Reflections on J18 by RTS - Section 3

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KEEP IT UP, DON'T LET VIOLENCE DIVIDE US

I've been trying to write something for the J18 "critique" publication for some time now, but I have been finding it difficult after being swept up in Friday's events in London, and the subsequent media fall-out. Originally, I wanted to write a piece about the ups and downs of electronic discussion groups, the challenges of global networking, etc., but I find myself unable to. I should have done it before Friday! Now I have seen so much vitriol written about the "violence" at the carnival, that I feel compelled to write a more sympathetic account.

However, before I do that I want to consider some lessons that our movement can learn from the organisation and execution of this global protest against capitalism. Given the police and the media response, I think it would be fair to say that we have hit capital, and we have hit it hard. At times like this, I always worry about state reprisals. My thoughts go out to comrades who have been arrested, and to those who have faced house searches or intimidation from the police following the demo. And then there's those lying in hospital beds, or nursing wounds at home following the bloody police repression on the day. As the police sift through video evidence and photos, many more may face knocks on the door in the days and nights to come. However, I have faith that our movement will support all of those who face difficulties at this time.

The media have made much of the use of the "Internet" in J18, and I believe that we must now expect increased monitoring of our electronic activities (I know that not everybody has computer access), and further repressive legislation against free speech on the internet. Such moves on the part of the state (perhaps in concert with the multinationals that now provide much of the internet's "structure") must be resisted at all costs. We do not yet know how sophisticated state monitoring of our electronic networks is, if it exists at all. At this time, the police seem to be playing "catch up", but we should not assume that they will be so naive in the future. Further attention must be paid to the use of secure web and e-mail servers controlled by ourselves, and to the use of strong encryption software for increased security in individual-individual communications.

On the other hand, J18 demonstrated that open and un-moderated discussion lists are an excellent way for us to network across continents. More importantly, they provide a useful interface between activists and non-activists. This sort of contact with others, be they sympathisers or detractors, can only strengthen our movement, and is a useful means of ensuring that our movement does not become "ghettoised" and that we maintain contact with others outside of the activist milieux. Of course, we must remember the class nature of the internet, and help to realise the goal of free internet access for all, perhaps through info-shops or libraries. I think the other big success of the events was the media work. Although I would normally be one who is suspicious of any contact with mainstream media at all, we have shown that by careful use of press releases, we can partly influence what is written about us. All of the mainstream June 18 news reports that I have seen mentioned that the events were happening in many countries, were timed to coincide with the G8 summit in Koln, and were constituted by an amalgam of many different groups. Most importantly, the London events were billed as an "anti-capitalist" demonstration. They can't write us off as "anti-car" protestors any longer. Plus, the J18 web site team did an excellent job presenting our own media and our own voices on the day.

The planning and organisation of the days events was incredible. I have never known such networking, and all done autonomously, with groups and individuals in charge of themselves and their own actions. In my opinion, the whole day stands as a tribute to anarchist methods of organisation, and shows how far commitment and careful planning can get you. On the day itself, seeing all those autonomous groups in action was incredible. Within the so-called "riot" lay the seeds of an alternative society, an alternative reality. Our reality.

Before getting into the thorny subject of violence, I want to drop in the following passage lifted from the Australian publication, "Anarchist Age Weekly Review," No. 355:

"Violence?"

So Kim Beazley the leader of the opposition was blessed with a pie in the face over the weekend. Listening to the media's response to this little episode you'd think that protesting about the Group of Seven's activities promoted violence.

The corporate media conveniently forgets that the G8's success is due to their ability to be able to mobilise the dogs of war. Violence is an integral component of the G8 group of countries. These countries have a political and economic system that promotes inequality. The G8's power is reliant on their ability to mobilise weapons of mass destruction. Their economic and social infrastructure promotes hunger, poverty and inequality. Violence is the main instrument that cements their hegemony over their empire. A few thousand protestors throwing a few rocks or a single protester pieing a leading politician can by no stretch of the imagination be considered violent behaviour. The real violence occurs as a consequence of the power of the G8. The poverty that is endemic in so many nation states and many of the pointless wars which exist, occur as a consequence of the power of the G8.

The concentration of power and wealth that occurs in the world's G8 economies is real sustained violence. The response to this institutionalised violence is essentially self defence not pre-mediated violence. Every time the media describes the skirmishes that occur between the G8 group of nation states and protestors as violence, it reinforces the idea that the state and the corporate sector have a God given right to use violence to defend their interests. In their eyes anybody who protests against the concentration of power and wealth which exists in the G8 nation states is guilty of violent behaviour, irrespective of how tame or peaceful their demonstrations are."

We must be very clear that the media concentration on the "violence" on Friday is a deliberate attempt to discredit our movement and to try to divide us along the lines of whether we agree that (always carefully targetted please) "violence" is a legitimate tactic or not. I do not like to see members of our supposedly diverse movement condemn people for smashing windows or fighting with the police. One activist wrote a message to an internet news group saying that he wished that those people who smashed down the entrance to the LIFFE building or those who were throwing bottles at the riot cops had been arrested so that the rest of us could get on with our "peaceful demo".

First they came for the violent activists, and I did not speak out because I am not a violent activist. Then they came for me, and there was noone left to speak out for me.

Through the whole planning stage of the June 18 events in London, there was always a concern that the whole thing would turn into a (really massive) riot, or that the cops would simply nick everyone when they turned up. One way or another, this demonstration was always going to have the potential to be a bit "heavy". Furthermore, many people felt that the purpose of our actions, to disrupt the epi-center of global capitalism, demanded radical action in the extreme.

In the circumstances, I believe it is to the credit of both the organisers and some of the street fighters that more people were not hurt or arrested on that day. Although there were some drunken bottle-throwers who chucked stuff anywhere (as others have reported), people have not reported the "positive" aspects of the way that autonomous groups of militants defended the demonstration from police repression on the day.

In contrast to what others have said, for me one of the highlights of the day was when the entrance to LIFFE building was trashed. I think that these symbolic "breaches" are important. This was a modern day Storming of the Bastille (well, almost) and there was nothing that the cops could do about it. With their security guards, all their cops and their "ring of steel" they could not prevent the mob, the voices of the victims of capitalism worldwide, from bursting their way into one of their temples. This is the stuff that dreams are made of. But, yes, people got hurt. The police went absolutely fucking crazy (of course). Amongst their first victims were activists who had been trying to calm the situation down between the blue line and the Carnival. After they had beaten the crowd away from the LIFFE, calm returned for a while, and I believe that it would have been possible to prevent further violence at this point. But it was not to be.

Oh, as an aside, when the fighting started with the riot cops outside the LIFFE, I saw a bonehead with a t-shirt with a bulldog, union jack and "England" written on it join the crowd to fight with the police. I appreciate that everything is not always as it seems in a Carnival.

Most people don't like crazed drunks who lob bottles at the police. However, once a largely peaceful crowd is being indiscriminately attacked by riot cops, you are grateful for those people to defend the mass from brutality. I must say that it was at this point that the standard of the street fighting improved dramatically. I saw teams of activists forming lines of their own to repel police charges. When the police tried to use horses against this section of the crowd, the crowd charged back at the horses. This happened a second time and a couple of coppers were pulled off their mounts. The horses were not used against this section of the crowd again. In the main, missiles were transported to the front line before being discharged at the cops. Behind the front lines, the carnival continued! As the cops pushed us up the road, militants smashed bank windows. Although the destruction sometimes seemed arbitrary, e.g. people dismantling traffic lights, in the main it was "targeted" (again, the media used this phrase a lot, which I think is a success on our part as we managed to get this over) at bank windows, McDonalds and posh cars.

An awful lot of people sustained injuries on Friday. By no means all of them were behaving "violently". I saw some really horrific injuries, most of which seemed to be head injuries. I heard that a couple of people (at least) got run over by police vans. I hope everyone is recovering. Okay, so what lessons should we learn from all of this? Firstly, I think that although we have achieved some successes this time around, we should certainly not rest on our laurels. Although we seem to have caught the cops off guard this time, we should not expect to be so lucky next time. However, we have shown the benefits of anarchist or autonomous methods of organisation in our struggles and we need to continue with these methods. On this occasion, the police chose to behave with extreme aggression towards the crowd. Although this seems to be a "new" tactic, there is no guarantee that they will do the same next time.

Although many people clearly trained in methods of self-defense for the event, and there were definitely many tactical successes, we need to learn lessons for the future from this event. In particular, we need to think more carefully about how to defuse violent confrontations. We need effective ways of dealing with possible agent provocateurs who may provoke violence at our events. We need to educate people in our own movements about the time and place for violence. Violence should always be used sparingly, and should be dictated by the nature of the struggle. Violence should primarily be used against capitalist infrastructure and for self defence against riot cops and over-zealous security guards. Once everything has "kicked off", we need trained and experienced street fighters who can respond tactically to different situations. However, at the end of the day, it's perhaps a mistake to look for "order" in "chaos".

Seeing all those bleeding heads on Friday, I can't help but feel that we should have the same protection that the riot cops have - notably crash helmets, shields and padded clothing. I seem to remember that their used to be a tradition amongst Amsterdam squatters and German radicals for wearing motorbike helmets at demos.

I began this piece by saying that I didn't like the media concentration on violence, and then all I've done in this piece is talk about it myself. Violence was only a miniscule portion of the global J18 project and most J18 manifestations passed off peacefully. I am glad about that. Solidarity to all June 18ers,

Amusing Pseudonym

 


WHY THEORY?

(Article written before June 18th)

Why bother theorising*? As we rush headlong into another action (the June the 18th international day of action – J18), what's the need for theory? After all, for many people theory is just a load of ”intellectual wank” or pointless “navel-gazing”. (There is a scene in a Woody Allen film – possibly Annie Hall, where the character played by Allen is at a party surrounded by literati types, and he says “Did you hear that the Nazis are going to march in New Jersey”; pretentious party-goer replies “Oh yes I read the most devastating critique in the New York Times Review”

“Review? What? We should be going down there with baseball bats or something!”).

However many others are also frustrated by the tendency of the “direct action movement” to lurch from action to action without any discussion on what is being done and why. As an older friend in the Valencian squatters' movement used to say, a movement which is incapable of creating its own theory will never get anywhere. (Arguably, the Valencian squatters' movement never got very far).

This is the critical thing, it implies revolutionary theory must be created as a result of action, as well as being a precondition for it. “So what is to be done? For a start we can look for opportunities to intervene in radical situations to try and speed up the revolutionary process. To identify the real demand – the demand for real life: the one demand the Spectacle cannot meet…. The only way to develop a revolutionary theory is try and put it into practice”

Theory which is divorced from practice degenerates into ideology, dogma: “We must start to build the world we want now – in our relationships, our interactions and interventions and in the way we conduct ourselves in our daily lives. Revolutionary theory is developed on the basis of lived experience. Its goal is the total supercession of the commodity spectacle. A revolutionary movement based on the development of a revolutionary theory is participatory. A movement based on an ideology is about as participatory as a painting-by-numbers kit. Revolutionary ideology is a mausoleum. We need to develop a living revolutionary theory. We start with our dreams and desires and try to put them into practice and to develop our theory, which in turn instructs our practice and we progress.” (From a 56a Infoshop leaflet “Situationist Theory For Beginners”)

So why the rejection of theory? Because all too often it is divorced from reality, is reduced to mechanical ranting or a points-scoring exercise without any suggestion as to how intervene practically: “People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.”

Comite Enrages – Internationale Situationniste

(Asda looting cartoon)

The “direct action movement”, something loosely referring to activists campaigning on a whole host of single issues including road protesters and other environmentalists, some peace activists, anti GMO activists, Reclaim The Streets, anti-oil campaigners etc etc, has not created a whole lot of its own theory (perhaps the odd article in a coffee-table book or Do or Die). Some innovation has been shown in the organisation of conferences (such as Earth First! gatherings and the direct action conferences in Brighton, where a mixture of small and large group formats have enabled some interesting discussions), but it's debatable whether the ‘movement' has a much better understanding of itself and the problem of revolutionary change as a result. In recent times the slogan has often been heard “No Issue Is Single”, and as the “direct action movement” gropes its way out of the fog of New Age mystification** (“it's a battle for hearts and minds in the struggle between good and evil, between us and the forces of darkness”) and Deep Ecology towards developing a critique of capitalism (the J18 action proposal identifies global capitalism as being at the root of our common social and ecological problems), the lack of debate is a serious handicap. A few RTS activists bemoan the lack of critical debate at RTS meetings, which are ostensibly given over to organising actions (and yet insiders will tell you that the real organising happens outside the meetings). And one of the problems at gatherings and conferences is that they can appear unfocused, probably because in a way they are removed from action; the challenge then is to unite theory and action, or better said to create theory from action and for theory to inform action, so that the two react on eachother (to develop a praxis).

This challenge for the groups involved in J18 will involve creating theories to make sense of their actions and interventions against global capitalism; questions such as what is capitalism? (and what is finance capital, which is described as the heart of the global economy in the J18 leaflets?), what is the relationship between the different movements involved? (eg some of the organising groups around the world are trade unions – so what role do trade unions play within capitalism?; some of the groups campaign for human rights and foreign debt reduction – what is the relationship between reform and revolution?); is the problem of capitalism one of class society? If not, what is it?

Nick X

Disclaimers

* It has been pointed out to me that the use of the word “theory” in this context is maybe not quite accurate, as when we reflect on and discuss our actions we are not developing new theory, but using an existing theoretical framework. Theory is one level further removed, like reflection on reflection.

** I'm sorry, I've been told I'm slipping into caricature here, slap on the wrist!

 


THE CHALLENGE OF JUNE 18

It is only now, after the dust has settled and the smoke cleared away, that I think I am beginning to understand some of the wider implications of June 18. Initial euphoria, which turned to paranoia following the state and media backlash, has given way to a more sober reflection.

What was it all about? Why did I get involved? What has it meant for the movement? I feel the need to write from a personal perspective rather than an intellectual analytical one, because there has already been enough rhetoric written about June 18 - some of it, I admit, by me. Now though, it's time for some honesty.

It's safe to say - whatever the opinion of the police and right-wing media - that the organisers of the day did not set out to plan and encourage a riot. Perhaps, given the targets selected (the LIFFE building by the Reclaim the Streets' Carnival Against Capital), and the societal polarisation that they represent, it is not surprising that widespread violence occurred. But that definitively was not the intention, stated or otherwise.

A complication here is one's definition of the word 'violence'. In the narrowest eco-anarchist tradition, which seems widely accepted within the movement, violence means damage to living things. So while chopping down a tree is violence, burning a digger is not. However, there is a different meaning to the term - and one which is closer to how the word is understood within mainstream society. This 'violence' is any action which could endanger the security of human beings, and includes intimidation or threats - broadly speaking, it means the use of force.

By either definition, the Carnival Against Capital in the City of London on June 18 was violent. Objects were thrown at police which were clearly designed to cause injury (and in some cases did - to both sides). Fist-fights with LIFFE traders also more than adequately meet the first definition. Setting cars alight and causing damage to buildings meets the second definition, as does intimidating people stuck in cars or trapped in offices. Of course, the police were more violent than we were - but that's their job. And two wrongs don't make a right. So do we seek to justify this violence, or at least to explain why we condone it? Or should we ignore the fact that it occurred and seek instead to emphasise the exciting and diverse global movement which seemed to coalesce on June 18? It is easy to accuse the media of exaggerating the scale of the riot. Too easy in fact. Because it did happen, and the ethical issues it raised do need to be dealt with.

I worry that one day people in the mainstream of society are going to wake up to the fact that the direct action movement is not in any way accountable to them. We often behave as if we have a direct line to moral superiority, when in fact we pretty much do exactly as we please. What's to stop the enemy from occupying our offices, and how would react if they did?

The anarchist purists who dominate the belief systems of the movement have helped us all construct a convenient ideology to get around this unsettling issue. As far as I can make out, we see ourselves as a vanguard, acting on behalf of the biosphere and wider human society including unborn generations) against exploitation and oppression. To quote some old RTS agit-prop: "It's about reclaiming the streets as public inclusive space from the private exclusive use of the car. But we believe in this as a broader principle, taking back those things that have been enclosed within capitalist circulation and returning them to collective use as a commons." Stirring stuff - and protecting the commons has been an enduring theme of working class resistance to oppression throughout British history. The most obvious examples are the agrarian risings against the Enclosure Acts, and also the eighteenth century Luddite movement against the destruction of autonomous cottage industry and its replacement by wage slavery in factories. But unlike the Luddites, we are not a popular movement. Nor are we working class people seeking to protect our livelihoods from the encroachments of capitalism. We are a vanguard, acting on behalf of what we assume to be the wider interests of society and the planet, but not subject to any governance by them. This was a concept (minus the planet bit) taken to an extreme by Lenin's Bolsheviks, who claimed to be acting on behalf of an ignorant peasantry by setting up a dictatorship of the proletariat.

This was of course total nonsense. The Bolsheviks represented no-one but themselves, and ended up setting up a system unparalleled anywhere except in the Third Reich for its savagery and genocidal brutality.

Don't worry - I'm not about to accuse the UK direct action movement of being on this track. But it does illustrate the dangers of acting on behalf of a group of people whilst at the same time not caring about what they think. There are times - such as in the campaign against genetics and in the later stages of the anti-roads movement - when by happy co-incidence we attract genuine popular support. This is bolstered by events which are both radical and genuinely inclusive - such as the rally at Watlington and the crop-trashing that followed it. It is then, and only then, that our battles are won.

But the campaign against capitalism is not popular. There is some case for saying that in targeting financial institutions - those who oil the wheels of an increasingly destructive and globalised economy - we are acting on behalf of the billions of people in the Third World who are denied their basic rights. But who asked them? There is perhaps some small mechanism of accountability through the People's Global Action network - but it's very tenuous. The basic issue is one of who makes the decisions - and the targets in the City on June 18 were decided in London, not Lusaka.

Perhaps it was worth stopping trading in LIFFE even for just one day - after all, it lost them millions. Millions which would otherwise have been poured straight into the system that we all oppose. More importantly still, the self-image of the City as an impregnable bastion was badly shaken. And any wider investigation of the word 'capitalism' can only be a good thing. However, all this will be for nothing unless it can engage with the sympathies and the interests of a wider social base in Britain and beyond. We're drunk with our own power, titillated and ego-tripped by all the notoriety and media attention. Everyone wants a repeat of June 18, where we can cost the capitalists millions and all feel empowered at the same time. But what about everyone else? What about all those who either out of dignity or necessity feel they must work for a living, and that they have some stake in the system that we're setting out to destroy? For me this is the crux of the issue. Take the perennial media debate. For anarchistic ideological reasons almost everyone involved refused to participate in any attempt to project a positive image of June 18 through the mainstream media. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy to grumble when we're slagged off. (I'm trying not to be naive about the nature of the corporate media here. It's always going to be difficult to communicate a moral case for bricking in McDonalds' windows in a 20-second soundbite. I know because I've tried. The reality though is that 99% of people will have heard about the day through the images constructed in the mainstream media - which we apparently should make no effort to influence.)

Ultimately this kind of purism is surely counter-productive. Like a cult, it is alienating to all but the strongest of believers, and undermines diversity in its push for total obedience. It condemns us to the margins of political influence when we should be pushing at the mainstream. And when tried in countless collectives, squats and autonomous zones, it doesn't even work.

Our heroes the Zapatistas are way ahead of us. They have faced up to the responsibilities that their success has forced upon them. They have called meetings and referendums. They have spent days and weeks consulting with the widest possible sections of mainstream Mexican society. There is legitimacy in their claim to be fighting alongside all those who are marginalised by the naked violence of semi-feudal landlordism and free trade. Of this legitimacy, we have none.

This, then, is surely the most critical meaning of June 18. And the key message is not to the capitalists, it is to us. It says this: 'If you have pretensions towards being a truly revolutionary movement, you must work with the people. You must listen, and not assume that you know best. Then, and only then, must you act.'

Anon. from Oxford

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June 18th 1999: for further info visit: www.j18.org
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