Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fire and Flames, Black Blocs, and Militant Resistance

On KPFA's Letters and Politics show featured an interview with Gabriel Kuhn, on the subject of the West German Autonomen, and the book Fire and Flames (which Kuhn translated into english). i have mirrored the interview here; it is well worth listening to. i found his comments on the evolution of the Black Bloc to be of particular interest, and so i have transcribed the relative passages here:

GK: The history of militant resistance is a long one; i think the particular form that the Black Bloc took on in Germany during the 1980s was determined by the conditions of political conflict at the time, the level of policing, the level to which you could take militant resistance as protest in the streets. i mean what is also interesting if you look at it, what we understand as the Black Bloc tactic has also changed in the course of the last  thirty years. Because today very often we see smaller groups that, kind of guerilla-tactic-like, move from place to place, who act quickly, who do a direct action maybe also making use of an area that at that point in time has no security forces and then you try to disappear before the security forces arrive and get to the next point where there are none. So its a kind of cat and mouse kind of thing.

Whereas in the 1980s for the Autonomist movement, it was the opposite. The Black Blocs were formed actually as a force that could confront the security forces head on. So it was a sign of showing strength in street battles, of showing the strength and the will to take on the security forces. Now there are several reasons why this has changed over the years, but as i said, i think it was a form of militant protest that was suitable to the conditions in Germany at the time.

Q: And the importance of taking on the security forces?

GK: Partly it was to demonstrate strength. State power and the security forces as the agents of State power were seen as a major factor in upholding an order than the Autonomist activists saw as problematic in many ways. So there was this symbolic aspect to it. But at times it was also very concrete. The squatting movement was big then1980s it was a very big part of the Autonomist movement. Squats were threatened by eviction and were ready to defend themselves militantly. So if you in a very concrete way demonstrated that it wasn't that easy to evict Auomomist squats because there was a militant tactic of resistance that was ready and able to take on police assaults, that of course influenced the decisions by politicians and by the people calling the shots within the police whether such an assault would be undertaken or not.

Q: Do you think tactics then over the years changed in part just because of the weaponry that police have now?

Yeah, i definitely think that is one aspect. If you look at the equipment police had in the 1980s in Germany for example compared to what they have now, also the weaponry and things that the police is allowed to do and is now allowed to do, it has become harder in many ways to have this head on confrontation because i think the differences in the resources and the use of power have become even bigger. So this is one factor i think why Black Bloc tactics have changed a little but, from this head-on confrontation to this more guerilla tactics and trying to find the right place at the right time where you can do your direct action. So this is certainly one of the reasons.

Fire and Flames:
A History of the German Autonomist Movement

The timing of Kuhn`s interview is fortuitous for this little blog, as i was just about to post the following talk that i gave earlier this week as part of the book launch that we held for Fire and Flames, at the Belle Epoque anarchist space. Here it is:

Hello everyone, and thanks for coming - we're here tonight to launch and discuss this book, Fire and Flames: A History of the German Autonomist Movement.

This is a movement history, in two sense of the term. It is written by a guy under the pseudonym "Geronimo", a longterm Autonomist and who was involved in many of the events he describes. And it is a history of a movement, not so much of the debates and theory within it. This may even make sense, as the West German Autonomists were famously hostile to political theory, but it is also unfortunate, because there were ideas behind the tactics and campaigns described in this book. Luckily, while Geronimo does focus on actual campaigns and actions, he does also tell us about the debates and discussions that surrounded them, so it’s not as if theory is completely absent, more like it comes through incidentally rather than being at the center of our story.

Reading this book has been an educational experience, not only in terms of the subject-matter itself, but also in terms of the process of reading history. The last time i read the book prior to its publication was in February, and at that time it seemed like an incredibly inspirational but also otherworldly story, about a movement and a conflicts that far surpassed anything i had ever seen. Now, rereading the book over the past weeks since i received my box from the publisher, it is a completely different experience. The kinds of battles may be different, but the tactics, and the scale and intensity of struggle, no longer seem out of reach. In fact, reading some of the accounts of riots and resistance in Germany in the 1980s, i now find myself thinking, “Huh, we’re doing better than that.” i had never expected to feel this way. [For those out-of-towners who are not sure what i am talking about, check out this Report on Quebec's Student Strike.]

This points to the importance of this book, not just as a historical account, but as a story of battles similar to those happening today, of a movement not unrelated to the ones many of you may belong to. In other words, this book should be useful. Not in terms of tactics so much – this is not a technical how-to guide – but rather in helping to prepare comrades for the arc that struggles are likely to travel, and for the political and organizational challenges that are likely to confront us in the months ahead.

Rather than going on about how useful this book is, i’m going to briefly go over the history it covers. And then we can watch a video and have a few readings from the book, to be followed by a discussion.

OK, first off, this is a book about the German Autonomen in the 1970s and 80s. Autonomen is the German word, one could also say the “autonomists” – i tend to use both terms. There were Autonomist movements in several European countries in the 1970s, and they often varied greatly from one place to another. To understand the differences, and the specificities, you really need to look at the context in each country, both in broad terms and also in terms of the left. To do so i’m going to backtrack a bit to the 1960s.

So in Germany, or actually West Germany at the time, the sixties were a time of revolt, much as they were elsewhere in the world, a revolt that hits its high-point in the unsurprising year of 1968. This West German revolt was known as the “extraparliamentary opposition,” and as in many countries, it was centered in the universities. This initial surge met a series of challenges in 1970: splits within the movement between anti-authoritarians and Maoists, a lot of dissatisfaction among women activists due to sexism in the movement, and the election of a Social Democratic-Liberal coalition government that passed an amnesty for over 5,000 student protesters who had been arrested in the previous years, and that also passed legislation responding to many of the students demands, ushering in a period of what has been referred to as "reform euphoria".

The result was that the movement fragmented. Hundreds of thousands of people joined the Social Democrats. Of those who remained committed to more radical ideas, many found a home in various Maoist Communist parties. While in terms of numbers, this may have been the largest section of the radical left in the early 70s, it would really have no influence on the Autonomen, except as a negative example of the kind of politics they were not interested in. Meanwhile, other people remained committed to antiauthoritarian and anti-system ideas, most notably the Spontis, or spontaneists. For the Spontis, personal liberation, creativity and humour, as well as militant resistance, were all important themes. Many women formed groups and movements separate from the male left, most importantly in opposition to Paragraph 218, which criminalized abortion. There was also a tiny urban guerilla, with perhaps hundreds of people directly involved, but which had a support scene of tens of thousands, and which constituted an important political reference point.

Last but not least, about mid-way through the 1970s, there developed what was initially a very reformist anti-nuclear movement. Ironically, it was out of this movement that the Autonomen would emerge, though not immediately. Initially, various anti-nuclear protests appealed to members of all sections of the rest of the left for a variety of reasons, not least because it was “new territory” and provided a place where you could reach out to people and enjoy some popularity with so-called “ordinary folks”. Even better, pacifists and middle-class forces were unable to take complete control of the movement, which meant that it became a laboratory where different groups could try out different tactics. Militant battles with police, and attacks on nuclear plant construction sites, became a regular feature. If the older sixties-era left provided a lot of the infrastructure, what was most important was the political effect that this had on a new generation who became politicized through these protests.

As Geronimo explains, “Nonorganized activists—who would later form the bulk of the Autonomen—were an important element of the militant wing and emerged as a strong political force in their own right.” (87) and “The core principle of the nonorganized activists was “practical resistance,” by which they meant that each individual could partake in the struggle self-determinedly. For them it was crucial that the protest of the BIs was not purely rhetorical, but that practical steps were taken to meet the demands, even if this required breaking bourgeois notions of morality or the legal framework of the constitutional state. This approach was particularly popular since the decentralized character of the antinuclear movement provided a certain level of protection against state repression. It was in this context that the term “Autonome” began to signify a particular strain of activists.” (89)

So it was within the incubator of the antinuclear movement that the Autonomen developed as a potential movement. However, if they had not broken out of the confines of that one movement, it is unlikely that they would have developed the significance that they did.

In the late 1970s all the sections of the left that had emerged from the 1960s entered into crises. The Communist groups essentially imploded, largely due to the unbearable internal culture, both in terms of demands on the individual, and also in terms of authoritarian structures. The Spontis retreated into lifestyle politics, dubbed the Alternative Movement, when their militant forms of protest proved unable to cope with heavy police repression. The urban guerilla groups likewise went into crisis as they attempted to out-escalate the State on the military level, and failed. In fact the only movements that fared relatively well were the antinuclear and womens’ movements. Not coincidentally, each of these movements had developed their own understanding of the importance of “autonomy”, although the women’s movement was severely hampered by a strong pacifist wing. Also in this context, strong Autonomist movements in Italy, France, and Switzerland caught people’s attention, drawing on aspects of anarchism and anti-Leninist Marxism to make something new.

This was the context in which the West German Autonomen first appeared. In May 1980, an anti-military protest in the city of Bremen turned into a major riot, military vehicles were set on fire, cops were attacked with Molotov cocktails, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage was done. This inspired people, and was the first sign that things had broken out of the antinuclear shell.

Later on that year a militant squatters movement developed in West Berlin. Here too, it was not the sixties left that was in the lead, but young people, who had often cut their teeth in the antinuclear movement. Or, increasingly, were joining the movement for the first time. By 1981, 160 buildings were occupied, and over three thousand people were living in squats in West Berlin alone. Police attacks were often met with barricades and rioting. Beyond the actual numbers involved, the fact that West Germany was in an economic crisis with unprecedented youth unemployment, led to widespread sympathy with the squatters. The nature of the squats – where people were living collectively in illegally claimed spaces, having to organize defense against the police, but also developing physical structures out of which to base other forms of activism – all this was conducive to the politics of the Autonomen, who were clearly the political center of this movement.

At the same time, in the early 80s NATO and the united states were stationing thousands of nuclear missiles in West Germany, and so anti-war activism became a very important field of activity for the entire left. Here too, the Autonomen got involved, and were notable for their use of militant tactics during demonstrations. Notably, this is the origin of the Black Bloc. Also, this is a period when one of the urban guerilla groups, the Revolutionary Cells, succeeded in connecting to this new movement, and so you had a guerilla group that was carrying out numerous attacks – bombings and the like – as a complement to Autonomen campaigns.

Fire and Flames goes through this history, not in a seamless narrative arc, but in a series of reports on different aspects of the struggle, highlighting not only the tactics employed, but also the debates between different Autonomists groups about how best to bring the struggle forward. Very usefully, this book describes not only the high points of struggle, but also the dynamics that led to the defeat or at least neutralization of each of these forms of struggle. While repression often plays a part in defeat, repression always relies on our own weaknesses to do its work. As these weaknesses are difficult to identify beforehand, this kind of after-the-fact overview of what went wrong can be very useful in training us to see these kinds of problems while there is still time to fix them.

Of course no book is perfect, and this book in fact has some major weaknesses. George Katsiaficas, in his introduction, points out two of these. First off, as i mentioned earlier, there were Autonomist movements that emerged in a number of West European countries at this time, however Fire and Flames only really deals with the Italian movement, which in a sense is the “original Autonomist movement”. This is unfortunate. Secondly, and far more importantly, Fire and Flames ignores the women’s movement as a source for Automonist politics, and ever worse, ignores those Autonomist campaigns and debates that were centered on women’s politics and struggles. This is a really incredible omission, as according to everyone i have spoken to, women often formed the backbone of Autonomist scenes in various cities, and struggles around abortion, around sexual violence, and also around other issues – for instance war, and genetic engineering – are impossible to fully understand (or even notice) without taking women into account. Katsiaficas’s own book, The Subversion of Politics, is much better in this regard, however unfortunately it has its own problems, namely his hostility to militant resistance. So we are unfortunately left with this big gaping hole in our account.

Nevertheless, i think that this book can be helpful to us, especially in the context that presently exists here in Quebec. We are at the beginning of a political surge forward that might last for several years, and that is a wonderful thing. Checking out the lessons of others who have similarly tried to develop a culture of resistance without authoritarianism or reformism will prove well worth the effort.

Friday, May 25, 2012

May 28 in Montreal: Fire and Flames Book Launch

"Earlier, many of us saw themselves as anarchists, Spontis, or communists, while some had vague, individual ideas about a liberated life. Then we all became Autonome."

Monday, May 28 at 7PM
La Belle Epoque
1984 Wellington

Black blocs, squats, riots and urban guerillas - but also base groups in the factories, "free spaces", antinuclear occupations, and alternative lifestylism - all of these formed the context, the terrain, and the world of Germany's Autonomous movement during its high point in the 1980s. Today best known for the militant street fighting tactics they exemplified, the Autonomen opposed the capitalist State while purposefully not putting forward any kind of blueprint for what would replace it, an ethos summed up in the slogan, "No power to no one!"

The challenges faced by the Autonomen - repression from the police, integration from the reformist left - and the way in which they were met, provide a look forward to what may face our own movements in the time to come. As the current capitalist crisis leads to new surges in protest, with radical elements try to break out of the reformist structures and defeatist traditions meant to hold us back, Germany in the 1980s doesn't seem so far away.

Fire and Flames was the first comprehensive study of the German autonomous movement ever published. Released in 1990, it reached its fifth edition by 1997, with the legendary German Konkret journal concluding that "the movement had produced its own classic." This is the first english translation ever published.

The author, writing under the pseudonym of Geronimo, has been an Autonomous activist since the movement burst onto the scene in the early 80s. His book is not an academic study, but a movement history produced by a participant in the events, for all of us engaged in building resistance to capitalism, and fighting for a liberatory future.

This book launch will include a brief overview of the Fire and Flames as well as several readings from the book, and a brief presentation about how the German movement responded to repression similar to what is happening today in Montreal. This will hopefully be followed by a discussion of how this relates to current struggles occurring here today. A short film will also be shown.

Whisper translation between english and french will be provided.
Refreshments will be served.

Copies of Fire and Flames will be available at the discounted price of $16 (normal price is $20)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Decolonizing Anarchism: An Anticolonial Critique

There was an "anti-colonial Victoria Day" book launch in Montreal on May 21, where Maia Ramnath presented her new book Decolonizing Anarchism, published by AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies (and available from What made this launch special, and different from most such events, was that the Ramnath spoke on a panel with Ponni, a radical activist from India, who used her intervention to level a detailed and outstanding critique of the book, from an anti-authoritarian and anticolonial perspective.

Given the strength of this critique, i asked Ponni if i could upload the transcript here to my blog. She graciously agreed, though wanted me to make it clear to readers that this is not a "review", it is a talk given at an event, and so is not structured or intended as a written piece would be. Here it is:

I am an activist with the queer movement, feminist movement and labour struggles and a student of history. I also work on conflict related issues in Sri Lanka primarily in the north and east of Sri Lanka. I have studied modern Indian history - which means 1757 to 1947. But later I have come to be involved in a range of different research projects on social movements in post-independence India including archiving the women’s movement in some parts of India in the 70s. I am also part of an informal network of queer feminists across the South Asian region.

This introduction is important not to establish my authenticity; in fact I am mildly annoyed by the authenticity that is read on to me in the global west even by the closest of comrades. It is to explain the background from which the following comments are coming. In many ways the book is too close to home, to say the least.

What I enjoyed in the book are the snippets of information about related social movements in the ‘diaspora’, if I can read that modern category on to another period and the limited channels of solidarity that exist today among activists in South Asia and groups based in the global west.
Here are a few points of criticism for the book.

1.    Tracing the story of Veer Savarkar as part of a revolutionary history - you might have your reasons and frankly I am only partially curious about them - but it goes against at least two generations of historians if not more, working to write his and others’ such as his stories out of the ‘nationalist’ history. The story is told through Bal-Pal-Lal by Congress and left historians alike. All three of them had problematic stances towards a Hindu identity and a nationalist identity from our vantage point today, but did not go on to found the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh - the Hindu fundamentalist body, a right-wing, nationalist, paramilitary, volunteer and militant organization that still exists - in 1925, a mere few years after where you stop with the story of Savarkar in this text.  Savarkar supported among other things the Jewish state in Israel in 1947. The next generation is of course Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Chandrasekhar Azad.  Their story the author addresses to some extent. If the idea was to tell the story of the ‘extremists’ as the Indian National Congress dubbed them, I see the relevance of that. But we do not have the privilege yet of looking at Savarkar as anything more than a self-identified, Hindu fundamentalist leader. India is a Hindu country and State-run massacres of thousands of Muslims are going unpunished and at this stage complicating the history of the founder of Hindutva is like complicating the story of the establishment of the Jewish state. While we can acknowledge the marginal significance of both of these projects as long terms theoretical concerns, we do not have that privilege yet.

2.    The book has fallen into every trap that historians in privileged institutions in India are in. It is a view from Delhi and it is centered on Bengal. Neither of which are surprising to me given that I have been trained in these very institutions. But this becomes problematic in this context as the claim of being from an anarchist tradition is thoroughly debunked if the author could not see beyond the obvious privileged halos of the nation she’s writing about. It is of course not a question of simple exclusion; it is a question of a severely inadequate and often fallacious representation of thinkers and traditions which would have fit very nicely within the author’s project. The only reference to a person based in Madras in the late 19th and early 20th century is that of a Brahmin thinker and writer Acharya at the same time when the likes of Ayothee Daasar the anti-Brahmin Buddhist thinker and philosopher was writing extensively and rationalist groups such as those who ran the magazine Sudesamitran were functioning and had a broad range of connections with their counterparts in Europe.

3.    Speaking of the author’s project - needless to say there is one - there always is. But the author claims in the beginning of the book “instead of always trying to construct a strongly anarcha-centric cosmology- conceptually appropriating movements and voices from elsewhere… as part of our tradition, and then measuring them against how much or little we think they resemble our notion of our own values - we could locate the western anarchist tradition as one contextually specific manifestation among a larger - indeed global tradition of anti-authoritarian thought… something else being the reference point for us, instead of us being the reference point for everything else.”  The author has not done a few basic prerequisites in order to be able to achieve this decolonizing - for example to conceive and frame a working definition of anarchism for the context she is studying and writing about. 
The different ‘a’s, small or big are not a working definition for South Asia. Declarations of not being able to mention these terms to folks there and the problems with that are understandable but not excusable in a research project. In fact, an explanation of your own political trajectory and the words you are attached to in your tradition might have led to more engaging and maybe more illuminating conversations there. Further, there are ways to make the story South Asian in the pre-independence period by telling the stories about thinkers and movements that are shared across borders that were drawn later. The revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz or the stories of Sadat Hasan Manto would have been useful as they span at least the regions that are now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Khan Abdul Gaffer Khan or Frontier Gandhi a person of marginal presence in the nationalist story is told in India and completely erased in the story as told in Pakistan would have been a fascinating figure. Traditions of separatism in Baluchistan and their history would have been another story to tell. Or just the description of the actual geographical and cultural entity that is Punjab would have made the story more inclusive. And of course, at least anarchists should acknowledge the small fish in South Asia, be they Sri Lanka, Burma, Bhutan and so on and their unique position and the shadow of the other 3 nations that looms large over them. The hegemony of India in south asia means weapons for the fascist government in Sri Lanka, unchecked control on the economies of Bangladesh and Pakistan, double standards on Tibet and lip service to struggles for democracy in Burma. It is not one that can be done away with in a disclaimer, at least not by us who trace our roots to antiauthoritarian radical political traditions.    

4.    It is this lack of a working definition for herself that leads to statements such as ‘the narrative is still dominated by male upper caste voices whereas anti- authoritarian… has to confront the malignant realities of caste and patriarchy. Yet this is not a history of caste or patriarchy or the movements to dismantle the structures of oppression based on them. So for the purposes of this project, it seemed better to offer what is actually there rather than simply to condemn or discard the record on account of what isn’t there’. The problem with this statement is that it is there. It required another pair of eyes to look in order to find them. It is like, I am told by trusted political allies here, telling the sotry of the civil war in the Us without talking of how Indigenous people were brutally affected - because that information is ‘not there’.

5.    Then it is not surprising that the author ends with ‘in this way, the warp and the weft of the ongoing process of South Asian decolonization beyond formal independence on into the 21st c are tantalizingly analogous to those of western anarchist tradition’.  It is not analogous. And as someone who is part of the movements the author is referring to, I do not think there is an adequate critique of nationalism or for multiple forms of protest in India. There isn’t a context in which to state the limitations in our movements in order to move us forward to bring thousands on to the street as is happening so inspiringly in Montreal every night. Anarchist thought can help us through these questions. But this author has missed the bus and eventually simply given us the anarchist tick mark.

What is missing in this book is not to be raised here just as exclusions but have a profound effect on the political universe the book inhabits from my vantage point. Here are the stories I would have told:

(Before that a quick note about my vantage point: it is an important one because this book is about my history as an activist and historian engaged in progressive research and activism in various movements. This book is clearly not written for the people about whom the book is. And somewhere the decolonization project has to begin with being able to write texts that are written in the global north that can be of some relevance or of significance in terms of bringing in fresh perspectives to those who the text is about. If we don’t do that we are not different from those who we stand against in our political work.)

  • Periyar - on August 15th, 1947, the day of independence, he said is the first day of the beginning of the slavery of all those who were not north indian, Brahmins. A translation of that speech is available online and I will be happy to provide the details. This is the same thinker who, in his last speech before he died literally said ‘smash the state’ in Tamil. 
  • I would have included the story of Savitribhai and Jothirao Phule who for me embodied the anti-authoritarian tradition of going against the state and society in order to provide knowledge to young minds while being critical of the power of knowledge itself. They did this by leading groups of young Dalit men and women, boys and girls into the hallowed spaces of education. 
  • I would have told the story of Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism and his use of Buddhism as a tool of dismantling the very basis of Brahminism. If Aurobindo’s engagements with radical traditions and then his engagements with spirituality can be part of the story I don’t see why Ambedkar’s relationship with Buddhism cannot be. I see it as a moment of a leader who believed in the state and the law, so much to draft the constitution of India, turning towards an anti-authoritarian thread that he saw to be much more powerful than any constitution can ever be.  
  • I would even have used the partially idiosyncratic travails of Subhas Chandra Bose whose story can be told a million ways. He believed in reclaiming the arms of the state and its bureaucracy, more specifically the armed wing and went about it in multiple ways. 
  • I would not have forgotten Telengana the peasant’s land struggle in rural Andhrapradesh in 1949, two years after formal independence. 
  • I would have told the story of the Emergency of 1975 through the intense context of political turmoil but also critical thought, discussion and debate that existed inspired by the 1968 student revolts in France and later by Maoist struggles in China and also the mobilization against the Bangladesh war in 1971. The 70s saw an overwhelming radicalization of many who joined various political streams. The JP movement spread throughout the country as did Lohiaite socialism. The Dalit Panthers of the 60s inspired directly by the Black Panthers in North America and the ultimate end of their heyday by the late 70s would have been part of this story. 
  • Irom Sharmila the Gandhian who has been on fast for the past 12 years against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the Kabir Kala Manch, the Dalit cultural troupe that have been arrested by the Maharashtra government for singing songs of Dalit liberation are all for me the streams of thought and action that are inspired by anti-authoritarian traditions. 
  • Given the myriad reservations about violence as a means of struggle I would have included the debates within the ultraleft parties such as the formulations of Chandrasekhar of JNU, a student leader who was brutally murdered by the police, or the articulations of numerous other leaders of the far left as well as commentators including the likes of Gautam Navlakha and Arundhati Roy. 
  • I would include the cultural history of the theatre of Safdar Hashmi or Habib Tanvir, with all the problematic aspects as well as the songs of our own Ghadar of Andhrapradesh who has inspired generations of revolutionary thinkers across political lines. 
  • And last but not the least; I cannot for a moment swallow the absence of women as well as the women’s movement in this story. The autonomous women’s movement emerged as a reaction against party-based left spaces as well as the State itself. So in a sense against two kinds of authoritarianisms. This then lead to numerous conversations about what a movement space looks like in which were numerous conversations of the minute details of anti-authoritarian feminist politics. I would have included the story of Anuradha Gandhi, a left thinker, activist and feminist. I would have included the work and thoughts of Sudesh Vaid who was one of the founding members of the civil liberties strand of politics and was also a self-avowed feminist. I would have spoken on the anti-State thought of the feminist struggles against forced contraception during Indira Gandhi’s time or the national network of women against state violence. If an anarchist scholar wherever she may be from had looked at the story of the women’s movements, pointed out to the anti-authoritarian strands and pointed out to the lack thereof in some places even, I would have used that text to have conversations back home. 

6.    The project is an ambitious one.  Any attempt at writing a ‘history of India’ is fallacious as it is not a cohesive unit and has never been. Neither is it a collection of several units. It exists in a complicated web of power that has to be laid out before one embarks on such a project if at all. It has been done with a narrow expanse of secondary reading and primary research being constricted to my friends and professors in Delhi it seems, who themselves know of their limitations. The crux of the problem with this text may be in its intention and in its lack of shifting the lens away from the political tradition that the author hails from. For example: “mushairas” is not spoken word. ‘Direct translations’ such as these are problematic as the author herself points out in her disclaimers. Stepping out of the frameworks we are in is very difficult to do for any of us. But we can only address this by rigorous reading of all that is available and by unabashedly spending sizeable amounts of time living and working while observing the movements in a context that are foreign to you. Without that rigour in methodology, the anti-colonialism cannot even begin. Otherwise one can write about moments of conversations between different political traditions and have us read between the lines of those conversations and see how they can inform our solidarities in the present. The author does that every now and then and I personally think she should continue on that track. It is a useful one and no one else is doing it that much. Until we figure out the nitty gritty of how we can do this, as the author says ‘look to your own house, work at and from your own sites of resistance.’

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

From The Memory Vault: Autonomous Theses 1981

From Fire and Flames: A History of the German Autonomist movement, recently published by PM Press:
In 1981, some autonomous activists who attended a meeting in Padua, Italy, formulated eight theses that tried to capture the most common characteristics of the diverse crowd of activists that had begun to call themselves "Autonome." The theses were never formalized, and different revised and updated versions have appeared - for example, in radikal no. 97 extra (August 1981) and in the 1995 reader Der Stand der Bewegung - but to this day the straightforward convictions and sentiments listed in the original paper remain at the core of autonomous identity, even if every single one of them has been passionately discussed and, at times, decidedly rejected by parts of the movement.

1. We fight for ourselves and others fight for themselves. However, connecting our struggles makes us all stronger. We do not engage in "representative struggles." Our activities are based on our own affectedness, "politics of the first person." We do not fight for ideology, or for the proletariat, or for "the people." We fight for a self-determined life in all aspects of our existence, knowing that we can only be free if all are free.

2. We do not engage in dialogue with those in power! We only formulate demands. Those in power can heed them or not.

3. We have not found one another at the workplace. Engaging in wage labor is an exception for us. We have found one another through punk, the "scene," and the subculture we move in.

4. We all embrace a "vague anarchism" but we are not anarchists in a traditional sense. Some of us see communism/Marxism as an ideology of order and domination - an ideology that supports the state while we reject it. Others believe in an "original" communist idea that has been distorted. All of us, however, have great problems with the term "communism" due to the experiences with the K-groups [West Germany's Maoist parties, analagous to the North American New Communist Movement], East Germany, etc.

5. No power to no one! This also means "no power to the workers," "no power to the people," and "no counterpower." No power to no one!

6. Our ideas are very different from those of the alternative movement, but we use the alternative movement’s infrastructure. We are aware that capitalism is using the alternative scene to create a new cycle of capital and labor, both by providing employment for unemployed youth and as a testing field for solving economic problems and pacifying social tensions.

7. We are uncertain whether we want a revolt or a revolution. Some want a "permanent revolution," but others say that this wouldn’t be any different from a "permanent revolt." Those who mistrust the term "revolution" think it suggests freedom to be realized at a certain point in time, while they don’t believe that this is possible. According to them, freedom is the short moment between throwing a rock and the rock hitting its target. However, we all agree that, in the first place, we want to dismantle and to destroy - to formulate affirmative ideals is not our priority.

8. We have no organization per se. Our forms of organization are all more or less spontaneous. There are squatters’ councils, telephone chains, autonomous assemblies, and many, many small groups. Short-term groups form to carry out an action or to attend a protests. Long-term groups form to work on continuous projects like radikal, Radio Utopia, or very illegal actions. There aren’t any more solid structures than that, no parties and the like, and there is no hierarchy either.
There will be a Montreal book launch of Fire and Flames, with a discussion about the book and the relevance of the German experience to what is going on today, next Monday, May 28, at 7pm at La Belle Epoque (1984 Wellington). Here is the facebook event page.

David Gilbert's Love and Struggle: The Philly Launch Online!

On April 13, Philly celebrated the release of the book Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond, by David Gilbert, who is a political prisoner in New York State. (For more about David, click here!) The event, at Goldilocks Gallery, featured speakers, a short video tribute to David and the book, and a showing of a quilt made by imprisoned community members at SCI-Chester.

Thanks to comrades involved, videos of the speakers have been uploaded - i am posting them all here and also to my Love and Struggle events webpage.

To order a copy of this book from (with a discount for bulk orders) click here!

Here are the videos:

Ashanti Alston, former political prisoner

When joining the Black Liberation Army, the first task that we were assigned was to free political prisoners…. We had to be brave enough, and, I will say, crazy enough to do it. Harriet Tubman had to be crazy enough to do it. You cannot keep thinking about “I might get killed, I might die.” It is a time to act…. Even if you’re scared, you know it has to be done. And it don’t always have to be the grand action. It could be knocking on your next-door neighbor’s door. Or your coworkers, and starting that kind of conversation that helps move them from a space of indifference or apathy or fear, to one of the courage to begin to take back their lives.
—Ashanti Alston

 Dan Berger, Decarcerate PA

[Political prisoners] became my mentors. And David especially. They were able to hold out a sense of struggle, but also that part of struggle was reflection, being able to think critically about our own histories. And that’s something that I think David does so remarkably—all the more remarkably because he’s done it serving a life sentence in some of the roughest prisons, certainly, that New York State has to offer.
—Dan Berger

Sarah Small, Decarcerate PA

I think maybe what gets reflected on and commented on less is the immense amount of love and humanity that these people have brought to our struggles. And I think that that is what has consistently struck me the most about all of my interactions with David—is the depth of the love and his commitment to expanding his sense of humanity and collectivity with others…. That sense of love, and love in the struggle, is the backbone of the collective liberation that we’re trying to build with each other.
—Sarah Small

Letter from Laura Whitehorn, former political prisoner

The political prisoners are part of us, part of our movement. While we struggle to win their release, we need to make sure they are treated as equals in our movement. We need to talk with them not only about their situations and the issue of political prisoners, but about the breadth of resistance. We need to write to them, read with them, disagree and be honest with them—and always to learn from their ideas, their practice and their enormous courage and dignity.
—Laura Whitehorn

Joshua Glenn, Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project

What happened to humanity? They lock us up systematically
And profit off our plight and continue to live lavishly
The government had plans for me before I even had my teeth,
And yet they act like they don’t know why the world can’t establish peace.
They take from the poor so rapidly and happily
And expect us to overcome it magically and gradually.
They want to fill their jails, so they have to breed catastrophe
Cause in the war on drugs, the hustler is the casualty.
—Joshua Glenn

Emily Abendroth, Decarcerate PA

From the most amplified environments of social control in the U.S. landscape, these folks provide for us vital models of resistance. And in their successes, they profoundly expose the vulnerability of the system in the face of our love for one another.
—Emily Abendroth

Letter from Saleem Holbrook, currently incarcerated in PA

In addition to activists on the outside, there is another group of people whom political prisoners regularly touch and influence, and these are their fellow prisoners—in particular, those who make a conscious decision to walk in the example of the political prisoners they come into contact with. This influence that political prisoners have upon other prisoners is one of the main reasons why the prison system both isolates and frequently transfers them.
—Robert Saleem Holbrook

Hakim Ali, Reconstruction, Inc. <

We seem to put a celebrity tag to political prisoners, and I think because of that, we don’t do the work to get them out of the penitentiary…. Stop that pedestal bullshit and recognize the fact that they are men and women who have been tortured by this system. We are walking around enjoying our life out here, when we should be angry as hell that they’ve got our brothers and sisters locked up. But we want to hear nice words of encouragement from them, because they have this status in our heads. Another trick of the system.
—Hakim Ali

Theresa Shoatz, Human Rights Coalition

It was people like Pam [Africa] who took me by the hand one day and drove me all over North Philly, where I can leave petitions. That’s love in the struggle. Because I thought, “This woman is crazy—does she think I’m going to drive from here to here to here—?” And she said, “If you want to save your father’s life, this is what you need to do. You’ve got to make people aware.” The same way I was unaware and a lot of people in my community are unaware. This is why, once I became conscious about the struggle, I brought my son to every meeting.
—Theresa Shoatz

Inez Ramos, National Boricua Human Rights Network

Recently, President Obama was there [in Puerto Rico]—he was there for 4 hours on the island, and we created such a presence of Oscar [Lopez Rivera] in his face, he couldn’t turn any corner without seeing a picture or a call for his release…. Carlos Alberto [Torres] fortunately came out in 2010, he kind of flew under the right-wing’s radar. For that parole hearing—you know, there is no cookie-cutter approach to any of this…. What works today may not work tomorrow…. We didn’t campaign for that, we just kind of laid low for that, which actually worked for us…he actually was released.
—Inez Ramos

Kazembe Balagun, Brecht Forum

I want to tell you a story about me writing my first letter to David Gilbert, which happened yesterday…. I’ve known David through his writings and video, but I never took the step to write to him…we live in a technological society that puts a high premium on convenience rather than struggling…. To write to David Gilbert is to engage in a level of intentionality to create community with somebody…. I got in a conversation with the person behind the counter…and she was like, “You’re writing to a prisoner?... Back in the day, I used to write letters to free Angela Davis.” How would that conversation ever happen on the Internet? …We talked about the post office struggle and the fact that my father worked in the post office…. [The book Love and Struggle is] something to help us go further in the struggle—it’s a gift. All of this came out of the level of intentionality that our prisoners give to us.
—Kazembe Balagun

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Report on Quebec's Student Strike

Reposted from the excellent signalfire blog:

We are now in the 13th week of a Quebec student strike against a 75% tuition hike - the longest student strike in Quebec history - the conflict has become a rallying point for any and all opposition to austerity here, and clearly represents a political milestone, perhaps (we can hope) a real turning point.

The following is an incomplete overview of what has happened so far. It is not a history of the Quebec student movement, or of protest in Montreal, or even a partially complete account of this strike. It is really just an attempt to provide a sense of what has been happening for comrades outside of the province, as well as a sense of the context in which some of this resistance has been occurring.

The three main student organizations involved in this conflict, the FEUQ (Quebec Federation of University Students), FECQ (Quebec Federation of CEGEP Students - cegep is an intermediary school system between high school and university unique to Quebec), and the CLASSE. (There is also a fourth, the TaCEQ, a split from the FEUQ, but it only represents 3% of the strikers, mostly in Quebec City.) The CLASSE has the best demands of the three, it's the group where anyone on the left would likely be found - it is in fact a "temporary" structure set up to deal with the struggle against tuition hikes this winter, by a smaller group the ASSE, which is left-wing in orientation, committed to fighting for universal access (i.e., free education), and has a structure inspired by syndicalist principles of direct democracy and decentralisation. The media says that CLASSE represents almost 100,000 students, which is calculated by how many students are represented by the student associations which have voted to affiliate with it. There is a good background article (though the analysis is left-soc-dem) here:

The Parti Liberal du Quebec (Quebec Liberal Party) currently controls the Quebec government, with Jean Charest as premier. The Liberals are the most right-wing of the two main political parties in Quebec. It is also the province’s federalist party; that is to say, it opposes Quebec independence. The party is currently implicated in a variety of corruption scandals, heavy graft, etc. The key opposition party is the Parti Quebecois, which in the 1970s was social democratic in orientation, but now oscillates between right- to left-of-centre, depending on which way the wind seems to be blowing on any given issue. The PQ is pro-independence and, as such, stakes out the nationalist vote; historically, it had tight connections to the three major trade union federations, though these have diminished over the past twenty years. The caveat to this right-left characterization is that on issues having to do with racism, the Parti Quebecois is normally worse than the Liberals. There are two smaller third parties, Quebec Solidaire (which has 1 member of parliament, from Montreal’s Mercier riding in the heavily gentrified and trendy Plateau neighborhood) and the Coalition Avenir Quebec (7 MLAs). The latter is more stridently neo-liberal, pro-business, hostile to immigrants, etc., whereas the former is a left social democratic, soft nationalist party, with a sprinkling of trotskyists and others eager to pin their hopes to whatever.

Things have been escalating constantly throughout the months of March and April - daily demonstrations, militant actions of economic disruption, etc. In fact, many days have seen multiple demonstrations and actions in Montreal alone - as well as other things in other cities - and pickets at universities and cegeps.

This unparalleled student mobilization has been buttressed by unprecedented public support. For the first time ever, there have been non-student demonstrations in support of a student strike. CLASSE organised two specifically "family" demonstrations, on March 18 and April 9, with as many as 30,000 people participating, and where students were in a minority. And of course, this has been accompanied by the regular left noise; i.e., i was at two events, very different, in the first week of April - a Philippino political prisoner event, and a memorial for Madeleine Parent, a feminist and labour organizer/icon who died in March - at both, everyone was wearing the student's red square symbol, mention was made of the strike, and at Parent’s commemoration reps from the CLASSE gave the speech and got the loudest applause.
Within a context of daily protests and actions, on March 7 a student, Francis Grenier, was hit by a police stun grenade, and suffered a serious eye injury. ( That same day there were other more minor injuries and tear gas lobbed as students gained entry to Loto Quebec's offices. ( This happened one week before the annual March 15 demonstration against police brutality, which police appealed to students not to join (see below). Nevertheless, this advice was ignored, it was a large March 15th (perhaps the largest ever), between four and five thousand people, with police using more stun grenades, tear gas, baton charges, etc. and making 150 arrests. ( and

(For some years now this has been standard fare at large militant demonstrations in Montreal: the police violently attack in order to divide the demonstrators into a few smaller groups, which they then chase around for hours throughout the downtown core.)

Actions aimed to cause economic disruption increased throughout the month; for instance, on March 21, Montreal's Champlain Bridge (a busy connection to the south shore suburbs) was blocked during rush hour.

On March 22, there was a large demo - the largest in many years, at least since the 2003 lead-up to Iraq, perhaps even larger than those - of 200,000 people. The trade unions were involved in backing this demo. Personally, i saw very little organized left presence - i.e., no newspapers, fliers, or even banners from left groups - but it seems that this is because the march was just so big that it was possible to be there for several hours and yet not see any of them, as the CLAC (Anti-Capitalist Convergence), several anarchist groups, as well as the Maoist PCR-RCP were all there distributing literature and agit prop.

Already by this point, the strike had taken on dimensions not seen for decades. Hundreds of thousands of students were participating, and a majority of post-secondary institutions were affected.

Right-wing students opposed to the strike began going to court, asking for injunctions against the strike. Just like injunctions pertaining to labour strikes, these court orders are used to criminalize pickets, and to give police an excuse to arrest strikers.

The injunctions started arriving in late March. First, a community college in Saguenay was ordered to resume classes - the college hired security guards to enforce the court order, and students trashed the college.

Next, Laval University in Quebec City received a similar injunction on April 3. UQAM is the francophone university in Montreal where working-class people are more likely to go; it has been a center of radical activism in this city since it was founded in 1969, and not surprisingly has been the militant core of the entire strike movement. On April 4, UQAM’s administration obtained a similar court injunction.

Against these injunctions, the student unions upheld their right to strike with militant direct action (i.e., mass pickets) against the administrators, the cops and the private security guards. This is the first time this has happened since 1968, some of the best direct actions having now taken place on the picket lines (including fighting the cops to the point that they have had to retreat, on several occasions).

Indeed, the use of injunctions, while not affecting all striking students, contributed to an escalation, as strikers successfully met the challenge. As a member of Professeurs Contre la Hausse (Professors Against the Hike) warned, "This kind of judicialization may create an explosive cocktail among students, teachers and administrators." ( Indeed, if anything, the injunctions have spurred on the strikers’ direct action tactics, and the strategy of economic disruption and mass street protest that has come to define this spring. (

On April 4, 71 people were arrested after the ritzy Queen Elizabeth Hotel was stormed; they knocked over buffet table and smashed dishes. Two security guards were apparently hurt in the melee. (

On April 5 (Passover!)  locusts were released inside the University of Montreal, forcing classes to be canceled. (

On Friday, April 13, students at the University of Quebec’s Outaouais campus in Gatineau received an injunction to go back to class. The next Monday, the administration had to cancel classes after students barricaded themselves inside a building. Police brutalized one student, who was hospitalized. ( A few days late, on April 19, there were 151 arrests at the Outaouais campus, as students defied the injunction for the fourth day in a row; crickets were also released into this university's library and walls got some red paint. ( More police brutality, some of it getting noticed, especially as one kid was photographed with blood pouring down his face.

On April 16, police would claim people shut down the Montreal subway system by throwing bags of bricks on the tracks. Police also claimed that molotov cocktails were left outside of a residential building which people incorrectly thought housed government offices. That same evening, several government buildings had their windows smashed, red paint thrown on them, and molotov cocktails found outside of them, unexploded. One can make of these claims what one will - people do make mistakes, people do sometimes make bad choices as to targets; but police also do plant "evidence" to discredit our side, both on their own initiative and as the result of orders from on high. Many comrades, not usually prone to conspiracy theories, feel that this string of events, especially so many molotov cocktails that all happened not to explode, was very fishy.

All the more so as the government moved in very quickly to make political hay from this, now framing its refusal to negotiate with CLASSE in terms of the latter not having denounced violence, even though there was no evidence tying them to these attacks. ( In a show of unity, neither the FECQ or FEUQ agreed to negotiations unless the CLASSE was included - this was historic, nothing like it having ever happened before. Indeed, FEUQ lost thousands of members in 2005 because they broke solidarity with ASSE to accept a shitty deal. This time around, they made the political choice to stand solid with CLASSE, not so much because of some newly discovered political principles, but because they realised they would be completely gutted from the inside if they repeated that mistake.

If the solidarity with CLASSE represented a political breakthrough within the student movement, a breakthrough on the streets occurred in late April, as the government was hosting a big to-do about the Plan Nord, a massive development plan in Quebec's north, where the population is mainly Indigenous (Cree, Inuit and Innu). Plan Nord promises to be a version of northern development in the tradition of the James Bay hydro dams, i.e., some people will oppose it on anti-colonial grounds, some on environmental, and then eventually some on colonial capitalist and nationalist grounds, based on the argument that "our" resources being sold too cheaply to foreign corporations.

There were demonstrations against Plan Nord on April 20 and 21, much of the mobilization for this being done by anti-colonial forces, green and insurrectionary anarchists, who were reinforced by student protesters. People got into the conference center and cops at one point were sent running. ( As one comrade explains, "The first day was actually a momentous event, in that we started fighting back for real, fear had disappeared and we managed to kick some serious pig ass on that day. Also solidarity was felt in the street fighting to a level never seen before."

Although the people who had gotten into the conference center were violently ejected by police, a victory had been won. After the premier gave his speech, the conference was delayed and the job fair that had been organized as window dressing was canceled for the day - and even this speech, an attempt at damage control, backfired, as Charest tried to joke that the protesters were welcome, after all, he would give them a "job in the north" (i.e., in his massive colonial ecocidal development project). Suddenly mainstream commentators started wondering if Charest himself might be to blame for the escalating tension on the streets; ever since, one of the most popular chants at demos has been, "Charest, dehors! on va te trouver un job dans le nord!" (Charest, get out! We’re going to find you a job in the north!)

This registered as a big step forward for the radical left, and a real black eye for the Liberals, with less than two dozen arrests on the Friday. Demonstrations continued on the next day, however not as aggressively, which led police to take advantage of the change in tone by making several dozen arrests, ostensibly to prove that they had "regained control" and to make up for the humiliating youtube videos showing them running away from protesters.

Sunday April 22 was Earth Day, which turned out to be the second demonstration of more than 200,000 people in Montreal this spring. Earth Day this year had become a place for all kinds of people on the left and all the various "causes" to gather, with everyone wearing red squares, the symbol of the student strike. The event has since been incorporated into the narrative of a "Quebec Spring" or "Maple Spring" that has emerged, of a spring of struggle that goes far beyond the issue of a tuition hike.

Also on Sunday, April 22, the FECQ passed a resolution that it would negotiate if the CLASSE did not renounce violence, as it claimed this would amount to the CLASSE "excluding itself". At the same time, the FEUQ offered to allow CLASSE reps to join the discussions as FEUQ reps, with the understanding that once there they would speak for the CLASSE. Later that day, after a lengthy assembly, CLASSE adopted a resolution to condemn violence targeting people except in self-defense. The wording was obviously the result of a compromise between different political tendencies, and specifically did not denounce property attacks, fiercely defended civil disobedience and direct action, and framed things in terms of the greater violence being economic violence, and the violence of the police.

These first negotiations started Monday, April 23, with the Minister trying to impose a 48-hour "truce" while they were going on, meaning no actions of economic disruption, interpreted by her to include demonstrations of any kind. While CLASSE did not technically agree to this truce (to do so would have required a general assembly), spokespeople did state that they could go along with it as they had not planned any disruptive action within that time frame. This was somewhat disingenuous, as a night-time demonstration had in fact been planned, and members of the CLASSE executive now tried to use bogus reasons to have it moved to the Wednesday.

Defying this move, hundreds of people gathered regardless on the evening of Tuesday, April 24. This first night-time demonstration was organized largely by students at CEGEP du Vieux Montreal, a working-class CEGEP which has one of the most hardcore student unions, affiliated with CLASSE. It was clearly framed as a rejection of any truce, and the point was made that when CLASSE started making deals about how people were allowed to protest/resist, it was no longer representing the protesters. While newspapers talked of "dozens", roughly 500 people attended, with some property damage, including a bank window smashed.

Wednesday morning there were allegedly smoke bombs set off in the Montreal subway system, while students joined with laid off Air Canada workers to block the street outside an Air Canada shareholders' meeting. Despite attempts by union reps to have only their people speak, rank and file workers insisted on taking the microphone and then passing it to student reps. Around lunchtime Minister Beauchamp announced she would no longer negotiate with CLASSE because the truce had been violated, amongst other things by these latest occurrences and the demo the night before. FECQ and FEUQ left the negotiations in protest. That same day, three high schools voted to go on a three-day strike. At the same time, the call went out for another demonstration that night.

Roughly 10,000 people showed up Wednesday night, and the demonstration got off to a good and militant start, with extensive attacks on property: all the banks on the route had their windows smashed, the Apple store and other establishments received red paint - the police would say a car was set on fire, though that has yet to be confirmed. For their part, the police attacked people with stun grenades, pepper spray, and beatings, making over 80 arrests. (Later on, police station 21 had its windows broken.) Some good video footage:

Thursday night there was a third demo, again with thousands of people attending. There were fewer arrests and vandalism than on the previous night. At this point, it became clear that there would be night-time demos every night until the Minister returned to negotiations.

Friday (April 27) was the fourth night time demo. This time i decided to attend, and i was both surprised, heartened, and disappointed by what i saw. I’ll go into some detail here, not because this was a particularly important demonstration, but because it was one where i was there so i can give a bit more detail.

For one, it was not a warm night - just under zero (celsius), with occasional very light snow. Thousands definitely did show up when it started at 8pm, perhaps as many as ten thousand at first. It felt very unleft, which i mean in a good way, meaning just that it was not the left activist crowd i am used to hanging with, or who i normally see at demos. Obviously a lot of young people, but i definitely was not the oldest. Getting a slice of pizza before it started, a Black guy in line in front of me said, "It's going to be a thousand white kids against two thousand cops, crazy!" - i asked if he had gone to any of the other demos and he said he wasn't into that bullshit. Then i bumped into a woman i have known for years, a veteran of decades of various kinds of social justice/peace activism, who explained to me she had come to tell the students "how it's done" - by which she meant nonviolently. I didn't know what to expect.

The crowd was overwhelmingly white and francophone. Essentially, this was a Quebecois event. Which makes sense, as the entire official class-oriented apparatus in Quebec is Quebecois, from the trade unions to the student unions to the antipoverty groups. This strike is "historic" amongst other reasons, because the English universities and cegeps have not voted to participate in a strike in decades (or ever, depending on who you talk to) - yet even in this strike, the English universities have no solid pickets, and as a result many classes continue pretty much as usual. All a reflection of the fact that social democratic politics in this society is Quebecois. Plenty of exceptions, but that's what they are: exceptions.

Given that, the April 27 demo had relatively non-existent visible nationalist politics (2-3 flags or signs), though some of the chants ("Whose Quebec? Our Quebec!") could be understood that way. The complexion of the march was largely middle class, but the politics were of class struggle from below, i.e., the bulk of people there experience the tuition hikes as part of a process pushing them out of the middle class, endangering "their future", whereas the political core (and thus the people formulating the slogans, etc.) have a clearly left-wing perspective and frame things in terms of working class struggle.

This is not an unusual situation in the First World, especially in North America - the pitfalls are fairly well-known, even if the way to deal with these remains elusive. As such, in the future this is likely to split, along much the same lines as the Occupy movement and other swells in protest in North America. So long as we remain in this stage of the capitalist crisis, most people politically affected by such protests will initially end up lining up behind some kind of progressive, soft-nationalist social democracy, while a minority will be won to radical left positions. As international capitalism is pushing sections of the middle class (including the labour aristocracy) downwards, it is important to also recognize that a minority will develop a radical resistance that may oppose this, but along exclusionary and authoritarian - even fascist - lines. (Here, as in the United States and English Canada, we see signs of the potential for this in the attraction to conspiracy theories and exclusionary nationalist solutions.) The task at hand for our side within these metropolitan societies is to intervene politically from an anticapitalist, anticolonial, and internationalist perspective in order to increase the numbers who will take option #2, though we should not have any illusions about that ever being more than a minority.

In this regard i was shocked at how little - as in zero - organized left presence there was at this demo. Nobody handing out newspapers. Nobody with fliers for upcoming events. No groups with banners. Nothing, nada, zilch. This is an example of the fact that, while the radical left has been present at these events, it’s capacity to do outreach has at times been outstripped by the size of the upsurge taking place, by the sheer number of protests, as well as the number of people who attend them.

Despite - or perhaps because of - such a lack of organized left presence, at first it felt like a really big militant march, snaking through the city. It felt a lot more disappointing after the first half-hour, when police blocked an intersection (Ontario and St-Laurent) and would not let us pass. Someone had been arrested, and 20-30 cops, not rigged out in super-heavy riot gear or anything, were standing against 10,000 people, maybe 200-300 of whom were masked (though not a black bloc as such) and looking like in theory they'd have been in favor of rumbling - yet the arrested comrade was never rescued, and it took 20 minutes to even get the cops to move and let us pass. Worse, the main chant at that point was "We are staying peaceful!" Very bad.

As the demo snaked on, this happened a few times, and by 11pm it was a little smaller, but still many thousands. The cops then announced it had turned into an "illegal assembly" and had to disband, but this had no effect. Between 11pm and midnight there were a few more standoffs, increasingly tense, a bit of pepper spray, some kind of flashy thing shot into the air, and a few arrests. Although there was no black bloc, someone blocked up did throw a stone through the window of an army recruiting center - they were actually physically attacked by "pacifists"; although you can't see it all, you can see some here: I also heard that people applauded when police made arrests, of which there were 34 in all that night. Although the media described these as the result of police making "surgical strikes", what this really amounted to was retaliatory and often random arrests; i.e., see this youtube video showing a group of kids under arrest:

On the other hand, i did not see anyone intervene when the small unlucky contingent of cops who were assigned to accompany the demo had (empty plastic lightweight) bottles and marbles thrown at them. And i did notice that as the demo got smaller the "We are staying peaceful" chant was overtaken by "We are staying in one group", meaning physically tight.  Cool tankie chant of the night: "Charest, sans blague - on t’envoie au gulag!" ("Charest, we're not joking - we're going to send you to the gulag!")

I left the demo at 1am; there were still thousands of people, but i was tired and wanted to get the last bus home. The next morning's headlines were all about how the demo policed itself and was anti-vandalism. What several comrades have pointed out to me is that during the month of March and April things were escalating in the streets, but that many students who were not in the streets every day were experiencing this filtered through the media. When CLASSE was kicked out of negotiations, this led to thousands of people joining the nightly demonstrations and turning them into the main form of protest; however, when these thousands of people saw folks carrying out militant actions, they reacted based on their own understanding of "good students vs. bad vandals" that had been constructed in the media. So it is not that the protests turned against people carrying out more militant actions, so much as that they were swollen by thousands of new people who did not grasp the dynamic of what had happened before. (For mainstream media on the overall relationship of black bloc and student strike: and for a sympathetic explanation which appeared in the mainstream media but was written by a comrade:

In any case, talk of the black bloc,and militant tactics being marginalized, while puffed up by the media and social democrats, proved to be premature.

While nightly demonstrations did continue, albeit with far fewer militant actions and arrests, the next major confrontation occurred on May first, at the annual anticapitalist demonstration.

Unlike English Canada and the United States, where Mayday is mainly a radical left thing, in Quebec it is the main labour march, with trade unions, politicians, etc. jumping on board. Tens of thousands of people, sometimes more, take to the streets in Montreal.

In the 1990s, there developed a situation whereby younger anarchists were often getting vamped on by trade union security marshals, frequently because they would be chanting anti-nationalist slogans or else acting militant. This was both bad politics on the part of the unions, and also a bit of a generation gap - i remember hearing a security marshal at the first demo where this happened, he was panicked talking into his walkie talkie about how "nazi skinheads" had invaded the march - it was in fact a very disorganized proto-black-bloc of anarchist teenagers. This split with the trade unions was deepened every year, in part by the security marshals being heavy handed - especially those from the FTQ (the Quebec Labour Federation), the least progressive of the three main trade union federations. With the rise in Maoism that culminated in the official formation of the PCR-RCP in 2007, Maoists became even more visibly present in the mix. (Prior to 2007, this group had been known as the PCR(OC); it had been founded in 2001 out of the group Groupe Action Socialiste.)

A few years ago, this process culminated in a decision on the part of a coalition of anarchists, Maoists and others to organize a separate march with an explicit anticapitalist basis of unity. The demo took place in Hochelaga, a heavily Quebecois neighborhood, one of the poorest in Montreal - and also the site of years of class-oriented organizing and activism by anarchists, Maoists, and other communists. The straw that had broken the proverbial camel’s back had occurred the year previous, when comrades who had occupied the office of then-FTQ president Henri Masse to protest against union corporatism were violently ejected - i.e., kicked, hair pulled, etc. - by union goons. (See pages 3 and 11: ) As one comrade explains, "We split from labour to organize the anticapitalist demo because they are just too pathetic and sold out in general, and extremely fucking pathetic when it comes to anticapitalism and acknowledging the radical history of May Day."

As a result, since 2008, every May 1st there have been two marches, a trade union march and a militant anticapitalist march; while at first the trade union march was by far the largest of the two, for the past couple of years they have been roughly the same size. The Anticapitalist May 1st has been another place where militant street tactics have developed; the demos have routinely been attacked by police - in 2008, boneheads seemed to be a part of a setup - and people have been hurt and have received heavy charges.
In 2011, some police were roughed up - while some suspect this was a setup, it could have also just been pure stupidity, as some relatively unprotected cops felt they could enter the march and make arrests without anyone resisting - leading to a several-month covert investigation of the PCR-RCP, following which some people’s homes were raided and three comrades were arrested. It was initially reported that these arrests were carried out by the anti-gang squad, but it soon came out that the organized crime division had established a red squad (or maybe a black-and-red squad?) over the past year, named the GAMMA (Guet des activites et des mouvements marginaux et anarchistes - clunky literal translation:  "Surveillance of Activities of Marginal and Anarchist Movements") - in order to respond to the increasing militancy of local anticapitalist demonstrations.  The GAMMA agents were accompanied by someone from the integrated national security unit, and amongst the subjects the comrades were questioned about was a bombing of a recruitment center in Trois Rivières (a city about two hours from Montreal) in 2010 just after the G20 in Toronto.

On 2012’s Mayday, the anticapitalist demo was clearly larger than the trade union march - several thousand people. In fact, the trade union march was hardly even mentioned in the media. The tone was set before it even started, as police vamped on a Maoist comrade (who was arrested as part of last year's GAMMA investigation) on the grounds that he was breaking his conditions.

Nevertheless, the demo started peacefully enough, however within an hour street fighting had broken out between the black bloc and police. The demo was declared an "illegal assembly", and soon after the cops got pelted with some rocks, a massive police charge broke it apart. In fact, as we wandered the streets, we assumed it was over, although isolated standoffs between people and police, and tear gas and stun grenades going off, made the downtown area seem surreal. We trekked along for about a half an hour before, by accident, coming across the remnants of the demo, several hundred people, at Carre St-Louis. More marching through the streets, anti-police chants, etc., ,ending at Place Emilie Gamelin, with some more tussles with police, a few more arrests, and then finally many of those who remained joined with that night’s student demonstration. In all, there were 108 arrests at the Mayday march. Sympathetic left report here: and video footage here:

Throughout this period of escalation, which started in March and has still not necessarily ended, a dynamic relationship has been created between one protest and the next. The people in the streets have been creating momentum, and a political crisis that the government has found itself unable to manage or reverse so far.

This is the context in which the Liberal Party was scheduled to hold its party conference in Montreal between May 4 and 6. This is where they were to decide upon their platform for the elections that will have to happen later this year. Due to the protests that have rocked the city every day, the week before it was to take place, it was announced that it would instead be moved to the town of Victoriaville, a couple of hours away.

The  anti-cutback Coalition opposee a la tarification et a la privatisation des services publics, as well as a variety of student associations quickly organized buses to bring the fight to them. Which is what happened. Between two and three thousand people traveled to Victoriaville.  Demonstrators quickly knocked over the police barricades, but then simply gathered in front of the line of police and listened to speeches. The police attacked the demonstration just ten minutes later, shooting tear gas and hitting people. As one comrade recalls, "I was shot point blank with an impact projectile (pepper powder) and they started to launch CS grenades at the same time; then all hell broke loose." Some people resisted, throwing things back at the police, who had begun firing stun grenades and plastic bullets. See here:

During this initial attack, three demonstrators were badly injured by police projectiles; initially it was reported that one was at risk of dying, though this is fortunately no longer the case. Two men suffered severe head injuries; in one case, requiring 8 hours of surgery, and resulting in the loss of an eye. As police were firing various "sublethal" weapons at people’s heads, the most likely hypothesis at this point is that he was hit on the side of the head with a tear gas canister, as these explode upon impact, and his ear was sliced open. A woman also lost several teeth as she was hit in the face by a police projectile. There were also countless people who received leg injuries from plastic bullets.

In the case of one of the seriously injured, Alexandre Allard, there are several eyewitness reports of what happened, including video footage from CUTV (the Concordia campus television station, which has been providing live coverage of many of the Montreal protests). Police, when informed that someone was injured and possibly dying, refused to phone an ambulance. Demonstrators phoned for one, while street medics - many of whom belong to a group formed out of the nurses’ union, who have attended several of these protests in uniform - attempted to provide first aid. (Given the severity of his injuries, this likely proved critical.) Police continued to lob tear gas, and as people began to run, demonstrators had to form a human chain to protect Allard from being trampled. As police continued with the tear gas and moved in, people then had to move Allard, not once but twice, in order to protect him. Finally, as people cleared a path for the ambulance (which took over twenty minutes), police took advantage of the gap in the crowd to make another assault. Video footage of all of this here: and a story in the Gazette, Montreal’s English-language mainstream newspaper:

The fighting continued for hours; there is heartening video footage of one cowboy cop jumping on a demonstrator to arrest him, only to receive a beating from other protesters. The cop was sent running, the demonstrator got to go home that night:

Nevertheless, there were over 100 arrests, many of which occurred when people were already on their way back to Montreal. Three buses were intercepted by the police: as one comrade later wrote, "we were forced to sit throughout the night - over ten hours - as police processed passengers in the station and armed guards stood watch on a bus transformed into a jail." ( While this does point to a vulnerability in terms of travel logistics, it also indicates police were unable (or perhaps not trying to?) to get that many people during the demonstrations/riots themselves, and were instead taking advantage of these easy pickings for the sake of PR.

A first person accont:

More media coverage:

On Friday night, in the wake of the riots, all three student federations, including the CLASSE, appealed for people to be calm. The three student federations had entered into marathon negotiations with the Minister on Friday: it would have been a media coup for the government to be able to come up with a settlement during the party conference, and so everything was likely timed this way on purpose - i.e., refuse to negotiate until right before the conference, then hold negotiations with an eye to getting some kind of resolution to put wind in the Liberals' sails for the next election.

Indeed, less than 24 hours later, after almost three months of the students being on strike, on Saturday, May 5, there was word that an "agreement", or at least a "tangible offer", had been agreed to or drafted or something (vagueness ruled!), between the three student federations and the government. Reports are making it clear that this came from heavy pressure from the trade unions, especially the FTQ, which had people at the talks, and which threatened the student reps that they would withdraw their support if there was not an agreement reached. (

Essentially what the "proposal" boils down to would be that the tuition hike would still happen, but would be balanced in the upcoming semester by an equivalent reduction in institutional fees, so the way it was being presented by the government was that the actual amount paid would stay the same. This has been denounced as a farce, as it would mean the hike would still happen but would in effect be paid for in the form of cuts to student services. While there may be a lot of waste (i.e., perks to administrators and such), the places to make these cuts would be decided by a committee comprised of 4 student reps, 4 reps from the trade unions, and 11 reps from school administrators, government, etc. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that even if the cut to institutional fees matches the tuition hike in the first year, that it would do so next year or the year after. This view has been buttressed by Minister Beauchamp's making public statements over the weekend about how the government has won, has not given in, etc., which may prove to be an error on their part, as the agreement has not been ratified (as of May 8) by any of the still-striking student associations, and the latest media reports have student reps saying they doubt it will pass.

(Francis Grenier, the guy who lost his eye to police in March, had this on his facebook status: "For myself and many other of those injured in the student conflict, the strike of 2012 is never going to be over with, so we cannot be content with so little"; for a good left response to the offer: )

At the same time, in the wake of the months of increasingly militant protest here, the State is responding, and not just with violence on the streets.

On May 7, it was announced that CSIS - the internal spy agency, unlike the FBI, but like the German Verfassungschutz, unable to make arrests but with a focus on infiltration/surveillance - has begun investigating the Union Communiste Libertaire (anarchists), the PCR-RCP (Maoists), the CLAC (Anti-Capitalist Convergence, mainly anarchists but also some others), and the RRQ (Quebecois Resistance Network, nationalist) and their activities in the riots. (

That same day, referring specifically to events in Quebec, a (federal) private member’s bill was drafted to criminalize the wearing of masks at riots or "unlawful assemblies", with jail time of up to five years - given that the Conservatives have a majority in the federal parliament, it would be difficult, and would require a militant extraparliamentary struggle, to stop this from passing. Such a law will apply Canada-wide. ( (It should be noted that all it takes for a demonstration to become an "unlawful assembly" is for the police to say it is one; i have been at dozens such "unlawful assemblies", often the police make the call right at the beginning and then attack. One gain of the past few years is that demos are sometimes able to withstand this attack, and indeed during the strike many such "illegal assembles" have proceeded, with the police not feeling sure enough of their position to make a move.)

This was followed, on May 7, by Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay announcing that a series of bylaws will be passed to counter the rise in militant protest. Organizers will have to tell police the route of their demonstration beforehand, or else the demonstration will be automatically classified as an "illegal gathering". Wearing a mask at any demonstration, whether it has been declared an "illegal assembly" or not, will likewise be criminalized; however police will be given wide latitude to decide how to apply these rules, as the mayor has indicated he only wants demonstrations "that are likely to get out of hand" to be targeted. What’s more, fines for being present at such illegal gatherings are to dramatically increase, to $500-$1000 for a first offense up to $3000 for repeat offenders. (No crime need have been committed, simply being at the scene will be enough - there are literally thousands of cases of people who have been swept up by police in this context simply for having been walking down the street at a time when a protest is being kettled or smashed.) (

Repression is both predictable and inevitable when we go on the offensive, and as such these legislative moves are the logical result of the escalation that has taken place over the past months. That said, it always remains an open question whether repression will end a cycle of struggle, or fan the flames - in and of itself, all it does is confront people with a choice to either push ahead further still, or else back down. Backing down always leads to demoralization, the fragmentation and scattering of our forces, and in the long term plays into the rise of exclusionary and right-wing forces, not only pro-State, but also (and separately) pro-fascist. At the same time, escalation comes with its own risks too, for every step on our part will be matched by steps taken by our opponents. Historically, there are no long-term blueprints for success (that’s why we’re still stuck with capitalism), though in the medium-term maintaining political focus while extending the scope of the struggle, both geographically and in terms of the issues mobilized around, seems the best way of keeping one step ahead of the State.

When i saw the youtube footage of kids chasing cops outside the Plan Nord conference, throwing sticks and stones at them, i was elated. On a gut level i felt "they don't know that they're supposed to be afraid to do that" - my kind of activism, and most people i've known who have been activists for a long time, would not have tried that, because it looked tactically unwise, and likely to lead to arrest. So, at first blush, it could look like a strength of spontaneous radicalism. Indeed, i can think of other examples where something tactically unwise that people with more experience would "know" could not work has not only worked, but became an element in a breakthrough. I think what we accumulate as mental baggage may always seem to us subjectively to be "knowledge" and "experience" and "good", but in actual fact we may be learning wrong lessons, or the lessons someone else wants us to. In which case, outside repression is not even necessary.

However, my initial reaction was simplistic, and inaccurate. The militant street tactics here have not appeared sui generis. For one, i know many people who were there, and they are people who have been active for years. There were also people who have been active but part of a younger crowd, who have eschewed the demo-etiquette that developed over the past ten years here, and have been consciously developing a more militant praxis in Montreal for a couple of years now. But even they have been doing this on the basis of ideas and debates that existed prior to April 20.

For ten years now, the ASSE has been doing groundwork on campuses across Quebec, providing a radical reference point for students, and developing an analysis that is militant, feminist, and clearly anticapitalist. Over the past three years in particular, there have been repeated blockades, occupations, and the like carried out by students working in coalitions with community groups and even trade unions. Many activists got their training, as it were, at these actions.

More broadly, anarchists, Maoists and others in Montreal have nurtured specific experiments in militant street protests for over a decade now. The oldest such "tradition" is the International Day Against Police Brutality, organized by COBP (which came out of repression against the anti-HLI protests in 1995) on March 15, which has been going on since 1996, and which routinely involves vandalism, some street fighting (or at least violent arrests by police), and an organizing collective which refuses to condemn this or to give the police their demo route in advance. This year police publicly appealed to students to not join the COBP march; this advice was ignored by many, thousands showed up, and there were heavy police attacks, a cop car was flipped, etc. (The week before, Grenier had almost lost his eye due to a police stun grenade, which helped set the tone.) And even March 15 built upon militant tactics developed in the struggle against the first round of neoliberal cutbacks, the Axworthy reform in the early 90s, and a series of militant antifascist mobilizations later in that decade.

Although not annual events, all of this has also existed in a positive feedback loop with occasional summit-style events, such as Quebec City Summit of Americas in 2001, the WTO Montreal mini-summit in July 2003, the Montebello meeting between Bush, Calderon, and Harper in 2007, and the Toronto G8/G20 two years ago.

Similarly, persons unknown have engaged in sporadic acts of protest of a less open nature - police cars have occasionally been torched, etc.. Nothing incredibly big, but enough to have an effect on the consciousness of people who self-identify as activists.

All of which is to say, my initial somewhat romanticized notion of "these are kids who are avoiding the errors of the activist scene" was just that, a romanticized and incorrect notion. What is happening is more complex, and i have no way of measuring it objectively, but it builds upon previous experiments in militancy, is fueled by the spontaneous and fresh wave of protest from people who feel they are being pushed out of the middle class, and occurs in a global context defined by the Arab Spring of 2011, the Occupy phenomenon, and resistance in Greece, Spain, and elsewhere.

It is the best thing i have seen in Quebec in a long time, and the biggest thing of its kind i remember ever seeing here. I say that aware of the much heavier, and more important, Oka standoff in 1990 - but the difference is that at that time the mass mobilizations in Montreal and the suburbs were of a racist, even pro-fascist, nature - this time around, for the moment, it feels like an offensive rather than a rearguard engagement.

And things are far from over, the above is just an overview of what's happened so far. Definitely incomplete, but hopefully useful for some of you.

For more information in English:

And on Facebook, News from the 2012 Quebec student general strike: