The first time I ran into people who believed that breaking windows was a revolutionary act was in 1972. We had just had 21 people arrested for occupying the campus at University of Toronto to set up a tent city for transient youth. We called it Wachea, a place where everyone was welcome, or so we thought. A radical new left group called Red Morning tried to convince the assembled masses that going back to the University and “trashing it,” in the parlance of the day, was the best way to protest the arrests. It was the moment I stepped into leadership, debating them for hours, saying that more violence was counter productive and would give more strength to the arguments against us.
Instead we should protest on the grounds of Queen’s Park and demand that the government give us land for our transient community. In those days we didn’t have the notion of “diversity of tactics.” We believed in the group who was organizing the demonstration deciding democratically what to do. Red Morning withdrew their proposal since they couldn’t convince us.
I was in the my early twenties then, named in an injunction against the occupation, and risking prison, but still unwilling to see how deliberate vandalism furthers a cause. It’s almost forty years later, and protesting the Olympics is a much more important issue than setting up a tent city for transient youth, but breaking windows still risks derailing the important Indigenous rights, anti-poverty and anti-corporate messages of the thousands of protesters on the streets of Vancouver.
As anyone who follows my work knows, I think the youthful anti-globalization movement that became visible in Seattle in 1999 has been responsible for some wonderful innovations in organizing and protesting. I am a big supporter of non-violent direct action, including, when needed, blockading streets and bridges to show the importance of an issue. I support horizontal networked organizing so that particular groups can take responsibility for the issues and actions that mean the most to them.
But if diversity of tactics means that people who aim to commit vandalism and sometimes violence can come into the middle of a demonstration with black face masks and break up whatever takes their fancy when the vast majority of people involved don’t want them to, then I draw a line. It’s true that violent action gets more publicity, but it’s the wrong publicity that is about the violence itself, not about the issue.
Protesting these Olympics is tricky ground. VANOC has gotten the participation of four host First Nations, run the torch through communities that have never had that kind of attention before, embedded media sponsors so that it is practically impossible for them to write anything critical about the games, and promoted a level of patriotism rarely seen in these parts. Nevertheless, groups in the Vancouver have done an outstanding job of crafting their protest in a way that has persuaded the majority in BC that the Games are not good for the province.
International coverage of the protests has been excellent Here is a slide show from Huffington Post. But in Canada, the coverage has been underplayed, so the only thing a lot of Canadians have seen of the protest is the window breaking.
When a spontaneous anger against the Black Bloc emerged on social media, people berated us for “dividing the movement.” But it is the Black Bloc tactics that are creating these divisions. Lots of new activists tell me they believe anyone who commits these violent acts are police agents. That would be easy, but it’s not true.
There are agent provocateurs, particularly trying to infiltrate more militant actions and move them to violence as we saw a couple of years ago in Montebello. False accusations have also been part of police over-reaction to demonstrations that get violent like the 600 arrests in Seattle in 1999 and the arrest of Jaggi Singh in Quebec City in 2001. But there are people, and I have debated with them, who really believe that these tactics, by provoking a police over-reaction, reveal that the state is in essence an armed body of men, thus radicalizing people on the march.
The “diversity of tactics” approach does not allow us to debate these issues. It is not whether to defend the people arrested in Vancouver who are. no doubt, in the majority peaceful protesters. It is about whether a small group of people should be able to put thousands of people in jeopardy of being tear gassed, beaten and arrested without their consent. Red zones don’t work because if the police do over-react, they will find protesters in whatever zone they might be. As the G8 and G20 plans are developing in Toronto, it is time to debate tactics before the event and if, as I suspect, the majority feels more or less like I do, to tell those enamoured of Black Bloc tactics to do it somewhere else, at a time where they don’t put other people and the issues we are fighting for in jeopardy.