Here Comes the Barmy Army!

barmy_army_3-150x150An article from Do or Die Issue 9. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 12-14.

Thousands of people converged on the Czech Republic at the end of September 2000 for the 55th Annual Meeting of the World Bank Group and the Board of Governors of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which was taking place in Prague from the 26th-28th September. There were about twenty thousand of the world’s bankers, economists and investors; about ten thousand of the world’s anti-capitalists, socialists, anarchists and anti-globalisers; and about eleven thousand cops (a quarter of the total Czech police force) trying to stop the one getting to the other…


Pink and Silver on the Warpath

The mainly British pink and silver section of the march was kind of funny in a way. It felt like marching along the streets with the contents of your local nightclub crossed with It’s a Knockout and an anarcho version of Dad’s Army. At the heart of the column was a samba band and a load of dancers all decked out in pink and silver carnival costumes. This was followed by a few hundred strong rag-tag bunch of Earth First! and Reclaim the Streets people and our assorted friends and relations.

It was all headed up by a mini black bloc laden with bravado and carrying a reinforced pink and silver banner made of doubled-over tarp bolted onto wooden staves with handles with SAMBA! painted on it. Although you would have thought if we were carrying a banner through Prague we might at least have had something useful and relevant (and preferably in Czech) written on it.

Time and effort had been put into developing a complex communications and decision-making structure for the day. The idea was that in the centre of our marching column was a group of people with mobile phones and radios who were in contact with the two central communication hubs Centrum and Traveller (one fixed and one mobile) – and also with a number of scouts, predominantly on bikes, who could go ahead to check out where the cops were and what route we should take etc. The communications team in the centre of the march then liased with a route group who knew the area and had all the maps in order to decide where to go. This decision was then passed forward to the people at the front of the march and signalled to everyone by a big flag on a tall pole used to indicate what direction to go in. The whole march was made of affinity groups, each of which had a delegate. When a decision had to be made which the communications team and route group didn’t feel they could make by themselves, then the direction-indicating flag went down and a flag with a picture of a rather confused looking fish went up. The delegates from each of these affinity groups then had to gather around this flag to find out whatever decision needed to be made and then shuttle back and forth between their affinity group and the impromptu spokescouncil to sort it out.

The scouts were excellent and really useful, but at the end of the day was the rest of it necessary or desirable? Using this unwieldy process we just about managed to walk down the road in the same direction together (although sometimes it was touch and go when we hit a corner) and to be subject to this command structure on the day was one of the most disempowering and frustrating experiences of my political life. To see the yellow Ya Basta! march streaming out of the square at a fast pace whilst we hung around waiting for fuck-knows-what made me want to leave and join the blue anarcho/autonomist march there and then. To a greater or lesser extent this continued for the rest of the day and I feel it quashed a vital element of spontanenity and passion that usually counts for so much in these situations.

This attempt we made at a mass decision making process was far less egalitarian than simply letting a crowd do what a crowd does. In situations like large demos, crowds operate with a sort of organic free-flowing decision-making ability. Everyone judges for themselves individually or with mates what it’s best to do and if people aren’t confident about something, they hang back, and if they don’t like it they leave. But people also want to stick together in large numbers and so an effective group opinion does emerge. Crowds don’t always do the best thing but it usually works at least as quickly and as well as any attempts to formally structure it – and without relying on the same old faces with the mobile phones and loud voices.

Maybe we needed a route to the Conference Centre to be decided and led by a few people, but if we had spent less time on the elaborate decision making structure we could have spent more time preparing in other perhaps more useful ways. And anyway, the whole elaborate edifice all went to shit as soon as we actually met any kind of resistance. Running an army by consensus is a stupid idea – let’s not do it again.

Glib Slogans R Us

One influential idea that has been recently re-invented by the British eco-activist scene and successfully exported around the world is the idea that protest and revolution is like a carnival. Reclaim the Streets and others have very successfully pushed this idea of ‘party and protest’, largely in the form of the ‘RTS’ street party.

This is a great idea, and when it works well it has led to some amazing things. But there have been continuous problems about how it works out in practice. If the idea is to be anything more that a glib slogan (Revolution = Carnival and Carnival = Revolution) which can be trotted out at every opportunity, then we need to think through how exactly it will work. There are plenty of ways in which a revolution is a carnival and vice-versa, but there are also plenty of ways in which it ain’t, and to absolutely equate one with the other can lead to all sorts of problems. So often this synthesis of party and protest results in a conflict and it becomes a choice between party or protest, which seems to have been the case in Prague.

Fairies and Fighters

Our little bloc neatly expressed some of these contradictions. We were not as good as we could have been at being a carnivalesque, drumming, dancing parade because the dancers and the drummers were surrounded by big banners blocking any view of them carried by a very un-carnivalesque scowling black bloc who looked like they were going to war with gas masks and sticks. The carnivalesque people in their costumes loved all the media, and were dancing around and parading themselves in front of the TV cameras, who, in turn, equally loved the spectacle. The black bloc people at the head of the march were, however, far more concerned with security and actively tried to avoid being filmed and photographed, using the reinforced banner to shield the march from photographers. The poor old press must have been very perplexed. What to make of a load of exhibitionists in huge pink carnival costumes marching through the centre of town to a samba band, then when you tried to get close to take any photos some blacked-up lunatic in a gas mask jumped up in front of you screaming “no photos!”?

Likewise we were not as effective a fighting column as we might have been because all the dancing people in their carnival costumes and the drum-laden samba band couldn’t move fast enough for us to really skirt around the police and swiftly seize tactical opportunities when they presented themselves. They got in the way when we were charging the police lines, and if we actually had managed to break through, then the front of the march would probably have ended up trapped behind the cop lines as they closed again behind us because behind the black block was a space and then a whole load of drummers and dancers that stopped anyone else moving forwards to fill it.

Another fault showed itself in a more dangerous way: a lack of useful discussion and practical preparation. We never collectively discussed or thought about exactly what we were trying to do on S26 in Prague. Were we trying to block the streets or to smash through police lines to get into the Conference Centre? And how exactly were we going to accomplish either of these? There was some sense in not spending too much time before the action thinking about these things as we had no idea what sort of policing strategy we would be up against, how many of us there would be or how far we would get. Lots of people were expecting that the police might try to block us into our meeting point at the square, or even blockade it to prevent us getting there, so we might have to try and get through police lines to even get into or out of our initial meeting point. However, as it turned out on the day, almost all the police were concentrated around the Conference Centre with hardly any anywhere else. There were almost no police following us on our march through town to the Conference Centre which we reached relatively swiftly and with no problems. So the question of what exactly we were going to do when we got there came to be much more important than had been expected.

Victory through Violence?

Although there was some logic in avoiding these questions prior to the day, some of the reason behind the non-discussion of these issues seemed to be one of avoiding awkward and potentially divisive questions which could cause rifts and arguments. Not always a bad thing, except when, as in this case, they are vital questions which might make a large difference to people’s life and liberty.

Basically, if we as a group were going to do anything more than sit in the road as a blockade, and actually try and get in the Conference Centre for example, then (short of some fantastically clever plan that nobody had) we were going to need to use some sort of violence to do it. And for this to be as effective as possible, and for us to avoid as much risk to ourselves as possible, it needed to some extent to be pre-planned and co-ordinated. However, to attempt to raise this before the 26th in the planning of the action would have been incredibly divisive, as large numbers of the people on our pink and silver block (not to mention INPEG) would have very strongly disapproved.

It’s one thing to defend, or at least not condemn, spontaneous violence in self-defence, or to get everyone to agree that property damage is okay, but quite another to sit down and pre-plan a violent attack on the police. Yet this is what we would have needed to do. Because we didn’t raise and resolve these awkward issues, we went off and attacked the police lines in an unplanned, unorganised and half-cocked way, the end result of which was that it wasn’t as effective as it could have been and people got hurt. The initial pink and silver charge and attack on the police lines filled a tactical gap that was left empty by the lack of discussion as to what to do when we eventually encountered the inevitable police lines. If we had discussed it, the conclusion we should have reached was that if we were going to get anywhere then we would have needed more extreme and targetted violence or none at all, not some half-way house with all the disadvantages of both but none of the advantages.

There are generally a few types of violence we come across in our political activity. The most common is self defence and spontaneous outbursts of anger. Unplanned and uncoordinated they’re usually provoked by an attack or an expression of extreme emotions. Another is ritualistic violence, the political equivalent of the post-pub fight – unplanned, unthought out and generally conducted by frustrated and/or drunk people. One we haven’t yet engaged with much (thank fuck) is the pre-planned and strategically though out use of targetted violence.

Like it or not, a large part of the effectiveness of our mass street mobilisations rests on this threat of implied violence from us. Obviously the police reaction is to organise to prevent it occurring. As part of their plans to try and contain the mob, they often give us some sort of sacrifical target to keep us happy and diffuse the development of our collective strength into something they can’t control.

In Prague the space they did let us have for blockading felt meaningless as the delegates were already inside the Conference Centre. This left us with very little to do apart from smash things up or attack the cops and try and force our way into the Conference Centre.

Unfortunately we failed to realise that this was likely to be the case and to discuss what we wanted to do about it. Maybe drummers, pink dancers and fighting the cops could have worked together but we never talked about how. Instead we had an unthought out part-carnival part-black block where nobody was happy and we weren’t as effective as we could have been. Luckily we didn’t come off too badly.

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