On riots, disruptive protests, civil disobedience, etc.


There is no point in pandering to the biases, if not outright malice, of those with power and wealth who tear off their delicate garments condemning the rioting actions in Ferguson — or of those less wealthy and less powerful who gladly drink their kool aid. And that is when these actions have been indeed willfully taken by regular people, rather than being cop-staged provocations (more frequent than one would want to believe).

That historically alienated, disenfranchised, poor people will resist and fight oppression with the ideas and tools more ready at their disposal, however imperfect they may be, should surprise nobody. At least the protesters are unleashing a righteous rage, fighting in whichever way they can, and thus demonstrating that the core of their humanity (their unwillingness to accept their condition passively) has not been completely crushed by the weight of their poverty, powerlessness, and alienation. Neither should surprise anybody to realize that their actions, while perhaps effective at disrupting the ordinary business of social life, are seldom capable of leading to the reconstruction and reorganization of social institutions in ways more responsive to their needs.

This is why, whenever one supports them and personally engages in these struggles — and to that extent only! — one should emphasize the need to raise the political, intellectual, and organizational level of these protests. Again, breaking windows, burning tires, blocking or diverting traffic, confronting cops on the street may or may not be useful tactics in disrupting business as usual. But disrupting business as usual is one thing, while rebuilding (and reorganizing) social life is quite another one. The reorientation of the political and economic life of this society (and this is what we are truly after if we are to fight causes and not just alleviate symptoms) requires a sustained focus on self organization, self education, and targeted political action, action ultimately aimed at controlling the allocation of wealth and power, directly (democratically) shaping up the political and economic choices that impact our lives.

I have often heard the argument that without civil disruption, without throwing things into disarray, burning cars, and breaking windows, no progress is possible for the colored masses, working people, etc.; that the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s achieved its ends (the legal enfranchisement of Black people) by massive disruptive actions, by disobeying unjust laws, etc. This is only partly true. It is true that the changes were imposed on the political establishment, in the sense that the establishment decided that the costs of civil disorder were starting to mount and become relatively large. However, the changes in legislation were not implemented by a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. No, they were enacted by the existing government, a president (Lyndon B Johnson), a Congress, and a judiciary who remained committed to the interest of big wealth. The proof of this is that the legal conquests then achieved have been gradually sabotaged, eroded, and rolled back through a series of endless political trickery, gerrymandering, ID laws, and other more or less refined forms of disenfranchisement. In fact (and this is not meant to downplay its practical importance in the lives of regular people), the legislation was designed to pacify and demobilize, not to fuel the initiative of the masses, to empower them. This is a crucial difference.

We don’t want the political establishment to concede to us, to grant us this or that concession more or less generously, while the vertical structure in which they grant and we receive stays intact. No, we want to take the whole thing over, in fact we want to dismantle the existing political establishment, take it apart, and then reorganize our political life anew, in a direct democratic way. We cannot achieve this goal by merely resisting, by protesting and rioting, as loudly and disruptively as we may wish. No, we can only achieve the goal by taking power, by appropriating the productive wealth of society, by choosing how such wealth is to be allocated, and by seeing to it that our choices are carried out to completion. Taking power is not just taking some elected office, but to have the organization, the ability to implement the required changes in our political and economic lives. This is not to renounce in general to the tactics of civil disobedience, disruptive protest, etc., but only to see that these tactics can only be justified if they contribute to the build up of the kind of political power that we need in order to take over and restructure society.

To be more concrete: A lot of the patient work that needs to be carried out consists of quiet organizing, engagement with co-workers, school classmates, neighbors, of collective discussion, reflection, and study, of preparation, participation and engagement in local governance, school boards, neighborhood organizations, town or city affairs. As this organization progresses and faces bigger legal and political obstacles, the need to broaden its political scope and steel its ambitions becomes an organic need. Every injustice, every demonstration of the irrationality and destructiveness of the existing social order is to be used to strengthen and solidify the will to fight, in this organized and disciplined way, not just to overthrow the things that exist, but to remake society and make it more fitting of our needs and higher aspirations.

Disruptive protests are valid tools in our struggle. We must reserve the right to use them as necessary. They need no justification against the hypocrisy and duplicity of the acolytes of the status quo. But their fetishization, the conflation of necessity with virtue, gets in the way of our political progress.


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