Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Notes on a Destructive Escalation: An Anarchist Perspective on Riot Control

The murder of George Floyd by now-terminated Minneapolis police officer Derrick Chauvin abetted by three of his fellow officers sparked a national wave of property destruction the likes the United States hasn’t seen since the roadside beating of Rodney King. Images of trashed police precincts and torched police cars have littered news broadcasts and social media feeds, but this time with a rather muted condemnation from mainstream media outlets.

It’s tempting to look at this sort of explosion of popular destructive rage as an aberration from normal civic engagement. Certainly, our history textbooks and popular media would have us believe that the history of progressive change is one of docile protestors against brutal gendarmes and their equally brutal, right-wing accomplices. However, a broader view that pans out from the Martin Luther Kings and Mahatma Gandhis and Jesus Christs of history shows a social context in which political destruction played a crucial tactical role in forcing the capitulation of the authorities.

Jesus Was the “Pull Your Pants Up” Preacher

One of the most misunderstood models for modern protest is Jesus of Nazareth. Presented as a historical figure rather than a series of pithy quotes and parables, Jesus was an objective failure at making the political change he envisioned. He died without extracting a single capitulation from his Roman oppressors and his followers fled their homeland as his people were massacred.

Further, by most modern standards, his message would have been anathema to progressive politics. In the first place, Jesus’s moral views were retrograde even by the standards of 1st century Judea. For Jesus, not only was the action immoral, but also thought as well. Adultery, for Jesus, was not merely the act of having sex while married with another partner, but simply thinking about sex with anyone at any time under any conditions whom you aren’t married to.

He took a moral system, Judaism–founded on collective destiny based on a collective agreement with God, and turned it into one of personal salvation apart from one’s neighbors. His message of peace and love, contextualized in the Roman captivity of his homeland, was one only ever afforded to his Roman captors.

Turn the other cheek, render unto Caesar, taken out of context sound like noble asceticism. However, in a context in which Jesus blamed the hypocrisy and lack of fraternity among the Jews for their own captivity, his instructions sound more like a rallying cry to do nothing but wallow in guilt.

Even his most famous act of aggression, driving the money changers out of the Temple, was an act aimed against his own people scraping by in what professions they could under Roman occupation. When it came time to deliver the same treatment to the Romans, Jesus fell short. He instructed his disciples to come to a protest strapped with swords. However, true to form, Jesus called everything off the moment someone got minorly injured, so that he could be arrested as he had planned. Perhaps all this is why the Jews, when offered the choice between sparing the life of Jesus or Barabbas–a Zealot who actually fought and possibly killed Roman soldiers, they chose Barabbas.

While defensive Christians like to point out that the Roman Empire did indeed fall only to be replaced with feudal warlords who ultimately came to Christianity, Jerusalem fell much sooner, by about 400 years, and those of Jesus’s people who didn’t flee were forced out of their homelands. And whether Christianity has managed to assert moral dominance over the planet, the fact is that Jesus’s actual kinfolk, the Jewish people, have continued to face repression because of it.

Civil Disobedience and Direct Action

One of the more strange things about the modern interpretation of Jesus is how it has inspired civil disobedience, something that historical Jesus, who urged adherence both to a fundamentalist version of Jewish law AND deference to Roman officials regardless of the law, would have likely scorned.

Civil disobedience is the intentional refusal to obey an unjust law to protest its injustice. Although the term is rooted in the Transcendentalist school of philosophy, it is most closely associated with the legacies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Unlike Jesus, both disobeyed unjust laws and were actually successful in doing so.

However, their disobedience of unjust laws alone did not lead to changes in the law. Buttressing the campaigns of Gandhi and King were more militant campaigns that were not afraid to get their hands dirty with more confrontational tactics. These campaigns were founded less on seeking to change society’s laws than simply to change society irrespective of its laws.

This approach, known as direct action, seeks to directly change the material conditions of oppressive social structures. Whether it be pouring concrete over spikes meant to drive away the homeless or setting up a soup kitchen to feed them, direct action includes a diversity of tactics that reject relying on mediation by figures of authority.

Far from being counterposed to one another, civil disobedience and direct action often work hand-in-glove, and many actions can be both simultaneously civil disobedience and direct action (feeding the homeless in a public park in defiance of a city ordinance, for example).

In the case of Gandhi, the capitulation of the British colonial authorities to the Indian National Congress had as much to do with his passive resistance as it did with a campaign of bombings, train robberies, and assassinations orchestrated by Indian communists and anarchists like Indian folk hero Bhagat Singh. Generalized militancy reached such a fevered pitch that Gandhi went on four separate fasts to protest it.

Between the pathetic image of Gandhi and his followers being beaten by British colonial troops and their native Sepoy infantry, and the economic losses and mounting casualties from the campaign of red militancy, holding on to the Indian colony simply proved too much of a liability, and they eventually began talks with Gandhi’s Indian National Congress to resolve the conflict and grant India independence.

King’s civil disobedience as well was surrounded by militant action toward the same mission. Groups like the Revolutionary Action Movement, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, and the Black Panther Party for Self Defense took a more militant stance, going toe-to-toe with cops and other organized racists. And irrespective of the paranoid drive behind the red scare, militant communists and anarchists, some with connections to and financing from foreign Communist governments, did permeate left-wing and civil rights activism and continue to do so.

While King negotiated with President Johnson for a Civil Rights Act, these more militant organizations and activists created an atmosphere where King’s position was moderate insofar as he was still willing to reform the existing United States political system. It was, after all, a defector to the USSR who killed Johnson’s predecessor.

Even King’s assassination while working with the striking Black Memphis sanitation workers did not lead to an immediate victory for the union’s campaign. And why would it? It was only in the wake of the riots sweeping the country that the marches Coretta Scott King organized in the aftermath of her husband’s death took a special and dangerous significance to the Memphis authorities, who promptly agreed to recognize the union and end the strike.

Soros Money

The point I’ve been making so far is not that direct action is superior to civil disobedience, but rather that they usually work together to exact social and political change. However, they are just two of a diversity of tactics that work symbiotically to extract concessions from authorities.

While sometimes these two tactics may emerge “spontaneously” from popular unrest, more often, they are part of a longer term campaign organized by any of a variety of groups. These campaigns typically begin using non-confrontational tactics, designed to build a broad coalition of allies, letting the chips fall where they may as they gear up against antagonists to political change.

These general practices are employed across the political spectrum, and are far more foundational to political change than any of the tactics in isolation. They have been employed by anarchists, Marxists, Christian fundamentalists, neo-nazis, and an array of liberal tax-exempt organizations (yes, including those funded by Soros).

Most campaign strategies follow a three stage plan of action that begins with preparation, proceeds into private negotiation and public education, and then launches into a public conflict if necessary. Each stage of the campaign is meant to possibly lead to your goal.

During the preparation phase, you are not only getting more information about the problem, but also the people and institutions who are responsible for causing it and who could plausibly fix it. At this point, you’re not only organizing the information you have, but determining how best to bring it to the public’s attention.

With information in hand, you launch a campaign with the aim of recruiting people to your cause and negotiating with power holders. Political action, beyond simple outreach, usually takes the form of collectively agreed upon individual actions that don’t require a whole lot of coordination to pull off, such as voting for certain candidates or pre-existing ballot initiatives or signing petitions.

If after these efforts, unjust laws and policies remain in place, and power holders seem unwilling or unable to fix it, a campaign may escalate to public demonstration which may eventually include civil disobedience and direct action. Whereas the basic principle of civil disobedience–breaking unjust laws–is fairly straightforward, planning to do such an action so as to minimize risk both physically and financially can be a hefty task.

Organizing a civil disobedience action requires coordinating not only people willing to be arrested, but also bail money, medics, legal observers, lawyers, press and sometimes even the police themselves. (Good luck getting a permit if you refuse to talk to cops.) It may also require training both in civil disobedience tactics as well as legal training for those volunteering to be arrested. If court cases result, there may need to be a mass defense campaign.

Like civil disobedience, direct action requires a lot of contingency planning and coordination. However, whereas civil disobedience communicates, “Your laws are broken, so we will break them until they are fixed,” direct action says, “it does not matter what your laws are; we will fix society ourselves.”

While both are technically lawbreaking, direct action tends to receive more scrutiny from the authorities specifically because of its flagrant disregard for the law. Both should be planned clandestinely, but civil disobedience has generally become so commonplace and staged that many groups plan low-confrontation civil disobedience openly on social media. Generally, I do not advocate doing this.

How Are Looting and Vandalism Direct Action?

Bringing things back to the here and how, it may seem confusing as to how looting and vandalism, given what I’ve laid out above, could be considered direct action. Certainly, if the protestors are mad at the police, burning down the police precinct might be considered direct action, but not burning down Autozone.

I contend that all of it, all of the looting and all of the vandalism, is direct action. However to understand this, we must first establish what policing is, and what its purpose is legally in the United States.

In the 1920’s, legal scholar Robert Hale, among the legal realist school of legal theory, posited in his “Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State” that ultimately all property law is not about merely securing your use of a good, but your use to the exclusion of others with a coercive authority to back you in that property claim.

In other words, in capitalism, the police are the backstop of private property. Your friend may let you borrow her car, but doing so without permission is theft regardless of whether it materially inconveniences her in any way. And further she can call the cops on you, even if you return the car before she needs it.

When it comes to looting and vandalism, they are the ultimate strike against private property, and hence the authority of the cops. George Floyd was subjected to a 10 minute murder because the $20 bill he used (materially worthless expect for its ability to acquire useful private property) was deemed counterfeit by the clerk. Looting and vandalism communicate clearly, “Fuck your property, and fuck paying for it.”

Undergirding all property claims in the United States is stolen labor from people who were stolen from their land and people who had their land stolen from them. It was theft which established private property in the United States. It was an act of costumed theft and vandalism, the Boston Tea Party, which sparked the revolutionary war that founded the United States political system.

The looting is not so much an aberration, but an escalation. Boosters, people who sell merchandise stolen from retail stores, have always existed, and their exploits more often look like the obvious reckless mass larceny of protestors than the careful product selection and concealment of your average shoplifter. Bottom line, people need to eat, and a pair of shoes can sell for the same in a department store as it can on Craigslist.

What Can Police Departments Do?

One of the more difficult aspects of the current situation for law enforcement is untangling the First Amendment aspects from the criminality of the actions pursuant to that. The first thing that police departments should do is recognize that, if protests in their area escalate to looting and vandalism, that will happen regardless of the police response.

Departments should embrace a harm reduction approach that understands the criminal element within the protest as a necessary escalation of a broader political movement. Short of a scorched earth campaign akin to the one the President is perhaps suggesting, such an escalation cannot be suppressed by apprehending those who violate the law. Rather, they require action on the part of those largely outside of the control of your average police department.

However, police departments can put policies in place that serve to reduce confrontation between protestors and police. A helpful approach is for police departments to step back from the apparent emergency situation and consider the First Amendment and criminal aspects of the protests separately.

First, how would you handle a protest with no criminal element apart from low-confrontation civil disobedience or direct action? Second how would you handle a wave in petty theft and vandalism? I can guarantee that the answer to neither of these questions is, “Send a phalanx of officers in SWAT gear to gas them.”

What you might also notice about your answers is how remarkably similar they are. Both situations would justify an increase in police presence, but probably not an overwhelming one, and probably one involving only officers in standard uniform.

Your primary goal should be keeping people safe, even if this contravenes your role as police in capitalism. The point is that property is not as valuable as human life, and that should be your priority going forward for both protestors and your own officers. They don’t deserve the confrontations either.

Having attended protests across the country for over a decade, I can tell you that the number one factor determining whether protests remain peaceful is the response by police. You almost never hear news about protests in DC where decades of lawsuits have rendered the department there an escort to any and all peaceful street marches. Contrast that with New York City where police repress any march that attempts to take the streets with overwhelming force.

But what about the looting and vandalism? First, you should probably check in with local businesses to see how they would like things handled for their stores and abide their unique wishes. Next, if you put four-officer foot patrols in major commercial districts, you will probably reduce a lot of the looting and vandalism off the bat just from their presence. If your protocol is to have one officer approach looters and vandals instructing them that, if they stop, they will be let off with a disorderly conduct charge, you will probably reduce a lot more and avoid the confrontations we’ve seen on TV.

Officers may make an attempt to apprehend suspected looters and vandals, but this seems sort of foolish. How often are burglars and vandals caught at the scene of the incident? You know how this works. You gather the evidence afterwards, and you see if you can identify a suspect. Sure, it will be a massive caseload compared to what you are used to, but it seems like a small price compared to a human life.