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In Defense of Shattered Windows and Burning Cop Cars: On the Supposed ‘Violence’ of the Black Bloc

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

Choose your words carefully. Let me repeat that one more time: choose your words carefully. To use a word out of context, to use a word indiscriminately is to obscure, and ultimately sully it’s meaning. Democracy was once a word used to describe the beautiful ideal of participation in the political realm. However, after several wars, many ongoing, fought in the name of ‘democracy’, the word has ceased to have a meaning. The word terrorism has suffered a similar fate. If terrorism is everything from the bombing of a building, to the liberation of an animal from a vivisector’s lab and the destruction of logging equipment, the word, like democracy, ceases to have a meaning. The moment a word begins to refer to anything and everything, it essentially means nothing.

In the weeks following the Toronto G20 protests I have been increasingly infuriated by the manner in which the word violence, both within the corporate media and activist circles themselves has been haphazardly thrown around. Before expanding on this idea, I want to make it clear that it is not the intention of this brief ranting to enter into the heated debate surrounding a diversity of tactics. That said, I personally support a diversity of tactics, and consider property destruction a perfectly acceptable tactic within a broader repertoire of potential activist tools.

OK, now back to the question of violence. In the aftermath of the G20 insanity, much has been said of the so-called ‘violence’ of the Black Bloc. Media commentators, fixated on the property destruction that occurred on the 26th have made constant reference to the ‘violence’ unleashed by anarchists on the streets of Toronto. The events of Saturday have been largely framed as a ‘violent’ eruption, a fleeting moment in which the ‘bad protesters’ (to be distinguished from the ‘good protestors’ who followed the designated, state-sanctioned protest route) turned Toronto upside down (or right side up depending on how you look at it).

Towing a similar line to that of the corporate media, many within the Left have also condemned the supposed ‘violence’ of the Black Bloc. The property destruction that occurred during the G20 protests has been discussed and criticized in terms of individuals engaging in ‘violent’ actions. Not only have the actions of the Black Bloc been labeled as violent, but also in some instances they have even been blamed for the brutal repression that swept down upon Toronto at the hands of the police. Don’t you realize, claim detractors, if the anarchists only would have behaved themselves, the police would have been nice. Umm…I’m not too sure about that, but that’s a whole other discussion.

Over the course of the G20 weekend over 1,090 people were detained by the police. In pre-emptive morning house raids, community organizers were aggressively dragged from their beds unclothed, and into awaiting police vans. Others were picked up throughout the weekend by snatch squads. Others still were picked up in one of the countless mass arrests. Protestors were severely beaten; they were shot at by rubber bullets, tear gassed, peppered sprayed, and otherwise terrorized by the police. All of the injuries treated by street medics, were the result of police brutality. Upon being arrested, people were subjected to further physical and emotional abuse.  Women were sexually assaulted, and detainees held within makeshift metal cages were denied food and water. This is violence.

Over the course of the same weekend, the world order orchestrated by the G8/G20 nations continued on with business as usual. As the leaders of the world’s wealthiest countries met behind close doors to enjoy champagne dinners and discuss policy, a large portion of the world’s population struggled to meet their daily subsistence needs. A disproportionate number of those unable to meet these needs were women. Workers continued to be exploited, while an elite minority continued to profit from their exploitation. Children continued to die from readily treatable diseases. Multinational corporations continued to destroy the environment with relative impunity. Indigenous communities continued to be attacked; their lands and resources plundered. Capital enjoyed the freedom to cross borders unhindered, while people continued to be denied that same right. This is violence.

Over the course of the same weekend still, things progressed within Canada as they do every other weekend. First Nations land claims continued to be ignored, and Canadian citizens continued to turn a blind eye to the fact that they are residing on stolen land. The Tar Sands project continued in Alberta, decimating the environment and polluting neighboring communities. People struggling to get by on abysmal social assistance rates were forced to choose between paying rent, or buying groceries for dinner. Communities of color continued to be targeted by racist police forces, and those without status continued to live in fear of deportation by the Canadian state. This is violence.

In the face of these realities, to refer to the actions of the Black Bloc on the 26th as violence, is to belittle the experiences of those who truly experience violence. It dilutes the meaning and severity of the word, and to be necessarily blunt is fucking offensive. You don’t have to agree with property destruction; you can criticize it as unstrategic, you can argue that it is divisive and potentially alienating.  However, to describe it as violence is to equate an attack on inanimate object with the very real suffering of living, breathing human beings. To use the same adjective to discuss the shattering of a window or the burning of car as one applies to the structural violence perpetuated by the G8/G20, the injustices of the Canadian state or the physical abuse protestors suffer is beyond absurd.

A brick through a window cannot, in any way, shape or form be placed in the same category as the violent occurrences discussed above. An attack on property is not the same thing, not even close, to an attack on life. The very fact that the destruction of property garners such a negative knee-jerk reaction from so many, speaks volumes to the unquestioned sanctity of private property within our capitalist society. Seriously, why is it that a damaged storefront or motor vehicle elicits such moral outrage? With all that is going on in the world, with all that is going on in the country and within our communities, who cares about a pile of corporate bricks, and a hunk of polluting metal.

I witnessed much violence on the streets of Toronto over the weekend of the G20. However, absolutely none of it was committed by my black clad friends. The systemic violence that underlines our incredibly unjust world is perpetrated not by those in black, but by those wielding badges and those adorning suits.

 


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Commentaires

Real Everyday Violence - Oscar Grant

Johannes Mehserle, a white transit cop for Bay Area Regional Transit, was a  real perpetrator of violence on January 1, 2009 when he shot and killed black youth Oscar Grant on an Oakland subway.  Grant and several other youth had been stopped for 'fighting' on the subway after a call was made to the transit cops.  Mehserle shot Grant in the back while he was held down by another cop.  Mehserle claimed he thought the gun was a taser.  

He recently got off with involuntary manslaughter in a verdict given by an all-white jury. 

What happened on that subway and in court is real violence and is just one extreme example of the kind of violence that the working class and the majority of racialized people face everyday in our society.  We face it at work, when we have to work with dangerous and noxious material that damages our health while facing constant danger from the machines we work with, some of which were obviously designed without much care for the health of operators.  Many of us, especially youth and racialized members of our class, face it in our communities where cops can harass us for just walking down the street. 

While I don't agree with the tactics employed by some of those dressed in black at the recent G-20 demonstration, I agree wholeheartedly that this was not real violence and that the real violence is perpetrated by those who profit from our exploitation.  While they don't actually carry out the violence themselves, and recruit from among the most economically depressed of the working class to do this for them, they are the ones we should really be blaming and not the cops.  Even Johannes Mehserle is really 'just a pawn in their game', as Bob Dylan's famous lyric says, despite the horrible crime he committed. 

i agree! well, with most

i agree! well, with most everyhting. thank you. the sentiments are right on. the only thing i would change is that, well, i think it is still true to call what happend on sat. violence. there is no such thing as simply a "brick through a window" - it is always this brick, here, at this place through this window. glass cuts. it is real, and it is dangerous. it is dangerous because our flesh is weak. (i know this may sound silly, but i don't know how wlse to put it): there is no outside to violence, so i don't see why we should insist that even weak property damage, breaking windows, isn't violence; we live in a regional epicentre of the global empire, my whole life is conditioned by the privileges of violence, a while i seriously do dream of a way of life free from oppression (as oppressed or oppressor), i can't honestly say at this point and time that I am nonviolent. i think the article is right on is addressing how we use the word violence. too often we seem to use it: it is a noun but neither a person, place, or thing (one doesn't pick up violence like one picks up a hammer). the idea is frankly metaphysical, and violence and nonviolence are, and this is what Ghandi meant, are conditions of the soul. we should be honest with the states of our souls: they are violent.

I agree

I agree with Tammy Kovich.

It was politically motivated vandalism, period, but the word violence is way too broad and ridiculous in comparison to what the police have done, etc.

Some have also made the error of comparing it to hooliganism. Hooligans use a crowd to do random rampage, often drunk, and fight the opposing team fans. The black block are sober youth, politically motivated, who have not attacked anyone in the crowd and I don't believe a word about the police being harmed by what not (i.e. the councillor almost shedding tears when claiming that the police were put in danger by thrown objects - Did anyone see a Molotov cocktail?)

They usually split off out of the crowd to specific symbols. Here the "split off" was not so clear and the main symbol, the fence, was impossible to reach. The fence was the consensual predictable target, since the images of the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City 2001. I remember in 2001, when the huge march of about 50,000 people heard that the fence had fallen, everyone screamed with joy (it is a fact). This huge crowd had decided to avoid the anti-riot forces, but they were nonetheless supportive of those who brought the fence down. Mind you, on that occasion, almost no windows were broken, because protesters passed the word around not to do what the media had predicted.

We can, within social movements, discuss how to be more strategic and how to make our various tactics and modes of functioning respect each other.

"The black block are sober

"The black block are sober youth, politically motivated, who have not attacked anyone in the crowd..." Didn't the Black-Bloc attack the crowd by proxy through the police who, prospected for the now unmasked ordinarily clothed perpetrators of violence and destruction who had blended into the peaceful crowd? Isn't the imposition of Black-Bloc violence by proxy through the police on non-violent people cowardice and hypocrisy?

"...the main symbol, the fence, was impossible to reach..." Although it may have been impossible to reach, the attempt should have been made by the Black-Bloc, Anarchists, etc., because those are the walls of the G20 fortress. Even failing, getting arrested, etc., would have clearly sent the appropriate message loud and clear. One major problem with attacking and damaging the stores on Yonge St. and elsewhere is that ordinary working people were in them and were terrorized. They also couldn't work for the rest of they day and maybe the next and probably lost wages. Are they legitimate targets?

"We can, within social movements, discuss how to be more strategic and how to make our various tactics and modes of functioning respect each other." That's constructive. How do we facilitate it?

"...who have not attacked

"...who have not attacked anyone in the crowd and I don't believe a word about the police being harmed by what not"

Um, they were attacking photographers left, right and centre. Myself included. They were also smashing windows that had bystandars standing on the other side of the glass. Rationalize the property damage however you want. But even by the lowered bar set here there was still violence caired out by people within the bloc.

Re: "...who have not attacked"

Please, do describe the "violent" assault perpetrated against you.

As an indep. reporter, yes the black block I crossed once did tell me not to film. I was not assaulted.

Of course, I told myself "the police and the mass media film you, so it's foolish to tell independent media not to film".

As for damage against the media, I'm sorry, but as a human rights activist and as someone left-wing, I have to say the mass media are not allies: they are a massive problem.  So, although I would never ever damage a media outlet, some will. Being angry at the mass media is actually common sense.

Still, how about you : what do you report on ?  The massive physical violence and violation of the people (civil liberties amongst other rights) or the less than 1% who damaged property. If we click on your profile, we can pretty much guess who you work for.

Besides being threatened with

Besides being threatened with violence I also had BBers actually try to take my camera away from me with force (there's a picture of this happening to me on the Star site if you wish to see it. http://media.thestar.topscms.com/images/16/0d/beeead654c3db9d82a8df1e980...),

I witnessed witnessed several other photographers and videographers attacked and struck by BBers (Such as this guy with the bag. He was using the bag, full of whatever he was using to break windows, to strike people. I saw him swing his bag at and strike one videographer in the head, there are also numerous pics of him around the web swinging his bag of goodies at other photographers... http://toronto.mediacoop.ca/sites/mediacoop.ca/files2/mc/imagecache/bigi...).

Mass media, indy media, it didn't matter. BBers were attacking both.

I think the main problem folks here have is that I reported my impressions based on my experience and what I saw without trying to rationalise it as something it wasn't and show it in a more favourable light. The Black Bloc engaged in violence against people, not just property destruction. It's an inconvenient truth for progressives to swallow, but it's the truth.  

I run a website called LondonCommons.ca, but I work as a street outreach worker to drug users in London ON. But I guess your implying I work for the Police or some such nonsense....

Now I'll ask you a question. In your run in with the Black Bloc, did they ask you politely not to film? or did they back their request with the threat of violence or the implication of violence? Did they intimidate you into not filming? or convince you?  I don't know about the circles you run in... But in the ones I run in, threats and intimidation count as violence too.

any journalists taking pics

any journalists taking pics or vids of the black bloc without expicit permission are doing the work of the state, and the state is violent.  as an indy reporter, i support all actions taken against journalists by the black bloc.   if you are an indy reporter, you should no not to do the work of the state, you are supposed to be a part of the movement. 

you should be happy that your shit was not smashed and that you did not atually get beaten down.  dont be a collaboroator.  your job as an idy reporter is to tell the stories of the movement, not help the cops ID black blocers.

wow.

This last comment, right here, is why activist media is such a joke.  I don't even know where to start with this...

 

At least we can agree that the bloc uses violence against people.

 

Let's start here: I don't need the Black Bloc's permission, or anyone else's permission, to take photos in public. Period. If you don't want your picture taken, go stand by the boring people and don't do anything interesting.  If your going to take a dramatic course of action and be a bunch of attention-whores making a spectical of yourselves by smashing windows and attacking police and journalists, it's just unrealistic to believe that people are going to refrain from taking your picture.

The police don't need my help identifying this bunch of heatscores. There's getting more then enough help from the masses of people they alianated with they're little tantrum up Young St.

Moving on. If this is the response your response to my post I have to ask, what the hell do you know about being an independent reporter? When did the gold standard of indymedia and activist media become simply regurgitating tired clichés and acting as an unsophisticated propaganda machine? Is independent reporting now just an exercise in utilising the same methods we accuse mass media of using to discredit us and turning that BS up to 11?  

I can concede that in being an independent reporter, one should be part of the movement. But how exactly do you help the movement by posting your hate filled rants full of hyperbole and disparaging comments about your allies or videos on youtube where your interview style never goes beyond yelling at cops?

I would have thought being an independent reporter involved finding stories in the blind spots of corporate media that are of interest to progressives and progressive causes, and reporting on them in a fair and even-handed way... But why do that when you can spin a story and twist it to suite your own world view? Yes, the job of an indyjournalist is to tell the stories of the movement. But if all that means is spinning a story into something its not and practising self-censoship when the story is unfavourable to the movement, then indyjournalism is worst than irrelevant. It's a joke that only discredits us.

Don't worry about me. I'll do what I need to do to keep  myself and my shit safe while I'm reporting on what's unfolding in front of me. If that make me a collaborator, so be it. Declare me a counter-revolutionary and have me executed when your little revolution finally comes.

 

language

 Interesting article, thanks. 

I have a hard time wrapping my head around your argument. I agree that it's much more appropriate to call breaking the windows in Starbucks, for example, "property damage" instead of "violence".

But I still saw things I'd say are violent; Breaking windows of a locally-owned restaurant with terrified people inside; hitting police with sticks. I'm not judging those who hit the riot police with sticks, but I just can't buy that we shouldn't use the word "violence" when we talk about this kind of strategy. 

I get your point- that people get all up-in-arms about property damage but ignore the greater violence. Holy shit, people standing on the street getting shot with rubber bullets, beaten and arrested- it's extremely violent.

However, if you can't pay rent on time, should you avoid saying "I have a problem" because it's offensive to people who are dying of cancer, because it's they who REALLY have a problem? 

Arguing that people shouldn't even use the word violence- I think it cheapens the tactic in a way. I cringe when I hear people arguing "I did break windows, but other people do REAL violence". It sounds so much like "he did it first! He is more badder than me!".  I rather hear someone say "I believe in the use of violence, in these situations, in this manner, for these reasons, and to this end."  I would probably disagree, but I would respect the person's honesty and take their argument seriously. 

I disagree too about your first assertion about the word "democracy". I suspect that your argument about the word democracy is ultimately your giving up on the IDEA of a real democracy in Canada. But, why should we give up the word? Just because we don't live in a democracy doesn't mean that the word has no meaning. It would mean that you couldn't say "democracy in lacking in canada because of X and X and X, but I really believe in democracy, which is the beautiful participation in the political realm". That could be a powerful statement. But saying that the word has no meaning??? Frankly it seems childish. It's giving all the power to people in power who manipulate the meaning of these words.

I agree that it's so ridiculous to blame window-smashing for police violence. The police are responsible for their own behaviour. It is sickening how most of the population has no problem with the mass arrests and police brutality that weekend, most which was directed at people who were not even suspected of committing a crime. I would even describe that indifference as violence. It's part of a violent attitude and contributes to violence against vulnerable people. 

So I agree with most sentiments in this article but I think your argument about language is extreme.  I would be interested to hear what you think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

"...it's so ridiculous to

"...it's so ridiculous to blame window-smashing for police violence. The police are responsible for their own behaviour."

Yes, the police are responsible for their own behaviour and so are those who perpetrated violence and property destruction. It is hypocritical to hold the police accountable but not the Black-bloc, etc.

"It is sickening how most of the population has no problem with the mass arrests and police brutality that weekend, most which was directed at people who were not even suspected of committing a crime. I would even describe that indifference as violence. It's part of a violent attitude and contributes to violence against vulnerable people."

Replace "population" with "violent and destructive Black-Bloc, Anarchists, etc.", it is equally appropriate. If you don't think so, read: http://anarchistnews.org/?q=node/10935

Violence applies to property

As well as to people. What do you want to call it? Collateral damage, maybe? Or is it only violence when the state sanctions it? The first book that dictatorships burn is generally the dictionary because they like to confuse issues. Don't hide from the fact that it was violence, an "expression of rage" as it has rightly been termed. People may argue whether it was justified or not, but re-defining words to suit your own political ends is the modus operandi of a fascist. 

Yes, fascist,

Yes, fascist, Anarcho-fascist.

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