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Moving Forward: Reflections on “The Battle of Toronto”

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

"Everybody is an idealist. Everybody has this idea that things should be better and that's really a non-ideological thing. The fear is that those idealists will become radicals and start questioning the roots of the system, start questioning the power structure. People in power don't like that. You have to turn these idealists into realists, because once they're realists, they can accept the compromises that opportunists make - those being the politicians.

And how do you turn an idealist into a realist instead of a radical? Well, a baton blow to the head is one way. Getting wafts of tear gas is another. Yet another is making the radicals seem crazy and criminal. Give the distinct impression through the media that you will be jailed. You will be treated differently and it's not worth the trouble. As long as idealists stay that way, or even better become realists or opportunists, that's great."

- Jaggi Singh

The riots are over.  The security fence is long gone.  Most of the pigs have gone home – and those that remain have taken off their armored exoskeletons and morphed back into human form.

And yet the scars, triumphs and setbacks of what has been dubbed ‘The Battle of Toronto’ remain with us, and will no doubt continue to cast an indelible impression on our movement during the important years ahead.

In the wider “Western” world, the Toronto G20 Summit will be forever tied to the era of widespread economic shock therapy that it has ushered in – and the violent social unrest that will inevitably accompany the sacrifice of the European welfare state to the alter of “fiscal sustainability.”

For activists in Canada, however, the immediate legacies of the Summit are a greatly expanded police state apparatus, widespread public exposure to police brutality and the cumulative effect of the over one thousand detentions that took place during the G20 weekend – including the targeted arrests of some of the country’s most committed and effective organizers.

Make no mistake… those singled out as the alleged “ringleaders” of the G20 protests have been so targeted because of their articulate, persistent and stirring calls for an end to the injustices of capitalism and colonialism, and because of the respect and admiration they inspire in all of us who struggle for a more just and equitable world. 

The trumped up charges laid against these individuals are a vicious, fundamentally shameless attempt by the Canadian state to silence dissent.  As Montreal-based anarchist Jaggi Singh so succinctly put it, “conspiracy charges are simply the criminalization of organizing.”

To make matters worse, Crown Attorney Vincent Paris has stated that the so-called “evidence” for many of these charges was collected by two undercover agents operating in Guelph, Kitchener, Waterloo and Toronto.  These two backstabbing pieces of shit – apparently part of an ongoing joint intelligence operation directed by the RCMP – allegedly infiltrated the Southern Ontario Anarchist Resistance (SOAR), which Paris refers to as a “criminal extremist group”, by building up and exploiting the friendship and trust of local activists. 

The fact that I have met these individuals and discussed politics with their alter-egos makes me sick to my stomach.  But this operation does suggest, if nothing else, that the country’s elite are acutely aware of the continued threat posed to their dominance by anarchist ideas.

And well they should be.

For as capitalism continues its death spiral, and more and more people worldwide are faced with the inescapable realities of advanced resource depletion and systemic environmental collapse, the prospect of a historical reckoning looms large.

The Canadian government’s strategy in the face of this prospect has been to scapegoat those who actively organize to bring about social transformation, and to attempt to turn public opinion against radical anti-capitalists of all stripes – and anarchists in general. 

This new McCarthyism hinges on a divide-and-conquer strategy that employs the “violent” spectacle of the black bloc to stigmatize any and all confrontation with the forces of capitalism.  While the effect on the population at large has not been particularly surprising, it has been truly shocking to see how effective the tactic has been on fellow protesters and so-called “progressive” commentators - who are seemingly tripping over one another in their rush to distance themselves from the property destruction that occurred during the “Get off the Fence” march.

The major differences between Conservative fundamentalist Stockwell Day’s tirade against “anarchist thugs” and subsequent statements from Judy Rebick calling for the swift repression of black bloc participants are matters of semantics - not of substance; CUPE-Ontario’s statement condemning the “abandonment of the rule of law” posed by the burning of “publicly-owned police vehicles” demonstrates that these union bureaucrats are more interested in the efficient investment of their members’ tax dollars in the infrastructure of working class repression than they are in fulfilling their historical responsibilities as proponents of class warfare.

Joining the enraged moderates in denouncing the black-clad militants has been the Alex Jones “Info-Warriors” crowd, armed with a dizzying array of Youtube videos purporting to prove – often through dubious photographic evidence – that the bloc was, in fact, a cleverly orchestrated government conspiracy.  Often dovetailing with the arguments posed by pacifist liberals, these theories range from the suggestion that police officers consciously allowed the vandalism to occur to utterly ridiculous claims that the burning police cars were Hollywood props ignited by undercover agent provocateurs.  While many of these armchair detectives disagree over the specific details of the nefarious plot, almost all of them agree that the property destruction served exclusively to justify the criminalization of those simply exercising their Charter rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.

Faced with the angry scorn of their fellow protesters and frustrated by what they perceive as a climate of abject defeatism, many supporters of black bloc tactics adopt a patronizing and hostile posture towards their critics - thereby reinforcing the popular caricature of these militants as dangerous, arrogant thrill-seekers.  While the dogmatic adherence to non-violence so prevalent among “progressives” can indeed be frustrating, it is important to keep in mind that not everyone reads Ward Churchill and Gilles Deleuze; rationalizations of property destruction premised on the systemic violence of capitalism mean nothing to someone who hasn’t already deeply internalized the connection between first world consumerism and third world suffering.  To the majority of protesters the smashing of windows is a destructive ritual carried out for its own benefit – not a tactic to be employed towards the achievement of collective liberation.

This is not to suggest that anarchists should gear their tactical repertoire towards the appeasement of liberals.  It is simply important to understand our role in the state’s divide and conquer strategy – and do our very best to thwart their efforts.  It is not possible to bully someone – physically or intellectually - into showing solidarity.

Though we must continue to enthusiastically demonstrate our unwavering support with all those arrested in Toronto and actively resist efforts to scapegoat anarchists or divide protesters into “good” and “bad” camps, we must also be willing to show our good faith – and to demonstrate our solidarity with our more moderate allies in their daily struggles.

Above all else, if we want to be an effective movement, we must learn from our mistakes. 

One of the biggest mistakes made in the lead up to the G20 was a failure by the organizers of the “Get off the Fence” action to provide an effective means for non-masked participants to take part.  There were hundreds of rank-and-file unionists, militant socialists, migrant justice advocates and community organizers who joined the march.  These people were defiant, and vocal in their desire to march on the fence.  The fact that the actions of the black bloc inspired many residents of Toronto to come out to the streets (and to further vandalize and torch a second set of police cruisers) clearly shows that many people share our hatred of authority. 

Sadly, unlike the “Heart Attack” action that occurred during the protests against the Vancouver Olympics, there was limited co-ordination between organizers and their potential allies; many of those who joined the initial action appear to have learned about the idea to march on the fence from a facebook group.  While there are obvious security concerns associated with openly discussing militant actions, it is vital that potential allies know that we respect them and we value their contributions to the struggle.  Security culture is important, but its harsh language can be very intimidating to those activists who are still learning about the repressive nature of the state, or for those who don’t identify with the anarchist milieu.  In this case, the strategy ultimately wasn’t very effective – since the SOAR was infiltrated from its very inception.

Black bloc participants are respected on the streets because of their acute understanding of police tactics, their awareness of state surveillance infrastructure and their willingness to fight back.  These skills can be used to increase the militant potential of a march - such as the “Justice for our Communities” event on June 25th - and should be viewed by their fellow protesters as an enormous tactical benefit.

It is important that this aspect of the black bloc is not lost in a rush to romanticize small-scale property destruction – or what is amusingly termed by many of its advocates as “property modification”.  The notion that smashing a glass window can somehow “break the spell” of the public has never held much sway with me.  This idea implies that the public is under temporary hypnosis, and just needs to “snap out of it”, whereas anyone with even a basic understanding of psychology understands that people are products of their environments, and are therefore deeply conditioned by their social roles as passive consumers.  “The masses” will not be woken up by the sound of broken glass.  Those who seek to resist do so because of their own histories, knowledge and personal relationships to injustice.  Marginalized and poor communities distrust state authority because they have consistently been brutalized by police officers, not because of a news report about black-clad anarchists smashing out the windows of a Starbucks.

“Property modification” should be seen for what it is – an exhilarating way of venting frustration against symbols of corporate dominance.  Its tactical benefits are marginal; it’s essentially a watered-down exercise in “propaganda of the deed”.  The idea that a well-publicized riot is going to turn Toronto into Athens ignores the social dimensions that have made that insurrection so inspiring.  The riots that blazed through Greece in December of 2008 (and have flared up several times since) did not occur in the shadow of a G20 summit – and the billion dollar police state that comes with it; they were a spontaneous reaction to the killing of a 15 year old kid – and the product of a widespread culture of resistance.   

Building that culture of resistance is what we need to be focused on.
 


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1810 words

Comments

thrill seeking thug with analysis

Maybe not every anarchist spends their spare time reading labour history, or participating in union actions or attending their meetings and showing solidarity on strikes,  but some of us do, and some of us have very well founded reasons to have hostile attitudes towards liberal activists and sell out labour leaders who make brash accusations against us. Union Bosses and Big Labour have had a far greater negative impact on ‘mass movement’ building than any anarchist organization has or could have.

i have posted a longer response to a passage in this article here:

Looking Backwards: a Snapshot of Decades of Union Betrayals in BC

http://toronto.mediacoop.ca/blog/bineshii/4245

I agree

I agree with your assertion about union leadership, and your blog is informative. However, I do not think that this diminishes the need for anarchist organizing to become more effective and strategic in its interventions and choices of tactics. I don't think you're saying that either, but the framing of "who is doing more damage" tends to take away the space available for having that discussion.

Interesting post

I think that your point about mass involvement in the GotF march is well taken. I am also willing to cut the folks who were there a little slack. Many of the most active TCMN and SOAR organizers were arrested in the days and nights before, and the massive police presence clearly had a limiting effect on the black bloc practitioners' ability to do much more than they did: smashy smash and run. That means we will have to be ready next time, and think of new ways to respond that expand our freedom.

The wikipedia page on "Propaganda of the Deed" is worth reading. I found this passage in particular to be resonant:

For the German anarchist Gustav Landauer "propaganda of the deed" meant the creation of libertarian social forms and communities that would inspire others to transform society. In "Weak Statesmen, Weaker People," he wrote that the state is not something "that one can smash in order to destroy. The state is a relationship between human beings... one destroys it by entering into other relationships." [my emphasis]

The elemental idea is that whatever tactic you use, part of the strategy is to do something which will open up the possibility for masses of people to understand that, through their own actions, they can achieve a different arrangement. The corollary to Landauer is "you can't blow up a social relationship," a sentiment that is simple enough:

The essence of revolution is not armed confrontation with the state but the nature of the movement which backs it up, and this will depend on the kinds of relationships and ideas amongst people in the groups, community councils, workers councils, etc. that emerge in the social conflict.

What is called for, I think, is a stepping-up of our ability to innovate in a way that addresses the tactical situation we face in each case. Everywhere, the question should be asked: does this act (even after it has passed through the filter of the corporate media!) communicate the political content that we want it to communicate? 

The most pressing practical question for me is: how can wholesale tactical shifts can be coordinated in a relatively decentralized environment?

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