The Common Good
July-August 2002

Swinging Back

by Stacia M. Brown | July-August 2002

Violence in the anti-corporate-globalization movement

Kadd Stephens, 24, longs for "a world free from violence." An anarchist from Washington, D.C., Stephens numbers himself among an increasingly visible group of anti-corporate-globalization activists whose dreams of world peace coexist—critics say illogically—with strategies of violent resistance.

The upswing of anarchist sentiment within the anti-corporate-globalization movement has nonviolent religious activists uneasy. While supporting the aims of the movement—whose concerns range from animal rights to corporate reform and environmentally responsible trade—persons of faith are questioning the assumption of the new anarchists that peaceful ends justify violent means. Some feel the movement has been "hijacked by street tactics," says Robert Collier, who has covered international trade policy for the San Francisco Chronicle.

In criticizing violent activists, however, religious and other nonviolent protesters are coming under fire for their refusal to welcome a "diversity of tactics." Many perceive themselves in a no-win situation. If they embrace the anti-corporate-globalization movement without qualifiers, they compromise their nonviolent commitments; but if they take a stand against violent protests, they risk splintering a transnational coalition for economic, social, and environmental justice.

In response to this dilemma, some nonviolent activists are taking a closer look at the militant new face of activism, hoping to educate themselves and the public about the costs of a pro-violence stance. What motivates some anarchists' rejection of nonviolence in favor of what critics see as little more than random acts of vandalism?

THOUGH ANARCHISM has historical roots in the 17th century, when Englishman Gerrard Winstanley established an anarchist village and called for the abolition of government and property, 21st century anarchists point to the "Battle for Seattle" as the launching point for their own aggressive activism. In November 1999, masked demonstrators calling themselves the Black Bloc helped wreak havoc on Seattle during protests against the World Trade Organization. Nonviolent activists denounced their black-clad counterparts for destroying property and inciting public animosity.

But the Black Bloc—which cited police brutality as the precipitating cause of violence—argued that radical maneuvers turn more heads than conventional ones. One anarchist boasted online that "window-smashing" had inspired Seattle's oppressed people "far more than any giant puppets or sea turtle costumes ever could."

Concern over violent resistance only increased following demonstrations in Quebec, Gothenburg, and Genoa. In April 2001, peaceful protests in Quebec against the extension of the North American Free Trade Area devolved into violent confrontations. Two months later, in what the BBC called the worst civil disorder in Sweden's recent history, police found themselves outmaneuvered in a rock-throwing melee during demonstrations against the European Union summit in Gothenburg.

In Genoa, Italy, the tensions only increased. Before nonviolent protests against the Group of Eight economic summit could commence in July 2001, demonstrators set cars on fire throughout the city. The Tute Bianche ("White Overalls"), an international resistance group rooted in the history of the Mexican Zapatistas, used a homemade barricade of steel bars to push through police lines. When the smoke cleared, 23-year-old Italian protester Carlo Guiliani was dead, shot twice in the head by a police officer. Property damage reached $4.5 million, according to some estimates.

WHATEVER MOMENTUM anarchists—and the anti-corporate-globalization movement in general—might have gained in recent years seems diminished by the events of Sept. 11. The World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks have "spun this movement around," says Carol McChesney, a Green Party representative for the Atlanta Mobilization for Global Justice.

The fateful coincidence of violent protests with growing public intolerance of "anti-American" behavior has nonviolent activists worried. Some fear that even peaceful protests will be branded unpatriotic. Emily Satterwhite, who protested the Republican National Convention in 2000, cites the Bush administration as a cause of the movement's unease. Protesters had to "switch gears" once Congress approved sweeping new anti-terrorism legislation, she says. Activists recognized that "‘anti-terrorist' tactics, like the ‘anti-communist' tactics of the 1950s, can and will be used against us."

Consequently, anti-corporate-globalization demonstrations since Sept. 11 have been "less ‘in your face,'" says the San Francisco Chronicle's Robert Collier. Plans to sail six protest boats into the port of Doha, Qatar, during a November 2001 World Trade Organization meeting were cancelled. Later demonstrations at the February 2002 World Economic Forum in New York went fairly smoothly, says The New York Times' Andrew Jacobs. Despite sporadic confrontations with police, Jacobs observes, most protesters remained peaceful.

Shifts in demonstration tactics are accompanied by shifts in rhetoric. Talking peace is in, while talking justice is out—or curtailed. Opposition to war has taken on singular importance for anti-corporate-globalizationists, with recent demonstrations—such as the 70,000 protesters in Washington, D.C., in April—focusing less on fair trade than on the Bush administration's policies in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

However, criticisms of nonviolent activism have actually intensified in anarchist circles since Sept. 11. Kadd Stephens, who insists that the terrorist attacks haven't quelled his own anarchist work, says that the only activists capitulating to a changing political climate are "those who work more from the NGO (non-governmental organization) end of things—the ones who have an economic stake in not really shaking things up too much."

MOST NONVIOLENT activists reject not only accusations such as Stephens', but also Black Bloc and other violent tactics. Not all, however, are willing to condemn these strategies wholesale. Carol McChesney disagrees with anarchist methods but says she resists passing judgment because she appreciates their concerns for economic justice. "I know where they are coming from," she says. And while activist Satterwhite is not "personally comfortable" with violent tactics, she wonders if the protests would have gotten sufficient media coverage without them.

Emily Satterwhite's concern about media coverage isn't the only reason some nonviolent activists have tempered their criticisms. Speaking out against anarchist tactics could mean being labeled intolerant of diverse viewpoints. Nonviolent activists do not want to be accused of close-mindedness—or of "splitting the movement," reports James Harding of Financial Times.

And those protesters who refuse to sacrifice nonviolent principles for the sake of the politics of inclusion may find themselves alienated from larger coalitions. In Atlanta, the recently formed Georgia Coalition for Peace initially included members of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization. But the Friends pulled out of the Georgia coalition because, according to Satterwhite, it became clear to them "that some members of the coalition do not eschew violence as a tactic."

ASK FIVE ANARCHISTS to explain their use of violence and, critics say, you're apt to get five different justifications. New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman recently castigated Black Bloc protesters as "less known for their deep thinking than for their demonstrated willingness to trash cities."

Despite Haberman's indictment, at least one conviction serves to bind many anarchists together: the belief that violence is fundamentally a state or corporate strategy, not an anarchist one.

When nonviolent activists criticize the Black Bloc for destroying property or attacking the police, they forget who threw the first punch, says Kadd Stephens. Anarchists didn't pick the fight. The cops did. Anarchist violence is merely the "logical outcome" of corporate- and government-sponsored police brutality. "If you pack the streets with storm-troopers bent on whatever tactics are necessary to insulate corporations from any accountability...then someone's going to swing back at them once in a while," he says.

As for the Black Bloc's destruction of those Starbucks storefronts, anarchists generally shrug their shoulders. Property is "a social construction," not a living being, Stephens explains. He adds that he himself does not engage in attacking the police or destroying property.

"Scott," a former civil rights and anti-war activist who prefers not to give his last name, has similar sentiments. Influenced by Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, Scott says he embraced anarchism after experiencing what he calls the "co-optation" of nonviolent resistance by discriminatory government leaders in the 1960s and 1970s.

Echoing Ward Churchill's Pacifism as Pathology, a popular anarchist handbook that accuses pacifists of reinforcing the same status quo they seek to upend, Scott says he began supporting such actions as H. Rap Brown's inciting a riot in Cambridge, Maryland, in 1967 that resulted in the burning of two city blocks and a school. The violent action of the Black Panther "minister of justice" won Scott over because, he says, "it struck at the great dividing line between classes."

But a number of anarchists, including Scott, add that striking at the divide between haves and have-nots does not always necessitate violence. Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, for example, Black Bloc participants were working to preserve health care for the poor in Washington, D.C. "Not exactly the sexy material that the press is interested in, but certainly more radical than tearing down a fence or battling cops," Stephens says.

CRITICS OF violent activism dispute anarchist explanations on several fronts. Some deem their strategies cowardly. Anarchists hide their identity "behind black masks," writes pacifist Ken Freeland in an open letter criticizing the Black Bloc.

The masks stay on even when the demonstrations have ended. Not many anarchists are willing to give their names when interviewed or when publishing online. Few are willing to claim responsibility for specific actions. While common sense suggests a practical basis for this anonymity—anarchists don't want their efforts to be halted by police interrogations—critics say they should be willing, like those who practice civil disobedience, to accept the legal consequences of their actions.

Jack Duvall, director of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, disagrees with violent activists on strategic grounds. Violence is a tactical pitfall, he says, because it alienates potential supporters and discredits the legitimacy of a movement. The average American sees no difference between drunken sports fans who trash storefronts and anarchist protesters who do the same. "In the eyes of the public, it's all hooliganism," Duvall says.

Others say that pro-violence demonstrators fail to respect the nonviolent commitments held by people of faith. The new activists see nonviolence as one of many possible avenues for social change. But many pacifists view nonviolent resistance as a theological commitment whose principles cannot be compromised. The two mindsets mix together "about as well as oil and water," Freeland writes.

DUVALL, GLOBAL OUTREACH director for the recently produced PBS documentary "Bringing Down a Dictator," which investigates the nonviolent overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, suggests anarchists take a few history lessons. They should study Gandhi's organization of a nationwide salt boycott targeting British imperialism, he says. "The boycott was ordinary, easy to do, and it proliferated instantaneously across the country." When—or if—anti-corporate-globalizationists create a similarly productive plan, they too might achieve political breakthroughs, Duvall concludes.

Although Scott is vocal in his appreciation for the Gandhian tradition, he continues to spy naiveté in contemporary nonviolence. The belief that compassionate pacifism will persuade those in power to respond in kind "breaks down under historical scrutiny," he says. Then-Attorney General John Mitchell "wasn't interested in ‘acting right'" when he implemented illegal mass arrests of anti-war demonstrators in 1971. He was only interested "in maintaining the status quo," Scott claims.

Scott's comments will raise nonviolent hackles, and understandably so. But they do pose a challenge to nonviolent members of the anti-corporate-globalization movement. Before the struggle for humane working conditions and corporate reform can be effectively implemented, the conflict between violent and nonviolent activists needs to find resolution.

Achieving such a resolution will demand a willingness on the part of nonviolent activists to educate young people about the pitfalls of violence. It will require more programs like George Lakey's Training for Change, an organization that teaches the history of nonviolent resistance to those who might otherwise perceive violence as their only option.

But resolution might also require both sides of the debate to stop the verbal fisticuffs and start the listening process. Appreciating anarchist and nonviolent activists' common commitment to a world free of state-sponsored violence, and understanding— even if vigorously rejecting—each side's tactical convictions, may go a long way toward ending the conflict. In the end, such conversations may also invite the "new face of activism" to remove its mask and resist violence in all its forms.

Stacia M. Brown, a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta and a Sojourners contributing writer, works for the Emory Center for Ethics in Public Policy and the Professions.

 

For Further Action...
The Global Activist's Manual (www.globalroots.net)
Global Uprising (www.globaluprising.net)
The Nonviolent Activist (www.warresisters.org/nva.htm)
The Activist Cookbook: Creative Actions for a Fair Economy (www.ufenet.org)

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