Reply to the ACME Collective
This is a point by point response to the ACME Collective. Its details may exceed what most folks will want to wade through. A shorter, later, and more succinct statement is at: On Trashing and Movement Building. As a kind of preface, it goes without saying, I hope, that we all understand that as far as violence is concerned, the violent parties in Seattle were first and foremost the President of the U.S., his entourage, the other major heads of state, etc. Poverty-inducing violence imposed with a pen trumps a brick breaking a window every time--not to mention that the former is to defend and enlarge injustice, and the latter to fight it. For that matter, in the streets of Seattle, mass media coverage aside, for all statistical or moral intents and purposes the only violence was that perpetrated by police and national guard at the behest of the state. Pepper gas, rubber bullets, and truncheons trump broken windows every time on any violence meter, much less on one that accounts for motivations. The issue that ACME is addressing arises therefore overwhelmingly because of people's responses to the events, largely impacted by mass media, and because of potential implications on future attitudes on the left toward trashing, property damage, civil disobedience, and other possible demonstration tactics.
Any useful discussion of movement strategy and tactics must be about their efficacy for movement building, winning short-term demands, and laying a basis for winning longer term aims. This is true regarding teach-ins, a march or rally, a strike, civil disobedience, defending against police violence, trashing property, or even attacking other people. Assessing tactics means noting how they cause a movement to grow or decline and whether they enlarge or diminish immediate chances to win some goal.
I should note that I have myself been involved in demonstrations in which I thought trashing grew organically from the event's logic and intentions--for example, clearly enunciated assaults on particular draft boards or ROTC buildings. I have also, however, been in demonstrations where trashing was horribly out of place, counter-productive, and irresponsible. What's the difference? Which was true in Seattle?
(1) ACME points out that the windows broken belonged to various organizations that oppress huge sectors of people. That's true, and as a result the Seattle trashing was better than indiscriminately hurling stones where they could hurt the innocent. However, that doesn't say the trashing had merit, only that it could have been worse. We still have the contextual problem of whether trashing helped build a movement and/or increase its immediate impact, or had opposite effects.
(2) ACME points out that those who undertook the trashing were highly prepared. "Unlike the vast majority of activists who were pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets on several occasions, most of our section of the black bloc escaped serious injury by remaining constantly in motion and avoiding engagement with the police. We buddied up, kept tight, and watched each others' backs. Those attacked by federal thugs were un-arrested by quick-thinking and organized members of the black bloc. The sense of solidarity was awe-inspiring."
Forays into political theory aside, to me this is the most upsetting sentiment in the ACME "Communique." If the trashing had been solely a spontaneous reaction to being gassed and clubbed, or even just a spontaneous release of frustration and anti-systemic anger, I wouldn't find it wise politics, but I could certainly empathize. But the fact that at least part of the trashing was pre-planned despite the overall demonstration's contrary self-definition, and that it was seemingly undertaken without concern for its impact on the work of others or even on their safety, brings back memories of the Weathermen, a late 1960s organization that similarly bragged about avoiding police batons some thirty years ago.
There is a massive event and those who tirelessly and effectively organized it are committed to legal marches and rallies and also illegal but non-violent civil disobedience. Upwards of 50,000 - 70,000 people come to participate in the events. In the first couple of days success is overwhelming and mutually respectful ties are developing between different usually highly fragmented constituencies, turtles and Teamsters, Lesbian Avengers and steel workers, and so on. The prospect that civil disobedience will grow is extremely exciting and optimism is contagious. Movement participation is climbing and, amazingly, the official WTO gathering is already thoroughly disrupted. Now the contingents believing in favoring trashing self-consciously create an environment in which the police can justify indiscriminate violence. The trashers are well prepared for the police, however, and almost universally avoid being truncheoned, gassed, or arrested. Wouldn't using their organizational prowess to protect their fellow demonstrators by diminishing the credibility of police violence and by helping others avoid it have been more courageous (and better politics) than endangering others by providing a pretext for more police violence?
I remember all too vividly some sixties demonstrations in which over-eager dissenters would taunt and otherwise provoke police and then disappear, leaving others, often utterly unprepared families, to bear the brunt of the response. I was always far more impressed with the courage of knowing folks who could easily see what was coming and escape if they wished to, but who instead used their talents to help protect their less well prepared co-demonstrators, then with the self preservation instincts of those who brought down repression and then fled the scene. Imagine that the various anarchist contingents in Seattle had provided energy, song, creativity, militancy at the rallies and especially civil disobedience, and had then also, on top of that, not gone off breaking windows but, instead, remained with others shielding them, assisting those hurt, helping those suffering the gas, and so on. This would have capped their otherwise positive involvement with exemplary behavior, rather than tailing off into counter productivity.
Does this mean, however, that there cannot be a time and place for confrontation and property damage? No, it doesn't mean that at all, at least not in my view. Instead, the time and place for such behavior is when it will meet widespread approval and will increase the power of protest rather than only providing an excuse for folks to tune out or to become hostile to protest. Up to the trashing, self-described anarchists in Seattle added energy, creativity, art, music, and often greatly needed militancy, courage, and steadfastness to many venues in Seattle, uplifting participants' spirits and playing a very positive role within the rubric of the demonstration's guidelines. It was only when some of them went off breaking windows against the demonstration's guidelines that they strayed from being positive contributors. And we should note that it isn't just trashing that is sometimes warranted and sometimes not. Sometimes civil disobedience is out of place too. It too can be so at odds with the mindsets of people's current orientation, of their planning for events, and of a context and venue, that to spontaneously undertake civil disobedience would violate an event's logic and promise, alienate people who are moving toward dissent, and not spur new insight and solidarity but reduce it. Other times, however, employing civil disobedience makes excellent sense and is even pivotal to success, as it was in Seattle, for example.
In other words, what tactics at an event are warranted and will help a movement grow and strengthen, and what tactics at an event are unwarranted and will hurt a movement and its cause, depends overwhelmingly on how the event has been portrayed and organized, who is at it, what their expectations and consciousness are, what the event's prospects are for impacting social outcomes, and how the event and the tactics are likely to be perceived by and to impact non-involved constituencies. Once activists enter a trashing mindset they most often don't care about such calculations. To trash is good, they feel, exuberantly, because, after all, the targets are criminal corporations and damaging them is one small step toward demystifying and destroying them. Anyone against that must be pro-corporate, they announce. But it must be said that this is not strategic reasoning. One needs to discriminate the impact of possible tactics, not only what target to hit. As far as Seattle is concerned, can we agree that despite other fantastically valuable contributions to the event, to impose on a massive demonstration that was succeeding beyond all expectations tactics contrary to its definition was undemocratic behavior that should be transcended in the future?
(3) ACME points out that members of the large-scale event opposed their trashing and that "some even went so far as to stand in front of the Niketown super store and tackle and shove the black bloc away. Indeed, such self-described 'peace-keepers' posed a much greater threat to individuals in the black bloc than the notoriously violent uniformed 'peace-keepers' sanctioned by the state." It wouldn't surprise me that some folks tried to reduce or obstruct trashing. It would surprise me, however, if they physically assaulted those doing it, not least because those doing it often had crowbars and rocks in hand. But in any event, whether this happened or not would tell us nothing about the efficacy of trashing.
(4) ACME counters critics by saying they exhibit "the racism of privileged activists who can afford to ignore the violence perpetrated against the bulk of society and the natural world in the name of private property rights." This is, whether intentionally or not, self-serving baiting. Whatever else is accomplished regarding this debate over tactics, this kind of rhetoric should cease immediately. Demonstrating against the violence and oppression of the WTO, whether by organizing, marching, or doing civil disobedience, is not ignoring it, and to say it is is self-defeating for a leftist, particularly when the so-called "privileged" activists created so magnificent a demonstration.
Thus the evaluative issue remains what it was at the outset, what behavior builds a movement and what behavior will worry elites into succumbing to pressure? The events in Seattle had, before any trashing occurred, already entirely hamstrung the WTO. They had already evidenced militant creativity and creative organization and knowledge. They had already begun to generate new allegiances and ties among diverse constituencies. They had already combined many levels of creative and militant tactics in a mutually supportive mix. Speeches at rallies already in many instances made the obvious leaps from opposing free trade to opposing free markets, and from opposing global profiteering to opposing capitalism per se. The addition of trashing had no positive effects. It did not win useful visibility that would otherwise have been absent. It did not enlarge the number of folks participating nor empathizing with the demonstration. It did not cause more substantive information to be conveyed either in the mainstream or on the left. What it did do, instead, was (a) divert attention from the real issues, (b) provide a pretext for repression which would otherwise have been unequivocally seen as crushing legitimate dissent, and (c) and arguably most important, cause many to feel that dissent is an unsympathetic undertaking in which instead of actors respecting one another, some, at least, feel that they have the right to undemocratically trample the intentions and desires of most others.
Again, to clarify: It is one thing for a group to decide to form and develop support for and engage in acts of property damage and physical confrontation as part of a broad campaign of social change. At this time in U.S. history such a group, in my view, is confused as to what is needed. But I could disagree with such folks and still respect the consistency of their choice if it were carried out forthrightly. It is an entirely different matter, however, to hitch a ride on a massive event, violating majority norms and imposing one's own very sharply contrary tactical aims on others against their intentions. This is no way to build democratic, mutually respectful movements.
(5) ACME notes that "tear-gassing, pepper-spraying and the shooting of rubber bullets all began before the black blocs (as far as we know) started engaging in property destruction." Indeed, all serious reports I have seen--dozens--agree on this. Thus, the state confronted organized, disciplined, democratic dissent and was unable to cope with it without violating its own rhetorical and legal limits, creating a very instructive situation. So what did ACME do by trashing? It provided a pretext for police repression and a diversion from substantive focus on the WTO.
(6) ACME says: "We refuse to be misconstrued as a purely reactionary force. While the logic of the black bloc may not make sense to some, it is in any case a pro-active logic." With all due respect for peoples' intentions and hopes, I think that when behavior drifted into trashing, logic was lacking. There was no argument offered by ACME before the fact that such a choice would raise the consciousness of other protestors, no argument that it would cause the emerging movement to be larger and better informed or even more militant, no argument that it would weaken the hand of the police or state and thus enhance the impact of the demonstrations. And there was certainly no argument that a minority would be warranted in violating the majority norms of the events to undertake trashing on its own minority authority. One can empathize with and even feel that one might, oneself, feel the same angers and desires that the people who trashed felt -- but that is not to condone trashing in Seattle and thus ratify the idea that such activity was warranted.
Just so we are clear: Again, the issue isn't is trashing per se good or bad. Suppose that the trashers hadn't embarked on breaking windows but had become a support group for those suffering police assaults, rallying spirit and protecting bodies. Suppose that lots more workers had joined the civil disobedience efforts. Suppose that the state had used gas and charging cops repeatedly to break up such blocking efforts. And suppose in this context a good part of the city's population and of the "audience" around the country and a large majority of the constituencies that were in Seattle to demonstrate felt solidarity with the law-breaking demonstrators. Now imagine, in this context, that the police charged and folks didn't run, but instead suddenly stood their ground. More, suppose they then turned and decided it was time to push the police back. Imagine that this led to battles, and then to cars turned over, to barricades built, and so on. The property damage by protesters in such massive melees would dwarf anything committed by ACME and its allies and it would no doubt extend beyond corporate targets and damage even the property of innocents. Some would say this couldn't possibly be to the good, but I would say, instead, that as described this would have a completely different flavor and logic from what ACME did -- and it could expand rather than diminish the involved movements and constituencies. There is therefore a judgment call in the use of tactics. Sometimes a tactic is wise, other times the same tactic is not. What was wrong about ACME and the political folks who self-consciously trashed in Seattle was that despite their other genuine and valuable contributions to the events, regarding trashing their judgment was faulty and, worse, that they thought their judgment alone was sufficient justification for them to violate norms accepted by tens of thousands of other demonstrators in a way dramatically contrary to those other people's intentions.
(7) ACME points out that "property destruction is not merely macho rabble-rousing or testosterone-laden angst release. Nor is it displaced and reactionary anger. It is strategically and specifically targeted direct action against corporate interests." But I bet ACME understands that saying that property destruction is strategic is not the same as giving an argument that it is strategic, and that saying some action is targeted at corporate windows isn't the same as demonstrating that targeting corporate windows always raises an effective cost to corporations. Property destruction can be strategic (putting blood on draft card files or hammering into nuclear nosecones, say, particularly when it is a collectively supported part of larger and evolving movements), but it can also be "macho rabble-rousing testosterone-laden angst release," or an understandable reaction to being repressed and oppressed or to outright police provocation.
(8) ACME says of the criticism that 'they just want to fight,' that it is "pretty absurd," I would agree. There is no evidence whatsoever that ACME desired to fight . They wanted only to hit and run, as they admit. Thirty years ago a lot of very wonderful people embarked on virtually identical paths to those ACME advocates. It ended, later, in some of them blowing themselves up, or, "more successfully," blowing up some public toilets, the usual destinations for their crude handiwork. It is very easy, all too easy, to get caught up in what seems to be "logical" reasons for escalating one's "militancy" out of all touch with the reality of existing conditions, much less the subtle needs of movement building. I hope we won't have to watch some of the most soulful and caring young people of our times remove themselves from sensible life and from effective political activism and ultimately destroy themselves, simultaneously severely damaging efforts to build truly militant and capable movements -- yet again.
(9) In response to being called opportunist, ACME argues that "it would be hard to imagine who of the thousands in attendance didn't take advantage of the opportunity created in Seattle to advance their agenda. The question becomes, then, whether or not we helped create that opportunity and most of us certainly did." Well, there were two broad ways to take advantage of the conditions in Seattle: either in accord with the efforts and aspirations of the great mass of those present, or contrary to their efforts and aspirations--that is, either as a part of the movement or re-directing it. The distinction between participating supportively and participating opportunistically has to do with that difference.
Breaking windows was not a demonstration agenda item. The stated and understood goal of the thousands upon thousands of people from all over the U.S. and the world who attended the event was to build movements to challenge the WTO using marches, rallies, and civil disobedience. To take advantage of the opportunity of the assembly by violating those aspirations undermines any sense of democracy. More, changing society isn't a matter of breaking windows, it is a process of developing consciousness and vehicles of organization and movement, and of then applying these to win gains that benefit deserving constituencies and create conditions for still further victories, leading to permanent institutional change. Cultivating movement coherence, trust, and solidarity -- not just in a small affinity group but far more widely -- is a big part of this agenda. Coherence, trust, and solidarity are not furthered when small groups undemocratically violate the agenda of massive demonstrations to pursue their private inclinations, even when the small group has a plausible case for its preferences, unlike in this instance.
(10) ACME says, "we feel that an attack on private property is necessary if we are to rebuild a world which is useful, healthful and joyful for everyone." To translate that into an argument on behalf of trashing is woefully inadequate, and yet it is not unfamiliar. Again, thirty years ago, it was often very brilliant, well-trained, and highly capable minds that drifted into Weatherman and other such formations. What was always quite notable was that these individuals could engage carefully, critically, and caringly in many domains, but reverted to odd leaps of faith and fancy regarding their out-of-touch lifestyle and "activism" choices. Again, I really hope we do not have to witness and suffer a replay.
(11) ACME notes "we contend that property destruction is not a violent activity unless it destroys lives or causes pain in the process. By this definition, private property--especially corporate private property--is itself infinitely more violent than any action taken against it. Private property should be distinguished from personal property..." But ACME fails to understand that regarding the efficacy of trashing, this is a non-sequitor. The fact that corporations are so vile that attacking them is warranted if it will do good, doesn't mean they are so vile that attacking them is warranted if it will do harm. When I was a college student organizing against the Vietnam War I used to appear in front of very large and animated audiences, give long talks, and then field questions. It was a tumultuous time and I was often asked, for example, "would you burn down the school library if it would end the war?" My reply always took more or less this form -- "What moral midget wouldn't burn down a library to save a million lives? Of course I would, in an instant. But there is no connection whatsoever between burning a library and helping the victims of U.S. imperialism in Indochina, nor is there any connection between burning a library and altering the fabric of our own society so that the U.S. no longer engages in such pursuits. Worse, such behavior would have exactly the contrary impact, benefiting those committing the vile bombing. Can we now please get on to something serious such as how to communicate effectively to new constituencies about the ills of the war, and how to build sustained and serious resistance to it, and leave the posturing and baiting behind?"
Realizing that corporations are horribly oppressive entities that should disappear from the face of the globe, as ACME indicates it does, is not an argument for throwing a rock through a corporation window unless one creates a compelling case that throwing the rock through the window will strengthen the movements combating corporations or weaken the corporations themselves. There are times when this may be the case -- not often, but sometimes. Seattle was not one of those times.
(12) ACME says that "when we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights. At the same time, we exorcize that set of violent and destructive social relationships which has been imbued in almost everything around us." That may be ACME's intent, but ACME folks need to seriously consider the possibility -- the reality in my view -- that such actions had no such impact, and rarely do. It ought to be pretty obvious that the mere presence of a broken window doesn't destroy legitimacy and can even add to it. What would destroy legitimacy is the fostering of larger support, more informed, and better organized. Trashing had the opposite impact, however, impeding substantive discussion, causing even some critics of the WTO to waver, making some people feel that the movement has no place for them, and so on. The events in Seattle were stupendously successful in bringing the WTO into the awareness of people in the U.S. and all over the world, in making clear that there is great opposition and therefore that there is something here to look into and have an opinion on, and in laying seeds for further effective activism of many diverse and powerful constituencies amazingly willing to respect and relate to one another and to diverse tactical options. This was all achieved, however, not via the trashing, but in spite of it.
(13) ACME's conclusion about its actions is that: "by 'destroying' private property, we convert its limited exchange value into an expanded use value. A storefront window becomes a vent to let some fresh air into the oppressive atmosphere of a retail outlet (at least until the police decide to tear-gas a nearby road blockade). A newspaper box becomes a tool for creating such vents or a small blockade for the reclamation of public space or an object to improve one's vantage point by standing on it. A dumpster becomes an obstruction to a phalanx of rioting cops and a source of heat and light. A building facade becomes a message board to record brainstorm ideas for a better world. After N30, many people will never see a shop window or a hammer the same way again. The potential uses of an entire cityscape have increased a thousand-fold. The number of broken windows pales in comparison to the number broken spells--spells cast by a corporate hegemony to lull us into forgetfulness of all the violence committed in the name of private property rights and of all the potential of a society without them. Broken windows can be boarded up (with yet more waste of our forests) and eventually replaced, but the shattering of assumptions will hopefully persist for some time to come."
In the midst of a truly revolutionary moment, while much of the above would still in my view be rhetorical excess, still, one can see the underlying meaning and intent. But now? I am reminded of a very brilliant and eloquent friend, thirty years ago, who came to my apartment one night, about 2 AM, and with three or four others snuck in and said "We are the Vietcong, we need a place for the night...the revolution is imminent, we are underground, don't mind us, go back to sleep." They had an excuse for their delirium that they hadn't done just one demonstration, but had been enmeshed in full-time activism for years. Their environment was almost exclusively their friends in Weatherman and they had all lathered themselves into a well motivated but utterly out of touch turmoil of hope, rage, desire, paranoia, anticipation, and abstract rationalization that was so divorced from reality as to render them, so long as the mindsets persisted, virtually useless as positive agents of social change. These were in many cases the best minds and best hearts of my generation. So please note: those who read this essay or others about Seattle or who were there and are angry at the political people who trashed--do not make the callous and ignorant mistake of thinking the trashers were by nature anti-political, uncommitted, insensitive, unsympathetic, folk, much less police agents. Life is not so simple that those you disagree with are always somehow detestable. These are overwhelmingly movement people, indeed some of our best movement people. For those who were involved or supported the trashing to sharply disparage those who didn't, or vice versa, isn't going to get anyone anywhere useful. There is misunderstanding on both sides, but the distance to unity and progress is much less than the distance was between "turtles" and "teamsters" before Seattle. We all ought to be able to quickly bridge that gap and agree on the broad logic of how to assess tactics -- if not to agree on every judgment about every single specific tactic, of course -- and especially on how to abide collective norms at our demonstrations. This accomplished we can move on to Philadelphia, NYC, SF, Chicago, Denver, Miami, LA, Boston, Cleveland, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit…in unity and without fear of one another.
I hope those who did trash won't take these words as disparagement of your potentials and aspirations. I hope you will seriously consider, instead, that just maybe you are mistakenly repeating one part of sixties movement history--the saddest and least functional part--and will in reaction rise above the temptations and confusions that bedeviled many of the best of my generation.