The G20's symbolic violence

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This week's mass processing inside (and outside) a Toronto courthouse helped clarify June's Jailapalooza festival during the G20, the largest mass arrest in our history. Of 1,100 detained, all but 227 had the charges dropped or were never charged. Most had no links to burning police cars or battered bank machines. They were picked up while protesting peacefully or looking on.

Why? Police say they wanted to prevent recurrences, after the dramatic events. Some intimate they were embarrassed by criticisms of their earlier inaction, and overreacted. Why had police gone missing at the crucial time? There's been no clear answer. One possibility: to justify the vaulting security costs via shocking images of violence.

Whatever the cause, I'm glad they didn't intervene at that late point, since the Black Bloc people would probably have tried to rescue their comrades. That's when someone can get killed, likely an innocent of the sort who died during the 2009 London G20. Toronto tends to be lucky about this stuff. In 1992, a downtown abortion clinic was bombed to bits -- and no one got hurt.

Almost all those with alleged links to the outburst were arrested not in the streets but at home, travelling into town or at places they spent the night. This was based on intelligence, eyes in the skies, infiltration etc., always abundant in these cases. During the U.S. Red Scare, the FBI had so many undercover agents in the Communist Party that they considered electing one of their own as leader but decided for obvious reasons it wasn't worth the trouble. The apocalyptic scenes on Queen and Yonge could have been avoided if police had acted pre-emptively to snatch the usual suspects beforehand. People like me would have objected on civil liberties grounds, but they can always find some legal dodge to justify such things if they want to.

As for the masked "thugs and hooligans," as they were often called, one thing you can't accuse them of is mindless violence. It was highly mindful violence, theorized endlessly -- "bringing forward the contradictions in class society" -- on the Internet, at meetings, even in the heat of action: e.g., debating who to trash or not based on correct analysis. The trick isn't getting them to talk, as Shrek said of the amazing talking donkey; it's getting them to shut up. That's an anarchist tradition, harking back to 19th-century debates over the attentat, a symbolic political assassination, which anarchism happily discarded long ago. Here, the idea was to "expose" the fact that police exist to defend the "real criminals" behind the security fence rather than protect "the people." That scenario played out rather vividly. Some mainstream commentators saw it as a success for Black Bloc theory and tactics.

I don't agree. It's too intellectual, it puts too much faith in symbolic acts. Most people react to "revolutionary violence" not symbolically but viscerally. Violence almost always takes over the body doing it; it implies something more. That's as true for the excessive eagerness of cops wading into a crowd as for the wracked body language of a guy in a hoodie bashing an ATM. It's why we prefer our violence contained -- in hockey rinks or caged MMA arenas. So I'd say the real result of the "symbolic" violence was to convince many that the Harper security outlays were well spent and perhaps prep the ground for the rise of right-winger Rob Ford in Toronto's mayoral race.

There's also something easy about trying to expose what things mean rather than mobilizing large numbers of people, as striking Vale Inco miners in Sudbury did for a year before reaching a contract around the time of the G20. They didn't get much of what they wanted, but as for taking on the true sources of power and exploitation in our midst -- they pulled that off.

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