Tried fucking with the cops lately? Bet you got a court date out of it. Probably even a few hours in jail.
Actions have consequences. If your idea of changing the world is to be a militant activist who needs an excuse to block traffic with a dumpster, burn debris in the streets, fight with cops or engage in other activities that will necessitate the need to bloc-up, just know that the thrill ends with being behind bars and time away from real organizing. And precious time away from comrades and family.
This style of activism is real. It’s political. And it’s high risk. From sabotaging forest-clearing equipment, also known as monkey wrenching, to engaging in full on battle with law enforcement, these are tactics that have been used by political activists for over a century. But if you’re somebody who tried your hand at one of these political actions, have you ever revisited them and wondered, “hmmph! did my actions change anything?”
Several years ago environmental activists out West decided that arson would help bring about a wave of resistance to the clear cutting of pristine forests, and to the blowing off of the tops of mountains. Energy industry analysts would say that people needed energy to heat their homes and live comfortably. That they needed to build, and grow crops. Environmental activists called foul and decided to use more than permitted protests to help raise awareness. But did the right awareness get raised? Or did the majority of the working class, who were busy trying to make a living and feeding their families, just ignore these actions as nothing more than bored, rich kids blowing off steam?
These are real questions that should be discussed in radical circles, but are often dismissed as bull-shit, liberal agenda. But then let’s take a step back and think for a second. Does monkey wrenching and arson accomplish the same goals as outreach directed towards educating the brainwashed masses about the benefits of reusing and renewing? Does helping educate and open worker-run cooperatives, for instance, accomplish more than burning down corporate warehouses? Does hacking into corporate servers and causing nothing more than a minor nuisance help bring about the kind of change coding and distributing open-source software does?
I’m not saying resistance is futile. But activists must evolve in their rhetoric. What worked for IWW workers decades ago won’t necessarily work today. It’s a different world. With varied ideas. Multitude of distractions. More and more people have resigned to the way things are. And you say to yourself, “we must rise.” But then you look at Ukraine. The Maidan was reminiscent of Plaza del Sol in Madrid and Liberty Square in New York. What started as a peaceful protest has now been co-opted by governments with varied agendas on both sides of the iron curtain. Meanwhile, the more militant activists, both on the far right and the far left, are beating up, shooting and killing each other. It’s complete chaos. Though not yet on the grand scale of Syria. So then you start to wonder if activists with militant tactics will do more harm than good, since the pattern in Egypt, Syria, Thailand and Ukraine seems to suggest just that. In fact, most activists would rather engage in dialogue and outreach than throw a lit bottle at an armored vehicle. Even before pacifism was made famous by Gandhi, it had been used to withdraw support for other oppressive regimes in history. See, it’s much, much harder to withdraw complete participation in the state and its corporate devices, and fuel creativity and the building of structures of mutual and free aid, than it is to hurl a bench at a bank window. The former takes grassroots organizing. The kind that can destabilize governments and change the course of history. Case in point, South Africa. Attempting to de-arrest a comrade, which fails more often than not, can get you arrested. The alternative is to engage in jail support so other non-political folks can learn about solidarity.
Growing up, I would see conflict all around me. Two dudes, after a long day at work, get into some road rage, get out, and start fighting. Neighbors throwing dishes at each other during an argument. A bus driver, annoyed at a double parked car, gets out and starts a yelling match with the driver of that car, effectively stopping traffic. My buddy stops his Mazda station wagon outside a tunnel and gets out to confront a driver tailgating him, thus backing-up the entire tunnel. And many more instances of human, everyday, conflict all around me. And now that I think back, not once were the police ever called. When I was sixteen, while crossing the street after getting out of my school bus, I was hit by a young driver in a passing car who failed to yield to the school bus. The young driver got out and yelled at me. I, a chubby, young teen in his school uniform, and injured, was mortified. Do you know what my neighbor, who was a day laborer, did? He calmly walked over and struck the driver with an open palm and knocked some sense into him. The driver apologized and stayed with me all day until I was released from hospital. Nobody called the police. The moral of all this is that if you have a problem with the police, fighting with them could get you into serious trouble. However, by resolving matters communally, you take power away from them. You de-legitimize them, and by proxy, teach impressionable young adults to not rely on oppressors in uniform to solve their problems. This is how you build power in the people.
Getting caught up in militant rhetoric and advocating for diverse tactics is cool. But let’s think back to the early days of Tahrir Square, Liberty and Taksim Squares, and what you realize is that those battle tactics were not what brought the masses out of their comfort zones and off their couches to join in the struggle. It was the possibility of the masses coming together in the first place and learning to discuss dangerously peaceful and socially transformative ideas. Because ideas are the seeds of dissent. Because ideas are the seeds of subversion.
So the next time we come together in a park and attempt to bring about a mass awakening, and you see me dressed in black and advocating for militant tactics, stop, walk over, give me a hug, and tell me that we will be OK. And we will be.