Breaking down what happened is difficult. Thatâs the problem. The march at Occupy San Fran in January this year changed radically, in a manner that is indicative of a large fissure in todayâs political Left. The anarchists joined.
When I got pepper sprayed, all I can remember is a sudden snap when the crowd lurched forward, someone pushed up against the police fence, and then a young woman was blasted at point black as a voice over a microphone behind me cried âKeep pushing, if we all keep pushing we can break their line!â Like a wave the crowd broke on the police and the batons came down. I kicked the barrier in anger and got my own blast as reprisal. As I was rushed away by a peoplesâ medic I tried to figure out what the hell happened. A march that had started at the Embarcadero had ended in a confrontation with the police. How had we ended up in front of a police line? Where were we? Why the hell were we there? Then I remembered that a group of young people in hoodies had rolled an amp into the march, bumping Dead Prez and The Coup. Now that same amp was being used to foment a fight with the cops.
Now, if youâre waiting for me to accost the young people with bandanas on their faces, stop reading. Thatâs not what this is about. This is a practical question of political praxis. What that amp did for the march was invaluable; music spreads messages and invigorates the physical presence of a march. Signs and populist chants only go so far and playing politically charged hip-hop is just as good as getting someone to read a new book; better, in fact. To bring the culture of marginalized peoplesâ into the center of the march reminded us why we were marching in the first place: not to reform campaign finance, but to demand system overhaul, where homelessness, crisis, unemployment and disenfranchisement arenât readily accepted norms. In this sense, there is no way in which you will get me to criticize the anarchists. We all can learn from this sense of exigency. Itâs just a question of when urgency becomes panic.
In the 60âs and 70âs the activism of the Weathermen still traumatizes many of the older folks involved with the movement. Much of the actual history of the groupâs actions has fallen victim to slander and propaganda do to the sour end the sixties suffered. It is certain that the Weathermen contributed to the end of the âpolitical sixtiesâ and arguably set the stage for the right-wing cultural shift of the 80âs. But they had their victories. Up until this the American populace had been conditioned to believe the FBI was unstoppable; years of TV programming contributed to a myth that bad guys always lost. The Weathermen disproved this. Think about it, maybe less than a hundred college kids outsmarting the full power of the Federal government. It only ended when the members themselves, disturbed by the ordeal of living underground, turned themselves in. Even after that the FBI was forced to drop charges of scores of bombings because their agents had broken laws with impunity in pursuit of these punks.
The Weathermen began as an off-shoot of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS not the NEW SDS) and to this day there is discord in this prominent arm of the student movement concerning the issue of radicalism. Back then, in 1969, the black power movement was facing a full on war. On December 4th, Fred Hampton was shot by police while he slept in his bed, an assassination. That same December the SDS would hold a convention where Naomi Jaffe would declare âWe felt that doing nothing in a period of repressive violence is itself a form of violence.â
The Weathermen organized to demonstrate the need for the privileged white youth movement to join the black revolutionary movement. Many of their bombings were organized as responses to the inexcusable acts of war committed on the black power movement, including the murder of Fred Hampton, the repression Attica Prison Protests, the murder of George Jackson, and many more. The year Jackson was killed at Attica, 1971, Bernadine Dohrn of the Weathermen stated that, âWhite youth must choose sides now. They must either fight on the side of the oppressed, or be on the side of the oppressor.â
Today, this sort of apocalyptic language frightens the older folks. It did back then too. It frightens a lot of kids as well. The discrepancy arises from a distance in perspective: for African-Americans, the 1960âs wasnât a time of economic inconvenience. As Black Panther Angela Davis put it, âYou ask me, you know, whether I approve of violence â I mean, that just doesnât make any sense at allâŠI grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Some very, very good friends of mine were killed by bombs, bombs that were planted by racists. I remember â from the time I was very small, I remember the sounds of bombs exploding across the street, our house shaking. .... I mean, thatâs why when someone asks me about violence, I just â I just find it incredible, because what it means is that the person whoâs asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone throughâŠâ As the death toll of Vietnamese civilians rose in the millions each month and political scandal became commonplace, young people began to identify with the Weathermen more and more.
Today, as the middle class deals with a recession, blacks and other minorities have been facing depression level suffering for more than thirty years. In 2011, black male unemployment reached an all time high. While Vietnam ended with nearly 4 million dead, the America and Europe of today conduct paramilitary police actions across the globe in a new form of global âgerrymanderingâ. As Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt put it in Multitude, âThe framework of international law regarding war has been undermined. From this perspective all of the world's current armed conflicts, hot and cold-in Colombia, Sierra Leone, and Aceh, as much as in Israel-Palestine, India-Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq-should be considered imperial civil wars, even when states are involved. This does not mean that any of these conflicts mobilizes all of Empire-indeed each of these conflicts is local and specific-but rather that they exist within, are conditioned by, and in turn affect the global imperial system.â The de facto demise of competing political systems has left us to either believe that the conflicts of today are generated by barbarous dissidents and jihadists yet to accept the godsend of liberal-democracy or wonder if the tragedy of 300 million dead in Africa for want of medical supplies is in reality a new kind of war-crimeâŠ
Anarchists today are possessed with the immediacy of the worldâs struggle and as global warming accelerates every new issue that emerges we may truly be living in apocalyptic times. It is still hard for the older folks to see this, or if they do, to abandon the utopian dream of a non-violent transition. Who knows whether it can be done or not, but it seems that both the immaturity of the insurrectionary anarchists and the obtuseness of the pacifist protestors leaves at an impasse. But today we lack to the language, so to speak, to express not only whatâs wrong with them but what we can do better.
My reticence to criticize the anarchists doesnât originate from a love for them. Those pricks got me and few other pretty banged up from batons and pepper-spray over I-still-donât-know-what. I am loathe to criticize them because I feel as though my disagreement with them is way too readily absorbed into a pacifist narrative that amounts to a death of political imagination.
The issues with the anarchists of today are the same as the Weathermen of the sixties. Not that they are too radical, not that they identified too much with black radicalism. They were wrong because they didnât identify enough!
In 1968, the beginnings of the Weathermen organized the âDays of Rageâ in Chicago (Adbusters is using this term for an action planned in Chicago in May, undoubtedly in a separate fashion). They were convinced that young people would flock to the city âto seek revenge, to inspire revolution and for the expressed purpose of releasing prisoners, âto liberate the cityâ and to strike violently at various points in the city -- assaults which they called âwargasms.ââ The thousands they hoped were instead a couple hundred and the night of the riot the police brutally crushed them. Six youths were shot and countless were savagely beaten, gassed, and on two occasions run over by police cars.
The crucial moment for us is not how the nation responded. It was how the Black Panthers reacted. The typical fearful and whiny middle class objection was unproductive in criticizing what really was a very stupid and immature plot. The Black Panthersâ criticism went straight to the heart of the Weathermenâs organization error. âWe do not support people who are anarchistic, opportunistic, adventuristic, and Custeristic.â
When I was pepper sprayed I was a victim of Custerism. The Black Panthers, in their pseudo-Leninist fashion, considered themselves the revolutionary vanguard of the people. So did the Weathermen but there is a difference here. The true immaturity of the Weathermen was their irresponsibility with power. The Panthers were always about the DEFENSE of blacks against violence. In an irony of terms, todayâs anarchist cadres eschew âLeninist-Stalinistâ organization in favor of networks and horizontal structures, but maintain a sort of distance with other protestors since they consider themselves âmore aware and dedicated.â Perhaps the Panthers felt this way in a sense but their use of the power they had was as a protector, guardian of their people. The anarchists are anti-authoritarian in rhetoric only, it seems, when in attitude their derision for citizen-activism is suspect of supremacy.
When the young man grabbed hold of the amp and began egging us forward, this was Custerism at its patent. None of us, the marchers at Occupy San Fran, knew where we were or why were there. We became tools, or rather the playthings, of the pathetic insurrectionary fantasy of adventurists with a microphone. No one told us why we needed to break that police line, or if they did, no one was communicating how were would do it or preparing us for what we were doing. It isnât as a break with radicalism that we can denounce the direct antagonizing of fights with the police but rather as the true affirmation of the radical that we may deny anyone who attempts to fabricate confrontation by artificially elevating their voices above those of the people.
Perhaps, in the end, what were really must learn is that we must, forever, remember the Peopleâs Mic.