A Response to Judy Rebick
The Black Bloc and the 21st Century anti-Colonial Movement at the Olympics
Judy Rebick, from her office in downtown Toronto, complained that “when a spontaneous anger against the Black Bloc emerged on social media, people berated us for ‘dividing the movement.’” She says that, in fact, “it is the Black Bloc that is dividing the movement.”
She is wrong.
I have been involved in a wide array of coalitions on various issues over the past half-decade, and never have I witnessed cross-movement solidarity like I have in the anti-Olympics campaign. In southern Ontario, as in Vancouver, radical groups from a variety of locations in the broader movement have come together to start to develop a shared anti-colonial analysis. This solidarity and unity, on the anti-colonial front, is deeper and stronger now than it has been at any point in the last ten years.
A strong example of that solidarity was on display during the February 12th “Take Back Our City” march. That march saw upwards of 2000 people march on BC Place during the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games. That march was lead by Indigenous women. When the march reached the police line outside of BC Place that night, the cops started pushing and shoving the front line of the stalled march. Indigenous women called for the Black Bloc to move to the front to hold the line. When the elders amongst that leadership group decided that the crush from the police was too much, the Black Bloc made space for them to move to the back of the crowd.
21st century anti-colonial analysis is one that is able to identify commonalities between the struggles of the urban poor and those of Indigenous sovereigntists. Where colonization is ongoing against First Nations, we are also able to see gentrification and the criminalization of homelessness and poverty as a form of urban colonialism. In Vancouver (and elsewhere) there is often no distinction between Indigenous soverigntists and the urban poor; they are often the same people.
This 21st century analysis is finally moving beyond political philosophies rooted in 19th and 20th century Eurocentric intellectual traditions (such as those fostered by anarcho-socialists like Mick Sweetman of Common Cause in Ontario, who still choose to see the world through the lenses of an industrial workers struggle). This new anti-colonialism is one that seeks to push out the old colonial patterns of European intellectualism to make space for fundamentally different cultural ideas rooted in places other than Europe.
This 21st century analysis is moving beyond the empty rhetoric of “revolutionary acts.” We no longer wish to seize the machinery of the State to use it for our own ends; we wish to see it dismantled, to be replaced by something other than a new Euro-American colonialism. A better world than that is possible, but it cannot come about until we move beyond the dominant paradigms of our culture. Statism and white supremacy must be resigned to the dustbins of history.
Part of the strength of the anti-Olympic campaign, as a watershed for the new anti-colonial movement, has been the solidarity and unity around a “diversity of tactics.” Part of that solidarity is rooted in the idea that you cannot attack one part of the movement without attacking the whole. When we remember to defend each other, we also remember to work together to build the movement and our communities. This cannot be done by succumbing to the classic colonial tactic of divide and conquer. Diversity of tactics means that one day we smash the system and the next we build alternatives. The Black Block is a wrecking ball tactic that makes space for more mainstream or creative tactics. The anarchists who participate in the Bloc are for the most part solid community organizers and people who are at the forefront of making space for creative alternatives to capitalism and colonialism. A diversity of tactics is meant to be complimentary—different tactics demonstrate different values and objectives, and all must be viewed in sum.
The highlight of the anti-Olympic convergence in Vancouver, for me, has been to see a coming together and mutual solidarity between Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) and Indigenous sovereigntists (and their allies)—two demographics whom have been especially under attack by the Olympic and State machines. In fact, on the streets of Vancouver, increasingly it would appear that the sovereigntists and the anti-poverty activists are often the same people.
Working as allies, not just in a supporting role, have been a wide array of activists from many sectors. Prominent amongst the organizers in the Olympic Resistance Network (ORN) and throughout the convergence have indeed been anarchists who participated in the Black Bloc actions during the “Heart Attack” march on February 13 2010.
What Judy Rebick, and many other critics who have had little to do with the anti-Olympic movement, have entirely failed to notice is the fact that the Black Bloc was supported by almost every constituency of the ORN. This show of solidarity was not divisive—it brought us together and has built deep trust between activists who, in the past, have often had very little to say to each other.
Organizations that were publicly represented include (or had individual members present and unmasked): No One Is Illegal, the Council of Canadians, PETA, the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), StopWar.ca, Gatewaysucks, the Vancouver Anti-Poverty Committee, Food Not Bombs, and many more. None of those organizations have denounced the actions of the Black Bloc that day. And they can’t, because their members know that on that day, they were there to support the Black Bloc. Anyone who says that they didn’t know what was going to happen is lying. There were 200 people in black with masks on, and “Riot 2010” has been a rallying call for the movement for more than two years now. Everyone knew what was going to happen, and they all marched anyway.
For Judy Rebick to claim that the Black Bloc had “come into the middle of a demonstration with black face masks [to] break up whatever takes their fancy when the vast majority of people involved don’t want them to,” is either dishonest, or a sign that she has stopped paying attention to what actually happens on the ground. The Black Bloc is not dividing the movement—people with aspirations for mainstream acceptance who distance themselves from other activists are.
Judy Rebick is going to have to decide whether she wants to be a celebrity, acceptable to the CBC and their mainstream audience, or work on the ground with people who are fed up with capitalism, with colonialism, and also with the paralyzing cult of non-violence. It is time to realize that there are people who are ready to fight back, and that it is time to support them.
After the police clashed with the Bloc that day, and affinity groups were forced to scatter (the Black Bloc doesn’t do peaceful arrests—the tactic dictates mutual protection from the police instead), the majority of the “non-violent” marchers continued in support. Some of them allowed themselves to be arrested by the frustrated police. Blaming anyone other than the police for the conduct of the police is merely a legitimization of the police presence on our streets—it would be like blaming the poor for the criminalization of homelessness. I expect people to know better. Cops are no more than armed thugs-for-hire.
In fact, the willingness of unarmed activists to battle with heavily armed riot cops, in order to de-arrest people they may have never met before and may never be able to identify, is one of the strongest forms of solidarity I have ever witnessed. We have to be willing to physically protect our own communities, no matter the cost, by any means necessary.
This is the type of message that the Black Bloc sends. The point is that we don’t need or want your cops or your capitalist colonial system. The point of such actions is not to convince bystanders or any particular audience to join us in the streets. The point is to put people on notice that there exists active insurrectionary resistance, right here in the belly of the beast.
For Judy Rebick to suggest that Black Bloc tactics “put other people and the issues we are fighting for in jeopardy,” is just preposterous. The mass audiences that dismissed the “Heart Attack” march are consistently the same mass audiences who generally dismiss every form of direct action and every radical cause. Judy may be too used to her celebrity status to notice, but most people aren’t paying attention to start with. So-called “nonviolent direct action”, with rare exceptions, is also summarily dismissed by most people, most of the time. They want us to go through so-called proper channels, not understanding that the system exists to perpetuate itself, not to accommodate change or the empowerment of communities under attack. Begging the government for change merely legitimizes their claim to be the rightful authority over land and people. Too many, enamoured with the cult of nonviolence, have too easily parroted the conservative media narratives that so predictably hamper our movements.
Further, it is not unity under a commitment to a “diversity of tactics” that stifles debate within our movement—that is what we call solidarity. It is a zealous adherence to dogmatic “non-violence” that shuts down any meaningful dialogue.
An important point that nobody seems to have picked up on, is that the targeting of the Hudson’s Bay Company actually opened up space for Canadians to stop and think about the colonial history of HBC, if only briefly. Those citizens still capable of critical thought were left with little choice.
Two days after the “Heart Attack” march, there was an anti-poverty march which was attended by many liberals and so-called progressives—MP Libby Davies, for example. A group broke off from that march, hopped the fence to an empty lot (owned by condo developers, under lease by VANOC) and cut the locks from the gates, opening them up for people to set up the Olympic Tent Village which will still stand at least until the end of the Olympics. Many activists who participated in the Black Bloc at “Heart Attack” have been there ever since, volunteering almost around the clock cooking meals, working security shifts, helping set up tents and keeping them dry, working the medic tent, organizing new actions with members of the DTES community, etc., etc. Meanwhile, more liberal folks (like Dave Eby of the BCCLA) showed up once or twice for photo ops without ever setting foot inside the camp or talking to any of the people without homes whom they build their careers speaking on behalf of.
It is not the champions of civil liberties, the democratic reformers or academics who are down at the Olympic Tent Village. While they are in their offices, it is community organizers and radicals who are on the ground working side by side with neighbourhood residents, participating in real community building. At the Tent Village the State machine has been shut out from the site. Inside, residents of the DTES are rising up.
I’ve been at the front gate doing security, for more hours than I have not, over the past ten days. In that time many conversations with Vancouverites or Olympic tourists who pass by have turned to discussions of the “violence” on the 13th. I have watched multiple individuals take off their HBC red mittens and toss them in the garbage. While these people may not take any further action, in the face of the gross poverty on the DTES, they had no choice but to be ashamed. It was the broken windows which identified HBC’s Olympic merchandise as an appropriate symbol to bear that shame.
Stella August, an Indigenous elder and a member of the DTES Power of Women group has publicly defended the Black Bloc’s actions during “Heart Attack.” Those who have chosen to denounce the action without any appreciation of the dynamics on the ground in Vancouver should be just as ashamed as the people wearing those mittens.
People and communities are under attack and it is time to fight back. If you’re not willing to stand up and fight, or to support those who are, please at least get out of the way.