Peter Gelderloos: The Police

Recently, a group of racist, anti-LGBTQ, white nationalists attacked a Gay Pride parade in Hamilton, Ontario. Instead of arresting the attackers, the police have arrested people who allegedly took action in defence against this fascist violence. When a group of activists protested the police’s conduct in front of the Mayor’s home, the Media focused their self-righteous indignation on this anarchist “hooliganism,” failing to put the protest in any real context, including the fact that the police not only failed to protect people from fascist violence, but are now prosecuting people who did. The local anarchist library and social space. The Tower, is again under attack, with increased harassment by the authorities. All of which reminded me of this section from Peter Gelderloos’ Anarchy Works (Ardent Press, 2010).

Who will protect us without police?

In our society, police benefit from a tremendous amount of hype, whether it’s biased and fear-mongering media coverage of crime or the flood of movies and television shows featuring cops as heroes and protectors. Yet many people’s experiences with police contrast starkly with this heavy-handed propaganda.

In a hierarchical society, whom do police protect? Who has more to fear from crime, and who has more to fear from police? In some communities, the police are like an occupying force; police and crime form the interlocking jaws of a trap that prevents people from escaping oppressive situations or rescuing their communities from violence, poverty, and fragmentation.

Historically, police did not develop out of a social necessity to protect people from rising crime. In the United States, modern police forces arose at a time when crime was already diminishing. Rather, the institution of police emerged as a means to give the ruling class greater control over the population and expand the state’s monopoly on the resolution of social conflict. This was not a response to crime or an attempt to solve it; on the contrary, it coincided with the creation of new forms of crime. At the same time police forces were being expanded and modernized, the ruling class began to criminalize predominantly lower class behaviors that had previously been acceptable such as vagrancy, gambling, and public drunkenness.[70]

Those in authority define “criminal activity” according to their own needs, then present their definitions as neutral and timeless. For example, many more people may be killed by pollution and work-related accidents than by drugs, but drug dealers are branded a threat to society, not factory owners. And even when factory owners break the law in a way that kills people, they are not sent to prison.[71]

Today, over two-thirds of prisoners in the US are locked up for nonviolent offenses. It is no surprise that the majority of prisoners are poor people and people of color, given the criminalization of drugs and immigration, the disproportionately harsh penalties for the drugs typically used by poor people, and the greater chance people of color have of being convicted or sentenced more harshly for the same crimes.[72]

Likewise, the intense presence of militarized police in ghettos and poor neighborhoods is connected to the fact that crime stays high in those neighborhoods while rates of incarceration increase. The police and prisons are systems of control that preserve social inequalities, spread fear and resentment, exclude and alienate whole communities, and exercise extreme violence against the most oppressed sectors of society.

Those who can organize their own lives within their communities are better equipped to protect themselves. Some societies and communities that have won autonomy from the state organize volunteer patrols to help people in need and discourage aggressions. Unlike the police, these groups generally do not have coercive authority or a closed, bureaucratic structure, and are more likely to be made up of volunteers from within the neighborhood.

They focus on protecting people rather than property or privilege, and in the absence of a legal code they respond to people’s needs rather than inflexible protocol. Other societies organize against social harm without setting up specific institutions. Instead they utilize diffuse sanctions — responses and attitudes spread throughout the society and propagated in the culture — to promote a safe environment.

Anarchists take an entirely different view of the problems that authoritarian societies place within the framework of crime and punishment. A crime is the violation of a written law, and laws are imposed by elite bodies. In the final instance, the question is not whether someone is hurting others but whether she is disobeying the orders of the elite. As a response to crime, punishment creates hierarchies of morality and power between the criminal and the dispensers of justice. It denies the criminal the resources he may need to reintegrate into the community and to stop hurting others.

In an empowered society, people do not need written laws; they have the power to determine whether someone is preventing them from fulfilling their needs, and can call on their peers for help resolving conflicts. In this view, the problem is not crime, but social harm — actions such as assault and drunk driving that actually hurt other people. This paradigm does away with the category of victimless crime, and reveals the absurdity of protecting the property rights of privileged people over the survival needs of others. The outrages typical of capitalist justice, such as arresting the hungry for stealing from the wealthy, would not be possible in a needs-based paradigm.

During the February 1919 general strike in Seattle, workers took over the city. Commercially, Seattle was shut down, but the workers did not allow it to fall into disarray. On the contrary, they kept all vital services running, but organized by the workers without the management of the bosses. The workers were the ones running the city every other day of the year, anyway, and during the strike they proved that they knew how to conduct their work without managerial interference.

They coordinated citywide organization through the General Strike Committee, made up of rank and file workers from every local union; the structure was similar to, and perhaps inspired by, the Paris Commune. Union locals and specific groups of workers retained autonomy over their jobs without management or interference from the Committee or any other body. Workers were free to take initiative at the local level. Milk wagon drivers, for example, set up a neighborhood milk distribution system the bosses, restricted by profit motives, would never have allowed.

The striking workers collected the garbage, set up public cafeterias, distributed free food, and maintained fire department services. They also provided protection against anti-social behavior — robberies, assaults, murders, rapes: the crime wave authoritarians always forecast. A city guard comprised of unarmed military veterans walked the streets to keep watch and respond to calls for help, though they were authorized to use warnings and persuasion only. Aided by the feelings of solidarity that created a stronger social fabric during the strike, the volunteer guard were able to maintain a peaceful environment, accomplishing what the state itself could not.

This context of solidarity, free food, and empowerment of the common person played a role in drying up crime at its source. Marginalized people gained opportunities for community involvement, decision-making, and social inclusion that were denied to them by the capitalist regime. The absence of the police, whose presence emphasizes class tensions and creates a hostile environment, may have actually decreased lower-class crime. Even the authorities remarked on how organized the city was: Major General John F. Morrison, stationed in Seattle, claimed that he had never seen “a city so quiet and so orderly.” The strike was ultimately shut down by the invasion of thousands of troops and police deputies, coupled with pressure from the union leadership.[73]

In Oaxaca City in 2006, during the five months of autonomy at the height of the revolt, the APPO, the popular assembly organized by the striking teachers and other activists to coordinate their resistance and organize life in Oaxaca City, established a volunteer watch that helped keep things peaceful in especially violent and divisive circumstances. For their part, the police and paramilitaries killed over ten people — this was the only bloodbath in the absence of state power.

The popular movement in Oaxaca was able to maintain relative peace despite all the violence imposed by the state. They accomplished this by modifying an indigenous custom for the new situation: they used topiles, rotating watches that maintain security in indigenous communities. The teacher’s union already used topiles as security volunteers during the encampment, before the APPO was formed, and the APPO quickly extended the practice as part of a security commission to protect the city against police and paramilitaries. A large part of the topiles’ duty included occupying government buildings and defending barricades and occupations. This meant they often had to fight armed police and paramilitaries with nothing but rocks and firecrackers.

Some of the worst attacks happened in front of the occupied buildings. We were guarding the Secretary of the Economy building, when we realized that somewhere inside the building there was a group of people preparing to attack us. We knocked on the door and no one responded. Five minutes later, an armed group drove out from behind the building and started shooting at us. We tried to find cover, but we knew if we backed away, all the people at the barricade in front of the building — there must have been around forty people — would be in serious danger. So we decided to hold our position, and defended ourselves with rocks. They kept firing at us until their bullets ran out and drove away, because they saw that we weren’t going anywhere. Several of us were wounded. One guy took a bullet in his leg and the other got shot in the back. Later, some reinforcements arrived, but the hit men had already retreated.

We didn’t have any guns. At the Office of the Economy, we defended ourselves with stones. As time went on and we found ourselves under attack by gunfire more and more frequently, so we started making things to defend ourselves with: firecrackers, homemade bottle-rocket launchers, molotov cocktails; all of us had something. And if we didn’t have any of those things, we defended people with our bodies or bare hands.[74]

After such attacks, the topiles would help take the wounded to first aid centers.

The security volunteers also responded to common crime. If someone was being robbed or assaulted, the neighbors would raise the alarm and the neighborhood topiles would come; if the assailant was on drugs he would be tied up in the central plaza for the night, and the next day made to pick up garbage or perform another type of community service. Different people had different ideas on what long-term solutions to institute, and as the rebellion in Oaxaca was politically very diverse, not all these ideas were revolutionary; some people wanted to hand robbers or assaulters over to the courts, though it was widely believed that the government released all law-breakers and encouraged them to go back and commit more anti-social crimes.

The history of Exarchia, a neighborhood in central Athens, shows throughout the years that the police do not protect us, they endanger us. For years, Exarchia has been the stronghold of the anarchist movement and the counterculture. The neighborhood has protected itself from gentrification and policing through a variety of means. Luxury cars are regularly burned if they are parked there overnight. After being targeted with property destruction and social pressure, shop and restaurant owners no longer try to remove political posters from their walls, kick out vagrants, or otherwise create a commercial atmosphere in the streets; they have conceded that the streets belong to the people. Undercover cops who enter Exarchia have been brutally beaten on a number of occasions.

During the run-up to the Olympics the city tried to renovate Exarchia Square to turn it into a tourist spot rather than a local hangout. The new plan, for example, included a large fountain and no benches. Neighbors began meeting, came up with their own renovation plan, and informed the construction company that they would use the local plan rather than the city government’s plan. Repeated destruction of the construction equipment finally convinced the company who was boss. The renovated park today has more green space, no touristy fountain, and nice, new benches.

Attacks against police in Exarchia are frequent, and armed riot police are always stationed nearby. Over the past years, police have gone back and forth between trying to occupy Exarchia by force, or maintaining a guard around the borders of the neighborhood with armed groups of riot cops constantly ready for an attack. At no point have the police been able to carry out normal policing activities. Police do not patrol the neighborhood on foot, and rarely drive through. When they enter, they come prepared to fight and defend themselves.

People spray graffiti and put up posters in broad daylight. It is to a large extent a lawless zone, and people commit crimes with an astonishing frequency and openness. However, it is not a dangerous neighborhood. The crimes of choice are political or at least victimless, like smoking weed. It is safe to walk there alone at night, unless you are a cop, people in the streets are relaxed and friendly, and personal property faces no great threat, with the exception of luxury cars and the like. The police are not welcome here, and they are not needed here.

And it is exactly in this situation that they demonstrate their true character. They are not an institution that responds to crime or social need, they are an institution that asserts social control. In past years, police tried to flood the area, and the anarchist movement in particular, with addictive drugs like heroin, and they have directly encouraged junkies to hang out in Exarchia Square. It was up to anarchists and other neighbors to defend themselves from these forms of police violence and stop the spread of addictive drugs. Unable to break the rebellious spirit of the neighborhood, police have resorted to more aggressive tactics, taking on the characteristics of a military occupation.

On December 6, 2008, this approach produced its inevitable conclusion when two cops shot 15-year-old anarchist Alexis Grigoropoulos to death in the middle of Exarchia. Within a few hours, the counterattacks began, and for days the police throughout Greece were pummeled with clubs, rocks, molotov cocktails, and in a couple of incidents, gunfire. The liberated zones of Athens and other Greek cities are expanding, and the police are afraid to evict these new occupations because the people have proven themselves to be stronger.

Currently, the media is waging a campaign of fear, increasing coverage of antisocial crime and trying to conflate these crimes with the presence of autonomous areas. Crime is a tool of the state, used to scare people, isolate people, and make government seem necessary. But government is nothing but a protection racket. The state is a mafia that has won control over society, and the law is the codification of everything they have stolen from us.

Peter Gelderloos

CrimethInc. – Not Your Grandpa’s Anti-Fascism

Antifa in Berkeley

Things are really starting to heat up in the US in the struggle against fascism. Here I present some reflections on anti-fascism by the CrimethInc. ex-workers collective. The complete article can be found here.

Not Your Grandfather’s Anti-Fascism

Following the clashes in Charlottesville and the massive anti-fascist demonstrations afterwards in Durham, Boston, and the Bay Area, the struggle against fascism has arrived in the consciousness of the general public. Tens of thousands of people are realizing that the fight against fascism didn’t end in 1945—that today, as increasingly authoritarian governments collude with ascendant fascist movements, this battle is more pressing than ever.

It’s worth taking a moment to review what anti-fascists have accomplished since Trump was elected. Despite harassment and attacks from fascists and law enforcement, what was initially a few hundred people without financial resources or sponsors has grown into the foundation for a massive social movement. On April 15, fascists rampaged through Berkeley, recording video footage of themselves beating people to use for recruiting purposes. On Sunday, August 27, the same fascists attempted to hold another rally in Berkeley. In response to the murder of Heather Heyer during a fascist rally in Charlottesville two weeks prior, thousands of people converged to make the fascist demonstration impossible.

Imagine if the “Unite the Right” rally had taken place without resistance, and a thousand white supremacists had been able to march around Charlottesville unopposed. In that scenario, emboldened fascists could have presented themselves as a legitimate part of the political spectrum, while preparing the way for more murders like the ones in Charleston and Portland. In that case, the government with Trump at the helm would be able to present itself as the only possible solution to fascist violence, and the general public would be forced to seek assistance from the very authorities that are already implementing most of the white supremacist agenda. We should be grateful that long before Charlottesville, forward-thinking anti-fascists were doing the thankless work of monitoring fascists and mobilizing against them.

But now that the struggle against fascism has arrived on a massive scale, it’s time to come to grips with the limitations the movement faces today. Every victory generates new challenges. Let’s explore the obstacles that the anti-fascist movement will have to overcome to succeed in creating a world free of authoritarianism.

This article is available as a zine you can print out and distribute in your community.

Corporate Media Back the Fascists

The Washington Post titled their coverage of Sunday’s demonstration “Black-clad antifa members attack peaceful right-wing demonstrators in Berkeley.” It is not surprising when Fox News publishes barefaced propaganda describing the organizer of far-right demonstrations that have included at least one fascist murderer as a “prayer activist,” but it is more unsettling to see fascist talking points parroted by supposedly liberal outlets.

The image at the top of the Washington Post article shows a right-wing demonstrator apparently being shoved by an anti-fascist with a shield. Yet several videos show the same far-right demonstrator pepper-spraying anti-fascist demonstrators without provocation and then pepper-spraying people at random immediately before the photo was taken. If you look closely, the attacker is wearing a shirt that celebrates Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet for murdering dissidents by dropping them out of helicopters. If you look closer, you can see that the anti-fascist in the picture has a stick, but is choosing not to use it, instead simply using a shield to block the fascist with the pepper-spray from carrying out further attacks. In fact, the Washington Post chose to use a photo in which the assailant’s right hand is not visible, so readers would not see the pepper spray he holds in it.

When the Washington Post portrays such fascists as “peaceful,” suggesting that they are victims even as they attack people and glorify mass murder, this gives them legitimacy, securing space for them to recruit and to promote and organize further attacks. Why would liberal media outlets do this?

Journalists often determine the substance of their story in advance, and it appears that media outlets across the spectrum had determined in advance to report the anti-fascist demonstration in Berkeley as an expression of violent excess even before it happened. In the event, the demonstration was largely peaceful; even the worst clashes were considerably less violent than the fighting on April 15. Despite this, corporate media outlets that had ignored April 15 altogether devoted considerable space to a few isolated incidents in which anti-fascists scuffled with fascists or other Trump supporters.

The intention was clearly to impose a limit on the amount of popular legitimacy anti-fascists would be permitted to accrue after the events in Charlottesville. Two weeks of positive coverage of anti-fascists, during which various members of the clergy came forward to praise their efforts, were deemed to be too much. Heather Heyer’s murder had taken corporate media by surprise, interrupting their conventional narratives and proving that the threat anti-fascists had supposedly been blowing out of proportion was all too real. It took corporate editors two weeks to regain control of the discourse. As soon as they did, they reimposed their old stereotypes as if Heather had never been killed.

This should put an end to any illusions we might have had that corporate media could side with anti-fascists. Outlets like the Washington Post aspire to position themselves against both Trump and his adversaries in the streets—to occupy what some call “the extreme center.” They are gambling that the current polarization of society is temporary, that they can be the beneficiaries of disillusionment with both sides.

Anti-fascists have to strategize about how to organize and legitimize our efforts to the general public without the benefit of positive media coverage. This is no easy task. At the minimum, it will demand our own grassroots media, at the same time that this media is under systematic assault from right-wing trolls.

This challenge is symptomatic of the larger phenomenon of polarization, which is worth examining separately.

The Swinging Pendulum of Polarization

US society has been splintering and polarizing for years now, since the recession of 2008 if not before. The movement against police and white supremacy that burst onto the national stage in Ferguson in 2014 as Black Lives Matter generated a far-right backlash, which inspired a resurgence of anti-fascist organizing. In response, fascists gave angry liberals and anti-fascists a central place in their strategy, seeking to provoke them into reactive behavior that could be used to further mobilize the right-wing base. Milo Yiannopoulos used this strategy until it blew up in his face last February, when a black bloc of hundreds shut down his event in Berkeley.

Various fascist and fascist-friendly organizers also used this approach, baiting leftists and anti-fascists with a series of “free speech” rallies in Berkeley, Portland, and elsewhere around the country that won the nascent fascist movement notoriety and momentum. This movement appeared fully formed for the first time in Charlottesville—but the shockwaves of that debut drew many more people into the movement against fascism, changing the balance of power once again. The “free speech” rallies scheduled afterwards in Boston and the Bay Area were total washouts for the fascists.

In each of these cases, when the pendulum of polarization swung to one side, the opposing side was able to use the specter of that victory to draw more sympathizers into action. With the media narrative coming out about Berkeley, the pendulum has again swung away from anti-fascists to benefit the right-wing reaction.

So long as this pattern persists, every anti-fascist victory will produce an even greater threat from the far-right and the government. To break out of the pattern, anti-fascists have to strike blows in ways that don’t enable fascists to cash in on the resulting fear among right-wingers, or else to find a way to draw in large swathes of the population more rapidly than their competition on the right.

Shawn Wilbur: Notes on the Anarchist Culture Wars

Taking a break from my usually more historical postings, today I reproduce a blogpost by Shawn Wilbur, prompted by recent discussions regarding alleged personal and political connections between the far right and anarchism. The problem of egoists, Nietzschean “supermen,” “national syndicalists,” “national anarchists,” and the like associating themselves with anarchism goes back at least to the 1890s, when Malatesta argued that anarchy without “socialist content… would be worthy of ‘supermen’ in Nietzsche’s and [the proto-fascist Gabriele] D’Annunzio’s fashion and, contradicting itself, would turn into aristocratism and tyranny” (Complete Works, Vol. 3, p. 293). Attempts by the far right to co-opt anarchists (and anarchism) were not limited to individualist anarchism, nor are they limited today to the so-called “post-left” anarchist milieu. The original Fascists in Italy attempted to recruit syndicalists (without as much success as some “post-leftist” anarchists would have it), and in France they attempted to appropriate the legacy of Proudhon, among other things. In Russia, “national bolsheviks” and “national anarchists” claim Bakunin as a forerunner, quoting from his various anti-semitic outbursts in support of  their “white nationalism.” But it is a completely fallacious leap to then argue that anarchism is an incipiently fascist doctrine, “contaminated” by inherently fascist ideas because fascists sometimes like to court self-proclaimed anarchists or to misappropriate anarchist ideas and tactics, such as direct action, for their own purposes.

Shawn Wilbur’s Contr’un: Anarchist Theory

Notes on the Anarchist Culture Wars

With regard to the “courting” of anarchists by authoritarians, and as someone who has been so courted on various occasions, it seems to me that the key vulnerability among radicals is not attraction to certain authors or ideas, but particular ways of interacting with ideas. And that vulnerability is widespread in the milieu, with perhaps the more dangerous instances involving ideas that are not themselves so obviously edgy.

What is required for someone to slide from Stirner toward fascism, from Proudhon toward monarchy, from Bakunin toward actual dictatorship, etc. is for a few, generally uncharacteristic bits of their thought to be disconnected from their context, elevated in importance and then associated with similarly disconnected bits of authoritarian thought, with some sort of eclecticism, “syncretism” or outright opportunism as the guiding philosophy. The alt-right has made this sort of opportunist, hodge-podge thinking a fairly explicit policy. Unfortunately, many radicals also engage in it, without much sense of the stakes. The result is a convergence of people who aren’t really all that interested in ideas, except as potential capital to put behind projects with some less philosophical basis or as a sort of personal adornment. And these people, whether they identify with the right or the left, tend to tell a story about “theory” that assumes ideas are generally mixable. No idea is really very distant from any other, provided you simply disregard the bits that establish distance (and, of course, clarity.)

(These folks will “use” any idea, no matter how radical, provided they can break off some little bit of it that appeals to their audience of people who don’t care much. We can never stop these people from this kind of annoying, but ultimately trivial appropriation. All we can do is be clearer than they are, so that people who actually do care aren’t mislead. You never convince opportunists that they are wrong, because that’s not ultimately what it’s about. You can, however, demonstrate the weaknesses of opportunism as a mode of thought.)

Sometimes these folks find common cause with people who think that ideas are indeed important, but draw firm lines between ideas that they think of as “bad” or “dangerous” and some set of ideas that seem to them safe, good, etc. There’s a kind of narrow rationalism that is constantly concerned that “something could go wrong” if we have unsafe thoughts or make use of ideas and ways of thinking unapproved by its particular standards. A lot of well-meaning and unconsciously authoritarian would-be radicals fall into this camp. Some of them are quite serious about the defense of their particular sort of approved thinking and some just have a low tolerance for anything that might seem “problematic,” “sketchy” or “fucked up.”

When we do find people swept from one position to another, I suspect these are often people who rather enjoy the fact that many ideas are dangerous, but aren’t so concerned about using ideas in any very serious way. Philosophy, like ideology, can be just another recreational drug. When we “lose” these people, we probably have to acknowledge that we only had them in a very limited sense in the first place.

None of these groups, it seems to me, are very well situated to deal with the notion of anarchy, which is necessarily (in the short term certainly, but probably also in the longest of terms) a truly dangerous idea. Now, some self-proclaimed “anarchists” are happy to do without the notion of anarchy, but as far as I can see that’s just giving up before you get started. But there are also people who look at Stirner (or something they’ve heard about egoism) and think “that’s problematic,” hear the usual criticisms of Proudhon and Bakunin and think “that’s fucked up,” worry about what might “go wrong” with poststructuralism, etc., but then look at anarchy and think “nothing to worry about here, folks.” But we often find that these folks also consider “democracy” a safe, positive notion, will find room in their nominally “anarchist” theory for authority, hierarchy, etc. It’s easy to be tolerant of this sort of thing as “rookie mistakes,” which ought to be fixed by more exposure to anarchist thought — except that there doesn’t seem to be much in the milieu pushing anarchists towards any more complex engagement, while there is perhaps an increasing resistance.

When it comes right down to it, the only people I have much faith in when it comes to a lasting commitment to anarchist thought and practice are those who are both serious about ideas (although I recognize a lot of ways this seriousness might manifest itself) — and specifically serious about anarchist ideas and anarchistic ways of thinking — and ready to acknowledge that the particular ideas that separate anarchism from the rest of the political or social philosophies out there, anarchy chief among them, are not “safe.” This isn’t a question of an intellectual vanguard or any sort of commitment that should exclude the average working stiff. We just shouldn’t be surprised that committing to even the serious contemplation of anarchy, which involves a radical break with the principles that govern the majority of our current relations and institutions, takes some mental effort, no matter where we’re starting from. You don’t have to know that Proudhon came to anarchy as a result of research into “the criterion” of certainty, but you probably do have to come to terms, in one way or another, that the “definitive” and “authoritative” are at least going to have to undergo some reworking in an anarchistic context, if they don’t simply get swept away with the authoritarian.

But if you can come to terms with anarchy, then you have not only gained an ideal, but presumably also mastered a skill. And that skill is, it seems to me, the one that best protects us whenever we are dealing with “dangerous” ideas. It might even simply involve the recognition that all ideas are dangerous, which is a pretty good inoculation against all the various systems and schemes that are peddled from every direction.

Shawn Wilbur