too much of your reasoning is based on your own particular personal opinions, ideas and assumptions which are too specific to be relevant. Not everybody who says "in solidarity" believes that we should be "in solidarity" with everyone. . . including me. I don't consider myself "in solidarity" with any of the executives of Goldman Sachs or with human traffickers or with whoever else exploits mercilessly. Sure, they're victimized in some ironic way (Citizen Kane), but I don't care. Tough beans for them. I'm not in solidarity with them.

  2. This sort of protracted, logic-focused debate tends to wear me down and fill me with a feeling of futility, so I can’t respond thoroughly.

    Though I could benefit from further understanding of the history of the phrase “diversity of tactics”, I suggest it became popular to address the very debate you’re trying to continue. You want to talk only of the G20 in Toronto but I’m interested in this as an ongoing tension. People have argued similarly as you are that property destruction is bad news, and others have disagreed. “diversity of tactics” is a shorthand to recognise that this has been contentious for years and that we will never all agree.

    I remain sceptical that had people not broken windows and burned police cars that the media would have been overflowing with detailed critiques of neoliberalism and sidebars explaining “How the coming austerity programs will affect your family”.

    Your claim that “[my] heart does not need warming” and your distaste for the International Day Against Police Brutality march tell me how differently we see protest. I only attend demonstrations that I feel empowered by. I do these things to survive. You can’t declare what I do and do not need. You assume people that engaged in property destruction are trying to communicate messages, maybe they’re just trying to live, or maybe they’re communicating to a certain audience whose importance you discount. You call what happened in Toronto “a huge setback”, I call it revealing, empowering, depressing, strengthening, crushing, exciting.

    Logic and moral suasion are only one way people have come up with to proceed. I understand that you’re trying to convince people that property destruction is the wrong way, but many believe otherwise; do you propose to simply lecture them until they concede? Shall we sit on our hands until we have consensus about how to most effectively attack the totality?

  3. like, omg. cant stand your condescending and tellingly authoritarian writing rob. like, so 1930s! hello!!!
    ps, how did the biz complaint turn out? did you get any "objective" results? how bout your letters to the editor? i refer to the comment left by anonymous to your biz post when i say: perhaps your fundamentalist dependence on objectivity should take in to consideration how intervening and stopping the fuck head biz patroller could have had some real and tangible effects for the person who was violated.
    now, dont pigeon hole me in to being a full on violent tactic supporter. i reject the dichotomy of violence vs non violence and consider it a simplistic and derailing conversation. it is important to be critical at all times, regardless of tactics, which it seems like you agree with, in words. so, lets be critical of your tactic(s) of dealing with state oppression.

  4. PWNED *points up*

    " I don't say that winning converts is the only worthwhile goal. I only say that it is often the only way to achieve radical societal change. "

    That sounds like the same thing to me. If winning converts is the only way to achieve societal change and your goal is to achieve societal change than by that logic winning converts is the only worthwhile goal. That is how I read your implication.

    "...This includes marginalized individuals who experience police brutality on a regular basis and whose hatred for police is stronger than you can imagine. They see smashing storefront windows in front of cops as petulant provocation by a bunch of selfish rich kids."

    I don't think anyone has the right to say what "marginalized individuals" find disgusting or not. It's fucked up to lump all "other people" into one group like that, as I'm sure you know. Just as easily as you were able to say that "they all" find it disgusting, I can say "They all find it empowering to know that there are people willing to risk their privilege for the sake of others." <-- See I did it. Having and opinion, even a university educated one, doesn't make it fact.

    Here I'll logically explain a different opinion.

    Non-violent protest (of the creative variety which you advocate) without police response totally legitimizes the state by buying into an idea that the country is free and democratic, and only on occasion undermines the state by promoting ideas that run somewhat counter to the state's agenda.

    Non-violent protest with a violent police response undermines the radical left to a great degree by demonstrating that a bunch of spoiled rich kids don't appreciate how truly free and democratic this country is and in the end they are too weak to impose any actual change.

    Violent action by the state in response to violent protest is the most effective way to reify the legitimacy of the state. This situation allows the state to be the heroic force that brings about a much sought-after orderliness by disposing of violent thugs.

    The state not reacting to violent protest is the best possible scenario. It leaves onlookers, the media, the masses with the impression "holy shit those anarchists are fucking ninja!" And makes them want to join our bad ass cause.

    I know many intelligent "educated" people who actually hold that world view (maybe minus the ninja part). Many of my co-working class people have expressed an opinion to me that activists are weak and whiny, impotent children who sit around holding hands and singing songs instead of actually doing something about the state of the world. As much as I don't agree with them there are people who require a showing of strength to have a desire to be involved in a movement.

  5. What I'm trying to tell you is that you're not right, but you're not wrong either. Sure if you want my mom to be apart of a movement for societal change then show her a movie and take her to a rally for animal rights, she loves dogs. If you want support from the men and women at my gym, the guys I worked with doing construction or the kids I skate with we need to have a scene, a community, a movement that encompasses both heart felt demonstrations of disent and exciting and risk-taking actions where people can feel the change happening because of their own actions minute by minute.

    We need both. I've never heard anyone supporting "diversity of tactics" saying we should ONLY do destructive actions. If your argument is for winning converts, which it is I mean, thats what it boils down to. Then my argument is for keeping activists active. I don't know a single activist who hasn't felt impotent and weak after some event. THAT is what "diversity of tactics" is about, it's about keeping this exciting and fun and fierce because without it we're not going to stay active. We're all just going to buy into our privilege for a year, work in the tar sands and save up money so we can buy land and declare freeman status and say "FUCK OFF" to everyone else. That will leave you very alone, and I don't want to do that because you seem like a nice guy. If all we lose is a few starbucks windows and maybe disgust some liberal voting fence sitters who cares, changing the way the world works is a fucking slow process. I would rather keep my friends and comrades happy and excited about the movement.

    One last thing just about this discussion as a whole. When we get in these discussions everyone gets defensive and I'm going to say it is largely because of those against "diversity of tactics" and their unwillingness to accept that people don't want the same things from activism they do. I have a hard time not thinking about arguments I've had with Pro-Lifers, who can't see that being able to choose doesn't mean we're forcing women to have abortions. Maybe that's an unfair comparison but its how I feel. This post is getting really long and I have to go back to work. Thanks for taking up my whole break making me respond to this article... jerk :P JOKES!

  6. @Greg

    "Tough beans" is rather shaky justification for excluding people from the umbrella of solidarity. However, it's really beside my main point. The problem is that questions of tactical effectiveness are brushed away by the appeal to solidarity.


    Thank you for the comments. I suppose we will have to agree to disagree at this point. To address your questions, I believe that I should continue to discuss the issue with my fellow radicals so that I can convince others to follow my lead or be convinced to follow theirs. I believe that there is a right answer, and I want to find it. Of course we should not sit on our hands and do nothing. We should all continue to do whatever each individual sees as the best path to revolution, but at the same time have an open and honest dialogue with each other about means and ends.

    @Anonymous #1

    Is it my proper use of grammar that you find so "authoritarian"?

    As far as results from the Biz incident, the "ambassador" has not been fired and charges have not been laid. In fact, I saw him while walking down Portage ave. yesterday afternoon. However, perhaps Biz has felt the pressure and will review their policies. They have received some media attention from The Uniter ( and were quite hostile to the reporter who wrote the piece when he asked them questions. If the Biz is getting mad then I must be doing something right.

    As I said already, due to the size and strength of the Biz worker, and the fact that I was outnumbered, I simply could not have successfully intervened. Also, it's very easy for you to talk about what you would have done in a similar situation, but you don't know how you'll react until you're actually faced with brutality.

    @Anonymous #2

    Allow me to clarify: direct action tactics can only truly be successful once a tipping point of mass class-consciousness has been achieved. In Canada today, much more awareness needs to be raised before burning police cars will have a more positive influence on the movement than negative. At some point, violent/direct tactics will be warranted and successful, just not yet.

    I never said "they all". My phrasing only means that I apply my observation to some marginalized individuals. Those individuals include several inmates at Winnipeg Remand Centre where I volunteer.

    I don't believe that your four point "logical" presentation actually reflects your honest opinion. You have somewhat of a point with #1, but #2 and #4 are completely absurd.

    @Anonymous #3

    There are ways to keep things exciting and fun without resorting to completely uncreative and message-free property destruction. Believe me, I understand the sort of frustration and feeling of impotence that you mentioned. I feel them too, on occasion. And I'm willing to admit that some people need and want different things out of activism than I do. But that doesn't mean that I'm willing to concede the necessity of allowing property destruction like we saw at G20 to take place in rallies like we saw at G20.