What do vandals get out of destroying a neighborhood? Why do people resort to violence to send a message? Are those who allegedly participated in such an action our comrades? Won’t this kind of action alienate people at a time when we finally have the opportunity to build a broad movement against fascism? Since all these questions surfaced in public forums following the May Day demonstration in Philly, in which expensive condos and cars in a gentrifying area of Northern Liberties/Kensington were smashed, maybe the answers are still not so obvious.
The black bloc is not symbolic. Unlike symbolic actions, which intend to convey a message, its reason for being is practical – wearing similar styles of all-black outfits allows people to stay anonymous while taking action. One of the more compelling aspects of anarchist tradition is its belief in direct action – we try not to accept other peoples’ control over our lives, and we don’t expect authorities to act in our best interests, so we try to accomplish what we want ourselves instead of asking permission from politicians or anyone else who seeks to protect the social order. Unfortunately, for many anarchists today, direct action remains more of an abstract belief than a way of life. In Philadelphia, we’re more used to seeing anarchists doing support work or lobbying for reforms than attacking institutions or businesses they believe shouldn’t exist. But some anarchists still respond to the violence of everyday life in the U.S. by directly fighting it.
Though invisible to most people, the U.S. has been waging a war since its inception on indigenous peoples, black folks, the poor, and all the other populations that it’s dispossessed and marginalized. As a settler colonial nation-state, it cannot exist without exploitation, slavery and genocide, and it continues to try to crush and control those populations that it’s oppressed and those who resist, while proceeding with its ongoing project of capitalist and colonial development.
This war between the social order and those it seeks to contain is called the social war, and one of its major fronts in Philly for years now has been gentrification. While the city was originally developed by displacing and devastating Lenape peoples and land and accumulating capital through the slave trade, for the past two decades Philadelphia’s economy has grown through displacing black and brown people and rebuilding their neighborhoods for wealthier people to move into. This process of gentrification, which is happening at the most rapidly accelerating rate in the country, has been so obvious that it’s produced widespread public outcry and relative sympathy for those using “violent” means to attack agents of gentrification. While attending community meetings with developers and politicians has accomplished nothing, and forming nonviolent community organizations against gentrification has done very little to stop it, vandalism has successfully demoralized and deterred development in many areas of the city.
History, and personal experience, have shown that nonviolent social movements and activist campaigns for reform can’t fix or win against a fundamentally violent state – this is why some engage in “violent” tactics that more directly move towards accomplishing their objectives. Concerns within radical circles about how such actions will alienate the public seem unfounded so far, since the mainstream media has been unusually understanding of the May 1st demo. Because the demo exclusively targeted expensive cars and new condo developments, it’s hard to mistake its intentions. Such actions will attract some and alienate others, and this is not a bad thing – it’s good to know what side people are on. Unlike symbolic marches and peaceful protests, actions like the May Day demo offer people the opportunity to deepen their capacity for anti-capitalist, anti-social offensives and open up space for new people to get involved who aren’t interested in more symbolic forms of action.
At a time when global capitalism and the society it’s created are more and more obviously disastrous, it seems important to push these initiatives and build our capacity to fight, rather than watering down our goals.
As to the question of whether those who participated in the May Day demo are our “comrades,” or deserve our support – those are some of the people in Philly going the hardest against the forces of domination and exploitation, and risking state violence and social marginalization in order to do so. Such actions are not above critique, but to condemn them and those involved wholesale in the name of hypothetical concerns about public opinion puts you on the side of defending and replicating a violent social order, rather than amongst those trying to get free from it.