Defending a Movement in Struggle

Dear UTA,
The editorial in UTA 11 provides a reasoned defence of the black bloc action during Toronto’s June 2010 protests against the G20 summit. Nonetheless, the points it raises suggest the need for a different course – one that can help provide effective defence of a movement locked in struggle with police repression.

The anti-G20 actions were a great achievement. A week of protest, called the People’s Summit, included a wide range of organizations, viewpoints, and forms of activity. In the face of fierce police pressure, the People’s Summit grew into a community in struggle.

As we know, this community came under attack. It was disrupted by a rampage of police brutality, arrests, and unjustified criminal charges. Clearly, another dynamic was at work and trumpeted by the mass media – the claim that the city was menaced by supposed terrorists and hooligans and protected by tens of thousands of mobilized cops.

The police were able to act on this claim, leaving anti-capitalist movements facing burdens similar to those that followed some previous summits: many activists paralyzed by detention or non-association conditions, legal costs estimated in the six figures, and widespread public hostility.

As the UTA editors see it, the G20 events were “defined by two controversial violences: that of the state’s Integrated Security Unit and that of the black bloc.” The bloc’s “very presence called into question the state’s monopoly on the use of force,” the editors say. Even its “attire identifies it as a body that does not recognize the sovereignty of the state…. Defiling private property and attacking police, they become – in Rumsfeldian terms – ‘enemy combatants.’”

But to “call into question” the state’s use of force is to create barriers to its use, through both massive resistance and education, and thus turning the relationship of forces against the police. This was neither the goal nor the result of the black bloc action.

Referring to this action, the UTA editors say, “like a flashpoint, such an illumination is pedagogically important,” when carried out in a framework where “large numbers gather.” The imagery is theatrical: the Bloc acts; the audience learns. This approach does not engage broader forces as protagonists, reducing them to the role of spectators – many of them unwilling spectators bearing the brunt of cop reprisals.

Elsewhere, the editors say that the bloc reveals “that the realization of ‘another world’ requires that we come to terms with the violence underlying every political act.” Does this mean that every act of anti-capitalist resistance is in some sense violent? If so, this turns reality on its head. The underlying violence in our society is that of the state. To “come to terms” with this violence, we must show that it is caused by capitalist oppression, not by the people’s resistance, and find effective ways to counter it.

In the face of a huge, provocative police mobilization, it was necessary to defend all the arrested protesters, without exception, and demand that all charges against them be dropped immediately. We had to avoid the right-wing trap of playing off “good” against “bad” protesters. However, it must be acknowledged that the black bloc actions had negative consequences for the movement.

The UTA editors themselves point out that governmental organizers of the police mobilization faced a dilemma. “What threat could they cite to justify such dramatic expenditures and violations of legal norms?” they ask. Indeed, the repressive violence needed a pretext, a story that could be sold to a public that believes in civil liberties and democratic rights. It was thus convenient for the police that the pretext was provided from among the protesters themselves. The bloc’s actions made it easier and less costly for the police to carry out their rampage.

Possible alternatives to the black bloc action are suggested in the other forms of contestation reported elsewhere in UTA 11, such as those of No One Is Illegal and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty – who have run innovative campaigns that have both won wide support against aspects of capitalist oppression.

While praising the black bloc action, the editorial suggests that future initiatives might take another form. It regrets the absence at the G20 of non-violent civil disobedience, which, the editors say, “constantly seeps outside the representational framework of bourgeois politics” and thus has merit as “implicit violence.” The term “violence” seems here to mean no more than defiance of bourgeois legality.

The UTA editors also list a number of historic experiences with groups that they say are similar to black bloc: three examples of defence activities during the Black civil rights struggle in the US and two from recent Indigenous struggles in Canada. But all these examples concern defence guards, which aim to deter and fend off attacks by the state or right-wing forces and to protect oppressed communities or progressive movements.

The heart of such defence efforts lies in rallying broad opposition to state and rightist violence and in demonstrating how the threatened community or movement is seeking to affirm the goals of freedom, democracy, and human rights that all victims of capitalism hold dear.

The Six Nations struggle described by Tom Keefer in UTA 7 provided a graphic example of how such a defence effort can stymie police violence. On one occasion, when cops invaded Indigenous land, “unarmed Six Nations community members physically drove off several dozen police officers armed with automatic rifles, tear gas grenades, pepper spray, and tasers,” Keefer says.
The same approach was evident in the people’s movement that ousted Egypt’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak. When attacked, the demonstrators found ways to resist, and succeeded beating back a police force of 350,000 and driving it off the streets.

Conditions in Canada are far removed from those of Egypt. Yet events there demonstrate an effective approach to the challenge of state violence, aimed at rallying the immense majority in defence of human rights, avoiding provocations, and isolating and pushing back the forces of repression.
As we in Canada head into future mobilizations and confrontations with repressive forces, the need for effective, united defence should figure in our planning.

In solidarity,
John Riddell