The story below is the first of the Stories of Struggle series from MTL Counter-info. This series will give voice to experiences of anarchist struggle in the territory dominated by the Canadian State. We believe that the practice of story-telling is important, as it gives life to our collective memory and allows us an opportunity to learn from past experiences.
While Riots and Eagles is a tale of riotous joy, celebration, and magic, we hope to also create space for accounts of small everyday victories and failures, as well as the depths of isolation and despair that mark anarchist struggles. We want to transmit stories that will be shared around a campfire. The moments that inspired us, that made us feel more alive than ever, that challenged us to our core. There are innumerable moments that shape our history. Let us carry them forward through our fractured generations.
No Gods! No Masters!
Whether this most fundamental of classical anarchist slogans is simply a hollow iteration of Western enlightenment philosophies and scientific progress, or is instead a cry directed towards the destruction of all that binds us, in life and death, to the world of exploitation and domination, is really a matter of interpretation.
I was raised with the former firmly rooted in my consciousness. All that might have been wondrous and with endless meaning was imprisoned in a linear progressive ideology in which “mankind” was to triumph. My Marxist father, with his historical determinist faith, did not give me the tools to smash both god and master at once. Instead of the Christian God, rooted in authoritarian tradition, that my anarchist ancestors declared war against, it was the state, science (controlled experimentation), and an alienating submissiveness to expertise that was to shackle my imagination and agency.
I began to break with all this many years ago. And it is with full recognition that I sound far too similar to all the other white-boys who have found themselves in some exotic religion or culture, when I say that my break came as a result of struggling in close proximity to Indigenous people.
One of the first and most profound experiences I can remember that cracked my mind ajar came at a march for missing and murdered Indigenous women. This is an annual event with a great deal of pain, grief and warmth involved. This time, thousands of people had crowded around an intersection with drummers and singers in the centre. The crowds vary in size from year to year, the drummers, singers, burning sage and abalone shells are consistent, and it is common to see eagles circling above. The moment is always powerful. On this particular occasion, while I began with the usual feeling of intimate connection through pain and grief to those around me, I noticed the eagles circling above. This time there were more than I could count, circling upwards and downwards, far above the intersection. So far, that some seemed to be disappearing and reappearing.
At this moment, I felt profoundly foolish in the most liberating way. Would I fall back on the scientific rationalist religion in which I had been raised? The same world-view which drives the horrors that people were gathered here against? How could I explain away the presence of these eagles and the way my eyes observed them? Why would I deny the profound spiritual meaning of what was in front of me? Is there somehow, something more anti-authoritarian and rebellious in reducing all meaning to a one dimensional reason, or in reducing all the world to dead things in a mathematical equation?
This experience was a long time coming, and in a moment I felt something had changed in me.
Some time later, I was with some friends in a downtown financial district of a major capitalist metropolis. We were there because a global financial and government meeting was going to take place in the next few days. The police state was gathering and preparing, and so were we. We wanted to acquaint ourselves with the surroundings and streets, and one of my friends, at the request of one of their Indigenous comrades, had asked that we spread around some tobacco for the spirits while we went on our way. We took care to do so as we moved through the concrete commodity cathedral. For me this felt right. Although I’m not Indigenous myself and I didn’t have the cultural context for the specific meaning of this offering, it stuck with me as the following days passed.
A few days later, I found myself standing in an intersection with the largest black bloc I had ever been a part of. The mood was understandably foreboding and intense, the police mobilization that stretched for miles around seemed insurmountable, and in spite of all this there was a hint of celebration in the air.
Suddenly, we were charging in one direction, a cop car was swarmed and smashed with a pig still inside. A bit further down the street, with that boost of confidence behind us, a rock garden was discovered. A corporate news van took a couple rocks, a line of riot cops were backed up against a building by a few more and the rest were saved for later.
Aside from what the bloc discovered along its way, it seemed we were woefully ill prepared to confront the cops head-on. We used the best weapon we had: mobility. Even considering the usual advantage this would have given us, it really felt like we were stronger than ourselves, like there was an invisible force that gave us greater powers of evasion and intimidation. I thought back to the tobacco. I thought of the spirits.
We continued along a jubilant path of destruction, eventually finding ourselves stopped in another intersection surrounded by giant financial temples and surrounding a burning, recently abandoned cop car. I remember feeling nervous as it seemed like we were hanging around far too long and it seemed like cops were moving to block off all our exists in the distance.
We started moving again, running in the direction that a slight breeze was blowing the thick black smoke from the fire behind us, turning the overcast midday nearly into night. I screamed to build my courage towards the line of riot cops who were blocking our path ahead, “You’re gonna fuckin’ die today, pigs!” As we got within twenty or thirty metres of them they appeared to back away in fright, and we took a sharp left turn up another busy commercial street.
As our merry way of revenge continued, more stores and banks than I could have possibly counted were smashed, small groups of cops were sent running in the distance, and one of the main police stations was attacked. It was impossible to believe we had been able to carry on the way that we had without significant intervention. Again, I couldn’t help but think back to the tobacco, and think of the spirits.
We eventually vanished like spirits ourselves after about ninety minutes of mayhem in all, to the point that it had almost gotten boring. This was profoundly inexplicable to many and yet many different explanations followed.
The various enthusiasts for state control, from right-wingers to liberals, to social democrats and some communists, preferred the explanation that the black bloc themselves were a secret covert government operation and/or that the cops had intentionally let them go around and do what they wanted in order to justify the brutal repression and mass arrests of everyone from pacifists to random people who came to enjoy the chaos.
Some more vocal anarchists and other radicals preferred the cops’ explanation that there was a lack of communication, and confusion stemming from a centralized command that couldn’t adequately respond to such a dynamic situation.
Privately I had my own explanation.
All explanations help to prop up the explainers’ worldview. I no longer feel a great need for a rigid scientific explanation of all events. We can all agree these situations defy common sense as we know it. Meaning is powerful and my life is far richer now that I am more open in my interpretations of the world.
It has been years since the events described above, and they were profound events in my life. They provide two examples of how spirituality can enrich one’s experiences. Significantly, they also show that spiritual power is neither to be reserved for peaceful moments of grief, nor is it strictly to be weaponized in a warrior culture. However, both these examples are mass events in which my intimate relations with those around me are still limited. I may or may not have shared these experiences with anyone that I know very well. What I think is missing in these examples is the importance of smaller events: interactions with a raven, butterfly, or extreme weather, giving thanks to the ecosystems around me, privately or in small groups. I believe both mass cathartic events and everyday quiet events are vital to an enriched spiritual life.
Since those moments, my spiritual path has looked a lot more personal and based around small, quieter events and rituals. The way I offer what I can to these interactions is informed by much of what I’ve seen from Indigenous comrades, and from bits and pieces I have picked up from European pre-Christian practices.
Of course I cannot say that I am now completed or on some kind of true path. Let’s be real, I come from a culture of near complete alienation. The fact that I, like so many of the gross hipsters and new-age hippies we see around, need to be “awakened” to other ways of thinking about ourselves and surroundings, is because of this. This being said, I believe a struggle on these lands is necessarily going to have to confront Western perspectives of separation from and dominance over “nature” (the fact that I can even write the word “nature” as a separation from my own life is a result of western thinking).
And of course I would never dare to claim a specific Indigenous spirituality. This would be as absurd as claiming an Indigenous identity for myself. These spiritual practices and world-views come from living cultures and communities that are fighting to re-establish themselves. They come from a concrete social context that I have not been socialized into, and am simply not a part of.
Strangely I feel even more clumsy when I reach for European pagan traditions. The way I see them practiced and the teachings I attempt to understand from them, clearly are from a social context that has not existed for over a thousand years. I am also suspicious that much of the available information that we use to educate ourselves on these cultures is heavily tainted by the Western, Christian, and patriarchal thinking of the missionaries who wrote down the oral teachings of these cultures before they vanished.
Neither have I ever been satisfied with or receptive to the Western astrology that attracts so many of my (often urban) alienated fellow travelers who are open to spirituality.
And so, ironically, I continue to walk this lonely and alienating path. I yearn for the intergenerational group context and ritual that would make for a more complete and fulfilling spiritual world. I look towards our indigenous comrades who use a framework that focuses on seven generations. I think of one of my favorite quotes in At Daggers Drawn, that so many of my comrades seem to be influenced by:
“Life cannot simply be something to cling to. This thought skims through everyone at least once. We have a possibility that makes us freer than the gods: we can quit. This is an idea to be savoured to the end. Nothing and no one is obliging us to live. Not even death. For that reason our life is a tabula rasa, a slate on which nothing has been written, so contains all the words possible. With such freedom, we cannot live as slaves. Slavery is for those who are condemned to live, those constrained to eternity, not for us. For us there is the unknown—the unknown of spheres to be ventured into, unexplored thoughts, guarantees that explode, strangers to whom to offer a gift of life. The unknown of a world where one might finally be able to give away one’s excess self love. Risk too. The risk of brutality and fear. The risk of finally staring mal de vivre in the face. All this is encountered by anyone who decides to put an end to the job of existing.”
…and I wonder if these are all so mutually exclusive. If my life is a blank slate, then I must be free to break with the alienation I am expected to reproduce. To destroy that which I hate, and create a world absolutely other. And it is here that I direct my thoughts.