Is breaking a window at a demonstration a valid strategic choice, a parapolitical expression of real political rage or an act of pure selfish fun? When our allies try to restrain us, do they simply lack imagination, are they the false friends who run when the cops show up, or are they reminding us that we’re failing to be honest about our motives?
Let’s be asking ourselves these questions right now because they have real, not just theoretical implications.
Can breaking things help the movement?
Undoubtedly, breaking stuff gets attention. When you’ve been part of countless massive mobilizations that barely register for the mainstream, you quickly begin to wonder what is the point. You don’t have to look back very far to remember how actions against the Iraq wars tens of thousands strong, anti-globalization/anti-neoliberalism gatherings that filled entire cities, May Day immigrant rights marches peopled in the hundreds of thousands were all mostly ignored by the national and international press. It makes you crazy, like there are two alternate realities existing side by side and one covering it’s eyes and ears in a deliberate effort to refuse to notice the other. But break one window and you’re on the front of the New York Times. One broken window seems a reasonable price for being noticed.
Except this motivation doesn’t always apply, and in the case of the Oakland Strike, this argument is complete bullshit because we had massive, sympathetic international news coverage before a single window was broken. I need not elaborate that the coverage of the after-midnight actions was of the tabloid, “Oakland is Burning” variety, completely eclipsing coverage of the concurrent, much more focused (but I’m now reading also very problematic) takeover of the foreclosed Travelers Aid building. In other words, fucking shit up took away sympathetic media from the actions that more of us were excited about.
The media will obsess over the stupid things no matter what we do, but let’s be honest that we are playing both sides of the media argument – complaining that they will always irresponsibly focus on the rabble, and then being the rabble ourselves to get that attention. Is it worth it? I don’t know, but I know the price for attention is never just one window.
Your peace police are oppressing me
It takes a real commitment to self-deception to ignore that breaking windows, aggressively confronting cops and spraypainting storefronts creates an atmosphere that completely obliterates the voices of those who do not want to participate in those actions. It is a stated goal of many black bloc participants to shift the struggle in a different direction – to intensify it. But propaganda of the deed shifts the energy of the environment, both among protestors and in the police response, in a way that the larger group has no say in. It is antidemocratic in the sense of the word democratic that means political and social equality among all people.
Since I’m a bit thick, it took my having my own child to recognize that black bloc tactics make the environment totally inaccessible to families with small children. This is not “concern trolling” or liberal handwringing over the theoretical idea of alienating potential allies. This is my real concern as a parent: I don’t feel safe bringing my child to scary, liminal, highly volatile angry spaces where things are being hurled through windows. I think most parents feel the same way. Fucking shit up mid-day during a massive rally that includes a wide-range of people drives away families and I hardly need elaborate the problem with intentionally excluding families from your movement. (And in the case of the Oakland Strike, even the children’s marches felt quite forceful, taking to the street immediately, so cannot be accused of following the arbitrary rules of the status quo.)
Outside of my own experience, it is obvious to anyone who bothers to look that these tactics make the space physically unsafe for old people and many people with disabilities. Too, these actions put the whole group at risk of severe police retaliation which has an obvious and problematic racial dimension. Black bloc members who are white (as most but of course not all are) should take a moment to reflect on how unlikely they are to suffer lasting legal consequences for their actions, while they are simultaneously putting nearby people of color at great risk of arrest or physical abuse by police. Police will act unjustly without provocation – we need not take responsibility for that. But choosing to provoke police in an atmosphere where the majority are not interested in doing so, or at least not in doing so by the same means is something we do need to take responsibility for.
And finally, it seems so obvious it shouldn’t even require mentioning (although apparently it does require mentioning) that the people who run small businesses in areas where demonstrations take place, people who here in Oakland are often immigrants, people of color and women, and are rarely making much money, do not get any kind of say in whether these tactics should be used. And if you look in their windows as these protests approach, you’ll get a flavor of how fearful these folks are of the approaching mob in their requisite “we support Occupy Oakland/Oscar Grant/etc” signs that are in no practical way different from the American flags you’d see in immigrant-owned shop windows post 9-11. These desperate attempts to save their storefronts are a fairly obvious indicator of how terrorized small shop owners feel in these situations.
In short, black bloc actions have an extreme, disproportionate impact on the larger protest community and the larger general community, but the larger community has no say in those black bloc actions.
A valid question that follows is then when do those who want to take black bloc style actions get to do so? Why should other forms of protest always prevail? I wont pretend to know the answer because this is still an open question for me, but I can say unequivocally that Oakland on November 2nd was a very foolish moment to use these strategies because…
Physically trashing an economically beleaguered and people of color centered downtown is politically idiotic
On an average day Downtown Oakaland is full of the empty storefronts and collapsing infrastructure that characterize post-industrial America. The people who live downtown all fall within a spectrum of middle class, working class, or poor – some desperate and homeless. Many if not most residents of downtown are people of color and or immigrants. The people who work downtown are also largely brown and middle class or poor. They work in non-profits, social justice organizations, small community businesses, or in the case of the corporate outlets, local franchises that are in terms of financial risk and benefit for the local manager effectively also small local businesses. The majority who work at the few corporate offices downtown are not highly paid and likely feel pretty lucky to have jobs right now. When we break windows downtown, we unequivocally hasten the physical and economic deterioration of this space that is peopled by those we claim to want to defend. I cannot come up with one sane argument for trashing the homes and workplaces of Oaklanders, those who are clearly not the deciders of capitalist policies, not even on a very local level.
If this tactic of breaking windows, tagging and other property destruction is to be employed, Downtown Oakland is a very poor choice as a target.
But focused anti-bank vandalism and the building takeover were separate from tagging downtown
On one hand we use rhetoric about intensifying the struggle. We know that breaking one window at Citibank will not shut them down, but we want to believe that breaking that window will inspire larger radical action, a change of thinking toward corporations or private property generally. But then when people take us at our word, when they are in fact inspired by the site of a broken window to break one of their own, often without the clear focus on the worst offenders in the capitalist system, we don’t want to take responsibility for our own contribution to that action. If we intensify the struggle in the direction of radical property destruction then we are in part responsible for the radical property destruction that follows, even if we don’t approve of the specific targets chosen by those who follow us.
We can’t have it both ways. Either our actions are serving to radicalize people into taking action (in which case the random tagging and window breaking of small businesses in downtown Oakland is our fault) or they are not (in which case what is the point?).
Why we riot
Breaking windows, tagging, confronting cops en mass is thrilling. If you’ve ever tasted them, you know they make you feel alive, and let us not underestimate the need for that feeling. The loneliness, anxiety, tedium, and the numbing hum of constant stimulus of our daily lives provides few opportunities for it. It is not just a good feeling, although it feels good. It seems to me it is a necessary feeling, it is a reminder that anything is possible. It may be that some form of this feeling is the only way to push us to creating a real, better world, to imagining what is now considered by most to be impossible but which is essential for the survival of our communities and the natural world.
But the actions that engender this feeling just aren’t sustainable. Breaking windows feels good, and at times it may serve a useful tactical purpose, but when we are honest we can see that it also alienates, it strikes fear, not (just) in the hearts of capitalist deciders, but in the hearts of our friends and allies. It leaves a big fucking mess that someone, always someone else, has to clean up. And the person who cleans it up is never the person to whom we wish to direct our rage.
The urge to rage is an urge to define our own terms and to break free of the rules that we as a community impose on ourselves, rules that seek to quash creative anger. We should define our own terms. We should articulate our rage. Defining and articulating and raging are the things that allow us to be expansive in our imagination of the future, and to be bold in our efforts to get there. But we rage also for the gleeful, childish pleasure of breaking things. And we tend do so with little thought toward the real consequences. This is an inherent component of rage, not just a coincidental co-factor. If we unleash chaos we must take responsibility for its results. If we don’t want those results, then we must find another way to direct our anger.
I want us as radicals to make our anger laser sharp in focus, I want us to use our boldness in ways that don’t provide us only with our own selfish thrill.
We want to remake the world anew, but the world will not be made better without some careful consideration. Let’s not pretend that our rage is automatically liberating. Let’s not pretend that we ourselves are incapable of causing real harm.
*EDIT: For what it’s worth, I wrote this before I really understood the controversy about the building takeover. I was home with my sleeping kid by the time of that action and the reports have taken a minute to come in. The more I read about it though, the more turned off I am by how it was carried out.*Second EDIT: A thoughtful discussion of the problems with the Traveler’s Aid building takeover can be found in the comments section of this thread.*