Strategic Violence Amongst European Anti-Globalization Movements

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Globalization has come under newly intensified interest in recent years.  There are a multiplicity of reasons to which one can attribute this rise in attention.  Some might claim the easy access to information and social networking the internet has granted this latest generation.  Others might indicate the rise of transnational and seemingly omnipotent corporate entities.  Still another crowd might point toward the economic meltdown and the dawning awareness of the interdependency of national economies as the genesis of popular interest in the virtues and vices of globalization.

It is clear, however, that globalization is by no means new to global politics.  Whereas in centuries past the focus was on the dispersal and collection of rare or region-specific goods (spices, tea, silk, etc.), we now deal in democracy.  At least that is the talking point we will be fed.  There is debate around how successfully the West has been exchanging the currency of liberty, though, with many critical factions accusing globalists of merely presenting the idea of democracy as a cover to exploit labor in developing countries and exporting other social evils overseas as well.  To claim economics, technology, or capitalism as the primary catalyst, therefore, is shortsighted.   After all, globalization has been an ongoing process since, some would argue, the beginning of human civilization.  It would seem more accurate to attribute the relatively recent rash of news headlines to the increasing incidence of grassroots political violence on the part of anti-globalists, such as we began to see in the 1990’s around meetings of the G8/20, WTO, and other agents of globalization.

Some definitions are in order before I proceed, however.  First of all, by my expression “grassroots political violence,” I mean to highlight at least two points.  First, that violence is being done from the bottom up, by seemingly average citizens.  These individuals are not officers of the peace, deputies, or members of any other office that is empowered by society to conduct legitimate violence.  Secondly, they are also not politicians, endowed by society with the power to control civil structures in the pursuit of justice.  Political violence is an appropriate term since the explicit goals of many groups denouncing globalization are political in nature.  Second of all, globalization is not an easily defined term, making its negative form (“anti-globalization”) even more difficult to pin down.  Many within the movement to oppose groups like the WTO, IMF, and the like, do not claim to oppose globalization per se, but the corporate capitalism such groups are heavily influenced by.  They often prefer terms such as ‘alter-globalization’ to highlight their satisfaction with the fundamental ideals that globalization advances (global standards of ethics and political accountability, empowering the Third World, etc.), but disagree that doing so through the vehicle of politico-corporate maneuvering is the most morally palatable and/or efficient.

Unfortunately, it is now common knowledge in Europe and the U.S. that economically oriented meetings between numerous heads of state are likely to accompany violent, sometimes deadly, popular uprisings in their wake.  So who are these people who have radically redefined the world’s perception of political protest?  When I was in Italy speaking for a veterans organization I am a member of, I witnessed first hand the spontaneous eruption of grassroots political violence when protesters openly provoked Italian police at an anti-Bush rally in Rome during his first visit to Pope Benedict XVI immediately following a G-8 summit in nearby Germany.  Judging by the speed at which the situation devolved into one of open street violence, I thought the perpetrators were the majority, actively encouraged, or at least tacitly endorsed by, the surrounding crowd.

It was to my surprise then, that in one study cited by Mercy Corps (Gordon, 2004), it was found that a majority of Europeans “significantly favored globalization.”  Apparently, I had underestimated the power of violence to overpower otherwise pacific sentiments both in the moment and across the European constituency.  This power is one that is not overlooked by the organizers of groups such as the Black Bloc, a loose affiliation of affinity groups that rose to prominence in Germany around issues such as nuclear weapons and housing rights in the 1980’s.

In late November of 1999, Seattle erupted in street riots in protest of the WTO meeting in town.  There, members of various anarchist leaning anti-globalist groups wore black and engaged in direct provocation and violence with Seattle police, much in the same manner as the German group had.  Seattle police were overwhelmed by the magnitude and potency of these protesters in black.  The 520 arrests only proved to become merit badges in the emerging Black Bloc movement.  1999 was just the first instance of deliberate use of violence by protesters in the U.S., but there would be more to follow.

The idea to deliberately provoke violence, interestingly enough, is rooted in Gandhian ethics.  Gandhi, the notable leader of Indian independence from Britain, felt that inciting the state to violence would expose the inexcusably brutal methods employed by the state.  After such stark reality became known, it was thought, the movement would gain a kind of moral authority over their oppressors and gain the loyalty of the greater population, forcing political figures to conceed to claims by the otherwise politically powerless oppressed minority.  One big difference between Gandhi and the Black Bloc, however, is that Gandhian practices relied upon the refusal on the part of the oppressed to use the same violence they condemned in order to secure that moral authority.

This particular group is not organized as such, but is a framework within which to operate, a strategy.  Because its proponents use violence, they rely upon claims of nonexistence to defend themselves against ethical criticism.  There is no recognized leadership, code of ethics, or bylaws by which to operate.  Most decisions are made by consensus in ad hoc type meetings not long before protests occur.  The only requisite qualifications members need acquire are some black clothes and an overdose of adolescent rage.  In Europe, groups that espouse Black Bloc tactics go by many names and do not always identify as anarchistic.  One group, Autonome in Germany, is actually a neo-nazi group numbering about 400 members (fascism is far right and anarchism is far left, if measured by the legitimacy granted to government).  Even the Black Bloc entry on Wikipedia lists it as a tactic, not as a group itself.

For all the hooplah surrounding the recurrent protests, that now occur at least annually, the justifications for the use of violence are quite superficial.  At least some of the justification for violence relies upon the assumption that their tactics include defending other protesters, such as “un-arresting” allies (where members will interfere with police and assist in escaping arrest) or simply defending them from the indiscriminate violence of the police forces.  However, in both these situations, the actions of the police are predetermined by the actions of the violent mob, thereby nullifying any claim of positive benefit.  To make the claim that one is protecting another, and yet be the direct catalyst of the harm itself is to make a bankrupt claim.  To provoke is to assume a portion of the responsibility for the harm done.

In the instance I was present for, in Rome in 2007, my impression was that the mob was simply opportunistic and was reacting out of an impotent fury at anything labeled ‘big brother.‘  I watched as kids my age took numerous opportunities to commit crime more or less because they could do so with a reliable expectation of escape.  After all, what does random, indiscriminate destruction of property and physical violence achieve?  How was this any different from the thoughts that swam through my head as a teenager, angry at the world with no reason?

Refreshingly, there is actually a reasonable philosophy behind Black Bloc tactics.  More often than not, decisions are made by direct democracy, either by consensus or straight voting.  As my alarm evidenced, the street clashes propelled debate forward and brought the cause international media exposure it otherwise would not have achieved.  Also, while personal violence against officers seems to be the aim, it is rarely planned for and is seen uniformly as disproportionately dangerous.  A case in Genoa, Italy is the first in which a proteter was killed by police forces after having attempted to hurl a fire extinguisher at a disable vehicle filled with officers.  In the cramped cab, with little room to aim and little time to think, one officer opened fire, killing the protester.  This occurred just months before the World Trade Center tragedy, before the time when police forces radicalized their tactics in response to terrorism.  This occurrence, coupled with the watershed of 9/11, prompted many anti-globalists favorable to violent strategy to rethink the game.

In a world where many protests labeled civil disobedience are no more than a choreographed dance to token jail time and immediate release on bail (lining the pockets of the very ‘big brother’ being protested), openly provocative tactics have their appeal.  Especially when one has been given the backstage pass to the planning process, which I was afforded in advance of the Republican National Convention in 2008, the desire to dismiss moderated violence such as property damage is harder to dismiss.  Violence, during the planning I witnessed in St. Paul, MO, where the RNC took place, was not the presumption.  Instead, it merely was an option on the table.  When it came time to brief the masses, so to speak, the level of violence that was deemed tolerable by the planning committee was made very clear.  Participants were subsequently tiered by how willing or able they were to be arrested, not harmed.  When it came time to go, violence again was not the presumption, but was acknowledged as a potential repercussion.

Even more interesting is the critique that types such as the Black Bloc have for those who adhere to principled nonviolence.  They point out that to act sacrificially is riddled with privilege.  Nonviolence, with its call for willingness to be harmed, is a more difficult claim to make upon an oppressed person or people who have so little to claim as their own, who have an interest in maintaining what little the status quo leaves them with.  Those of us who adhere to nonviolence often have not suffered the ills against which we protest and therefore have little credibility to ask others to restrain their own righteous anger.  That is why MLK and Gandhi both had such success, it seems; they could tangibly identify with those they sought to free from oppression through nonviolent means.  Very few Europeans and Americans can do that in solidarity with the Third World for which they advocate.  But does that not also indict those who opportunistically use violence, are they not just as guilty of insulation from the evils that claim to be bashing in windows to change?

Thinking back to my time in Rome in light of my experience in St. Paul, I can see how a very few hyped up rogues may have co-opted the trajectory of the greater protest.  I was able to see how my Italian handlers may have been as unimpressed as I was that a bunch of kids hyped up on testosterone and fine Italian espresso redirected the attention of the media and general public.  They might have been as outraged at their hypocrisy as I was to find many of them sipping beer at a high end bar later.  Certainly there is truth to the claim that even a few bad apples spoils the bushel.

As sympathetic as I am in retrospect, I still cannot endorse the deliberate provocation, or even the willing resort, to violence.  In this I would include opportunistic destruction of private (even corporate) property.  A central reason why I am unable to do so is that to use the very means against your enemy that they use against you is hypocritical and infinitely uncreative.  The myth that my action, however wrong, is justified by your action, pervades our thinking; killing the adults that kill babies (abortion), killing murderers to teach kids that murder is wrong (capital punishment), stealing from profiteers, etc.  Besides the blatant hypocrisy inherent in such claims, they also only feed circular thinking; you do this, so I do that in vengeance, you do something in retaliation, I do something in retribution, etc.  Such thinking perpetuates the game, offering ones opponents the moral claim to continue the very violence to which you object.  Imagine a common scenario; you are provoked by an individual and they expect you to play the game, eventually resorting to violence, thereby justifying their own.  You become your own scapegoat, and they become theirs.  When you operate with the expectation of violent reaction, how upset can you get when it occurs?  What part of “self-fulfilling prophecy” is so difficult to understand?

By refusing to use violence, or whatever means your opponent (personally or politically) has selected, you retain the legitimacy of your claim against them.  Furthermore, you have just taken the reigns in the interaction; you withhold from your opponent their sought-after vindication of their preconceived objective.  That is why Gandhi and MLK both garnered so much attention, they kept their moral authority while their opponents, left without a paradigm through which to understand the double bind the were forced into, actively destroyed their own public image and moral standing ground.

This is the ultimate failure of contemporary anti-globalization violence.  How seriously can one take a movement that criticizes a phenomenon that uses their own tactics on a larger scale?  While research has helped me gain more sympathy for those who considerately have opted to keep violent options on the table, I remain dissatisfied with the duplicity upon which their arguments rely.  No matter how hard I try, I still have difficulty seeing their tactics as anything but an elaborate and tragic episode of kettles calling pots black, and in the meantime, the kitchen is still in shambles.

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