A curious property evident in the discussion of insurrection in the United States is that it gets more respect the further it occurs from home. Anarchists who would never dream of complaining that the Thessaloniki Food not Bombs is being neglected while its members amuse themselves burning banks, who could never conceive of suggesting that the Somali pirates stop seizing ships for ransom in order to start a bike repair collective, have no problem criticizing their own friends and comrades for shortchanging local projects to attend semi-annual mass mobilizations. This is a shame, because a look at the broader picture reveals that summit demos are taking an ongoing toll on the ruling class, even when they are tactically unsuccessful.
Just for starters, any city hosting a summit has to impose de facto martial law for the duration of the meetings. Miles-long steel security fences, bag searches on the subway, black helicopters in the sky, armor-clad riot cops on every corner, among other measures, make a mockery of the myth of “civil rights.” By employing such repressive tactics just to keep a few summit delegates from being confronted by those they claim to be helping, authority reveals its true nature, undisguised by the usual lies and propaganda. People who claim that we should abandon summit protests because we can never replicate the WTO (World Trade Organization) riots in Seattle are missing this point. While it’s true that the cops will never again allow themselves to be defeated on the street the way they were in Seattle, the things they have to do to win in the short term erode the perceived legitimacy of the entire ruling system in the medium term. If all they had to do was stop the protests they could just shoot the protesters. But since they must also maintain the illusion of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, their problem is complicated immensely. They have no good options, so it’s not a matter of whether we will win, only of how.
Their situation becomes all the worse when, after turning the host city into a militarized encampment for a week, the cops can’t even stop a few kids in black from breaking windows. The resulting frustration often leads them to attack and arrest defenseless groups and individuals who have minimal connection to the protests, further compounding their problems when the videos hit Youtube. Then to justify their own brutality, the cops make an example of a handful of protest organizers by hitting them with ridiculously inflated charges, usually for actions that most people would consider perfectly innocuous. As an added bonus, the lawsuits generated by blatantly unconstitutional arrests and searches strain city budgets, consume prosecutors’ time, and extend their PR nightmare. For authoritarians, the only thing worse than appearing brutal and repressive is appearing brutal and repressive and ineffectual. Cops, by their nature, will fall into this trap every time, as long as we show up and set it for them.
While not every big demo conforms to the above pattern exactly, the dynamic was illustrated to perfection at the G-20 protests in Pittsburgh September 24 and 25. The city imported 3,000 outside cops and 2,500 National Guard troops to augment its meager force of 877. In addition, the Pittsburgh municipal government launched a fear mongering campaign aimed at demonizing protesters, only to see it blow up in their faces when many businesses and schools drank a little too much Kool-Aid and shut down and boarded up for the week rather than face the black-clad hordes. The army of cops kept an unpermitted march of at most 2,000 from getting anywhere near the convention on the 24th, but couldn’t stop protesters from escaping back eastward and damaging stores in the Shadyside shopping district. Later that night, a Bash Back! march broke more windows in Oakland, even attacking some in a police substation. Despite being substantially outnumbered, both actions sustained minimal arrests. Unlike their counterparts at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in St. Paul, Minnesota in September 2008, Pittsburgh cops didn’t retaliate by attacking permitted events. They did, however, beat, teargas and arrest protesters at an impromptu rally against police brutality, of all things, including a number of University of Pittsburgh students who were only hanging out watching. While this sort of behavior is routinely ignored in low-income communities of color, it generated an enormous amount of bad publicity for the police when applied to majority-white college students with video cameras.
And sure enough, as if following a script, the Pennsylvania cops found innocent people to scapegoat for their own incompetence. They arrested two members of the Tin Can Comms Collective, Elliot Madison and Michael Wallschlaeger, for broadcasting updates about police activity over Twitter. The two are charged, as of this writing, with hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communications facility, and possession of instruments of crime. A week later, Madison’s home in New York was raided by the FBI, who seized stuffed animals, Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs, and a picture of Curious George, among other incriminating items. The feds then tied Obama even more tightly to the case by launching a grand jury investigation of Madison and his wife. Madison and Wallschlaeger’s case is reminiscent of that of the RNC 8, eight anarchists who are being prosecuted under the Minnesota Patriot Act for helping organize protests against the RNC. But unlike the RNC 8, whose case has only been covered heavily in Minnesota, Madison and Wallschlaeger’s arrests were featured prominently nationwide. Jokes about “Twerrorism” began circulating almost immediately after their arrests, and many commentators pointed out the hypocrisy of the Obama administration supporting the use of Twitter by protesters in Iran while repressing the same thing in Pittsburgh. The incident tarnished Obama’s reputation as a supporter of civil rights, and future developments in the case will only exacerbate that problem.
But wait, there’s more. The Daily Show covered the anarchist protesters at the G-20—twice, no less. John Oliver’s “Tea Partiers Advise G20 Protesters” segment was a particularly biting attack on the disparity in police response between right-wing and left-wing protests. And, lest anybody be tempted to dismiss The Daily Show as mere comedy, a 2007 University of Louisiana study found it to contain as much, if not more, actual news than the average television news program, and at least one poll has shown Jon Stewart to be the United States’ most trusted newscaster. Not to mention he’s a lot funnier than Walter Cronkite ever was.
For the cherry on the sundae, we have Obama’s answer to a question about the protests at a press conference. Instead of just delivering some generic line about how he didn’t agree with the protesters but supported their right to free speech, Obama went out of his way to note that many protesters were anti-capitalist. This was a fascinating response on a couple of levels. For one thing, Obama clearly felt a need to simultaneously demonize and belittle the protests. This seems like an overreaction considering their relatively low tactical impact and small size (something else Obama brought up). That “anti-capitalist” was the worst epithet he could come up with is also instructive. In 2001, then-President Bush was asked a similar question at the Free Trade Area of the Americas conference in Quebec City, a summit whose protests dwarfed anything that happened at the G-20. His reply repeatedly painted the protesters as being against “free trade.” That wouldn’t have worked for Obama in 2009; free trade is practically a dirty word these days. Likewise, calling protesters “communists” or “reds” would have been seen as hopelessly archaic, and Obama wasn’t quite stupid enough to publicly admit that there are such things as anarchists in the world. Nonetheless, he gave millions of television viewers their first clue that organized anti-capitalist resistance even exists. As capitalism fails more and more people, that statement will be increasingly revealed as a mistake.
Much of the above analysis re-poses the question everybody asked when the G-20 location was first announced: why Pittsburgh? A mid-sized, decaying Rust Belt city with an undersized police force and no experience hosting summits would hardly seem to be a natural choice for a major gathering of heads of state. During the event, many of Pittsburgh’s failures were obvious rookie mistakes. For example, it’s hard to imagine shopkeepers in New York City boarding up their stores just because a few more anarchists were coming to town. The official explanation was that Obama wanted to highlight Pittsburgh’s “recovery” from the industrial collapse of the 80s, but this is obvious bullshit. Denver and St. Paul, hosts to the 2008 Democratic and Republican National Conventions respectively, were also summit virgins, at least in the post-Seattle era. Miami, New York and Chicago on the other hand, cosmopolitan cities with impeccable track records of suppressing protest, have collectively gone over five years without a summit (the 2004 RNC in New York was the most recent). Keep in mind that cities can’t be forced to host these events by the federal government; local politicians accept them voluntarily, believing that they will generate political capital and tax revenue. This was a safe assumption before Seattle, but it now seems likely that officials in larger cities have decided that defending self-described world leaders from the black bloc just isn’t worth the hassle, bad publicity, and lawsuits. The example of Pittsburgh can only reinforce this lesson.
This trend of holding summits in cities with small police departments works to our advantage by opening up tactical breathing room, in addition to the PR benefits. The 6,000 cops in Pittsburgh were still about 20,000 fewer than protesters would have faced in New York, where the G-20 was rumored to be held before the White House’s announcement in May. Most of the 6,000 had no experience in crowd control, and the fact that they came from multiple jurisdictions caused them communication, coordination and logistical difficulties. They couldn’t encrypt their radio communications because of incompatibilities between equipment from different police departments, allowing people with scanners to post their commands and movements on Twitter. This was how it was learned that several of their armored personnel carriers almost ran out of gas and had to be refueled by a tanker truck. At the RNC in St. Paul, where the cops had a similar personnel shortage, their untested state-of-the-art comms center broke down and left them using a white board to keep track of their own forces.
The flip side of this coin is that untrained cops in a strange city are more likely to overreact and attack whomever is handy if they fail to completely control a protest. While this generates damaging press and opens them up to lawsuits, that isn’t necessarily much consolation to people who have been tear-gassed on their own porches or arrested while coming home from work. Thus it is all the more important to contact potentially vulnerable groups ahead of time and be prepared to support them on short notice throughout the action. This problem was addressed in Pittsburgh and St. Paul, but there is always room for improvement.
That shouldn’t stop us from realizing that we’re winning the war, even though we lose the street battles. Without militant protests, every summit meeting would be a self-congratulatory public relations spectacle for the ruling class, a carefully scripted celebration of the wonderful job the neoliberals are doing running the world. Instead, because of us, they are increasingly exercises in naked repression that have to be defended rather than celebrated. After the riots in Seattle, the WTO held their next meeting oin the Doha peninsula in Qatar along the Persian Gulf. (As David Graeber put it, they preferred “to run the risk of being blown up by Osama Bin Laden rather than having to face another DAN blockade.”). They didn’t stay there, of course. The image of a group of unaccountable elites handing down unappealable edicts from a remote stronghold was too damaging to the neoliberal narrative of “democratic capitalism.” Today, as the economic collapse radicalizes ever more of its victims, we have an opportunity to force all summits to be held in such protest-proof locations, to trap summit organizers in the PR equivalent of a secret undersea lair defended by sharks with lasers on their fins (only not as cool). But we can’t do it by staying home and starting more reading groups. We need to be out in the streets, confronting our oppressors wherever they show their faces.
This article originally appeared in the BAAM Newsletter.