Thoughts on March 15th

Every lost battle is a principle of weakness and disorganization; and the first and immediate desideratum is to concentrate, and in concentration to recover order, courage, and confidence.

– Carl von Clausewitz, On War

By the time the day was over, over two hundred people had been arrested at yesterday’s 13th Annual Demonstration Against Police Brutality. Most of those busted were picked up an a “mass arrest” near the end – as always, a good portion of those were just passersby caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As previously mentioned on this blog, the demo was preceded by a media scare campaign preparing public opinion for mass arrests. Despite this – and despite the fact that the orange line (on which Mont Royal metro is found) was closed – meaning people had a lot of difficulty getting there – over 1,000 people showed up to express their anger at the ongoing social and racial profiling that is the bread and butter of police work. (Police and media lies about just a few hundred people showing up could easily be contradicted by anyone who was there – even just look at the fact that 200 were arrested, most of these hours after the main demo had been broken up by riot cop charges.)

No point giving a play-by-play of the demo – indeed, i couldn’t, because i got separated from it when the riot police charged at Sherbrooke corner University, and only found it over an hour later when it was already encircled at Beaudry and St-Catherine. Instead, a few observations…

A lot has been made in the media about how protesters were violent towards not only police, but we also apparently broke windows of restaurants and even of cars parked on the street.

But this media brouhaha shouldn’t make us forget that most people who showed up didn’t want to fight, of those that were willing to defend themselves a majority were only willing to fight the cops when actually attacked, only a tiny minority out of these might have been willing to go proactive… and then there is an equally tiny minority who were happy to use the occasion to fuck anything up if they thought they could get away with it – i.e. throwing garbage around, breaking the windows of cars parked on the street, etc.

While some of the people vandalizing at random were likely cops planted in the crowd (as we saw at Montebello in 2007), it is true that there are are also some people on our side who engage in this. It should also be mentioned that some of the “random vandalism” is not necessarily a bad idea – pulling dumpsters into the street shows a desire to slow the advancing police lines (the way it was done was ineffective, but at least it shows the desire is there!). Breaking the window of a yuppy restaurant may have political meaning (though this is not necessarily the best day to do it!) – i mean i had to wonder why the Four Points Hotel we passed, where workers have been on strike for months, was left untouched.

& you know, graffiti-ing as we go is certainly a good way to spread the message!

But aggression against passersby, throwing garbage around just to make a mess, smashing the windows of cars (and not fancy cars) parked on the street – this strikes me as less smart. When one thinks of the people who are victimized by this kind of behaviour – sometimes just regular folks – the whole thing strikes me as deplorable. And it must be said – sometimes when this went on other demonstrators intervened – just as some folks seemed to think tipping garbage cans over was a good idea (it takes more than that to make a barricade, comrade!) others stopped to pick up the garbage.

But that kind of silliness was ephemeral to the demo, a really minor factor, despite the media’s exaggerations. Over a thousand people showed up and one or two (literally) cars got damaged – it’s not the main story!

More importantly to me is what the demo shows about the state of the radical left.

You see, the police had been announcing they wanted a fight for some time now – ever since the talk of the anti-mask bylaw back in January, when the annual demo was pointed to as a place the cops would want to use such a bylaw. And more recently they’ve been almost guaranteeing a riot in the newspapers every day.

Yet if anybody showed up with a plan as to how to defend themselves or the demo, i didn’t see them. i don’t think this is the demo organizers’ job – COBP obviously takes enough heat as it is just for organizing the annual march, even though they appeal to people to not act violently.

Organizing defense is not their job, but it is ours.

There were hundreds of anarchists and communists out yesterday, hundreds more who would have supported us, the police had announced beforehand that there would be arrests, but there seemed to be no coordinated plan on how to respond. No “red fists”, no “black blocks”, no plan to act in a way that would change the balance of power, or the inevitable outcome. And yet what a propaganda coup it will be, better than the smartest slogans or niftiest newspaper, when some group actually manages to show it can successfully defend itself and others in such a situation!

The Prussian military theoretician Carl von Clausewitz noted that in war there can exist a state of equilibrium or a state of tension. The former exists when both sides maintain themselves, but neither tries to actually do anything the other is not prepared to accept. All sides stand their ground, posturing, but prepared for tomorrow to be much as today and yesterday.

A state of tension, on the other hand, exists when one side tries to do something that will challenge the status quo, something that they know the other side will oppose – because of this plans must be made more seriously, and thought out all the way to the end. The deal becomes for real. As we can read in On War, compiled by Clausewitz’s widow Marie von Brühl after his death:

If a state of tension exists, the effects of the decision are always greater partly because a greater force of will and a greater pressure of circumstances manifest themselves therein; partly because everything has been prepared and arranged for a great movement. The decision in such cases resembles the effect of a mine well closed and tamped, whilst an event in itself perhaps just as great, in a state of rest, is more or less like a mass of powder puffed away in the open air.

As he explained:

Most bygone Wars, as we have already said, consisted, so far as regards the greater part of the time, in this state of equilibrium, or at least in such short tensions with long intervals between them, and weak in their effects, that the events to which they gave rise were seldom great successes, often they were theatrical exhibitions, got up in honour of a royal birthday, often a mere satisfying of the honour of the arms, or the personal vanity of the commander.

What we have on the radical left is precisely this kind of state of equilibrium, punctuated by rare states of tension. Not surprisingly, it is in the states of tension that we actually win things, which is not to say that the states of equilibrium may not play their part in maintaining a certain kind of stance or collective identity. But faced with the world as it is, where time is a factor against us, it must be said the the state of equilibrium does more than simply reflect our lack of seriousness, it chokes us.

For instance, by way of example as to where it might have made a difference had a few dozen people taken it upon themselves to have a proactive plan: as we walked down St-Denis five undercovers in the crowd revealed themselves to bust a guy. They had to drag him struggling out of the march, and one whole block away to where two police cars and some other cops were waiting.

No effort was made to unarrest the guy, although the undercovers were vastly outnumbered. (btw the same undercovers were spotted later milling around demo – they obviously didn’t feel very worried about their cover being blown!)

Similarly, near the beginning of the march, one person was arrested by five cops. The cops and their victim were surrounded by dozens of people for several minutes before they took him around the corner to where their reinforcements were waiting. During this time they were pelted with… empty soda cans!

Then during the few minutes that the cops were gone with their victim, their cars were sitting there unguarded, surrounded by the demonstrators. Apart from a little bit of white paint, nothing was done to them.

This is not a criticism of any individual or group, especially not the demo organizers themselves, but it shows that the level of combativeness of the demonstrators was at a frustrating level. Rowdy, but not organized. Individuals may have come prepared on an individual level, but there seemed a real lack of any collective organization for self-defense. A broad state of equilibrium.

Of course, i don’t want to sound grumpy. The annual demonstration is what it is, and measured in a certain way the efforts of the past thirteen years have been successful: it is now a Montreal tradition, it allows for a coming together of the radical left alongside people who regularly do get aggressed by police, and allows for the possibility of further solidarity. As a cultural phenomenon, it is a success.

It could be more, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. i don’t know. But if it is not, if the radical left does not use it as an opportunity to learn and do better, one fears that we will surrender the initiative to the state to do so.

To end with a final quote from Clausewitz:

Woe to the cabinet which, with a shily-shally policy, and a routine-ridden military system, meets with an adversary who, like the rude element, knows no other law than that of his intrinsic force. Every deficiency in energy and exertion is then a weight in the scales in favour of the enemy; it is not so easy then to change from the fencing posture into that of an athlete, and a slight blow is often sufficient to knock down the whole.

We will see.


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