As long as I have been politically engaged, I have watched how almost any protest or direct action somehow ends up with an element of vandalism. Sometimes, small potatoes- graffiti here or there. Ranging to more serious acts such as the window breaking and big scale distraction at a few sites during the Oakland General Strike.
Already, groups of Oaklanders are taking it upon themselves to clean graffiti and vandalism around Downtown. And during the Strike, many activists and union folks actively intervened to prevent such incidents. These realities are inspiring, but for me, it’s bringing up a larger conversation.
Whether it’s anti-war protests, justice for Oscar Grant, the Occupy movement, or even feminist, pro-Choice rallies, it seems that “a group of angry, ‘out-of-town’ anarchists dressed in black” somehow always make it into the mix. Is it just a matter of a few bad seeds? Or, as I have been reflecting today, is there a larger conversation to have?
To make a gross generalization, though even the mainstream media often portrays them this way, those who participate in the notorious Black Blocs are most often white, male presenting, and younger. How can we engage these folks in understanding that collective liberation means doing no harm?
If I found myself suddenly in dialogue with people who strongly believe that vandalism is part of the solution, I imagine these are a few of the things I ask:
1. Who has to clean up the mess? Often those tasked with removing graffiti, clearing broken glass, and other clean-up are working class people of color. When they have to scrub off spray paint or sweep up glass, they aren’t being paid anymore to do so. You are making the job of someone who already has a very difficult job to do harder.
2. Are you trying to be media hogs? It may be sad, but it remains true-in the media, if it bleeds, it reads. While I was actually impressed by the range of mainstream media I have seen about yesterday’s Strike, of course every single story and TV blurb also had to mention the distraction and vandalism. If you believe in the work of the movement and want to stand in solidarity, then you wouldn’t do something that you know will generate “bad press.”
We have a lot of work to do for mainstream media to portray political protest and social change efforts in a positive light. The more negative attention that political actions get, the easier it is for whole segments of the population to write off social justice as something that is not about them in something they have no place in. But the point of defining the movement as the 99% is that we need everyone if we are going to change the laws that oppress our communities and impact our lives. And using the media as a tool for outreach is a part of that.
3. Who gets caught in your mess? Whenever police are present, there are people who stand to lose more. And history tells us it is not younger, white men. If you want to stand in solidarity with people impacted by oppression, it’s important to think about the safety of those you are protesting with and for.
Many times yesterday, my friends and colleagues and I commented on how little of a police presence there was. There were thousands upon thousands of people in the streets, and we sure didn’t need the police to keep us safe. In fact, most of us felt safer not having OPD around. When did the police show up? I bet you can guess.
Furthermore, let’s say a crowd of protesters-people with of all races, backgrounds, genders and abilities are near you when you make the decision to break some windows. It is going to lead to police intervention. And way too often, the unfortunate reality is that police intervention ends up being police violence and brutality. And when police violence takes place, or arrests are made- people who are undocumented, folks on parole, transgender folks, and people with disabilities are going to be impacted more than you will be. Just think about it.
4. What is your revolution about? Mine is about collective liberation. So what hurts one, hurts all of us. Liberation is not just about the liberation of people. It is also about our earth. Isn’t there something awfully wasteful and un-sustainable about tearing shit apart, when it will have to be replaced?
I am surprised that across the years I have seen little real conversation about this. The tendency is to write off or ignore the “anarchists” and keep on keeping on. I totally understand that instinct. But is it working, or is it time to have a larger conversation?
So what can else we do? I truly believe that people, united, can stand together and make change. And that there is a place for every single person in the work of social justice. I saw that crystal clear in the streets of Oakland yesterday. We will only be stronger when the news can report that our peaceful protests were peaceful to all beings and buildings. So let’s get the conversation started.