Solidarity and Broken Windows

On March 18, around 80 inmates at Allegheny County Jail participated in a one-day sit-in strike demanding access to adequate medical care. Healthcare at the jail is reported to be among the worst in the country. The same day, a community organization that had formed to address healthcare issues at the jail, the ACJ Healthcare Justice Project organized a rally outside the jail in support of striking inmates. In the announcement for the rally organizers wrote, This rally is to publicly acknowledge the demands of those on the inside, to let them know that they have support on the outside, we will make noise, we will speak truth, we will let Allegheny County know that jail is not justice.”

The following day a group of local activists who are not affiliated with the ACJ Healthcare Justice Project organized a “noise demonstration” outside of the jail. The demonstration went smoothly and was well received by prisoners, so the idea for another noise demonstration was spread via word of mouth for the following day. While the ACJ Healthcare Justice Project didn’t organize either of the noise demonstrations it promoted both on its Facebook page.

At some point during the second noise demonstration someone (or several people) apparently broke several windows at the jail and smashed out the windows of some of the police cars in a parking lot. Police rounded up and arrested 11 random people and told reporters that others had gotten away. While windows certainly appear to be broken it is unclear whether any of the people who were arrested were responsible for—or even had prior knowledge of—the property damage.

This incident is likely to ignite a kneejerk (and probably intellectually hollow) discussion over the efficacy of property destruction and the way that social movements in Pittsburgh use different types of tactics. I wasn’t at any of the rallies and all of the information that I have about the events comes from corporate news reports and a press release from the Pittsburgh Police Department so I can’t speak with any level of authority on what happened on March 18th, 19th or 20th. Further, I would never offer critical commentary on an action while people were facing serious charges and state repression.

Hearing about this incident did, however, give me an opportunity to reflect on another demonstration that I participated in a little more than five years ago. The statute of limitations for that action has long passed so I feel comfortable bluntly sharing my perspective.

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New Year’s Eve 2012 Global Noise Demo

In 2011, during the waning days of Occupy Pittsburgh, national and global prison abolition organizations issued a call for noise demonstrations outside of prisons and jails around the world on New Year’s Eve.

“Noise demos outside of prisons in some countries are a continuing tradition. A way of expressing solidarity for people imprisoned during the New Year, remembering those held captive by the state. A noise demo breaks the isolation and alienation of the cells our enemies create, but it does not have to stop at that. Prison has a long history within capital, being one of the most archaic forms of prolonged torture and punishment. It has been used to kill some slowly and torture those unwanted – delinquents to the reigning order – who have no need of fitting within the predetermined mold of society.”

Occupy Pittsburgh answered the call. We organized a noise demonstration outside of Allegheny County Jail (which was just a few blocks from the Occupy camp) and about 100 people showed up with pots and pans, flashlights, and even a PA system blasting dubstep. We marched up the bike path behind the jail blaring our music, flickering our flashlights and banging on our pots and pans. Inside the jail, prisoners responded by flashing the lights in their cells and banging on the windows. It was a powerful moment.

At the same time, on the other side of the building, someone smashed several of the big plate-glass windows lining the arraignment court. Our noise demonstration was so loud that none of us heard the breaking glass.

At the end of the demonstration we marched back up the bike path to leave and end saw a single police car with its lights on. Most of us assumed that the officer was just going to tell us to leave (which we intended to do anyway) so we just kept walking. But as we got closer we realized that he had his gun drawn. More and more officers rushed in, also with their guns drawn and ordered us all up against a wall.

Apparently, when the windows on jail broke a court employee thought that someone was shooting a gun at the jail and called 911 to report an active shooter situation.

We were held up against that wall for hours while police reviewed everyone’s identification, ran our information through the system to check for warrants (one person was taken into custody for an outstanding warrant for disorderly conduct), and reviewed security camera footage. By around 1:30 am, police determined that none of us were the ones who broke the windows and let us all go.

No one was ever charged in connection with that incident and, to this day I don’t know who broke the windows. But the situation left me feeling taken advantage of.

I don’t have a political or strategic objection to property destruction. At the time of the New Year’s Eve protest, I had been to plenty of actions where I knew there was a high likelihood of property damage including the G20 actions in Pittsburgh a few years earlier and numerous IMF-World Bank protests in Washington DC. But in those cases, I went into the action knowing what to expect and I chose to participate. On New Year’s Eve in 2012 I didn’t make that choice.

There was no indication in any of the promotional materials for the Global Noise Demonstration in Pittsburgh that property destruction or any other illegal activity was likely to occur, no reference to embracing a diversity of tactics, and no warning to anyone about the risk level. Whoever broke those windows transformed a very low risk demonstration to a much higher risk action without the knowledge or consent of the other 100 people participating.

Informed Consent

If I had known the risks I honestly don’t know whether or not I would have gone to the protest at the jail that night. But if I had, taking the risk associated with participating in that action would have been my choice. If I had known the risk I also probably wouldn’t have downed a half-dozen beers before heading out (remember, it was late on New Year’s Eve).

I want to be absolutely clear that I am not asserting that there are any parallels or similarities between the protest at Allegheny County Jail earlier this month or the New Year’s Eve Global Noise Demo in 2012 (other than that they both obviously occurred in roughly the same place and that during both actions some windows were apparently broken). But in the current political moment the lessons from New Years Eve in 2012 seem important to share.

Solidarity in the Streets

With Trump in the White House and the rise of the fascist “alt-right” the stakes couldn’t be higher. We need to be working together, we need to be taking bold action and we need to be taking meaningful risks. But we also need to respect each other enough to recognize each other’s autonomy and agency in making serious political decisions and choosing what level of risk we are comfortable with.

During the J20 inauguration protests in Washington, DC, organizers did a very good job of communicating about the risk levels of various actions. There were very low-risk permitted marches, medium risk checkpoint blockades, and a higher risk anti-fascist march. People didn’t veer away from the risk; over 1,000 people chose to participate in the high risk anti-fascist march.

We have experience with this in Pittsburgh as well. In the lead up to the G-20 summit, the anarchist G-20 Resistance Project and the liberal Anti-War Committee of the Thomas Merton Center negotiated the Pittsburgh Principles affirming our commitment to solidarity in the streets and ensuring that everyone is afforded the opportunity to chose what type of actions they are willing to participate in by committing to respect each others’ organizing space.

  • Our solidarity will be based on respect for a political diversity within the struggle for social justice. As individuals and groups, we may choose to engage in a diversity of tactics and plans of action but are committed to treating each other with respect.
  • We realize that debates and honest criticisms are necessary for political clarification and growth in our movements. But we also realize that our detractors will work to divide by inflaming and magnifying our tactical, strategic, personal, and political disagreements. For the purposes of political clarity, and mutual respect we will speak to our own political motivations and tactical choices and allow other groups and individuals to speak on their own behalf. We reject all forms of red-baiting, violence-baiting, and fear-mongering; and efforts to foster unnecessary divisions among our movements.
  • As we plan our actions and tactics, we will take care to maintain appropriate separations of time and space between divergent tactics. We will commit to respecting each other’s organizing space and the tone and tactics they wish to utilize in that space.
  • We oppose any state repression of dissent, including surveillance, infiltration, disruption and violence. We agree not to assist law enforcement actions against activists and others. We oppose proposals designed to cage protests into high-restricted “free speech zones.”
  • We will work to promote a sense of respect for our shared community, our neighbors, and particularly poor and working class people in our community and their personal property.

After all of the hand wringing of liberals who worried that direct action might alienate people, in the end more people participated in the un-permitted G-20 Resistance Project march than turned out for the permitted, explicitly non-violent Thomas Merton Center march.

This is the time to throw down and it is the time to take risks, but I can’t feel comfortable joining actions if I can’t predict how my comrades might escalate the risk level. I certainly can’t feel comfortable mobilizing other people to participate in actions if I can’t predict the risk level.

This isn’t about holding back or appeasing hand wringing liberals. We’ve seen again and again that if people trust their comrades, they’re willing to take risks. If we’re going to be serious about escalating resistance we need to be serious about a real process for building solidarity in the streets. Let’s respect each other, let’s take our work seriously and let’s work together to build the bold and uncompromising social movements that this challenging political moment requires.