cj#1033,rn-> “On Trashing and Movement Building”

1999-12-10

Richard Moore

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Delivered-To: moderator for •••@••.•••
Date: Wed, 08 Dec 1999 12:34:03 -0800
To: (Recipient list suppressed)
From: Norman Solomon <•••@••.•••>
Subject: "On Trashing and Movement Building"

During the last few days, I've received some emails in
praise of the window-smashing that occurred in Seattle. So I
was glad to read the following new article by Michael Albert
of Z Magazine, "On Trashing and Movement Building."

I fully agree with this article, and I hope you'll pass it
along to anyone you think might be interested. (Related
materials are also posted at http://www.zmag.org)

-- Norman Solomon
_______________________________________

On Trashing and Movement Building

By Michael Albert

This is a response to a post-Seattle debate troubling many
folks regarding movement tactics. As a preface, it goes
without saying, I hope, that we all understand that as far
as violence is concerned, the violent parties in Seattle
were first and foremost the President of the U.S., his
entourage, the other major heads of state, the leadership of
the WTO, etc. Poverty-inducing violence imposed with a pen
trumps a brick breaking a window every time--not to mention
that the former is to defend and enlarge injustice, while
the latter is to fight it. For that matter, in the streets
of Seattle, mass media coverage aside, in a large public
discussion for all statistical or moral purposes the only
physical violence was that perpetrated by police and
national guard at the behest of the state. Pepper gas,
rubber bullets, and truncheons all directed at citizens
attempted to dissent from vile economic agendas trump broken
windows every time on any violence meter, much less on one
that accounts for motivations. Debate about movement tactics
arises publicly therefore overwhelmingly because of a
manipulative and distorting mass media. The issue of
movement tactics as it arises inside social movements,
however, gains attention because of potential implications
on future attitudes of activists toward trashing, property
damage, civil disobedience, and other possible demonstration
tactics as well as participation in demonstrations. That
said...

Any useful discussion of movement tactics must be about
their efficacy for movement building, winning short-term
demands, and laying a basis for winning longer term aims.
Assessing tactics means evaluating how they cause a movement
to grow or decline and whether they enlarge or diminish
immediate chances to win some goal.

I have been involved in demonstrations in which trashing
grew organically from the event's logic and intentions--for
example, clearly enunciated assaults on particular draft
boards or ROTC buildings. I have also been in demonstrations
where trashing was counter-productive and irresponsible--for
example endangering innocent folks and diluting the message
and solidarity of the event. Which was true in Seattle?

Seattle was a massive event and those who tirelessly
organized it were committed to legal marches and rallies and
also to illegal but non-violent civil disobedience. Upwards
of 70,000 people attended. In the first days success was
overwhelming and mutually respectful ties developed between
usually fragmented constituencies, (turtles and Teamsters,
Lesbian Avengers and steel workers). The prospect that civil
disobedience would grow was extremely exciting and optimism
was contagious. Movement participation was climbing and,
amazingly, the official WTO gathering was already thoroughly
disrupted. The police began to employ gas, clubs, and rubber
bullets. At this point, the highly organized trashers broke
off and attacked windows. Afterwards they celebrated that
due to their mobility and organization none was arrested or
harmed.

I remember all too vividly some sixties demonstrations in
which over-eager dissenters would taunt and otherwise
provoke police and then disappear, leaving others, often
utterly unprepared families, to bear the brunt of the
response. I was always far more impressed with the courage
of knowing folks who could easily see what was coming and
escape if they wished to, but who instead used their talents
to help protect their less well prepared co-demonstrators,
then with the self preservation instincts of those who
brought down repression and then fled the scene. In the
sixties, such trashers' behavior was caught up in a set of
mistaken expectations and hopes. I suspect that the same
holds nowadays.

Imagine that the various contingents in Seattle who had
provided energy, song, creativity, and militancy at the
rallies and especially at the civil disobedience, had then
also, on top of that, not gone off breaking windows but
remained with others shielding them, assisting those who
were hurt, helping those suffering from the gas. This would
have capped their otherwise positive involvement with
exemplary behavior on behalf of their fellow demonstrators,
rather than tailing off into counter productive window
breaking. The meaning of anarchism conveyed by this would
have been creative militancy plus humanity and solidarity,
in tune with the rest of the anarchist involvement in the
Seattle demonstrations.

Does this mean, however, that there cannot be a time and
place for confrontation and property damage? No, it doesn't
mean that at all, at least not in my view. Instead, the time
and place for such behavior is when it will meet widespread
approval and increase the power of protest rather than
providing an excuse for folks to tune out or become hostile
to protest. Up to the trashing, anarchists in Seattle added
energy, creativity, art, music, and often greatly needed
militancy, courage, and steadfastness to many demonstration
venues. They uplifted participants' spirits and otherwise
played a very positive role within the rubric of the
demonstration's guidelines. It was only when some went off
breaking windows against the demonstration's norms that a
problem arose. And we should note that it isn't just
trashing that is sometimes warranted and sometimes not.
Sometimes civil disobedience is out of place too. It too can
be at odds with the mindsets of people's current orientation
and planning for events so that spontaneously undertaking
civil disobedience would violate an event's logic and
promise, alienate people who are moving toward dissent, and
not spur new insight and solidarity but reduce it. Other
times, however, employing civil disobedience makes excellent
sense and is even pivotal to success, as in Seattle, for
example. For that matter, sometimes even a march can be
adventurist; other times is can be the ideal tactic.

In other words, what tactics at an event are warranted and
will help a movement grow and strengthen, and what tactics
at an event are unwarranted and will hurt a movement and its
cause, is very rarely a matter of unyielding principles but
depends almost always on how the event has been portrayed
and organized, who is at it, what their expectations and
consciousness are, what the event's prospects are for
impacting social outcomes, and how the event and the tactics
are likely to be perceived by and to impact non-involved
constituencies. Regrettably, once activists enter a trashing
mindset, they most often don't care about such calculations.
To trash is good, they feel, exuberantly, because, after
all, the targets are criminal corporations and damaging them
is a step toward demystifying and destroying them. Anyone
against that must be pro-corporate, they announce. The
mindset isn't about discriminating the impact of possible
tactics, but only about what target to hit. But it is not
the acme of wisdom to deduce that McDonalds and Nike are
better targets than random passersby or a family grocery
store. As far as Seattle is concerned, despite other
fantastically valuable contributions to the event, for a
relatively minuscule number of participants to impose on a
massive demonstration tactics contrary to its definition was
undemocratic behavior that should be transcended in the
future.

The events in Seattle had, before any trashing occurred,
already entirely hamstrung the WTO. They had already
evidenced militant creativity and creative organization and
knowledge. They had already begun to generate new
allegiances and ties among diverse constituencies. They had
already combined many levels of creative and militant
tactics in a mutually supportive mix. Speeches at rallies
already in many instances made the obvious leaps from
opposing free trade to opposing free markets, and from
opposing global profiteering to opposing capitalism per se.
The ground was laid for the work we all now need to do. The
addition of trashing had no positive effects. It did not win
useful visibility that would otherwise have been absent. It
did not enlarge the number of folks participating or
empathizing with the demonstration. It did not cause more
substantive information to be conveyed either in the
mainstream or on the left. It did not respect much less
enlarge democracy. What it did do, instead, was (a) divert
attention from the real issues, (b) provide a pretext for
repression which would otherwise have been unequivocally
seen as crushing legitimate dissent, and (c) and arguably
most important, cause many to feel that dissent is an
unsympathetic undertaking in which instead of actors
respecting one another, some, at least, feel that they have
the right to undemocratically violate the intentions and
desires of most others.

Just so we are clear: again, the issue isn't is trashing per
se good or bad. Suppose that the trashers hadn't embarked on
breaking windows but had become a support group for those
suffering police assaults, rallying spirit and protecting
bodies. Suppose that hundreds and then thousands more
students and workers had joined the civil disobedience
efforts. Suppose that the state had used gas and charging
cops repeatedly to break up such efforts. And suppose in
this context a good part of the city's population and of the
"audience" around the country and a large majority of the
constituencies in Seattle to demonstrate felt solidarity
with the law-breaking demonstrators. Now imagine, in this
context, that the police charged and folks didn't run, but
instead suddenly stood their ground. More, suppose they then
turned and decided it was time to push the police back.
Imagine that this led to battles, and then to cars turned
over, barricades built, and so on. The property damage by
protesters in such massive melees would dwarf anything
committed by the trashers in Seattle and it would no doubt
extend beyond corporate targets and damage even the property
of innocents. Some would say this couldn't possibly be to
the good, but I would say, instead, that as described this
would have a completely different flavor and logic from the
trashing in Seattle -- and would expand rather than diminish
the involved movements and constituencies. There is
therefore a judgment call in the use of tactics.

Sometimes a tactic is wise, other times the same tactic is
mistaken. What was wrong about the political folks who
self-consciously trashed in Seattle was that (1) despite
their other genuine and valuable contributions to the
events, regarding trashing their judgment was horribly
faulty. And (2) they egocentrically thought that their
judgment alone was sufficient justification for them to
dramatically violate norms accepted by tens of thousands of
other demonstrators.

Changing society isn't a matter of breaking windows, it is a
process of developing consciousness and vehicles of
organization and movement, and of then applying these to win
gains that benefit deserving constituencies and create
conditions for still further victories, leading to permanent
institutional change. Cultivating movement coherence, trust,
and solidarity -- not just in a small affinity group but far
more widely -- is a big part of this agenda. Coherence,
trust, and solidarity are not furthered when small groups
undemocratically violate the agenda of massive
demonstrations to pursue their private inclinations, even
when the small group has a plausible case for its
preferences, unlike in this instance.

The fact that corporations are so vile that attacking them
is warranted if it will do good, doesn't mean they are so
vile that attacking them is warranted if it will do harm.
When I was a college student organizing against the Vietnam
War I used to appear in front of very large and animated
audiences, give long talks, and then field questions. It was
a tumultuous time and I was often asked, for example, "would
you burn down the school library if it would end the war?"
My reply always took more or less this form -- "What moral
midget wouldn't burn down a library to save a million lives?
Of course I would, in an instant. But there is no connection
whatsoever between burning a library and helping the victims
of U.S. imperialism in Indochina, nor is there any
connection between burning a library and altering the fabric
of our own society so that the U.S. no longer engages in
such pursuits. Worse, such behavior would have exactly the
contrary impact, benefiting those committing the vile
bombing. Can we now please get on to something serious such
as how to communicate effectively to new constituencies
about the ills of the war, and how to build sustained and
serious resistance to it, and leave the posturing and
baiting behind?"

Back then, it was often very brilliant, well-trained, and
highly capable minds that drifted into Weatherman and other
such formations. What was always quite notable was that
these individuals could engage carefully, critically, and
caringly in many domains, but reverted to odd leaps of faith
and fancy regarding their out-of-touch lifestyle and
"activism" choices. I really hope we do not have to witness
and suffer a replay.

The events in Seattle were stupendously successful in
bringing the WTO into the awareness of people in the U.S.
and all over the world, in making clear to tens of millions
that there is great opposition and therefore that there is
something here to look into and have an opinion on, and in
laying seeds for further effective activism of many diverse
and powerful constituencies willing to respect and relate to
one another, to multiple agendas, and to diverse tactical
options. This was all achieved, however, not via the
trashing, but in spite of it.

Some of the pronouncements of defenders of the trashing
remind me of a very brilliant and eloquent friend of mine,
who came to my apartment one 1969 night, about 2 AM, and
with three or four others snuck in and said "We are the
Vietcong, we need a place for the night...the revolution is
imminent, we are underground, don't mind us, go back to
sleep. Wake to a new society." They had as excuse for their
delirium that they hadn't done just one demonstration, but
had been enmeshed in full-time activism for years. Their
environment was almost exclusively their friends in
Weatherman and they had all lathered themselves into a well
motivated but utterly out of touch turmoil of hope, rage,
desire, paranoia, anticipation, and abstract rationalization
that was so divorced from reality as to render them, so long
as the mindsets persisted, virtually useless as positive
agents of social change. These were in many cases the best
minds and best hearts of my generation. So please note:
those who read this essay or others about Seattle or who
were there and are angry at the political people who
trashed--do not make the callous and ignorant mistake of
thinking the trashers were by nature anti-political,
uncommitted, insensitive, or unsympathetic, much less police
agents. Life is not so simple. It isn't the case that those
you disagree with are always in some way abhorrent. These
are overwhelmingly movement people, indeed some of our best
movement people. For those who were involved or supported
the trashing to sharply disparage those who didn't, or vice
versa, isn't going to get anyone anywhere useful. There is
misunderstanding on both sides, but the distance to unity
and progress is much less than the distance was between
"turtles" and "teamsters" before Seattle. We all ought to be
able to quickly bridge that gap and agree on the broad logic
of how to assess tactics -- if not to agree on every
judgment about every single specific tactic, of course --
and especially on how to abide collective norms at our
demonstrations. This accomplished we can move on to
Philadelphia, NYC, SF, Chicago, Denver, Miami, LA, Boston,
Cleveland, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit, in unity and
without fear of one another.

I hope those who did trash won't take these words as
disparagement of your potentials and aspirations. I hope you
will seriously consider, instead, that perhaps with the best
intentions you are mistakenly repeating one part of sixties
movement history--the saddest and least functional part--and
will in reaction rise above the temptations and confusions
that bedeviled many of the best of my generation.


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