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Militant Activists "Repurpose" INS Façade

Property destruction at break-away march in San Francisco takes anti-war protest and action to another level
Property destruction at break-away march in San Francisco takes anti-war protest and action to another level
On Friday, January 18, some 150,000 people showed up in San Francisco to protest the impending US and British attacks against Iraq. The main protest was organized by International ANSWER (which stands for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), widely understood to be controlled by the International Action Center (IAC) and the Workers World Party (WWP), an authoritarian Communist organization (readers are encouraged to visit a web page on the subject at to investigate the background of International ANSWER and its ties to authoritarian Communists). International ANSWER also organized the large peace march of some 250,000 in Washington, D.C. on the same day.

Frustrated with the undemocratic manner in which these protests were organized, and eager to engage in a more active resistance against the Bush administration's war drive and the financial interests which they charge motivate the administration, a group of activists organized a break-away march under the banner of "Anti-War Action". Near the end of the main rally, some 2,000 people snaked away through the financial district of San Francisco. Those numbers dropped to several hundred as people left the protest, many of them unable to keep up as the march broke out into a sprint and others became turned off by the property destruction committed by the crowd.

Members of the break-away march, comprised largely of black-clad and masked anarchists, struck a number of targets as they weaved through downtown San Francisco. Among them was the San Francisco Chronicle, upon which a great deal of graffiti was written, including the accusation that the newspaper, and mainstream media in general, are "Weapons of Mass Destraction." The unorthodox spelling was apparently a deliberate blending of "destruction" and "distraction." While the Chronicle's coverage of the Bush administration's militaristic overtures has been some of the most critical in the mainstream media, activists charge that—like all mainstream outlets—the Chronicle has continued to report as if war against Iraq is inevitable and has omitted certain facts that would help mobilize opposition to war. Interestingly, the Chronicle reported the next day on all of the targets hit by the break-away march, except for their own building (although they did get around to mentioning it in today's edition).

Also on the list of targets was the Citicorp building which houses not just Citicorp's corporate offices, but the British Consulate. Both institutions were targeted with spray paint and broken windows, although the consulate was hit hardest. Tony Blair, Britain's Prime Minister has been US President Bush's sole and ardent ally (or, in the words of his more severe detractors, "Bush's poodle") in the move toward war with Iraq. Citicorp was implicated by the protesters for its "financial complicity with the war effort".

The militant protest reached a crescendo at the building of the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Amidst chants of "No war! No nations! Stop deportations!", protesters spray-painted anti-war and anti-statist slogans across the building's facade and threw a newspaper vending machine against the glass front door, breaking it.

A few retail outlets also had their windows broken and facades defaced, including Starbucks and Victoria's Secret. Activists charge that Starbucks makes enormous profits by selling addictive stimulants to boost overall "worker productivity". They also allege that Starbucks underpays its workers in the US and supports an industry which routinely and systematically exploits workers in Central and South America, their limited commitment to Free Trade coffee notwithstanding (see How Fair is Fair Trade? from the November 15, 2002 issue of The Alarm! for an in-depth look into "Fair Trade" coffee).

With the presence of a large and militant queer contingent in the break-away march, criticisms of Victoria's Secret for objectifying women and propping up sexist, heterosexist and patriarchal norms were given a material form through graffiti and bricks thrown at windows. The windows, however, were apparently as impermeable to bricks as Victoria's Secret's executive board is to critique.

Corporations and governments were not the only targets, however. When the group came upon an SUV in traffic, one protester spray-painted "Too Big" on it.

Two individuals were arrested during the break-away march, but they were released and their charges were subsequently dropped.

The anti-capitalists defend their actions, saying that the drive to war is fundamentally a drive to open up new capitalist markets and maintain the profitability of existing markets, particularly the oil markets in which most of the Bush administration is involved and invested. To many anti-capitalists, including those participating in the break-away march, war is inherent to capitalism, whether it comes in the form of concentrated corporate media such as the Chronicle, enormous financial institutions such as Citycorp, businesses making money off of suppressed labor prices in the "Global South" like Starbucks, or those which support—and profit from—the sexual division of labor, such as Victoria's Secret. Many consider war to be the logical extension of a capitalist economy in need of an ever-expanding resource base, and all capitalist institutions as therefore implicated in war.

Even more, protesters attempted to link their critique of the nation-state—particularly its habit of erecting barriers to the free movement of people—to their critique of capitalism and war. At the center of this was the INS, which has consistently and increasingly penalized migration while capital has crossed borders with greater ease. Blair's British government has instituted similar roll-backs against immigration, particularly that of asylum-seekers. The break-away march hinged upon an attack on the mutually reinforcing powers of capitalism, the nation-state and war.

According to an anonymous press release issued by people claiming to be the organizers, the "march was meant to send a powerful message to both private and governmental institutions...implicated in the war effort. Moreover," they said, "it was important to make this message 'publicly and collectively' to amplify voices that have been shut out by the establishment and are not being heard in society."

In addition to a number of such anonymous "communiqués" issued by organizers and participants in the march, debates have raged in pubs, in homes and on internet media outlets such as San Francisco Indymedia regarding the property destruction, more aptly described as "repurposing" by some (as in "repurposing" a building facade into a bulletin board for political statements). Detractors have criticized break-away march participants for what they view as random violence. Others found the march deeply liberating.

Santa Cruz resident Cassandra Brown, who, along with Amy Courtney, gained national notoriety for suing CalTrans over the right to "repurpose" freeway overpasses with political messages other than American flags, was one of the latter. Cassandra found herself "frustrated by the lack of action" and by the "proscribed march" organized by International ANSWER. She joined the break-away march out of curiosity and as an objective observer, but found herself immersed in the liberatory mood of running through the streets with people bent on action. She had planned to join a civil-disobedience sit-in, but was wary of burgeoning police and detention powers. "It wasn't worth it to go to jail," she said, "but the idea of action was still important to me."

She found herself impressed with the largely-anarchist "black bloc" (the group gets this name because of the practice of many of its participants of wearing uniform black clothing and masks to protect their anonymity and thwart prosecution in order to "fight another day"). "These people were willing to push the envelope," she said. "The targets seemed very well thought-out." Although she didn't participate in any of the property destruction, she felt some sympathy with those who did: "I have the same kind of anger and frustration against SUVs, the INS, Citicorp, Victoria's Secret. It gives you a certain sense of satisfaction" to see them smashed up by a crowd. Between the conversations she had with people on the march and their non-verbal actions, Cassandra also went through something of a political transformation. "It made me realize that I'm an anarchist!", she said. "The things they're targeting are the things I want to change." After picking up some books on anarchism and knowing the history of authoritarian socialist regimes, she said, "it makes me feel like this [anarchism] is something that could be a real, lasting solution."

What most participants in the break-away march agreed upon was that actions to stop the Bush administration and its push for war must go beyond the occasional protest, and those actions cannot sever protests against the war from those against capitalism or authoritarianism. This struggle must be taken to our daily lives: our workplaces, our social gatherings, our cities, our towns and our neighborhoods. Whether it's a nation-wide—or even international—general strike, as Cassandra advocated, or slow and patient organizing in our communities, it must become the path we walk and not just a few pit stops along the way.

Upcoming protests, organized by a broader coalition named "United for Peace and Justice" will be held on February 16 in San Francisco. Meet 11am at Justin Herman Plaza.

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Another spoof?

The content and style of writing in this article suggest spoof to me. How about you?

Do you think that anyone who is truly into non-violent civil disobedience, as recommended by Gandhi, Thoreau, and King, would sympathize with those who commit violent acts of vandalism, or find any sense of satisfaction in those acts?

I was always taught that the point of civil disobedience is to be caught breaking an unjust law, then to accept and endure punishment for that offense, in full public view, as a way of shaming the authorities, depriving them of credibility.

Running with black-clothed, anonymous merry pranksters as they damage property does not seem consistent with an understanding and acceptance of the principles of civil disobedience. Does it?

On non-violent civil disobedience


My, how i do get bored with this discussion. First point: who said anyone here was an advocate of non-violent civil disobedience? This especially includes Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was, in fact, an ardent and vocal supporter of John Brown and his armed revolt against slave-holders at Harpers' Ferry. He may have advocated civil disobedience, at a time when the US government still cared about maintaining credibility, but he certainly held few qualms with violent struggle.

This action was not—and did not pretend to be—an act of civil disobedience. You've totally missed the point. Gandhi's strategies of non-violence could only be effective in the context of a movement which included both violent and non-violent resistance to Imperial Britain, none of which seemed to prevent Gandhi from forging alliances with Hitler, with Britain as their common enemy. Likewise with King (the necessity of a context of violent and non-violent resistance, not, obviously, fascist alliances).

The point of the article—which was, by the way, in no way a spoof—was that as policing and surveillance powers expand daily, we can no longer afford to gleefully send ourselves to jail and hope that this will be an effective strategy in the long run. Cassandra Brown had the sense to come to this realization, unlike a number of the rest of the anti-war movement, unfortunately. In case you haven't noticed, the present administration has no shame, and will surely not be brought down by moralistic platitudes or full jails (all the more reason to build more).

I am particularly annoyed with this "violence vs. non-violence" debate. What no one seems to recognize is that those who excercize the most extreme and systematic violence are generally those who maintain the power and authority to dictate the terms of what constitutes violence. Anything which threatens their power will necessarily be considered violent. Anti-sabotage laws written into state codes in the 10's and 20's—and reccently regaining currency—are cases in point. People who engage in property destruction (or "repurposing") are often put on the defensive by people calling them violent. They point out, as those who issued communiqués on this action did, that they do not physically injure any human beings in the process. It is not, therefor, to the people who do this, violent to engage in property destruction and vandalism.

Personally, i think this is a cop-out. Property destruction IS violent. It violates governments' and property owners' sense of safety and security in conducting their business. That's the point of doing it, in addition to the symbolic attack against, as the Seattle N30 Black Bloc Communiqué put it, "the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds pirvate property rights." But, property destruction lies somewhere on a continuum of violence, certainly quite a far cry from the persistent and systemic violence of those institutions targeted by the Black Bloc. Calling attacks against the inert buildings of the INS, the Chronicle, Citicorp, the British Consulate, Starbucks and Victoria's Secret violent (at least in so far as violence is construed as "bad") only reinforces the power of those institutions by reinforcing their authority to dictate the terms of struggle.

Finally, these people are not "merry pranksters". Each one of them is risking a felony. They know it, and they take it very seriously. Apparently a lot more seriously than you do, Jack. Get over the blind adherence to an ill-thought-out pacifist moralism and take on the struggle against war as if you might succeed. If you still prefer pacifism and non-violence, that's fine, but think it through and don't cower behind the language and the terms set by capital and state. We will never win on their terms.

the wearying debate continues

To clarify for Fhar and others, the article mentioned at least one Santa Cruz resident who originally came to ANSWER's non-violent protest but decided to tag along with the break-away vandals. This person was said to have undergone a "transformation," finally recognizing her inner anarchist. It seems fair to question whether a transformation actually happened, or whether this person or any persons so "transformed" really understood or were committed to the principles of non-violent civil disobedience in the first place.

Thoreau gets popular credit for defining the terms of American civil disobedience, violent or not. Gandhi and King emphasized non-violence in their approaches, which built on Thoreau's foundation of principle. Non-violence not only worked for King and Gandhi, it seemed to improve on the 19th century model.

Too bad the original article was not a spoof. Viewed as satire, it seemed almost witty. Taken seriously, it offers a powerful argument AGAINST gun control. If some people feel free to vandalize whenever the opportunity is right as long as they can rationalize the act as furthering their cause, perhaps the rest of us all need to be armed and on guard. Didn't thinking similar to that presented in the article bring down the WTC? The terrorists who did that were just as serious about taking the consequences for their actions, and just as sincere in their motivations and desperation, as the break-away protesters in SF ever could be about theirs. The violence was still wrong in both cases.

You tell 'em Fhar!

jAck-get off yr' Ass and do SOMETHING! stop sitting at your computer creating a virual war to justify your position. it's a waste of time and energy. if you don't approve of anarchist tactics fine but an armchair activist never created much of any kind of change.

You tell 'em Fhar!

jAck-get off yr' Ass and do SOMETHING! stop sitting at your computer creating a virual war to justify your position. it's a waste of time and energy. if you don't approve of anarchist tactics fine but an armchair activist never created much of any kind of change.

Power, authority and ethics

While i obviously can't speak for Cassandra, i can say with some measure of confidence that she is "committed to the principles of non-violent civil disobedience." She just doesn't happen to consider property destruction to be violent, which is a pretty popular notion. I would differ with her on this point. Obviously, i consider property destruction, just like almost anything we can do that has repurcussions of any sort—positive, negative or neutral—to be somewhere on the continuum of violence, and perfectly justifiable, in certain circumstances. The fact that the break-away march was planned to avoid confusion with or direct physical impact (due to possible police reaction) on the larger march indicates to me some thoughtfulness in this regard on the part of the organizers.

To say that non-violence worked for Gandhi and King skews history, as far as i see it. Gandhi's non-violence movement would more than likely have failed entirely were it not for the existence of more violent forms of struggle against colonialism at the same time, both in India and elsewhere in the British empire. Of perhaps even greater significance in the fall of the British colonial empire was the beating the country received from Hitler, who, as we all know utilized a less-than-non-violent tact (he also had very little concern for the interests of the Indian people—they were, after all, living proof of the fallacy of the myth of "Aryan purity"). We will never get anywhere if we continue to propagate such blatant mistruths as "non-violent resistance brought down the British rule of India." Bullshit. What non-violence DID get Gandhi and his movement was some moral authority after British rule was overthrown. The ends to which that moral authority was used subsequently are hardly worth our praise. Violent or not, power corrupts.

The case with King is not so clear. He accomplished quite a lot, no doubt. But, again, his civil rights movement existed in the context of a great deal of work being carried out by the Black Panthers and other more militant groups, not to mention generalized insurrection. The civil rights movement accomoplished a lot in Washington and in those communities where it translated into multiracial direct action on such a scale that it could not be ignored and presented a real force of accountability, moral and physical. But, for the most part, institutional racism has remained and non-violent civil disobedience does not seem to have been any more effective at eliminating this than militant struggle. Civil rights leaders in this day and age have little street credibility because their proponents are all too often power-hungry clergymen (or putrid politicos, like Scott Kennedy). The shiny polish on "non-violent civil disobedience" has worn off to reveal that it is just as prone to (ab)use by both petty and great oppressors as violent struggle is. Again, violent or not, power corrupts.

Oh, and then there's that great liberal cause celebré: gun control. How could any thoughtful, compassionate person be AGAINST gun control, right? Well, i am an anarchist, after all, and i don't think there should be bureaucratized gun control by the government. I'm not as whacko about this issue as many of my comrades, and certainly not as much as the gun nuts on the right—after all, as Christian Parenti once mentioned, revolutions have never been fought and won through the use of LEGAL firearms. Unfortunately, in the event of any violent upheaval, which is fairly likely, it does encourage a sort of elite vanguardism on the part of those who've managed to procure weapons illegally. I am not generally prone to parrot the right, but i do tend to agree: guns don't kill people, people kill people. Actually, bullets kill people. In fact, bullets don't kill people, either. The hole produced by a speeding bullet kills people. The point is that there is a whole chain of events which results in deaths at the hands of gun users. I can think of a whole number of places in that chain of events where it would be more effective and more efficient to intervene against gun violence than by legislating gun laws (for instance, encouraging social, economic and racial equity or anger-management skills or whatever). So why are gun control laws so popular amongst legislators? Because they also carry the ancillary benefit of ensuring that their positions of power will never be questioned—nor will they be held accountable—by an armed citizenry. There was a reason for the second ammendment, and it wasn't just because the guys felt a need to reify their phallic force in constitutional law (although i won't deny that there was probably some of that, too).

To a certain extent, yes, this sort of thinking is what brought down the WTC, but that does not mean that it will be taken to the same ends. There are very few, if any, "Propoaganda by the Deed" sort of anarchists around these days such as committed political assassinations around the turn of the century. Even these turn-of-the-century anarchists (such as Alexander Berkman) would never have committed such an act of mass murder. To consider such an act to be the logical extension of an anarchist political reading of violence and power is to totally misunderstand the logic of that critique in the first place, not to mention the ethics which motivate it.

In any case, if we're going to develop a truly effective movement at this point (and we cannot afford to be anything but effective), we need to start looking at violence, power, authority and ethics separately and in combination, but not as if they were all the same thing and coextensive with one another. The more we bicker back and forth about the nature of violence, the less we will be addressing the more pertinent questions of power, authority and ethics. I submit that the latter are what we need to focus on.

blowhards need a job

To those who use this medium to tell others not to use this medium: grow up. Get a job. Some of us are trying to support families and communities via our economic efforts. In case you haven't looked, the cost of living around here is out of sight. It's all you can do, sometimes, to pay the rent and put bread on the table. But we choose to live here. We are not hypnotized drones. We don't need Weathermen to know which way the wind blows. And if we thought that violence and destruction of property were called for, we'd be out on the streets, tearing 'em up worse than you ever could. But there are other ways to make progress. Ways that don't burn bridges. Ways that produce sustainable, lasting change. Revolutionaries never know what to do next after the big tantrum. Dictators rush in to "stabilize" the situation, every time. I don't want to go there. So rather than chase up and down streets doing crimes, I go to work, take care of my family, and, from time to time, try to speak some common sense reason to the rabble rousers in places like this. Oh yeah, and I eat a meal or two and sleep a few hours every day, if I can.

It's real easy to tear things up. What can you BUILD?

Not a Weatherman

Jack, i hardly think that what people who are criticizing your use of this medium need is a job (assuming they don't already have at least one). Jobs don't usually direct people's energies toward activities that will further the cause of social justice and equity. Even well-intentioned non-profits and charities fail to accomplish this because of the way they are organized economically (see my article in The Alarm! on Goodwill Industries, Inc. at Supporting people and communities is a noble endeavor, but doing this through waged labor is neither the most effective, nor the most equitable way of doing it.

Furthermore, we are not Weathermen. We've learned the lessons of the Chicago Days of Rage and the alienating mis-steps of the Weather Organization and its underground cells. You seem to believe that these revolutionaries simply go from one street-level "tantrum" to the next and sit idly at their computer workstations criticizing you for your inactivity the rest of the time. I would hazard an informed guess that most of the people in the Black Bloc are working people who direct their energies in much the same way you do when their masks come off. They also do solid work in their communities, building bridges and alternative institutions. There are, of course, exceptions. There are those full-time agitators and rabble-rousers, just as there are full-time community organizers who won't step anywhere near any protest, let alone the black bloc. We need both types of activists—and many who do both kinds of work—if we are to get anywhere. Your tactical chauvenism helps nothing.

Re: Militant Activists "Repurpose" INS Fa硤e

non-violent civil disobedience and vandalist action are two completely separate actions, as long as vandals don't go to a planned civil disobedience and commit violence then its all good, we don't all need to have the same tactics, in fact we better all use different tactics! redecorate the gentrified city please!


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