Behind the Mask: Violence and Representational Politics

UTA Editorial Committee

Particular moments can, like a lightning flash, illuminate the terrain upon which we struggle. The recent anti-G20 convergence in Toronto was one such moment. Under the glare of the world’s media, three social forces – the capitalist state, the social democratic left, and the small but active radical left – contended with each other in a conflict that revealed, however briefly, the hard truth of politics.

For radicals, such skirmishes provide an opportunity for honest self-assessment. However, assessment remains difficult when the moment of illumination is traumatic. Since the end of the convergence in late June, activists have been navigating ongoing arrests, conspiracy charges, potential deportations, and strict bail conditions that include wide-reaching non-association clauses. Under conditions like these, the understandable impulse is to focus on our successes and attend to the injuries we’ve incurred.

But while we tend our wounds, it’s necessary to not lose sight of the political value of such moments. Confrontations (and even defeats) are pedagogical opportunities. Their meaning and their consequences extend far beyond the events themselves. For better or worse, our response to such confrontations will inform comrades who find themselves in similar situations in the future. They also inform our interactions with those who are not yet in struggle but who are – for various reasons – attentive to injustice. If we exaggerate our successes and downplay our shortcomings, we risk squandering an important opportunity.

*

The anti-G20 convergence was defined by two controversial violences: that of the state’s Integrated Security Unit (ISU) and that of the black bloc. Despite activist calls to “focus on the issues,” media conferences and rally speeches were hard pressed to sound above the thud of police batons and the cracking of plate glass windows. For weeks after the summit, televised reports looped footage of police cars set ablaze in the heart of Toronto’s financial district. Newsprint images of riot cops looming over peaceful protestors became ubiquitous. No one could avoid the question of violence. To talk about the G20 came of necessity to mean stating one’s views on the state’s mobilization and on the actions of the black bloc. Across the political spectrum, these two topics became the basis upon which alliances were clarified. Violence defined the event, but it also revealed a more general truth about politics itself.

Flush with a $1.2 billion security budget willfully granted by the Harper Tories, the ISU brought together the RCMP, CSIS, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), and other forces in an unprecedented mobilization of state repression. More than $4 million was spent building fences in downtown Toronto. The result was a dramatic spatial reorganization of the city. Working with the Canadian Armed Forces and various private security agencies, more than 10,000 cops flooded into the newly militarized landscape at a cost of $74 million and quickly became an occupying force. By some estimates, the number of security personnel on hand reached nearly 20,000.

But the police operation began well before the week-long activist mobilization. The OPP infiltrated radical networks in southern Ontario almost a year before the protests began. In one instance, they went so far as to plant an agent within an activist household in Guelph. When organizing began, police were able to easily target key activists and networks. In the early morning of June 26, several activists pegged as “leaders” by police infiltrators were arrested at gunpoint in pre-dawn house raids. These activists were transferred to maximum security detention centres and charged with conspiracy for having allegedly “masterminded” the violence that would be committed by the black bloc later that day.

When the Week of Action against the G20 began on June 21, police conducted illegal searches and ID checks of activists and non-activists alike. In order to justify their actions, they resuscitated an obscure Public Works statute and stretched its parameters in the name of security. By the end of the weekend, a new record had been set in the annals of state repression. More than 1100 people were jailed in an operation that vastly outstripped the 465 arrests that took place during the 1970 October Crisis, when the War Measures Act was in force. Held in wire cages inside a vacant film studio, protesters were sexually harassed, physically threatened, and denied food and water. Supporters who gathered for peaceful vigils outside the detention facility were attacked by riot police and thrown in jail alongside their comrades.

*

Even by summit standards, the ISU’s security operation was extraordinary. But what threat could they cite to justify such dramatic expenditures and violations of legal norms? It certainly wasn’t the threat posed by organized labour, which collaborated with police to devise a march route that led their members away from the summit fence. Although –  as a sleeping giant – the labour movement is always at least potentially threatening, the risk it posed in Toronto was dramatically reduced by union leaders’ deployment of hundreds of marshals to ensure that groups from the march did not break away and attempt to confront the summit directly.

In the absence of organized working-class resistance, the ISU operation seems absurd in its disproportion.  And, when one considers that – by CSIS’s own admission – there was no “credible threat” of terrorist activity during the summit the security operation becomes more lurid still. In order to understand their actions, it’s necessary to consider the threat posed by the radical left, and especially by the Southern Ontario Anarchist Resistance (SOAR) and other groups calling for activists to confront the security fence. Would they disrupt the summit? And, more importantly, would their intentions resonate with those who were not yet radical but who nevertheless understood the need to do something to oppose the G20 in Toronto?

While the state was right to worry that the black bloc might lead a direct attack on the summit perimeter as it did in Québec City in 2001, the logic of its mobilization suggests that it was motivated by a more fundamental concern. Put plainly, the bloc produced consternation by virtue of the fact that its very presence called into question the state’s monopoly on the use of force. While many activists recognize the black bloc’s choice of clothing as simply an effective disguise against police surveillance, it has other consequences. Like the uniform of a foreign army, the bloc’s attire identifies it as a body that does not recognize the sovereignty of the state and, as such, is capable of progressing along the continuum from politics to war. By donning this uniform, the bloc signifies its intention to attack the bourgeois “rule of law.” Defiling private property and attacking police, they become –in Rumsfeldian terms –“enemy combatants.”

As far as the state is concerned, such declarations of open contempt cannot be allowed to stand – especially when they emerge during a meeting of world leaders. Police thus spent Saturday evening and all day Sunday arresting anyone wearing black on the streets of Toronto. For their part, social democrats were also quick to highlight the connection between the black bloc uniform and criminality, arguing that the police could have spared themselves the trouble of going after “innocent” protesters if they had preemptively arrested those dressed in black before the march began.

On Saturday, June 26, the bloc gathered at Queen’s Park and inserted itself into the the labour march alongside other forces committed to confronting the fence. When the march reached Queen and John, a small section of the group tried to move south but was blocked by a thick line of riot cops. Moving further west, the march subsequently stopped at the corner of Queen and Spadina. Although the labour march as a whole headed north at this point, several thousand people remained in the intersection. When it became clear that they would not be able to cross police lines to head south, a group led by the bloc headed east on Queen Street.

Moving quickly, individuals within the group targeted several unguarded stores and set fire to police cars. When the march reached Queen and Bay, it found that it was able to head south into the financial district. More property destruction ensued. As police began to form lines closing off the street to the north and south of the bloc, the march squeezed onto King Street and then made its way over to Yonge Street. Heading north, the bloc smashed windows all the way up to College Street. At that point, it turned west to make its way back to the “designated protest zone” at Queen’s Park (but not before launching a brief attack on Toronto Police Headquarters). At this point, police quickly surrounded Queen’s Park and began conducting mass arrests of activists regardless of whether or not they were with the bloc. Police continued to make mass arrests throughout the weekend.  They fired tear gas at peaceful protesters during jail solidarity actions and held hundreds of people in a kettle at Queen and Spadina, where they stood for four hours in the rain.

Although the bloc’s actions were quickly demonized, one Toronto Star journalist was forced to concede that, “for the most part,” the black bloc’s targets were “specific and symbolic.” Commenting on the logic of target selection, the reporter noted that, “as the crowd tore across Queen St., they hammered police cruisers, attacked banks and other corporate companies. Yet they left a record store, a local tavern and an independent hardware shop untouched.”

*

The shells of the burnt out cop cars were still warm when the social democratic left began publicly denouncing the black bloc for its actions. Concurrently, they accused the police of playing at “public relations” by allowing the destruction to occur in order to justify their bloated budget. Leaders of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) stressed that property destruction was antithetical to their own members’ commitment to democracy and civil dissent. For OFL President Sid Ryan, the violence of black bloc “hooligans” was a threat to civil society on par with the ISU’s unprecedented occupation of the city. Both, he contended, needed to be condemned for their violation of democratic norms. Ryan concluded by noting that, “when we march against injustice, we also march for our democratic rights. And these rights are far too precious to give up – to hooligans or to Harper.”

In the days and months following the summit, commentators reiterated this basic formula with startling persistence. In these accounts, democracy retreats into shadows the moment violence takes the stage. As Pasha Malla put it in an article for The Walrus, “violence represents the annihilation of language: it occurs when words fail, when people refute dialogue or are themselves silenced.” The resolution to violence, then, is to be found through democratic norms, Habermasian “ideal speech situations” in which different social players can hear each other out and resolve their differences.

This kind of speech situation is the mythic promise that legitimates bourgeois democracy. However, to the extent that it ever existed, it’s important to remember that bourgeois democracy did not talk its way into being. The dialogical space of representative democracy found its precondition in the bourgeoisie’s own violent struggle against the feudal regime. Historical consideration makes clear that – far from constituting its antithesis – violence was the very means by which bourgeois dialogue came to constitute “the political.” But the sanctification of dialogue in the bourgeois public sphere did not eradicate violence; it merely made it more difficult to perceive directly. Bourgeois nations subject each other to ongoing violence in their struggle for market dominance. Within the nation itself, those whose claims cannot be accommodated within the restrictive framework of representational politics remain intimately familiar with violence.

Although they persistently disavow violence, social democrats remain intuitively aware of its centrality to all politics. To the extent that social democratic forces ever constituted credible oppositions within bourgeois parliaments, they did so on the basis of their connection to working class movements that retained their capacity for violence. Indeed, the history of labour struggles during the 19th and early 20th centuries reveals the extent to which the strike – although ostensibly geared toward addressing particular conditions of work – always contained within it the possibility of a more fundamental social reorganization. Such transformations can yield new utopian configurations of possibility; however, for those invested in the preservation of the status quo, utopian aspirations were identified as being objectively violent. Although the threat of working class violence gave social democrats the capacity to negotiate with constituted power, it simultaneously threatened to make them irrelevant.

Social democracy aimed to channel working class movements into representational politics. But every time “economic” struggles became “politicized” (as in the sympathy strike, the general strike, and the factory occupation), the question of violence inescapably arose and tested the limits of representation. To call it class “war” was not hyperbole. Whenever working class struggles moved beyond determining the rate at which labour would be exploited, they entered a contest of sovereignty in which the means of production themselves would be the spoils. Faced with such a threat, violent capitalist retribution was swift and inevitable. In response, workers developed their own capacity for resistance. Historical examples of this capacity are found in the armed militias of the Western Federation of Miners and the terrorist activities of the Molly Maguires, and among many less formal means of meting out violence against scabs.

By taking the means of production as their site of struggle, and by using tactics that raised the question of social ownership and control, strikes became a means by which workers began developing a functional counter-power within capitalist society. As Walter Benjamin recounts, the legal enshrinement of labour’s right to strike made it the only force other than the state capable of wielding violence legitimately.

This “right” was won through violent industrial struggle. As labour historian Louis Adamic recounts, union recognition was often won through conflicts – sometimes armed – that forced individual employers and state representatives to the table “just as in real war.” The “seat at the table” coveted by social democrats came into the world by passing through violence (in some cases, the anticipation of future violence was enough to bring particularly far-sighted capitalists into negotiation). However, once at the negotiating table, labour leaders and social democratic politicians became increasingly disconnected from the violence that made their representative position possible. By the end of World War II, the drama of “negotiation” became fully ritualized as unionized industrial workers were granted significant benefits in exchange for labour peace.

By the mid-1970s, the benefits accrued during previous decades came under attack. Reading the signs correctly, some unions launched defensive campaigns to preserve these gains. For the most part, however, the labour movement continued to insist on its place at the table and maintained a one-sided truce. It didn’t matter that the table had disappeared. No longer capable of remembering the violence that made the gains of the post-war period possible, mainstream unions and social democratic parties were forced to reduce themselves to moral arguments and empathic appeals. These postures continue to be the bread and butter of social democratic and mainstream labour formations. It is therefore not surprising that, on June 26, the anti-G20 labour march gathered under a banner that read “we deserve better.”

In order to understand the intensity with which social democrats denounced the black bloc, it’s necessary to come to terms with the impossible situation faced by contemporary social democrats. No longer acknowledged by capital and no longer credible to those they claim to represent, social democrats have become a force of reaction trying to preserve the illusion of representative democracy – the very myth that capital relies upon to legitimate its own violence.

Social democrats may be loath to admit it, but black bloc tactics made the precariousness of their engagement with representational politics visible for anyone who cared to look. At the same time, however, it’s important to note that, while the bloc’s violence effectively highlighted the limits of representational politics, it did not yet point to a world beyond it. Paradoxically, in the very act of making the centrality of violence to all politics visible, the black bloc revealed its own limits as well. After all, smashing windows does not even begin to approximate the acts required to create a new society. As a commentator on the anarchist website Infoshop.org put it while concluding their assessment of the bloc’s actions, “we must begin to ask the difficult questions, as some have begun, about how these situations can escalate toward our goals of abolishing hierarchy and domination more generally.”

We must look toward the next convergence of anarchist forces not as a theater where the same routine can be played out again, but where we can press onwards with the momentum created in Toronto to intensify these ruptures and open up a space to realize the anarchist desire for freedom in all its possible forms.

It thus becomes clear that – even at its most violent – the black bloc is caught between a moment of production that has yet to be achieved and a moment in which the logic of representation forever threatens to subsume it.

*

When viewed alongside anti-summit protests like those that took place in Seattle in 1999, what was striking about the demonstration on June 26 was how social democratic and black bloc perspectives confronted one another without the mediation of a third force that had defined earlier struggles.

Drawing on forest defense strategies developed by groups like Earth First! and the Ruckus Society, one of the most remarkable aspects of the anti-WTO protests in Seattle was the use of “non-violent direct action” methods. Using these methods, demonstrators aimed to shut down the WTO meeting by blocking all major intersections and entrance points to the summit. Activists in affinity groups chained themselves together in a manner that made it difficult for police to disentangle and arrest them. In the meantime, large crowds of protesters further frustrated police mobility and delayed delegates’ entry to the summit.

The significance of this form of direct action did not owe solely to the fact that it produced tangible results. In order to be deployed successfully, it required specific capacities and organizational structures. If activists were to shut down the summit, the workings of the event and the systems that enabled it had to be mapped. Concurrently, means of communication and technical organization needed to be established, and affinity groups, clusters, and movement-wide spokescouncils needed to be created in order to facilitate coordination. In short, “politics” started moving from the register of moral claim-making to that of production. Organizing began to take on the attributes of a coordinated labour process. Independent media centres, tactical communication teams, medic groups, and community kitchens formalized a division of labour necessary to this process of production. Spokescouncils enabled affinity groups to determine their participation in the action.

In Seattle, some 10,000 activists took part in affinity groups committed to shutting down the WTO through the use of non-violent direct action. These activists were tear gassed, pepper sprayed, beaten, and arrested in a violent show of state force. Some protesters remained dogmatic in their non-violence, while others began to fight back. At this point, the black bloc’s actions became pedagogically instructive. Seattle revealed how the class war could once again become a two-sided affair.

It’s significant that, while many activists undoubtedly began experimenting with direct action on account of their dissatisfaction with representational politics, the direct actions themselves – when pushed to their logical conclusion – made the question of violence impossible to avoid. Our opponents recognized this fact and, with the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, arrival at the “logical conclusion” was expedited dramatically. One need only consider how the Act enlarged the category of “domestic terrorist” to include those who engage in actions (including non-violent direct actions) to “influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion” to see how this is the case.

Despite its newly embellished criminal status, non-violent direct action remains enticing in a bourgeois society. Because it eschews the use of violence and accepts the state’s monopoly of force, non-violent direct action remains intelligible to bourgeois law. Support for these actions can be built by appealing to discourses of human rights and to their participants’ avowed willingness to go to jail for having made a stand against unjust laws (which, no matter how unjust, they still recognize as laws that the state has the right to enforce). At the same time, however, non-violent direct action is also about building movement capacities and developing the power to take and hold space. It’s a form of struggle that, by its very nature, constantly seeps out of the representational framework of bourgeois politics. Even though it is not yet explicit about its aspirations, the implicit violence of non-violent direct action challenges the very essence of bourgeois rule.

Because it interferes with the direct workings of the system and always broaches the question of power, direct action can spiral “out of control.” For this reason, the state often responds with a heavy hand, aiming to reassert its monopoly of force. At this point, politics becomes war. Under such conditions, the presence of groups like the black bloc – who make clear their willingness to contest the state’s monopoly of force – perform an illuminating function. They recast the frame of struggle for those drawn into non-violent direct action by revealing that the realization of “another world” requires that we come to terms with the violence underlying every political act.

*

Important antecedents to this process can be found in the US civil rights movement of the 1960s. Facing conditions of severe political repression in the US South, non-violent direct action was used to gain basic democratic rights like the right to vote, the right to be served at a lunch counter, and the right to sit where one pleases on a city bus. Even though non-violent sit-ins, boycotts, and marches were fully within the bounds of bourgeois politics – which helps, in part, to explain why the civil rights movement was able to grow as quickly and effectively as it did – they were also calculated provocations to Southern white supremacy. Civil rights protesters were thus brutally beaten by police and set upon with fire hoses and dogs.

But alongside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee-led civil disobedience campaigns were social forces that constituted a kind of extrinsic referent, much as the black bloc did in Seattle. The Deacons for Defense and Justice were a paramilitary organization that provided armed security for civil rights protests and leaders. They also engaged in gun battles with marauding white racists.
Under the leadership of Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam also maintained a paramilitary formation called the Fruit of Islam, which conveyed a message of confrontation and implacable resistance to white supremacy. The Black Panther Party organized armed patrols of black communities and held public drills with recruits in matching berets, black leather jackets, and powder blue shirts.

Each of these formations stood in dialectical tension to the civil rights movement, which – through the use of non-violent direct action – had mobilized tens of thousands of people across the US. The Deacons, the Fruit of Islam, and the Panthers acted as a leavening agent that helped to transform the civil rights movement into a Black Power movement capable of fighting for control over specific territory. This process culminated in attempts by groups like the Republic of New Africa to establish a national territory for blacks in the US.

Another example of the relationship between non-violent direct action and paramilitary formations is found in the Six Nations land reclamation in Caledonia. Initially, the only way a protest against suburban developments on contested land could win public backing from the traditional chiefs and clan mothers was if it was organized as a strictly non-violent affair. Consequently, organizers used non-violent direct action tactics to halt construction and set up a semi-permanent protest camp. Alongside community members and direct action activists, the camp became home to a number of people from various “warrior society” groups. Wearing the army camouflage made iconic by the Mohawk Warriors in the “Oka crisis” of 1990, these warriors aimed to protect the land and their people from attack by the Canadian state. Their presence made clear that, if police raided the site, they could expect serious resistance.

After a month and a half, the Ontario government decided that it could no longer put up with Six Nations’ de facto claim to sovereignty. On April 20, 2006, it launched an early-morning raid with more than 200 OPP officers. Holding C-8 assault rifles and 1440 rounds of ammunition in reserve, the police used pepper spray and Tasers to clear the camp. The people of Six Nations retaliated. As hundreds of angry community members poured onto the site, they used decidedly violent tactics to take back the land and chase the police off their territory.

In the hours, days, and weeks that followed, the warriors secured the site, established checkpoints, barricades, and patrols, and functioned as an effective security force. To avoid escalation, people agreed that no firearms would be brought onto the site. Nevertheless, by reclaiming the site from the police (and with the constant threat of police incursion or an attack from angry townspeople), the framework of non-violence had been fundamentally altered. Six Nations’ claim to sovereignty over territory and its displacement of the bourgeoisie’s colonial “rule of law” by the principles of justice handed down within Six Nations’ own traditions became plain for all to see.

*

Although many questions remain concerning the practical out-comes of these struggles, they are useful reference points because they reveal an important relationship between non-violent direct actions and formations like the black bloc. And though they may seem far removed from the circumstances in which we find ourselves today, the imperatives and dilemmas we face in producing a revolutionary politics adequate for our times are remarkably similar. Whatever its shortcomings, the black bloc carried within it the possibility that others engaged in resistance to the G20 would come to terms with the violence underlying all politics. And it’s for precisely this reason that the bloc was so worrisome to the state.

But the bloc on its own can do little. In order for its potential to be fully realized, its adherents must operate in the context of a direct action framework capable of mobilizing large numbers of people. Although, at the outset, these people may not be aware of the implications of their confrontation, the combined experience of hitting the limits of representational politics through direct action and witnessing the activities of forces intent on contending for sovereign power yields a configuration of circumstances in which masses of people can come to terms with the historical actuality of violence in all processes of political transformation. This process poses difficult questions about how the left can build organizational and political dynamics that can transcend the separation of these two forms of resistance. While a discussion of what this might look like is beyond the scope of this editorial, it is clear that the creation of a political culture of debate and accountability within and across movements and organizations is of central importance to such a project.

As long as we are subject to the bourgeois rule of law, non-violent direct action will be an important basis upon which to mobilize people. Despite a few notable exceptions, this framework went underutilized in Toronto. Building resistance to the new wave of austerity programs requires that we revitalize it. Under these conditions, tactics that take and hold space – the strike, the occupation, the blockade – will be crucial. At the same time, however, these tactics must coincide with a conception of politics that pushes us further.

Formations like the black bloc are not simply tactical. Every mass movement that seeks to contest bourgeois power needs recourse to political formations willing and able to organize outside the sphere of representational politics. The black bloc’s operations on this terrain are still limited and inconclusive. Nevertheless, by entering a field of political engagement beyond bourgeois norms, they have illuminated the constraints within which we normally operate. Like a flashpoint, such an illumination is pedagogically important. However, in order for the lesson to be conveyed effectively, it must be presented in contexts where large numbers gather on the basis of a shared hostility to bourgeois “politics.”  Outside of these conditions, our experience of events spectacularly tinged with violence will yield little more than glimpses of insight before they are representationally subsumed.