A contribution to the "Reflections on J18" collection.
Keep it up, don't let violence divide us
I've been trying to write something for the J18 "critique" publication for some time now, but I have been finding it difficult after being swept up in Friday's events in London, and the subsequent media fall-out. Originally, I wanted to write a piece about the ups and downs of electronic discussion groups, the challenges of global networking, etc., but I find myself unable to. I should have done it before Friday! Now I have seen so much vitriol written about the "violence" at the carnival, that I feel compelled to write a more sympathetic account. However, before I do that I want to consider some lessons that our movement can learn from the organisation and execution of this global protest against capitalism. Given the police and the media response, I think it would be fair to say that we have hit capital, and we have hit it hard. At times like this, I always worry about state reprisals. My thoughts go out to comrades who have been arrested, and to those who have faced house searches or intimidation from the police following the demo. And then there's those lying in hospital beds, or nursing wounds at home following the bloody police repression on the day. As the police sift through video evidence and photos, many more may face knocks on the door in the days and nights to come. However, I have faith that our movement will support all of those who face difficulties at this time. The media have made much of the use of the "Internet" in J18, and I believe that we must now expect increased monitoring of our electronic activities (I know that not everybody has computer access), and further repressive legislation against free speech on the internet. Such moves on the part of the state (perhaps in concert with the multinationals that now provide much of the internet's "structure") must be resisted at all costs. We do not yet know how sophisticated state monitoring of our electronic networks is, if it exists at all. At this time, the police seem to be playing "catch up", but we should not assume that they will be so naive in the future. Further attention must be paid to the use of secure web and e-mail servers controlled by ourselves, and to the use of strong encryption software for increased security in individual-individual communications. On the other hand, J18 demonstrated that open and un-moderated discussion lists are an excellent way for us to network across continents. More importantly, they provide a useful interface between activists and non-activists. This sort of contact with others, be they sympathisers or detractors, can only strengthen our movement, and is a useful means of ensuring that our movement does not become "ghettoised" and that we maintain contact with others outside of the activist milieux. Of course, we must remember the class nature of the internet, and help to realise the goal of free internet access for all, perhaps through info-shops or libraries.
I think the other big success of the events was the media work. Although I would normally be one who is suspicious of any contact with mainstream media at all, we have shown that by careful use of press releases, we can partly influence what is written about us. All of the mainstream June 18 news reports that I have seen mentioned that the events were happening in many countries, were timed to coincide with the G8 summit in Koln, and were constituted by an amalgam of many different groups. Most importantly, the London events were billed as an "anti-capitalist" demonstration. They can't write us off as "anti-car" protestors any longer. Plus, the J18 web site team did an excellent job presenting our own media and our own voices on the day.
The planning and organisation of the days events was incredible. I have never known such networking, and all done autonomously, with groups and individuals in charge of themselves and their own actions. In my opinion, the whole day stands as a tribute to anarchist methods of organisation, and shows how far commitment and careful planning can get you. On the day itself, seeing all those autonomous groups in action was incredible. Within the so-called "riot" lay the seeds of an alternative society, an alternative reality. Our reality.
Before getting into the thorny subject of violence, I want to drop in the following passage lifted from the Australian publication, "Anarchist Age Weekly Review," No. 355:
"Violence? So Kim Beazley the leader of the opposition was blessed with a pie in the face over the weekend. Listening to the media's response to this little episode you'd think that protesting about the Group of Seven's activities promoted violence. The corporate media conveniently forgets that the G8's success is due to their ability to be able to mobilise the dogs of war. Violence is an integral component of the G8 group of countries. These countries have a political and economic system that promotes inequality. The G8's power is reliant on their ability to mobilise weapons of mass destruction. Their economic and social infrastructure promotes hunger, poverty and inequality. Violence is the main instrument that cements their hegemony over their empire. A few thousand protestors throwing a few rocks or a single protester pieing a leading politician can by no stretch of the imagination be considered violent behaviour. The real violence occurs as a consequence of the power of the G8. The poverty that is endemic in so many nation states and many of the pointless wars which exist, occur as a consequence of the power of the G8. The concentration of power and wealth that occurs in the world's G8 economies is real sustained violence. The response to this institutionalised violence is essentially self defence not pre-mediated violence. Every time the media describes the skirmishes that occur between the G8 group of nation states and protestors as violence, it reinforces the idea that the state and the corporate sector have a God given right to use violence to defend their interests. In their eyes anybody who protests against the concentration of power and wealth which exists in the G8 nation states is guilty of violent behaviour, irrespective of how tame or peaceful their demonstrations are."
We must be very clear that the media concentration on the "violence" on Friday is a deliberate attempt to discredit our movement and to try to divide us along the lines of whether we agree that (always carefully targetted please) "violence" is a legitimate tactic or not. I do not like to see members of our supposedly diverse movement condemn people for smashing windows or fighting with the police. One activist wrote a message to an internet news group saying that he wished that those people who smashed down the entrance to the LIFFE building or those who were throwing bottles at the riot cops had been arrested so that the rest of us could get on with our "peaceful demo". First they came for the violent activists, and I did not speak out because I am not a violent activist. Then they came for me, and there was noone left to speak out for me. Through the whole planning stage of the June 18 events in London, there was always a concern that the whole thing would turn into a (really massive) riot, or that the cops would simply nick everyone when they turned up. One way or another, this demonstration was always going to have the potential to be a bit "heavy". Furthermore, many people felt that the purpose of our actions, to disrupt the epi-center of global capitalism, demanded radical action in the extreme. In the circumstances, I believe it is to the credit of both the organisers and some of the street fighters that more people were not hurt or arrested on that day. Although there were some drunken bottle-throwers who chucked stuff anywhere (as others have reported), people have not reported the "positive" aspects of the way that autonomous groups of militants defended the demonstration from police repression on the day. In contrast to what others have said, for me one of the highlights of the day was when the entrance to LIFFE building was trashed. I think that these symbolic "breaches" are important. This was a modern day Storming of the Bastille (well, almost) and there was nothing that the cops could do about it. With their security guards, all their cops and their "ring of steel" they could not prevent the mob, the voices of the victims of capitalism worldwide, from bursting their way into one of their temples. This is the stuff that dreams are made of.
But, yes, people got hurt. The police went absolutely fucking crazy (of course). Amongst their first victims were activists who had been trying to calm the situation down between the blue line and the Carnival. After they had beaten the crowd away from the LIFFE, calm returned for a while, and I believe that it would have been possible to prevent further violence at this point. But it was not to be. Oh, as an aside, when the fighting started with the riot cops outside the LIFFE, I saw a bonehead with a t-shirt with a bulldog, union jack and "England" written on it join the crowd to fight with the police. I appreciate that everything is not always as it seems in a Carnival. Most people don't like crazed drunks who lob bottles at the police. However, once a largely peaceful crowd is being indiscriminately attacked by riot cops, you are grateful for those people to defend the mass from brutality. I must say that it was at this point that the standard of the street fighting improved dramatically. I saw teams of activists forming lines of their own to repel police charges. When the police tried to use horses against this section of the crowd, the crowd charged back at the horses. This happened a second time and a couple of coppers were pulled off their mounts. The horses were not used against this section of the crowd again. In the main, missiles were transported to the front line before being discharged at the cops. Behind the front lines, the carnival continued! As the cops pushed us up the road, militants smashed bank windows. Although the destruction sometimes seemed arbitrary, e.g. people dismantling traffic lights, in the main it was "targeted" (again, the media used this phrase a lot, which I think is a success on our part as we managed to get this over) at bank windows, McDonalds and posh cars. An awful lot of people sustained injuries on Friday. By no means all of them were behaving "violently". I saw some really horrific injuries, most of which seemed to be head injuries. I heard that a couple of people (at least) got run over by police vans. I hope everyone is recovering.
Okay, so what lessons should we learn from all of this? Firstly, I think that although we have achieved some successes this time around, we should certainly not rest on our laurels. Although we seem to have caught the cops off guard this time, we should not expect to be so lucky next time. However, we have shown the benefits of anarchist or autonomous methods of organisation in our struggles and we need to continue with these methods. On this occasion, the police chose to behave with extreme aggression towards the crowd. Although this seems to be a "new" tactic, there is no guarantee that they will do the same next time. Although many people clearly trained in methods of self-defense for the event, and there were definitely many tactical successes, we need to learn lessons for the future from this event. In particular, we need to think more carefully about how to defuse violent confrontations. We need effective ways of dealing with possible agent provocateurs who may provoke violence at our events. We need to educate people in our own movements about the time and place for violence. Violence should always be used sparingly, and should be dictated by the nature of the struggle. Violence should primarily be used against capitalist infrastructure and for self defence against riot cops and over-zealous security guards. Once everything has "kicked off", we need trained and experienced street fighters who can respond tactically to different situations. However, at the end of the day, it's perhaps a mistake to look for "order" in "chaos". Seeing all those bleeding heads on Friday, I can't help but feel that we should have the same protection that the riot cops have - notably crash helmets, shields and padded clothing. I seem to remember that their used to be a tradition amongst Amsterdam squatters and German radicals for wearing motorbike helmets at demos.
I began this piece by saying that I didn't like the media concentration on violence, and then all I've done in this piece is talk about it myself. Violence was only a miniscule portion of the global J18 project and most J18 manifestations passed off peacefully. I am glad about that. Solidarity to all June 18ers,