At the G20 protests in Toronto last weekend, thousands of people left the official protest march and took over the streets. This has been called ‘violence’ by the media. Windows got broken and a few squad cars got trashed. But this is only part of the story.
At one point the police separated the march into smaller segments; this backfired when the protestors surrounded the police and pushed them off the street. The cops had to abandon their squad cars to chants of “Whose streets? Our streets!”, no longer just rhetoric.
What this means depends on your point of view. One columnist saw “jackals at corpses” hovering over “two dead cop cars”. Somehow a thousand people became carrion-eating animals, while two hunks of metal got rewarded with a short life and painful death.
However, people were angry at being shunted around by heavily-armed police taking their streets back. The sense of collective power was palpable. For weeks, the police had trotted out their new weapons daily in the media – sound cannons, plastic bullets, water cannons, etc. Yet by direct mass action, we were more powerful than they were. It was peaceful and empowering.
The street, a major shopping area clogged with gridlocked traffic, is usually dangerous to walk or cycle. It was now a pedestrian thoroughfare: in a few minutes, protesters had created the kind of green public space that city planners have failed at for years.
Symbolic acts by individuals such as breaking windows are ineffective. They don’t build the sense of collective power that a good demonstration creates. (This is why allegations of police provocateurs amongst the Black Bloc are already emerging.) Taking over the street was far more useful: it was a tiny window into how social movements teach participants to organise and strategise together.
However, whatever broken windows mean, they are not violent. The G20 have decided to gut our public services, fund wars instead of development aid and let climate change continue apace. In an Orwellian twist, economic and military destruction is supposed to be peaceful, while symbolic acts become violent. How many windows have G8 bombing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan destroyed? The Israeli military – funded by $4 billion a year from the U.S. – regularly flies sorties at Mach speed over Beirut to blow out all the glass in the city and ruin the tourist season. Even in window-destruction, the G8 has the protestors beat.
There were a number of other anti-G20 marches. The day before, police in full riot gear hemmed in 2000 protestors, controlling the march route and arresting over 30 people. The mood was tense, yet the protestors went as directed. That got barely a mention in the press. When people do break windows, the media sits up to denounce it. It’s hypocritical to claim, like children’s rights advocate Craig Kielburger, that violent protestors hijacked the message. Had he and some ‘socialist’ marshals been less concerned about appearances and more concerned with confronting the representatives of capitalist power, we could have had the entire march push the cops back. The world leaders would have heard our message, like they did in Seattle in ’99. Instead, by splitting the rally into ‘respectable’ and ‘anarchist’ protestors, the moderates ensured that window-breaking got all the attention.
To those frightened by the window-breaking, here are a few questions.
The media are happy to denounce violence for putting the protest off-message. Why do they never report on the message in the first place? There is no mainstream coverage about expropriating the banks, refusing to pay bad debts or democratic finance.
Public leaders are supposed to be acting in our best interests, yet they had to protect themselves from us by sealing off much of the downtown core and snarling up traffic with their motorcades. What class do they represent? What gives them the right to decide the futures of people who didn’t vote for them?
Does property violence equal violence to people’s bodies?
If we’re witnessing our rulers reward their capitalist friends with trillions of dollars, and stake the future of the entire planet on high-carbon industries, isn’t it more ethical to confront them? How do you do that by marching away from them?
Do the careful lobbying and privileges of the labour bureaucracy and NGO industry stop global warming or expose the crises of capitalism causing poverty and famine? Or do they perform a useful ideological service for capital, creating a humanitarian screen while the ruling classes pursue their agenda of global theft?
At the end of the day, eager glaziers were roving the streets making repairs. Police made violent arrests over the night and the following day, gassing and beating people. New windows, and hundreds of detainees shipped off to a detention centre, suggested the rally never happened. Yet the sense of collective power the anti-G20 protests generated exists in the participants, and it will fuel future activism. The optimism that we can work together to change things is worth putting a few dollars in the glaziers’ pockets.