Anarchists and Social Struggles in Vancouver After the Olympics
March 15, 2010
“It don’t take a professor to see the oppressor got the whole treasure.”
– One Be Lo, from the song “Axis” from the album “S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M.”
I recently attended two public events in Vancouver that got me thinking more about anarchists and their role in social struggles in the wake of the anti-olympic convergence.
The first was a talk by anarchist writers Mark Leier and Robert Graham at the Vancouver Public Library on March 11, 2010. A small room was almost full with an audience of about 50 people of different ages.
Leier, director of Labour Studies at Simon Fraser University and former union organizer, deconstructed recent anarchist thought influenced by post-modernist and post-structuralist philosophy by presenting Bakunin’s arguments against idealism in the mid-1800s. Leier’s presentation was not so academic as one might think. He plainly presented in a humorous and engaging manner the relevance of Bakunin to today, that being an insistence on the truth and reality of exploitation, the basic unchanged nature of capitalism and the division of society into opposing social classes, in contrast to the extreme relativism of post-modern philosophy.
Bakunin said that although our understanding of truth and reality is always partial it is still possible to know or understand, at least partially, some essential things, such as the fact of class exploitation.
This concept of the continued relevance of anarchist anti-capitalist analysis dovetailed nicely with part of Robert Graham’s presentation, in which he described the anarchist idea that a free society is possible at any time in history, regardless of the level of technological development.
Graham’s talk focused on the aftermath of Spanish Civil War and social revolution of 1936-1939, the site of the largest anarchist movement in history and the biggest defeat of the international anarchist movement. The federal structure of the anarchist union the CNT was discussed as well as the difficulties anarchists had in securing weapons in contrast to the Nazi-supplied Spanish fascists and the Stalin-backed Spanish communists.
Graham discussed the evolution of some anarchists’ thoughts on war, organization and sexual repression after the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, in particular referencing Wilhelm Reich, Paul Goodman and the recently deceased Colin Ward.
A question from the audience about the anarchist position on armies brought up a discussion of the difference between the Spanish anarchist militias, their guerrilla warfare tactics and their anarchist form of organization and the structure of a traditional army. The anarchist Nestor Mahkno’s more traditional military formation in the Ukraine after the Russian Revolution of 1917 was also briefly addressed.
Leier was asked about diversity of tactics and the Heart Attack demonstration of February 13, likely because of his previous supportive response to it in the Georgia Straight newspaper, but didn’t get much into it in this particular venue other than to say that it’s difficult to know the impact of such events until 10 years later. This reminded myself and others of our previous idea that the success, support of and solidarity with the black bloc and the Heart Attack demo was partly the result of the Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) riots 10 years ago and the efforts of anarchists and black bloc participants since then to build understanding around the tactic and work in harmony with others in social struggles.
The talk was framed around Leier’s last published book, “Bakunin”, and Graham’s volume two of “Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas”.
The second event I attended was called “In Solidarity with Resistance: Challenging Police Brutality”, which took place at the Rhizome Café on March 13.
A Native presenter talked about her experience during the Oka Crisis/Uprising of 1990 and read a statement from another Native person about the low-intensity brutality of fishing regulation and enforcement against Natives on the Fraser River.
Native women from the Power of Women group spoke on police brutality against Natives and other poor people in the Downtown Eastside (DTES), as well as the anti-olympic tent city.
A member of No One Is Illegal spoke on the role of the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) and their place within the repressive framework of policing in Canada and during the Olympics.
A poet spoke of the riot police response to the Heart Attack demonstration and read out a few of her poems about the Heart Attack demonstration and the tent city.
A student activist spoke on the police reaction after the Heart Attack demo when they arrested and illegally tried to deport him to the United States for observing police harassment in the DTES and riding his bike on the sidewalk.
This event was also packed and support for the black bloc and Heart Attack demo was apparent there too, if not explicit.
These two events further confirmed for me that the black bloc, Heart Attack demo and anarchists in Vancouver in general are not so marginal or “controversial” as a very small number of socialists, social democrat activists and even other anarchists in Vancouver and Toronto have tried to portray them as on the internet or at two previous public events (at the VIVO and W2 art spaces).
The majority of the audience at the previous events vocally and through applause showed support for the black bloc anyway, demolishing attempts by a few socialist and social democrat speakers to present their own negative views on it as being more popular, reasonable or even intelligent.
The fussing of a tiny number of socialists and social democrats over the violent and confrontational tactics used in conjunction with the black bloc tactic and the public’s supposedly mostly horrified reaction, or the exaggeration of a humorous pieing as a significantly “violent” attack, instead show just how out of touch these particular activists are with the “public” they talk about, as well as the majority of the activist community of Vancouver.
Canadian popular culture loves violence, from hockey to television to movies to the internet to video games to music, in far more gratuitous and random forms than was displayed at the Heart Attack demo. During the Stanley Cup riot of 1994 in Vancouver, windows at the Hudson’s Bay Company were also broken, that time by hockey fans.
As Mark Leier pointed out in the Georgia Straight article and his three books on Vancouver’s labour history, the debate around diversity of tactics in social struggles is nothing new in Vancouver. In the early 1900s it was the working class based anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the biggest union in British Columbia at the time, pushing the envelope in terms of tactics, much to the chagrin of the middle class dominated socialists.
In the 30s and the depression, ironically it was the communists like Steve Brodie pushing for more confrontational tactics in the occupation of the post office and other buildings, and the unemployed ended up breaking far more windows, at the Woodwards building for instance, in rioting after the police evicted them than were broken at the Heart Attack demo decades later.
All that being said, I believe that anarchists in Vancouver could have and could still better communicate their views to the wider public, particularly off the internet and on the streets and in other public places, using a variety of methods, especially now given the greater public attention generated by the media in reaction to the Heart Attack demonstration.
Short documentary on the Stanley Cup Riot with footage of broken windows at the Hudson’s Bay Company at 9:00 minutes (thanks for the tip bineshii):
Mark Leier’s interview in the media about the black bloc at the Heart Attack demo:
No action is sufficient in itself, black bloc or otherwise, by Oshipeya:
Team Anarchy Wins Three Games Against Team Olympics (on hockey the black bloc and violence in Canada):
Mark Leier’s bio at Simon Fraser University:
Robert Graham’s anarchism blog:
One Be Lo’s song “Axis” from the album “S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M.”: