Pittsburgh activism has long and sordid history of cooptation by the police. Liberal organizers invariably honor a tacit agreement in which they guarantee that their “actions” generate minimal material disruption of the prevailing order, in exchange for the cops’ allowing them to proceed unimpeded. The police, notoriously lazy in Pittsburgh, benefit from protest organizers doing most of their work for them, plus they don’t have to tarnish their image by pepper spraying and arresting protesters. Organizers in turn get to boost turnout by offering a risk-free, conscience salving experience, while claiming success based on nothing more than seamless logistics, regardless of the lack of movement toward their claimed goals.
On the ground the result will be familiar to anyone who who has attended a protest in Pittsburgh in this century. Dozens of marshals, police liaisons, and PR flacks, few to no legal observers or medics; inspiring speeches by carefully chosen “leaders”, zero opportunity for spontaneous action; occasionally unpermitted, but always pacified.
Sometimes though, an action breaks this mold and the police end up having to do some work, which brings us to a recent article by the Filler Collective. The piece is a criticism of a pair of noise demos at Allegheny County Jail at which some windows were broken, the most recent of which took place on March 20. Eleven people were arrested and are currently being charged with multiple felony counts. The other noise demo happened on New Years Eve 2011 and resulted in dozens of protesters being detained, but no arrests. The author focuses their criticism on the 2011 demo, claiming that they weren’t at the more recent one and do not wish to risk jeopardizing the cases of the arrestees. However the timing of the piece, and in fact the very inclusion of the recent demo, make a joke of this posture. If Filler really doesn’t want to criticize the March action why mention it at all?
Instead, the author uses the 2011 noise demo as a proxy, in an attack that is misguided as well as displaced. Their thesis is that since the organizers didn’t intend or prepare for windows to be broken, the window breakers are responsible for the detentions that followed. More generally, they believe that all protests should have a pre-planned and communicated level of risk so that participants can make informed decisions about whether and how to involve themselves.
That’d be nice wouldn’t it? If you could know ahead of time exactly how risky an action was going to be, if everyone who showed up could be counted on to follow the same script, if there was never any uncertainty about how the cops would respond to a particular tactic? The only problem is it’s impossible. There is no way to reliably predict what will happen at a protest without going full liberal and extinguishing any possibility of militancy before it can begin – the usual approach in this town.
That doesn’t mean organizers haven’t tried, and Filler cites a couple of very selective examples from recent history. One is the mobilization against the 2009 G20 summit meetings in Pittsburgh, which featured the Pittsburgh Principles, a framework designed to let activist groups with different politics work together effectively throughout the demo. (Ignore for now the vast difference between a multi-day mass mobilization and a half hour jail noise demo.) While the Pittsburgh Principles were reasonably successful in their purpose, they didn’t prevent the cops from brutally attacking a completely non-confrontational protest against police brutality on the Pitt campus in the final hours of the event, not because any windows got broken, but just because they wanted to. The author of the Filler piece conveniently fails to mention this.
Filler’s other example is the J20 mobilization in DC against Trump’s inauguration, where a wide variety of tactics were used by a broad coalition of groups, all of which were clearly announced ahead of time, supposedly allowing participants to gauge the risk involved. While the various blockades, rallies and permitted marches were left comparatively unmolested (by G20 standards at least), J20 was hardly a testament to the predictability of police repression at mass mobilizations. The 200-plus felony arrests at the black bloc march were an unprecedented departurefrom past police practice in DC, even to the point of violating court orders.
A broader look at the history of big demos (not to mention small ones) reveals similar patterns. The practice of designating red, yellow, and green zones during the global justice movement never worked. In fact arrests were probably more frequent in green zones because protesters there weren’t expecting them. The Miami Model of protest policing involves cracking down on protesters of all stripes, peaceful or otherwise, actually protesting or not. Witness the raids against the puppet warehouse at the 2000 RNC in Philadelphia, and the convergence centerand legal support office at the 2008 RNC in St. Paul, where no one was even protesting anything, let alone breaking windows.
Hell, the cops don’t always manage to honor their own designated safe areas. At the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto police pepper sprayed and beat people in the free speech zone. And let’s not forget the 2001 FTAA meetings in Quebec City, where the cops used so much tear gas it got into the ventilation ducts of the building where the delegates were meeting.
In short, the idea that we can predict what the cops will do in the face of any meaningful protest is ridiculous. It might look like we can in Pittsburgh, where protest theater too often takes the place of militant action in the streets. But that’s just policing ourselves to save the cops the trouble. So instead of blaming arrests, detentions, beatings and other repression on our own comrades, let’s pin the blame where it belongs – on the cops. Instead of relying on our enemies to restrain themselves if we don’t provoke them, let’s rely on ourselves. It’s time to build the support structures necessary to resist police action as it happens, to propagate a culture of tactical awareness, instead of expecting followers to show up and blindly follow the orders of few self appointed organizers.
Determining what this might look like in practice is left as an exercise for the reader, but in the Trump era it is one well worth undertaking. Just don’t forget to tell Torchlight about it…