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Building Blocs for our movements: A letter to change the temperature of our discussion

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Building Blocs for our movements:  A letter to change the temperature of our discussion

Building Blocs for our movements:

A letter to change the temperature of our discussion

Macdonald Stainsby


Sometimes you rant, and other times you rant into another rant and so on. This was one of those times.


I: General Premise

There developed a lot of heat in our organizing circles after the convergences in both Vancouver, and then again after the G8. It seems like the tone has come way down, thankfully. So, in an attempt at maintaining that measured tone, now seems like a good time to put out some ideas that cropped up from all of this. Let's have that talk, respectfully.

When I hear people who have been associated with social justice struggles for a long time decide to openly call for police to arrest protesters, when I hear them criticize the police for insufficently “maintaining law and order” or “not doing their jobs” I do not feel like these voices make me safer, even though I did not attend the G8/G20 protests at all. I feel far less safe, and worry that the police may, in fact, listen to these calls for more police repression (as if the actions in Toronto somehow were not, in fact, enough). When I read calls for volunteer vigilantism from some ostensible leftward thinkers to “stop black bloc protests ourselves if the police will not do it”, it makes me want to don a mask though I've never done so at a demonstration (other than the day after the Italian police murdered Carlo Guiliani, who was indeed wearing a black mask and protesting-- drum roll please-- the G8).


In a different context I recently was reminded of how children who are abused by their parents psychologically assume some form of control to prevent going insane. The sad stories of little ones who think if they just washed the dishes properly, or put their bike away in the garage, that they would somehow stop their abusive father from hitting them with a belt for 20 minutes straight. This is usually a form of false assumption of agency, designed to help one believe that they can determine what happens under the oppressive guidelines of their violent parents. It is not true, but it provides a false strategy they can then attempt to stop the abuse.


People who do not want to believe that the system itself is the problem, but that the police forces can be persuaded to play by rules we all collectively agree on seem to be at the heart of the “blame the black bloc” for police state violence, threats, attempted and carried out sexual assaults, horrid prison conditions, attacks on civil liberties, violations of charter rights and more. These critics are carrying out this collective form of false agency.

“If the windows of Starbucks had not been smashed, the police would not have threatened to rape young women, fired tear gas directly at individuals who stood peacefully in the streets, or used Gestapo tactics to invade peoples homes at 4am,” is one.

“If I had not fed the dog from the dinner table, daddy might not have put that cigarette out on my arm while I screamed. If I had picked up my clothes off the floor, I would not have been slapped so hard I have a black eye,” is another. Whether you do or do not pick up your laundry, no one ever has the right to break down your door in the middle of the night and arrest you. Herein lies the fallacy of the thought that we can somehow make the state behave: There is no teacher at school who will spot our bruises. The only thing we can do is band together and force them to never threaten us again-- that means breaking their power, not asking them to not use it.


When I see lists made of 'traitourous' people on the other hand, who are carrying out these false assumptions of agency as though they need to be branded, marked and thrown into a jail (by prison abolitionists, no less) I see absolutely no way out of the problems. Such forms of critique cause individuals-- rightly or wrongly-- to dig in, prepare themselves for a battle that is about defending their lives. Indeed, those of us who have been organizing for a decade, 15, 20, 30 plus years-- that's what it is. Instead of political critique and the counter posing of much better ideas, it is character assassination designed to obliterate not bad politics, but the right of individuals to carry out political work. Faced with such, almost anyone will fight to the death, for one. People who hear, see or read that approach will see that for what it is as well – and that approach surrenders the argument for another reason. Bad arguments lose when they are forced to be defended in a political manner; people defending their lives, reputations and/or careers will do far more. What's more damning is why these debates have gotten to the point they are at: The reason these debates have been so bad, so unhealthy, so acrimonious in the extreme is fairly simple-- though it seems no one is willing to say it. We have no fucking idea what the Hell we are doing. None of us do, and therein lies the trap. How, no matter what your position, can we argue constantly over tactics when none of us has a strategy?


II: We Have No Strategy but Tactics [What are we doing, again?]


There, I said it. We have no idea what we are doing. Maybe in one-off campaigns, even high profile ones, but not for the advancement of a struggle that breaks down, confronts and dismantles power.

“I have one,” you might be saying to yourself. I don't think you do, reader. I really don't. I know I do not, but I believe that admitting one has a problem is the first step to solving it. That's why power wants to believe that climate change is not real, that racism is just a bunch of bad attitudes held by a few remaining racists, that women have finally reached equality, that Canada is some sort of Shangri La for all queers, that all people who live in North America or anywhere in the Global North are “middle class” if they are not outright homeless. But as fighters for a better world, we must do better than power at admitting our problems. No, what most people mean by “movement building” does not work. It can garner some victories, certainly-- and it has transformed various sectors of power towards justice in all the arenas listed a couple of sentences prior to this one. But it has not successfully confronted, dismantled and decisively eliminated power and abuse in and of itself. Correct me if I am wrong, but I always have thought that was what we are supposed to be about. Confronting and dismantling power.


No tactic is immune to criticism. This has been stated before, but it needs to be further fleshed out in some detail. The idea of the one, all encompassing demand has been co-opted by the trappings of a state set up of representative institutions specifically designed to prevent the emergence of participatory ones, to begin with-- but also to blur and deny the fundamental uniting of all movements for justice from coming together. Almost all singular demands have, as their starting point, an ask-not-tell component to them. Please stop killing Afghans. Please don't mine the tar sands. “Give” us more money for housing. We use the phrase “demands” but when mobilizations are simply collecting drives for giant assemblies of people to come together and listen to appointed special persons from Unions, Churches or NGO's, they allow for networking but little else beyond that. Further, it should be noted that such actions also reinforce the very structures and systems of power that we are supposedly trying to breakdown. We become unpaid extras in a bad play written by playwrights who control the levers of power and who give the police their orders.


Often times these same rallies host all manners of people actively involved in repression as “allies” of a “singular cause”. I gave an example of the trade union leadership above, but also many times we will have people from various political parties who are also part of the very system (and who hold political opinions contrary to anti-oppression, such as anti-Palestinian members of the New Democrats, or pro-tar sands developing Liberals, etc). This should not be a hard and fast rule, it should however be fairly clear that in the name of 'movement building' this often sits by the wayside.


Part of what has been most off-putting about the denunciations of the black bloc is the underlying assumption that those tactics are “too uncouth” for “our” society. The same people who made comments in a moralistic sense against black bloc tactics will be the first to line up and celebrate open revolt anywhere but here, from black neighbourhoods in the US to peasant uprising in South Asia. Just don't talk to us about even contemplating that, here. Part of what so irks some of these people undoubtedly is that even just a few skinny anarchists breaking windows creates scenes that remind them that the revolution they imagine-- where under an imperialist, capitalist, patriarchal order, the state withers away in Marxian like transition to communism fashion-- is Goddamnned impossible. This, it needs to be restated, is not going to happen. Dream of a better world, yes-- but prepare to fight for it to make it real.This doesn't mean to grab a mask or a brick, it means to not lose sense of what the real power relations are in the society we currently share.


The main criticism made against the black bloc tactic from an amoral-- as in strategic and therefore potentially valid-- position is about effectiveness. Yet the reasons for not talking about the effectiveness of tactics around legally recognized methods are almost never stated. Sadly, it is probably more of the assumed false agency. Most people, because they are sane and loving, do not want to go through a violent or even psychologically scarring struggle against power. The preference is for an ask and receive form of politics. Certainly one might get stressed by having to argue over what the demand of this or that march in a park might be-- but it is a far cry from bring forcibly entrapped by large heavily armoured individuals with guns and held in a public square until you soil yourself. Herein likely lies the reasoning behind why people are not brought forth to the same vitriol over ineffective tactics which are legal, and which are respected by law enforcement.


Carrying out actions that do not work but make one feel like they tried allows us to reinforce the status quo denial of how struggle works. This reinforcement then goes back to the child-like self-blaming game once again-- if I, or others like me and I, had only worked harder, made our point clearer, messaged our struggle more poignantly, then the demanded change would have been brought about. And certainly better efforts are always a good idea; it does not follow that the efforts were insufficient in sincerity, when they may indeed have been insufficient in intransigence. However, such intransigence is still no guarantee against co-optation, so long as democracy itself is not also a part of the organizing. Witness the environmental movement.


III: Environmental NGO's-- Tactics and Strategy


Rather than fight head on against the interests of environmentalism, much like the labour movements, student movements and a veritable deli of places where power exercises tyranny and must be dismantled, our representative checks that act to stop participatory democracy have legalized professionalism, so long as it is tamed enough to act more or less separate from natural allies in other struggles-- and creates slight changes in policy that do not challenge the very nature of the system that created the problems in the first place. So, on one hand we can have the intransigence-- think to images of mass arrests at Clayoquot Sound, to anti-mass direct actions that have been carried out against tar sands operations, disruptions of politicians speaking here and there-- intransigence is not the problem. Lack of accountability and democracy for the professionals co-opted into the system becomes the issue.

The problem is structural, not individual. That is a much more serious problem.


Without a truly democratic structure, organizations that have less mandate than Trade Unions have been able to make entire grassroots movements extremely weakened, or blunted nearly all together. The direct actions that began to stop logging in the Great Bear Rainforest got sloughed aside-- and in their place was presented a 'deal' that reinforced logging, removed democratic accountability, ignored the concerns of both grassroots environmentalists and first nations and-- perhaps most important though seldom raised-- created a belief that such decisions were not up to the public (however one defines that) and that capitalism had to get “something” out of the deal.


The over-all dynamic of ENGO operations, even when based on direct action, are often reinforcing of the power dynamics of society however much they simultaneously inspire. The false, yet often repeated, mantra of the ENGO movements are two fold: one, even when breaking the law never confront beyond the symbolic. Shut downs of operations are not like workers downing tools-- they are almost always undone within the short term, be it minutes, hours or very occasionally days. The goal is to receive attention for a class of professional-- trained as such, separate from the people-- and their organization. It is a marketing campaign, steered by people most of us will never meet.


The campaigns themselves are secondary; if a campaign is important but not receiving a level of attention to garner sufficient financial reward, the campaign will be called off-- not for the sake of the environment, or even the environmentalists-- but for the professionals; these are the same professionals who cut backroom, unaccountable deals that have the effects illustrated above. They openly work to monopolize actions-- to only involve those who have “the right training.” The notion that only the professionals do the stunts-- designed as they are for group publicity-- dis-empowers people from taking their own actions, even while they applaud the very same actions carried out. More and more is it the case that these actions are “leverage” in another attempt to get a deal-- again, carried out with the very industries that the environment-- especially in an era of climate change-- urgently needs to have shut down, forcibly and permanently and democratically. Not temporarily, symbolically and hierarchically.


The real tragedy here is that this anti-democratic result is the strategy. Unlike many of the failed strategies that follow failed tactics, the anti-democratic nature and wholly compromised into the system nature of the ENGO movement has been a remarkable success from its own point of view. However, it has been severed not only from its grassroots base, but other social justice struggles, the anti-war movements, indigenous struggles, anti-authoritarian struggles and struggles for community self-determination. In place of that, it now has excellent rapports with corporations from Suncor to Forest Products Associations, Coca-Cola, the IOC and even governments like the BC Liberals under Gordon Campbell. The majority of these groups are now funded either directly or indirectly by the same extractive industries they were founded to oppose. There is nothing left to save, that is but the souls of the good remaining employees of these organizations which, for the sake of the planet and the fight against rapidly escalating climate change, must be dismantled.


In a very similar manner the labour movement has been co-opted from once extremely democratic and inspiring opposition to the system, and now openly (in times of strife between power and those who challenge it) works to maintain a respectable place for the leadership over the organized labour force. It is no accident that official labour and official environmentalism joined ranks in blaming the black bloc tactics for the attacks of the police, blaming the victim with false agency.


IV: Smashing Black Bloc Tactical Illusions


All of these discussions might seem like they are leading towards a support and/or defence of the black bloc. Not so fast. Let me start with a statement that should have been ridiculously obvious, but a climate of acrimony on all sides has made it not only not obvious, but important to say. Those people who don black & who engage in black bloc tactics, are my comrades. There is absolutely no way on earth that people who run the trade unions who kill strikes, who run ENGO's that openly fawn to government and industry, politicians who take positions everywhere from anti-migrant to anti-worker to anti-Palestinian are more my 'comrades' than people who stand clearly on all of these issues, help build alternative media centres, plant community gardens and more. These people are not the 'enemy' because they have taken physical actions against the windows of the same Hudson's Bay Company we know and detest together. These women and men have far more in common with me about the kind of world we want than almost any of the self-serving politicians or professional academics and more-- and yet I count many of these others among my allies, too. Life in the struggle is just not simple.


In the streets of Seattle, 1999, black bloc tactics announced their arrival in North America. In the times after the successful shut down of the WTO meetings there were ritualistic denunciations of black bloc violence towards police and property, often uncoupled from the fact that police tear gas, rubber bullets, horse charges and more started six hours prior to the emergence of any black bloc appearing individuals. Over time the debate around this faded and the victory over the WTO, combined with the heralding of something (very undefined) new being imported to North America for a new century became the legend. Progressives of all stripes now hold up Seattle as an overall catalyst point for struggle-- history has written it well, and it does not come with an asterisk in the notations of history about damage done to Starbucks. Though history is still being written and there have been centuries worth of history in the last decade since, the “Battle of Seattle” is seen in a sum total as a social victory.


A personal note about heading to the FTAA Summit in Québec City, 2001 is simply that I had academically come to a position of non-violence, including property, before arriving to the convergence. The march on the 21st arrived at the intersection where a short distance away the primary “violent” target was a wall erected to deny democratic expression, the right to be seen and heard by political leaders and also deny free assembly. The correctness of tearing down that affront to all of us, to take back basic rights became obvious within mere seconds. Far less after the convergence on the FTAA did demonstrators and organizers second guess and employ corporate space to make the denunciatory accusations. If nothing else, challenging the ability of the corporate state to deny basic rights was accepted. Many of the finest organizers I personally know mark their participation in FTAA demonstrations as a major turning point in their lives in the struggle. Thus far, history has been extremely kind to the demonstrators who brought down that blasted Wall in Québec City, while employing violent tactics in many cases against police directly.


There have also been major failures of these tactics as well. I think of the PNWER demonstrations in Whistler, where people were split, arrested, pinned off and generally made complete fools of-- demoralizing all involved, achieving absolutely no disruption of the meetings as intended, nor promoting much in the way of popular education. However, it is also fair to say that no other civil society members achieved anything in the way of mass movement building, outreach or much else-- the actions were a reflection of over-all confusion and lack of coherence.


There have been anti-poverty marches in Vancouver where individuals tried to divert the demo into malls to attack stores; the actions provided no spark, heavy internal acrimony, and were anything but strategic. Similar attempts to 'radicalize' small gatherings have included dropping huge bags of rocks in front of a police line at parliament in Victoria in an effort to encourage actions that likely would have resulted in crushing police violence with zero achievements-- other activists put up their hands and walked away from the provocation.


All of the listed failures have one uniting theme-- the demonstrations were being hi-jacked by actions from non-organizers of these same actions; The Vancouver 2010 circus had none of those faults. There has been open dialogue among people for years in the lead up the Olympics as to how to proceed. As but one action of many, where the Bay got smashed was at a separate action precisely to be transparent and so that other actions would not be so associated. People who have attended any of these planning sessions for the past two years and who now feign 'being caught off guard' are either suffering memory loss or are selectively remembering. Put in a single sentence? It was not anti-democratic at all.


Toronto is hard to evaluate from afar, but the point of disruption is to actually disrupt, whatever the tactic. Strategically speaking, when in Seattle or Quebec City we knew what we were doing. We were doing two things-- mobilizing people to confront the attack on our right to assemble, and also to shut down illegitimate meetings held by people who are legally operating criminals carving up the world as if it was a big game of Monopoly. In various ways, that succeeded then. Does it have a chance to do so now? So, if it does not, what the Hell are we doing? I'm willing to absolutely guarantee that a lot of people from all manner of life had the same transition to keep them in the struggle forever that many I know did in Québec City or Seattle and elsewhere. Other than that, not a minor point, what was achieved?


We have no collective vision. For the life of me, I cannot think of what was the uniting theme of Toronto. The G8 sucks? We can abstractly talk about the concepts we believe in with all of our hearts, but our strategy of disruption was long ago trumped by power, and the never ending discussions about tactics seemed to fill the void. This made any other issues disappear, and I do not mean only in the corporate media. I mean among ourselves, no matter what our thoughts on them.


The only thing remaining, it seems, is to demonstrate how badly power will behave and assemble regardless. I don't do “condemnations” of masked people, but I also don't know if I see the point in most attempts to disrupt with a perimeter established in the manner it was. Simple strategy explained as to what people were trying to do seems to keep coming back to “get to the conference” and shut it down. Was that at all realistic?


There are two theories that came out after the G8/G20 around the spectacle of the burning cop car and the idea of police manipulating demonstrators. One was that it was a set-up, another that it was a physical victory. Hey, never been offended by a burning cop car in my life-- but I go to Montreal after a Habs playoff game to see that, too. Where again does that fall into the whole “confronting and dismantling power” goal? And beyond that, whether it took place in Toronto or not, it is ridiculously easy for police to mess with us in all manner of ways and this certainly includes the demonstrations of people masked up.. This extremely important point has been scoffed at as the same type of thing as a David Icke shape-shifting lizard rant. That's frightening, because I don't want to lose any of you to even more jail time than has already happened. We gotta think this stuff through. Emotions are great, but don't cloud over critique over matters or perhaps literal life and death.


When I read denunciations of black bloc tactics as “testosterone driven fits that are performed by people with no connections to the community” I get angry, because it's simple hogwash. These are some of the hardest working organizers around. When I see reasoned criticisms made about how it may be either unsafe or unstrategic dismissed immediately as the ravings of someone out to get them (often infused with male bullshit posturing), again I get really frightened.


And let these discussion maintain democracy as the guiding principle. Not their “democracy,” ours. Be more than 'aware' of possible impacts on communities-- both indigenous communities in the struggle and communities of people who live in the same streets. Let us gather, in groups of 3 or 300, to start talking about our vision for confronting and dismantling power. Make certain that people have their space respected and treat each with the visionary love that only revolution can speak to. Get out of an either/or and 'branding enemies' head space. We have a very long way to go, and we have recently been set back, although in many ways we have also moved forward. If you read this far, and are wondering what my answer or solution is, maybe you missed the point. I don't have one. None of us seems to, not in practice yet anyhow. We have to-- all of us-- drop our need to believe we know, and our desire to repeat things that worked in a different place and a different time. What we need instead is a way to win, and for that victory to have a world worthy of human beings and all life remaining on the planet.


So let's keep talking. And bring it down about 84 notches.


That's all,

Yours for the revolution.

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Macdonald (Macdonald Stainsby)
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