After Genoa: Asking the Right Questions


     Genoa was a watershed for the antiglobalization movement. It's clear now that this is a life or death struggle in the first world as it has always been in the third world. How we respond will determine whether repression destroys us or strengthens us. To come back stronger, we have to understand what actually happened there.

     The media are telling one story about Genoa: a small group of violent protestors got out of hand and the police overreacted. I've heard variations on this from within the movement: the Black Bloc was allowed to get out of hand to justify police violence. But that's not what happened in Genoa, and framing the problem that way will keep us focused on the wrong questions.

     Let's be clear: In Genoa we encountered a carefully orchestrated political campaign of state terrorism. The campaign included disinformation, the use of infiltrators and provocateurs, collusion with avowed Fascist groups (and I don't mean fascist in the loose way the left sometimes uses the term, I mean Fascist as in 'direct inheritors of the traditions of Mussolini and Hitler'), the deliberate targeting of nonviolent groups for tear gas and beating, endemic police brutality, the torture of prisoners, the political persecution of the organizers, and a terrorist night raid on sleeping people by special forces wearing "Polizia" T-shirts under black sweatshirts, who broke bones, smashed teeth, and bashed in the skulls of nonresisting protestors. They did all this openly, in a way that indicates they had no fear of repercussions and expected political protection from the highest sources. That expectation implicates not only the proto-Fascist Berlusconi regime of Italy, but by association the rest of the G8, especially the U.S. since it now appears that L.A. County Sheriffs helped trained the most brutal of the special forces.

     Italy has a history of the employment of such tactics, going back to the 'strategy of tension' used against the left in the nineteen seventies, in fact, even further back to the 'twenties and 'thirties which don't seem all that far away any more once you've heard prisoners describe being tortured in rooms with pictures of Mussolini on the walls. Maybe even back to the Renaissance, if not the ancient Romans. The same tactics have, of course, been used extensively by U.S. agencies and other countries. Italy also has a political culture of highly confrontational actions and streetfighting with the police, as well as strong pacifist groups and groups like the Tute Biancha who are exploring new political territory that goes beyond the traditional definitions of violence and nonviolence. All of this set the stage upon which the events of the G8 protest were played.

     The police used the Black Bloc, or more accurately, the myth and image of the Black bloc, very effectively in Genoa, for their ends, not ours. Some aspects of Black Bloc tactics made that easy: the anonymity, the masks and easily identifiable dress code, the willingness to engage in more confrontational tactics and in property damage, and perhaps most significant, the lack of connection with the rest of the action and the organizers.

     But the Black Bloc was not the source of the problem in Genoa. The problem was state, police and Fascist violence. Acts were done in Genoa, attributed to protestors, that were irresponsible and wrong by anyone's standards-but it seems likely now that most of them were done by police. Or if not, police provocateurs were so endemic that it's impossible to tell what might have been done by people in our movement or to hold anyone accountable. So the issue Genoa presents us with is not "How do we control the violent elements among us?", although that conceivably might be an issue someday. It's "How do we forestall another campaign of lies, police-instigated violence, and retaliation?"

     There's no easy answer to that question. The simplest strategy would be to go back to a strict form of nonviolence, which many people are proposing. I don't know why I find myself in resistance to that answer. I'm a longtime advocate of nonviolence, I have no intention of ever throwing a brick through a window or lobbing a rock at a cop myself, and in general I think breaking windows and fighting cops in a mass action is counterproductive at best and suicidal at worst.

     One reason might be that I can no longer use the same word to describe what I've seen even the most unruly elements of our movement do in actions and what the cops did in Genoa. If breaking windows and fighting back when the cops attack is 'violence', then give me a new word, a word a thousand times stronger, to use when the cops are beating nonresisting people into comas.

     Another might be just that I like the Black Bloc. I've been in many actions now where the Black Bloc was a strong presence. In Seattle I was royally pissed off at them for what I saw as their unilateral decision to violate agreements everyone else accepted. In Washington in 2000, I saw that they abided by guidelines they disagreed with and had no part in making, and I respected them for it. I've sat under the hooves of the police horses with some of them when we stopped a sweep of a crowded street using tactics Gandhi himself could not have criticized. I've choked with them in the tear gas in Quebec City and seen them refrain from property damage there when confronted by local people. I'm bonded. Yes, there have been times I've been furious with some of them, but they're my comrades and allies in this struggle and I don't want to see them excluded or demonized. We need them, or something like them. We need room in the movement for rage, for impatience, for militant fervor, for an attitude that says "We are badass, kickass folks and we will tear this system down." If we cut that off, we devitalize ourselves.

     We also need the Gandhian pacifists. We need room for compassion, for faith, for an attitude that says, "My hands will do the works of mercy and not the works of war." We need those who refuse to engage in violence because they do not want to live in a violent world. And we need space for those of us who are trying to explore forms of struggle that fall outside the categories. We need radical creativity, space to experiment, to carve out new territory, invent new tactics, make mistakes.

     There are campaigns being waged now that are defined as clearly and strictly nonviolent: the School of the Americas, Vandenberg, Vieques, among others. Those guidelines have been respected, and no black clad brick throwing figures have attempted to impose other tactics. But the actions directed against the big summits have drawn their strength from a much broader political spectrum, from unions and NGOs to anarchist revolutionaries. All these groups feel a certain ownership of the issue and the fat, juicy targets that the summits represent.

     How do we create a political space that can hold these contradictions, and still survive the intense repression directed against us? How do we go where no social movement has ever gone before?

     Maybe these are the questions we really need to ask. In a life or death situation, there's a great temptation to attempt to exert more control, to set rules, to police each other, to retreat to what seems like safe ground. But all my instincts tell me that going back to what seems safe and tried and true is a mistake. As an anarchist, I'm not interested in doing any kind of police work. I want to call each other to greater, not lesser freedom, knowing that also means greater responsibility and greater risk.

     Using provocateurs to instigate violence which can be blamed on dissenters and used to justify repression is a time tested, generally successful way of destroying radical movements. But it's a strategy that thrives on the familiar, the expected. Identifying provocateurs in the midst of an action is like trying to spray for a pest in the garden: the toxicity of the spray, of the suspicion, secrecy and lack of trust, may be as great as that of the pest.

     But plants can resist pests if they are grown in healthy soil. To forestall infiltration and provocateurs, we need to examine the soil of our movement. I'd like to suggest three nutrients that can make us more pest resistant: communication, solidarity and creativity.

     We have to be in communication. We can no longer afford to wage parallel but disconnected struggles at the same demonstration. We need to clearly state our intentions and goals for each action, and ask others to support them. We may need to argue and struggle with each, to negotiate, to compromise. Articulating a clear set of agreements about tactics may at times be the best way to forestall provocateurs. But agreements are only agreements when everyone participates in making them. If one wing of the movement attempts to impose them, they are not agreements but decrees, and moreovoer, decrees that will not be respected and that we have no power to enforce.

     That communication involves risk on both sides, but those risks have to be taken, intelligently and thoughtfully, of course. We need to put a higher priority on our communication than on our standing with our funding sources or our security culture. If my tactic of choice makes it impossible for me to talk to you, I need to question whether it's an appropriate tactic for a mass action.

     In that dialogue, we actually have to struggle to respect each other. No one gets to claim the moral high ground. None of us get to exclusively set the agenda, determine the form of what we do or decree the politics. Those who advocate nonviolence, a chief tenet of which is to respect your opponent, need to practice it within the movement. You can't just dismiss the Black Bloc and other militant groups as 'negative rebels' or immature adolescents acting out. They have a political perspective that is serious, thoughtful, and deserves to be taken seriously.

     But it also means that more militant groups need to stop dismissing those who advocate nonviolence as middle-class, passive, and cowardly. The Black Bloc is widely respected for its courage, but it takes another kind of courage to sit down in front of the riot cops without sticks or rocks or Molotovs. It takes courage to have your identity known, to organize in your own city where you can't disappear but must stand and face the consequences. 'Nonviolent' does not equate with 'nonconfrontational', or with wanting to be safe on the sidelines. The essence of nonviolent political struggle is to create intense confrontations that highlight the violence in the system, and then to stand and openly take the consequences. In today's repressive climate, where 88 year old nuns are being given year long prison sentences for completely pacific actions, the risks of nonviolence may be much higher than the risks of anonymous street fighting.

     We need to communicate clearly with the larger community as well, proactively, not reactively. We have to let people know what our intentions are and what the parameters of the action might be. Imagine the Black bloc putting out a Crimestopper Leaflet: "If you see a group of masked figures looting small shops, burning private cars, and endangering your children, get their badge numbers! They are the Cops! Because we're the Black Bloc, and that's not what we do!" We need to talk to the not-already-converted, door to door, face to face, not to lecture them but to ask about their lives and the effects these issues have on them, and to ask them to show support for us.

     We need to be in real solidarity with each other. Solidarity is not just about refraining from denouncing each other to the media, or holding vigils for those in jail. It means putting the good of the whole above our immediate individual desires or even safety. It means supporting each other's intentions and goals, even when we only partially agree with them. Not just by saying, "you do your thing and I'll do mine," but by actually taking responsibility for our actions and for the impact they have on others beyond ourselves or our immediate group. Greater freedom demands greater responsibility.

     In a mass action individual decisions have a collective impact. Some tactics are like the loud-voiced guy in the meeting: they take up all the available space and make it impossible for anyone else to be heard. Cops are not creatures of fine distinctions. If one group is throwing Molotov cocktails and smashing shop windows, it may well affect how the police react to the pacifist group a block over. The community, too, may miss the subtle difference between burning the neighborhood bank and burning the neighborhood store. So, just as the loud guy has to learn to step back occasionally and shut up to give others a chance to be heard, high confrontation tactics sometimes need to be restrained just to allow other possibilities to exist.

     Solidarity is about what we do on the street. It means protecting each other as best we can, and certainly not deliberately endangering each other. Of course, one group's idea of protection may be another group's idea of endangerment. A barricade may seem protective, but if your strategy is to deescalate tension, a barricade may actually make your situation more dangerous. We need to respect each other's choices. Solidarity means that if I'm sitting down in front of a line of riot cops and you're behind me, I can trust that you're restraining the crowd behind from trampling me, not throwing a rock over my head. And that if you push through a line of cops and I'm behind you, I'm there to support you, not restrain you. We have a right to ask for solidarity from everyone who wants to be out on the street together.

     Solidarity is also about holding each other accountable, critiquing what we do together with the purpose of learning from our mistakes and becoming more effective. Critiquing is not attacking: a good critique is a mark of respect, it's saying, "I know that you and I share a common interest in making this work better."

     Perhaps most of all, we need to be creative. Maybe, just to stimulate our thinking, we need to mount one action with one simple guideline: No tired, overused tactics allowed. No cross-the-line symbolic arrests, no bricks through the windows of Starbucks. And please, please, no boring chants that have been recycled since the Vietnam War, if not before. ("Hey hey, ho ho, King George the Third has got to go?") At least this would be a useful thought experiment.

     We need to think outside the fences and the boxes. We need to do the unexpected, change clothes, change tactics, be where they don't expect us to be, doing what they don't expect us to do. If they expect us to trash McDonalds, we're there disrupting its operations by giving out free food and asking the workers how globalization affects them. If they expect militants to dress in black, then the militants go lavender and the pacifists stage a Funeral for Democracy, surrounding the White House dressed in black mourning and veils. If they expect us to walk up quietly in groups of five to get arrested, we disappear and reappear somewhere else entirely. If the hardcore streetfighters pull down a fence, the 88 year old nuns are the first through into the red zone. If they block off the meeting and concentrate their defenses on a wall, we claim the rest of the city. If they hide the summits in inaccessible locations, we choose our own turf.

     These are hard challenges, but these are hard times, too and they're not getting easier. I've already seen too many movements splinter and fail or grandstand themselves to death in ever more extreme and suicidal acts, or suffocate from self-righteous moralism. I want to win this revolution. I don't think we have the ecological and social leeway to mount another one if this fails. And the odds of winning are so slim that we can't afford to be anything but smart, strategic, and tight with one another. We need to stand shoulder to shoulder, even when we disagree. And if we can do that, if we can hold these differences within our movement, we'll have taken a step toward meeting the much greater challenges we'll face when we do win, and come to remake a deeply diverse world.

(Thanks to Lisa Fithian, Hilary McQuie ad David Miller for discussions that contributed to this piece.)

© 2001 Starhawk

Starhawk is a well-known author and magical activist. You can visit her web page at: