NATO protest reflections: Winning tactics vs. dead ends


CHICAGO - One by one, they threw their medals toward the generals and statesmen behind the high barricades surrounding the NATO Summit in Chicago last week. Nearly 50 veterans made history, rejecting the lies of the 1% that justified shipping them to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was one of the most profoundly moving events I have ever witnessed.

Unfortunately, their story of courage and heroism, and the largely peaceful nature of the May 20 protest and week of protests leading up to it, was buried behind headlines of violent clashes between some protesters and police.

There were in fact two protests that day: the organized mass peaceful expression - which ended with the veterans asking people to disperse peacefully - and then the confrontation with police afterward.

No one, certainly not the coalition that organized the main ceremony and march, sanctioned the confrontation and the desire by some to march through police barricades to the site of the NATO Summit.  

Police violence at the demonstration and during the week, the 45 arrests and ongoing detentions, the holding at gunpoint of independent journalists who were "live streaming" the events, the alleged entrapment of several young activists on terrorism charges - all these must and are being widely condemned.

However, neither can they excuse or justify in any way the provocations that emanated from some protesters.

These incidents overshadowed the largely nonviolent nature of the protests and drowned out the main message: End the wars and militarization and reallocate desperately needed funds to create jobs and fund education, health care and affordable housing.

They especially overshadowed the veterans' message, which has wide and deep resonance among the American people.

They also overshadowed the struggle waged for the right to protest, for free speech and assembly, and the fight against Mayor Rahm Emanuel's "Sit Down and Shut Up" ordinances.

These experiences provide important tactical lessons for the peace and justice and Occupy movements to reflect on, especially for the many young, deeply committed activists who possess a fervent hatred of capitalism, gross inequality and injustice, and who are gaining valuable experiences in this upsurge.

Among the Occupy (and earlier anti-globalization) movements, a problematic trend has developed. That trend has a political expression, which sees confrontation with police, vandalism and hyper-aggressive tactics as its central tenets.

This trend usually manifests itself in the self-proclaimed "Black Bloc." Its tactics here at the NATO protests, which included bullying peaceful protesters, alienated the overwhelming majority of us who marched.

Why can a small yet disruptive grouping wreak so much havoc on a majority peaceful movement? Because there is a trend among the left that also sees confrontation with the police as a viable revolutionary and anti-capitalist tactic, and therefore accommodates groups like the Black Bloc in the name of "diversity of tactics."

It is said in the name of "inclusiveness" that those who profess confrontational tactics have a right to do so, that tactics of nonviolence and confrontation can co-exist in one movement.

Unfortunately, march organizers decided not to publicly renounce violence on the grounds of preserving unity. Instead they only spoke out against the violence the emanates from NATO and police.

Such tactics and talk may sound militant and even appear to be delivering a blow against capitalism. But, on the contrary, they play into the hands of the 1%.

Let's be real. In order to confront ruling class power, a broad-based unified, diverse and mobilized movement among wide sections of the American people is necessary. Tactics - from the forms of protest to the kinds of demands and slogans - play a major part in mobilizing, unifying and winning over broad sections of the public.

The American people understand the use of nonviolent civil disobedience in pursuit of a great cause and high moral purpose. It is an indelible part of our multi-racial, working-class history of struggle.

But they are equally turned off when violence is perpetrated or advocated by those who profess change.

Such tactics do nothing to expand the coalition or build the movement for immediate or long-term change.

They do damage by feeding into ruling class crackdowns, including anti-democratic laws and statutes.

It was the specter of violence that Chicago Mayor Emanuel used effectively to gain passage of restrictions on First Amendment rights.

Certainly, there should be no illusions about the role of the police as an institution, let alone the history of brutality of the Chicago Police Department.

But neither should one ignore how ruling circles and authorities have exploited a permissive attitude toward violence to infiltrate and entrap, to provoke violent acts that split groups or narrow movements, driving away the broader political allies needed for victory.  

Such tactics ultimately spell doom for any movement. The upsurge of the 1960s is replete with examples including the destruction of groups and tragic death of many young activists like Black Panther Fred Hampton.

The most powerful mass movements effecting historic change have been based on nonviolent civil disobedience: the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King; the anti-Vietnam War movement; the U.S. anti-apartheid struggle and the organization of industrial unions, to name a few.

More recently, nonviolent civil disobedience has effectively won public support for workers and immigrant rights and saving the environment. It forced the racist murder of Trayvon Martin into the national spotlight.

The aim of any tactic must be to build a majority movement of the most powerful class and social forces capable of winning. The value of a tactic can be determined in how well it achieves this.

Any tolerance for violence, provocation or confrontation is a political dead end.

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  • Thanks Mucho for your excellent article, John. My first person experience as a participant in the peaceful part of this mass action raised my conscious big time. After interacting with my Spanish as their first language cohert for a few hours listening to and reconnecting with many of the speakers at the band shell i supported the carrying of ifco pasters for peace - Cuba Five and Cuba Caravan banner bringing up the end of the huge throng of humans. That part of my experience that day was pretty much uneventful. After the vets program i walked to the nearest visible electric train to begin my treck via public transport back to Berwyn IL. I got caught between the heavily armed police that were fully geared up and a pretty large group, about 50, of humans dressed totally in black huddled together running while taunting, geering, yelling, cursing in the faces of the heavily armed police that were more protected with body gear than the offensive teams of football players. Had i not a sense of what its like to be an active participant of demonstrations since the 60' i could have been one of then innocent victims of such provocatours incitement to violence by the state. As i maneuvered my way steathly away from the space between the mass of humans dressed in all black, some called them anarchist, i was able to get to park directly east of the 22nd street el where another line of police guarded the safe passage to the el. Its rare that i actually thank those that put their bodies in harms way to protect the innocent and on this occasion my thank you to those that wear the City of Chicago Police Uniform was spontaneous. Oh how being on the front lines of the class struggle can be a huge challenge for all humanity.

    Posted by Change Agent, 06/11/2012 1:37pm (4 years ago)

  • Such tactics and talk may sound militant and even appear to be delivering a blow against capitalism. But, on the contrary, they play into the hands of the 1%.

    Bravo, John, bravo!!!

    You are the first to write this and you have hit the nail on the head.

    The reason the message did not get out there is because the main spokesman for the protests through the entire thing turned it into an anti-city, anti-police triade.

    He blamed media for not focusing on the message when in fact he was the main culprit turning the focus away from the immoral wars and on to police and Emmanuel. I guess he was just looking for more clients for his boss' law firm.

    Posted by detectivetom, 06/02/2012 6:38am (4 years ago)

  • The main problem of the left in the United States today is that we don't have enough mass support, including in the building up of mass street protests. The kinds of tactics that the "Black Bloc" uses, which aim to provoke police violence against protesters, are guaranteed to drive away from protest actions all kinds of people: Immigrants who can't risk arrest because they are likely to be, not just fined, but DEPORTED; family people who would like to bring their small children to protests but dare not if there is going to be violence, and older folks (like me) who can no longer run fast enough to evade the flying billy clubs and tear gas. This is why police agencies in this country have always tried to infiltrate "agents provocateurs" into protest movements, precisely to create a pretext for crackdowns.

    Posted by Emile Schepers, 05/25/2012 11:07pm (4 years ago)

  • Thanks for the post.

    The only way to get people to understand a protest is to invite them, and have them participate. Otherwise, they only see TV coverage, which is to say, they only see the most sensationalistic aspects.

    Posted by redsquid2, 05/25/2012 2:06pm (4 years ago)

  • i know that non violence is the way most have been successful but sometimes militancy can appeal to some people because they are so disenchanted with the status quo because Washington no longer acts on what is right for the country and continues these ideological battles that are slowly but surely destroying the nation the politicians and corporations need to remember that they have a responsibility to the people and the nation and the inequality and difficulty to move up the social ladder is inherently breeding discontent division and hatred all of which are the fathers of violence and revolution

    Posted by vinny schwan, 05/25/2012 10:14am (4 years ago)

  • We've seen violence break out in rallies we've attended. We see demonstrators provoking violence; however, none of us knows who those people - those who instigate violence - are. Often, they wear masks and other clothing that disguise their identities.

    Posted by Arch Ellsworth, 05/25/2012 9:20am (4 years ago)

  • Very well-stated. I couldn't agree more!

    Posted by Diana Dalnes, 05/24/2012 10:03pm (4 years ago)

  • I don't think that the anarchists are looking for the movement to give them "a sense of purpose and belonging"--they would probably say that they create that for themselves. The anarchists don't seem interested in cooperating with the movement except on the anarchists' own terms, such as "respect for a diversity of tactics." When deciding what tactics to use, they definitely do not seem to want to take broader goals into mind, such as creating a viable strategy for social change or building a mass movement. Nor do many of them even seem to have enough sense of solidarity with other movements or concern about shared goals to consider the possible impact of their actions. For the good of what we are trying to accomplish, we need to let the anarchists know that we will not cooperate with them as long as they use violent, insurrectionary black bloc tactics.

    Posted by Ben Markeson, 05/24/2012 8:07pm (4 years ago)

  • All during the Vietnam protests and anti Nuclear protests of the 70s, the FBI and CIA would infiltrate each group they could...early on during planning stages, and they would advocate violence and lawless methods. They would be first to pick up a rock (or take one from their pockets, they bring their own. They all carry a get out of jail free card...they are always the most violent...these are your 'outside agitators'...

    Posted by Gary DuTeau, 05/24/2012 6:34pm (4 years ago)

  • All movements require some reactionary elements in order to galvanize their base. This "Black Bloc" may be juvenile, but it espouses the anger, mistrust, and hatred that the youth has against this broken and corrupt system.

    They key is using these groups as a movement's shock troops on the ground by polishing their appearance, tempering their zeal, and giving them a sense of purpose and belonging. Otherwise they will function as a counter-group to your core's activities, causing dissonance among disparate factions, age groups, and ideological distinctions.

    Use the Black Bloc, Occupy, and the radicalized youth to your advantage by giving them a solid, rational, and popular message. Then target leaders in these group who are radical, but understand how to temper and sleek the image of these groups. Then promote these leaders externally by the parent organizations of the overall movement. Doing so will add credibility and support, drawing other youthful radicals to your organization.

    Posted by Trojan Warfare, 05/24/2012 6:10pm (4 years ago)

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