In the past several months since the streets of the so-called United States of America were set alight by riots after the murder of black teenager Mike Brown by a white police officer, an increasing number of people seem to be asking the question: do riots work?
In answering, people tend to look at the historical connection between violent unrest and the government granting concessions afterwards. While this connection is certainly very real, it misses some key aspects and drastically reduces the scope of what we might consider a so-called “victory.” The federal investigation into the Ferguson Police Department would likely never had occurred if not for the sustained unrest throughout 2014. The rioting that took place after a BART police officer murdered Oscar Grant is often credited with the officer’s arrest and subsequent conviction (however lenient.) Fear of further rioting in Birmingham is said to have prompted the federal government to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And if the federal investigation, the conviction of a police officer, or the passing of legislation is what is sought after, then surely, the riots work. But we want much more than that; we desire the downfall of the capitalist-white-supremacist-patriarchal social order.
This thought process has emerged in reaction to the obscuring of violent (for lack of a better word) conflict in favor of a white-washed, pacifist history of struggle. Oftentimes liberals and others wishing to preserve social peace suggest that all struggles that were successful primarily utilized non-violent tactics. It may be tempting to accept the above framework as a response, but we do so at our own peril.
A more important question might ask why rioting is suddenly caught in this recuperative scheme. Before, the state was satisfied with repression coupled with the spreading of “outside agitator” narratives to isolate potential rioters. But since the Ferguson uprisings, the tactic has become more generalized. As a decreasing amount of people are put off by riots, and thus the strategy of erasing its potential must be shifted.
When the success of rioting is framed in terms of concessions won, it replaces the revolutionary nature of the riot with the agenda of reform. It becomes simply one of many tools in the activist’s toolkit to achieve “social change.” Want to pressure your elected officials? Riot. Revolutionaries seem to be misled by this newfound appreciation for formerly-condemned tactics and are excited for a culture that accepts and even supports not-so-civil disobedience. But when we agree to this framework, we only sacrifice this growing potential.
After periods of unrest, self-styled radicals often claim that violent tactics were the only way to grab media attention, to bring an issue to light, or the only way to make those in power listen. And this is not untrue. Those in power certainly only listen when they are being threatened, and rioting offers people a way to threaten power. But when a political solution is offered—the federal investigation, the indictment, etc.—it is not a reward for rising up, it is an attempt at de-escalation, at counter-insurgency. This is key to understanding the connection between uprisings and concessions.
In exchange for restoring social peace, the state offers superficial solutions to the underlying problems that caused people to riot in the first place. Rioters return to their homes, feeling accomplished while nothing fundamentally changes. Heralding these concessions as sincere accomplishments not only obscures their recuperative effect, but also mistakes them for genuinely progressive solutions. No amount of “bad apple” cops locked up could possibly end the oppression found in the very existence of police and prisons. No amount of legislation can replace the need to completely dismantle the state structure.
For riots to truly “work,” we must abandon the framework of the activist, and recognize the concessions of the state as what they truly are: attempts at recuperation. Each riot offers us the opportunity to find each other and act collectively, appropriating everything around us that was built for the functioning of capitalism for our own needs, or else do away with it. It is only through sustaining moments of rebellion that we might catch a glimpse of sincere success.
Written almost a year ago, “Do Riots Work? Exploring New Frontiers of Recuperation” attempted to clarify a misconception of the so-called ‘post-Ferguson era.’ It addressed the tendency to frame riots as a means to achieve reforms as a response to pacifism, and claimed that doing so actually forecloses revolutionary possibilities. Since then, the task of further elaboration has proven itself more crucial than expected.
Referring specifically to rioting missed the opportunity to address a related development. In the past year or so, rioting has not spread nearly as much as ‘disciplined militancy.’ Christmas 2015 in particular was marked with several actions by organizations such as Black Seed and various Black Lives Matter chapters that spectacularly shut down highways, airports, bridges, and more. Activists carry out bigger and more impressive disruptions that mirror the uprisings following the acquittal of George Zimmerman or the murder of Mike Brown, but remain within the traditional political framework. While some see this as a “refinement” or evolution of the latter spontaneous actions, it could more accurately be described as the capturing of what was previously uncontrollable. Instead of agitated crowds chucking proverbial wrenches into the gears of the nearest capitalist infrastructure, activists carefully craft a spectacular event for mass consumption. The latter follows the activist logic of consciousness-raising through media-centric protest, perhaps inherently so. These actions interrupt the functioning of society only as required to draw attention to their grievance or cause.
The nature of demands has been more thoroughly explored elsewhere, but put simply: any engagement with those in power to address our problems simultaneously reinforces their power. I refer to this as politics. To take action that seeks no concessions or even recognition from power, that advances our own position in a material way, is sometimes called destitution.
A typical anarchist reaction to the actions carried out by these activists usually involves suggesting less controlled, more confrontational actions instead—but as discussed in the original piece, this doesn’t truly get to the heart of the matter. More destructive actions can still be captured by politics if politics itself is not confronted. However, the future depicted in “Do Riots Work?” has not yet come to pass: rioting and it’s associated tactics (property destruction, street fighting, looting) have not yet entered the mainstream tactical array of activists in the United States.
While anarchists in the United States are familiar with a left that represents the pacifist middle ground between themselves and the far right, it appears more likely that it’s function will evolve to capturing tactical escalations within the political terrain. Instead of, or even complimentary to, fighting against escalations of militancy, it will attempt to make those actions legible to power, to explain them politically.
More and more are becoming frustrated with the plainly ineffective rallies and parades, it would be a mistake for the left to forfeit its own legitimacy so easily by abstaining from militancy which has become increasingly popular. Conceding a moderate amount of damage is a small price for preserving the social control of politics.
I therefore propose the following hypothesis: it will be worth more in the long run to push the analytical framework of destitution rather than trying to escalate from within a political logic.
If we set our sights on the social order in it’s entirety, the tactical maturity will follow. There is no reason to remain devoted to pacifist tactics when one stops appealing to the state or the ‘masses.’
Of course, the importance of desitution is about more than tactics, it is about making insurrections irreversible. How else could order be restored, without the legitimacy of politics? Undermining this legitimacy is the only way to prevent a return to normality. Satisfying demands—or, all too often, simply the promise to satisfy the demands in the future—can easily halt revolt in it’s tracks.
When we find ourselves in these situations—in riots, in blockades, in uprisings—we don’t simply get to choose the character that it takes. For this reason, we must find ways to intervene in these political movements to push the tensions at anti-political fault lines within these events. Politicians of all sorts must be resisted and their programs sabotaged, laying bare their attempts to preserve life as we know it—while sowing the seeds of destitution.
We also need to operate outside of them to maximize our potential. There is no denying the material consequences of attacks or blockades regardless of their political nature. A shut down highway is a shut down highway, a burnt police station is a burnt police station. When activists carry out their theatrical actions, it could be an opportune moment to paralyze another node of the metropolis. Not because our struggle is the same, but to spread the fires of revolt.
A Short Post Script
Whilst the primary focus of both essays dealt primarily with recuperation of confrontational tactics from the left, there are more reasons to dis-identify tactics from motivations.
As should be clear, shared tactics have little relation to a shared project—and often enough the opposite is the case. The re-emergent far-right in Europe (and more often in the U.S. as well) has found itself capable of breaking windows and torching refugee housing, while various authoritarian factions have joined popular uprisings from Kiev to Cairo. Many have observed that this decade’s revolts appear to belong to a single trajectory, but the conclusion that we are all partisans of insurrection together is a false one—even if some refuse to admit it.
This thinking is best represented by the recent video A Resolution, which is a short propaganda film that calls people to action, but shies away from putting forth any position. Simply anyone fighting “for freedom” or “for the Earth” should join up together and get organized. The omission of any discernible ideological grounding is further complicated by the inclusion of footage from movements that took a heavily right-wing character.
We must be absolutely clear: we are not simply advocating for certain tactics, we intend to see the end of domination.
It is the question are we too old when we start remembering and researching the past, or it was always part of us we bear like a cargo.
All the stories that means something to us, are kind of “genealogy of the subject”…we are dragged already in the maze of our own past, memorized stories, whether our own or people close to us.
Life goes fast and we are living on this earth immersed in the events, and part of us is always looking back, in to the past. Past has this privileged status over future, because we can look at it, we can see the picture in our mind, of what we experienced, or heard, or we can look at the photography. This process involves our imagination. (Whether we experienced or just heard about some events. )
Photography is mimicking (mimesis) our memory (nemesis). A process that is primarily mechanical, involves mechanic work of photo camera, and later work in a dark chamber, with chemicals, works on the principle of mechanics and chemistry.
The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished. Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation. The specialization of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself. The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living.
New age obsession with photography is kind of Nemesis and living virtually in the past and trying to memorize and remember everything, from our past, personally and universal. But the ways of this remembrance are telling us that present is changing the way past looks to us. Deeper relation with history is motivated with present. Why we want to remember and what to remember?
War and memory
There is sort of fetishism about the history, of some events that represents to us big events in human history. We want to remember them because the lessons we can learn about them…I recently started to be interested for the past, and started to research systematically parts of classic history and also less knows history.
It is well known that anarchists are against wars (imperial wars) and that they (some of them) only supports class war. All wars that were raging in history were wars for profit and power. Anarchists here have a constant anti-war orientation…In this wars upper classes were ready to sacrifice their own sons only for interests of their ideology: profit, glory and power. But we, anarchist say that in wars the poor people are the ones that losses the most…What is glorious about wars? My great grandfather was fighter in WWI, in Thessaloníki Front and survivor of this horrors, as well as the horrors of the WWII. His father died in Balkan war, and his grave is not known…near their family house in the mountain family build a small monument for him. From childhood I was listening the stories from my grandmother and grandfather about WWII, and partisans, and WWI…and other stories from the past.
My grandfather lived 90 years, he survived horrors of WWI, and WWII, like many people of this generations. Also I grow up on my grandmother’s stories about her father…( he was solder in Thessaloníki Front in Greece, was awarded the Albanian medal, (“albanska spomenica”) after the war he worked as a border guard on the Bulgarian-Serbian border, and in some way it is the reason why our family was saved in WWII when Bulgarian solders wanted to burn their house down, because they were hiding wounded partisans…One solder saw the picture, in the house of my grandfather together with man that he recognized, that was his father! Turned out that they worked together between the wars on the border…my grandfather and the father of this solder that came to burn their house. Many questions I have to ask my father,and to write it down…because to save it from oblivion…Another story my grandmother was talking to me about chetniks ( serbian nationalistic troops, that cooperated with nazis in WWII) and today in Serbia they want rehabilitation of them…She was very angry about this rehabilitations, because she knows who they were.
I hate when they use WWI for strengthen patriotism in every country, 100 years after. Memorization of WWI in my country was kind of political propaganda. There are things to remember, but it is a question what kind of lesson we learned from the past and why we remember wars? Governments uses them to underline obedience and glorify militarism, bravery, and celebrate “victories”and political consequences of particular wars. They trade with grief and individual emotions. It is not the same to grieve for the solder that defends has no other choice and the one that is serving imperial colonial interests…like in Syria, there are innocent people who dies every day, and there are solders, bombs and plains that comes from military states. Usually those who defends militarism and say that WWI was not needless war they are defending colonial and capitalist interests and if you ask them what they think about other uses of weapons, like in revolutionary actions, they would say that they are against it.
Anarchism’s antiwar orientation and anarchist pacifism
Anarchist-pacificm is another issue, when anarchists are against war. What anarchist pacifism means? Anti-militarism for anarchist should be anti war orientation against wars that upper classes perform, refusing to participate in this conflicts, and doing anti-war propaganda trying to explain to wider audience why this wars are needless and what consequences may be. The history of WWI and the hypothesis of defending the land is hard to stand. The real cause was imperialism and desire to rule, expand the power. And yes this are economic reasons. It is the other thing how the war was explained to lower classes that they need to go in war to “defend their country”, patriotism, etc. Also the beginning of WWI was misinterpreted…In some versions they blame Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of France Ferdinand for it. There are a lot of anti-war activists, anarchist that were against the war. Explore this article: https://robertgraham.wordpress.com/2014/08/07/international-anarchist-manifesto-against-the-first-world-war/
But anarchist anti-war orientation doesn’t mean that anarchist are against the use of arms, in all cases. There are anarchists who reject using of arms, who are only for demonstrations,and waving flags at the protests, organizing at the work places, and among syndicates (like anarcho/syndicalists). And sometimes, this pacifist anarchists are accusing others that fight or avoiding to show their solidarity with such fighters that choose to use arms in their class fight because of fear or because they disagree with this methods of fight. Division between pacifism and militarism leaves here traces on those who literally understand the language and think if you are pacifist (against military in the hands of the state) that means that you can not show your solidarity to comrades that choose to fight with arms for the cause of revolution…(the same cause they claim to fight too.)
The fight for anarchism is the fight for peace. I agree with that claim. Only, I do not accept pacifist orientation of anarchism which denies all forms of armed actions to oppressed class. The war is not over,not that particular WWI is not over, but the world after that leaded to another war, and wars in 20 and 21 century. Wars are fought with different arms than in past, but not less butchery. We need to rethink what is “pacifism”. In modern days military operations across the world, leaded by NATO and USA,are apologies of “operations for peace”. This are old colonial tactics that serve and protect colonial interests of rich minority. And this “pacifist” actions are no different from WWI reviews that have apology for WWI to start…but yet putting the guilt on another…when they say that WWI started because of Sarajevo assassination. Also, they blame Serbian nationalists for that, although it is another mistake because Gavrilo Princip who shot France Ferdinand was not serbian nationalist, he was serbian, but his views were anarchist, and he belong to the organization “Mlada Bosna” that was pro-Yugoslavian, and anti-monarchist. They organized themselves against oppressor (in this case Austria, monarchy). They read anarchist literature. Also there is a poem that Gavrilo Princip wrote in the prison. It is misinterpretation to call them nationalists. In Serbia assassination of the kings, happened also against Serbian king Aleksandar.
Class division between private grief and public honoring the victims
Australians have a big digital archive for WWI. I read the stories about Australians , how they much suffered in WWI. 100 years after WWI, there are and were more in 2014, ongoing discussions on memorials, grief, the roll of different countries in WWI, the role of women, how families commemorate deaths, about burial of deaths, etc. One part of this consequences of private grief and way to commemorate dead, is that mothers and families from private sphere draw attention of the public and necessity of collective remembrance of the war and victims of war. It was a way of unifying the dead of war and one part of trans-national, trans class, universal values, that every victim is the same (in death) as the people should be equal, in life also. Some differences, class status is sometimes represented in death also, in cemeteries, but main tendency was that all solders should be buried in the same way, with same insignia and honors… What is new in WWI, dimension and need of honoring the dead solders, glorifying their dead, giving a meaning to their deaths, that they did not die in vain. There is a space for political propaganda, in this connection between private and public emotions, in this case grief, and commemoration, memorization of deaths. Whenever we deal with some individual, private emotion, on public and universal level, there is a possibility of manipulation…the work of ideology.
Interpretations that try to cover class-divisions they try to say that war is classless, that rich and poor died in the war equally, proving that with decisions of governments about commemoration of death solders, that it was proclaimed that they all need to be buried in the same way. But this was not applied to deserters. Desertion was cruelly punished (by death) … and these cases are rarely discussed under the veil of state secrets. All this we need to have in mind when Remembering Galipoli. What the war memorials talk to us? There is an interesting anarchist article about War Memorial Encounter.
Mari Gilmore in the poem “War” writes about the loss and death, feeling of losing someone very close, beside the political and government’s stories of glory death that became a phrase with which was communicated with solder’s families after their son’s death in a war.
Anarchist also commemorate deaths of their fellow companions,usually assigning the their name to political actions: from direct actions that are dedicated to lost companion to assigning their name to Commando, units for the fight and revenge.
Knowledge chooses its project,
each project is new and chooses its moments,
each moment is new, but simultaneously emerges from
the memory of all the moments that existed before
— The Interior of the Absolute