Death of a Dichotomy: Tactical Diversity and the Politics of Post-Violence

Anna Feigenbaum

Reviewed in this article

Death of a Dichotomy
Ward Churchill, "Pacifism as Pathology", AK Press 2007; Peter Gelderloos, "How Nonviolence Protects the State", South End Press

In a 2001In These Timesarticle on the FTAA demonstrations in Quebec City, Abby Scher, like many others, reflected on the effective interplay between protesters’ violent and non-violent tactics. She ended her discussion with the question: “Is Quebec… a wonderful demonstration of ‘a diversity of tactics’ – or a turning point where the gap between tactics yawns larger?” Now, six years later in a post- 9/11 climate, the ‘War on Terror’ continues, corporate power grows, and frustration has set in amongst many movement participants. As protesters are finding themselves disheartened, pessimistic, and often downright bored with ineffective demonstrations, questions about movement tactics are resurfacing. Specifically, many people are voicing a call for more confrontational direct actions in our struggles against globalization and imperialism.

Over the past few years, a number of articles by movement participants have traveled through the alternative press and across the internet. Texts like the Wombles’ “Ten theses about violence in anti-capitalist demonstrations” and Ashen Ruins’s “Against the Corpse Machine: defining a post-leftist critique of violence” have raised questions about “violent” and “nonviolent” tactics, prompting activists to reconsider the place of confrontation in protests. This spring, Ward Churchill’s P acifism as P athology and Peter Gerderloos H ow N onviolence Protects the S tate were both re-released,1 offering in-depth analyses of how pacifist strategies have eroded protesters’ abilities to engage in a diversity of tactics.

A prolific writer and political activist, Ward Churchill has worked extensively within indigenous movements. His research focuses heavily on US imperialism, colonialism, state repression and Native American culture. Churchill’s essay Pacifism as P athology, originally written over twenty years ago, offers a critique of principled nonviolence that resonates with current debates about the place of direct action, police confrontation and black bloc tactics in the anti-globalization movement. He argues that the role of armed struggle in North America has been obscured from history. In place of a political consideration of how militancy and direct confrontation have been successful forms of struggle, a hegemonic discourse of nonviolence as the truly revolutionary strategy has emerged. Churchill constructs this argument through detailed accounts of the role that armed resistance played in the Black Panther and American Indian Movement. He also looks at the failure of pacifist approaches in Nazi Germany and in the anti-Vietnam War movement.2

Peter Gelderloos, a young US-based activist, has worked extensively with the School of the Americas Watch and within the anti-globalization and anti-war movements. His experiences in these movements inform his critique of pacifism in H ow N onviolence Protects the S tate. Churchill’s influence on this text can be seen in Gelderloos’s many citations of Pacifism as Pathology, as well as in his efforts to elaborate some of Churchill’s points in relation to current anti-globalization activism. Gelderloos, like Churchill, argues that there has been a “pattern of historical manipulation and white-washing” in which struggles that include a diversity of tactics (including the use of violence) have been claimed as pacifist by those on the left who articulate a universal position of nonviolence (7). In Gerderloos’s discussion of nonviolence as a racist ideology, he argues that nonviolence can only work for privileged people whose status is protected by the violence of the state. Disenfranchised, oppressed peoples do not have this same protection (23). Additionally, privileged white pacifists act as if slavery or the genocide of American Indians could have been stopped with nonviolent tactics (24). They distort the role of nonviolent leaders in the struggles of people of colour, appropriating diluted and one-dimensional images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. These figures are claimed as vanguards of nonviolence, while much of their actual politics are obscured. Meanwhile, contemporaneous militant leaders like Malcolm X are erased from cultural memory (25).

This analysis has quite a few similarities with Churchill’s arguments in Pacifism as Pathology. However, Churchill gives more credit to the pathological pacifists he is challenging by viewing pacifism in North America as a position that attempts to cover the fear of leaving “the comfort zone” (61). He argues that thoughts of violence – and its repercussions – incite fear and anxiety. Thus, rather than confronting these emotions and risking repression, people ascribe to non-violence as a way to remain safe. Gelderloos picks up on this phrase, furthering Churchill’s argument about “the comfort zone.” Writing as a white activist and primarily to a white audience, Gelderloos proposes that white people build their own “militant culture of resistance” by learning from the struggles of people of colour (44).

As I write this, both Churchill and Gelderloos are caught up in state legal systems, exhibiting all too clearly the repercussions of leaving the comfort zone. On July 24, 2007, Churchill was fired by the University of Colorado – ostensibly on charges of plagiarism and the misrepresentation of facts in selected excerpts of his research. Churchill immediately filed a lawsuit against the university, claiming that his First Amendment rights were violated. Since his essay on the September 11 attacks was widely circulated in 2005, Churchill has faced scrutiny and condemnation, primarily from powerful neoconservatives. The Governor of Colorado called for his dismissal, and the ensuing media furor set off extensive examinations into his research. Churchill and his many supporters see the charges of plagiarism and of misrepresentation of facts as fabrications. They view Churchill’s dismissal as an attempt to silence his radical views.

Meanwhile, Peter Gelderloos was arrested under terrorism laws in Spain on April 23, 2007 because he was in the vicinity of a demonstration for squatter’s rights. A group of squat activists had gathered for a small protest on a central street in Barcelona crowded with tourists. They had a banner and were handing out flyers explaining their resistance to gentrification and the reasons why people squat. At the end of the demonstration, a small flyer-shooting cannon (petardo) was set off, making a loud noise that frightened tourists and brought in the cops. Gelderloos, standing nearby, followed police and watched for assaults as they went to arrest protesters. He was arrested on charges of illegal protest and “public disorder carried out with explosives.” Although out on bail, Gelderloos is stuck in Spain and must regularly report to court while he awaits a trial date that could be up to two years from now.

Throughout his text, Gelderloos offers an excellent discussion of how a violent/nonviolent binary is used to demonize activists and curb proposals calling for more confrontational tactics at demonstrations. He cites the WTO protests in Seattle: “Though police violence preceded the ‘violent’ property destruction by the black bloc, everyone from pacifists to the corporate media blamed the police riot on the black bloc” (56). Another example Gelderloos provides including his involvement with activism targeting the School of the Americas (SOA). While organizing with protestors using civil disobedience, Gelderloos argues that he encountered a nonviolent rhetoric marked by a racist ideology. This ideology, he claims, plays into the hands of the state by condemning rather than supporting the use of resistant violence in struggles by people of colours against oppression (33-34). Gelderloos argues that white campaigners’ moral claims to nonviolence were “used for alleviating privilege-induced guilt.” (133). In Gelderloos’s view, this prohibited activists from “escalating toward a truly revolutionary movement targeting all aspects of capitalism and imperialism” (133).

As in previous mass anti-globalization actions, this June’s G8 demonstrations in Rostock, Germany were accompanied by a blame game over violence similar to what Gelderloos describes. However, while some members of the groups ATTAC and Against G8 publicly apologized for black bloc protesters’ use of violence, this stance was rejected by the majority of other protesters present – including other members of ATTAC. In an open letter, members of ATTAC wrote, “It is time to pose the question of the old American union song: Which side are you on? If ATTAC wants to have a future, it unambiguously has to side with the social activists critical of globalization, not with the ‘security forces’ ... invented to oppress them.”3

Churchill’s and Gerderloos’s accounts both make a strong case for a diversity of tactics, offering intelligent and persuasive arguments for the effectiveness of militancy, property damage, autonomous action, and self/collective-defense. They argue that tactical diversity must include these kinds of actions if revolutionary movements are going to be successful. This means that privileged people will need to leave their comfort zone and risk prosecution. However, while Churchill proposes that this is a call for a “continuum of tactics” ranging from petitions to armed resistance, he is mostly silent on forms of resistance that fall between the two (94). Similarly, Gerderloos only discusses “violent” actions and the passive resistance of left organizations. In his discussion of the WTO protests, Gerderloos constructs a division between the NGOs and the black bloc that seems to absorb the entire range of diverse groups and creative tactics between them. This leaves me wondering where contemporary forms of creative, disruptive tactics might fit in relation to Churchill and Gelderloos’s deeply provocative discussions of violence.

If, as Churchill argues, flexibility and surprise are compromised by ritual forms of protest (92), creativity must also be seen as a necessary part of developing effective tactics. Devora Neumark has discussed creativity as itself an “act of risk.” Spaces of imagination, active listening, and improvisation require that we become vulnerable. Put in Churchill’s terms, I would suggest that a diversity of tactics approach also demands that we move beyond the comfort zone of our tactical imaginations.

Reflecting on his experience in Rostock this year, activist Alex Foti comments on the many forms of performative, playful, ‘pink’ protests he encountered at the G8 protests – from the actions of the Clown Army, to the pink samba band, to the Pink Rabbits who alerted the Rostock camp when police arrived on site. These elements, he argues, existed together with “violent” resistance forming part of the “ecosystem of protest”:

Black resistance and pink blockades go hand in hand, and pink clowns were defended by black anarchists when the police roughed them up during the actions and demonstrations: pink and black are complementary and not substitutes, like many, including myself, were led to believe in the past few years.4

Such forms of creative resistance that engage in active confrontations with the state may have much more in common with militant groups than superficial appearances suggest. Both directly confront the stasis and dogma of traditional pacifist protest strategies. They have both constituted some of the most provocative and confrontational aspects of the anti-globalization movement. And, perhaps most importantly, they share the capacity to empower as well as inspire the flexibility and spontaneity necessary in struggles against repressive state forces.

The tactical interplay, flexible collaboration and militant alliance between “pink” protest tactics and black bloc tactics at Rostock (and elsewhere) offers a space for thinking about forms of resistance beyond a violence/nonviolence binary. Moreover, faced with police repression that indiscriminately targets protesters, such collaborations can provide a means of survival. This raises two further questions that relate to both Churchill’s and Gelderloos’s texts: What would a post-violence/post-nonviolence praxis of tactical diversity look like, and what would it mean to altogether refuse the term “nonviolence”?

Mike Ryan’s short essay, included at the end of Pacifism as Pathology, sketches out what might be thought of as a “post- violence/post-nonviolence position.” Ryan, an activist involved in civil disobedience in Montreal since 1978, notes that many proclaimed figureheads of nonviolence, including Thoreau and King, have suffered historical misrepresentation. The kinds of acts they counted as violent have even been distorted. For example, King publicly acknowledged both that property damage was not violent and that people have the right to define their own resistant tactics (135). Ryan suggests that if we look back at older definitions of nonviolence, ideological differences do not appear as strong as we are often led to believe. Reflecting on the condition of social movements in Canada, he writes:

I don’t believe there is anyone on any side of the debate proposing more than appropriate violence, more than necessary force. It is simply a matter of determining, at this historical juncture, what is necessary and appropriate to stem the flood of violence of modern society, recognizing as we do the ease with which we, as a privileged social group, can fall back into the comfort zone available to us in this society as a result of this ongoing violence (136-137).

Ryan sees the differences between groups’ politics as more about “analyses and chosen tactics” than an “absolute moral and strategic abyss” (136). Drawing on Churchill’s discussion of a continuum of tactics, he proposes that we recognize how actions and struggles – be they local or global – interrelate (137). This recognition requires developing a praxis that can point out the shortcomings of nonviolent dogma and focus instead on tactical effectiveness (150).

Applying Ryan’s point to the more recent notion of anti-globalization as a “movement of movements,” we might surmise that we have a “revolutionary responsibility” to ensure that each part of the movement is strong, including its militant components expressed in formations like the black bloc. This, I would propose, is a post-violence/post-nonviolence position that refuses to engage on the Master’s terms. It offers the anti-vocabulary necessary to account for and further develop the diversity of tactics needed in confrontations with the mass violence of the state and global capitalism.

A recent anti-war demonstration in the US exhibited such an approach. Fed up with scripted pacifist demonstrations, Students for a Democratic Society called for a Radical Youth Contingent at the Washington DC anti-war march on January 27, 2007. This contingent – along with other protesters – left the planned route to form blocs and diverge and converge at various points. The contingent was largely able to out-maneuver the police, and hundreds of people assembled at one point on the lawn of the Capitol building. Along with anarchist flags and a variety of signs and banners, some protesters carried shields painted with images of the globe being encroached upon by a black map of the US and the words: “US Out of Everywhere.” Matthew Provonsha described the day’s actions on Counterpunch, stating:

It would be impossible to say how many of us there were because at every stage some were joining in and others opting out ... [But] the most important thing was not that we broke through police lines, smashed the windows of a Fox ‘News’ van and a recruitment center, or left graffiti on the steps of the Capitol building. The most important thing was that we ran free, and got away with it. We succeeded in leaving messages where they are hardest to wash away, in the memories of everyone involved.5

Provonsha’s description of the protest exemplifies a post-violent/post-nonviolent space of tactical diversity and flexibility. Participants exhibited a semi-organized spontaneity that eschewed a dogmatically passive form of resistance; refusing to hide from confrontation, they broke from the designated path and pace of previous anti-war marches. Not only do the messages of those actions remain in the memories of participants (as Provonsha rightly states), they also have the potential to influence those who are not present at the event. Whether encountered on Indymedia or passed along in anecdotes, the circulation of images and stories of successful actions propels hope and militancy forward and can help to carve out spaces for reflection and can inspire the creation of new tactics.

While there were objections to the Youth Contingent’s tactics from other movement participants, the effectiveness of their confrontational actions stand as a clear challenge to those touting universal pacifism. As one commenter argued on the event’s Indymedia page: “Piss off. You’re part of the problem if you can’t handle people who aren’t afraid to act like we’re actually free, rather than bow and scrape to out-moded concepts of skewed fairness and polite convention.”

While some contemporary, small-scale Canadian activist groups, such as Montreal’s Pink Panthers/Panthères roses, show a great deal of creativity in their confrontational tactics, larger post- Québéc City anti-globalization and anti-war demonstrations have tended not to cultivate a wide-reaching and effective diversity of tactics approach. For example, there was little in the way of creative, confrontational action at the recent demonstrations against the proposedSecurity andProsperityPartnershipinMontebello.While pre-emptive arrests of protest organizers, intimidation tactics, and embedded police provocateurs certainly curbed the effectiveness of demonstrations, why weren’t our tactics more surprising than those used by the police? As one of my friends put it, “The demo itself didn’t break any new grounds, [but] the discovery of police agitators caught on video and then uploaded to YouTube has been making national headlines.”

The kind of continued militancy necessary for countering such repression requires that we are prepared for the violence of the police – for their tactics of intimidation, interrogation and assault. It requires that we abandon the comfort of naiveté and adopt a post-violence/post-nonviolence position that refuses the perverse logic of the state – a logic that calls property damage as well as protective padding, defensive shields, and gas masks “violent.” The People’s Global Action (PGA) bloc put it simply in its press release on Montebello: this repression is “the reality of Fortress North America.” It is also the reality of the G8 as we saw most recently in Rostock.

Of course, the force used at these demonstrations pales in comparison to what the majority of the world’s protesters encounter, as well as to the violence daily inflicted on oppressed people. This repression reiterates the need for resistant tactics to be specific, situational, and flexible enough to adapt to different people’s realities and capabilities. Improvisational militancy demands that we listen to and build trust with those we stand beside while refusing to allow pathological displays of pacifism to inhibit our movements.

Notes

1 Churchill’s book was first published in 1986 by a radical therapy journal. This journal article was then made into a pamphlet that enjoyed limited informal circulation. In 1998, it was re-released by the small Canadian press Arbeiter Ring before being picked up by AK Press later that year. Gelderloos’ title went from small Signalfire Press in 2004 to well-known lefty publisher South End Press, where it was re-released in 2007.

2 Churchill’s discussion of Nazi Germany has received a great deal of criticism and is seen as highly controversial. For early reviews that spend time on this see Mark Rudd’s “Challenging Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology” (http:// www.markrudd.com/activism-now/challenging-ward-churchills-pacifism- as-pathology) and J.C. Myers review for Bad Subjects (http://bad.eserver.org/ reviews/2002/2002-6-9-4.57PM.html).

3 Anonymous. “What is Attac attacking?” (http://dissentnetzwerk.org/ node/3725)

4 Alex Foti “Rostock: Pink, Black, Pirate” (http://transform.eipcp.net/ correspo ndence/1182944688)

5 Matthew Provonsha. “Radical Youth in DC: Return of the Black Bloc” counterpunch (March 24/25, 2007: http://www.counterpunch.org/ provonsha03242007.html). Emphasis in original.

6 Comment on Mike Erwin. “Radical Youth Contingent and Students for a Democratic Society March Overview” DC Indymedia (January 28, 2007) available at http://dc.indymedia.org/newswire/display/137584/index.php.

7 PGA Bloc Montreal press release August 20, 2007 available at http://ottawa. indymedia.org/en/2007/08/5375.shtml.