[Marxism] An analysis of the G20 protest and the black bloc

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jul 1 07:39:25 MDT 2010

(This appeared as a comment on my own article about the black 
bloc. It is powerfully argued.)

The events at the G20 demonstration on Saturday have provoked a 
series of responses already. This article is not meant to review 
the events of the day itself but to look at the questions raised 
by the demonstrations.

Suffice to say the reaction of the police in arresting, detaining, 
and brutalizing nearly 1,000 people in the largest mass arrests in 
Canadian history exposes the serious attacks on civil liberties we 

On Friday before the demonstration I was having a beer with a 
comrade in Halifax and of course discussion turned to the G20, we 
both agreed that this would be the perfect demonstration to go off 
without any property damage. If at the end of the day tens of 
thousands marched, thousands did sit-ins by the fence but the 
tactic of smashing windows was not employed then the summit would 
be a defeat for Harper.

We drew this analysis based on the fact that every where you went 
there was anger at the billion dollar price tag for security. At a 
time when thousands are struggling to make ends meet and see the 
cost of the Summits as exorbitant. Many, consciously or not, 
recognize that this money is being spent to the architects of the 
crisis; protecting those who gave billions to the bank while 
leaving workers and the poor to pay for it. Furthermore, in the 
lead-up, there was a growing polarisation with many being angry or 
frustrated with Harper’s attacks on civil liberties, on women’s 
rights, on the climate, on the economy, and more.

To have had a day of mass demonstrations and militant but non- 
violent action would have left Harper with egg on his face and 
given more confidence to those want to find ways to challenge 
Harper and the market.

Instead, the day went just like clock work—much like other 
summits. There’s a mass demonstration. A layer of people do a 
split from that march and then some engage in expressing their 
rage against the system by smashing windows and other acts. Given 
the world we live in, it is surprising that more of this doesn’t 
happen more often.

In response, the police hold back until the main march disperses. 
They wait for some damage to be done, and then they go on the 
offensive. They round-up and brutalize everyone left on the 
streets, including passers-by, peaceful protesters and those 
engaged in property damage. In Seattle, Quebec, Genoa, etc. this 
script has played out over and over again. The police wait until 
the mass organisations leave, then go after the rest. This 
strategy suggests that the police and the state are keenly aware 
of who they want—and don’t want—to provoke.

Within this the “black bloc” and their supporters utilise the 
larger rally and split marches to launch attacks on property and 
the police. Usually the police wait long enough for damage to be 
created before they respond. In these situations it is one of the 
few times the police wait to crack down.

Then, when the cops attack, the “bloc” usually retreats and tries 
to merge with others. In Genoa, the black bloc ran through a group 
of nuns engaged in a sit-in which resulted in the police attacking 
the nuns. In New York City, at a demonstration against WEF, the 
black bloc ended up running from the police and trampling down 
women Steelworkers from Toronto, who were then attacked by the 
police as the black bloc hid behind the Steelworkers.

Then the media and police trot out the usual line “We are ok with 
protests, but a small minority of criminals can’t be tolerated”. 
Those innocents that were arrested were an unfortunate by-product 
of protecting the city and its inhabitants. The police and 
politicians then justify the violence against protestors as 
necessary to stop any further violence.

In the process, hundreds get arrested while the media spends the 
next several days reducing the estimated numbers of demonstrators, 
erasing on-site reports of police brutality, critiquing the police 
as being too passive. Then the police say they weren’t able to 
protect property at the start because they were committed to 
facilitating the peaceful protest. Afterward they “did everything 
possible to restore order”. Throughout all this, stories begin to 
emerge about undercover officers mingling with crowd, engaging in 
and trying to stir up “action”. Eventually a handful get charged 
with some serious offences and the majority arrested get released 
with few or no charges.

Despite the media hype there was nothing new about the events in 
Toronto. The question for militants is: what are the lessons? How 
do we interpret events and what do they mean for the left?

To answer, we need to look at what the mobilisations can achieve 
and why they are important. This is the critical starting point. 
Since the rise of the anti-globalisation movement, this has been a 
point of debate.

The mobilisations around summits are important because they 
provide an opportunity to mobilise people beyond the ranks of 
those already active. It is more possible because the media builds 
the events far beyond the reach of the left. The fact that the 
summits raise a broad set of issues, mean that they unite in 
opposition broad sets of movements. The demonstrations that result 
can often be greater than the sum of the parts of movements. They 
unite various movements – labour and environment for example. They 
provide an opportunity to bring wider layers into the.movement.

Some have argued that these demonstrations are pointless one-off 
events and that those who go to them are “summit-hoppers”. 
Strangely these critiques are often raised by people who 
themselves go to the events.

But this misses the point that while the mobilisations are 
one-off’s they are important in the sense that they pull struggles 
together and allow those not plugged into activism to find a space 
to join the movement. Secondly the protests show to millions of 
others that there is mass opposition to the system.

Of course the idea that the protests themselves will change the 
agenda of the rulers is mistaken and naive. But the more important 
point of the protests is to galvanise and mobilise opposition to 
the system. For the left, the demonstrations offer a crucial 
opportunity to grow and sink deeper roots in new areas. These 
mobilizations also help maintain momentum and break down barriers 
between struggles that often go on in their own silos. In short, 
these protests forge new bonds of solidarity.

So it is important to mobilise against these summits, not because 
we can change the agenda or that capitalism will grind to a halt 
if the summit is shut down. Some thought because of the collapse 
of the Doha round or the inability to get a deal at the FTAA 
Québec City round, that capitalism would be forced into a retreat. 
But the reality is that these summits are attempts to overcome 
divisions between various ruling classes in various nation states. 
What they can’t get through global agreements, they will try 
through regional agreements. What isn’t accomplished regionally is 
taken up bi-laterally. Basically, summits are where the world’s 
largest economies jockey with each other for a better deal for 
their own ruling classes.

This doesn’t mean we can’t wrestle reforms from these leaders, and 
without the demonstrations it would be even harder to win reforms 
or prevent even more damaging policies from being implemented. 
Even NGO’s who aren’t committed to the revolutionary overthrow of 
capitalism, understand that mobilising is vital to back their call 
for reforms.

In this context, the object of mobilising for the summits should 
be to try and take advantage of the moment presented to broaden 
and deepen the left and build the movements.

This is the objective from which our tactics flow. It is not the 
summit itself that matters but the ability to draw larger numbers 
onto the streets and into action. It offers the potential to 
increase people’s confidence and consciousness.

To establish tactics before determining the larger strategic 
objectives, raises tactics to a point of principle and robs the 
working class of the tactical flexibility that will maximize 
success. It is juvenile and creates the quixotic adventures we saw 
on June 26.

So what about “diversity of tactics” and the black bloc?

It should be clear that the actions of the black bloc reflect 
their politics. The actions in Toronto mirror those tactics used 
elsewhere. The tactics and politics regardless of their intent are 
inherently elitist and counter-productive. In fact they mirror the 
critique of reformism many on the left have. The NDP says vote for 
us and we’ll do it for you, the black bloc says in essence the 
same thing – we will make the revolution for you.

At best the tactics of the black bloc are based on a mistaken idea 
that the attacks on property and the police will create a spark to 
encourage others to resist capitalism, at worst they are based on 
a rampant individualistic sense of rage and entitlement to express 
that rage regardless of the consequences to others. The 
anti-authoritarian politic they follow is imposed on others. Very 
rarely will you see a black bloc call its own rally, instead the 
tactic is to play hide and seek with the police under the cover of 
larger mobilisations.

Further as has been noted in many cases, the tactics and politics 
of the black bloc and some anarchists and some others on the left, 
leave them prone to being manipulated by the state. In almost 
every summit protest, police and others (in Genoa it was also 
fascists), infiltrate or form their own blocs to engage in 
provocations. The politics of secrecy and unannounced plans and a 
quasi-military (amateur at best) approach to demonstrations leave 
the door open to this.

The tactics also open the door for the justification of further 
police repression. This has been debated before, with some arguing 
that the state doesn’t need justification for repression. The idea 
that the state doesn’t need justification for further repression 
exposes the total lack of understanding of both the state and the 
consciousness of ordinary people.

If the state didn’t need justification for repression, then we 
would all be in jail. Capitalism isn’t a democratic system, but 
needs the facade of political rights to maintain some buy-in about 
how free we all are. If the state didn’t need justification for 
repression, then we accept that people are just automatons who do 
what they are told.

But the reality is that most people oppose police brutality and 
most people believe we are living in a democracy. Therefore when 
the police go on a rampage, they have to have an excuse. It is 
highly naive to think that the police and the state won’t and 
don’t need a justification to repress people. If they didn’t we 
wouldn’t have a war on drugs – it would have just been a war on 
the poor.

Some argue that we have to support some of these tactics because 
they are “radical”. But what is indeed “radical”. Let us put aside 
the notion of “economic disruption” caused by a few burning cop 
cars and broken windows, as some use this to justify so called 
militant actions. The reality is the Tamil community created much 
more economic disruption with their non-violent occupation of the 
Gardiner Expressway in Toronto. Further the workers in Sudbury 
valiantly fighting Vale Inco are doing much more to disrupt the 
economy than a thousands black bloc actions ever could.

The tactics of the black bloc make it clear that for them, it is 
more important to smash windows than to try and march with 
thousands of workers and engage them in arguments about how to 
move struggles forward or that the problem is capitalism.

So how radical is it to trash a few windows? It depends on what 
one means by radical. Radical is about workers gaining confidence 
and consciousness to fight back, not just at work, but in 
solidarity with others. Radical is about developing a sense of 
mass power, organising based on moving others into struggle, 
winning others to challenge the power in their workplace or 
community collectively, beyond the individualisation of our 
society. Radical is about going to the roots of the system—not 
trashing its symbols.

So it is much more radical organising a Starbucks, or winning 
co-workers to fight homophobia, or defending women’s rights than 
it is smashing a window.

When the black bloc does its thing, does it move struggles forward 
or backward? Does it in the eyes of those questioning the system, 
or moving into struggle, or thinking that something is wrong, 
radicalise them and give them confidence?

The answer is that outside of a small minority, these actions at 
best can inspire passive support from those who do not like 
police. But the majority have no confidence to engage in these 
actions themselves or agree with them. Instead of giving 
confidence, the tactics generally produce confusion and play into 
the hands of the state that would prefer it if no one ever 
protested. They allow the state to justify its repression and 
expenditures. In essence outside of an already radicalised 
minority they don’t leave anyone with a deeper sense of confidence 
about the ability to fight capitalism. Instead at best they leave 
the impression that the fight against capitalism can only be 
carried out by a heroic minority at worst they leave people 
worrying about going to demonstrations. The tactic is far from 
radical because it does nothing to challenge capitalism in any 
way; it does nothing to instil confidence in others to resist.

The debate shouldn’t be about violence, per se, but about tactics 
and strategy. Of course we defend the right of workers and 
oppressed communities to self-defence. The response from the left 
to the riots in Toronto after Rodney King is a good example: many 
defended the justified outrage at both the racism of the justice 
system and the beating of Rodney King. It was a justifiable rage 
against a system of racism, but it also wasn’t a strategy to 
defeat racism.

The black bloc however, isn’t an oppressed community resisting 
oppression and defending itself.

Those on the left who see the problems with the black bloc and the 
cover given to them by those who elevate “diversity of tactics” to 
a principle need to organise coherent responses to this.

We need to join the battle for interpretation without getting 
distracted by blanket pronouncements of “pro” this or “anti” that. 
We need to focus on strategy and the tactics that flow from it. 
This will allow us to regroup those activists who see the 
centrality of the working class as the key to social change, who 
recognize that intended or not, “diversity of tactics” is not 
radical but a cover for self-aggrandisement by some sections who 
have no faith in the self-activity of the working class.

The need for a bigger stronger socialist movement in Toronto 
couldn’t be greater. But the role of socialists isn’t to gingerly 
tail those who support “diversity of tactics”, but to politically 
debate and expose the bankruptcy of those ideas for moving 
struggles forward. And it goes without saying that while we do 
that, we must also be defending those arrested, exposing the 
brutality of the police and patiently explaining to co-workers and 
neighbours what really happened and why people protested.

We need this clarity to avoid the sort of splits that occurred 
after Québec City and after 9/11. We need this clarity and upfront 
politics to win those pulled by the anger at the system and its 
barbarism to a more effective—if less sexy—strategy, based on 
building a mass struggle against capitalism that can pull the 
system up by its roots.

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