Montreal - as a demonstration street medic, my job is to flush eyes, bandage wounds and do my best to insure protestors, police and bystanders leave with a minimum of injury. That's exactly what I was doing at last week's World Trade Organization demo when I ended up in jail. I was charged along with a few hundred others with unlawful assembly following a march on the Sheraton Hotel. Like most, I heeded a police order to disperse. Walking away, I noted the smashed windows at the Gap and Burger King with a mixture of regret and disgust.
I retreated to Montreal's Alternative Bookstore to pause and figure out what the hell had just happened. But shortly after, I was surrounded, nabbed and cuffed. Thirty-six hours in jail allowed some time to reflect. I'm proud of the so-called anti-globalization movement I belong to, and have enjoyed the camaraderie of its caring people. It is thus with regret - but an honest desire to open a dialogue - that I share my concerns.
"Diversity of tactics" has become a mantra of this new movement, often invoked to quell debate on window-breaking and other acts of vandalism. I see nothing tactical in breaking windows at the Gap and other retail chains, no matter what I think of their labour practices or how they might symbolize the injustices of modern neo-liberal capitalism.
Property destruction can be a highly ethical strategic act. In their struggle for independence, Indians burned imported English cloth to rally support for boycotts. Little more than a decade later, Danes destroyed munitions factories and rail lines to insure that the Nazis would reap no logistical benefit from their occupation. The Sea Shepherds have sent empty whaling vessels to the bottom of the Atlantic to end their illegal activity.
By contrast, the acts of vandalism that have accompanied recent anti-globalization mass protests in North America seem to have accomplished little. Property destruction is sometimes justified as a means of imposing pecuniary sanctions on transnational corporations and institutions that are immune to moral suasion. The argument resonates but doesn't withstand much scrutiny. The cost of a broken window will quickly be absorbed by insurers; the shards of glass will be swept up by minimum-wage workers.
The negligible increase in premiums for Montreal franchises cannot begin to compete with the costs imposed on hundreds of demonstrators who will need to pay for legal costs and transportation to and from court dates in Montreal. It is also argued that small acts of vandalism provide the kind of drama that draws cameras, and with them media attention. However, none of the coverage I saw (which if not comprehensive was at least uniform: images of arrests and broken windows) addressed the issues that unify the movement, such as how unelected, unaccountable, inaccessible institutions are used to subvert democracy here and abroad.
Ward Churchill's Pacifism As Pathology has become the Little Red Book of a new movement. He argues that many activists in the West choose non-violent means of protest not for their efficacy but as a way to avoid the repercussions of political action and protect their own privilege.
I'd like to propose a companion piece to Churchill for today's malcontents: Saul Alinsky's Rules For Radicals. Alinsky argued in favour of a community organizing approach, working within the context of an at least nominally democratic system. He saw public protest and non-violent civil disobedience as tools to create support for attainable goals, all the while building a movement that would find ever greater change within its grasp.
I've tried to imagine how Alinsky might have responded to the Montreal barricades. I suspect he might have taken inspiration from Gandhi and encouraged protestors to march in orderly lines toward those fences, presenting their defenders with a simple choice: allow us to pass and speak our grievances or arrest us; allow public participation or admit the WTO has no claim to democratic legitimacy. This imagined scenario would also involve mass arrests, but I'm sure it would have better highlighted the issues.
I've been amazed watching historical footage of black activists training for lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville. They show such focus and discipline. Sadly, my generation, my movement has no Martin Luther King Jr., and no Gandhi. This, however, may prove to be our strength, as we learn to organize not around leaders but around direct democracy and personal responsibility. It remains to be seen whether we will find within ourselves the same discipline that leaders like King instilled in each member of the movement that ended segregation.