Beyond violence and nonviolence

IssueSeptember - November 2001
Comment by Starhawk

I had a hard time coming back from Quebec City. I know because, almost two months later, I still have the map in my backpack. In part it was exhaustion, tear gas residue, and the sense of having been through a battle in a war most of my neighbours are totally unaware of. But deeper than that is my sense that something was unleashed in that battle that can't be put back: that underlying the chaos, the confusion, the real differences among us and the danger we were in, was something so tender, exuberant and wild that I don't want to let it go. Something that smells and tastes and feels like the world I'm fighting for.

How we achieved this sense of sweet unity on the street is a mystery to me. In the lead-up to the action it often seemed that every single group involved was either actively disagreeing with some other group or ignoring their existence. The conflicts were mostly around issues of tactics, in particular the question of nonviolence. Quebec City was the first time since Seattle that a major anti-globalisation direct action in North America was organised by groups that were committed to a “diversity of tactics” rather than to an explicit set of nonviolence guidelines.

Diversity of tactics

I admit that I came into the preparations for the action uneasy about the concept of “diversity of tactics”. I'm fifty years old: I've been an anarchist and an activist since I was in high school back in the street- fighting days of the `sixties. I've also been an advocate for nonviolence for many, many years, in part because of what I experienced in the `sixties and `seventies, when mostly male-dominated militant groups moved to clandestine actions, sectarianism and armed struggle that left their base of support far behind. I experienced the nonviolent direct action groups of the eighties, with their commitment to feminist process and non-hierarchical structure, as far more empowering, effective, and liberating. My fear about “diversity of tactics” was that it would open a space for people to do things that I thought were stupid and wrong. That, it fact, proved to be partly true – at least, people did do things I would never have agreed to. But what surprised me is that it didn't seem to matter in the way I thought it would.

Respecting our choices

There's an ethic and a strategy about nonviolence that's clear and easy to understand: that violence begets violence, that if we resort to violence we become what we're fighting against, that a nonviolent movement will win us more popular support, gain us legitimacy, heighten the contrasts between our movement and what we oppose, and perhaps even win over our opponents. That's a powerful and persuasive set of values, that I've held to for many years. But they're not the only values I sympathise with. Some advocates of nonviolence assume the high moral ground in any argument, and see those who disagree with them as unethical. In Quebec City, “diversity of tactics” meant respecting that those who employ other tactics do so not out of a lack of principles, but out of their own politics and values. High-confrontational struggle has its own principles: that a high level of confrontation is appropriate in the situations we now face, that people have the right and responsibility to defend themselves against police violence; that many people are already angry and mostly not saintly – and a political movement needs room to express that rage; that active self-defence can be empowering and may also win people to our cause; that to bring down an economic and political system that worships property, property must be attacked. And there is also an ethic behind “diversity of tactics” that the phrase itself does not convey – that people should be free to make their own choices, that a non-authoritarian movement doesn't tell people what to do, and that we should stand in solidarity even with people whose choices we disagree with.

Beyond symbolism

My sense is that many people coming to Quebec wanted something that was not fully described either by “nonviolence” as it has come to be practised, nor by “diversity of tactics”. I'm talking about people who know there is no set-in-stone definition of what constitutes violence, or right and wrong. People who want an action that's real, not just symbolic, but don't equate that with throwing rocks at fully armed riot cops. Who understand that an effective action means we're going to face a higher level of confrontation and repression, but who would rather de-escalate police violence than heighten it, given a choice. Who wanted to see the fence go down and cheered when tear gas canisters were thrown back toward the police lines, but who also know that we're in danger whenever we dehumanise another group of people, even cops. Who don't necessarily want to sing “We are a gentle angry people” and hand out flowers to the dear policemen, but who do want to remember that under the Darth Vader outfits the cops are human beings who are capable of changing and whose class interests are actually with us rather than with our opposition. And who believe that however the cops might be behaving in the moment, setting them or any human being on fire is wrong. People who are willing to risk arrest or injury when necessary, but who would rather succeed in an action and get away with it than go to jail or be martyred. Who don't see suffering as transformative, but are willing to suffer if that's what it takes to change this system. Who will act in solidarity with others they may not agree with rather than leave them to suffer alone. Who want to take actions that are powerful, visionary, creative, and empowering. I'm not suggesting some middle ground between the Gandhians and the Black Bloc. I'm saying that we're moving onto unmapped territory, creating a politics that has not yet been defined. And to do so, it might be time to leave Martin and Malcolm arguing around the dinner table with each other and Emma, Karl, Leon and all the rest, and step out into the clean night air.

Empowered direct action

The debate around “violence” and “nonviolence” may itself be constricting our thinking. The term “nonviolence” itself doesn't work well from a magical point of view. Every beginning Witch learns that you can't cast a spell for what you don't want - that the deep aspects of our minds are unclear on the concept of “no”. If you tell your dog, “Rover, I can't take you for a walk,” Rover hears “Walk!” and runs for the door. If we say “nonviolence” we are still thinking in terms of violence. I don't yet have a catchy name for this approach to political struggle. For lack of anything better, I've been calling it “empowered direct action.” And it's already evolving in our movement. The goal of an empowered direct action is to make people believe that a better world is possible, that they can do something to bring it about, and that we are worthy companions in that struggle. And then to bring to life that world in the struggle itself, to be the revolution, to embody and prefigure what we want to create. Empowered direct action doesn't simply reject or restrict certain tactics: it actively and creatively searches for actions that prefigure and embody the world we want to create. It uses symbols skilfully but is more than symbolic: it gets in the way of the operations of oppression and poses confrontational alternatives. Empowered direct action means embracing our radical imagination and claiming the space we need to enact our visions: it's magic defined as “the art of changing consciousness at will.” It challenges the structure of power itself and resists all forms of domination and all systems of control. It undermines the legitimacy of the institutions of control by embodying freedom, direct democracy, solidarity, and respect for diversity in our organisations and our actions. And it starts with clarity of intention before we get around to diversity of tactics. That is, before we decide what tactics to adopt we need to know what we're trying to do.

Developing a spectrum of tactics

We'd start with clarifying our intention. What would victory look like? Is it the political gains we make, the de-legitimising of the institutions? Or is it actually shutting the meeting down, or disrupting it? How important is a tactical victory to the political victory? Is there a possibility of inspiring dissension in the ranks of our opposition? (Dissent within the military was a huge factor in ending the Vietnam War, for example.) Are there ways we can embody an alternative in the moment of protest itself? How do we make the action have real, not just symbolic, impact? In those initial discussions, we'd look for dialogue among as wide a spectrum of groups as possible, with no single organisation or group pre-empting the turf. We'd actively seek a diversity of race, class, and gender as well as diversity of political philosophies. We'd understand that no one group or tactic gets to own or define the movement, and that there are times when we want to organise together, and need to compromise and negotiate, and other times we might want to organise in parallel but separate structures. We'd encourage the formation of clusters or blocs as well as affinity groups. (I prefer “cluster”' as “bloc” sounds more fixed and static.) Clusters – groups of affinity groups – might develop their own unique goals and tactics within the framework of the action, focusing on a specific issue, target, or style of action. For example, in Quebec City the Medieval Bloc brought the catapult. Our cluster became a Living River to focus attention on water issues, practise fluid and mobile street tactics, and bring the Cochabamba Declaration to the action. We'd encourage the development of a spectrum of targets, tactics and strategies that encompass many levels of risk. Mobile street tactics as well as blockades. Art, music, dance, puppets, ritual, street theatre, processions, parades, all the things we already do as well as things we haven't thought of yet. Diversions and surprises. Humour. Doing the unexpected. Never being boring, tedious or stereotyped. We'd do our best to orchestrate our different approaches, to negotiate time, space and targets, to make them most effective. We'd also understand that the more confrontational the tactics, the more clear the message needs to be, and the more we need to be sure we have a base of support for the tactics we employ. We'd accept that we can't necessarily make our actions safe. We don't control the police, and their response has escalated even for clearly nonviolent actions when they are more than symbolic. But people can face danger if they have preparation and support, and choices we make in an action can increase or decrease the risks in the moment. We'd provide trainings and preparations that teach a spectrum of responses to crisis situations, prepare groups and clusters to act together, spread effective street tactics, prepare people for jail and for solidarity actions, and teach de-escalation as a tool and an option, not a moral imperative. We'd set up ongoing networks of support for those who end up in jail, fighting legal battles or who get hurt, physically or emotionally, in actions.

Stating our intentions

Instead of decreeing a set of guidelines telling people what not to do, clusters and groups would state their intentions for what they do want. For example:

  • We will carry out this action in a manner that prefigures the world we want to create and act in the service of what we love.
  • We will use means consistent with our ends.
  • We will act with respect for this community, for its homes and enterprises, and in a way that encourages all to join us.
  • We hold open the possibility that those who are currently our opponents may change their allegiance and join us.
  • We will protect and care for each other in this action, and act in solidarity even with those whose choices differ from ours.
    In many ways, Quebec City embodied these ideas. But what didn't quite happen in Quebec City is what many of us dreamed of – masses of people swarming the fence, taking it down in so many places at once it couldn't be effectively defended, flooding the area around the Congress Centre and utterly stopping the meeting. What is so tantalising about the action, in retrospect, is the sense that it could have happened - that with only a little more coordination, a little more trust, a little less fear on everyone's part, we could have done it. And we will.