From Protest to Disruption

Living in the Homeland of Empire USA was depressing during the war against Iraq, but at least in the San Francisco Bay Area we could take a little heart in all the dedicated, powerful, militant and exciting anti-war protests. The day after the bombs started dropping, we lived up to our pledge to shut down San Francisco’s financial district. The action started at 6 a.m. and lasted until late at night as thousands of people ran circles around confused, impotent police. Vigorous protest continued for days after, with 2,500 people arrested over 3 days.

We need to remember the lessons we learned that first day and during the rest of the war — both in terms of actions that slowed down business as usual, and tactics that were ineffective.

The struggle has moved beyond the time for polite protests and “petitioning our elected leaders”. The men ruling the US empire are less and less interested in public opinion. For them, might makes right. Increasingly, the only way to stop their drive to empire, their wars, their domination of the earth, and their suppression of freedom is to make their rule physically impossible in the streets.

Direct action or withdrawal from cooperation aimed at stopping the economy, the military and the government from functioning are increasingly crucial in the face of Bush’s New World Order. In this struggle, our friend is disruption, not orderly cooperation with the police. Our actions need to be measured by our disruptiveness, spontaneity, decentralization, individual initiative and creativity.

Pre-planning and organization are good if they impair the system’s functioning, but organization for its own sake — especially when it produces scripted, compliant protest and merely symbolic “actions” — is not going to get the job done. Excessive emphasis on pre-organization will make our opposition bureaucratic — with leader figures who can be coopted, negotiated with or bought into irrelevance.

Conversely, now isn’t the time to succumb to fantasies that we can engage in armed struggle within the US against the US empire. In the war on Iraq, the regular Iraqi military units didn’t stand a chance against the better armed imperial troops. Those Iraqi units were better armed than any opposition group in the US could hope to be.

Organized and spontaneous civil disruption at home is far more threatening to an empire than either polite, predictable protest or armed resistance. The cops have a hard time crushing non-compliance and disruption, which gradually rots the capacity of an empire to project its military and ecological domination abroad.

Our movement is quickly being pushed into a resistance movement against an imperial power. The forces building the American empire have made it clear that domestic opponents of the regime may be labeled terrorists or “enemy combatants” and thus stripped of any formal legal “rights” accorded to obedient citizens. Even though we’re in our own homes, living in the United States means we’re operating in occupied enemy territory.

What Worked

As the day dawned in San Francisco on Thursday, March 21, small groups of unusual looking commuters began emerging from downtown subway stations, along with the usual crowd wearing their ties and skirts, briefcases in hand. The night before in Iraq, US cruise missiles had started raining down, opening an unjustified, preemptive war of aggression. The People had come to a financial nerve center of the empire to stop business as usual.

The action to shut down San Francisco had been planned for months, with hundreds of affinity groups assembling detailed, specific action plans. But many more people came downtown without precise plans — just the notion that something had to happen.

The organized affinity groups quickly threw up blockades at numerous pre-determined points. Because the location of these blockades had been announced in advance, the police were well prepared. Almost as soon as a blockade was established, it was surrounded by swarms of police.

This created an amazing opportunity for the thousands of folks who weren’t involved in pre-organized actions to seize control of the rest of the city. There weren’t enough police to simultaneously surround numerous pre-organized blockades and protect the rest of the city. At intersection after intersection throughout the downtown, there were no police in sight.

It only took 20 people holding hands to block a street and attract another 100 folks who were on the sidewalk out into the street. If the police came around in sufficient numbers to threaten one of these un-planned actions, the participants could simply melt back onto the sidewalk, only to reappear somewhere else where there were no police a few minutes later.

These blockades were short-term cat and mouse operations where the intent was to avoid arrest rather than to seek it. While it’s hard to know, it felt like the un-planned and roving blockades were able to stop business as usual at least as effectively as the larger pre-planned actions. The difference was that those who did pre-planned actions got arrested fairly quickly and now face court dates. Few people involved in roving blockades got arrested, so they were free to disrupt the city long after their pre-organized comrades had been removed, even once more police got freed up from the large pre-planned blockades.

What does this mean for the future? A lot of activists like sitting in meetings polishing plans for pre-organized actions. That’s fine — as long as the movement doesn’t conclude that those pre-organized actions alone will be enough to disrupt a target. Pre-organized actions often don’t create much real disruption — the police love it when they know precisely where all the activists are and have them surrounded with a double line of riot cops. We shouldn’t delude ourselves into believing that we’ve disrupted business as usual merely because we’ve blocked an intersection — if the police know which intersection we’ve blocked, we haven’t seriously threatened social stability or order.

The pre-organized actions can act as decoys — diverting police attention and opening space for other activists to achieve a higher level of disruption elsewhere. Just like police love knowing where all the activists are, they fear a scenario in which they have no idea where all of the participants are, or are heading next. Its even worse for the police when there are 50 autonomous groups moving in all directions all at the same time.

On March 21, the police and media struggled all morning as intersection after intersection was blockaded at random. The police didn’t know what might happen next or where. The cops would get a report of a disturbance, dispatch officers, and by the time they reached the intersection, the problem would have moved elsewhere. Such unpredictable, spontaneous disruption is far more threatening to the system than a stationary, pre-organized, controlled or largely symbolic action.

As the day and the war continued, the police cracked down harder and harder. Opportunities that were available early on became impossible later. Moreover, in the days after March 21, the media viciously criticized the financial district shutdown. “Blocking ordinary people on their way to work just hurts the anti-war cause.” These reactions from the police and the media just proved how effective the effort to disrupt business as usual had been. This proved that our actions threatened social stability and couldn’t just be ignored. The massive marches leading up to the war were beautiful, diverse, and heartening, but they didn’t threaten social order, and could thus easily be ignored.

Bike cavalry to the Rescue!

Another totally inspiring and amazing tactical innovation during the March 21 San Francisco shutdown was the application of critical mass bicycle tactics to militant disruptive street protest. It is fitting that bicyclists finally realized their full potential as militant street fighters in San Francisco, where critical mass was born.

Critical mass bike rides, which have spread to hundreds of cities around the world, are usually good natured, fun, non-confrontational celebrations of bicycling. Since there is no organized “leadership” of critical mass, there is no organized political message or demands.

It is precisely these cultural traditions that helped cyclists on March 21 be so effective and disruptive. The bicyclists were used to making quick decisions on the fly without any formal organization or leadership.

When pre-planned blockades pinned down most of the police during the morning, numerous bands of roving cyclists were able to ride around at will, tying up and slowing traffic for miles. Since bikes can move rapidly, they were an even more confusing and disruptive problem for the cops and the media. They could be everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Over and over, folks blocking intersections at random on foot would suddenly be reinforced by a roving band of bicyclists. The bikes also brought load after load of food, water and other supplies to people on foot. The bikes could scout ahead, warn of approaching danger, and distribute information about which roads were already blocked and which ones were waiting to be shut down. The one disadvantage of being on a bike is that it can be hard to dismount and change your role, because you have to do something with your bike. Thus, the bikes were most effective when they cooperated with folks on foot, each doing what they did best.

It was especially excellent to see all of the bikes, given that the war on Iraq was fought in part to enable Americans to drive as much as they want using cheap, foreign oil. During the brief war, spontaneous mini-critical masses calling themselves “Bikes Not Bombs” roamed San Francisco every weeknight, maintaining the momentum of protest. In a period of empire and war to maintain a dying motorized mode of transportation, riding a bike became our silent, daily protests against oil wars.

What Didn’t work

Police arrested about 2,500 people in San Francisco during the first 3 days of the war. Some of those arrested had “meant” to risk arrest at pre-organized blockades. But a lot of other folks got arrested — swept up and arrested en mass — the first day by accident because they tried to march in a black bloc.

We need to look critically at the black bloc tactic and figure out if it has outlived its usefulness. The black bloc tactic originated in Europe in the 1980s, and folks have marched in a black bloc in the Bay Area since the late 1980s, if not before. The idea is to have a large number of militant people in a large block so they can protect themselves and be disruptive. People dress alike (in black) so that the police can’t pick out a particular person from a crowd and try to pin a particular crime on them.

While at some points this tactic might make sense, recently marching in black has seemed to have more to do with making a fashion statement than trying to act collectively and effectively. Rather than allowing people to avoid police detection and arrest, the police have gone after the black bloc because they are wearing black, whether they do anything or not. The black bloc was surrounded and all its members arrested the weekend before the war — and then because no one seemed to learn anything, the exact same thing happened again the day after the war started.

Under these conditions, our tactics need to evolve. The point is to be disruptive and not get caught, not ensure that you’re going to get taken into custody. I realize black looks cool, and seeing a bunch of punks in black with face masks looks tough and militant. But if the group is singled out, monitored more closely by the cops, and thus can’t actually do anything, what is the point of looking cool? In Seattle, while the media and the police followed the small black bloc with helicopters, a much larger “plaid” block was able to get a lot of jobs done.

Face masks bring a certain level of militancy to a crowd, but they also can look unnecessarily scary and serve to separate those in the streets from the public at large. We want to inspire ordinary folks to struggle with us against the system, not convince them that we’re spoiled children with criminal tendencies. A lot of times you see face masks when nothing is even going on at all — what the fuck?!?

I thought the white face masks printed with “no war on Iraq” were pretty damn cool and a lot easier to understand. The point is to cover your face if you’re going to do something illegal, or if you might later on, not to just wear one all the time like it’s jewelry!

A lot more thinking, discussion and debate needs to go on within the community about the black bloc (and every other tactic we use). Far too often it seems like folks are just doing what they’ve done before, or seen done before, without actually thinking about what is going to be effective.

Finally, one the worst protest mistakes I saw during the war happened at a large and spirited blockade of the Chevron headquarters in San Ramon. The action, starting at 6 a.m. way out in the suburbs, was a triumph of pre-organization. Somehow, hundreds of us made it out there on crazy hipster shuttle school buses from the subway station in Walnut Creek. There were two roads going into the headquarters campus with large groups blocking both of them.

Although the action couldn’t have happened without a lot of pre-organization, it ended up demonstrating the limitations of pre-organization, and the tendency of pre-organized actions to become bureaucratic, predictable, tame, and ultimately non-disruptive and ineffective.

At the gate where I was, people were stopping cars, but the police were just parking workers a distance away and walking them in. Some people were trying to block the pedestrians, and the “organizers” were doing everything they could to stop participants from being spontaneous, effective and thinking for themselves. The “leader” on hand with the bullhorn told us that we had to “obey” the decisions of the spokescouncil and that he wanted to make sure the picket and the blockade were “orderly.”

I knew it was all over when the police came over a bullhorn and told people to be quiet so our “leader” could make an announcement. The “leader” told us to get out of the road or we would be arrested. People complied immediately, even though it was quite clear that the police had neither the numbers not the inclination to actually remove a large, fluid group from the road. That left the pre-appointed people willing to “risk arrest” sitting in a thin line, defenseless against the police who politely took them into custody. The potential disruption of the hundreds of people on hand was dismantled by one unelected “leader” cooperating with the police. Everyone stood on the sidewalk and watched the police carry out their duty.

We need to keep in mind that when we organize, we should be doing it for our own goals. Helping the police maintain order should never be one of our goals. Organizing to get a large group outside of a corporation is an excellent goal. Then the organizers need to fade away and trust the People to take responsibility for our own actions and our own future.