Summit Protests Are Obsolete
By Al Giordano
Authentic journalist Jesse Freeston, who you heard from on these pages last month, handled himself about as well as anyone could last weekend when police in Toronto punched him in the face and stole his camera microphone while he was covering protests at the G-20 summit. You can see it in the video, above. Calm, coherent and consistent: that’s how an authentic journalist, or any effective organizer or change-maker, rolls. And his boss, Paul Jay of The Real News, did some pretty good “press conference theater” in response to the incident, too.
I can understand why Jesse, a Canadian, went to report those events. They happened in his town. I can understand why a lot of folks went there, sincerely wanting to stand up and be counted against savage global capitalism and its consequences. The problem is, almost nobody who didn’t participate, especially those who only heard of the protests through the media, has any idea what the protests were about, or why the protesters were there.
The G-20 or “Group of 20” is made up of 20 of the governments with the 32 biggest economies. It includes the center-left governments of Argentina and Brazil, and also includes China. Here is a list of the participating nations. The G-20 group has no power to make laws, no real institutional power at all. Its resolutions are non-binding even among the signatory countries. Are the protests trying to say that countries should not meet with each other? Nobody quite says that, either.
I would posit that protests at events like this happen on autopilot, robotically, by many who are trying to relive the glory days of the 1999 Seattle protest against the World Trade Organization (where the stated goal was to keep the WTO meeting from happening, and in fact succeeded at causing its premature adjournment). There, hundreds of thousands of people, including significant participation from major labor unions like the Teamsters, converged around a clear demand and an attainable goal: The WTO shouldn’t meet, as it has binding power over policies in its member nations and that power is abused to benefit the haves against the have-nots.
Seattle 1999 was when the post-Cold War international left discovered it had a new move, like a boxer with a fast left hook. It knocked out its opponent, the WTO, and gave rise to a generation of new left celebrities and media makers, including Indymedia. Some have launched book-selling careers out of it. Good for them, but is that itself a goal of protests? Creating product and product makers? The rest of its legacy was mainly to create a trail of copy-cat actions with ever-diminishing results.
In April 2000, a repeat of the tactic was attempted in Washington DC to protest meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Only about 10,000 showed up and about 1,300 of those were arrested. In November 2000 the same agencies met in Prague, met by thousands of protesters, 400 of them arrested, who did actually cause the summit meeting to fold its tent early. In January 2001, many of the same protesters headed to Davos, Switzerland, to protest the World Economic Forum (like the G-20, a meeting without statutory authority over anyone anywhere). Their goal, if there was one, wasn’t clear and they had no tangible impact on the conference of world business and government leaders. None, whatsoever.
This dance – think of the consequences for a boxer who keeps using the same left hook with every punch, but eventually his opponents figure it out and know exactly how to beat him – continued through Quebec City’s Summit of the Americas and the European Union’s Gothenberg, Sweden meeting in 2001, to the World Trade Organization summit in Cancun in 2003, so on and so forth, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat.
In general, the size of these summit protests grow smaller and smaller, the tactics do not significantly change, the level of planning and training by participants doesn’t rise to that which went into Seattle 1999… and it shows, again and again, in the paltry results.
So what is left of these summit protests? The majority of participants always march peacefully, but many get arrested and beat up by cops who use the presence of a smaller gruposcule – often referred to as the “Black Bloc” or those “using Black Bloc tactics” – as their pretext to arrest and use preemptive state violence against all. The size of the “Black Bloc” contingent, of those who typically go on a spree of breaking windows of corporate chain stores and banks, hasn’t grown, but as the size of all other sectors steadily decreased, they take on a bigger slice of the pie of what little media attention is still paid to these yawningly predictable events.
And then there is another sector I’ll call the “summit hoppers.” These are protesters with enough expendable cash (or are trust fund or parent supported) to jet hop from summit city to summit city to join each protest. Some of them even do creative, laudible things – marching bands or daredevil banner hangers – but their creativity gets typically lost in the teargas smoke and sensational media coverage of the accompanying riot porn.
And just as typically, as in Cancun 2003, local movements and organizers are left holding the bag, no better organized than before. They basically get played by the out-of-towners who use their cities as a weekend stage for their own attention-seeking. It reminds me of Kurt Tucholsky’s 1920 poem about Berlin theater director Max Reinhardt’s play, Danton:
Act Three was great in Reinhardt’s play—
Six-hundred extras milling
Listen to what the critics say!
All Berlin finds it thrilling.
But in the whole affair I see
A parable, if you ask me
“Revolution!” the People howls and cries
“Freedom, that’s what we’re needing!”
We’ve needed it for centuries—
our arteries are bleeding.
The stage is shaking. The audience rock.
The whole thing is over by nine o’clock.
So what is left from these summit-hopping protests, beyond the tons of garbage and reaction that local movements have to pick up afterwards? Some brief media stories about violence – by police or by protesters, whether against people or merely against property, you can’t ever count on the mass media to distinguish between the two, and you ought to know better in advance that that will be the case – is about all that is left over when the show has packed up and gone. Nobody outside the event's own protagonists knows what the protest was about, or why it was done.
And then you get the occasional well-done news story, like that, above, by Jesse Freeston, about police violence against reporters or peaceful civilians. Ideally, that at least says “police bad, protesters good” (as if that is enough a reason to hold a protest at all, since that message only resonates with those that already have that predisposition), but it doesn’t really say anything new or inspiring. It doesn't change the game or any social dynamic at all.
Yet it turns out the police aren’t the only ones attending these affairs who are attacking members of the independent media:
The ones dressed in black and masks are those that either refer to themselves or are tagged by others as “Black Bloc,” and you can see at 1:23 minutes into the video that they’re going after the independent media, too. Their chant of “Who’s streets? Our streets!” thus becomes a mirror image of what the State is saying through its police forces: We own these streets and nobody else does! These events predictably become spats of bullying and thuggery on both sides of the barricades: and that makes the police happy, so happy, they in fact fertilize it with their own infiltrators and agents provocateur to make sure it happens.
At two minutes into the video, you can see how the “Black Bloc” contingent falls hook, line and sinker for the bait left to them by police agencies, who conveniently left unprotected police cars exactly along the route of their protest. Mouth meet hook: The protesters – the ones in these images are, predictably, predominantly male and young – attack and eventually set fire to the police cars. And this becomes both a defining image for the entire protest action and an easy talking point for the State to paint everyone as part of an undesirable and scary (to the general public) horde.
Does anybody really think that police agencies would have left unguarded vehicles in that path if not to get that desired image onto the evening news? And the “Black Bloc” dupes fell for it! Who, among the working class and poor, would follow these white upper class fools anywhere? What separates them from any rank-and-file pyromaniac? That they attach a cause to their attempted rampage? Well, what is that cause? “Whose streets? Our streets”? Clearly they mean theirs and not “ours” in the sense that the streets belong to all the people. Otherwise they wouldn’t be pushing and threatening the people’s own cameras away. If those guys ever did gain power, they would be as violent and bullying as those that have it now. And that is evident to most members of the public who refrain from joining in such protests even when we agree with the overall causes expressed.
It is already well established that Canadian authorities (and those of other nations) implant undercover agents – dressing them in “Black Bloc” and other stereotypical protest uniforms - to whip up the other protesters into committing acts of vandalism and sometimes even violence to rob the protests of moral authority and allow the cops a free pass on their own violence.
The “Black Bloc” practitioners have become the moral equivalent of cops, and just as ugly and bullying. And, as is proved, some of them are actually cops! And there is no way to tell them apart.
After their vandalism sprees, the Black Blockers then shed their black masks and clothes and hide among the rest of the peaceful protesters. That also reveals them to be cowards. They only deploy these tactics when they can hide under the skirt of a larger group of people. If they earnestly believe that smashing windows and tussling with police is such a revolutionary act, why don’t they ever do it on their own? Worse, they are wrecking the very good name of anarchism and anarchists by behaving in these decidedly anti-anarchist ways! Authentic anarchists are among the most alarmed by the negative impact of their parasitical actions on events that are organized by people who are not them, because it defines "anarchism" as "violent" (and also as "stupid") when anarchism (which embraces, also, anarcho-syndicalists and also anarcho-pacifists who see the State as a form of violence) is about self-management, not about hitching one's wagon to a star that someone else organized.
Throughout history there have been guerrilla insurgencies or groups that used what they called "revolutionary violence" to forward their goals, and whether one agrees or not with their tactics, one can admire that they did have courage. But the Weather Underground or the Latin American guerrilla organizations or other such projects never inflicted their actions on the larger protests of broader coalitions. Not once! The "Black Bloc" types clearly don't have that same level of bravery, planning, training or intelligence. That's what makes them cowards while other armed insurgencies were not.
In the end, the repetitive nature of this story about summit actions makes the majority of protesters, who are peaceful, and the organizations that got them there, dupes as much as the comparatively few assholes with window-breaking fetishes. It is now totally predictable and known in advance that those types will show up and do the same things they always do. And yet the larger coalition does nothing to denounce or separate itself from the premeditated macho tantrums of the few. The summit hopping actions have disregarded all the tools – such as nonviolence training sessions – that have distinguished other more successful movements throughout history from the recent series of failed summit actions, to which Toronto June 2010 becomes just another statistic.
We don’t send reporters to cover summit protests anymore. We already know what will happen in advance, and so does everyone else. At Narco News, we still report, time and time again, on meaningful protests and movements and community organizers and others that actually get stuff done and win battles. But we’ve had it with the summit protest genre. Stick a fork in it. It's done. We now practice non-cooperation with it. We have withdrawn our participation in their boring mirror of the spectacle, at least until some folks somewhere organize one that plans in advance to train and promote a shared action plan and discipline that is designed to have a better impact on human events and history than this sorry trail of repetition.
And to think: At least twice in recent months, in the same city of Toronto, there were two creative actions – neither of them “protests,” per se – that were designed, and succeeded, to win over hearts and minds and public support. They involved planning, discipline and a lot more fun than the tired summit protests offer, and they show us a possible path toward a new kind of protest that, rather than provoking automatic police repression, sneaks up on society with stealth and then disappears quickly avoiding any physical confrontation at all.
On April 29, 2010, students of Canada’s National Ballet Schools held a “flash mob” action at the Eaton Centre Mall in Toronto. Watch it while imagining had the G-20 protesters organized something similar and how different and better the impact would have been:
But they’re professionals, you say? Well, sure, they’ve taken some dance classes anyway. But here’s another flash mob dance action from 2009 from the same shopping mall, this one by amateurs, many of them kids, whose cause was to remember a young woman who died of cancer:
How much training did those dancing novices have? Only six hours! So don’t tell me that we ordinary people can’t do extraordinary actions with a little bit of planning and discipline! The flash mob phenomenon has already proved the case otherwise.
Add a coherent political message, banners, leaflets, a dance tune that resonates with the message, and such to a dancing musical flash mob like these and you have the seeds of a new, more effective, kind of protest than the tired old marching around in circles of the last century that has ceased to win any cause for anyone. If you want media coverage for it, video it and send it out, or plant a few sympathetic collaborators from inside the commercial media to have their cameras there for the scoop.
Organize something like that, and we will come, report, film, and make it known to the world in multiple languages. But “no thanks” if you want us to cover another tired summit-hopping action using the same stale left hook that the enemy already knows how to easily knock out.
One last thing: If you want to defend the actions of the “Black Bloc” or the effectiveness of the Summit Actions that tolerate them, here is the price of admission to the comments section here, and it should be real easy for anyone to do: Write one sentence – that is all, just one – that tells us what the message of the Toronto G-20 protest was. If it doesn’t fit into one sentence, it is not a message worthy of a protest. Then tell us how that protest accomplished advancing the cause of that message.
Maybe it is clear to one or more of you out there. But to the rest of the people of the world, whatever the Toronto summit protest message was, it didn’t reach us, or make anyone else care about it. And that is precisely the definition of a failed action that accomplished nothing but occupying the hours, resources, and budgets of all those who traveled to them in lieu of organizing something real at home.
Update: Somehow I missed this when it came out last year, but authentic journalist Jill Freidberg (documentary filmmaking group director at the Narco News J-School and co-director of the documentary, This Is What Democracy Looks Like, about the 1999 Seattle protests) produced a multipart radio series on the tenth anniversary of the December 1999 Seattle actions that shows where so many of the participants then went: into community organizing...
Part I: Seattle, Ten Years Later
Part II: Race and Mass Demonstrations
Part IV: Indymedia, Ten Years After
So it is fair to say that a positive legacy of Seattle 1999 is how many of its participants then moved into organizing and new, more diverse, strategies and tactics; not everyone kept clicking "replay"!