The Politics of the Blockade by Devin Zane Shaw
I wrote this essay in late February 2020, in response to the state suppression of blockades across Canada. The blockades remain an important touchstone for militant politics, for it is likely that the Canadian settler-state will intensify resource extraction under the pretense of funding economic “recovery” and “paying back” the cost of concessions won during the pandemic. Yet another debit on the extensive ledger of settler-colonialism. – Devin Zane Shaw
On February 6th, 2020, the RCMP invaded Wet’suwet’en territory. Almost immediately, in solidarity with the land defenders and Hereditary Chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en, a number of groups blockaded the ports and the railroads of Vancouver, British Columbia. These actions were part of a broader solidarity effort that reaches across what is presently called Canada and beyond. Subsequently, these blockades were met with numerous injunctions. The injunction has been a favoured tool of state and industry to combat Indigenous self-assertion and self-determination. A Yellowhead Institute study of over one hundred cases across Canada involving First Nations concluded that 76 percent of injunctions filed by corporations against First Nations were granted, while slightly over 80 percent of injunctions filed by First Nations against corporations or against the government were denied. The injunction provides the legal basis for the removal of Indigenous land protectors from their lands and the police provide the force. In Vancouver, injunctions have been enforced to break up the blockades of ports and railroads.
Here, in what I consider to be notes toward a further discussion, I will focus on the politics of the blockade (or what I will also call the blockade strategy) in the colonial metropole of Vancouver—so more specifically, I will focus on the politics of the blockade in urban areas where, as colonial metropoles, Indigenous struggles for self-determination and leftist settler political struggles have converged in Indigenous-settler solidarity actions. I will argue that the different tactics and strategies of these solidarity actions demonstrate a split in the solidarity movement itself, not along Indigenous-settler lines (though I will examine some differences between the two), but between reformists and militants. And then I will contend that beyond the immediate dispersal of blockade actions, injunctions also attempt to push solidarity practices back toward mainstream frameworks of political representation and toward bourgeois leadership, thus breaking urban militant Indigenous-settler solidarities.
Beyond the White-Settler Imagination of Political Dissent
Before addressing the recent blockades, a brief comment about historical imagination is in order. Today the Black freedom struggles in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century are remembered within the liberal historical imagination as the triumph of nonviolent resistance against segregation in the South. This celebrated portrayal of the civil rights movement has had a profound influence on the white-settler concepts of political dissent, even in Canada. We are often implored to emulate the approach of nonviolent civil disobedience in order to effect change.
In the past two decades radical historians have sought to correct the historical record by demonstrating the importance of armed Black self-defense organizing in advancing the freedom struggle. Akinyele Omowale Umoja argues that “without armed resistance, primarily organized by local people, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists would not have been able to organize in Mississippi.” Furthermore, Umoja shows that armed resistance was “persistent and pervasive” in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, up through the late 1970s.
Historians have noted more than merely strategic differences between groups such as CORE or SNCC and the Deacons for Defense, as there were important class differences as well. Lance Hill contends that the willingness to use armed self-defense served to prevent bourgeois and liberal interests from commandeering leadership within the movement. Hill notes:
Georges Sorel argued that violence guaranteed the political independence of the working class by driving away middle-class leaders who favored orderly and lawful reform. Though the Deacons [for Defense] were far from a revolutionary vanguard, their advocacy of violence accomplished the same end—it kept white liberals and middle-class blacks at a distance.
Hill argues, then, that the assertion of Black self-defense represented an autonomous southern Black working-class resistance to both white supremacy and the respectability politics of mainstream, national Black civil rights organizations. Groups such as the Deacons for Defense came to quietly provide security for more mainstream nonviolent acts of civil disobedience, including the Meredith March against Fear (1966), where at one point Martin Luther King, Jr was understood by many of the organizers to have given tacit consent to their involvement. As Umoja notes, “SNCC, CORE, and SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference], as well as their national leadership, were relying upon organized Black militants, not the federal government, to defend their organizations and the participants in the campaign.” Even a cursory history of its militant factions shows that the civil rights movement was far more complex than the one remembered and celebrated in the liberal historical imagination. For our purposes, we observe that the broader civil rights struggle was composed of competing tendencies of organizing and engagement, split between reformist and militant movements.
Reformism and Militancy
After the RCMP raid, there have been many different actions, organized by different groups, in solidarity with the land defenders. In Vancouver alone, there have been three waves of blockade actions (up to four ports between February 6th and 10th; and short blockades of rail lines around the weekend of the 15th and then mostly roving blockades from the 23rd to the 25th) and various marches that have also, at points, slowed city thoroughfares to a standstill.
Much like the civil rights movement, today we are able to observe a split in the solidarity movement itself, which demarcates the politics of the blockade. While all solidarity actions ostensibly aim for the same goal, we can separate them into militant and reformist movements. I knew, for example, that I had happened upon a reformist-led march when one of the speakers inverted the term “radical” in order to argue along the lines of ‘our critics call us radicals, but the real radicals—Trudeau, Horgan, CGL—want to destroy the planet.’ (The march, I subsequently learned, was organized by Climate Convergence). Having read Marx, I know that “radical” means to grasp at the root, which in our terms means to grasp how capitalism, setter-colonialism, and resource extractivism interlock to oppress Indigenous peoples and exploit the working class. Thus we should desire both radical critique and radical praxis in order to grasp and to attack the systemic roots of oppression. Some of us are indeed radical; we want a radically different, liberated future.
The difference between militant and reformist solidarity movements is not merely conceptual or ideological; it is also organizational. On February 9th, in the greater Vancouver area, there were two simultaneous currents of action: there were four port blockades and a rally at City Hall which subsequently marched and blocked a major thoroughfare in the city. Social media and reports from comrades indicated that the number of blockaders remained relatively steady during the rally, which means that the blockades and the rally drew from different popular bases, even if we account for some overlap (in time and in relation to other rallies and marches which have occurred) between them. In addition, the different solidarity actions had different organizers: the blockades included self-described urban Indigenous sovereigntists and the Red Braid Alliance for Decolonial Socialism, while the rally was organized by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, Idle No More, Indigenous Climate Action, Coast Protectors, Our Time, Sustainabiliteens, and UBCc350.
I cannot speak to the particularities of each group within these coalitions, but it is possible to identify more than potential differences in popular base. Between these two coalitions, in organizational leadership and in decision-making, there are two incompatible underlying theories of political change. At the City Hall rally, “one speaker read out Premier John Horgan’s phone number and urged everyone in attendance to call him.” By contrast, during the third wave of blockades, an account associated with the urban Indigenous sovereigntists tweeted that “We know that the only language the State understands is that of capital.”
One model, evident by its staging outside City Hall, ultimately appeals to state power to correct its own overreach. Where the reformist criticizes Horgan’s application of settler governance, the militant attacks the settler-colonial project itself, codified under the pretext of rule of law, as illegitimate. In other words, even if the particular execution of the injunction against the Hereditary Chiefs is rectified, all major political parties in Canada remain part of the Party of Capital, Settler-Colonialism, and Resource Extraction, or, simply, for brevity’s sake, “The Party of Oil.”
The other model meets state force by attacking the material bases of the state. At the ports and railroads of Vancouver, the blockade strategy disrupts infrastructure dedicated to resource extraction and the production and circulation of commodities, and thus the circulation of capital. Here, despite important differences between armed self-defense or resistance in the United States and recent blockades, Lance Hill’s analysis is instructive. The meaning of “violence” in Sorel’s (and thus Hill’s) work is defined against “force.” Sorel argues:
the object of force is to impose a certain social order in which the minority governs, while violence tends to the destruction of that order. The bourgeoisie have used force since the beginning of modern times, while the proletariat now reacts against the middle class and against the State by violence.
For Sorel, the ultimate example of proletarian violence is the general strike, which attacks both capital accumulation and social democratic leadership over the working class. For Hill, the choice to use armed self-defense was not violence merely in its willingness to use armed physical force; it was violent because groups such as the Deacons of Defense directly challenged social practices that maintained white supremacy in the Deep South, while asserting a different vision of civil rights struggle than middle-class Black leadership. The recent blockades aim to disrupt the Canadian economy to force the Crown to pursue and follow through with negotiations with Wet’suwet’en land defenders while rejecting a political program based on optics, the accommodation of the “centre” of public opinion, or capitulation to the reformist wings the Party of Oil. Indeed, the blockade undermines the diplomacy of the weak environmentalism of the parliamentary left.
As Gord Hill notes, while the railroad blockade is a “common tactic used by Native people,” the rapidity with which it has spread as a “popular direct action tactic” is unprecedented. Despite the long history of Indigenous blockade actions, we do not have the historical distance to make definitive claims about the present conjuncture of Indigenous-settler solidarity actions. Nonetheless, I will propose a number of theses concerning the politics of the blockade.
Thesis 1: A group or organization that will not consider tactics or strategies involving economic blockade is necessarily reformist. Such a group will typically organize around cultivating public support (or the perception thereof), and applying popular pressure on elected officials, while dissent and civil disobedience draw their legitimacy from state or legal protections of expression. Settler-state governance remains, from this perspective, a neutral arbiter between conflicts of right. We can expect its settler leadership and popular base to be drawn from middle-class groups, and expect that the Indigenous leadership within these coalitions maintains that a legal, peaceful route to nation-to-nation talks is the most efficacious.
Thesis 2: The blockade strategy attacks the material bases of the settler-colonial state and asserts the autonomy of an organization or group from reformist tendencies. The purpose of the blockade is to attack the material bases of the settler-colonial state and political economy. By analogy to Lance Hill’s analysis, we can expect that groups enacting the blockade, on the one hand, draw on working-class settler support, the membership of existing militant organizations, and Indigenous peoples aiming to assert sovereignty or self-determination through direct action and, on the other hand, that organizers assert a willingness to use a diversity of tactics in order to keep autonomous, collective control over the movement. In other words, from the perspective of urban Indigenous-settler solidarity struggle, the politics of the blockade is in part a three-way fight between the militant left, reformism, and settler-state.
Thesis 3: The injunction plays a political role in dispersing militant movements so that they are forced to reorganize or subordinate their movement within reformist movements. Technically speaking, “in plain terms, an injunction is a legal tool that restrains someone from doing something”; in practical terms, it is “a legal tool of political expediency.” Shiri Pasternak and Irina Ceric note that the twelve injunctions issued against Wet’suwet’en solidarity actions provide “an almost arbitrary authority to empower law enforcement to contain and criminalize people by securing vague geographical boundaries and broad powers of removal, often indefinitely.” In the context of recent solidarity struggles, the injunction allows the state to use force to combat the strength of solidarity. It is clear that when all major parties are part of the Party of Oil, and when reformist demands fail, that activists will turn to a principled, militant movement if it is viable. An injunction gives a legal imprimatur to the state suppression of this radical alternative.
Thesis 4: The continued use of blockades signals a refusal to capitulate to reformist tendencies and leadership. If all major electoral parties comprise different factions of settler-colonialism, capital, and industry, then a shift toward a reformist strategy undermines the viability of continued militant organizing. Now that blockades have been “injuncted,” as it were, militant movements will be required to reassess tactics but must refuse to relinquish the blockade strategy. The third wave of blockades in the Vancouver area were both a reassertion of solidarity with Wet’suwet’en land defenders and a negation of the negation: an explicit refusal to comply with prior injunctions.
Critical Remarks: Practice
If these theses are correct then there is a struggle within Indigenous-settler solidarity movements themselves, a struggle between reformist and militant tendencies. I will conclude with a few critical remarks. Once the courts and the police have issued and enforced injunctions against the blockade strategy, militant movements must reassess their tactics. I believe that organizers must anticipate (at least) two major practical problems.
First, they must confront the pitfall of legalism. Organizers must resist integrating their base within broader reformist coalitions for the purpose of turnout—doing so presents the appearance that there is a continuity between reformist and militant tendencies when there is qualitative rupture between their theoretical and practical possibilities (though it is only possible to build and lose strength if there is fluidity between the activist bases of these tendencies). Though I am arguing against subordinating militant movements to reformist coalitions, this does not preclude using legal tactics.
However, militants who opt for legal tactics, such as a march, in the face of state suppression must be able to situate these choices within the broader strategy or else they will encounter the second practical pitfall: demoralization. If we decide to march to disrupt traffic, this march must be justified through the possibility of becoming a roving blockade or a similar militant tactic, with clear parameters set out for self-criticism after the action: a route near railroads or ports, an agreement as to when the action would attain critical mass, an assessment of police intervention, and minimal expectations for the duration of the blockade if critical mass is reached. Militant movements will not outdo reformist groups by marching for marching’s sake; indeed, shifting toward that strategy suggests a false equivalency between militant action and reformist action. Finally, the tactics we choose reinforce or undermine the perception of solidarity actions elsewhere—a roving blockade asserts the strength of ongoing disruptions where the shift toward reformist strategies serves to isolate the remaining militant actions.
Critical Remarks: Theory
The remaining critical remarks are theoretical. So far I have attempted to isolate practical problems in organizing Indigenous-settler solidarity movements. The discussion has been a response to both the rapid enactment of the blockade strategy and the subsequent use of injunctions to suppress this strategy. The unprecedented engagement of settlers in a variety of solidarity actions was not inevitable, but it suggests that there are parts of settler society who recognize, at least in part, the settler-colonial project as systemic, ongoing oppression. At the same time, we must recognize that Indigenous peoples and settlers enter into the struggle against oppression from different social positions within settler-colonial society, and that they relate to state power in structurally different ways. Or, as tawinikay states, “don’t let yourself believe that you can transcend your settlerism by doing solidarity work.” Settler is to Indigenous as colonizer to colonized. We must consider the possibility even that the revolutionary struggles of settlers could be won and remain facets of ongoing settler-colonization, though I do not think this is a foregone conclusion.
In the present conjuncture, settlers can still be bought off ideologically by the small differences that are exaggerated within the narrow parameters of parliamentarianism and materially by the priority accorded to settler futurity within the settler-state. Thus militant organizers must stave off, in the face of state suppression of the blockade strategy, legalism and demoralization. By adopting legalistic parameters for organizing or joining larger reformist coalitions, militant organizers continue to act but they sever their actions from their political theory. This demoralizes the cadre, sure. But other participants who sense the systemic failures of parliamentarianism might also become demoralized, and they might subsequently opt for the incremental gains of reformism over symbolic forms of militant actions. As Marx notes, “where there are political parties, each finds the cause of every evil in the fact that its opponent instead of itself, is at the helm of state.” Militants must demonstrate that settler-colonialism is not a matter of better or worse administration of Indigenous affairs, but a system of ongoing dispossession and oppression.
The final concluding remark has to do with what I might tentatively call the dual schema of settler-colonialism. The struggle of Indigenous peoples against the settler state is one of colonized against the colonizer, while I have argued that settlers are acting within a three-way fight between militant solidarity, reformism, and the settler state. While the theses I propose seek to analyze the politics of the blockade, this has been oriented toward pushing solidarity coalitions to maintain militancy. I would emphasize that the two parts of the dual schema, Indigenous anticolonial struggle and the struggles of the three-way fight (which elsewhere I have discussed in terms of the militant antifascist movement against the two pillars of settler-state hegemony, that is, liberalism and the white supremacy of the far right) do not necessarily align; they require solidarity work and coalition building. For example, Indigenous politics foreground protecting nonhuman kinship relations in ways that are absent in radical settler politics. Or, furthermore, radical Indigenous practices of self-determination and resurgence do not necessarily fit in the Western political categories of state and sovereignty. Solidarity praxis requires practical translation across the dual schema.
Thus, in this essay, I have provided only a rudimentary sketch of the possible Indigenous social and class relations present in the politics of the blockade. I am reticent, given my remarks about the dual schema of settler-colonialism, to speak for radical Indigenous critics of Indigenous politics. But I would be remiss if I did not outline, at least in part, their militant critique.
First, anticolonial movements might coalesce around class coalitions that would remain contradictions in settler political struggle. These coalitional possibilities offer a potentially broad base for anticolonial resistance, but they also make co-optation possible. Gord Hill criticizes the tactics of Idle No More along these lines: “There can be little doubt that the ‘Idle No More’ protests were exploited by the chiefs [Hill here is referring to chiefs and band councils empowered by the Indian Act and Indigenous groups modelled on parliamentarian pressure groups] to create greater political pressure on the federal government, using their standard tactic: raising the spectre of Indigenous revolt unless the government concedes to their demands.” He also draws a distinction between reformist and militant resistance, noting that for state-adjacent Indigenous leadership, “economic disruption, actions that stop the flow of capital and industry,” such as blockades, would amount to “political suicide on their part.”
Second, Indigenous liberation requires both self-determination and resurgence. Settler-colonialism dispossesses Indigenous peoples of their land but it also imposes settler social structures of oppression such as heteropatriarchy to break the strength of Indigenous governance and resistance. As Leanne Betasamosake Simpson argues, “colonizers saw Indigenous bodies—our physical bodies and our constructions of gender, sexuality, and intimate relationships—as Audra Simpson says, as a symbol of Indigenous orders of government and a direct threat to their sovereignty and governmentality.” Similarly, militant Indigenous theorists contend that liberation involves rebuilding these social relations and decentralized forms of governance along with assertions of self-determination. As tawinikay notes, these freely chosen forms of governance need not adhere to the past, nor to the legitimacy of present leadership, but from “our connection to the land and the water and our commitment to our responsibilities to all life today and generations to come.”
To conclude, the seemingly spontaneous resilience of the present movement cannot be taken for granted; it is the result of many factors, including the dedicated networking and organizing efforts of Wet’suwet’en land defenders and a broader Indigenous and settler discontent with the weak environmentalism of the parliamentarian left. One of the most important things militant solidarity actions, such as the blockade, can do for this resilience is convey that the settler-colonial state’s actions on Wet’suwet’en territory are the rule and not the exception. All land in what is presently Canada is stolen land. As tawinikay writes, addressing other Indigenous peoples,
Perhaps we are moving into a new time, one where militancy takes the place of negotiation and legal challenge. A time when where we start caring less about what the colonizer’s legal and moral judgment and more about our responsibilities….Let’s make it not about demanding for them to leave Unist’ot’en alone, but about demanding that they leave the land alone. Don’t make it about stopping CGL from making money, make it about denouncing the idea of money. This is about colonization everywhere.
Principled organizing now prepares a militant cadre, both Indigenous and settler, for when reformists and environmentalists don’t march for Indigenous self-determination, but rather march in step with settler-colonial power.
This is a guest post being published because on Kersplebedeb find it is interesting and worthy of
discussion, without necessarily endorsing every point in it.
Devin Zane Shaw is author of Philosophy of Antifascism: Punching Nazis and Fighting White Supremacy, available in April 2020 (published by Rowman and Littlefield International).
. Land Back: A Yellowhead Institute Red Paper (Yellowhead Institute, 2019), 30.
. Akinyele Omowale Umoja, We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2013), 2–3.
. Given Lance Hill’s background of working with the Sojourner Truth Organization, it is doubtful he’s criticizing the Deacons for their lack of vanguardism. Lance Hill, The Deacons for Defense: Armed Civil Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 293 n. 20.
. Hill, The Deacons for Defense, 247
. Umoja, We Will Shoot Back, 147.
. As reported by Charlie Smith, “Wet’suwet’en Nation sympathizers block ports and railways as Greta Thunberg signals support for B.C. legislature demo,” The Georgia Straight (February 9, 2020). https://www.straight.com/news/1357906/wetsuweten-nation-sympathizers-block-ports-and-railways-greta-thunberg-signals-support
. Lisa Steacy and Ashley Burr, “Hundreds rally at Vancouver City Hall, block traffic in support of Wet’suwet’en,” City News 1130 (February 9, 2020). https://www.citynews1130.com/2020/02/09/hundreds-rally-support-of-wetsuweten/
. The account is Wet’suwet’en Solidarity, Coast Salish Territories. https://twitter.com/solidaritycst/status/1232070301308948480?s=20
. Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence. Ed. Jeremy Jennings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 165–166.
. Gord Hill interviewed by Dawn Marie Paley, “Wet’suwet’en solidarity: ‘This movement wouldn’t exist without everything that preceded it,’” Toward Freedom (February 25, 2020). https://towardfreedom.org/story/wetsuweten-solidarity-this-movement-wouldnt-exist-without-everything-that-preceded-it/
. Land Back, 30; Pasternak and Ceric, “Injunctions have only served to prove the point: Canada is a smash-and-grab country for industry,” The Globe and Mail (February 28, 2020). https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-injunctions-have-only-served-to-prove-the-point-canada-is-a-smash-and/
. Pasternak and Ceric, “Injunctions have only served to prove the point.”
. Thus we observed, similar to J. Sakai, that ‘advanced’ or democratic-minded Canadian settlers “need to be dis-united from their fellow settlers, rather than welded back into the whole lock-stepping, reactionary white mass by the usual reform movements.” See Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat from Mayflower to Modern. 4th ed. (Montréal: Kersplebedeb, 2014), 115.
. tawinikay, “Reconciliation is Dead: A Call For Revolt After the Raid” (Hamilton: Aphikona Distro, 2020), 8.
. Marx, “Critical Notes on ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform.” In Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society. Ed. Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (Garden City: Double Day and Co., 1967), 348.
. If you’re interested, this discussion can be found in Philosophy of Antifascism: Punching Nazis and Fighting White Supremacy (London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2020).
. Zig Zag [Gord Hill] “Idle No More? Speak for Yourself,” Warrior Publications (December 12, 2012). https://warriorpublications.wordpress.com/2012/12/12/idle-no-more-speak-for-yourself/
. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 104.
. tawinikay, “Reconciliation is Dead,” 5.
. tawinikay, “Reconciliation is Dead,” 1; 8. Though where she says “money” I would have chosen “capital accumulation.”
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