The Arrest of Jeremy Hammond
There are a lot of important events and struggles that I let slide by without commenting on in this blog. In general I don’t see much point in echoing opinions or knowledge shared widely enough to be assured of capable handling. I have never been the type compelled to publicly register outrage at every new injustice. I figure some shit goes without saying and any marginal benefit to one additional voice is outweighed by the danger of such boring outcry drowning more original or challenging content. Yet sometimes there actually are opportunities to substantively help, this is one of them. The arrest of Jeremy Hammond has been an objectively huge blow to the cause of liberty.
There are few enough good anarchists and good hackers. Fewer still have done the often grueling work to build and positively influence the nascent cyber-liberation movement. The cultural turn often represented by Anonymous is still more loose momentum than hard substance and I worry constantly about its dissipation. This is a struggle that matters, that actually shakes the foundations of the nationstate system and it is a struggle so on the edge that every single additional contribution helps. Jeremy is a hero. Not just because he’s an overall saint of an anarchist activist (it’s kinda insane how one could hardly ask for a better CV), but in particular because his vigilant drive to do the best possible thing regardless of personal cost led him to seek out, find and play a momentous role.
His arrest is a blow. But we can turn this around. A movement’s strength lies in its solidarity and prisoner support is no small part of this. We can influence how this plays out. Jeremy’s been dragged by the feds to New York. Previously having served years in jail twice left him with the experience of being explicitly betrayed by a shitbag lawyer. Prisoner support is often unglamorous; however much martyrs tug at our heartstrings there’s sometimes an impulse to focus on the living. There are many important projects, goals and means we can and should spend our energy and money on, but this isn’t just about paying dividends to one of our own for their sacrifice. The state has to know that we’ve got each others’ backs at least this much or else the smell of weakness will overwhelm their nostrils and the bullshit provocations, the trumped up lies, the fishing expeditions will increase. This isn’t about stuffing cash into the unfillable pockets of some lawyer in some yet another legal battle that leeches the rest of us dry. This is about paying for support groups capable of working from the same state he’s in. This is about the cost of stamps at the prison commissary. Every human hand of outreach to Jeremy is a defiant fist in the face of a cop. Please donate and please spread the word or convey how important this is to those who might.
Here’s to Those Who Care Enough to Argue
Collapse isn’t coming–not on the whole. In one form or another the nationstate ecosystem will almost certainly persist. Maybe just maybe we’ll expand off this planet. A few asteroids will be harvested. A couple shitty bases established. Someone will eventually set off an operation in the asteroid belt. Meanwhile billions upon billions of minds will suffer, will be trapped in varyingly miserable conditions all with no reasonable hope. Some lucky few will tunnel out, will form communities or find niches on the periphery. Social constraints are rarely uniform down to the individual level and it’s important to have avenues of releasing pressure. There will be turbulence. Insurrection. Things will change, often quite rapidly. That’s just a consequence of the technology. Development is in a bit of a feedback loop right now–doesn’t mean it isn’t vulnerable to getting interrupted or derailed–but it won’t be significantly reversed. What’s out of the bag will largely stay out of the bag.
What isn’t certain is what we will end up believing, how we will cope with these changes and atrocities, how we will interpret them, how we will respond and what new frameworks we might settle into.
Perspectives have always been more important than tools themselves. The opportunities a given technology opens up have always been broader than those our brains are able to parse simply. And technologies, being embedded in infrastructure, must interface at least in some form. So the memetic constructs of society will continue to play a limiting role on these protocols, especially as the term ‘social technology’ becomes more and more redundant.
We are all carrying a lot of baggage. Our understandings of a lot of things are incomplete, with so many kinks to be resolved. And so little is being processed across society. In the crises to come there is a significant chance we will not move or learn quick enough. Amid the mess folks will latch onto the first perspectives that suffice. We will entrench and by the time the divisions with reality become apparent it will be too late, either the consequences of the self-compounding complexities of our technology will spiral beyond our reach or, worse, the infrastructure will have been severed to the point where those rotten paradigms become intractable prisons. The world will end as a huddled mass before inexonerably escalating crisis or as intellectual fifedoms with all the data in the world presented in frameworks that are wrong, but too functionally right and too complicated for a human brain to revise.
If we want to survive and flourish, to avoid suffering by billions, we need to resolve these kinks, logjams and dissonances today, as soon as possible. To whittle things down to the true roots and work our way back up. Ideology and team spirit as well as the laziness of elitism and pluralism can no longer be left as viable intellectual retirement plans. We must be honest with ourselves and as honest as we dare with each other. Engagement must be our watchword, engagement past comfort and personal achievement. Because as technology compounds and advances so must our discourse be pressed even harder. There are simple truths to be found, perspectives with just a little more view, and new uses or workarounds that stretch the imagination and free up the possible. Not for what they can service in isolation, but for how potent they are in conjunction with everything else. Potent in ways yet to be discovered. The potency of the true.
It is unlikely that we will succeed. Even now the noosphere is still a tangled, knotted, fractured organ, choked of nutrition and with fragile axons. More an agglomeration of haughty cancers than something capable of real life. It is unlikely it will ever rise to the challenge.
But lord it’s worth trying. Because what could be more glorious.
Let’s Just Kill The Advertising Industry
I was watching Redbeard‘s presentation from 28c3 summarizing the current context of corporate datatrawling and not for the first time it struck me just how wrongheaded and wasteful the standard radical/hacker kvetching about public sharing is. I mean, I get it. It would be great if people thought more about all the knickknacks of personal information they put in essentially public spaces and it would be fucking wonderful if they avoided putting it all directly in the hands of centralized servers run by big corporations like Google and Facebook. And there’s some serious late-game efforts to try and provide users with alternatives that encourage and facilitate more consciousness about privacy. But by and large that ship has sailed. Hell, it was pretty much a done thing back in prehistory (ie the 90s). Address books on Hotmail = we’re fucked. We might be able to win back some ground in the future, but it’s going to be an uphill battle.
Here’s the thing: I don’t like uphill battles where we can bypass them altogether. (Especially when we’ve had a hard enough time fighting various downhill battles when the tech and the math was outright in our favor.) Datatrawling is a legit concern, especially for resistance movements. But it’s important to note that while obviously the state stands to gain a lot, the main impetus for development on this front has arisen from advertising concerns. Yes, to many users the slippery slope of openness that’s been generated by social networking is a feature not a bug. Yet Google and Facebook have played no small role actively encouraging it in hopes that they’ll be able to monetize on it with better targeting for advertisers.
I want to stop and examine that: Their whole empire is predicated on the assumption that advertising dollars are even a thing.
But openness is antithetical to a core presupposition of advertising: people are susceptible to suggestion and anecdote because they don’t have enough information–or time to process that information–when it comes to purchasing choices. Forget everything you’ve learned about madison avenue manipulations. Those manipulations are only possible when people have any reason to pay attention. Build a box that delivers all the relevant information and perfectly sorts through it in an easily manageable way and any form of advertising starts to look like laughable shucksterism. Who are you trying to fool? Why aren’t you content to let your product speak for itself?
In this sense much of the fertile territory being seized by Google is detrimental in the long run to one of its core income sources. As search improves and our instincts adapt to it there’s simply no reason to click on the ‘featured product’ getting in the way of our actual results. The more intuitive, streamlined and efficient our product comparison the less need there is to pay any attention to anything else. And if the app providing our results is tampered with then we can swap to another app. Walk into any given store with its inventory already listed and analyzed on our phone. Of course advertising covers more than just price comparisons between laundry detergents, but there’s no end to what can be made immediately transparent. “How cool is this product with a certain subculture or circle of my friends?” “Give me a weighted aggregate of consumer reports highlighting the ups and downs.” “List common unforeseen complexities and consequences.” “How would I go about navigating the experience of changing checking accounts?” Et cetera. Every conceivable variable. With ease of interface and sufficient algorithmic rigor one can easily recognize a tipping point.
Algorithms trawling for greater targeting power on the part of advertisers are jumping at comparatively trivial increases in efficiency with serious diminishing returns. (And insofar as new understandings might inform actual development/policy wouldn’t that a good thing?) Further, taken in a broad view, the issues of complexity to such datatrawling and analysis leans to the favor of consumers because there’s simply far more of us than there are sellers. Relatively simple advances in consumer analysis of sellers would drastically turn the tables against advertisers and corporate bargaining advantage in general. In such light their current golden age of analysis is but one last rich gasp.
In no way do I mean to underplay the threat posed by governments themselves, who surely have a huge investment in the establishment of institutions like Facebook and or projects like that of Palantir. At the end of the day they will remain a threat and continue working on these kinds of projects. But the context they’re operating in makes a big difference. The NSA isn’t going to cut Facebook a check to keep it afloat. The government simply doesn’t have the kind of money that the private sector is putting in to distort the development of norms in social networking / communications in the first place. Those are slippery cultural / user-interface issues that are far too complex for the state to navigate with requisite nuance.
The sooner we take it upon ourselves to kill the advertising industry the less time it’ll have to build weapons for the state.
Sure, like our current struggle to kill the IP Industry, it’ll be a fight that’ll last a while and involve complex cultural/political campaigns alongside purely technical ones. But at core it’ll be a downhill battle for us. Easier to spread information–both technologically and culturally–than to contain it.
Such a push would provide a number of agorist benefits too. Both through the integration of projects like this that empower the counter-economy, and through the further development of dual-power anarchist justice systems like those longstanding radical listservs that disseminate information on and track rapists and abusers, forcing them to accountability through organized dissociation or at the very least warning others. At the end of the day the wider availability of public information is a good thing. In any society we need to be able to convey and measure trust on various things in various ways. It’s an old trusim: just because institutions of power have seized monopolistic control over certain functions of civil society, perverted them and threatened us with them, doesn’t always mean we should entirely turn against or seek to abolish those root functions themselves.
No Idols: Prioritization In The Struggle For Freedom Of Information
One of the hardest arguments to make in the Mohammad cartoons shitstorm was that their objectionableness stemmed from the implicitly racist context in which they were produced. In practice that isn’t an argument I have much sympathy for; almost every “moderate” denouncement of the cartoons ultimately smacked of petulant totalitarian (if pluralistic) hostility to open discourse and freedom of information. While the dynamics and potency of a single offensive event can serve as a launchpad to attack racism, the situation largely prevented any realm of protest that didn’t smack of disproportionate suppression.
It’s particularly hard to say yall are being dumb when sufficiently large crowds react by violently calling for censorship — whatever the provoking factors any decent human being’s first act would be rallying to the defense of those threatened by such deplorable populism. It’s not like we don’t have the energy to be both incensed by the tendrils of racism at play and revolted at the fascistic audacity of the muslim demagogues. But the media narrative is not so expansive and critiques of European racism did little good when the Pro/Con stuck on the board was “should words be responded to with sticks and stones”.
Still it’s sad to see a situation like that go by without a truly nuanced opinion allowed to emerge. It seems a bit Oppression Olympics to expect folks to simply postpone pertinent critiques because they’d feed into the douchebags down with censorship. Better to attack the narrative structure itself. And to my pleasure the Arab European League did precisely that (although alas they’re no champion of good themselves, a few copwatch programs notwithstanding). The best strike for liberty in the entire affair was their counter publication of a holocaust denying cartoon.
This was by far the correct approach. And the fine they just received for being (I shit you not) “unnecessarily hurtful” with said publication is an arrogant spit in the face of Freedom of Information at least every bit as infuriating as any toothless imam’s would-be totalitarianism.
This more than anything else perfectly highlights the ridiculous racism and hypocrisy of Europe. …It’s just that the resolution to their hypocrisy should fall in the direction of liberty. In the direction of a culture that expects individuals to mind their own hangups and neurotic weaknesses rather than turn to violence over a stray wafting idea.
All anarchists are anti-racist, but all anarchists also support intellectual and expressive autonomy. The caveat to our anti-racism is that while wholly unviolent prejudice is worthy of our attention and limited action, our goal is always the reduction and eventual elimination of control. The danger of racism is contextual — its capacity to advance populism and totalitarianism. Of both there is no truer embodiment than in censorship.
Since freedom of information is critical in every campaign we might undertake, it’s a good rule of thumb to attack the censors first and THEN attack whatever racists organize. (Or simply continue demolishing the rest of the existing racist system.)
The Internet Is Vulnerable
The internet is as free and as profound a social medium as it is today for a host of incredibly complicated reasons. Yes, the structure of the technology, the innovative drive behind its growth and adaptation, and the common desires that directed it were inherently and profoundly libertine (or at least relatively so). But to glance at the history of the internet at any point is to be reminded that its successes were rarely leveraged from a position of strength and conscious intent, but rather obtained through the repeated ineptitude and shortsightedness of those in power. And usually the happenstance alignment of self-centered escapism widespread among the populace with substantive resistance from a marginal fraction. While often the norm, such conditions cannot be relied upon.
The defense of free speech — in the American context — is a battle waged from a position of popular entitlement. That entitlement (while often selfish, petty, shallow and pompously sloganistic) is a powerful thing. That it has seen such expansion to the telecommunications realities of our age is as divine a providence as we are ever likely to experience. Our task is to rush to the battlements — to defend, leverage and expand where possible. This will require energy — far, far more than it took to get to this point. We have been granted the most powerful weapon of our era — stop thinking that it will fire itself. Stop thinking that they are incapable of sabotaging it.
Brandon Darby Is Our Fault
Let’s talk about Brandon Darby.
Brandon Darby was an activist rockstar who took over one of the most visible projects in the anarchist milieu. Brandon Darby was flipped by the cops. And, as of Monday, it’s safe to say that Brandon Darby ended up putting two people behind bars.
No sense in dressing it up. Beyond even the jail time, in the realm of perception–both public and internal–this was a great loss for us. For a million reasons we shouldn’t be in the condition where we have activist rockstars, and we shouldn’t be in the condition where our rank and file are ignorant and shallow enough to crack. But we are.
Brandon Darby’s inclusion within the Anarchist milieu was always extremely problematic and indicative of a widespread and longstanding crisis point in the movement. Because:
1. Darby exhibited prominent indications of power psychoses in his day-to-day actions.
2. Darby’s political and ethical stances were logically ungrounded.
It’s clear that Darby was never an altogether great person, but at the end of the day it is we who are responsible for the clusterfuck that he’s become. Blaming or hatemongering Darby is as useless as blaming or hatemongering an inanimate object or a liberal.
Darby was not someone who turned away from the light, Darby was one of the great many within our ranks who have never actually seen it.
I’m not particularly happy about using the revelation of an informant in our ranks to open an internal tirade on the state of the movement, but feel obliged given the sort of language that’s been bouncing around the scene since.
Whenever something momentous happens in our little world everyone struggles to use it as proof or justification of their existing opinions. And yes, we should have practiced better security culture, we should have at least addressed — in some way — Darby’s powergaming. But what’s unique about Brandon Darby’s case compared to the usual planted informants and undercovers we deal with is that while those approaches would have helped limit the damage, neither of them would have stopped it outright. Brandon Darby was already among our ranks, already embedded in circles of trust when he jumped ship.
Amid all the bellowing about building a threatening gangster-like culture of “stitches for snitches” and more cogent — if still unfortunate — calls for retreat behind walls of personal trust, every single voice I’ve heard has spoken with unison on the futility of addressing the problem itself. “There will always be Brandon Darbys” begin a million forum posts and zine features.
No, there don’t have to be. And the very fact that so many people believe this an occasion unpreventable, points to a profound crisis developing in our movement.
Brandon Darby and his still hidden brethren are the consequence of a culture that has abandoned intellectual vigilance and left us poorly inoculated against the sort of laughably shoddy logic that blindsided Darby and motivated him to seek out collaboration with the state.
Remember that we’re right. Reason is our home court. We not in any danger of losing an argument on ethics. The very idea is preposterous. We’ve nothing to fear from deeper examination of any issue; it can only make us quicker and more agile.
There’s never any danger in challenging our own ideas because it’s our boundless vigilance in our search that differentiates us from the statists. For us there is nothing to be lost and much to be gained in adopting as instinct the habit of questioning our own thoughts and delving deeper.
And yet not only has this become the exception rather than the rule, but we’ve arguably reached the point where little in our ranks is so despised and frequently spoken against than the practice of thinking things though. We are not a movement of those damnable outdated geeky anarcho-syndicalists, afterall, with their endless prattling on about unsexy things like theory. No, the anarchists of today, we’re all about getting things done. Theory insofar only as it directly relates to practice. Obviously it’s alright to talk about touchy-feely matters of personal perspective — that’s just a matter of not oppressing one another and tearing ourselves apart in the process of getting shit done — but constantly exploring our own logic? active philosophical analysis? valuing consistency, coherency and general rootedness? …talk about your irrelevant circle-jerks.
We’ve created a situation where vague, nebulous emotional motivations are valorized while vigilant examination is frowned upon. Where a prideful or meritocratic focus on ‘getting things done’ has trumped actual engagement.
Not only does this create ticking timebombs like Darby, it actively recruits them.
A large swath of the anarchist movement has been set up as an ancillary to liberalism. Folks move from liberal activism, to getting particularly outraged about a given injustice or two (old growth logging, working class exploitation, border enforcement, queer assimilation, thuggish police… etc), which drives them into social circles that sloganistically champion their wider set of preexisting political opinions in a more militant fashion. At one point their grievances against their own government pile up to the point where they stop seeing the state as a tool, ally or arena. There’s a little “oh, hey” moment when they realize they no longer support the state, figure they must finally be “anarchists” like everyone around them, and then that’s that.
The problem with this transformation is that it’s governed by nebulous emotional and social trends. New arguments are seized upon when offered because they seem like an upping of the anti, a deepening of their existing political identity and a strengthening of their resolve. The extremity of the reasoning (and associated action) they encounter is audacious and exhilarating, and to top it all off it makes sense. But the context in which they pick up and adopt these arguments is one of passive integration rather than aggressive engagement.
Folks become entrenched in a social position and engaged in actions that constantly reinforce their emotional commitment, but remain poorly immunized with habits of direct logic and analysis.
Emotional loyalty can deflect the occasional apparent empirical counter-example, and they can shut out particularly successful critiques for a while, but in the long term these at the very least create an unhealthy tension, and at worst prescribe an inevitable break.
Since his proud declaration of proactive complicity in the state’s prosecution of certain activists Darby has presented a variety of justifications for his actions. Although excluded from the activist community and demonized by the broader anarchist movement, Darby has nevertheless worked quite diligently to make his reasoning heard. It’s an interesting situation because even if his intentions are less than noble, Darby must still assume his arguments are potent.
And that’s exactly the problem. Because every justification he’s made to in the public press has been laughably stupid:
1. You can get more done by working with the government.
Well yes. But contrary to some myths, ‘getting shit done’ is not the endall of our activism. We’re not anarchists because in today’s context an antagonistic position toward political power is particularly effective at getting community centers built or aid distributed or old growth forests protected.
We’re called anarchists because we believe the State to be evil. Because we believe power is immoral.
We’re anarchists not because we want to reduce the amount of mercury injected into puppies, but because we want to abolish the motherfucking state. We’re anarchists because our goal is to abolish all power relations. Everything else is a means to that end. Not vice versa.
Anarchism isn’t hardcore-activist-scene trappings. It isn’t a “way of doing things”; a tool or commodity on the market that might help you obtain your random political desires. Anarchy IS the desire.
We want something that a centralized power structure by its very nature can’t give us: Liberty.
Of course working with the Government will get a homeless shelter built faster than working in open defiance of its zoning restrictions. And sometimes that’s needed. But sometimes it’s faster to simply occupy an abandoned building.
And sometimes, when you do fight and you help people organize something for themselves outside of the coercive control of the state, it invigorates and inspires them to take the next step in their own lives. Something that working with the government can’t do.
2. Disrupting political conventions suppresses the free speech of politicians.
So does punching a censor in the jaw.
As with anything, context matters and means are not exactly the same thing as ends.
Political democracy suppresses free speech by allowing, even encouraging people to vote on what others are allowed to say. Our government has always outlawed the transmission of information that might seriously threaten its continued existence. Simply explaining our ideals is treason punishable with the death penalty — and would be if they ever thought our plans viable. So if you truly value free speech then it stands to reason that disrupting the political process is its best defense.
Because at the end of the day political conventions are not cafe discussions or roadside protests. The discussion is that of generals and goons meeting to gloat and showcase their plans to suppress all of us.
By their advocates’ own admission, completely nonviolent forms of resistance only work in a medium where the information regarding such acts can be transmitted and received. But just how might anyone fight back against those actively using physical force to suppress free speech without disrupting theirs the tiniest bit through our resistance?
Sure, if it was somehow constitutionally, fundamentally impossible for politicians to enact or enforce laws based on say Intellectual Property, Decency, Confidentiality, Libel, Association, Movement, Counterfeiting, Treason, etc… then it might be said that government wasn’t inherently suppressing free speech.
Just basing all of its actions off its capacity to murder and imprison us… oh wait.
3. People should openly accept responsibility for their own actions.
Let’s examine a case study: Should the French Maquis, after an action against the occupying Germans, reveal their identity and stand out in town square to take the “consequences”?
I mean What. The. Fuck.
The idea that acquiescing to a government’s revenge is “taking responsibility for one’s actions” is utterly disgusting.
And insulting — just insulting — in its flagrant lack of thought.
Yeah, honesty and openness are critical components of any free and just society. But this isn’t one. Hiding our faces is a utilitarian decision, and a tricky one to be sure, but we don’t live in a free marketplace of ideas and reputations. Again, voicing our beliefs as anarchists is legally classified as Treason. We can be fucking executed for printing a zine.
There are, of course, valid concerns to be had when it comes to unilaterally deciding to up the ante in a situation of collective confrontation. That’s an issue of consent, and also of broader strategy. Everyone agrees that bringing a stack of pre-made molotovs to the RNC was sketchy. St. Paul is not Thessaloniki. But obviously there were plenty of ways to stop Crowder and McKay that didn’t involve proactively seeking to aid one of the most violent, hierarchical and repressive organizations in the world, the state.
Darby’s decision was abhorrent. It was also really fucking stupid. That he hasn’t even batted an eyelid, making the above points sincerely, again and again, to anyone who would listen, signals more than anything else that we need to shape up the way that we as a movement, as a culture, approach reason and logic.
Moreover it directly challenges what many people have already taken away as the lesson. We are not going to solve the problem of informants, traitors and cops by drawing lines, falling back on limited circles of trust and clamming up. Being able to shut people and ideas out is not the definition of winning, it’s the definition of retreat.
For god’s sake, enough of this inane “brute action over inquisitive analysis” fratboy bullshit. We need to grow up. Being able to rattle off a laundry list of invective builds energy but offers no restorative focus in the face of complexities. Depreciating mental explorations that don’t immediately lead to actionable proscriptions is suicidal. It’s our responsibility to create and maintain a culture of thinking things through. One where discourse on every topic is not only acceptable, but standard fare. Where challenging ourselves intellectually is not derided as masturbation, but as the critical component of our war on power.
Being disinclined to take action is not some passive character trait, but an argument, however cloaked and subconscious, that can and should be openly challenged. Rather than drawing lines and selecting as comrades those that happen to be correctly motivated, we should unceasingly endeavor to create them. And yet our movement is wrapped up in retreat. Progressive insularity and disengagement only broken by mild spurts of semi-inspirational actions. Propaganda through the deed has become an excuse to be 1) incredibly bad at propaganda and 2) incredibly bad at deed.
And you know what? Let me tell you, after a decade’s close experience with them, Cops and Informants aren’t the ones who don’t do anything. They’re the ones who can’t give you a good reason as to why they’re doing it. They revert to emotional appeals and make nebulous statements, but bristle with discomfort and finally hostility when a conversation turns to their rationales. Because emotion is easy to fake while even the most psychopathic of state actors has to justify their own actions to themselves.
That realm of logic is, by necessity, a no-go zone. It must remain their safe space. Something they can depend on, unfettered by serious doubts.
How shallow, how meaningless must have been Brandon Darby’s original interpretation of Anarchism that he could carve out a secret mental space in response with ideas as brittle and preposterous as the ones above?
That’s our crime. We let that happen. In the culture we created it became inevitable.
But we can build a better one.
I’m not saying that we’ll covert every undercover cop assigned to eat our tofu scramble into double agents (although this has happened). Or that opportunistic psychopathic douchebags will suddenly stop gravitating towards showy activist projects. What I am saying is that if we start holding each other intellectually accountable in our everyday lives we can make their job a hell of a lot harder. And maybe, just maybe, we will no longer have to deal with people ditching the movement and betraying us all for really stupid reasons that they somehow think are profound.
The Brawl in St. Paul: A Breakdown of the 2008 RNC
When asking the question of whether [party ___] was successful in the 2008 RNC protests, it’s worth noting that protests are not outright confrontations and cannot be judged by the same standards. Because protesters, no matter how militant, are still on some level inherently self-restrained. The cops fire concussion grenades; we spray silly string. Thus in a conventional sense, protests are always, inevitably, lost battles. What makes protests useful to protesters are the strategic changes they can effect in the process of losing.
Most people forget but Seattle was actually a failure. We got extremely lucky and succeeded somewhat in one tactical goal (impeding delegates), but made no ground whatsoever in the larger struggle. Despite the hiccup, the machinations of the WTO continued exactly as before. While the narrative of N30 inspiring global resistance to the WTO (culminating in its modern irrelevancy) is an oft repeated tale, the reality is that our colorful protests made not a drop of difference. It was the Bush Administration that gutted the WTO; consciously shifting the focus of power from Global Capital to Empire. From hegemonic corporatism to westphalian realism. And it was a Brazilian Neoliberal named Lula whose national self-interest exploited the situation to stall the Doha rounds.
Driving away from Seattle this was quite apparent. For all of our spectacle, we hadn’t actually gotten anywhere. But as the weeks passed a curious thing happened: we began to commemorate our stand. We began to feel nostalgic for the sense of confrontation. We made a stand and lost, but in the sheer act of making a stand we discovered a useful offset. It invigorated us and built our numbers.
For a variety of reasons the 2008 RNC was an explicit attempt to recreate the highs of Seattle, and for better or worse it’s partly through this lens that most actors and observers will try to measure it. Unlike Seattle, however, the formal goal of impeding delegates was always tacked on just for show. As many people said during the lead-up, while it would be nice to see the cameras pan an empty stadium on the 6 o’ clock news, it was also seriously unlikely. If the Republican National Convention itself was nothing more than a media spectacle, the RNC Mobilization was a many-times compounded spectacle, often of self-manipulation. Thus, even more so than Seattle, there’s no easy metric by which to analyze St. Paul.
Players and Goals
There were many forces active on the streets of St. Paul, each with very different goals. Before analyzing how they played out, it’s worth examining their motivation and intent.
Local City Administration: The municipal authorities wanted money, investment and prestige from the Republicans. But without the government loosing legitimacy with the resident liberal population. Since incumbent politicians would suffer mightily from such fallout, they pushed hard to avoid outrages like protest pens.
Local Police: While local law enforcement also saw the benefit of appearing open and permissive of free speech, more than anything else they were concerned with even the slightest impression of “losing control.” Crime prevention was entirely secondary to maintaining the state’s image of absolute authority throughout the convention. Thus significant resources in Major Crimes were redirected from mafia and gang concerns to befriending hippies, while, for example, during the convention Sex Crimes alone was cut to just one person and not allowed to file any reports over 24 hours old.
Feds: While Federal participation was extensive — from the usual Joint Terrorism Task Force stuff to extensive loans and oversight — their specific intent is harder to ascertain. Obviously, like all the other statist parties, Homeland Security ultimately wanted to protect state power. And we can only presume that their strategy was more informed and nuanced than either local administration or law enforcement. But all that says very little to how this repression fit specifically into their longer campaign against the Anarchist movement.
Maoists: Having spent decades systematically infiltrating the alternative infrastructure and liberal activist projects of the twin cities, the local Maoist cadres saw the RNC as an unparalleled opportunity to further consolidate their control of the liberal activist spectrum in high-profile positions. While always clandestinely hostile to anarchist organizing attempts, they saw far more value in solidifying positions of power among the liberals than in undermining the anarchists who were doing all the heavy lifting organizational work for them.
(A) Home-Team: When the 2008 RNC host town was announced chance had already coalesced in St. Paul what many observers in the Anarchist milieu have since termed an “activist dream team.” Folks with a ton of experience and drive — but relatively little baggage. Notably however, few of these individuals were particularly sympathetic to the summit hopping and mass mobilizations of yesteryear. But, since a mega-protest spectacle seemed inevitably thrust upon them, they decided to chin up and make it the best possible. This Home-Team was particularly concerned with righting the mistakes of Miami (’03) where activists failed to have either substantive local logistical support or a strong framework to plug into and New York (’04) where anarchist organizing efforts were appropriated and eclipsed by liberals, contributing to a total lack of militancy on the ground. And, of course, they were concerned with both the energy that such mobilizations sucked from local and/or long-term projects and the devastation it left on the host community.
While the Home-Team was skeptical of many aspects of Seattle, and in no way saw it as a sustainable long-term model, they still turned explicitly to its successes. Which, in their minds, the slumping Anarchist milieu desperately needed. Collectively they shared three broad goals:
1. Raise Anarchism’s profile and spread the word. Seattle was a watershed moment because it inspired thousands of protesters to pick up a book on Anarchism. Not so much the ALF-CIO folks in the stadium, to whom we were hooligans, but rather the students doing lock downs in the streets. Those people, through DAN and face-to-face contact, found personal incentive to investigate anarchism on their own and became a wave of popular reference for Anarchism within activist circles. It was hoped that by taking a leading role in the RNC preparations anarchists would similarly inspire the various liberals and generic “movement” leftists in — or coming to — St. Paul.
2. Shake the milieu’s malaise and regain self-confidence. Nothing rattles the bones and builds electric buzz like facing off with the cops. The sense of urgency, high-stakes, solidarity and collective strength that mass confrontations bring has a charged effect — no matter how profoundly brutal the police repression is — that percolates outward from those who experienced it back to their communities. Nothing gets our priorities in line like a face full of pepper spray from faceless fratboy riot cops and a stranger with a Crass patch pouring malox in your eyes, telling you it’ll be alright and helping you to your feet. Miami was a disaster because we fell apart in the face of police repression and in New York we compounded the problem by not doing anything. They pushed us and we lost our nerve — which, whether or not you think mass mobilizations are sustainable, was a bad thing. It was the hope of many that an organized successful confrontation in St. Paul would help us regrow it.
3. Build capacity. However useless our effort in Seattle might have been on the global stage, in the lead up, planning and execution we built vast networks of friendships and refined skills both tactical (building lockboxes), infrastructural (indymedia was formed), and organizational (learning how to lead folks and come to decisions collectively). Looking at our efforts in Katrina and looking as well to the Jena 7 mobilization, it seemed to many that retaining the capacity to respond nationally to local events was an important if not critical strength. Given the exponential growth (and, alas, relatively constant burnout) of the regional Anarchist activist scene, by 2008 those who still retained the full experiences and skills of the DAN mobilizations were in a distinct minority. To counteract this slide St. Paul offered a useful, but strategically non-critical, training run. (Plus, for those deeds-over-words type activists not drawn by geeky bookfairs and conferences, there’d been few enough excuses for family reunions.)
All these were, on the whole, central issues to the Home-Team and were mirrored by many other Anarchists around the country. But they were not the only force within the Anarchist mobilization around the RNC.
(A) Visitors: To many focused on organizational projects, St. Paul was a no-risk opportunity to prop their flags on the barricades and suck up greater momentum and legitimacy through osmosis (SDS wanted cameras, A3 wanted intra-movement respect, IWW wanted relevance with the younger crowd… etc). But it was also an opportunity, for those radicalized since the end of summit-hopping, to claim for themselves the experiences so romanticized by CrimethInc and co. Balanced in the middle of these tendencies was Unconventional Action, a slapdash facade of the RNC’s mandatory national level action network that for a long time was really just two groups in New York and North Carolina. It’s no insult, just a fact, that UA was no DAN and much of its base was young and largely inexperienced with this scale of undertaking. This tendency’s goal was largely just to be enlivened by the protests. As one fresh-faced out of town organizer said, “to finally get a piece of the Seattle pie.”
So here’s what happened. Nobody showed. Not the cops, not the liberals, not the anarchists. Everyone’s numbers were way, way lower than they wanted and expected. This was painful for them, but critical for us.
Small town police departments didn’t want to be tied up in lawsuits over police brutality. Law enforcement only managed to scrape together a threadbare 3,500 officers by going out of state.
Gustav and local chilling effects from the police raids kept the Liberals at home, but the biggest effects came from Obama and the Maoists. On the eve of presumed electoral victory liberals felt little compulsion to protest the assumed losers. Similarly, because unlike ANSWER or World Can’t Wait the Coalition had a limited shelf life, there was little incentive for the local Maoists to invest serious time or energy into making the protests a national-level success. Thus the liberals ended up floating naught but an embarrassing 10,000 out of the 70,000 everyone expected.
While Law Enforcement’s low numbers might have otherwise made some level of tactical victory possible, without liberal jelly to fill out the downtown the blockades were doomed from the start.
The Saint Paul Ballot Box
Home team was always in a sticky spot. Having been dealt a project they otherwise would not think of getting involved in, they were faced with the challenge of rallying support from their likewise skeptical peers. Without a good number of experienced, committed blockaders on the ground even a brief tactical victory would be impossible.
Make no mistake, the resources clearly existed within the Anarchist milieu. Traveling the country and interacting with veteran activists it was quite apparent that, had we wanted to, we could have easily shut down 10 St. Pauls.
It’s just, as it turned out, we didn’t want to.
Anarchist presence at the RNC was maybe 800 people, tops. And while that could have been enough to shut down the main on-ramps and impede delegate buses for up to an hour had those 800 been ultra-skilled blockaders, they weren’t. To give some measure of the inexperience on the ground: not a single fucking tripod went up.
Let’s take a moment and dwell on that.
Setting aside Sector 5 (Home-Team’s native sector, which was systematically dismantled by an informant), there were next to no hard blockades attempted. People parked a van and chained themselves to it. Others used lockboxes across a road in the middle of nowhere, without locking the ends to anything. Most of the “hard blockades” were overturned plastic newspaper boxes. A couple overturned garbage bins. Folks skirmished with the police in a high-risk attempt to place caution tape across an intersection (one officer ripped it down in a single stroke). That’s not to undercut or malign the spirit of those involved in these actions; supplementing more intense efforts, these might even have been useful distractions. But there were no chain drops, no bike walls, no drum wall, no serious physical barricades whatsoever. Not a even a single tripod went up.
The fact is plain: the anarchist milieu largely decided to sit this one out.
This should have been obvious in the lead up, but wasn’t. Home Team was hardly alone in their initial distaste for Mass Mobilizations. Support for the RNC effort was widespread, but paper thin. Although voiced from time to time, personal distaste and disinterest in resurrecting the Summit Hopping formula was largely cloaked behind generic support for a diversity of tactics and an abstract interest in seeing the community boost its morale. Aside from a few usual suspects, open conflict and debate on tactics was seen as a impediment to be avoided. Thus those who disagreed with the effectiveness of mass protest (compared to more sustainable local projects and ever-popular basic needs organizing) largely kept their mouths shut out of respect for those organizing… and consequently doomed the entire tactical operation.
Right or wrong, the only way to gauge the movement’s priorities was in action.
St. Paul saw a lot of of younger bodies hit the street. Enthusiastic at the idea of plugging into a major demo, they largely had no idea that they were the full extent of the demo until about noon on Monday. And then they were crushed.
Before addressing the role Law Enforcement played it’s worth first appreciating just how committed the Feds were in concealing their hand. As early as a year before the RNC, FBI agents initiated a quiet campaign of stings and corruption investigations against local police. The inevitable results of these operations gave the Feds substantial leverage over the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department. With local Law Enforcement ready to take the fall, they could instigate pretty much any level of harassment against the Anarchists without fear of substantive public backlash.
But there were trade offs. While the Sheriff made an attractive attack dog, he was not exactly nuanced. In their eagerness to beat hippie ass, Local Law Enforcement adopted a degree of autonomy in their efforts that, on a strategic level, they were simply unqualified for. And once started there was little the Feds could do to reign them in without revealing their hand. While a few of the raids were overseen by inconspicuous FBI and ATF agents, others quickly stemmed from the malformed initiative of local police who thought they were helping out. Thus as early as Saturday we had seen attacks on honey pot targets like uninvolved spaces and anarchist journalists, and by Thursday there were reporters shot in the face, lawyers brutalized and camera-friendly kids tortured in the Ramsey County Jail.
At core, local law enforcement wanted to maintain the impression of unchallenged authority at all costs. While they were always sensitive to the longer game – working hard in the lead-up to try and win over the liberals – the Feds stirred up feelings and gave them pretense to turn it into ‘all out war.’
Police forces, as a whole, are blunt armies, slow to raise and harder still to control with any degree of nuance. In provoking the rank-and-file with tales of “barbarians at the gates” the Feds gambled on a stronger, more militant and more skilled anarchist presence. One whose impressiveness would steal the public narrative and take pressure off the cops. Like Home-Team, they had no way of predicting the milieu’s decision to stay at home. And Local Law Enforcement—being barely sentient thugs—were simply incapable of re-evaluating the strategic context for themselves. Since the Feds had no way to quickly convey this change, the cops went ahead and more or less followed their initial marching orders to a T, beating hapless kids to a pulp in front of horrified onlookers and generally revealing themselves to be the fratboy fascists they are. This was easily our biggest victory.
Tactically we arrived on the streets with next to no strength whatsoever. Had it not been for the extremity of the police reaction, St. Paul might well have been a complete wash for the Anarchists.
Where any other police force might have have wiped our feeble barricades off the streets without much fanfare, local Law Enforcement had been worked into such a lather that every interaction between protesters and police was a propaganda coup for us. Shocked and outraged liberals will be shouting They Arrested Amy Goodman!!1! for years to come. By upping the ante beyond the conventionally established boundaries of protest, police repression managed to blunt the strategic damage of an inevitable tactical failure.
While Hurricane Gustav stacked more chips against us on a tactical level—reducing the number of delegates required on the first day—its primary effect was in the national media. In conjunction with the nomination of Sarah Palin, Gustav helped keep the RNC protests almost entirely out of the national news.
For organizations like SDS looking to build a public presence this was unfortunate. But for the movement as a whole, the cloaking effect was arguably quite a boon.
Mass Mobilizations work to our advantage when it comes to outreach on a personal level, but media misrepresentation has always been an impossible hurtle for Anarchists. We’re quite literally the most misrepresented and systematically slandered group in history. (Stop. Try and think of anyone else so thoroughly and consistently maligned. Seriously. Must be doing something right.) Otherwise intelligent, cogent, respectable journalists turn into deliberately lying hacks the moment anarchism comes up. This is always quite shocking to fresh-faced anarchists who just presumed that our ridiculous public image could be fixed by simply correcting the lies. ‘All anarchism needs is a good media effort!’ What they fail to take into account was just who exactly invented and spread those lies. Journalists may be committed to the truth in usual circumstances, but then politicians tuck their children in at night too. For such statists, the fleeting decency of their everyday lives is entirely built on a premise so brutal and monstrous it would tear their minds asunder were they ever to look at it directly. Is it any wonder that even the smartest of journalists will consistently revert to sensationalism and blind apologism for tyranny when confronted by the spectre of anarchism? It was journalists, not politicians, who popularized the vulgar and deliberate mis-perception of “anarchy” as equivalent to violent chaos.
On those rare instances when we engage in street battles with the cops it’s like dangling dripping bacon in front of a dog. No matter how much integrity they have you can’t very well expect them to portray us as anything more than sub-human criminals. While “throwing urine and feces” was a deliciously audacious debasement, the fact that the media lapped up the lies of the cops (even adding their own in a few circumstances) was not particularly surprising. No matter how cautious or adroit our efforts with the media at these sorts of mass mobilizations, good coverage is an outright impossibility.
That leaves no coverage.
Which, magically, we got.
Beyond the blessings of a crowded news day, and aside from a few mandatory “police beat me senseless and shot my camera, but it was clearly justified because some bad, chimpanzee-esque protesters upset the poor things”, every time the media started to turn their attention to the streets of St. Paul, they were quickly vanquished:
“Are those extremist democrats—like the self-proclaimed “anarchists” of the RNC Welcoming Committee—planning to protest the RNC despite Hurricane Gustav deliberately contributing to the partisan divide?”…
… “Just as anarchist medics and volunteers were the first to provide aid to survivors of Hurricane Katrina, so too are anarchist organizations like FNB and Common Grounds digging in as we speak to help those in the Gulf abandoned by both parties of our tyrannical, profiteering government. While the state’s thugs may have kidnapped those showing us some Minnesota hospitality, we remain undaunted in our solidarity with those survivors of Katrina who were attacked by riot cops last night.”
“Why did some bad protesters—so evil they called themselves “anarchists”—choose to murder several innocent windows along a cheerful Macy’s storefront?”
… “I was beaten and tortured, that’s right, outright fucking tortured, in the Ramsey County Jail. She was raped. Fuck you.”
Eventually deprived of everything nasty they could think to say, the media by and large opted to say nothing at all.
Respecting a Diversity of Kick-Yo-Ass
All the strategic gains mentioned so far have been at best small variations in degree compared to previous summits and mass mobilizations. But the sharpest accomplishment we had was largely a tactical one, albeit not as sexy or immediate as physical blockades. What marked St. Paul as truly unique and worthy of historical note was the level of explicit coalition building between anarchists and liberals.
While Home Team comprised many different individuals, factions and groups, a significant percentage of its organizing effort was spent preempting the usual Liberal backstabbing. Individuals spent long hours negotiating demands, looking past hierarchical procedures and siting through endless meetings. At the same time Home Team built up a solid organizing presence early on and thus approached the Liberals from a position of unassailable strength and independence. For a good many months the Anarchists were the only game in town.
Local Law Enforcement, in turn, worked tirelessly, in conjunction with Local City Administration, to win over the Liberals and force a standard good-protester / bad protester narrative. They failed utterly.
Home Team countered by humanizing themselves and anarchism on a personal level and then educating their liberal friends on the historic role of police. Left-liberal organizations built around class and race struggles helped validate these concerns. And the anarchists, in turn, were unafraid to play off Liberal qualms: ‘Treating the police as allies is a big fuck you to poor people of color.’ ‘Allowing the police to sow division over mere tactical differences helps silence all of our voices.’ The process was long and slow, and aggravating, but before the end NPR-listening grannies had become fierce, articulate proponents of a Diversity of Tactics.
Of course some of this success was due to the fact that the local Maoist puppetmasters, being evil commies, were not exactly zealots of nonviolence. But the Maoists didn’t control every Liberal organization. Indeed our greatest and most heartfelt support came from organizations they didn’t even have a presence in.
After the Saturday Raids, few among Home Team had the opportunity to fully impress the importance of the St. Paul Principles upon their own ranks. Thus the situation on the streets was more complex. Many black-blockers laid their bodies on the line, famously defending children and disabled folks attacked by the cops, while on the other hand a few fled into one of the liberal marches after militantly confronting the cops—a clear violation of the St. Paul Principles. (The Liberal rank-n-file were not exactly perfect either.)
Nevertheless the coalition held together perfectly. Not only did the cops fail to split ranks, the Liberals went out of their way again and again to stand by us before the media—much to the shock and chagrin of Law Enforcement.
The media ran with the story anyway—even reporting ahead of time on conflicts between “good” and “bad” protesters that hadn’t happened, they simply presumed would happen. This much was inevitable. But without the standard nonviolent “good protester” spokesperson angrily denouncing the violent “bad protesters,” their stories have been noticeably weakened.
Like all protests, on a tactical level we lost. The actual conflict itself was by nature momentary, fleeting, and largely irrelevant outside its strategic effects. Nevertheless, an overview is easy:
- They used superior numbers and infiltration to systematically break and dismantle our street presence.
- We managed our coalitions and friendships incredibly well, holding protester ranks together better than ever before.
Exactly what the lasting effects of St. Paul will be is hard to measure. Victory and defeat, on a strategic level, is always muddled. But we can at least consider a partial checklist of gains and losses:
- They further dehumanized us before rabid fratboy statists around the world.
- They built experience and know-how infiltrating our ranks.
- They made us appear weak.
- We got a couple thousand folks (on the ground and at home) a lot friendlier towards anarchism and more likely to investigate our thoughts on their own.
- We returned marginal attention in the broader public to the growing intensity of state power — rather than, say, hope-a-rific promises of public health care.
- We got a ton of face-time between folks within our own ranks who would otherwise never interact, further developing our internal conversations on tactics and theory.
- We built sympathy and solidarity with anti-authoritarians outside America and helped re-enthuse them.
The real contest, however, was always over our self-perception. We got our asses kicked. They abducted us in unmarked vans, invaded our homes, stole our stuff, tortured us in jail, and, of course, pepper-sprayed, tear-gased, maced, bear-sprayed, tasered, billy-clubbed, trampled, rubber-bulleted, flash-banged, and concussion-grenaded the crap out of us on the streets.
They did all this, despite the costs incurred, just to break our nerve.
They might succeed.
A Moment of Clarity
It doesn’t matter that we were never going to win on the streets. And it doesn’t matter that we made particularly tasty lemonade from the lemons dealt us.
Most of those who participated left St. Paul with the immediate pain of a battle lost. We’ve returned home to half-heartedly raise bail and promote stories on Digg about how batshit insane the cops were. That’s not winning, that’s whining. And people can tell. We can tell. The go-team! mantra of “Spectacle Crashed!” that survivors were repeating on Tuesday and Wednesday was never going to last. Because it’s false. It’s hollow. It’s a patronizing self-deception and, sure as rain, it will eventually give way to malaise.
Protests are inherently artificial situations. Spectacles of negotiation and appeals to power. No matter how harsh the repression, no matter how feisty the riot, on both sides they’re ultimately confrontations for the sake of appearance.
For all the outreach and capacity building we accomplished in this mobilization we ended up looking weak at a moment when we desperately wanted to look strong.
That we kept up “a good nine hours” of street-level confrontations on the first is meaningless. The gut-wrenching horror and exhilaration of street-fighting may have given some newcomers a visceral impression of the magnitude of our struggle. But it’s a false sense of scale. Make no mistake, this war that we live is so much larger than pepper spray and black bandannas. Despite the repression we faced the gloves never truly came off.
What we should take away from St. Paul is not a blind mythology, but a fuller appreciation of our strengths.
On the streets and in the lead up, all our successes stemmed from our agility and adaptability. In every contest of outright momentum we lost. Against the State, we simply can’t win such. We don’t have the strength and, even if we did, it’s not our way. We are not a cohesive, undifferentiated mob and there was never going to come a day in which we simply poured over their barricades and on to victory.
Thankfully, many among us appear to be awakening to this.
Attack Attack Attack
While St. Paul resoundingly demonstrated the movement’s growing disinterest in mass mobilizations and conventional protest, the alternative is not retreat.
It’s not enough to build, to just go home and work on our own communities. Despite the appeal, we cannot afford to simply take shelter behind the feel good, generic movement-ism of projects like free schools, free software and neighborhood gardens.
That’s not to say that such things aren’t incredibly important. But more important is that we don’t lose our nerve.
Because regardless of whether or not they’re doing so, anyone can work to build a new world, to help folks secure basic needs for themselves. We represent an ethical realization that power is an absolutely destructive and alienating psychosis. Without that assertion made explicit, those gardens are doomed. Because 1. ultimately The State will never let us get away with such things—even now it is working to devalue and undercut them, and 2. without a clear clarion call to hold ourselves accountable we’ll slide back into the same half-measures and compromises that have destroyed every movement in history.
To prevent that we have to keep flying the black flag high.
We cannot afford to lick our wounds. Timidity will not save our tradition. There is no teeter-totter of history. Fascism today will not inevitably give way to permissive liberalism tomorrow. If we’ve been lucky in the past it was sheer doggedness that pulled us through.
They attacked us, brazenly, openly, arrogantly. They made it clear that they know where their priorities lie. If we had somehow “won” on the streets and, say, turned St. Paul into a giant free state, they would have nuked it.
The only response is to go on the offensive. The only surefire way to retain our nerve is to strike back. Not to negotiate, wheedle or throw ourselves another get-well riot. But to focus on efficiency on an individual level, and to hell with appearances. To hell with the spectacle of our collective momentum. To hit them back again and again with everything we each have. They break our bones? We need to shove the splinters in their fucking eyesockets.
We need to get serious.
“[A]bove all, summits constitute a form of experimentation to see what level of oppression people are willing to put up with.”
–Notes on Summits & Counter Summits