Filed under: Analysis, Anarchist Movement, Capitalism, Development, Gentrification, Ontario
The following editorial was originally posted on the anarchist counter-information website, North-Shore.Info. To donate to the Tower social center, go here.
I wasn’t there on Aberdeen or Locke that night. I don’t know who was, and I’m not interested in knowing who was. I don’t necessarily think it was the most strategic or timely action in Hamilton’s history of resistance, but I certainly don’t condemn it. Far from it. I think it was brave, I think it was well-executed, and I think it was a meaningful and justified act of political action against a neighbourhood that sits way too comfortably on a mountain of unearned privileges, and that flamboyantly basks in the luxuries afforded by a destructive and exploitative system.
What happened on Saturday night in the Kirkendall neighborhood was both complicated and beautiful.
That riot (1) on Saturday has caused an absolute frenzy of activity in Hamilton, from face-to-face conversations to social media outbursts to organized acts of solidarity to a truly mobbish lust for punishment and retribution. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being invested in a police operation to catch the people who did it. The tower has been attacked 3 times in as many days. I have spent countless hours on social media, read every article in every media outlet, and talked with dozens of people about it. The profound failures of emotion, of reason, and of basic journalism in this town have been stunning. While my face-to-face interactions have mostly been filled with nuance, emotional vulnerability, and politically interesting conversations, I’ve found little but malignant nonsense online. I’ve had moments of feeling literally sickened by things I’m reading. People in this city are showing their true stripes, and it’s not pretty.
I am an anarchist born and raised in Hamilton. By anarchist, I don’t mean someone who sits behind my computer and occasionally makes broad proclamations about politics, I mean I spend a lot of my time acting and organizing against all forms of unconsensual hierarchy, domination, and most passionately, against the pillaging and destruction of this planet. I despise with every fiber of my being the ecocidal, patriarchal, white-supremacist, capitalist system that has imposed itself on this world, and that has subsumed so many aspects of our lives. I fight against the tendrils of that world wherever I can find them.
I also spend a lot of time trying to nurture and build something different. Trying to build community around radical ideas (ones that address the root of the problems), to model those ideas in our relationships, in our organizing spaces, and in our various projects. But those kind of constructive projects have limits, because in truth the only way for us to meaningfully do any of those things is to resist and ultimately destroy the systems that dominate us. They’ve got police and militaries and extensive propaganda networks and jails and judges all designed to make sure that nothing different emerges. We can’t just build new worlds. We need to destroy the systems that prevent other worlds from existing.
I am also a part of the broader Hamilton community. Maybe I’ve served you a bottle of Export at a local bar/venue, maybe I’ve taken care of your disabled uncle, maybe we regularly chat while I buy apples from you at the farmers market or maybe I even sold you organic produce once when I was working on a farm. I have a thousand “community pals” in this city, people I say hi to and share a general sense of warmth and camaraderie with. I like that about living in Hamilton. In some ways it can feel nourishing and comfortable.
One of the things that really challenges me about the riot last weekend is the extent to which it’s fractured a lot of those relationships. People know my politics, and know I have some association with the anarchist scene in Hamilton, and already I can feel the chill. I’ve had three interactions with people since Saturday who suddenly didn’t want to say hi, didn’t want to share a moment of warmth with me. They’re too upset with anarchists. They need someone to blame so they’re blaming everyone they can link to that word.
It’s absolutely juvenile.
So yes, it hurts to think that my wider social fabric in this city has been tattered a bit. It feels less comfortable here. But here’s the thing about radical politics, the kind of politics that seeks to fundamentally change the way human beings organize themselves: It’s never comfortable. And that’s what the riot in Kirkendall is about for me.
It’s about making people uncomfortable.
It’s about bursting a bubble.
The Value of Discomfort
Let’s talk about bubbles.
The majority of North Americans live in a bubble of privilege; Generally speaking, the global north amasses its privilege on the exploitation of the global south. We benefit but we don’t have to see what happens on the other side. Settlers in North America live in a bubble of privilege amassed through the colonization of this land and the displacement, enslavement, and murder of Indigenous peoples. We continue to benefit from colonization, but we’re not often made to see the historical or ongoing impacts of it. White people live in a bubble of privilege amassed on the enslavement, exploitation and incarceration of brown and black people. Onwards and onwards.
Until we get to a neighbourhood like Kirkendall. Most of the people in Kirkendall live in a dense cluster of bubbles. A complicated and overwhelming mandala of unearned privileges (2), colored with apathy and framed on all sides by bourgeois morality (3). And it’s very very comfortable in bubbleland. We’ve all seen those mansions on Aberdeen, we’ve all seen the luxury cars parked on Locke, we’ve all seen the cupcake boutiques: the people in that neighborhood are living decadent and comfortable lives. Whatever sob stories they’re telling right now, just remember that they’re living larger than the vast majority of Hamiltonians. It’s not that they don’t care about other people or even systems of oppression – lots of them donate to charities and advocate for living wages and compost all of their organic waste. They’re just not willing to let anything disrupt the comfort of their bubbles.
I think it’s fair to say that the people in Kirkendall felt deeply uncomfortable last weekend. Something unpleasant snuck into bubbleland, wrecked havoc on some material objects, terrified some bystanders, and dissipated before those stealthy hamilton pigs could restore order and comfort.
How You Came to Care About A Doughnut Shop
Did I mention I hate capitalism? I hate the way it organizes communities into efficient work forces to funnel money up the pyramid. I hate the way it alienates us from our capacities and desires and forces us to commodify our passions. Capitalism forces us to rely heavily, if not entirely, on a system that is not only killing the planet, but is pitting humans against each other and rapidly stockpiling all of the wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands. Everyday capitalism makes us serve the system that is crushing us.
Because it’s so pervasive, widespread and cutthroat, capitalism has colonized nearly every aspect of our lives. Everyday I make concessions to a capitalist system, not because I want to perpetuate it, but because it has literally stamped out every other option (exterminate the buffalo, toxify the water, displace and murder every non-capitalist community, use every conceivable method of torture to subdue rebellious populations, etc.). One of the most mind boggling and heart-wrenching things about capitalism is that, because it has so thoroughly colonized us, it can cause an otherwise smart and creative human being to identify deeply with a silly business plans. That doughnut shop becomes more than just a way to survive in capitalism, it becomes who i am and what i stand for. We all need to hustle in a capitalist system to stay alive, to keep food on the table and heat in the ducts. Some of us come to identify with those hustles, some don’t. I feel really fucking sorry for the people who identify themselves so deeply with their hustles. There’s so much more to this life than the ways we navigate capitalism. There’s so many more interesting and urgent things to rally around and defend than broken windows in bourgeois neighbourhoods. Capitalism sucks the passion out of people and replaces it with an allegiance to a system that has been violently imposed on us.
For me meaningful passion can only exist outside of capitalism, ideally against it.
But Small Businesses!
One of the things that makes me laugh the most in the social media outcry this week is the assumed universality of consumer activism as a meaningful political strategy. 20 years ago leftists became really fixated on big businesses like Starbucks and Wal-Mart as the main enemies in the battle against neo-liberal globalization. But since then a lot of us have realized that that is a horribly shortsighted and deeply unsatisfactory set of ideas. We don’t hate chain stores, we hate capitalism. We don’t believe for a second that better shopping habits and local organic grocery stores are going to help us radically redefine life on this planet. Those kind of approaches are placebos and security blankets for people who want to care about the world but prioritize comfort before all else. People who really like life in bubbleland but just want it to be more wholesome and less corporate. So they shop local, eat organic, bike to work. The bubbles remain unchanged, the decor is a bit more eco.
I believe that all employers are entering into an inherently exploitative relationship with their employees. Even the most respectful, well-paying, well-intentioned employer is rendering surplus capital from those they hire. I’ve been a boss before. I didn’t like it, but it was a good hustle. I didn’t come to identify with it, and if the people who worked under me ever organized against the company, I would have jumped ship on my position immediately and joined with them. I know where I belong when it comes to social agitation – aiming anger up the pyramid, not down.
Opening a small business is a hustle that inevitably perpetuates capitalism, and businesses geared specifically towards people with a lot of money (essentially every business on Locke Street) are actively shaping landscapes to be more accessible to rich people and less accessible to poor people. Gentrification is a word to describe class war – the endless movement of wealth in ways that rearrange spaces for rich people at the expense of poor people. Poor people are displaced, policed, pushed into more and more toxic environments, imprisoned, and forgotten. They are occasionally talked about by politicians looking to cash in on some of that sweet liberal sentimentality, but it never amounts to more than a few bed-bug infested low-income units and a photo-op.
People in Kirkendall and other privileged, middle-and-upper class neighborhoods in Hamilton never have to see the violent impacts of gentrification. They never have to feel the precarity, the fatigue, the terror, the frustration, the illnesses, and the despondency. They eat $5 cupcakes and read articles written by other affluent people about revitalization.
It’s not that anyone likes areas to remain poor. It’s not that we like derelict buildings or shitty fast food. It’s that moving wealth into a neighbourhood only attracts more rich people, it doesn’t fundamentally change the conditions of the people who live there. Because capitalism isn’t designed to float all boats, it mostly just becomes a process of shuffling poor people around based on the whims of rich people. Don’t be surprised when working class people stand their ground from time to time.
To Those in Kirkendall
When people attack your businesses they are trying to pop your bubbles. Make you uncomfortable. Tell you to fuck off. Because with every cent you move around your neighborhood you are creating and recreating a capitalist world that will always have poor people and that will always enact violence upon them. When people attack places like The Heather, a truly repugnant operation, it’s because that place is a Trojan horse filled with exorbitant food prices, evictions, and police.
Remember how it felt when your window got smashed? That’s how it feels for us when a rich business opens up on our block. It’s an attack. A window getting smashed is aggressive, the movement of capital is violent.
The world you are creating with your businesses may feel pleasant to you, it may create spaces that feel lovely and safe and eco to you, it may feel like part of some collective attempt to make the world a little bit better. To me and many others it is the opposite. Locke street is a nightmare. I want to fight against a world where that kind of bubbleland is possible. Where people can daily ignore their mountains of privilege while patting themselves on the back for all the hard work they put into their hustles. Because right across town are people hustling twice as hard and getting nowhere. Because right across town your friends and your money are helping to remake other neighbourhood in the image of this one. Your friendly, progressive bubble is exclusive, exploitative, and viral.
And if you came from a poor background, fuck you even more. Because there is nothing admirable about climbing the economic ladder and joining the apathetic upper classes. Under capitalism your upward mobility always comes at the expense of someone else. Always.
I have no doubt that it’s hurtful and scary and infuriating to have something that you poured a lot of time and energy into destroyed. Your car or your house or your business. I know some of you and I don’t think you’re all awful people. You’re just standing on the wrong side of a line. If you had any integrity or meaningful convictions you would use the attention brought on you this week to talk about your privilege, to talk about exploitation and poverty, to talk about capitalism, to talk about how revealing it is that people are willing to risk their lives to smash your bubble of comfort. Your sentimentality is garbage, your waves of solidarity from other rich and middle-class folks are nauseating, and your cries of surprise and confusion are laughable. If you’re surprised that people are angry about affluence, about gentrification, about businesses (big and small) that offer delicious organic treats to rich people while the rest of us wait in line at food basics for pesticide smothered produce, you’re not paying attention.
This world is literally on fire with people furious about the pyramid scheme of capitalism – did you think you were immune from those flames?
For the lefties and radicals who’ve been running their mouths on social media: Do you remember who you were last week? I do. I remember you sharing that meme about how “The First Gay Pride Was A Riot.” I remember you glorifying uprisings all over the world. I remember you repping your “Riots not Diets” patches. I remember you swept up in drunken ecstasy at the radical hip hop show, chanting along to lyrics about fighting against capitalism, letting all of that hard hitting truth flow through your body and dissipate into a hungover burp the next morning.
So what happened? Did it feel good to front a little political anger, to rep a little radical aesthetic? And now that the liberal peace of your corner coffee shop got ruptured you’re squealing all over Facebook? Now that you know someone who owns a business that got smashed up you’re queasy about the idea of radically confronting capital? The truth is that an overwhelming majority of people who rep radical politics in some part of their life don’t actually stand for anything. They stand for edginess, righteousness, and for publicly absolving the guilt of privilege (white, middle-class, able-bodied, male, etc.). They venture forays into exhilarating forms of resistance, rarely put their bodies on the line, and almost never do anything that might actually threaten their long-term comfort, privilege, and stability. And in a way that’s okay. I’m glad to see who those people are right now. But I also know that’s not all of you.
Let me say this clearly: I think it’s okay if you don’t condone the tactics used on Aberdeen and Locke street that night. If you think it was pointless, unstrategic, or misdirected that’s fine. Let’s talk about that (in secure and respectful ways). But don’t let yourself be someone who dissolves like a sugar cube in a warm glass of liberal sentimentality over a small riot in a rich neighborhood. Step back from the newspapers, step back from social media, step back from your own community for a second if you have to, and ask yourself: where do you want to set your stakes in this kind of moment? Are you more angry about a group of masked people who made a significant escalation in a war against gentrifying businesses, rich people, and capitalism, or are you more angry about gentrifying businesses, rich people and capitalism?
Even if you think the action was foolish, don’t let your response be another fucking voice in the shrill miasma of liberal nonsense. Stand by your own politics, and talk with the people close to you about your opinions. Just because people are scared, just because relationships are threatened, and just because you know someone who was affected, it doesn’t mean you have to check your opinions at the door. Doesn’t mean you need to distance yourself from things you held dear last week. Backing away from the radical scene now, backing away from your critiques of gentrification now – it’s true cowardice. Yes, it’s terrifying to speak out against the frantic current right now, when people are threatening to stab anyone who was involved; when friends and family are asking us invasive and accusatory questions; when hundreds of liberals and alt-right goons are tripping over each other to collaborate with the police (they always did make good bed-buddies); when it feels like small businesses are suddenly the most important and revered projects in the world. But you’ve been building a radical analysis of this world for years – I know you have enough pith in your values to withstand this flurry.
Stay solid. Don’t get wrapped up in the sentimentality. Speak your mind. And for fuck’s sake stop snitching. Talking to the police, insinuating to your friends or on social media that you know who did this, asking people to step forward, all of that is completely inexcusable behavior that risks getting people thrown in jail for years. Remember jail? Remember that system of colonial repression that needs to be abolished entirely before any of us can be free? Right. That’s where people are going if you keep fucking talking. Are you really feeling that protective over those businesses and luxury cars, or are you just wrapped up in some toxic momentum? Next week the headlines will dissipate, the tides of social media righteousness will turn, and those of us who have been resisting systems of domination will continue to do so in solidarity with each other.
1 I’m using the word riot here even though people of all stripes will probably object. I’m describing 30ish people who met in a park in an affluent neighbourhood, beat back the police, and blasted music on the streets while smashing windows and hurling eggs in plain view of bystanders. If it wasn’t a proper riot, it was at least riotous, so I’ll use that word for convenience.
2 Unearned privileges, not in the sense that you don’t bust your ass for your paycheck, unearned in the sense that capitalism doesn’t afford everyone the same rewards as you for the same amount of work. Not unearned in the sense that nothing hard has ever happened to you, but in the sense that the opportunities and chances afforded to you are rooted in long histories of patriarchy, colonization, racism, etc.
3 e.g. the kind of morality that suppresses very real tensions in society with politeness, that uses the language of “equality” and “respect” to disguise gross imbalances of power, and that understands legitimate social action to be anything that doesn’t rock the boat.