Sunday, September 05, 2010

Reflections on the Demise of Bash Back!

The following article, "Reflections on the Demise of Bash Back!", is from the recently released zine Pink and Black Revolution #6, available for download here.

Bash Back! was started in 2007 as a network of queer anarchists to have a specifically queer presence at the Democratic National Convention and Republican National Convention protests in the summer of 2008 noticing this absence at past mobilizations. Bash Back! quickly expanded, with chapters across the United States. One of the main themes of the 2010 Bash Back! convergence was the assertion “Bash Back! is dead.” I would like to offer some thoughts on this assertion and its implications.

On the Network
Bash Back! formed as a network with a specific goal in mind: the DNC/RNC convention protests. At the time of BB!’s formation, there were no national organizations/networks specifically for queer anarchists. While long-standing queer anarchist groups have existed in specific cities and regions for years, these groups have a local focus. Bash Back! formed to fill a need for a national network of queer anarchists, which was demonstrated by its rapid growth and popularity. The establishment of a national network was deemed useful at the time for its ability to gather a large number of anarchist queers in the resistance of the previously mentioned conventions/summits. This also demonstrates the desire for a large number people to rally specifically around this identity.

Points of unity were adopted and more chapters popped up across the country. The only requirement for membership was adopting the points of unity, which led to the creation of a decentralized, very informal network of chapters (with some international presence). The structure of the network also facilitated quick expansion, because it did not operate on a traditional, formal principles of organization and instead focused on building a network between autonomous local chapters. Emphasis was placed upon taking action. Ideological and tactical unity was not prioritized beyond the points of unity. Even these points offered only a basic framework of broadly defined anti-oppression, anti-assimilation, liberation, and diversity of tactics. Bash Back!, as a network rather than a formal organization (such as a federation), did not make any formal attempts to define its political analysis.

The local chapters that comprised Bash Back! were far from homogeneous. Chapters were linked only by a name and perhaps some social connections, with each chapter being unique in how they formed, how they operated, and what they did. For this reason, it is difficult to speak of Bash Back! members as a distinct group, since there was no ideological unity implied by membership in Bash Back!, nor was membership controlled or tracked in any way. Some chapters were more active than others, with the Midwest having a high concentration of especially active chapters.

While there was no central organization for Bash Back!, there have still been national convergences after the founding convergence. These are different from conventions or conferences, as participation was not limited to members of the organization, and no decisions about the network itself are made. Rather, the convergences focused on the strengthening of the network in an informal sense.

On Tension and the Death of Bash Back!
“Is our violence one of substance or of image?”
- “Questions to be Addressed Before the Bash Back! Convergence in Denver”

Once BB! began its rapid expansion (after the summer of 2008), questions of political unity began to arise, culminating in conflict at the 2009 convergence. One reason is that, with the growth of Bash Back! across the continent, the personal connections that had been established due to the relative proximity of the first chapters were no longer in place. While there has been no formal political position for the organization, informally it seemed that the first chapters had strong affinity with the others, especially tactically. At the 2009 convergence, strong disagreements (both political and tactical) arose between participants in an action. In the absence of strong personal connections, these conflicts were intensified.

By the time of the 2009 convergence, Bash Back! actions that involved multiple chapters had also become less frequent.

Actions were taken by individual chapters, rather than the multiple chapters that had been involved in the DNC/RNC protests, the Mt. Hope Church action, and the Avenge Duanna campaign. While it is impossible to pinpoint a reason for this decline, it is likely that the decrease in multichapter actions contributed to the declining tactical unity.

The formation of personal connections from taking action together declined as BB! grew. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it could indicate a shift of focus to working locally or to clandestine activity. In any case, it points to a weakening of the inter-chapter bonds that had characterized Bash Back!’s origins.

Political and tactical differences, unable to be resolved by any organizational process within Bash Back!, grew into competing visions of the organization. At the 2010 convergence, this culminated in a discussion regarding the future of BB!. The competing visions of Bash Back! centered on the organizational form of the group. Some people advocated an organizational form more akin to a federation, with formalized relations between chapters and a stronger emphasis on political/theoretical unity. Others claimed that Bash Back! is dead/ought to die as an organization.

Many points would come into question later: the question of organization versus anti-organizationalism, affirming queer identity versus negating identity, the nonviolent versus those calling for a diversity of tactics, autonomy versus revolt, building an autonomous queer liberation that displaces state/heterosexual power versus destroying the existent. It is necessary here to make clear the role of identity in creating these tensions. Those who felt that self-identification was the necessary basis for entering into struggle clashed with those who saw understandability and identification as necessarily the recuperation of struggle.

Bash Back! was declared by some people to be dead immediately before the 2010 convergence in Denver. While the veracity of the statement is still a point of contention, the idea of Bash Back! being dead provides an excellent starting point for a discussion of the role of Bash Back!.

As an informal network, BB! was never focused on the tasks of formal organizations, such as signing up members, conducting political education, or defining campaigns or strategic directions. These tasks, if they were to be done, were left up to each chapter. Thus it is difficult to speak of BB! as a whole, because it did not have explicit organizational positions or policies.

Indeed, the chapters across the country varied in size, activity, and organization. Some chapters openly recruited while others were established from preexisting networks of friends and comrades. The wide differences between chapters makes discussing BB! problematic, because what constituted BB! was never clearly defined beyond an agreement with the points of unity. The ease of joining BB! allowed for tremendous growth in visibility and numbers, with actions across the country being claimed by BB! chapters and members.

On Organization
“If we are ever to have a member-list, count us off of it.”
- “Questions to be Addressed Before the Bash Back! Convergence in Denver”

The extremely decentralized organizational form that Bash Back! adopted at its inception brought with it limits and trade-offs. These limits, coupled with the identity-based nature of BB!, can provide some theoretical insight into the rise and fall of Bash Back!.

Political and theoretical unity was not a priority for Bash Back!, with action and networking as the main impetus and expression. While this position is not inherently problematic, the internal contradictions of queer identity resulted in complications in the attempt to build a network of queer anarchists. Because queer is widely understood to be an explicitly social identity rather than an explicitly political identity, the actual political views of the people who constituted Bash Back! varied tremendously. This occurred despite the anarchist principles of BB!; anarchist was used in a sense of a passive political identity, rather than asserting any specific political unity. The lack of political affinity became problematic when membership was based on a social identity. This limited the options that Bash Back! had for organizational form, as any shift towards formalized structure such as a federation model would be hampered by the lack of ideological unity amongst the loosely-defined members.

Bash Back!’s organizational form also had implications for the longevity of the group. Lacking strongly defined membership, delegated responsibilities, and specified strategy and goals, BB! had no processes by which to sustain itself in any official sense. As stated earlier, the group was founded with an emphasis on networking for a specific set of actions (the DNC/RNC protests), that is, to fulfill a specific need.

Rather than focusing on organizational permanence for its own sake, Bash Back! relied on the minimum amount of structure needed to achieve its goal of building a network of queer anarchists.

Organization in response to a specific need makes organizational permanence unimportant once the need has been satisfied. If organizational permanence becomes a secondary concern, then the demise of an organization is not undesirable. Indeed, dissolution is a preferable alternative to continuing an organization for its own sake. The product of a shift from a highly decentralized network to a more formal organization would irrevocably change the character of the organization. The desire to attempt such a radical restructuring of an existing organization indicates that a premium has been placed on the name and legacy of the organization, instead of the actions that created its reputation. If an organization is not meeting people’s needs because of structural limits, it seems more reasonable to discard it.

The End
“Fuck, Just Fuck”
- writing on a wall during action planning debate BB! convergence May 2010

Bash Back!, at its inception, was an attempt to fill a void—the lack of a queer anarchist network. Bash Back! was constituted by the affinity of its participants, and this affinity was expressed through action, and new chapters emerged as a result of a certain resonance carried by Bash Back! actions. While the origins of Bash Back! as a tendency based on resonance fostered its growth, it also allowed for different chapters to re-envision Bash Back! from their particular political desires and local situations of struggle. Bash Back!’s status as a network imposed certain limits; limits that could not be broken without fundamentally shifting from the model that allowed for its initial success.

To speak of the death of an organization generally connotes a negative event, but this relies on the assumption that organizational permanence is a good thing. Moving past this assumption, the question becomes: have we accomplished our goals with this organization, this means, this tool? If the answer is affirmative, if the organization has been pushed to its limits, perhaps its death is deserved. If Bash Back! is dead, the resurgence in anarchist queer activity and networking remains. Relationships now exist that would not have existed had Bash Back! never formed. When our projects reach the end of their usefulness, letting them go is no cause for concern.

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