Anarchy in the air as summit draws near
"Our long-term goals are pretty ambitious because we pretty much want to re-invent democracy and do it on a global scale,"
Anarchy in the air as summit draws near
The Montreal Gazette
So what's it going to be then, eh?
The famous opening line of Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange neatly encapsulates the confrontation brewing between police and anarchists at next weekend's Summit of the Americas in Quebec City.
With both predicting that if any violence occurs, it will be initiated by the other side, things could get ugly.
Calling from his office at Yale University, where he is an assistant professor of anthropology, David Graeber laughed when asked how it feels to be the cause of the biggest security operation ever mounted by the RCMP.
Graeber is an anarchist.
In the past, he has also participated in Black Blocs, a confrontational protest strategy used at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has ominously warned might lead to violence at the Quebec summit.
But when Graeber talks, he's most polite and forthcoming: he returns calls promptly, he cracks jokes and he explains the finer points of the anarchist philosophy patiently and thoroughly.
"Our long-term goals are pretty ambitious because we pretty much want to re-invent democracy and do it on a global scale," he said.
"We're trying to create alternative institutions that would make the state unnecessary."
Graeber's casual, friendly tone tends to gloss over some of the more contentious aspects of his world view, but he articulates anarchism as a political philosophy like any other, rather than some sort of scary anti-social behaviour.
But a lot of anarchist rhetoric found on the Internet and in newsgroups is confrontational and sometimes downright inflammatory.
"Nothing ever burns down by itself," quips a banner on the popular anarchist Web site infoshop.org. "Every fire needs a little bit of help."
The RCMP are certainly worried.
The presence of anarchists in Quebec is one of the top reasons for the 6,000 police officers, the arsenal of plastic bullets and the 3.8-metre-high security fence (nicknamed The Wall).
"As far as the security measures go, it's the Black Bloc and others who espouse violence that most concern us," said RCMP Constable Julie Brongel. "Anything that is going to put either the property or the safety of people - be they protesters, officers or dignitaries - in peril is going to require our intervention."
A recent CSIS report about protests planned for the summit also raises alarm: "Radical anti-globalization elements, many with links to anarchist groups, will take advantage of the meeting in Quebec City to organize protests and engage in violence. Anarchists, with their philosophy that justifies the destruction of private property, will draw disenfranchised youth to participate.
"The call for the organization of Black Bloc affinity groups and the presence of several radical anti-globalization groups ... increases the likelihood of violence. ... The use of petrol bombs and similar disruptive instruments by a few radicals cannot be ruled out."
Black Blocs are not formal groups but informal groupings of individuals who come together at demonstrations, usually with an agreed-upon set of tactics. They operate secretively and are organized horizontally into affinity groups, which co-operate and make decisions about action by consensus both before or during demonstrations.
The affinity-group members dress alike, sometimes in black, sometimes in costumes, to obscure their identities, but also in a show of solidarity, the idea being: "If you did it, I did it with you; it might as well have been me."
Within each affinity group, roles and responsibilities are distributed. Each has a "spoke" who meets with members of other affinity groups to present ideas, talk tactics and build the consensus needed to make decisions.
Other roles can include the medic, who is responsible for first aid and the well-being of each affinity-group member, the supply person and the legal eagle, who tries not to get arrested and who keeps track of who does.
"That person also keeps a list of whose dog needs to be walked if they go to jail for a few days - we don't want anyone's pet starving - and whose mom needs to be called," Graeber said.
He will not be participating in Black Bloc activity in Quebec City, but as a member of Italian-based Ya Basta!, a group that dons brightly coloured protective gear and blocks roads.
But he has been in a Black Bloc - as recently as January. At the inauguration of President George W. Bush in Washington, he and 600 other anarchists protested alongside disgruntled Democrats. "The most radical thing we did was throw paint bombs at the Washington Post," he said. "We thought it would be suicide to crash the parade route."
They did storm the Naval Memorial, where the U.S. flag was ripped down and burned and the anarchist banner bearing the scrawled red "A" hoisted.
As Graeber explains it, anarchists see a future where the state is replaced by a network of communities, where decisions are made locally by consensus and where borders don't exist.
He doesn't pretend to speak for all anarchists or all sects of anarchism, but he is plugged in to the community.
And he offers an important insight into the movement, because he is the only anarchist who would talk to The Gazette for this story.
(One local anarchist said he would speak only about anarchist opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the pact being discussed in Quebec City; another called a Gazette reporter an obscenity in an E-mail; and a Quebec-City-based group's Internet manifesto included the warning "Journalists can go to hell.")
Anarchists draw many of their ideas about democracy from indigenous peoples: the Maoris in New Zealand, the Indians in Chiapas, the Mohawks in Canada.
They try to operate using these concepts.
Anarchists have become part of the so-called anti-globalization movement because they, too, are concerned about the lack of democracy in international institutions, even though they reject their legitimacy.
"We say, 'If you want to globalize, let's do it, but let's really do it and get rid of all the borders and national governments,' " Graeber said.
Black Blocs are a strategy often employed by anarchists, but other groups form them, too.
Tactics are not set in stone, but depend on a given situation. They can include "unarresting."
"When police try to grab someone and haul them off, the Black Bloc will try to grab them back," Graeber said.
Some, but not all, actions involve property destruction, usually of corporate targets. "In an international system founded on the pursuit of profit, we find our most effective action is to attack oppressors where it hurts most: their wallets," reads a communique from the Anti-Statist Black Bloc out of Philadelphia dated Aug. 9, 2000.
Black Bloc followers adhere to a moral code, Graeber said. They make distinctions between private and personal property, so they might smash the window of a police cruiser (as long as no one is inside) but not the windshield of a private car. They do not consider vandalism to be violence.
"There's a detailed code of ethics. People think very hard ethically about the actions they do," Graeber said. "Most of them are vegans. They wouldn't step on a worm."
The blocs hate predictability and try to be creative about their strategy.
An infoshop.org article on mobilizing for Quebec City suggested Medieval Blocs: "Beautiful battering rams, ladders, catapults and dead cows infected with the plague. ... Watch out for those cauldrons of hot oil."
And also Doughnut Blocs: "Please don't feed the cops. Those jelly rolls make great-looking splats."
But it's not always about the action.
"The action can be secondary to the idea of just being there and having a presence," Graeber said.
Black Blocs were formed at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings in Washington, D.C., last year. A softer approach was taken after the Battle in Seattle in 1999.
That's when Black Blocs first popped up on the cultural radar, although they date back to the Gulf War in the U.S., and a squatters movement in Germany in the 1980s.
After days of peaceful demonstrations, badly outnumbered Seattle police clamped down with tear gas, spurring the Black Blocs into action.
They smashed store windows and looted one Niketown outlet, threw eggs filled with glass-etching solution and spray-painted city benches and garbage bins, to the horror of more peaceful protesters, who formed rings around stores and even tackled Black Bloc practitioners to the ground.
For a time there was a rift among anti-globalization activists, but successive demonstrations where police came down hard and heavy have united protesters.
Leading up to Quebec, no protest group with which The Gazette spoke would denounce another's strategy; and they all blamed baton-wielding police for the outbreak of violence at past world meetings.
The spectre of violence may again depend on police.
A declaration on infoshop.com, dated March 28, and signed by seven groups, including Groupe Anarchiste Emile-Henry in Quebec City and La Main Noire in Montreal, states: "We shall respect the spirit and parameters of this rally, organized by various unions, non-governmental organizations, popular groups, women's groups and student associations: unless attacked by the police or the security forces, which could require us to defend ourselves, we shall remain non-violent during this event."
Constable Brongel of the RCMP calls the declaration a hopeful sign about the tenor of the demonstrations, and said she hopes the anarchists stick to it.
But she vehemently rejected the idea that police could instigate violence.
"Through their training (officers are) taught to be very calm and very tolerant and to make a distinction between protest and illegal acts," she said. "Officers will be there to intervene if there has been an infraction of the law."
Graeber offered this observation: "All the coercive force needed to keep order is a result of having the coercive force in the first place. If they'd said, 'Do what you like,' the worst that would've happened is we'd be doing a blockade."
- Some Anarchist Web Sites: www.infoshop.org, www.pouvoir-ouvrier.org, flag.blackened.net/~global/1299bbcommunique.htm, www.ainfos.ca, www3.sympatico.ca/emile.henry/eh.htm.
- Allison Hanes's E-mail address is email@example.com
Summit of the Americas
- Where: Quebec City
- When: April 20-22
- The purpose: More than 9,000 delegates from 34 countries in North, South and Central America, members of the Organization of American States, will meet as part of the continuing process of trying to unite the economies of the Western Hemisphere - except for Cuba's - in a single free-trade agreement, the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
- The opposition: As many as 25,000 demonstrators are expected to descend on Quebec City to protest against the FTAA, which they say will serve the interests of richer countries and multinational corporations at the expense of human rights, the environment and the poor.
- Security: More than 6,000 police officers from across Canada will be on duty during the summit, hoping to prevent the chaos and violence that have marred similar meetings.
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