The Ottawa Bank Bombing

The effect was immediate. Commentators fell over themselves to denounce the violence: the perpetrators were “dimwits” and “criminals”, said Rex Murphy in the National Post; a Public Safety Ministry spokesperson called them “thugs”. More concretely, summit organizers are drafting in 500 extra police officers, despite the summit already having 10,000 police officers and 1,000 private security guards, nearly twice the security forces at the recent Olympics.

Are FFFC-Ottawa anarchists? Ottawa police have claimed their suspects are a small group of malcontents who used to meet in a Chinatown coffee shop until they got kicked out for annoying other patrons. Anyone on the left knows the blowhards sporting a hipsack and several days’ beard growth who come to meetings and spout conspiracy theories – or just sit in the back of doughnut shops haranguing strangers – are incapable of making a room booking, being part of a phone tree or any other of the daily tasks of movement-building. The idea that they could bomb something stretches reality: for example, sceptics have pointed out that they gained access to a bank after hours, a feat of disciplined planning. For now, it looks equally likely that a CSIS agent got told to blow something up but was too lazy to make the long trip to Toronto. This is not unprecedented: at the Montebello summit protests in 2007, a labour leader famously exposed one of the “black bloc” as a police agent.

However, there’s a larger political point, whether this turns out to be a police action or not. Common Cause, an Ontario anarchist group, has released a statement that anarchism is about “the building of revolutionary, democratic, mass movements that will challenge capitalism directly through labour and community organizing and mass direct action such as strikes, picket lines and occupations.” Poor Common Cause: they weren’t even involved but find themselves having to fight widespread demonisation.

In solidarity with our set-upon anarchist comrades, let’s clarify something: what actually is violence? There are two issues here. Firstly, the Canadian state and capitalist class is violent. That’s either direct, physical violence, as when police attack demonstrators and strikers (never mentioned in the pious platitudes of mainstream commentators), or when police discipline poor and working class people: for example, 18 year old Junior Manon getting allegedly bludgeoned to death in north Toronto for the crime of running from the cops. Or, it’s social violence: the daily degradations of having to survive when you’re homeless, unemployed, working low-paid jobs, aboriginal, without status, and so on. Violence doesn’t have to be a blow to the head: it can be the fatigue, stress and humiliation of not knowing where your next meal is going to come from.

Capitalism has to maintain a bunch of workers living in poverty and insecurity who’ll work for next to nothing. Let’s be clear: property does not have the same rights as people. All wealth is produced by the working class: most of it gets stolen by the capitalist class. When a bank forecloses on a home – or helps steal native land for the Olympics – it is imposing private property rights over those of people. Breaking a window, or even blowing up an empty bank branch, is hardly commensurate.

However, this doesn’t mean that violence is an appropriate political response. The problem is that most people are scared of violence. This is partly because the media is full of commentators denouncing anyone who takes any form of action beyond signing a petition, and partly because being violent doesn’t resonate with most people’s experiences. In a country like Canada, capitalist rule doesn’t rely on direct, physical violence. It relies on social violence, bureaucratic rules, a respect for authority instilled at school and work, distraction by the media, consumer goods bought on credit – there are many, many ways to establish “consent”  without being tasered. So when workers hear about violence, the first response is not going to be “What a great blow against this horrible system!” but “Luckily the thin blue line is there to protect me from all the thugs and hooligans I hear every day that I’m supposed to be afraid of.”

Activists can’t assume that everyone agrees with their anti-capitalist analysis. People need to be convinced  first. And that means fighting on the terrain that currently exists: non-violent action. Violence is bad: we’re socialists because we think capitalism is the most violent system ever invented and we want to live in a peaceful world where war, famine and unemployment don’t exist. We understand that when the working class moves into action, the powers-that-be respond violently and we have every right to fight back. But right now the vast majority of Canadians are passive and scared for the future.

One of the great things about mass mobilizations is they create a space for dialogue. People can encounter opinions they’ve never heard before, in an environment with a collective sense of strength in numbers. Small acts of violence, however morally justified, cut that space for dialogue off. The question changes from “How do we rebuild the fragmented left movement?” to how to recover from a tear gas attack, who to call when you get arrested, and so on. Plus it lets the mainstream media – whose very existence revolves around finding conflict – focus on the broken Starbucks window, rather than how the G20 governments are forcing workers to pay for the economic crisis. Violence puts the left off-message.

If FFFC-Ottawa is real, they’re playing into the hands of the people they oppose. A bank bombing allows the media and police to focus on the violence of the left, rather than the much larger, systemic violence of capitalism. All activism can be portrayed as violence, scaring away those who might be open to our message but don’t want to bomb buildings. It lets the police justify more draconian tactics to “protect the public.” In short, the bombers are either effective, if uncreative, agents-provocateurs or naive radicals who need a lesson in strategy. The real left, Marxist and anarchist, should have nothing to do with them.

This is a slightly revised version of a piece that was originally posted in the blog section of the New Socialist website on May 22.