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Pittsburgh: We Are in Support of Liberation, by Rioting and a Thousand Other Means

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On September 24 2009 over a thousand protesters, took to the streets of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in unsanctioned defiance of the G-20 summit. Multiple times throughout the day they attempted to march on the summit site or through corporate centers while the police attacked with sound weapons, pepper gas, and baton rounds. People fought back with rocks, dumpsters, poles, banners, and property destruction.

We Are in Support of Liberation, by Rioting and a Thousand Other Means

POG Anarchists journal, Steel City Revolt! #4

Regarding Ryan Harvey, Rioting, and the G-20

On September 24 2009 over a thousand protesters, took to the streets of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in unsanctioned defiance of the G-20 summit. Multiple times throughout the day they attempted to march on the summit site or through corporate centers while the police attacked with sound weapons, pepper gas, and baton rounds. People fought back with rocks, dumpsters, poles, banners, and property destruction.

The same day Pittsburghers were hitting the streets, Baltimore-based Ryan Harvey, a long time anarchist organizer and musician with the riot-folk collective, released a statement entitled, “Are We Addicted to Rioting?”

The piece -and a subsequent hour long radio interview - is an attack on resistance at the G-20 and of militant summit protests in general, arguing that such protests accomplish nothing, that everyone involved misrepresents what happens at the events, that anarchists generally partake in them for no reason besides chasing an addiction to wilding out, and that such efforts come at the expense of far more valuable community organizing.

As an organizer involved in the G-20 protests, a local resident, and a first-hand participant in the action I would like to take this opportunity to respond.

My reason for doing so stems from the desire to correct factual inaccuracies, address the emotional trauma argument of the experiences Ryan references, and challenge the deeply flawed critique he has built upon shaky foundations.

As a historical participant in many of the previous global justice summit protests Ryan references I also see the need for others who went through these same actions to speak up. These experiences will always inform our perspectives. And while they may give us special insights into the risks and potential gains of certain approaches they can just as easily lead us to a place where we lose the ability to consider facts, and the direct personal experiences of others, that don’t fit tidily into conclusions we feel we’ve acquired at great cost.

In short, yes, survivors define their own experiences, but it’s extremely dangerous when our personal experiences lead us to conclusions that become the only yardstick by which we can judge the actions, motivations, and effectiveness of others.

The first foundation of Ryan’s critique is that the media, police, and activists all engaged in a hyping effort to make the G-20 protests appear larger and more militant than they actually were and that such inflation hurts our credibility and is dishonest.

Curiously, coverage of the only news organization mentioned, the BBC, is hardly a poster child for exaggeration as their reports say that trouble has flared, but the violence isn’t as much as they’re used to seeing in Europe

Watch, read, and listen to other corporate news and you will find the same thing, a downplaying of the level of disruption alongside police statements that they were able to contain troublemakers.

Watch the video of the Bash Back march, and it’s clear that if we’re using the recent history of summit protests in the U.S. as a yardstick, that there were incidents at the Pittsburgh summit that were unusual, and often these were among the least covered.

Ryan expresses displeasure in a protest turnout that’s “not so big compared to public opinion” on various issues, but this is nothing if not a bait and switch tactic. The percentage of folks who do one specific thing about an issue is quite small, regardless of which event or social movement is in question.

He goes on to complain that anyone would congratulate themselves on the “large turnout” when it wasn’t so large when compared to many anti-war demonstrations.

It’s hard to win. Ryan argues for honesty on the one hand, yet that is precisely what’s occurring when a report-back states this was the largest explicitly anarchist-organized protest nationally in at least the last five years.

And from the protesters side, there’s been a fairly accurate count of attendance: 1,200 on Thursday and perhaps 5,000 on Friday, depending on how many of the press and ancillary participants one includes.

Nor do these numbers pale in the face of historical anti-war movements locally; the turnout at the Pittsburgh G-20 demonstrations equaled the largest anti-war protest locally in the last 30 years. And make no mistake: this was a local protest, in most respects, with little buy-in or participation by national liberal organizations and significantly less anarchist turnout then the RNC protests last year.

The majority of those who participated in the anarchist-organized event, advertised with the specific goal of being disruptive and resisting the police, didn’t identify as anarchists.

This group of perhaps 700 people, drawn mostly from the Pittsburgh area, becomes invisible to Ryan because they don’t fit conveniently into the essay’s claims and yet the implications of their participation remains the most interesting, and unexplored, aspect of the mobilization.

As an aside on this point: I spent around 50 hours knocking on doors or doing other kinds of direct outreach for the summit, much less than I hoped. This part of the mobilization reached at least 6,000 households, many in the community surrounding the home of the Pittsburgh police officer killed earlier this year by a white power dude. I’m aware of three really negative reactions, from households somehow connected to the police. I talked to Pittsburgh firefighters, spouses of police officers, dudes who came to the door in boxers and a beer in one hand, immigrants, the unemployed, and people from many other categories protest critics might be referring to when they keeping using words about “the grassroots” or “local communities” or “regular people.” We did not shy away from our views, though we did avoid activist jargon. The G-20 was not a main priority for many people, but in giving people the respect to let them know why we were taking action against it, many displayed a level of support and understanding for our approach far beyond what Ryan articulates.

Next on Ryan’s list is the hype argument, singling out militant groups for overstating their numbers, capacity, and willingness to be disruptive. Yet again, no evidence provided.

Ryan claims people over-hype, then says they under-deliver. Evidence? A claim that a reinforced banner “is not going to last long against a few riot-police,” that he’s seen them in action and they never do anything except look cool.

Case in point. During the G-20 confrontations a thin line of PA State Troopers attempted to trap and arrest a group of less than 30 anarchists in an alley on 38th Street. The group literally pushed through the line of police, using a wooden reinforced banner as a barrier from behind which to hit and shove the police. This resulted in the escape of all, and the police were left holding the banner. Thus, one banner literally saved more people than the number that were arrested during the entire eight hours of street events from the start of the Resistance Project march through the end of the Oakland Bash Back march.

Next up, Ryan moves into the emotional appeal of the cost of these kinds of mobilizations, as evidenced by the extreme incidents of trauma and injury he’s seen and experienced. In the radio interview he expands this argument further to the legal aftermath costs.

Regarding legal, it is true there is an aftermath, but how can one respond? Ryan doesn’t believe the events have a point to start with so no cost is going to be worth it. As of now the legal cost appears to be mostly dropped cases, community service in lieu of charges, and two remaining felonies that could have more serious consequences.

As far as the impact of summit action, in the essay – relying primarily on his past experience in 1999-2003 – he claims that “our actions in the streets were not usually connected to any real strategy to achieve change, no goals that we could attain, no real meaning for being there at that time, besides to ruin the party for the bigwigs.”

In David Graeber’s excellent essay, “The Shock of Victory”, we see how mass protests, usually involving confrontation, can play an integral role in accomplishing movements’ goals, even when these goals are only implicitly stated or understood at the time.

Reflecting on the objectives Graeber saw within his own group at the time:

“One was to help coordinate the North American wing of a vast global movement against neoliberalism, and what was then called the Washington Consensus, to destroy the hegemony of neoliberal ideas, stop all the new big trade agreements (WTO, FTAA), and to discredit and eventually destroy organizations like the IMF. The other was to disseminate a (very much anarchist-inspired) model of direct democracy: decentralized, affinity-group structures, consensus process, to replace old-fashioned activist organizing styles with their steering committees and ideological squabbles.”

To that list I might add that such protests provide an easy point of entry into resistance movements, that they leverage the national nature of the event to bolster existing campaigns, and provide an opportunity for tactical experimentation.

Graeber’s essay goes on to convincingly argue that many of these movement objectives were achieved, to varying degrees, within a relatively short time.

In any event, I’ve yet to see any convincing argument that the general abandonment of convergence-style protests/rioting after Miami directly resulted in additional resources flowing to local campaigns or organizing. My own experience was that the opposite occurred.

It’s fair to discuss how much or how little was achieved by movements involving mass protests and street confrontations as a component of their strategies, but it’s difficult to have that conversation when Ryan doesn’t actually make anything besides a declaration that they are pointless.

Having stated that people aren’t participating to accomplish anything that could possibly have value he, of course, has to make a case for why thousands of people, in the U.S. and around the world, continue to show up to disruptive protests around varied issues.

Having already made references to how he “sobered up” from street protests we come to the crux of the essay: an assertion that people are taking to the streets for disruptive protests because they are “addicted to rioting… me and many friends were pretty much addicted to these intense street situations… we desire the intensity, the rush.”

Yet, very little of most anarchists’ current activities are organizing for, or being involved in, summit protests. At least in Pittsburgh, one of the most common refrains heard from local anarchists was that it was the first riot they’d ever been part of.

How can one be addicted to something they never, or rarely have any opportunity to, experience? And if this was really driving the continuation of protests such as the RNC and G-20, why don’t we see a lot more of them with significantly more conflict?

If anything, it seems we’re addicted to sitting at home and not doing anything, that we’re far more pacified and afraid of conflict than we are attached to it. And people seem perfectly able to stop themselves from participating when they don’t believe an event provides a strategic point for confrontation. Many anarchists skipped the DNC last year for that very reason.

What is most insidious about the argument, however, is the attempt to pathologize individuals’ good feelings when they accomplish something in the streets and the natural, biological and psychological reactions that accompany the danger they necessarily find themselves in.

At the root of this, I believe, is the unspoken claim that the actions in question – taking to the streets, fighting cops, and breaking things – are inherently bad.

Anarchists often make life choices, at single events or on a more ongoing basis, that are potential risks to their mental and physical health. We feel good when we’re able to help our friends, when we fight alongside our co-workers, when we dumpster dive, when we tour, when we do a thousand other things in this messed up world. Sometimes we pay a price.

Are we “addicted” to everything that provides enjoyment or carries the possibility of repression?

The most logical explanation for the continuation of summit protests, dumpster diving, anarchist music collectives, and anarchist prisoner support networks are that the participants view them as activities consistent with their ethical beliefs and organizing goals, and that they serve a particular purpose. We can debate the merits of how we individually and collectively spend our time, but if we have even a modicum of respect for our comrades we should shy away from grandiose declarations that there couldn’t possibly be any legitimate reason why they’re pursuing the strategies and tactics they are.

Summit protests will continue to be organized and attended because they are often consistent with local movements’ previously existing perspectives and objectives, and are therefore expressions of those movements. The G-20 resistance wasn’t an artificial imposition upon Pittsburgh. It was an expression of many residents existing conflict with the state, of which anarchists play a part.

These protests are also serving an important role for networking and socializing among people and groups who wouldn’t otherwise meet. They produce results as militant street confrontations cause the state to enact reforms to co-opt reformist sectors and stymie movement growth. Individuals find the experiences of collective organizing and action empowering.

Ryan’s essay ends with a plea that we take his “words seriously, because we have a lot of work to do, and most of it is not going to get done in the streets. It’s going to get done on the doorsteps, the libraries, the churches, the labor halls, the schools, the military bases, the parks, the prisons…. Let’s take anarchism out of the streets for a while and put it back in the communities where it was born.”

This is the real tragedy, of course; if one takes that statement at face value the movement Ryan and others yearn to see is actually happening, they’re just too blinded to see it. By continuously putting forth the unsubstantiated notion that the anarchist movement is only focused on disruptive summit protests they help make invisible all of the other work being done outside of, but often in conjunction with, organizing against institutions such as the G-20.

And I can’t help but notice that some of those who argued so stridently in favor of certain tactics as moral obligations when they were younger now seem to be arguing just as stridently against them, as they make allusions to moving on. This is certainly one approach, but it’s frustrating for the rest of us to have to deal with yet another subgroup that believes they have all the answers, then eventually go through a crisis that leads them to another set of universals with which they equally denigrate others’ resistance efforts.

Rather than taking sides as a new batch of people generalize something as always, or never, making sense, perhaps our movements might be best served by promoting a less judgmental, less strident culture in our communities, so people won't always be flinging invective at each other.

I’d be the first to say I often haven’t done a good job at keeping this in mind and have learned the lesson at great cost. Apologies to my comrades for that! There should be room to try things, even those others dismiss as having already been tried, and there must be room to mess up. There should be room to acknowledge your own past mistakes and reflect on them honestly.

If you try something humbly the first time, you can move on humbly from it if the time comes that you think you should. Each anarchist who is on a different page as to the most worthwhile tactics is doing the others a favor. Because there's no shortage of people to try things with, as the G-20 showed, there are plenty of "non-anarchists" willing to participate if we approach things sensibly and put in the work.

If I could say one thing to Ryan, I would ask that he open his eyes, and his heart, to the reality that there are dozens of existing anarchist efforts that already answer his questions and take his criticisms into account. And the people driving those efforts are sometimes the same people who’s motivations he questions when they also find it strategic to organize street resistance efforts.

These are the efforts that he might not be sexy enough to write a widely forwarded article about but they are no less important. Because if Ryan came to Pittsburgh, as he has in the past, he wouldn’t find a bunch of people aimlessly sitting around waiting for the next big riot. He’d find that, besides the occasional summits, autonomous actions and property destruction, there are a lot of opportunities to get involved with collective efforts. Of course, this list is limited by space, but here are a few that come to mind that could use more help:

  • Help work on Landslide Community Farm as they try to create a sustainable source of food for the surrounding community.
  • Volunteer at the BigIdea! radical bookstore providing the resources for people to educate themselves.
  • Get involved with those discussing how to set up a more permanent land-trust to take housing out of the speculative process.
  • Volunteer at the Greater Pittsburgh Anarchist Collective social center and work to make it a permanent space outside of the landlord-leasee relationship, outside of state control.
  • Participate in a public squat and further dialogues about the nature of private property.
  • Lend your experience to the newly formed Iraq Veterans Against the War chapter brainstorming what to do next.
  • Be an ally to the new Bash Back! chapter.
  • Get involved in East-End Mutual-Aid, an newly forming alternative neighborhood association.
  • Raise money for FreeRide! as they empower youth to learn the skills to fix up and maintain bicycles, getting a free bike in the process.
  • Support the efforts of the Pittsburgh Association for the Abolition of Vivisection, to shine a light on local animal cruelty in ways that go beyond the single-issue style of organizing all too prevalent within the animal rights movement.
  • Get out there and interview your neighbors about the issues that confront them for Rustbelt Radio, a weekly, all-volunteer, grassroots radio show.
  • Write, copyedit, or do layout for the Steel City Revolt!, a quarterly anarchist publication.
  • Help others as they brainstorm what a new type of Indymedia could look like.
  • Help with labor solidarity for the unions based here or organize at your own workplace, get involved with those addressing police brutality in the community, etc, etc.

Or you could start something new to create the ruptures you want to see.

The point is, if you were one of those folks who was rooted in their community, with a years-long commitment to these and other projects, than maybe, just maybe, you’d be at a place where it often made perfect sense to you to put on a black mask, and take to the streets of your own city with a good idea of why you were there and what your goal was.

And whether you blocked the entrance, refused to comply with the police, smashed the window, washed out the eyes, pressed the record button, or marched with a sign, you’d be doing it with conviction and an openness for self-reflection afterwards.

And you might just do it, not to chase a high, but because you realized that all of our lives, in every moment, is a fight for liberation and that we’re pretty much all searching for how to best accomplish it, not hopelessly deluded addicts running around chasing riots waiting for you to explain to us why we’re “really” doing what we’re doing.

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Pittsburgh: We Are in Support of Liberation, by Rioting and a Thousand Other Means | 3 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Pittsburgh: We Are in Support of Liberation, by Rioting and a Thousand Other Means
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, July 19 2010 @ 07:24 PM CDT

 This text is as intelligent and reasonable as Ryan's was hyperbolic and disingenuous. Thanks!

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Pittsburgh: We Are in Support of Liberation, by Rioting and a Thousand Other Means
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, July 20 2010 @ 08:50 AM CDT

derp

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Let's Discuss It All at the Anarchist Summer Camp
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, July 19 2010 @ 07:32 PM CDT

Hello everyone, I'm just sittin' here at the UC Berkeley Life Sciences Library, digesting my Berkeley Catholic Worker breakfast, having received an email from Ryan Harvey demanding that I NOT load up his inbox with any more email messages, such as Earth First! type forwards from around the world which I marked "for your archives". Ryan was on the DNC2RNC march, which I was also on, and I saw him again in Denver at the radical alternative to the scripted Dem's convention. He comes through the SF bay area now and again with other Riot Folk members. He and I disagree regarding his view of how the response to global materialism-on-steroids ought to be managed. And this debate really is about management. Whereas I agree philosophically with the writer of this piece, and I do not agree with Ryan, nevertheless it's all about how to manage dissent. There is an inherent fundamental problem with this type of assessing. The primary value of dissent is that it eminates from a spiritual base, and is fortunately not manageable! This is the unique factor which makes (what Sri Aurobindo referred to as) "Divine Anarchy" capable of overthrowing exploitive systems, and beyond that, replacing them with social organization of a higher design. Obviously, any regular participants in radical environmental and related peace&justice efforts appreciate the superiority of mutual aid as opposed to cowboy capitalism.

The key to being effective is to individually get centered, and individually act from one's spiritual center which is within oneself. And then form affinity groups. And then go where you need to go and do what you need to do. This approach does not lend itself to such as accounting analysis, management critiques, future goals speculation and acquisition design planning, and the really absurd liberal demands of 1. imagined utopian green city projects for the digitalized new century, and the totally insane demand of the liberals and conservatives combined of 2. outer space resource extraction, in lieu of international world government supervised space colonies. In contrast, "Divine Anarchy" exists for the here and now. That's the beauty of it.

I am interested in attending the Anarchist Summer Camp August 6-9 (http://selfdescribed.org) at an as yet undisclosed location in northern Virginia, and then remaining on the eastern seaboard to continue intervening in history. I need to get there, and I need mutual aid to stay on there. If this appeals to you, please contact me at craigstehr@hushmail.com. To the federal government, (which Infoshop News informs me is monitoring this website): the sane among you may send me money here: Craig Louis Stehr, 593 62nd Street, Oakland, CA 94609-1246.

 

Edited on Tuesday, July 20 2010 @ 03:21 AM CDT by Admin
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