Sunday, January 11, 2009

Riot As Strategy?: A Critique on the Breakdown of Violence in the BART Police Protest

Let's talk for a moment about the use of violence as a form of reactionary protest. Since the Oakland riots last week, this has been largely on my mind. While some have reacted positively to the destruction (see account in my reportback), for many others, especially during this economic crisis, the riot created greater difficulties.

In my younger days, I was all about fucking shit up as a measure of my anger and dissent of state power. But last Wednesday, watching as rioters smashed store windows and cars on a street lined with Korean and Chinese-owned shops, I felt a pang of protectiveness and resentment towards those who were causing the destruction.

Don't fuck with my peoples' shit! I yelled sardonically. I was only half joking. No one paid attention.

Each time the police dispersed us, we mobbed through quieter neighborhoods, running sidestreet to the major intersections of the police standoffs. Mail boxes knocked down, trashcans dragged out, cars smashed up, small fires being lit. Predominantly black neighborhoods.

Why are we rioting through the streets of our own communities - the ones that we are supposedly demanding justice for? We should be setting police stations on fire, breaking bank windows, and bum-rushing BART stations. Not destroying the property of our struggling brothers and sisters.

Many articles, such as this one, have since reported comments from various storekeepers whose shops fell victim to the riots. By now, I think everyone's heard about Creative African Braids. The woman who owns the hair salon is pissed that the rioters targeted her shop, a black family-run business, and criticized the protest, calling the protesters "stupid", among other things.

The intentions behind the protest Wednesday night is a far cry from stupid. But these criticisms and this kind of tangible misguided destruction give the media more fodder to discredit the validity of the protest's demands. It creates obstacles against building bridges between communities and gaining allies within movements. For those sitting on the fence, this can make or break their political support of an issue.

It gets worse.

An account from a fellow comrade's blog: "Another friend said that an older Asian man -- on crutches no less-- pleaded with rioting youth not to smash his car up. But they did. Right in front of him. And i saw a middle aged Asian woman running, screaming because her bag had been snatched."

Many fires were lit, and stones thrown, by those in the black bloc. "Anarchists". Well, predominantly white youth, dressed in all black, wearing black bandanas, and waving a black flag. Many were not even from Oakland, and I wonder how many were familiar with the areas that they were rioting in. The way some of them escalated rioting scenes really pisses me off. As anarchists, I expect them to know better, and to recognize when it is their place and time to escalate a situation, and when to step back in solidarity as allies in a struggle. To march into a protest preoccupied with their own agenda above all others is selfish and entitled to me. To be able to walk away while other are left to pick up the pieces is to avoid accountability. For those who have been arrested, I stand in solidarity with them.

How can we demand accountability when those of us within the movement cannot even do it ourselves? We must lead by example if we are to gain the trust and faith of others and create stronger alliances against governmental terrorism.

"Revolutionaries"? "Anarchists"? As a self-identified anarchist activist (who also has a few black bandanas), this is embarrassing. It leads me to wonder, when the shit hits the fan, will we remember why we are fighting? Will we even know? Is it possible to reconcile such chaotic fury with collective solidarity when massive public direct actions escalate? For the brothers and sisters who helplessly feel the brunt of the destruction the next morning, how can we be mindful to include them in our actions of solidarity and protest?

I'd like to think that everything is possible. As responsible autonomous activists, one of the most radical positions we can take on is to hold ourselves accountable for our actions, and ask ourselves how these actions will affect - not only those involved in the moment - but those who will be affected the next days, months, years afterwards. The systemic hierarchies of power imposed on race and class dynamics are elusive, and we must remember to check ourselves using an anti-oppression lense in order to disarm these oppressive structures, and avoid these destructive power dynamics from manifesting internally within our own movements and struggles.

Don't get me wrong. A flaming dumpster shoved into a cop car as angry protesters jump on it and smash chairs into the windshield is goddamn satisfying sight.

Yet, in the particular context, this kind of reactionary violence may be cathartic, but in the long run, it is counterproductive. An angry mob is a volatile weapon - and though I would opt for a non-violent path if given the choice - sometimes fighting back becomes necessary for one's basic emotional and physical survival. So let's start talking about how we can wield this weapon more effectively, and arm ourselves with strategy.


G. Winstanley said...

Right on, sister. Strategy is something the whole movement needs right now. I would not be surprised if the popo used agents provocateurs to get people riled up. Still, that's no excuse. We need to be vigilant; we can't afford to become more hated than the police.

richard said...

I'm just seeing this now! thanks for the sharp analysis. I remember feeling a little better about the second protest/riot because the damage was focused on corporate property and banks. I wonder how poorer folks working at say McDonald's fare however when their job gets smashed. For them I hope its business as usual, and if anything, artisans get more work replacing glass.

Thanks for linking my blog too! i now have you in my google blog reader, i'm looking forward to more scrimshaw-isms.

AK said...

I agree with a lot of your analysis... and your mixed feelings about riots/uprisings like that night. Actually, I wouldn't call that night an uprising, because nobody was really "lifted up". I was there during the trash bin burning & cop car thrashing, but decided to go home after I realized that one of the drivers of the cop car was a petite black woman, who was standing close by. I don't agree with that woman's decision to become a cop, but I also can imagine that it would feel pretty scary to have an angry mob demolish the car that you drive every day. I'm glad to hear that the following night's activities were more focused on corporate property.

Isabella said...

True grit is making a decision and standing by it,doing what must be done.

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