No action is sufficient in itself, black bloc or otherwise
March 14, 2010
“No act is sufficient in itself, nor is its meaning so obvious that it would require no expression at all.”
- Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Autonomy
This article is a response to three other articles, “Breaking windows is not a revolutionary act” by Judy Rebick, “The State Is Not a Window” by Heatscore and “Thoughts on the anonymous communiqué from members of the Black Bloc” by Andrew Loewen.
It is true that the State is not a window, but neither is it just an abstract concept. Breaking windows is not a revolutionary act and neither is any other act if taken out of context and presented as an abstraction, ignoring the intentions and strategy of those who break the windows.
The State or Capital or colonialism cannot be attacked as abstractions. They can only be attacked in their material forms, their social relations and their institutions. It is not possible to attack all forms and material components of oppression at once, so they must be attacked in pieces at different times and locations.
Like oppressive systems, a social revolution is more than the sum of its parts, but neither can it exist without its parts working in relation to each other. A social revolution can be seen as an accumulation of diverse activities over a period of time. It is not a switch that can be flipped instantly. It can’t be understood in a purely abstract way or by ignoring the different particular factors and actions that compose it.
It is not always possible to fully understand the long-term impact, effects and interrelation of effects of different actions in regards to social movements and revolutionary struggle, just as it is difficult to understand “public opinion”, which is also an abstraction as well as a contradiction, in as much as the “public” is an abstraction and contradiction, made up of opposing social classes, other oppressive divisions and diverse real individuals.
The idea that breaking windows is a revolutionary act or that the State is a window or made up of windows was never presented by participants in the black bloc at the Heart Attack anti-olympic demonstration in Vancouver on February 13, 2010, or by its supporters. It is not possible to understand or build an analysis or argument around statements that were never made in the first place. The easiest way to not understand something is to take it out of context.
The black bloc at the Heart Attack demo also did not “come into the middle of a demonstration with black face masks and break up whatever takes their fancy when the vast majority of people involved don’t want them to”, as Rebick falsely claims in her article. The demonstration was publicly called as a “diversity of tactics” and “confrontational” demonstration to block traffic, “to clog the arteries of capital”. A prior spokes-council for the action was publicly announced. Of about 200 participants, about half, or 100 people, were using the black bloc tactic, while the other half mostly supported it or did not oppose it, staying with the march throughout and continuing on after most of the black bloc had dispersed.
The Heart Attack demo was only one of many during the anti-olympic convergence. Participants in the black bloc respected the wishes of others at demos that were called for as non-confrontational. This built support for the way the black bloc tactic was used at the Heart Attack demo. The previous day, the black bloc had taken part in a demo to block the torch route on Commercial Drive and the mass demo at the opening ceremonies and did not break windows. The tactic has also been used at many demos in Vancouver over the past 10 years, mostly without any window breaking. Participants in the black bloc also participate in many other activities. They are not only anonymous. The black bloc cannot exist or survive repression without some level of outside support. This support is built up before and after black bloc actions, over a long period of time.
The tactic is used to evade police surveillance. What it does beyond that is up to the participants. What has been shown in Vancouver for 10 years is that black bloc participants are not random intruders upon demos called by others, that they in fact seek to work with others rather than against them. This is why the black bloc at the Heart Attack demo had so much support from local activists and non-activists. Ironically, this particular black bloc was one of the most publicly and privately supported of all that have taken place in Canada or the United States in the past 10 years, since the Seattle World Trade Organization riots.
Neither did the black bloc try to provoke a “police over-reaction” as Rebick contends. At the Heart Attack demo, the bloc only responded to police or bystander vigilante initiated attacks. The focus of the demo was blocking traffic, which was highly successful, with a dumpster and many newspaper boxes pulled into the streets and the police response of shutting down the Lions Gate Bridge for more than an hour (the bridge being one of only two routes to the north shore and Whistler Olympic venues from Vancouver). At the mass demo of several thousand people on February 12 at the opening ceremonies, the bloc only shoved against and threw projectiles at the police toward the end of the demo, after organizers publicly called for the bloc to move to the front line and warned other demonstrators to move to the back or disperse.
The breaking of corporate windows at the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and the Toronto Dominion (TD) bank were complimentary actions to the overall Heart Attack march. They were not the main goal or component, although they were supported within and outside of the bloc. The HBC attack was for obvious reasons particularly supported by indigenous people. But the overall goal of blocking traffic during the first day of the Olympics was highly successful, perhaps more than could have been hoped for, since the direction of the march, heading toward and getting close to the Lions Gate Bridge, caused the police to shut it down for more than an hour. This kind of success is easy to objectively measure compared to the building of long-term wider support and the strengthening of social movements, which is equally important.
The Heart Attack march was one part of the overall movement against the Olympics, with the strategic goal of disrupting the games and their propaganda, so as to lessen their impacts and to create an unwelcome and unstable climate for such events to be proposed in the future. The Olympics are also not a temporary summit of world leaders such as the G8 or G20, but a years long massive infrastructure development project with permanent impacts, which consequently cause greater public opposition to the games and sympathy for protests and actions against them.
The anti-olympic convergence was first called for by members of the indigenous sovereignty movement in Vancouver and British Columbia, and was first publicly announced at a Zapatista gathering in Mexico. Respect for diversity of tactics was a cornerstone from the beginning, and years of confrontational public and anonymous actions followed across the country building up to 2010. So if anything, those opposed to diversity of tactics or the black bloc are the intruders and outsiders to the anti-olympic movement and their numbers are a minority in comparison to those who use it, support it, are neutral or may disagree with it but do not oppose it.
The undercover police officers Rebick brings up, who were exposed at the Montebello protests against the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), were masked but not in black bloc and were exposed by the black bloc and not by a confused trade union leader who apparently could not understand the word “police” said to him in French by black bloc participants, as shown on a youtube video of the incident. Such infiltration is not done only to provoke violent action, which was already taking place at Montebello anyway, but also for surveillance and to target individuals for arrest. It may also be done to discredit the black bloc tactic and to add fuel to the fires of denouncement and bad-jacketing already built-up by activists. While many are quick to accuse black bloc participants of being police agents, without any evidence whatsoever to back up this assertion, the police practice of bad-jacketing, falsely accusing individuals of being police, is never brought up or denounced by the same activists who denounce or chastise the black bloc. Voluntary bad-jacketing done by activists is far more damaging to social movements overall than any actual police infiltration at any particular demonstration.
While any particular black bloc may be infiltrated by police for any number of police purposes, open activist groups are susceptible to long-term infiltration, in which police can attain positions of authority within the organization, as happened a few years ago to an anti-war group in California or for instance to the American Indian Movement, whose head of security was exposed as a Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) infiltrator in the 1970s.
While the particular statements of black bloc participants or its supporters around what constitutes violence or the corporate media’s predictable response and impact are open to criticism, as are particular actions of the black bloc (just as everything is open to criticism), such as vandalism against random vehicles or newspaper boxes, such critiques cannot logically be over generalized and made into guilt-by-association arguments against the black bloc itself or its other actions.
Contrary to Loewen’s statement, blocking traffic and breaking windows does directly harm corporations and is not merely symbolic. It’s not the amount of traffic disrupted or the amount of financial damage that makes an attack or action material rather than just symbolic. It is the nature of the action itself and the intentions and the strategy behind it. An action is only purely symbolic if it is intended as such. Corporations are also unlikely to make an insurance claim for broken windows given the deductible and the negative impact it would have on their insurance overall, and at any rate the cost would simply be passed on to an insurance corporation if they did. Nothing is without consequence.
Broken windows also have an impact beyond the window itself, since they must be repaired and their function of advertising displays in this case is disrupted, as is the image of the Hudson’s Bay Company itself. The action also inspires others opposed to the company and draws more attention in general to it and its contentious place in society. An open attack shows open hostility to the company itself, not merely an opposition to particular things it does or a desire to reform its excesses.
The meaning of these kinds of actions are obviously not only the domain of the corporate media but are also ours to define and communicate in whatever ways and places we choose, as this article itself displays, as do the many other statements in support of the black bloc of that day.
To end with I’ve provided a transcription of part of a speech made by indigenous elder Stella August of the Downtown Eastside Power of Women group addressed to the crowd at the February 20 rally for a national housing program in Vancouver where she talks about the black bloc at the Heart Attack demo and received cheers and applause from the crowd:
“Our young people who have broken the windows at these big stores with the Olympic costumes or whatever you want to call it, they’re not bad, they’re angry because of the rich people bringing the Olympics into our country when it wasn’t needed here. Those kids were not bad, they were only angry because of what they bring to our country, big time poverty. And I’m angry, I’m very angry at these people that organize the Olympics to come to Canada, our beautiful country, our stolen land, our stolen Native land. They had to bring the Olympics here? And we’re still fighting for our land and we’re going to continue to fight until we get some answers. So remember, those kids that broke the windows, that were protesting, they’re not bad, they’re our people, they’re our children. We are the mothers, we are the grandmothers, we are the aunts, we are the sisters, we are the caregivers. Those kids were not bad when they broke that window. They were protesting because of what’s happening to our country and our city. All my relations.”
- Stella August
Corporate news article about Stella August’s speech on the black bloc:
SFU Labour History Director and anarchist writer Mark Leier’s interview in the media about the black bloc at the Heart Attack demo:
Response to Derrick O’Keefe about the black bloc and Heart Attack demo,
Black Bloc vs. Liberal Shlock,
Breaking windows is not a revolutionary act,
By Judy Rebick:
The State Is Not a Window,
Thoughts on the anonymous communiqué from members of the Black Bloc,
by Andrew Loewen:
A Contribution to the Critique of Political Autonomy.
by Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic: