Don’t Just Follow Along: Some Critical Notes on Tactics and Discourse

We are all here to get our voices heard.

This may be true for some, but we question whether this applies generally to a crowd in a protest scenario. Did the various native tribes and individuals at Standing Rock set up camp to “get their voices heard,” or were they gathered to directly defend that which sustains them and allows them to live? Similarly, we believe some may go to a Black Lives Matter protest to “get their voice heard,” but we also know some go because they do not want to be shot or arrested by the police, in other words, because their life depends on it. There is no unqualified “we” at a demonstration nor anywhere else. To uncritically use “we” without thinking about how different the people present truly are is to level or flatten the real differences that exist between “us,” and produce a group that can only be unified on the basis of its most common features (being human, being present at that demonstration). This erases experiences and over-simplifies the problems that brought people out in the first place. This “we” is not a concrete or already existing group, it is an operation performed each time it is said that erases our differences to give the impression of unity in a group. 

It’s essential that we protect everyone’s freedom of speech.

The subtext of this statement reads: “even if they are a neo-nazi,” or “even if they support policies or forms of speech that put me in danger.” The individuals in the far-right, or the “alt-right”, also cite their right to free speech when they claim that the West is fighting a war against Islam (as Steve Bannon has), or that we need to rid America of all the foreigners (as Richard Spencer has), or that date rape and rape culture are non-existent (as Milo Yiannopoulos and Mike Cernovich have). If it becomes normal enough to say that Islam is trying to destroy the West, then why should we be upset when someone attacks a Muslim person praying in public? If it is normal and acceptable to discuss the white man’s claim to this country, then why should we be upset when our neighborhood association creates housing restrictions for immigrants from Mexico or China, or when ICE shows up to take them to a detention center? If we accept the denial of different forms of rape and sexual assault as legitimate positions, then who’s to judge whether anyone can be culpable for assault, or whether it was just “boys being boys”? Or consider the less obvious implications of the common insults of these alt-right figures. Paul Joseph Watson, for one, frequently refers to demonstrators as “autistic children” and “retards,” while Gavin McInnes refers to the left as “mentally ill perverts.” What does this say about people who are physically or mentally different? That they are less than human. These contain implicit declarations that people with these differences have no platform to speak or be seen, that they ought to be excluded and put away. Speech is not neutral. It exists in a historical context of violence. Discourse shapes the way we frame problems. It influences the way we act in the world we share together. Are deportation, exclusion, and sexual assault forms of violence? It depends on the discourse that frames them, be they legal or social. Just as the rules of a card game change the way you use the same cards, the way you speak and conceive of things changes the way you live your life. Speaking and acting are irreversibly intertwined and cannot be isolated from one-another.

Using violence only makes us as bad as those we oppose.

What this statement always takes for granted is the meaning of violence itself. What is violence, concretely? And more importantly, who defines and decides what it is? Debates around violence quickly descend into the infantile territory of quoting the dictionary to prove a point, as if the dictionary weren’t written with human hands and made by real people with their own presuppositions. We are doomed to circular arguments if we uncritically accept any of the vague definitions widely accepted. The question of who or what is violent always conceals the more important question: who has obtained a position from which they can denounce and punish violence as they define it? Today, the police and the far-right undoubtedly occupy this position. For this reason, forced deportation is not violence but law, while blocking roads is violent; breaking windows at a building where Milo is speaking is violent, while Milo leaking personal information of transgendered students to be harassed by alt-right trolls and students with illegal residence status to be targeted by ICE is lawful free speech; someone punching the proud white supremacist Richard Spencer is violent, while Spencer hosting articles about ethnic genocide on his website in a country built on slavery and colonialism is just “free speech.” Violence, in the end, is nothing. It’s indefinable because it shifts according to who has the power to define it. It nearly always operates downwards: those who hold the most power and control the most means of force will define anything that appears as a threat as “violent.” This is why the men who shot five people at a Black Lives Matter protest in North Minneapolis could claim self defense against “violence” from unarmed protestors, and why the man who shot an unarmed protestor outside Seattle’s UW during a protest against Milo could say the same. You can disagree about the usefulness or kindness of a tactic, but the question of violence is, in the final analysis, nothing other than the question of who gets to decide what it is.

Don’t do anything illegal! Let’s keep this space safe!

This statement is especially absurd, since it’s often shouted by those already engaged in illegal behavior. Depending on the permit the organizers were able to get from the city, blocking streets, having a certain amount of people, and remaining in a space past a designated time may all be illegal. At the demonstration against the Muslim Ban at the MSP airport, demonstrators were often unaware that their presence in the airport had violated the terms of the permit. Similarly, when demonstrators moved onto I-94 to protest the election of Donald Trump in November, they chanted “this is a legal protest” while they engaged in decidedly illegal behavior. Whether an action is legal or illegal should never guide our conduct. Much of what we collectively consider tragedy in our history was carried out legally, like slavery, for example. Much of what we consider heroic was illegal, like helping slaves escape their plantations. At the same time, laws can change quickly and drastically as we’ve learned in the first few weeks of a Donald Trump presidency. Those who have opposed Trump on the basis of his “illegal” or “unconstitutional” behavior will have to come to terms with the fact that he will accomplish his deportations, his bans, his strengthening of white supremacist elements, and weakening of marginalized communities through primarily legal means, and with the infrastructure built by Obama. ICE and drone technology were drastically expanded under Obama’s eight years, for instance. Perhaps those who unconditionally supported Obama will only now be worried that he was able to remotely kill a U.S. citizen (Anwar al-Awlaki) without a trial using a drone. The over-reliance on legal discourse betrays a faith in a system of law that has been used to justify murder, genocide, slavery, and imperialism. Those who have managed to escape being affected by these processes will now have to decide whether law is more important than defending their neighbors, their friends, or themselves. Who among them would be willing to hide a refugee whose return home could mean death? Who would lie to the police who come to take them away? Who would fight the police? It may be the case that by not participating in illegal behavior, those who demand we follow the law are condemning everyone else to misery or death.

But when people antagonize the police, it puts everyone in danger.

We can’t help but think that people who say this haven’t had much experience dealing with the police. The actions of the police in Standing Rock provide a good example. The anti-DAPL protests have been largely within the tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience and yet the resisters there have been brutally attacked with pepper spray, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, tear gas and batons. They’ve been encircled by drones, investigated by police, and tracked on social media. Clearly, the police weren’t waiting for so-called “violence” to erupt before attacking. On the other hand, the demonstrators at UC Berkeley who shut down Milo’s speech threw barricades, used mace against white supremacists, shot fireworks and threw stones at the police and the building where Milo was speaking, and lit fires in the street. The police response was to hide in the building and then stay to defend campus as the crowd was able to march largely unaccompanied by police for hours. What these examples highlight is not the superiority of one tactic or kind of tactic over another, but rather the importance of understanding the particulars of each situation, the goals, and what it makes sense to do. If you are truly worried about police violence, in a situation where the police have relatively few numbers, running towards them to make them flee is a greater guarantee of preventing police violence than sitting down and waiting for them to amass their weapons. Those who most often make the above claim are ideological pacifists, who push the doctrine of civil disobedience in every scenario, even when it is strategically dangerous; protest organizers and their marshals who have a vested interest in keeping their grant money and being allowed to obtain more permits; and the police themselves, who obviously don’t want to be strategically out-maneuvered. 

Trump will divide America.

Such a belief presupposes the idea that we were ever united. The truth is: we aren’t some big happy family being threatened by a tyrant, nor were we in the past. Some Americans’ ancestors were slave-owners, while others were slaves. Some Americans’ ancestors put natives in camps, while others killed Europeans. Some Americans’ parents or grandparents were arrested and jailed for having drugs, while others got rich off of free prison labor. Some Americans laughed at Obama’s jokes and cried when he got a Nobel peace prize, others lost siblings and fled from his bombing campaigns to a country that still largely despises them. There are no “Americans.” There are those with power, and those without it. The slogan “Trump will divide America” is born from the same well-intended historical ignorance as “we are all immigrants.” Native Americans were not immigrants, they were the victims of genocide and social cleansing. Africans were not immigrants, they were kidnapped and enslaved. Even many Irish and Europeans were hardly immigrants, but were trapped into indefinite involuntary servitude contracts. The only victors of a “united America” would be white, wealthy Americans in an ethno-state with colonial subjects. America was never great. More than that, America has never been anything except a parade of servitude and death, and the persistent image of American unity that always accompanies it.

*This content of this text was originally intended for the “Protest Marshal” piece published here, but these parts didn’t really fit. I decided to fill them out and release them as a separate text. Consider it an addendum or a companion to the “marshal” piece.

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