the Stranger, “Some Unimaginative Anarchists Think the May Day Smashfest Is Going to Be Awesome”

Riot porn is how some Seattle anarchists are promoting May Day, which is next Sunday:

The anarchist march is set to begin at Westlake Park at 6 p.m. “Let’s smash these capitalist motherfuckers!” says one Facebook commenter. I wasn’t able to reach the people who made the video.

The annual immigrant and workers’ rights march, led by local group El Comité, begins at Judkins Park at 1 p.m. the same day.

“May 1 is our holiday in which we celebrate the workers,” including Washington’s rural agricultural laborers and workers in the urban service industries, El Comité said in a statement. May Day will also mark the ten-year anniversary of the enormous protest marches of 2006—some of the largest marches in American history—against an immigration crackdown.

Like my old colleague Brendan Kiley, I don’t believe window-breaking or rioting is never okay—not when you live in an oligarchy, anyway—and I certainly don’t equate it with physical violence against human beings. Major riots in Baltimore heaped pressure on the state to prosecute the police killers of Freddie Gray; riots in Stonewall spurred the gay liberation movement.

But these riots have little in common with the small-scale skirmishes we’ve seen between May Day protesters and Seattle police over the past four years. In the past, I’ve been highly critical of police for conflating peaceful and violent anticapitalist protesters, for using excessive force (from pepper spray to blast balls), and for escalating—not de-escalating—tensions.

This time, with the cringeworthy promo video, some anarchists seem to be saying to the police: This is what we want. Bring it on. We want to fight you.

The video’s opening clip is edited from a previous Seattle May Day march in an effort to make a few anarchist marchers, who were asked by a reporter to share their message, less stupid-sounding:

I called up Jen Angel, a Bay Area activist who runs an anarchist public relations outfit called Agency, to give her a chance to spin the video.

Angel said there’s fairly wide support for property destruction among anarchists. But not enough work goes into explaining why that tactic might be useful or justified in certain circumstances.

“I don’t personally don’t believe that random property destruction is helpful,” she said. “If I was going to be charitable, I’d say the video is to show people that we don’t just have to do these kinds of pre-approved marches. We can do something different than business as usual.”

(Again—the problem is that in the Seattle context, the video presents a vision of certain anarchists doing same things they’ve done in previous years. There is something dreadful about the prospect, in 2016, of the same old shit playing out on May Day. Neither the anarchists, nor El Comité, for that matter, seem willing to do anything fresh or different.)

“One of the things we’re trying to do with Agency,” she added, “is to get anarchists to do a better job of communicating why they’re doing what they’re doing… Otherwise the narrative is dominated by everyone else.”

As for the stereotype of window-breaking anarchists as shallow, privileged thrill-seekers, not serious activists, she said, “Those people do actually exist. But in the broader anarchist movement, there are so many people doing things like organizing childcare centers, or worker-run businesses.” And it’s unfair and inaccurate to lump all anarchists together as if they’re a monolith.

“The core tenets of anarchism are autonomy, mutual aid, voluntary association, and direct action,” Angel said. For her, anarchism is about both tearing down oppressive systems and building up new systems that reflect those tenets. “These are all positive things,” she said. “The images chosen [in the video] are negative.”

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