Last weekend saw scenes that have become familiar: a summit of world leaders gathers. A big ‘security operation’, with special police powers, is put into operation. Crowds of protesters gather, for different but related causes, be it labour rights or the environment, in opposition to a set of prioriteis that puts the profits of corporations above the needs and demands of ordinary people and the world we inhabit. The protests, rowdy but mostly though not exclusively peaceful, are confronted by riot cops. Soon afterwards, we get the stories of arrests, police violence and abuse.
THis timem, the scene was Toronto, Canada, a gathering of representative leaders of the G20 countries. This G20 can be seen as a broadening of the earlier, still existing, G8 of most powerful states. The G20 has become more prominent as a combination that influential governments use to coordinate a kind of an answer to the financial and economic crisis that is raging since 2007.
On the summit itself I can be brief. There has been quarrel. On the one hand European states that want austerity and budget cuts, more austeruiity and more budget cuts. On the other hand Obama’s US, that is wary of too mich austerity± all these cuts, bu hurtingh demand foor goods, can hurt exports and production as well. This risks destroying the economic revival and might the much-feared double dip-recession closerr.
As usual in the last ten years, there were protests. As usual, authorities use the cngances of violence from a minority of protestersd as a pretext for police-state measures. canada was no exception. It spent a billion on security. It created a security zone around the conference headquarters, guarded by a fence. The government pushed through a measure that gave police authority to aks people what they were doing there as soon as they were within five meters of the fence, and ask for identification as well. Also, testimony the police gave were, in this security operation, to beconsidered as conclusive evidence. Any semblance of fair trial and rule of law was hereby discarded. This measure was decided upoon by the government itself, without even consulting parliament. Any semblance of even limited, parliamentary democracy was hereby put aside. The measure wass temporary. But it creates a dangerous authoritarian precedent.
The protests around the summit were of the usual kind. Large crowds – 10.000, according to an estimate from the authorities’ side, which means the real size was probably bigger – demonstrated. Smaller groups destroyed some police cars, papparently left unguarded as if to provoke demonstrators to do exactly this, as Al Giordiani – of whom more later – writes. There was more street action. Police attacked a peaceful demonstration . Journalist Steve Paikin telss the story: “As I was escorted away from the demonstyration, I saw two officers hold a jopurnaliost. The journalist identified himself as working for ‘the Guardian’. He talked too much and pissed the police off. Two iofficers held him and a third punched him in the stomach.” Paikin also said: “Police on one side screamed at the crowd to leave only one way. Then police on the other side said leave the other way. There was no way out.” And, making matters even clearer: “So the police just started arresting people. I stress, this was a peaceful, middle class, diverse cload. No anarchists.” By the way, you see, anarchists are, ovviously, not peaceful people, according to this very meainstream journalist, hereby reflecting his prejudices. But that makes his testimony no less useful. Anyway, Paiker continues: “Literally more than 100 officers with guns pointing at the crowd. Rubber bullets and smoke bombs ready to be fo ired. Rubber bullets fired.”
There were more horror stories. “A newspaper photographer was shot with a plastic bullet in the backside, while another had an officer pointing a gun in his face despite identifying himself as a member of the media.” Clearly, the police wanted not just to use repression against the crowds as they saw fit, to intimidate the protesters; they wanted to intimidate people who witnessed what was happening as well. An attack on both the right to demonstrate and the right to freely gather and spread information, buth fundamental democratic liberties.
150 people were arrested . Soon, there were stories of what detained people had to endure. Here is what Amy Miller, working for the Alternative Media Center, told. She was arrested and thrown in a cage where she was held for 13 hours. “I was told I was going to be raped, I was told I was going to be gang-banged. I was told that I was never going to want to act as a journalist again by making sure that I would be repeatedly raped while I was in jail.” She had been violently arrested while she was “trying to record a confrontation between police and protesters”, according to a report in Raw Story. You want more stories about the ferocious repression that the riot police enfiorced in Toronto? You can find more in, for instance, “The mass repression at the G20 summit in Toronto”, on the World Socialist Website (wsws) on 30 June.
There has been a number of interesting comments on left wing websites on the events. Unfortunately, they focus mostly on the violent tactics of some of the demonstrators. For instance, Louis Proyect’s blog “Unrepentent Marxist” has a guest column by a certain Ritch: “An analysis of the G20 protests and the Black Bloc”. It mentions the gross violations of democratic rights, thepolice violence. But is basically blames activists using the Black Bloc tactic of confronting both police and destroyingh capitalist objects – business buildings, for instance – while mingling with the rest of the crowds, for provoking the police.
Some of the criticism is valid. I did not like it very much when I was in Genoa 2001, protesting aginst the G8 summit, when something was thrown from behind, over the head of a militant but non-violent gropuop of people to which I belonged, basically using us as a shelter. When the police attacked, we were the ones being beten and kicked; the one throwing something had amle opportunity to get away. The report describes instances like that, and worse, in Toronto, and such things should be criticized.
Where the article goes wrong is in using these things to dismiss all that goes under the Black Bloc-rubric. Not all forceful confrontations on demonstrations, not even offensive ones, should be discarded. I have seen groups of Black-Bloc-like activists on the streets in Straatsburg, last year, around the NATO summit there, slowly fighting their – and our! -way across a bridge towards the place where the big demonstration was supposed to start.
Sometimes Black-Bloc-tactics hurt the rest of the actions; at other times, they help the whole action along. As with any other tactical concept, the Black Bllock thing should bne used with a wisdom and a carefulnes that is quite often lacking. There is debate within anarchist/ Black Block circles about these kind of things. All these nuances are lacking in the dismissive piece on Louis Proyect’s blog.
Even worse was a piece by Al Giordiani, an otherwise often impressive journalist connected to The Narco News, a source of ghood information on struggles, especially in Latin America. He basically says the Black Bloc, whether police provocateurs or genuine activists, basically helps the police in giving pretexts for repression, and hurts the action by the disrespectful way they operate towards other activit sts. He blames groups organising big summit protests for not rejecting any space for Black Bloc-type activism, but tolerating their actions. Again, not all specific complains about specific actions are wrong; unfortunately not. Bust the whole dismissibe attitude towards this form of activism – an activims that at its best is much more than just uncontrolled rage by middel class spoiled kids, as is how Proyect and Giordiani apparently see it – is wrongheaded.
Just as wrongheaded is another conclusion Giordiani has drawn: summit protests are, according to him, an irrelevance, and his journalistic project will no longer pay attention to them. He goes through the developent of ‘summit-hopping’: a relatively succesfull mass protest in Seattel 1999 against the WTO, followed by less and less succesfol protest the years after that – protest disfigured by this Black Bloc-thing, protests that dont build serious opposition as well’, protests of which it is less and less clear what the protest is actually about. Community organising! That is the thing! No more of this fruitless summit hopping!
Now, yes, there is a problem with the summit protests. The surprise effect is basically gone. The one-sided-stress on it, at the expense of a other forms of activism, can and sometimes hurt local resistance which ternds to get neglected while actrivists are frantically building the next international demonstration. But that does not mean these kinds of protest have become irrelevant. Even after more than ten years after Seattle, protest like in Toronto, or the climate summit in Copenhagen last year, attract attention, not just to police repression and violent tactics, but to the issues that motivate people to protest as well. The whole world may not be watching, but a significant part of it is.
And it is still the case that many of the protesters themselves return to become or remain active in the place where they come d from after they took party in the summit protest. Community organising and ‘summit hopping’ are not mutually exclusive forms of activism. And the feeling of being together with thousands on the streets against the big and powerful who have to shelter behind thousands of police to preceed with their conference is in itself empowering.
The overview of theseries of summit protests that Giordiani offers is, by the way, faulty. He talks about “hundreds of thousands” of protesters in Seattle. This gives him space to be dismissive of later protests, which gathered ‘only’ tens of thousands of demonstrators. But Seattle, while massive in its effects, was not that big. Most estimates talk about tens of thousands, maybe 60.000 to 80.000 people on the streets.
Later summit actions werer sometimes smaller, but sometimes bigger, much bigger. I was in Evian, in 2003, in one of the less significant mobilisations, against a G8 summit there: 100.000 people on a demonstration. No mention in Giordiani’s piece. And then there was Genoa, the G8 summit in 2001. Eeighty thousand people on a demonstration before the summit started; tens of thousands the day after that blockading the security zone, sometimes attacking the fence around it; 300.000 demonstrators on the final day; violent police attacks on demonstrators, killing one of them, attacking buildings whre demonstrators gathered and slept, provoking new protests the weeks after that. Most of the demonstrators, by the way, came from Italy itself. The whole Genoa series of events is not even mentioned in Giordiani’s article.
Another example: the G8 in 2008, in the German town of Heiligendamm, near Rostock. For more than a day, thousands of demonstrators blockaded the entrance to the summit, and made the riot police look very foolish because they could not stop them. The police blocked the roads against activists, so demonstrators crossed the cornfielfds and meadows in kilometers long walks. For some time, the G8 had to have its catering brought in by boat. What a humiliation for the authorities! Now, I would call this a rather effective, if mainly symbolic, victory for this form of activism. Again, no mention by Giordiani.
Yes, I think the glory days of the big summit protests are behind us. Yes, I think it is right to build locally, put our priority in community and labour action in the places where we live, to work towards revolution based on the struggles around us. But going now and there to big, international actions aroudn summits has not lost all usefullness. And using the presence and activity of the Black Bloc, and tolerance towards theu ir activities from the side of organisators of protests, as an excuse not to pay attention to summit protests anymore seems to me? I think it is counterproductuve sillyness. Of course, if Narco News and Giordiani refuse to cover these protests from now on, that is their right. But I do not tremble with fear of these protests being neglected by critical journalists. Others will cover what Giordiano refuses to cover. A large part of the world will still be watching – and part of that part will be participating as well.