How Can We Defend Communities in Struggle?

By John Riddell
The debates following the G20 protests in Toronto last June have raised important questions about how activists can defend and expand arenas of resistance to capitalism, at a time when the system’s power seems overwhelming. Several articles in the latest issue of Upping the Anti, a leading journal of anti-capitalist thought offer an opportunity to discuss this question on a broader basis.

Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action (UTA), which is published twice a year in Toronto, offers a stimulating mix of anarchist and Marxist viewpoints on important issues. Issue #11, published in November 2010, is no exception.

Indigenous struggles: defending the land

A short piece in this issue by UTA co-editor Tom Keefer makes a profound point regarding indigenous struggles. Responding to a letter from Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard, well-known in the mainstream media for their book-length polemic against Indigenous sovereign rights,[1] Keefer notes that “Indigenous struggles remain one of the primary barriers to capitalist development in great swaths of the country.” Where Widdowson and Howard urge that this barrier be dismantled, Keefer views it as a starting point for progressive struggles.

“Indigenous peoples and anti-capitalist activists have common ground for a struggle against the commodification of land and labour,” says Keefer. “Marxists should not rule out the possibility that these struggles could point towards the evolution of non-capitalistic social practices in the here and now.” (p. 27)

Keefer’s views on this topic are more fully developed in UTA #10 (“Marxism and Indigenous Struggles”) and UTA #7 (“Six Nations, Direct Action, and the Struggle in Brantford”).

In Keefer’s view, the potential for “non-capitalistic social practices” arises from a social foundation: namely the absence of private property in land on Native reserves. His account of the Six Nations struggle demonstrates another factor: surviving traditions of collective community defence.

‘Special Diet’ campaign

A different type of community defence is discussed in UTA #11 with reference to the work of two Toronto social movements, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and No One Is Illegal–Toronto (NOII).

A survey by OCAP organizer John Clarke of the last ten years of OCAP activity focuses on an imaginative effort to combat hunger among recipients of social assistance. The drastic cuts in Ontario’s social assistance payments in the 1990s left a loophole: a provision for cash supplement, called the Special Diet, which was available to recipients who had a diagnosed medical condition requiring that they consume an adequate diet. “We promoted knowledge of the benefit and won the co-operation of medical providers, who worked with us to hold ‘hunger clinics,’” says Clarke.

“It has been, very literally, a fight all along,” Clarke notes. Government resistance was intense. Last year it abolished the Special Diet provision, but only after millions of dollars had been won for poor people. While it lasted, the Special Diet campaign created a tiny refuge of solidarity against one aspect of capitalism’s inhumanity.

Sanctuary/Solidarity City

Another type of community in struggle is discussed in a round-table among prominent activists in NOII-Toronto’s campaign assure that non-documented immigrants obtain secure access to all city services. The Sanctuary/Solidarity City effort is an extension of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) campaign in the U.S., which has won ordinances in several cities barring the use of city resources, including police, to enforce immigration policy.

In Toronto, NOII persuaded the District School Board to adopt a DADT policy, protecting non-documented students from entrapment or victimization on the grounds of their immigration status. Getting this policy implemented at the school level has been a struggle, NOII activist Farrah Miranda reports, but “in September 2010, we were able to get every school in the city to put up a poster welcoming students without full status.”

Mobilizing the G20 protests

The building of a community of quite a different sort is taken up in Lesley Wood’s article in the same issue, “Bringing Together the Grassroots: A Strategy and a Story from Toronto’s G20 Protests.” Wood’s account begins with a critique of previous summit protests, “exciting events” that “often left local organizations facing criminal charges, non-association conditions, local hostility, and financial ruin.”[2] By contrast, organizers at the Toronto summit sought an emphasis on “local organizing, anti-oppression politics, and coalition building”; their goal was to “strengthen long-term campaigns.”

Supporters of this strategy – or story,[3] as Wood calls it – united in the Toronto Community Mobilization Network (TCMN), aiming to mobilize a broad range of organizations for an entire week of action. Consistent with the local-organizing focus, “no invitation to participate was extended to people in other cities.”[4] However, “our story had unintended consequences,” Wood says. Many who were attracted to the project had goals different from the TCMN vision. The TCMN story “reactivated a division between a grassroots, marginalized identity engaged in community organizing and a white, young, militant, ‘anti-capitalist’ identity and strategy,” Woods tells us. “At no point did we strategize … about how to disrupt [the G20] without undermining our other goal of remaining welcoming to as many participants as possible.”

Wood also identifies other constituencies that were not encompassed by either the “community-organizing” or “militant anti-capitalist” stories represented in the TCMN. “The story we told did not resonate with immigrant organizations working on issues in their home countries,” groups that had been prominent in Toronto street protests during the previous years. Moreover, “the story we told largely excluded the labour movement,” a central organizer of the June 26, 2010, anti-G20 mass action.

Wood’s account touches on a general challenge of working-class political organizing. Any broad movement contains a multiplicity of forces, each with a distinctive “story.” The movement’s task is to unite these forces in a common intent, a common agenda. Wood’s article makes clear that this was not achieved by the G20 protest organizers.

The People’s Summit

Nonetheless, the G20 protest movement succeeded in creating a shared space of discussion and protest that was truly impressive. Wood does not discuss this experience, but its character sustains her analysis. A week of protest, called the People’s Summit, included a wide range of organizations, viewpoints, and forms of activity, including many street actions, and leading up to a mass march. In the teeth of fierce police pressure, the movement created a community, analogous to those described in the other articles discussed here.

As we know, the community came under attack. It was disrupted by a rampage of police brutality, mistreatment, more than a thousand arbitrary arrests, and hundreds of unjustified criminal charges. Clearly, another “story” was at work here – trumpeted by the mass media during the G20 preparations. This story told of a city and a summit menaced by supposed terrorists and extremist hooligans, a city that therefore had to be protected by a mobilization of tens of thousands of cops and a budget of more than $1 billion for “security” costs. For most of the population at large, this was the main story, indeed the only story they heard.

Despite vigorous protests, the police were able to act out their story, leaving anti-capitalist movements facing the same burdens that Wood perceives in the outcome of previous summits: many activists paralyzed by detention or non-association conditions, legal costs running into six figures, and widespread public hostility.

Wood does not discuss the police story or how it worked out. But surely this had to be a central consideration in strategic discussion both before and after the G20. How was the People’s Summit and the G20 protests in general to be defended against the state’s repressive onslaught?

The Black Bloc story

The editorial of UTA #11 also takes up the G20 events and also raises the issue of defence – although in quite another context.

The article, entitled “Behind the Mask: Violence and Representational Politics,” does not mention the TCMN, the People’s Summit, sustainable community organizing, the cop rampage, or any of the stories cited in Wood’s account. Instead, it tells the story of the Black Bloc – something Wood does not mention.

As the UTA editors see it, “three social forces – the capitalist state, the social democratic left, and the small but active radical left – contended with each other” during the anti-G20 protests. Events were “defined by two controversial violences: that of the state’s Integrated Security Unit (ISU) and that of the Black Bloc.”

The editors set down basic facts regarding the Black Bloc contingent. The contingent moved away from the main march and the police presence; individuals within it “targeted several unguarded stores,” “smashed windows,” and “set fire to police cars.” The contingent then rejoined the main body of protesters in the “designated protest zone” at Queen’s Park. Police surrounded the protected zone and “began conducting mass arrests of activists regardless of whether or not they were with the bloc. Police continued to make mass arrests throughout the weekend.”

The Black Bloc is anonymous and mute. It makes no demands and does not state its intentions, leaving us all to draw our own conclusions. Yet according to the UTA editors, “Its very presence called into question the state’s monopoly on the use of force.” It is “a body that does not recognize the sovereignty of the state and, as such, is capable of progressing along the continuum from politics to war.”

Bold words indeed. Many in the Black Bloc are doubtless motivated by legitimate anger and revolutionary aspirations, but still, the progression from window breaking to war is quite a leap.

Educational purpose

Elsewhere, the editors interpret the Black Bloc’s purpose in terms of education. The Bloc reveals “that the realization of ‘another world’ requires that we come to terms with the violence underlying every political act,” they say. Does this mean that every act of anti-capitalist resistance is in some sense violent? If so, it turns reality on its head. The underlying violence in our society is that of the state, which utilizes repression to enforce exploitation and rein in anti-capitalist movements. To come to terms with this violence, we must show that it is caused by capitalist oppression, not by the people’s resistance, and we find effective ways to counter it.

How was the gathered community of anti-G20 protesters to be protected against the outrageous limitations on freedom of movement in downtown Toronto, the threat of police attack, and the arbitrary arrests, which had already started even before the June 26 mass march? Was Black Bloc property destruction on June 26 an appropriate response to the cop mobilization and the arrests? The UTA editorial does not take up these questions.

Regarding the Black Bloc episode, the editorial states that “such an illumination is pedagogically important” and must be “presented in contexts where large numbers gather on the basis of shared hostility to bourgeois ‘politics.’” At its best, the Black Bloc model of “illumination” fails to engage broader forces as protagonists, reducing them to the role of spectators.

However, as the editorial concedes, “the moment of illumination is traumatic.” In the G20 action the Black Bloc action was imposed on the demonstration as a whole without consent, bringing with it heightened physical danger and, for many, arrest and police mistreatment. The Black Bloc acted with authoritarian disregard for the goals of the mass of demonstrators.

In the UTA editors’ view, governmental organizers of the cop mobilization faced a dilemma. “But what threat could they cite to justify such dramatic expenditures and violations of legal norms?” they ask. Further, “In the absence of organized worker resistance, the ISU operation seems absurd in its disproportion.” We can safely assume that the police strategists wished to test their new tactics and weaponry regardless, by bloodying the demonstrators. But their repressive violence needed a pretext, a “story” that could be sold to a public that believes in civil liberties and democratic rights.

Although this pretext could have been provided through disruptive actions by undercover agents, such provocations are chancy and risk exposure.[5] How convenient for the police that the pretext was provided by a small group among the protesters. I would question any imputation that Black Bloc participants intended to put fellow protesters in harm’s way. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that their actions made it much easier and less costly for the police to carry out their rampage.

While defending the Black Bloc action, the editorial also suggests that future initiatives might take another form. It quotes approvingly an anarchist commentator at Infoshop.org who proposes that “the next convergence of anarchist forces” not be seen “as a theatre where the same routine can be played out again.” It regrets the absence at the G20 of non-violent civil disobedience, which “constantly seeps outside the representational framework of bourgeois politics” and thus has merit as “implicit violence.” The term “violence” seems here to mean no more than defiance of bourgeois legality.

Let us hope that forces that supported the G20 Black Bloc episode succeed in adopting more constructive tactics in the future.

The role of defence guards

The UTA editors also list a number of historic experiences with groups providing an “extrinsic reference” that they say is similar to Black Bloc: three examples of defence activities during the Black civil rights struggle in the U.S. (Deacons for Defense and Justice, the Fruit of Islam, and the Black Panther Party) and two from recent Indigenous struggles in Canada.

All these examples concern defence guards, whose purpose was to deter and fend off attacks by the state or right-wing forces and to protect oppressed communities or progressive movements. Such bodies are formed frequently; I myself have participated in several. They can be seen now, in embryo, at threatened Toronto meetings or demonstrations.

Guard duty is only a small, if central, part of such efforts. The heart of defence strategy lies in rallying opposition to the violence of the police and rightists, in demonstrating how the threatened community or movement is seeking to affirm the goals of freedom, democracy, and human rights that all victims of capitalism hold dear.

Instructive examples

The Six Nations struggle described by Keefer in UTA #7 provided a graphic example of how such a defence effort can stymie police violence. The moral authority of Six Nations Indigenous activists was so great that occupied lands could be defended with minimal use of force. “Six Nations has always occupied building sites peacefully and without using weapons,” Keefer reports. On one occasion, when cops invaded Indigenous land, “unarmed Six Nations community members physically drove off several dozen police officers armed with automatic rifles, tear gas grenades, pepper spray, and tasers.”

As I write, Egypt is in the grip of a people’s insurrectionary movement. Mass demonstrations took place aiming to overthrow of a brutal dictatorship and win democratic rights for the population. When attacked, the demonstrators found ways to resist and drove back the police. Protesters formed defence guards to prevent looting and property destruction. They forged bonds of solidarity with rank-and-file soldiers. It is not yet clear whether this movement will win or lose, but it has already made its mark in world history.

Conditions in Canada are far removed from those of Egypt. Yet whatever the fate of the mass movement there, it shows an effective approach to the challenge of state violence, aimed at rallying the immense majority in defence of human rights and avoiding needless provocations, while isolating and pushing back the forces of repression.

The Black Bloc, by contrast, did not rally broad forces around commonly shared democratic goals, did not challenge the cops’ trampling of democratic rights, and did not serve to defend the protesters against the G20 summit.

Community defence

As Leslie Wood’s account shows, the G20 protests involved the creation of a community in struggle, one that was expressed in the People’s Summit, the mass June 26 protest, the limited attempts to disrupt the summit, and the subsequent anti-repression protests. This community was menaced by state violence. It needed and deserved to be defended by a united effort of all participants.

The Six Nations, OCAP, and NOII articles in UTA describe militant efforts to defend such communities. The same approach is needed in drawing a balance sheet of the June 2010 G20 confrontation.

During the nine months after the G20 protests, a great deal has been achieved in discrediting the police and challenging their violations of human rights. Continued defence efforts are urgently needed on behalf of the many activists threatened with serious charges and to help build the support for political rights needed to carry out future mass mobilizations with success.


To donate to G20 legal defence fund, visit the Community Solidarity Network fundraising page at http://www.g20.torontomobilize.org/node/509

For further discussion and for references to other articles on the G20 experience, see http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=1315.

Upping The Anti is available in hardcopy format for $20/year (Canada); individual articles can be downloaded for $0.99 each. Go to www.uppingtheanti.org.
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Notes

[1]. Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, McGill-Queen’s U.P., 2008

[2]. A “non-association condition” is a bail provision that bars the accused from meeting or communicating with named individuals and organizations.

[3]. Wood’s use of the term “story” follow a current of radical thought – she cites Eric Selbin and Charles Tilly – which stresses that “the stories organizers tell deeply influence the way that organizing takes place.”

[4]. Many protesters did in fact come from outside Toronto and were welcomed into the anti-G20 activities.

[5]. An attempt by disguised police officers to unleash violence at the 2007 Montebello summit protest was exposed and widely ridiculed; see www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2007/08/23/police-montebello.html.