I’ve used a lot of combative words – fight, struggle, accomplice, engage, resist.
There are two opposing schools of thought in activism: That only nonviolent resistance works in the long-term, and that non-violence is nothing but bougie wheel spinning while actual people suffer. I don’t disagree with either position, and they’re both right and wrong.
I am Quaker — non-theist, but committed to nonviolence as the most functional form of creating progress. My commitment to nonviolence is extremely practical and based in observation of historical examples. Unlike most religious Quakers, I have no problems at all with defensive action and non-compliance resistance. I do object to direct, unprovoked, unequal, violent action, including such action taken by the state or its adjuncts. I’m 100% supportive of Black Bloc when they march with interlocking shields against cops in riot gear carrying their own shields. That’s meeting force with equal force. I condemn lone-wolf attacks or snipers because such actions tend to result in police and governmental over-reaction against activists. It cedes the moral and legal high ground. It’s indiscriminate, and it risks turning bystanders into collateral damage. It’s a reasonable use of defensive action to pick up and roll back a smoke bomb. Throwing it back returns it to the people who lost it, and it gets it out of the vicinity of people who do not have the respiratory and body protection that a force in riot gear and gas masks have. But a molotov is a different matter. Defensive action means we do not strike first. Practical non-violence is a complicated way of navigating a world. It’s not for everyone.
The relationship between the populace and the police is already asymmetric — while, in the US, we’re all allowed to have guns, they have more. They have a legal license to use violence, and as it stands now, they’re highly unlikely to be prosecuted or even disciplined if they use their weapons inappropriately upon us, while we’re extremely likely to be summarily executed without trial if we use violence against them.
Given that our goal is always to live to fight another day, we have to recognize that reality while working to change it. A martyr’s only purpose is to fill is a hole in the ground. To quote Buffy Summers on guns: These things, never helpful.
I no longer Black or Pink or Rainbow Bloc. This is practical; my activist and professional work requires a license. Also, I’m aging — I don’t heal as fast and my bones and joints are more fragile than they were when I was 18 or 20. Bloc-ing requires physical health and endurance, and youth is an asset. Those of us who are careful about not getting arrested are not conflict avoidant, especially the medical personnel and lawyers. It’s allocation of resources, like using your bishops, rooks and queen in chess to protect the king. Thus, I spend almost all of my time now on the bail team for protests, posting bail and retrieving arrested but uncharged members from jail. Bloc-ing has purpose, utility, and it’s thrilling if you’re physically and emotionally capable of doing the work. If you are spoiling for direct action, I’m going to steer you at Bloc, with caveats. If you’re responsible for other people, or need to keep a license, or are precarious — think hard before Bloc-ing.
Radicalism will feel attractive, and that’s the risk with Bloc. Radicalism is easy, after all — there are no moral shades, extreme violence is direct and fast and flashy. When it’s over, you likely won’t have to pick up the pieces — the chances are extremely high that you’ll be dead, and if not, you’re going to prison. Either way, you never have to worry about anything again. The Fuck You that you handed out is not just to the opposition — it’s to all activists. The rest of us have to clean up your mess anddo our work in a political and legal environment that you have made worse. When my first activism was literally dying, we did not intentionally spread the virus or burn the hospitals or cause destruction. We cannot today give into extremism. The only change that has ever worked — even in times of war — is resistance. Extremism just gives the opposition more reason to kill us or let us die. We cannot afford to hand them ammunition. If Bloc’s your thing, do it. Don’t be stupid. Think strategically, act tactically. Come home at the end of the day.
The truth in protesting is that sometimes we do get arrested. For the most part, it’s just unpleasant. That may change. Most responsible organizations that engage in civil disobedience have training on getting arrested. If you can find that training, attend. Preparation for anything makes it easier. Always aim to be arrested as part of a group, not individually. If you’re with a group, you have eyes on each other. It’s harder for you or anyone to get lost in the system, and it’s harder to become a victim of violence at the hands of the police.
Any action, protest or work session comes with the risk of outside agitators and informants. When you first enter activism, there’s a good chance others in your new organization will treat you with a degree of suspicion, because they don’t know you. That’s why new members get assigned to what feels like unimportant work — organizers need to know that you’re reliable, that you’re not taking names to narc, and that you can be trusted. If you can manage to run the copy machine without destroying a print run, we’re more likely to give you access to the email list or the schedule password. If you come into an organization wanting to break stuff and cause grief, you’re going to be assumed to be an agitator. You will be isolated and mistrusted. Action requires trust that must be earned.The longer you’re in your activism, the better you will be at identifying agitators and informants.
Right now, violence for the sake of fucking shit up is counter-productive. The time for fucking shit up is when we’re being conscripted into war production and being disappeared. Are some of us being killed for being the wrong color when a shit-for-brains cop gets adrenaline poisoning? Yes. Are some of us being killed for having pink bits that some dudes don’t think match who we present as? Yes. And do some of us go to prison at extraordinary high rates because white people don’t realize their own biases? Yes. From my non-violence perspective, these are causes for defense, not offense. Not quite yet. The response calls for accomplice-driven, collective action. This can change, so don’t marry this idea that violence has no place in resistance, but right now? Date it exclusively. Make the other side escalate. It makes them look worse.
The difference between a defensive action and an offensive action is that defensive actions seek to aid targeted people in surviving, while offensive actions seek to forcibly un-target people through means other than the law and protest. Each circumstance is going to require a different set of defensive actions. The closest analogy I have is the frustrating advice about avoiding rape. The people who should be targeted in anti-rape campaigns are not the victims, but the perpetrators. This happens less often than it should. Instead, a broad class of people get advice about dating carefully and dressing in certain ways and getting self-defense training. None of these are generally bad advice for anyone wanting to defend themselves, but it’s not actually helpful because it’s targeting the wrong population. As activists and resistors, we need to offer our aid to our accomplices of color and our LGBTQ accomplices. It’s not ideal, and it’s the wrong target, but those who need aid and solidarity need it now, not when we can reform the criminal justice system or end homophobia.
Practically, this means recognizing that we’re always safer and more powerful in packs. That’s just human reality. We tend not to fuck with each other when we clearly have backup. Especially when engaging in activism, don’t do it alone. But even in purely social environments, have wings. Be someone else’s wing. Tell your accomplices where you’re going, what you’re doing, who you’re with. Stay aware of those who have trusted you to have their back. If it feels hinky, get out of there. It’s completely possible to stay sexy and not get murdered or beat. This is not victim-blaming — we should be safe with everyone, we should be able to drink and not be drugged — for whatever equivalent metaphor applies to drink and drug. But should and is are different things, and for now, being in a pack is our best defense.
The next, and adjacent, defense we have at our disposal is anonymity. Part of the reason Black Bloc dresses all in black (or Pink in pink, or Rainbow in rainbow, or everyone in white chem suits, whatever) is because a group without identifying features is hard to identify. (Yeah, I know, obvious, but for the most part, Black Bloc adopted black because most blacks match, and most people have a collection of basic black clothing. It has almost nothing to do with being intimidating.) More than a few Bloc’ers have beat their court cases because the cops testifying against them could not identify them. Anonymity in resistance also protects our most vulnerable — race and gender become less identifiable in a group where everyone’s in black with their faces covered.
This applies online, too. Resistance in the virtual space means protecting your identity. We have a troll problem. We have a doxxing problem. This isn’t going away, so we have to defend ourselves with VPNs, encryption, and separating our online selves from our real lives.
Non-violence does not mean compliance. It does not mean collaboration. Resistance is the opposite of collaboration, even when it’s done without direct, violent action. We have a lot of models for refusing to be moved, from the sit-in through passive and active resistance to social sabotage. It never hurts to know about tools like PVC lockbox or lock-on loops. (You want to resist? You get DIY. It’s kind of like BDSM that way — join for the kink, stay for the carpentry.) If you haven’t spent some time with the Simple Sabotage Field Manual pp 26-32, this is the manual for how to disrupt a hostile government or meeting. If nothing else, knowing the social sabotage techniques helps you recognize them when they show up in your workplace or activism. Operation Rescue developed the Witchita Babystep — when being removed from their protest, they would not refuse to move, but they took tiny steps to waste cop time. As long as they were moving under their own power, they were technically cooperating and not resisting. Just because that tactic was used in service of misogyny doesn’t mean the tactic is flawed. (On the other hand, it has not been used recently, and early 90s policing was a different beast than today’s.) Resistance means putting our bodies in the way. The tactics are specific to the circumstance, but the philosophy is always this: No is a complete sentence.
Let’s never be afraid to show the damage being done to us. We have cameras everywhere now. We have quick and easy tools to distribute our images and video. When once AIDS activists had to take their dying selves to state houses, now we blog, vlog, tweet and stream it. We are the ones to whom injustice is being done. That is the prime reason we cannot give up our moral advantage and go on the offensive yet. When we begin to use the tools of the oppressors to do injustice to others, we’re no better than the oppressors. This is practical, not a moral judgement.
There are always gradations of resistance, and simpler is always better than complex. Resistance before damage before destruction, property before people. A bike lock on door handles is often more effective and faster and safer than breaking the windows or starting a fire. Keep in mind that local business owners are potential allies and accomplices, while corporations do not care. Assaulting a bystander or innocent is always counterproductive. Pick your battles — if you’re outnumbered and outgunned, retreat, remove, reform, re-engage. If you show up for an action and there’s a phalanx of cops in riot gear? Get your media person filming, and pick up litter. Be the better citizen. Show them as over-reacting. Make the opposition look ridiculous. This photo works because she makes those cops look like small cowards. The opposition fears us. Use that fear.