An article from Do or Die Issue 9. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 12-19.
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…
Fuck the Civil, Let’s get Disobedient!
To the vast majority of those that were there, the actions against the IMF and World Bank in Prague in September 2000 were a resounding success. Not only was the scythe of global privatisation, dollarisation and misappropriation temporarily wrested from the hands of the blood-letters meeting in the Prague Conference Centre, S26 saw an international, disparate but united, revolutionary bloc acting as an organised unit on the streets of the Bohemian capital. So why were the loudest shouters in the activist community (in the loosest sense of the word ‘community’) hell-bent on convincing the world that the day’s actions were a failure?
“We are in this movement to fight for innocent citizens who suffer the horrible consequences of unrestricted capitalist plundering,” wrote Kontrast, the newspaper of the Prague Independent Media Centre (IMC), mouthpiece of INPEG (the Czech-based group who initiated the day of action) and self-appointed voice of the assembled masses. Fair enough, you may think. Then they add: “If you threw a rock, firebomb, apple, bottle or anything else at a cop during yesterday’s protest… you have betrayed INPEG’s commitment to non-violence, the movement and yourselves.” With almost zero appreciation of recent events (in Prague, Yugoslavia, Columbia, Guatemala, Chad, West Papua, the Philippines, etc.) or their repercussions, INPEG’s Central Committee put out a statement on September 27th saying they were “very upset” by the violence, which was “distracting attention away from the violence of economic globalisation we are working to stop”. Activists within the Conference Centre had already explained, by this point, how both meetings and delegates “systematically fell apart” due to the echo of concussion grenades, the odour of tear gas, and reports that their ring-of-steel was on the verge of collapse.
Politically Immature Hate Criminals
As well as “betrayers”, according to Kontrast, anyone who dared physically confront the heavily armed and armoured foot-soldiers of capitalism (the riot police) with a view to actually breaching the cordon and shutting down the meetings, were “politically-immature hate criminals”. We should “think of the cops as if they were foreigners,” wrote the IMC’s paper, “If you throw a rock at a foreigner, you are committing a hate crime. If you throw a rock at a cop, that’s a hate crime too.” Let’s be candid. Riot police are riot police, whatever their national allegiance. And in these circumstances, they are hired bodyguards to capitalism’s elite. They are a physical obstacle between us and those we seek to stop, they will not step aside in the face of flowers or chants of ‘the whole world is watching’, but they will beat and break those who try to overstep the boundaries of permitted dissent. The police will allow you to make a noise, even sometimes to engage in ‘civil’ disobedience, but if you dare to become genuinely disobedient and threaten to actually change the course of events, then they will crush you. From the countless teenagers summarily executed for defying Shell in the Niger Delta, to the women of Ratnagiri who have been beaten and jailed without trial for opposing Enron’s destruction of India’s Maharashtra state, the police are the frontline of oppression. They are the Imperial shock troops, hired locally but acting, habitually, under US direction.
“What if we tried to bring cops into the movement?” asked Kontrast, “After all, by serving as oppressors they are also oppressed. These folks have been working for the wrong cause all along. It’s time they got liberated.” Many of the 900 people arrested on or around S26 came to Prague to help liberate the planet’s oppressed too. Those that were beaten, abused and sexually assaulted by sadistic, violent, often fascist party card-holding cops, those that nursed wounds in Czech jail cells, being refused visits as they awaited the imminent litany of scapegoating charges, may not agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment.
Doing the Bank’s Work for Them
As far as the S26 actions went, one primary aim of the Bank, the Fund, the corporations, the authorities and their assembled press was to discredit anti-capitalism, to paint the actions as a failure, and the movement as divided and out-of-control. Despite this not being the case, INPEG, the IMC and the more liberal reformist groups involved in Prague seemed determined to drive this message home, saving the police, financiers and media the trouble. The idea that intensely dedicated and well-informed revolutionary groups such as the Spanish CNT or those that came from Germany, Poland, Greece and Czech were guilty of “betrayal” because they failed to adhere to the rules of rebellion as laid down by INPEG shows the arrogance and naivety of an organisation top-heavy with middle class British and Americans. The morally superior anti-capitalist elite seems pathetically unaware of the bigger picture of a global revolutionary struggle and the fight against oppression and inequality that’s going down on a thousand international frontlines. ‘It’s my ball, play the game my way or I’m going home’, they howl, as if no one who came to Prague was aware of the bloodthirstiness and violence of the New World Order before INPEG put out their call to action.
Against Authority? Here are the Rules…
In the run up to the action, as numbers in the convergence centre swelled to thousands, anyone who questioned the plans on the table was told, “I’m sorry but this is the consensus”, in reference to decisions taken months previously by a group of a hundred or so activist group ‘delegates’. This is regardless of the fact that a clique of authoritarian Trotskyite groups had gone along mob-handed to make sure their agenda became the ‘consensus’. Despite claims of non-hierarchical decision making, those that came to Prague to take action were then expected to adhere to these commandments. Similarly, when the spokescouncil formed, each meeting was steered along the agenda of a small group of, more often than not, American and British people. “I’m sorry, but we have to move on”, one US facilitator told about forty Southern Europeans who were waiting to speak (with hands up as instructed). All animals are equal eh?… but trust me, I’m Ruckus Society accredited….
Flowers or Firebombs?
No one denies the right of individuals within, or without, INPEG, or even INPEG as an organisation, to carry out their desired form of non-violent protest and action. However the mutual respect held by most protesters does not seem to enter their concept of autonomous action. The vast majority of activists (fluffy pink fairies and spiky blue petrol-bombers alike) are happy for each individual to conduct their protest as they see fit. After all, are we not all striving for a common goal? The only precondition may be that if one group are at the gates doing a spot of cross-legged, tantric de-monetarising, it’s not helpful for another to come and start bricking the police at that barricade. Similarly, it’s not particularly useful for people to start tying flowers to a fence that is about to be firebombed.
Out of the 10,000 who took to Prague’s streets, there were probably less than a total of forty people (from both sides of the debate) who wanted to bicker about violence and non-violence. The rest of us were just getting on with the action. Unfortunately the non-violent types have taken the same definition of violence adopted by the PR wing of corporate capitalism – the media – so when they start huffing and puffing, the assembled hacks think it’s Christmas (and focus their reports on this ‘division’). It was no mistake that the BBC’s concluding thought in their film on Prague was from a girl who thought “violence had spoiled it” because that’s all her mother saw on TV. It was unfortunate that she failed to make the connection between the media’s chosen reporting slant and her mother’s preconceptions, or for that matter her own.
Though we expect the BBC to view the ‘general public’ as white, middle class, reactionary, high-earning, middle England property owners, it is unfortunate when some of us also follow this lead. The accepted view (wheeled out again by INPEG in Prague on September 27) is that property damage and violence damages sympathy for the causes we are trying to address. With a total lack of irony, the non-violence lobby mirrors the system they claim to oppose: the conclusions drawn (from media reports) by affluent, overwhelmingly white, Western minorities are more valuable than those drawn by the (not-so-white) less economically influential majority from politically impotent (globally speaking) countries. Put yourself in the (swoosh-free) shoes of a twelve year old girl, working on her feet without a break 18 hours a day, seven days a week, stitching Nike trainers in some shit-hole factory in Jakarta. Do you think she is ‘outraged’ or ‘offended’ when kids in the West recognise her predicament and take a claw hammer to the glass palaces that retail these fucking things for the equivalent of her annual salary. Do you think she is ‘appalled’ when young men and women on the other side of the planet are prepared to physically confront lines of thug-policemen in a bid to stop the institutions who masterminded the powerless, landless, economo-prison she has no obvious escape from? Yes? No? Which? Maybe if we stopped treating those at the sharp end of global capitalism like victims, but as equals – as people deserving of our fucking respect instead of our salvation (and remember this shit is going down in Kettering as well as Kinshasa) – then maybe the odd cobblestone, smashed window, bloody-nosed cop or jailed activist would be less of an ideological sticking point for people who claim to care.
Mindless Destruction of Property
“The mindless destruction of property in Prague were fruitless expressions of powerlessness and political immaturity”, scolded the wagging finger of Kontrast, in an equally arrogant echo of the tirade that hounded the window breakers in Seattle. Staring out of the wreckage of the Wenceslas Square McDonalds on the night of September 26 was the graffitied legend “Fight Imperialism”. Is it not predictable that the American (I’m guessing) who described the ritual trashing of such symbols of cultural and economic homogenisation as “mindless” completely missed the symbolism of deconstructing such an icon of US imperialism. The smashing of McDonalds restaurants is not an act of agent provocateur policemen, but flag burning for the 21st Century. The venue may alter, but the message to the empire builders is the same: we don’t want your aspirations or control, we don’t want to feed your profits, or fill your hospitals. Cast your minds back to the Russian occupation during the Prague Spring of 1968, when people in the city removed all road signs except the ones pointing to Moscow – invaders have never been welcome. The writing is on the wall now, as it was then: Romans Go Home.
There is an affluent Western elite (not bloody more of them, surely?) who appear to have manoeuvred themselves to the top of the underground resistance movement. They thumb their noses at those who seek a more lasting and total release from oppression and authority, they peddle a line more liberal and reformist than many of the mainstream left wing groups and NGOs, and their obsession with single issues (whether it’s the organisation of a big action, or the dedication to a, more often than not, environmental cause) seems to makes them incapable of understanding the bigger picture. Those that do see it are criticised for ‘detracting’ from the message – exactly as INPEG responded to the anarchist bloc.
|“Leaders? Us?” Another riveting INPEG meeting reaches its thrilling climax.|
Referring to the realisation-gap between the (white) environmental movement and the lives of the (predominantly not white) people living in the shadow of globalisation, jailed New Afrikan anarchist, Ojore N. Lutalo pointed out, “Most people cannot afford the privilege of worrying about a tree, they have to spend their every waking hour dealing with ways to feed and clothe themselves, pay their rent, while contending with police brutality and the prospect of becoming victims of crime by other dispossessed people that need to pay their own bills.” It is no coincidence that those who favour an oh-so-civilised revolution brought about through compromise and lobbying, and those who think confrontation is necessary to foster genuine change, are divided (on the whole) along class lines.
In the wake of the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara slammed the bogus intentions of Western would-be revolutionaries for following this “peaceful parliamentary strategy”. Just as we criticise the organised left for having designs on some post revolutionary throne, the ‘fat cat-friendly’ strategy adopted by many non-violent activists is designed, as Guevara put it, to “deliver the working classes, bound hand and foot, to the ruling class”. Namely, however it turns out, your elites stay in control. Surely if we seriously seek to turn the murdering stitch-up that is capitalism on its head then those who take the power back must be those who have had it stolen from them in the first place. Is it not a little dubious that significant chunks of the Western environmental movement will risk life and liberty for a birch copse, or starving babies on the other side of the planet, yet have zero tolerance for equally fucked-over working people in their own neighbourhoods? Think about it.
Jail Me Next Please!
The spectre of Seattle seems to have clouded activist perceptions to the extent that no action is valid unless it follows a set US decree (we’re mirroring the bloody globalisers again). Support for those who get arrested has become exclusively limited to ‘jail solidarity’ in the form of people queuing up for criminal records. The same individual who haggled with the police for the arrest of five hundred rain-soaked folk in Washington DC on April 16, was in Prague (megaphone in hand) convincing a new crop of well-intentioned youngsters to ‘cross the line’. Thankfully your average European activist is a little more lateral thinking, and the aftermath of S26 has seen some highly effective non-submissive solidarity such as the trashing of France’s Czech Travel Bureau by fifteen masked bat-wielders, the occupation of the Barcelona Czech Embassy and the hijacking of a bus transporting jailed activists to a detention centre.
Do we Tread Water or do we Swim?
The point is not that INPEG’s strategy was invalid. On the contrary, without INPEG the actions in Prague would not have happened. But there is a chasm-like difference between organisation and control. The ‘consensus’ reached by a fraction of those who actually came to the city on S26 to face off with the Bank and the authorities, somehow became a rulebook that we were all expected to slavishly follow (despite the dubious circumstances in which the bloody thing was originally drafted).
Similarly, the ‘Seattle model’ of organisation and decision making did not sit so easily with a significantly more diverse, militant and international group than those which have recently attacked capitalism in America. In the end, the most effective tactical links made in Prague happened well outside of the organisational structures. It is also difficult not to let the more confident and/or power-hungry folk involved in the movement take over what are intended as hierarchy-free meetings. Admittedly, often nothing gets done until someone gets up and does it. But again in Prague, discussions would often be steered in a direction that most of those present were either opposed to or disinterested in. Facilitators seemed to somehow morph into chairpersons.
The same personality problems dogged the Independent Media Centre (IMC). Though, to be brutally honest, since its inception, the IMC has never been truly hierarchy-free. The ‘players’ within the IMC have always sought to emulate the media monoliths they are supposedly offering an alternative to. In Prague, Indymedia came of age. Is it not a sad state of affairs when we are getting more accurate information from Murdoch’s Financial Times than from the IMC? When it stops being a vehicle for dissenting voices and instead becomes the accepted voice of dissent, Indymedia is redundant.
Again, following the arrests and subsequent brutalising of people in Prague’s jails, large numbers of ostensibly clued-up activists were shocked and outraged. Though my sympathy and support is 100 per cent behind those who were locked up, are people genuinely surprised that the police and prisons are treating those who oppose the system like shit? Were they expecting those jailed to be given a cup of tea and a couple of snouts from some chirpy Ronnie Barker-like figure? What do they think the police, the courts and the prisons are for? To stop you getting raped and robbed? To get your cat out of a fucking tree? (Hmm – no, you’re freezing cold on this one)… or to maintain power and control through fear and incarceration? (Bingo!). The sooner people accept that the tools of the state are neither impartial nor reformable, the closer we get to threatening real change.
Some will take offence at the criticisms voiced here. But this document only came about in response to some of the misplaced and misinformed nonsense that has been published and peddled in numerous public meetings in the wake of S26. British activists would do better to stop imitating the rest of the population, who sheepishly follow the example of America, and instead learn a little from our European counterparts. After all, unlike American ‘anti-capitalists’, European activists are not labouring (to the same extent at least) under the misconception that change will come through either the ballot box or the shopping basket. (This is a generalisation – there are some incredibly sussed and dedicated US activists, just as there are some totally counterproductive European activists.)
In the past weeks, riot police have again been wheeled out to protect capitalist top dogs at the Asia-Europe Meetings in Seoul and at the EU summit in Nice. Meanwhile the West minces words and truths in defence of the latest Israeli crackdown on Palestinian Arabs. Land distribution, harassment and the omnipotent US agenda fail to make the front pages where small children bleed after being ‘hit by plastic bullets’ as if the fucking things fell from the sky. Meanwhile street protesters battling cops in Belgrade are heralded as heroes by the West’s media, governments and anti-capitalists alike, as one of the few national leaders to have consistently refused IMF/US interference in his country is elbowed out. (Making no bones about his replacement being an equally insidious nationalist asshole with a similar line on Kosovo as his predecessor.)
Many have echoed Kontrast‘s line that street violence damages their “critique of IMF and World Bank policy”, as if these institutions survive in a vacuum. Unfortunately, their dismantling will not create global equality, empowerment or environmental redemption (the Bank and Fund are already toying with reinvention and are deferring work to regional Development Banks). The system we are up against is ingrained in every bleep of every checkout, in every crack of every rifle, in every price hike or tax cut, in every full tank and every empty bowl, in every white paper and every red river. Governments and money back it, and it will do everything within its power to defend itself. Yes, the system is violent, the state is violent, the police, the armies, the industry, the agriculture, the distribution of land, the privatisation, the profit, the sham they call democracy and the garbage they call information – are all brutally fucking violent. Capitalism (under this or any other name) is not about to roll over because we can all stand out in the rain for an afternoon.
There are two things you can do as an activist. You can make the situation better, or you can make it worse. Those within ‘anti-capitalism’ (a catch-all tag that has surely become meaningless) who are determined to peddle the decadent, Western, middle class misconception that “the violence is detracting from our message” are, undoubtedly, making the situation worse.