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On Protests and Less-Legal Tactics: Part 1

The events over the last few months — both in Vancouver during the Olympics and in Toronto and Huntsville during the G8/G20 Summits — have got a lot of people talking about protests in general and black bloc tactics in particular.  Now, a lot of well-meaning people have said a lot of well-meaning things about these events… but unfortunately a good deal of those things are inaccurate, misleading and false.  Sadly, having good intentions, an intelligent mind, and getting your picture taken next to some riot cops, doesn’t provide a person with the adequate foundation needed to accurately criticise contemporary movements of resistance.  Of course, I suspect that a number of these well-intentioned people would come to agree with me if they actually spent any significant amount of time in communities of resistance (instead of simply engaging in a spectacular form of protest tourism) so I thought I would share some thoughts as a person who has been a little more intimately involved with these things.  I will do so in a series of posts.
The biggest error made by those who criticise less-legal means of resistance  is the assertion that these tactics somehow make other forms of protesting less effective.  This is false.  Further, to make this argument is to play into the hands of the Powers-that-be.
The truth is that all of our standard means of peaceful protesting — rallies, speeches, marches with banners and bands, and so on — are already completely ineffective.  A good many actions like these occurred for years prior to the Olympics coming to Vancouver and they didn’t make a single bit of difference.  Nor did the legal protests that occurred at the Olympics, or the legal protests at the G8/G20 Summits.  What was very minimally effective in the 60s and 70s is not at all effective today.  The Powers-that-be incorporated protesting into their way of managing our societies a long time ago — with the distribution of permits, police escorts (to ensure the safety of protesters), the designation of “appropriate” protest locations (again, for the safety of protesters), and so on — but it seems that most of us need to be reminded of this fact.  Therefore, the point to be grasped here is that less-legal tactics do not make peaceful protests less effective — when something is already completely ineffective, it cannot be made more so.
Further, this helps to clarify why those who make this argument end up playing into the hands of the Powers-that-be.  This occurs in a few ways:
(a) Making this argument encourages people to continue to invest time and energy into a futile exercise (“This really does work, as long as the anarchists don’t fuck it up!” being the underlying thought).
(b) Making this argument helps to maintain the illusion that we are living in a society that can be called democratic, in the sense that the individual members of a society actually have an influence upon the running of that society (when, if fact, this is not an accurate description of the society in which we live).
(c) Making this argument also leads people to blame themselves — or other members of the multitude — for the absence of change.  Thus, the reason why the protests failed to create change in Toronto or Vancouver is said to be because of the deployment of black bloc tactics and other less-legal actions.  Of course, the truth is that it is the Powers-that-be who are to blame for the absence of positive change, and this way of thinking only leads to division amongst those who resist.
So, this is lesson number one: less-legal tactics do not negatively impact the efficacy of other forms of protests.

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  1. Looking forward to some more of your thoughts on this issue. I’m reading Hardt/Negri’s “Empire” right now, and have been thinking a lot about this topic for the past few months.
    Something Hardt/Negri discuss is the idea of withdrawl. I think what they mean is that Empire is so ubiquitous that one of the only ways to actually shake things up is to undercut Empire’s efficacy through withdrawing the very productive forces that Empire relies upon. And such withdrawl would definitely include less-legal tactics (if not blatantly “illegal” tactics). This is why I refuse to vote; and why I think that if the multitude would band together to consider and enact alternative methods of political praxis outside the “legal and ordained” approaches that have been established by the power-that-be then perhaps some real shaking-up of the authorities would occur.

  2. Hey Austin,
    I noticed you were reading Empire, based on your recent post. I was going to chip in and mention that their later reflections on populism and identity politics would probably be helpful in distinguishing the “lynch mob” from the multitude… but then I got distracted by the subsequent comments and never said anything. I recently finished Hardt and Negri’s trilogy and, despite what the detractors have written, I really enjoyed all three books.
    As for my term “less-legal”, I thought it was appropriate given that police have officially been referring to their weaponry (tasers, gas, rubber bullets, sound cannons, and so on) as “less-lethal”. these weapons used to be called “non-lethal” but some people got killed and the new term protects them from lawsuits. Less-legal tactics seem to be an appropriate response to this.

  3. Thanks for the heads up on their later reflections. I plan to read multitude next (but will put off commonwealth til after the summer). So far, I’m really enjoying Empire as well. In my circles, there is mostly positive discussion about the trilogy. Where are most of the detractors coming from?
    And I like your play on “less-lethal.” I wasn’t aware of that change in police terminology.

  4. I agree with the premise of this post yet something you said struck me.
    You mentioned that those who criticize less-legal means of resistance “play into the hands of the Powers-that-be.” While I agree with you here I’m wondering if the same cannot be said of those who resort to violence.
    Is violent action not also “playing into the hands of the Powers-that-be.” I’m just thinking that violence in general is most certainly a characteristic of the Empire. If this is the case then, is not resorting to the same sort of violence evidence of being shaped by said Empire?
    I’m also wondering if (aside from the possible example of Jesus clearing the temple) we can hold to violent methods of resistance in light of a Messiah who suffered and died at the hands of the powers-that-be?
    At any rate, look forward to reading the rest.

  5. While the less-legal tactics might not lessen the effectiveness of already ineffective protests, it’s not clear that they accomplish much either. Maybe the first couple of times that they were deployed they might have had some kind of impact, but now they’ve become a staple of these sorts of global events. The Olympics are still held, the G20 is still held, no VIPs are inconvenienced.

  6. If we want to talk about “effectiveness” (which I am somewhat hesitant towards, due to my Yoder-Hauerwas influence?), it´s central to define the goal. Is the goal to bring down the capitalist system? To bring down civilisation? Then nothing we do whatever will be “effective” in itself. And I don´t think “revolution” will be effective in bringing in anarchy either, since revolutions has always put a new power on the throne. I believe more in undermining the system, building alternatives, AND confronting the system, but this is a work that will take a long time.
    A traditional protest can be “effective” is the goal is to change some peoples mind, or to show the victims of the system that at least are some people questioning the shit. And people also sometimes tend to move into a more radical approach through a process. People just don´t start with burning down the weapon´s factory.
    This said, I sympatize with the black bloc tactic, and I think we need more property destruction. But I also think it´s better to throw the rocks at the banks and the police cars, instead of at “flesh and blood”.

    • Abe,
      One point of clarification: my reply isn’t directed at you per se. Your post and all the things you write are simply one example of things I’ve read from dozens of sources over the last few months (plus, the comments about pics with riot police and protest tourism have been beefs of mine for years… ever since a kid took a picture of me at the Iraq war protest in Toronto and ended up winning some awards for it… since then, if at all possible, I have refused to let people take my picture). Your post was just the final thing that pushed me over the edge and made me sit down and write this series.
      However, given that you are both compassionate and intelligent, your post is probably a better example than some others. Not only do your compassion and intelligence require folks like me to take what you say more seriously… but this also ends up demonstrating the limits of compassion and (general) intelligence when it comes to evaluating these kinds of things!

  7. hey dan,
    great post. i’m wondering if your series will touch on the importance of “communities” of resistance?
    keep in mind that there can be illegal acts that are not violent. i’m thinking of Ghandi when he stoops down to pick up a lump of salt, an illegal act in the British occupied India of his day. i think that it takes truly creative and disciplined people to find acts of resistance that are not violent whether they be legal, less-legal or completely illegal.
    just some thoughts. i’m looking forward to the rest of the series, dan.

  8. @Darryl,
    Agreed. I think that is the ideal. Finding non-violent ways of resistance (whether legal, less-legal or illegal).

  9. Thanks for this. I look forward to future posts. Being close to Toronto I considered being a ‘protest tourist’ in order to better understand as though that singular time-limited exposure would somehow be grandly illuminating.

  10. I really appreciate the replies to Dan’s original post from “jt*”, “Dan”, “Jonas Lundström”, and “Darryl Silvestri”. Who would’ve thought that such an intelligent conversation could happen on the internet?

  11. I’m wondering if you are going to address what you mean by “the powers-that-be” in future posts? I am familiar with the terminology, but would like to know exactly how you are using it.


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