(This is an advance excerpt from The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, scheduled for October 2015 release. It’s an actual cookbook written by anarchists, and includes accurate information about anarchism and “recipes” for social change.)
The popular graffiti tag “Anarchy is love” speaks to the roots of revolutionary action, action taken by those seeking to make anarchism real. As we seek to replace coercive, hierarchical organizations with positive life affirming projects such as info shops, community gardens, worker-managed collectives, free schools, and other do-it-yourself efforts, we must often organize against coercion, exploitation, and domination in all their forms.
Nonviolent resistance and noncooperation are probably the most effective ways to achieve long-lasting, positive social change. There is dignity in nonviolent resistance, a dignity needed to sustain change. To be effective, it is often necessary to have large numbers of supporters and to be persistent. Your intentions should be clear to both the institutions resisting change and the people you intend to attract as supporters. Honesty and truth are your most important allies. While often difficult, compassion and respect for your opponents, combined with truth and honesty, are essential to undermining the power of even the most ruthless and inhumane institutions. The longer and more violent the repression, the harder it is to remain compassionate, but by retaining your integrity in the face of extreme conditions you will often attract increased popular support and weaken the resolve of those hired to stop your efforts. Participants in nonviolent resistance will increase their feelings of empowerment and pride the longer they remain dedicated to nonviolence.
Nonviolence is not just a theory; it means responding to injustice with action. Nonviolence should not be confused with inaction. Withholding support and refusing to cooperate with institutions and policies of violence, exploitation and injustice is a principal technique of nonviolent resistance.
Just because participants are dedicated to nonviolence, you can’t expect the authorities to restrain their violence. Often the state will increase its violence if it believes your campaign is becoming successful, but as repression grows so will your support. What might seem like months, maybe years of failure can change suddenly.
San Francisco Food Not Bombs (FNB) persisted in sharing food every week for seven years of near daily arrests that became violent due to the police; and, in 1995, the local media, which had been very critical of FNB, finally started ridiculing city officials for wasting money and resources on stopping our meals for the homeless. Their reports reflected the perspective of their corporate owners and politicians in San Francisco who came to see it was not possible to stop Food Not Bombs. Our persistence and dedication to nonviolence attracted public support. Our volunteers would not give up, knowing that, if we did, future efforts to silence Food Not Bombs groups in other cities were more likely.
The San Francisco police officers hired to arrest and beat us withdrew their support for the campaign against Food Not Bombs and started to see themselves as allies of our volunteers against those ordering the repression. Seven years of building relationships with the officers caused the department leaders to first issue an order to “stop fraternizing” with our volunteers, and once it became clear that they could not count on their patrol men and women to continue arresting and beating us with enough enthusiasm, they called off the whole project. The officers grew to see we were honest, caring people and not anti-American criminals bent on disobeying the law out of self-interest, as they had been told by their superiors.
Corporate and government leaders ended their repressive campaign in order to protect their illusion of control; worried that if it became clear to the public that our persistence and relationships with the police had worked, more sectors of the community might have withdrawn tsupport for their authority. Imagine if the patrol officers were perceived by the public as refusing orders. What would be next?
It is extremely important that we act in a manner which is consistent with our values. We want a future safe from violence and exploitation. It is never in our interest to use violence against the police or others.
Campaigns of violence, even against the most unethical opponents, can be very disempowering and, even if successful at overpowering the opposition, they install a new institution that relies on violence to protect its authority. If power changes hands after a campaign of nonviolence, it is more likely that the new institutions will have popular support and maintain their power through consent of the people.
On the practical side, the dominant power usually can muster significantly more violent force than we can. The authorities strive to engage their opponents in a realm where they have the advantage, such as armed conflict. But, more philosophically, we don’t want to use power for domination in our efforts for social change. Imagine if San Francisco Food Not Bombs adopted a strategy of throwing rocks at the police when they came to arrest us. Instead of the public understanding our message that the government and corporations are intentionally redirecting resources toward the military while letting thousands go without food, the impression would have been that the police were justified in using violence to protect themselves and the community from criminals who have no respect for the public, let alone for the police. (The media reported extensively for years about how violent our volunteers were after several frustrated activists tossed bagels over a line of riot police to hungry people blocked from getting to the food.) We want to create a society based upon human rights and human needs, not dependent on the threat and use of violence. We do not want to dominate. We want to seek the truth and support each other as we work to resolve conflicts without violence.
University of Denver political science professor Erica Chenoweth, co-author with Maria J. Stephamn of the book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, was surprised to find that “campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts.” She. like many others, assumed that the most effective way to topple dictatorships and other repressive regimes is to use military tactics. Chenoweth’s and Stephan’s research showed that “uprisings were 50 percent more likely to fail if they turn to violence.”
Washington Post reporter Max Fisher put it like this:
Political scientist Erica Chenoweth used to believe, as many do, that violence is the most reliable way to get rid of a dictator. History is filled, after all, with coups, rebellions and civil wars. She didn’t take public protests or other forms of peaceful resistance very seriously; how could they possible upend a powerful, authoritarian regime?
A nonviolent uprising can evolve into long lasting change since its power comes from popular support and participation of a substantial number of people. It was once believed that it would take at least the participation of 5% of the population to force change, but Chenoweth and Stephan found that in most uprisings since 1900 it took only 3.5% of the population to bring down a dictator.
Their research also showed that when a government changed hands through the use of violence, the new government turned to violence to stay in power. Using violence to take power often reduces popular support.
Chenoweth believes that “a violent uprising is more physically demanding and dangerous and thus scares off participants, but I’d add that violence is controversial and can engender sympathy for police and soldiers at the other end of dissidents’ rifles.”
She tells the Washington Post: “The data shows the number may be lower than that [3.5%]. No single campaign in that period failed after they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population.” She adds, “But get this: every single campaign that exceeded that 3.5% point was a nonviolent one. The nonviolent campaigns were on average four times larger than the average violent campaigns.”
Public support for Occupy Oakland was at an all time high after 26-year-old Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen was nearly killed on October 25, 2011 by Oakland police who deliberately fired a tear gas canister into his head. The Oakland City Council even scheduled a special meeting to vote on a proposal to endorse the occupation.
Support vanished overnight after people claiming to support “diversity of tactics” vandalized Whole Foods and several local small businesses on November 2, 2011.
Rebecca Solnit’s November 2011 essay, “Throwing Out the Master’s Tools and Building a Better House: Thoughts on the Importance of Nonviolence in the Occupy Revolution,” describes her decades of activism and her direct experience of radical anarchist successes being derailed by macho acts of violence.
Solnit participated in the protests that blockaded the World Trade Organization Ministerial Summit in Seattle in 1999. She writes, “To shut down the whole central city of Seattle and the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting on November 30, 1999, or the business district of San Francisco for three days in March of 2003, or the Port of Oakland on November 2, 2011—through people power—is one hell of a great way to stand up. It works. And it brings great joy and sense of power to those who do it.” She could have also mentioned the week-long blockade of the San Francisco Federal Building in January 1990 during the first Gulf War, which she also participated in.
Anarchists in places around the world, including Zagreb and Manila, have asked me if I participated in the “heroic Black Bloc” assault on the windows of Starbucks and Nike during the 1999 Seattle protest. They were surprised to learn that we shut down the WTO summit despite those “heroic” assaults. They had never heard of the years of organization, the Direct Action Network, its pledge to take nonviolent action, and the months of nonviolent preparations that went into shutting down the WTO meeting.
Anarchist and New York Times best-selling author Starhawk wrote an essay called “How We Really Shut Down the WTO.” She writes about seeing news of the protests after having been freed from the King County jail:
“The reports have pontificated endlessly about a few broken windows, and mostly ignored the Direct Action Network, the group that successfully organized the nonviolent direct action that ultimately involved thousands of people. The true story of what made the action a success is not being told.”
Food Not Bombs organized the UnFree Trade Tour in 1997 visiting 60 cities in North America explaining the dangers of the WTO and advocating a mass mobilization to shut it down if it ever held a ministerial meeting in North America. A year later the WTO announced it would meet in Seattle in November 1999, and the organizing started in earnest with formation of The Direct Action Network. Organizers came to consensus to present a pledge to participants to take nonviolent action. Activists agreed to “refrain from violence, physical or verbal; not to carry weapons, not to bring or use illegal drugs or alcohol, and not to destroy property.”
We were asked to agree only for the purpose of the 11/30 action–not to sign on to any of these as a life philosophy, and the group acknowledged that there is much diversity of opinion around some of these guidelines.
She goes on to say:
In the weeks and days before the blockade, thousands of people were given nonviolence training–a three hour course that combined the history and philosophy of nonviolence with real life practice through role plays in staying calm in tense situations, using nonviolent tactics, responding to brutality, and making decisions together. Thousands also went through a second-level training in jail preparation, solidarity strategies and tactics and legal aspects. As well, there were first aid trainings, trainings in blockade tactics, street theater, meeting facilitation, and other skills.
Rebecca Solnit’s response to the Black Bloc attack on local businesses in Oakland in 2011 comments on the literature within the anarchist community glorifying violence. She writes:
Crimethinc, whose logo is its name inside a bullet, doesn’t actually cite examples of violence achieving anything in our recent history. Can you name any? The anonymous writers don’t seem prepared to act, just tell others to (as do the two most high-profile advocates of violence on the left).
Crimethinc issued a screed in justification of violence that circulated widely in the Occupy movement. It’s titled ‘Dear Occupiers: A Letter from Anarchists,’ though most anarchists I know would disagree with almost everything that follows. Midway through it declares, ‘Not everyone is resigned to legalistic pacifism; some people still remember how to stand up for themselves. Assuming that those at the front of clashes with the authorities are somehow in league with the authorities is not only illogical . . . It is typical of privileged people who have been taught to trust the authorities and fear everyone who disobeys them.’ . . .
[D]espite the smear quoted above that privileged people oppose them, theirs is the language of privilege. White kids can do crazy shit and get slapped on the wrist or maybe slapped around for it… [Those with skin of a a different] color face far more dire consequences.
As do families with children and older people who are in danger when the Black Bloc provides the opportunity for the authorities to use violence–with the blessing of a public disturbed by images of rampaging thugs.
Anarchists dedicated to nonviolent direct action are not opposed to all forms of property damage. It can be an effective strategy if the decision to do it involves all participants, the target chosen is one that will guarantee no one who is not part of the action could be injured, and the method used does not frighten the public. If those participating also take credit and have destroyed property that is clearly injurious, that sends a clear message to both those who are being targeted and the public; that type of property damage can be empowering to those participating in it and can serve as an inspiration to those you want to join you.
A simple example is the Food Not Bombs actions taken the night of August 19th and at lunch time on August 20, 1981. Food Not Bombs shared vegan meals outside a weapons bazaar at Boston University the day after we spray-painted the outline of “dead” bodies on the ground, stenciled mushroom clouds with the word “Today?” and wheat-pasted “War is Murder for Profit” posters along the route that the weapons buyers and sellers would take from their hotel to the conference hall. We stood outside the conference holding poster boards with the mushroom cloud image that we had stenciled dozens of times outside the Student Union and along Commonwealth Avenue, taking credit for hundreds of dollars in graffiti damage to Boston University’s property. Who did this frighten into the arms of the state? No one.
Solnit explains anarchist support of property damage this way:
I want to be clear that property damage is not necessarily violence. The firefighter breaks the door to get the people out of the building. But the husband breaks the dishes to demonstrate to his wife that he can and may also break her. It’s violence displaced onto the inanimate as a threat to the animate.
Quietly eradicating experimental GMO crops or pulling up mining claim stakes is generally like the firefighter. Breaking windows during a big demonstration is more like the husband. I saw the windows of a Starbucks and a Niketown broken in downtown Seattle after nonviolent direct action had shut the central city and the World Trade Organization ministerial down. I saw scared-looking workers and knew that the CEOs and shareholders were not going to face that turbulence and they sure were not going to be the ones to clean it up. Economically it meant nothing to them.
French farmer and anti-globalization activist José Bové provides several examples of using property damage to farther campaigns of nonviolent resistance. Bové declared, “I am an anarcho-syndicalist. I am closer to Bakunin than Marx. My references are the Jura Federation in the First International in the last century and the Spanish CNT of 1936.”
Bové participated an a nonviolent direct action destroying genetically engineered maize in a grain silo in Nérac in the department of Lot-et-Garonne, France. He testified that:
Today, I am present in this court together with Rene Riese and Francis Roux, accused of committing a serious crime according to the law. The alleged crime is the destruction of sacks of genetically modified maize (corn). Yes, on January 8, I participated in the destruction of genetically modified maize, which was stored in Novartis’ grain silos in Nerac. And the only regret I have now is that I wasn’t able to destroy more of it.
On August 12, 1999 Bové participated with activists from the Confédération Paysanne, the second largest farmers’ union in France, in the “dismantling” of a McDonald’s franchise that was under construction in Millau, Aveyron, France. Bové was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for his role in the destruction. He was imprisoned for 44 days and released on August 1, 2002. The actions of the Confédération Paysanne helped bring global attention to the policies of the World Trade Organization and neoliberal structural adjustment/economic austerity programs. Over 40,000 people attended the trial of Bové and his co-defendants.
Anarchism is fundamentally about collective action using the non-hierarchical process of consensus in the decision-making procfess to include all those affected. Actions such as those taken by the Black Bloc cannot by design be agreed to by all those who are impacted. Rather, they’re imposed on other participants in actions.
The euphemism for violence is ‘diversity of tactics,’ perhaps because diversity has been a liberal-progressive buzzword these past decades. But diversity does not mean that anything goes and that democratic decision making doesn’t apply.
I participated in the protests against the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008. While staffing the Food Not Bombs table I witnessed two white vans arrive to Civic Center Park in the early evening of August 25, unloading twelve buff men in black Obama for President t-shirts, black pants, and black bandanas covering their crewcuts. Two of these men had a knapsack. The vans drove away leaving the 12 “Black Bloc” men. They divided into two groups, one headed to the west side of group of protesters preparing to march to the convention and the other six went to the east end of the gathering. I followed those walking to the west side and was joined by a reporter from the Denver Post. He asked me if I thought they were policemen. I told him that I just saw them get out of two vans driven by uniformed officers. Before long the “Black Bloc” on the west side was taunting the riot police. Then all of a sudden they turned and rushed into the crowd and seconds later the riot police started firing pepper spay, mace, and other crowd control weapons into the protesters. Riot police surrounded the march along a one-block stretch of 15th Street between Court and Cleveland. A total of 96 people were arrested that evening. I spoke with a woman that watched the protest on her local Fox TV station, and she felt the arrests were justified because of how violent the Black Bloc had been, throwing stones through windows and taunting the police. When the arrests started I returned to the Food Not Bombs table. The twelve “Black Bloc” men arrived soon after and stood before me talking. After about ten minutes the two white vans returned and the “Black Bloc” climbed in and the vans drove away from Civic Center Park. (This is not to say that the Black Bloc are police agents, just that their tactics make it very easy for police provocateurs to impersonate them and disrupt demonstrations.)
Some people who were not police agents joined them in their provocations. The domination, exploitation, and destruction of capitalism is brutal and it is not difficult for the state to encourage sensitive people to buy into the romantic vision of “revolutionary” resistance personified by the Black Bloc.
CrimethInc published a personal account of the Denver protests from a young person who attempted to join the Black Bloc:
Donning a black shirt and jeans, I raced down the street on my scooter, wind in my face, to catch up to my friend. It was the first day of the Democratic National Convention and we were running late for the black bloc protest in Civic Center Park. Having grown up in Denver, an overlooked bastion of liberalism in the Rockies, I never thought I would be able to get involved in a nationally publicized protest without moving to Washington D.C. or New York. This was the first major political action in which I had the chance to participate, and I wasn’t about to miss it.
Solnit’s essay on Occupy Oakland’s assault on Whole Foods is pertinent here: “This account is by a protestor who also noted in downtown Oakland that day a couple of men with military-style haircuts and brand new clothes put bandannas over their faces and began to smash stuff.” She thinks that infiltrators might have instigated the property destruction, and Copwatch’s posted video seems to document police infiltrators at Occupy Oakland.
One way to make the work of provocateurs much more difficult is to be clearly committed to tactics that the state can’t co-opt: nonviolent tactics. If an infiltrator wants to nonviolently blockade or march or take out the garbage, well, that’s useful to us. If an infiltrator sabotages us by recruiting for mayhem, that’s a comment on what those tactics are good for.
Solnit quotes Oakland Occupier Sunaura Taylor: “A few people making decisions that affect everyone else is not what revolution looks like; it’s what capitalism looks like.”
Peter Marshall’s book on the history of anarchism, Demanding the Impossible, points out that “The word violence comes from the Latin violare and etymologically means violation. Strictly speaking, to act violently means to treat others without respect … A violent revolution is therefore unlikely to bring about any fundamental change in human relations. Given the anarchists’ respect for the sovereignty of the individual, in the long run it is nonviolence and not violence which is implied by anarchist values.”
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Keith McHenry is the author of Hungry for Peace: How You Can Help End Poverty and War with Food Not Bombs.