Insurrectionary Anarchist Projects and Social Conflict in Vancouver
Since May Day of 2002, when a small group of anarchists and street kids broke away from an anti-poverty protest and vandalized stores and stalls inside a downtown shopping mall, insurrectionary anarchists in Vancouver have been intervening in various social struggles and developing projects based on a perspective of irreconcilable conflict with the dominant order. Through the rejection of political methods, such as protests, press conferences, and reformist demands presented to the powerful, local anarchist comrades have upheld self-organization, direct action, and permanent conflict with the exploiters as the only viable and desirable principles on which to base anarchist intervention in the class war and its contribution towards social revolution.
The lessons and experience of the riots against free trade in Seattle and Quebec City, indigenous peoples’ land struggles in various parts of Canada, the analysis of insurrectionary anarchists in Italy based on their involvement in various struggles, the Vancouver anarchist movement of the 1980s (including the armed “Direct Action” group), and the reoccurring mini-riots at public events in Vancouver, have all been influential on anarchists in this city.
Local comrades have been galvanized by the heightened level of social conflict in this province, British Columbia (within which Vancouver is located), since the Liberal government was elected in 2001. The quick and aggressive economic and political restructuring of the Liberals, involving major cuts to welfare and social services, mass lay-offs of government employees, the tearing-up of union contracts, and a racist referendum on “treaties” between Native and non-Native politicians, provoked mass discontent among the exploited. Unions and political activist groups have worked hard to manage social struggles into a position of defeat and demoralization for the exploited, ending in reconciliation with the power structure. Insurrectionary anarchists have tried to counter the manipulations of these groups by directly communicating with exploited and excluded people.
In the fall of 2002, the opening of the Woodwards Squat (a massive, long-empty department store in the ghetto of the Downtown Eastside) created a space for older anarchists experienced in conflicts outside of Vancouver to meet young squatters interested in anarchist methods and the hundred or so people from the neighborhood who came to live in the building. The anarchists verbally clashed with activists and politicians, some of whom wanted the squatters to leave the building voluntarily after a week (the occupation was intended to be a media spectacle by the activist city-employee who initiated it). At first, police entered the building freely, negotiating with the self-appointed leader of the squat. Later, amidst quarrels between activists, the police realized there were anarchists living in the building and from then on kept their distance, while preparing for a forceful eviction.
Although many squatters simply ignored the activists, the ideology of civil disobedience and the reformist demand for social housing took a significant hold over the situation. Most squatters considered the building to be their home and much preferred its collective space to the isolation of the single-room occupancy welfare hotels that people in the neighborhood have to live in. For Woodwards to be converted into social housing would require the ending of the squat. Despite this, many squatters, under the direction of the activists, sat in a circle to be mass arrested when the riot cops invaded.
After the initial eviction by riot cops, squatters returned and set-up camp again around the outside of the building. Police attacked and evicted the tent city, but it sprung up once more. Finally, the city government had to use social workers to end the tent city and move people into a miserable welfare hotel. These events further clarified the role of the police and the State for many of those involved in the struggle.
In hindsight, it can be seen that the conflict could have developed in an insurrectional direction if anarchists had communicated more effectively with fellow squatters and built an informal organization to defend the squat through attacking Capital and Politics in their immediate manifestations, while pointing out the irreconcilable class interests between exploiter and exploited, included and excluded.
The evicted squatters’ anger against the police quickly came to head at an East Vancouver school when police arrested an elderly man at a protest against a public appearance by the Premier of the province. Masked anarchists dragged a dumpster in front of a police truck carrying the detained man, leading to another arrest. From there, scuffles with the cops developed somewhat beyond the designs of the activists who engaged in civil disobedience by sitting in front of the truck, as children coming out of school began to taunt the cops and throw drink containers and pebbles at them. After the police left the area, kids threw eggs at the nearby police station.
In January of 2003, an Iranian refugee broke free from the grasp of a security guard and escaped deportation at the Vancouver airport during a protest by her family and supporters. The same anti-authoritarian comrade taken into custody during the school incident was arrested once again. The woman seeking refuge from imprisonment and death in Iran mysteriously turned herself over to the police and was deported without first contacting her family, taking sanctuary in a church, or going “underground”, possibly due to manipulation by activists.
Throughout the rest of 2003, masked-up anarchists intervened at numerous protests against the provincial government and the war on Iraq with graffiti, newspaper boxes dragged into the streets, a break-away march, and a smashed window at the building housing the US consulate.
During this time period, several independent window-breaking attacks were carried out against banks and a Canadian army recruiting center. Different groups claimed responsibility for these actions, using anti-government and anti-capitalist explanations for their actions.
In 2004, one East Vancouver community police office had its windows smashed in an action that was claimed in solidarity with people beaten down or killed by the cops. Another community police office in a park suffered repeated and unclaimed acts of graffiti, paint-bombing, window-breaking, and arson.
In the summer of 2004, a hospital workers’ strike was declared illegal by the government, provoking solidarity wildcat strikes in many industries across the province. Local anarchists walked the picket lines, talked with workers, and made banners calling for a general wildcat strike and describing solidarity as a “weapon”. Also that summer, anarchists also held a number of public events entitled “Wild in the Streets”, which included anarchist movie nights, a picnic and information exchange in a park, and a march against the police which resulted in a scuffle and three arrests.
In the winter, comrades held a two day public event called “Breach of the Peace”, during which food was shared and a Mohawk comrade from the reserve of Kanehsatake in eastern Canada showed a video and spoke on the traditional people’s ousting of Native cops from their community. For the finale of the event, a movie was shown detailing the case of John Graham, a local indigenous Tuchone man of who was part of the Vancouver Red Power movement and the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s, and who is living under house arrest while he fights extradition to the United States on fraudulent charges of murdering fellow AIM member Anna Mae Pictou Aquash (who died as a result of an FBI’s counter-intelligence/counter-insurgency program, involving many assassinations on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota).
Much time that winter was taken up by anarchists maintaining a presence in court to show solidarity with John Graham, as well as the comrade charged in relation to the refugee’s escape at the airport. Despite a lack of any substantial evidence, a jury convicted the comrade of aiding the refugee’s escape, and the judge declared a sentence of three months in jail, referencing the totalitarian theorist Thomas Hobbes in explicitly describing the matter as a conflict between civilization and anarchy in her reasons for sentencing, just as the crown prosecutor did in her arguments to the judge.
On March 15th of 2005, Vancouver anarchists organized a march for the International Day Against Police Brutality (the day was founded by anarchists in Switzerland). Local comrades didn’t limit themselves to the question of police brutality, instead calling into question police control in general. A newsletter called “Against Police Control” was published, detaining police murders of persons in Vancouver and the involvement of Canadian cops in the military occupations of Iraq and Haiti. The callout for the march explained that the march wouldn’t be a protest, but rather would create a space for exploited and excluded people to put their anger against the cops into practice. During the march itself, this anger took the form of eggs, paint-bombs and fireworks tossed at police cars and the Main Street police station in the Downtown Eastside. Police cars were also smashed with sticks and a media van was egged. At least two people were arrested. This march was especially significant because many ordinary people never seen at protests showed up and took part, while the activists stayed away, knowing they had nothing to gain from an event they could not control.
In the summer and fall of 2005, insurrectionary anarchists talked with striking truckers, telecommunications workers, teachers, and school support workers in Vancouver, also distributing leaflets calling for the extension of the direct action and sabotage that some workers were already implementing, while trying to further illuminate the repressive function of the unions and political parties who managed the strikes into compromise, disempowerment, and defeat for the workers. An attempt was made by anarchists to cross-picket and shut down bus depots in solidarity with the striking telecommunications workers and teachers, mimicking the actions of telecom strikers in several locations in this province. Many strikers expressed rebellious sentiments and criticisms of their unions to our comrades, indicating some possibilities for further coordinated efforts between anarchists and the rest of the exploited.
Local insurrectionary anarchists have been strengthening lines of communication with anarchist comrades in other parts of the province, and also initiating and maintaining contact with refugees and indigenous people who are resisting, in one form or another (hunger strikes, land reoccupations, etc.), the conditions imposed upon them by capital. Through this, comrades are slowly building the basis for projects of solidarity rooted in affinity rather than politics.
(Published in the Seattle magazine “A Murder of Crows”)