The Anarchist’s Reckoning: Black Lives Matter, the CHAZ/CHOP, and the Way Forward

Original source unknown, but it’s floating around everywhere.

The murder of George Floyd has raised the question that has forever plagued the Left: what is to be done? Or to be more precise: what role, if any, does the “Left” have in helping the Black Lives Matter movement?

The question has been on my mind ever since the first protests and riots broke out, because it has been apparent that a) a turning point has been reached in race relations in the US and potentially the broader Western world, b) the sheer cruelty of Floyd’s murder has opened the broader public’s eyes (i.e. white people, because it was already obvious to black and other minority populations) to police brutality, going so far as to lead to calls to defund the police, and c) non-black people from all walks of life have flooded the streets to join the rallying cry of “Black Lives Matter.”

For the Left, it has seemed as if the moment of the long-awaited people’s revolution has arrived. It seems like a perfect storm of three factors: the failure of Bernie Sanders has reaffirmed distrust in electoral politics; Covid-19 has laid bare the failures of the private healthcare system to respond to crises while also leading to mass unemployment, unrest and disproportionate effects on minority communities; and the string of highly-publicized police killings of African-Americans as well as the violent response of the police to protests has made it increasingly apparent that we live in a police state. How could one look at this situation and not want to overthrow the system?

Yet I would argue that we are not yet at a true “people’s revolution”. This is a Black movement, aimed at addressing long-standing injustices that specifically affect Black people. It is the responsibility of those who are not Black to respect this basic fact, and to refrain from trying to co-opt it and make it something that transcends race (or simply to seize it as an opportunity to loot and smash businesses, because while white people may be able to dip into the world of rioting and then dip back out without consequences, Black people will be the ones who have to bear the brunt of the police repression that will follow. This does not mean that riots are without value for effecting change, only that they should not be done against the wishes of the movement’s organizers).

Instead, I would argue that a) the BLM protests present a great model for the kind of coalition-building needed to revolutionize society, and b) addressing racial and other injustices are a prerequisite for further coalition-building (i.e. if a “people’s revolution” is to ever become more than an aspiration, we have to sort out intersectional differences and ensure that no group dominates the others, which in effect means that white people need to learn to yield space to other groups).

Now, when I say the Left, I do not mean Democrats or any other milquetoast centrist parties in your country of choice. When I say the Left, I mean those of us who identify as anticapitalist, as socialists in the truest sense — those of us who seek not reform but revolution in the sense of toppling the existing regime and replacing it with something more equitable and just, where workers own the means of production and human value is not determined through capitalist market forces.

The Left is not a uniform construct, and indeed is often fraught with division and discord over methods and goals (such as the abolition of the State, historically the chief cause of fighting between anarchists and Marxist communists) as well as gatekeeping (my own contention that prioritizing reformism or electoral politics disqualifies one as a leftist being an example), but it is identifiable by its broad opposition to capitalism and desire to realize a socialist society.

There are two potentially contradictory notes that I would like to make about the (admittedly vaguely-defined) Left here, potentially due to the fact that leftist individuals do not form a uniform bloc of society:

  1. Historically, the unit of analysis, from Marxist-Leninist thought to Trotskyism to anarchism to syndicalism, has been “class”, and history is defined as a struggle between the exploiter and exploited classes. Many on the traditional Left reacted suspiciously to the “identity politics” and “intersectionalism” that has since the 1960s become more predominant in both academia and activist culture, feeling that emphasizing the struggles of racialized groups, second and third-wave feminists, and the complexities of queer subcultures creates artificial divisions that limit the potential of the proletariat to build the kind of working-class unity necessary to overthrow capitalism. The retort of those focused on “identity politics” would be that the notions of struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie are grounded in the language of nineteenth century industrial revolution and thus reflect a limited, Eurocentric, male-dominated view of the world, and that working class politics are often fraught with racism, sexism, and general social conservatism. While those who prioritize class struggle might reply that members of marginalized groups can be co-opted into existing power structures without fundamentally altering the relations of production (e.g. having more women CEOs does nothing for the fortunes of poor working class women, many of whom are minorities), the intersectionalists can rightly point out that a politics of the Left is only meaningful if it addresses a multitude of forms of oppression (to continue our example, an intersection of working class, feminist, and race-oriented social justice politics would lead to a more meaningful outcome than just placing more women in executive positions). While it may not lead to an overthrow of capitalism, such a politics can address very real injustices in the here and now (and even Marx was not against agitating for ameliorative reforms so long as the proletariat remained focused on the long-term endgame) and thus empower marginalized groups to build even stronger coalitions that can resist the exploiter class.
  2. Leftists have been historically more supportive of intersectional struggle than one might expect, given the above. From a theoretical standpoint, Marx identified the militarized exploitation of the “New World”, the subjugation of women into a domestic role, and the artificial cleavages between the English and Irish working classes as all being essential to maintaining the unquestioned dominance and continuance of capitalist operations. From a practical standpoint, this support has especially been the case for anarchists, because anarchism recognizes in the struggles of all marginalized groups the broader struggle for human freedom and the right to self-actualization, and anarchists are not the types to wait for a vanguard party. While Emma Goldman, for example, was better known for her working class, anticapitalist agitation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, she also publicly advocated for the independence of women (even going so far as to denounce marriage as an institution and championing the use of contraception) and the rights of homosexuals, which was practically unthinkable in her time. Black anarchism (that is, anarchism oriented toward the struggles of Black peoples while analysing racism as a function of capitalist exploitation) can be traced back at least as far as the time of Lucy Parsons in the 19th century. Beat Generation anarchists both black and white, drawing from the postwar Gandhian tradition of peaceful protest, supported the Civil Rights movement (among the consequences of this period were both the formation of more militant Black Liberation groups such as the Black Panther Party, as well as the experimentation of mostly white anarchists with autonomous communal collectives; both the former and the latter also carried out practices of mutual aid). In Europe, anarchist antifascists have squared off violently against Neo-Nazis and other racist groups for decades. None of these movements and tendencies have led to a permanent revolution in the sense of toppling capitalism and restructuring society on equitable grounds. What they have done instead is to move the conversation on the issue of human freedom forward via ideological and physical support (because no one is going to join your proletarian revolution if you have not even lifted a finger to help people out with their immediate problems, no matter how persuasively you argue that capitalism is the ultimate cause of these problems).

Thus, there are both historical and theoretical precedents for participating in Black-led struggles. What there is not a precedent for is co-opting these struggles as part of a larger struggle against capitalism. Yes, there are Black liberationists like Angela Davis who will point to the linkages between capitalism and systemic racism, but the Black Lives Matter movement does not define itself as an anticapitalist movement (otherwise it would not garner support from celebrities and corporations). Instead, it is about navigating society to a place where it can have the conviction to challenge the assumption that white authorities have any business policing black bodies. The revolution, whatever form it will take, cannot happen until this reckoning over race (and over other forms of oppression) takes place. The revolution must be a consensual one.

This is why the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) in Seattle is so important. It is easy to dismiss the CHOP as a lawless Mad Max dystopia, as those on the right do, influenced by doctored photos and selective editing on the part of Fox News and repeated stories of warlordism spread on Twitter, or as nothing more than an ongoing block party or street festival, as is increasingly becoming the conclusion of those who have either spent time inside the zone or taken the opportunity to view the plethora of documenting videos and photos of life that are available on social media. For committed Marxist-Leninists, the CHOP represents nothing more than LARPing (live action role-playing) by “anarch-kiddies” who lack the kind of organizational capacity, ideological maturity and theoretical rigour required to build a vanguard and ensure the long-term viability of a revolutionary project. I have yet to see BLM leadership comment on the CHOP, but I have certainly detected an apprehension by those sympathetic to BLM online that the CHOP, while potentially a showcase for the ability of people to co-exist without the need for policing, could serve to take the wind out of the sails of movement if America’s attention remains strictly on Seattle.

And of course, the police want the CHOP to fail. With recent reports suggesting that the SPD is not even responding to 911 calls that originate outside the CHOP area, it is clear that the police are hoping that enough of the city will fall into chaos that they can both claim a moral victory and win back their right to use tear gas and other forms of repression. One should therefore take any news of crime and violence in the CHOP and surrounding areas with a grain of salt and be suspicious of provocateurs.

With so much stacked against it, the CHOP will either be taken back by force or lose its revolutionary lustre. Already this seems to be happening as Seattle City Council has begun cooperating with CHOP organizers to allow barricades to continue and to direct traffic around the area. There is plenty of opportunity for a pedestrian mall in the area, which will no doubt make developers salivate in the long-term. It is easier to co-opt and gentrify a revolution than it is to try to fight it with brute force. The third possible outcome is that it will simply peter out on its own the way that Occupy did.

All of these would be a shame (although the second outcome at least gives the CHOP some legitimacy and offers the potential for City Council to rein in the SPD), because there is a real potential here that relates back to the central question of the Black Lives Matter movement: why can’t people police themselves?

Clearly, defunding police will not itself solve systemic racism. The police are a symptom of a broken system, but as long as:

  • socioeconomic barriers (think of the funding received by inner city schools versus white suburban schools);
  • oppressive attitudes (e.g. assuming that black people are less capable or more predisposed to “criminality” than whites);
  • institutionalized forms of racism (the War on Drugs and the private prison system come to mind here, but also the “incarceration” of Black children by child “protection” agencies that deem Black caregivers unfit to look after their own families);
  • and, ultimately, the capitalist system itself (because it sustains itself by persuading the working class to divide against itself)

continue to exist, systemic racism will continue to exist, precisely because all of these factors, whether material, structural or internalized, contribute to the marginalization of black and other people of colour. In other words; the police are just there to enforce order and keep people in their place by force when subtler means fail.

This was why the Black Panther Party was so frightening to the established order. It was not just about the fact that they carried guns and protected Black communities, it is that they rooted their actions in a critique of the capitalist system and actually followed principles of mutual aid, providing medical clinics, early childhood education programs, and free breakfasts to 20,000 children across 19 cities, drawing donations from within the community. The government cracked down on the Black Panthers, assassinating their leadership (and, in California, enacting gun control to make it legally impossible for Black communities to police themselves) before expanding its own school breakfast programs, effectively co-opting a role that the BPP had originally filled precisely because the government had failed in its responsibilities to Black people.

In a sense, mutual aid practices by their very nature stem from a failure of government and other existing institutions. You only have to look around you at how your own community is likely adapting to the failure of the 21st century welfare state to respond appropriately to Covid-19 to get a taste of mutual aid in action: people are delivering groceries and medications to quarantined neighbours and strangers, sewing and donating free masks, and putting relief funds together to support one another, particularly in marginalized communities. The welfare state, although it is something that should continue to exist and provide support until we can build something better, is ultimately selective and punitive in that it is directed to softening the blows of capitalism and getting the able-bodied back to work as soon as possible — and cost-cutting neoliberals will always look for “efficiencies” in the form of cutting benefits to the stereotypical “welfare queens”.

The CHOP, however detached from theory it might be, has shown promise as a site of mutual aid and communalism, whether through the sharing of donated food, the work of street medics, the mostly peaceful handling of disputes, the planting of community gardens, and the recurrence of meetings to settle on ground rules (and even the renaming of the site to emphasize that it was not a site of secession from the United States but simply an occupied protest zone, a prudent measure to stave off military invasion). This has followed the pattern of the communes that have appeared sporadically elsewhere over the past few decades, most recently in unrest-heavy Greece, although typically these other communes have been established by squatters. What is needed, and for which conditions are now ripe, is for more of these sporadic communes to appear, either through the further demarcation of police-free protest zones or through rent strikes by financially-destitute squatters. Revolution does not always have to mean storming the barricades — it is equally about establishing models that actually work, despite the best efforts of reactionaries to make them fail.

I will say one final word about “violence”, however, as it is an unavoidable aspect about the protest movement. It is often said that “violence begets violence”, and that peaceful protests in the fashion of Gandhi and Martin Luther King accomplish what violence cannot. “Violence” in this conceptualization seems to refer to three variables:

  • “violence” in the form of physically resisting police and other authority figures;
  • “violence” in the form of rioting, looting, and arson;
  • and more subtly, “violence” in the form of taking on a confrontational and loud demeanour against oppression, up to the point of blocking traffic or otherwise creating physical inconvenience.

Yet the first is a natural response to the morally unjustifiable predation and the denial of one’s humanity as physically manifested by the police, the second is a response to the systemic violence of a racist capitalist system, and the third is a recognition that polite, cordoned-off forms of protest allow an apathetic public to remain willingly deaf to the grievances of the oppressed group. No amount of burned-down Wendy’s restaurants and smashed windows can ever compare to the violence of a system that has been perpetuated for over four hundred years. It is also clear that the first two weeks of rioting, which dominated the public perception of both BLM and police brutality, spurred more changes to address racism in both policing and the corporate world than we have seen in decades. Now that much of the rioting has died down and the protests have transitioned to something that fits into the mold of respectability politics, the media is barely covering them. Until the next George Floyd or Raymond Brooks event spurs more rioting, there is a risk that BLM will fade into the background.

Yet it is a complicated situation to navigate, and BLM organizers have every reason to fear that letting the protests turn into riots (and let’s face it, the police bear much of the responsibility for escalating things) can bring repercussions for the Black community (consider how many Ferguson organizers have died under mysterious circumstances), which is why I stress that those who want to be allies need to listen to Black perspectives and priorities at all times. White anarchists have a responsibility to contribute to the wider anarchist and civil rights movement by, perhaps against the natural impulse of anarchist thought, deferring to hierarchies within Black resistance movements.

Call it respectability politics if you will, but the priorities of anarchists should be, aside from marching alongside protesters as they already are, on community building both inside and outside of autonomous (or occupied protest) zones. This is where the greatest potential for building intersectional class consciousness resides, and this is where models for equitable, communitarian societies can be established. It will be a messy process, and there will be tensions and shootings and all of the other bad things that happen in cities everywhere but which opponents will cite as an indictment against police-free zones, but this is the kind of street politics that will pave the way for the future.

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Anarchist fiction and non-fiction.

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writings on anarchism

Anarchist fiction and non-fiction.

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