As even the Russian state news service admits, the ongoing revolt in Nicaragua against Daniel Ortega’s government is coming largely from the left side of the political spectrum. While supporters of the authoritarian left exhort people to support “left” governments no matter what neoliberal policies they implement or how many people they slaughter, we believe that the declining fortunes of left governments throughout Latin America are not just the consequences of CIA conspiracies but a reaction to real shortcomings of the institutional left and of government itself. Doubtless, various capitalists and state actors have their own agendas for Nicaragua, and they hope to take advantage of the uprising to implement them. But ordinary people have legitimate reasons to rise up. We should identify the participants in the uprising who are pursuing goals complementary to our vision of a world without capitalism and the state, in order direct our solidarity towards them. Otherwise, as the Ortega government attempts to retain power by brute force, the revolt will likely be hijacked by right-wing and colonial interests.
While students were discussing what demands to make in the negotiations with Ortega, Dissensus Nicaragua published a translation of the CrimethInc. text “Why We Don’t Make Demands” in Spanish. The negotiations have broken down. Now the crisis is intensifying, with students continuing to occupy universities while the police continue killing people and Ortega refuses to back down. In the following report, our Nicaraguan correspondent outlines some of the tensions within the uprising and presents an eyewitness report from inside one of these occupied universities.
I am part of the affinity group that created sosnicaraguareporte.com, in Spanish. It includes a timelime and all sorts of information. It’s a good place for news. There is even a meme section!
As of this writing, over 100 people have been murdered by the state and the police in the uprising in Nicaragua. The majority have been students. On Mother’s Day in Nicaragua, May 30, there was a Mother’s Day march. This march broke all records for participation. The state police and Sandinista Youth attacked the march, killing 11 and injuring 79 all over Nicaragua.
We have not been able to discuss all the questions we would like to. Things are messy and changing constantly, and we are not the majority. Nevertheless, I will try to describe the situation.
We can see some tensions inside the movement. The most noticeable are the following:
The Private Sector vs. the Autovoncado Movements
The Autoconvocado movement (the coalition of student organizers and community organizers, independent from the Coalition of Students and Representatives in the dialogue) has been supporting a general strike as a way to escalate the situation and put more pressure on the government to negotiate and stop the killings. The private sector (which employs dozens of thousands of people and holds a lot of wealth and political power) has not advocated for a general strike, supposedly to avoid economic losses. As a consequence, for example, the city of Masaya organized autonomously and declared, independent of the private sector, that they would conduct a citywide general strike. That strike occurred and was violently repressed. Up to now, Masaya is the most dangerous and most affected city in Nicaragua, with over 10 people murdered by the police over last weekend.
Student Movements and the Student Coalition
There is very strong communication between the student movement and the Student Coalition that is representing the movement at the level of dialogue with the state. But many participants in the student movement feel that the Student Coalition is being very soft and diplomatic. The Coalition is a group of student organizers from multiple universities all over Nicaragua; they are the ones representing the movement in the negotiations with the state. The student organizers that form the coalition emerged from affinity groups that were created at the beginning of the student protests. I don’t know exactly how they got so much power—it was a combination of being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people. These students were the first ones to present themselves as leaders.
So the power distribution is very vague and there are instances when they have been accused of selling out. The Student Coalition representatives are the ones who release the communiqués and plans of action, and the ones who talk to the press the most. Nevertheless, it is possible for student dissidents to claim that the Coalition does not represent them and to provide a different set of demands and methods.
There are also complaints that the Student Coalition does not offer space for anyone’s voices besides those of men when it comes to delegating the responsibilities.
The participant in the Student Coalition that comes closest to our perspective is probably Enrieth Martínez.
A lot of the power and decision-making process has been focused on students in Managua, since the capital has been the site of the major manifestations and occupied universities. But the cities that have been affected the most have been outside of Managua—cities that don’t have a university campus, where the residents are defending themselves through citywide barricades and something like a general strike. There is no effective communication among people in the different cities, since the strategy has been to block all major roads and transportation. At the table of the dialogue with the state, there are no representatives from the cities that are affected the most. Here is where several groups have advocated for self-governance and self-administration as a way to take the decision-making power out of Managua.
The first and most prominent critiques of the government and the state arose from feminists. Since the 1980s, feminists have critiqued the hierarchical and patriarchal aspects of the Sandinista Movement. In a famous speech by Daniel Ortega on International Women’s day at the peak of the Sandinista Revolution, Ortega said that the revolutionary duty of women was to give birth to the next generation of revolutionaries. This showed how the revolution viewed women and women’s participation in everything. It has been feminists who have critiqued the state as connected to machista and religious culture in Nicaragua and Latin America. It has been feminists who have denounced hierarchies in the family, in politics, in culture, and in the state. It has also been women who have constantly said that the war against the people did not start on April 19, it started way before, but it was carried out against rural women and indigenous people in Nicaragua.
On the Question of Capitalism
People need to understand that the Nicaraguan people are sacrificing economic stability for social justice. Nicaragua was perceived as safe, an economic paradise for investment, but this only came about through the centralization of political power. Like Vietnam and China, a single-party centralized government has been an incentive to draw private investors.
Nicaragua’s economic stability, which took 10 years to build, only benefitted the upper middle class and the upper class. This created a false sense of “progress,” “development,” and “stability,” all of which the government celebrated. In reality, most of the people worked in informal sectors and did not have access to jobs. In this sense, participants in the student movement are forced to start asking questions: “OK, now I have graduated from an Autonomous University, now what? Where am I going to work? And at what price?” The vast majority of college majors and programs were “pro-market majors” focusing on business administration, engineering, computer science, marketing, tourism, and the like.
The student movements will need to address capitalism and neoliberalism and start to see how their struggle intersects with the anti-capitalist movement outside of authoritarian governments. These conversations have not started yet.
I think a lot of people are disappointed in the lack of international support towards people in Nicaragua. Americans only cared about us as long as they could come to Nicaragua to vacation and enjoy cheap things. On an international level, many of those who support the Nicaraguan insurrection are not asking hard questions about their own governments and structures. Hopefully, we can find a way to make would-be allies start addressing these questions themselves. It’s true, we are seen as a “legitimate” movement that wants “democracy” (whatever that means). If we succeed, we will see how many countries will support our efforts to collectivize, autonomize, and decentralize.
Will the United States still support us after they realize our intention to go ever further left? Will a centrist government create the conditions for more radical politics to emerge? This is a long-term plan; the Ortegas will do the best they can to stay in power at whatever cost. They would prefer to stay in power in a destroyed country than give up power in a way that leaves the country stable.
I think the conversation regarding “politicians,” “elections,” “the state,” “political participation,” and “the police” are all up in the air. It’s an opportunity to create new local concepts. After everything that has been lost—entire towns burned to the ground and children executed in the street—we will not settle for less. Whatever government comes next will need to radically change what it means to do politics.
I think we are trying everything from every possible angle, and it will be the people who will decide what best fits their spiritual needs. We are attacking state power from every angle, some angles more “institutional,” “democratic,” and “legimitate” than others, but somehow these are all complementing each other.
Unfortunately, we don’t know if we are moving forwards or backwards. We just know what the government is doing everything, desperately to survive, and every single day, they lose more support. As the saying goes, El que no critica a su gobierno, no quiere a su madre! Those who don’t criticize their government don’t love their mothers.
Appendix: Inside an Occupied University in Managua
After a week of communicating with my contact inside the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Nicaragua (UNAN), I received a message from him: “I’ll be at the main entrance in 15 minutes. I can meet you there if you want to come inside, meet everybody, and see what we’ve been up to.”
For a week, I had been participating in a support system helping the occupation at UNAN from the outside. At first, my contact, Guadalupe (a pseudonym) had advised me not come inside for fear that infiltrators might recognize me and harass me outside. But as things seemed to have settled down, I was invited in.
With about 30,000 students, UNAN is the largest public university in Nicaragua. Students have been occupying it since May 8. Every major entry is blocked by two sets of barricades, starting blocks away from the main Portones (entry gate). Each porton is guarded by at least 15 students armed with morteros (mortors).
“Dress up as a medical student and bring a med kit, just in case anybody is watching. They are less likely to be suspicious if you enter as a ‘medic,’” Guadalupe told me.
I crossed the main Porton and met Guadalupe for the first time. “Second in command” in the occupation, he is also a part of the committee representing the students in the national dialogue. He is 23 years old and a student at UNAN. Guadalupe was part of the first protest organizers inside of UNAN. Currently he divides his time between working inside and outside of UNAN, inside as a coordinator and outside as a delegate of UNAN as part of a larger student coalition.
The organization inside of UNAN involve “leaders” from different portones and sectors (Medical, Food, Supply) that meet up and negotiate responsibilities and priorities. These leaderships emerged out of the first week of occupation and were agreed upon by all. Since each porton is semi-autonomous, it can operate as a closed circuit in case of an attack, without the necessity of a top-down decision-making process that would involve the entire University. Roles were distributed by voluntary association and based around shifts so that everybody can rest. Main roles are: Guarding the barricades, sorting through donations, food, cleaning, guarding the portones, medical attention, communications and coalition participation.
Its important to note that the organization inside the occupied Universities occurred spontaneously. They did not follow a pre-established or pre-rehearsed organizational model. This model of organizing was the most efficient, participatory and democratic. Remember that young Nicaraguans did not have an “occupy movement” o something similar that could have provided the blueprint of how to organize. The only political models that were practiced were through hierarchical political parties, and ONG’s leadership training.
Here are the rules inside the gates: everybody in the University uses pseudonyms; you are not allowed to take any photos or videos of anything; if you are texting, you have to do it with your phone facing the ground. In Nicaragua, it is very common for people to use nicknames, usually derived from physical cues like La Flaca (the skinny one), El Gordo (the fat one), El Negro (the black one), La Zorra (the Fox), El Chino (the Chinese one), El Chele (the light-skinned one), El Gringo (the gringo).
Guadalupe confirmed my identity and began to show me around the university campus. Most of the muchachos (“the boys”—a word that includes girls) were busy taking over UNI, the Engineering University, so UNAN was somewhat quiet. Later that day, the police and Sandinista Youth attacked UNI, injuring 30 students and killing one of them.
We approach the geology building, which has been turned into a medical center. “This is one of the newest buildings of this University and we are protecting it, because we plan on using these facilities in the future for our education.” I see rooms full of medical supplies, and a lot of students sleeping in the hallways in sleeping bags. “Those are the muchachos from the night shift at the barricades. They sleep here during the day. Not all of them are from UNAN—some of them are neighbors that are too afraid to go back home.”
The hallways are dark and quiet, but everything is clean and organized. There are cleaning crews; students know the rules, which rooms to go into and which not to go into. “We need to protect this building. It’s the geology building. We are protecting diamonds and meteors that are worth thousands of dollars, but we want to save them for future generations to learn and study.”
The entire university is protected. You don’t see graffiti on the walls. All the classrooms are locked. The restaurants inside of the university are also protected because the occupiers don’t want the occupation to affect the small business owners who need to keep a job.
We left the building and approach one of the cooking and food collection sheds. The leader of this zone is called Aymara. She administrates the food in this section and keeps a tight record of all the food donations that come in. She distributes the food and supplies wherever they are needed the most.
What do you all do for food?
“We’re living off Gallo Pinto.” (Gallo Pinto—rice and beans—is the most popular Nicaraguan dish). “We don’t have a set time for breakfast. If the muchachos are hungry but don’t want to leave their post, we’ll send food their way. Every day, we must cook three meals for about 400 people.” The joke in Nicaragua is that we eat rice and beans for breakfast, beans with rice for lunch and Gallo Pinto for dinner.
Aymara also showed me a shed full of food, enough food for months, all of which has been donated by people all over Nicaragua. It is rationed out daily. Pointing to an immense pile of spoiled food, Aymara said “You see all that food? That’s all poisoned food. Sometimes people send us bananas with needles inside, or bread injected with rat poison. We need to double-check everything that we receive. That’s why we prioritize canned goods.”
“We also managed to jumpstart five university trucks and one tractor, which we use inside and outside of the university.”
This article does a good job describing the leadership of women inside and outside of the student movement. I studied with the author, Madeleine Caracas, and we both started out in the same organizing committee in early April.
Each porton operates semi-autonomously. Each zone has its own medical center, food center, and bomb-making center, each with a delegate in every porton. Every porton is always ready to defend itself. Two nights before my visit, an armed man on a motorcycle rapidly approached a barricade, shooting at the students. The students defended themselves with mortars and injured the motorcyclist, who destroyed his phone before the students moved him to a local hospital. He died on the way there.
This was a very confusing scenario. The man on the motorcycle underestimated the abilities of the students to defend themselves. Why would he attack the barricades by himself? Did he plan on shooting, perhaps killing, some students and then retreating? We don’t know.
Such attacks usually happen at night. Keep in mind that this university is the size of an entire neighborhood, with hundreds of buildings, classrooms, departments and soccer and basketball courts, with six different entryways. In order to add more protection at night, the barricades are moved further out of the university perimeter to create more of buffer zone.
Unlike UPOLI, UNAN does not have the support of the local community to protect them. In this sense, the students are more exposed. UNAN is neighbored by La Colonia Miguel Bonilla, which is an Orteguista neighborhood. This community was created in the 1980s during the Sandinista Revolution, and most of the houses are owned by the police, the military, and high-ranking military officials. This neighborhood was one of the military headquarters during the Somoza dictatorship, but was confiscated during the revolution and given to UNAN students for housing and to military, police, and civilians to live in. Therefore, most of the families that live inside of La Miguel Bonilla strongly support the Orteguista government as a “revolutionary government.” If you are political dissident in La Miguel Bonilla, you must keep a low profile; there have been many cases of harassment by the community towards anti-Ortega supporters. La Miguel Bonilla is also where a lot of UNAN administration officials live, the safe officials that perpetuate and institutionalize the Orteguista influence inside of the University.
The UNAN has a strong barricade in front of the entrance to La Miguel Bonilla, since a majority of the attacks have been organized inside of the neighborhood, which functions as a safe space for Orteguista forces.
What do you want to accomplish?
“We want to obtain university autonomy, a complete restructuring of UNEN [the chief Nicaraguan student union], and a complete restructuring of the internal administration of the University. Every day we spend in this university, we are sending a message to all of Nicaragua about how far we are willing to go to offer quality education for our generation and future generations.”
What does autonomy mean to you?
“It means professors not getting fired because they oppose decisions that the government has been making. It means giving access to scholarships to everybody, not just the Sandinista Youth. It means taking the Orteguista party out of the Universiy’s administration. It means studying things that matter. We need a student-centered education and not an Orteguista-centered education, and this is happening not just at the University level but also at the Primary and Secondary school education level.”
I noted Campus Security was still present in the University. I asked about their role in the university during the occupation. Guadalupe told me, “They work here because they are privately hired, so they don’t want to lose their jobs. They have helped us identity infiltrators and have been extra set of eyes and ears their own communities, to help the students. They’re on our side.”
For context, in Nicaragua, Campus Security is nothing like the police or “private security.” They do not carry weapons; they do not have the power to turn people in to the police. This job was created in the 1990s when so many revolutionaries were jobless. These jobs are done at a very low wage by very poor families, usually protecting empty lots.
What message do you have for students around the world?
“Hopefully we can inspire students to occupy their universities and start building the kind of university they want to study in.
“It’s also super important for Universities to have a good relationship with their neighborhood. That way you can involve the community in matters that affect the university and start building solidarity.”
The students I met and spoke with in UNAN seem to have developed an unbreakable bond based on solidarity that crosses gender and class backgrounds. They appear willing to die for each other and to protect the future they believe in. They have spent over three weeks building barricades, conspiring, living together, and protecting each other, forever changing what it means to be a student in Nicaragua.
What comes next? Will other forces intervene in Nicaragua to maintain and intensify neoliberalism? Or will the rebellion expand its scope and analysis to take on the forces beyond the Ortega regime?
We spoke with the world-famous hacker persona and self-proclaimed anarchist revolutionary Phineas Fisher about the politics behind their attacks on the surveillance industry, the ruling party in Turkey, and the Catalan police. Here follows a retrospective on the exploits of Phineas Fisher, followed by their remarks to us.
Text and interview by BlackBird.
Hacking is often depicted as something technical, a simple matter of attack and defense. Yet motivations are everything. The same technique that builds oppressive tools can be used as a weapon for emancipation. Hacking, in its purest form, is not about engineering: it is about leveraging power dynamics by short-circuiting technology. It is direct action for the new digital world we all live in.
In the shadows of the techno-empire, the hacking scene became a target for cooptation and infiltration. But the underground cannot be eradicated: from time to time, a new action breaks through the surface. Some of the hackers we admire are coders who produce tools for online privacy and anonymity. Other crews create and distribute alternative media. And then there are those who hack back.
The Lost Hacker Circles
It is no secret, for anyone paying attention, that for a long time the hacker underground was also taking sides in the ongoing war. Yet the effervescence that characterized the underground DIY scene of the past few decades has died down, or at least receded to less visible places.
Pessimists mourned the death of hacker communities in a proliferation of individual desertions. It is true that the techno-military complex succeeded in swelling the ranks of the mercenaries: there is a price at which a particular mindset can be bought, whether with money, success, the feeling of power, or the excitement of playing with fancy toys while chasing what state propaganda labels “the enemy.”
The underground sought to multiply zones of opacity and resistance, while public perception shifted towards normalizing the relationship between the hacker attitude and technology. Hackers were no longer seen as rebel teenagers producing chaos in a casual game (as depicted by movies from the eighties or nineties like War Games or Hackers), but as a highly specialized unit of the military occupation forces—or else as their comic-book-level villain counterparts. In the most depoliticized version, the term “hacker” is understood as just another name for the capitalist entrepreneur, a myth you can find in the “hackerspaces” of any gentrified city.
The surveillance industry was so proud of its business that it did not bother concealing it. Representatives of the armed forces and vendors of spy programs showed up regularly at hacker community events, openly recruiting talent. Commercial videos pitching “offensive security” tactics circulated openly, selling products to intelligence agencies, corporations, and governments.
It’s an old story: states buy legitimacy in the eyes of the public by portraying themselves as fighting the kinds of crime very few dare to discuss—child pornography, human trafficking, international terrorism. But as soon as they have the surveillance weapons in their arsenals, they direct these weapons against the entire population.
In the middle of this ongoing cooptation of the hacker world, the surveillance complex experienced an important yet invisible blow. An individual—or perhaps a group—fought back by hacking spyware companies and publishing the contents of their secret vaults. When you’re fighting an industry that depends on secrecy, publicly disclosing their internal communications and tools can be a very effective strategy.
The GammaGroup Hack
In August 2014, a hack took place against “GammaGroup,” an Anglo-German vendor of spy programs. A dump of 40Gb of information followed. After this hack, there were no more secrets about GammaGroup: everything was made public, including their clients, product catalog, price lists, and the programs themselves, along with their training manuals.
The star product of the company, a program named “FinFisher,” had been sold to more than 30 government agencies and police forces to spy on journalists, activists, and dissidents. The company had been infecting dissidents in Bahrain and Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring. They usually used social engineering to trick their targets into installing the software.
A targeted dissident would click on a document attached to an email, or open a link that would install the spyware. From there on, the clients who bought the spyware from the company would have control over the infected computer or cellphone, monitoring microphones, voice and Skype calls, messages, and emails, not to mention continuous location tracking.
Immediately after the hack, someone began tweeting from an account posing as the Gamma PR. The info dump was not enough: a hacker going by PhineasFisher released an old-school text file containing a tutorial with the details of the attack on Gamma:
“I’m not writing this to brag about what an 31337 h4x0r I am and what m4d sk1llz it took to 0wn Gamma. I’m writing this to demystify hacking, to show how simple it is, and to hopefully inform and inspire you to go out and hack shit… I wanted to show that the Gamma Group hack really was nothing fancy, and that you do have the ability to go out and take similar action.”
The name of that phile was “HackBack—A DIY Guide for those without the patience to wait for whistleblowers.” For a gravely wounded hacker community, in which the original solidarity, freedom, and open exchange of information was losing ground against the commodification of knowledge by the market and the empire, this action was a breath of fresh air. And—perhaps—the beginning of a movement.
“You want more. You have to hack your target. You have to overcome encryption and capture relevant data, being stealth [sic] and untraceable. Exactly what we do.”
You can hear these words in the commercial for a product called “Da Vinci,” a “remote control system” that was sold worldwide by an Italian company named “Hacking Team.”
A company so shamelessly called “Hacking Team” is what results when a local police department approaches two hackers of a mercenary mindset with a request for collaboration. The cybercrime unit of Milan’s police force decided that passive monitoring was not enough for their purposes; to fulfill their offensive needs, they asked Alor and Naga, two famous Italian hackers, for help modifying a well-known hacking tool that they had originally authored.
Who their clients were and how they managed to infect and spy on their victims remained a secret until July 5, 2015. That day, the twitter account for the company announced: “As we have nothing to hide, we are publishing all our e-mails, files, and source code,” providing links to more than 400 Gigabytes of data. As usual, the company initially claimed that the leak was comprised of false information, but forging such a tremendous amount of data would be an almost impossible feat.
The ones who suspected that the attack had a familiar signature were not wrong: the sarcastic nickname of Phineas Fisher was once again behind the disclosure.
By publishing all the internal information—and, later, another tutorial exploring technical details and political motivations—Phineas Fisher offered the world undeniable evidence about the operations of the 70 customers of Hacking Team. Most of these customers were military, police forces, and federal and provincial governments; the total revenue added up to over 40 million Euros. You can read the full list of customers here.
This info dump confirmed that there were very good reasons for the global demand for privacy and anonymity. Alongside the Snowden revelations, the ability to peek into HackingTeam’s dirty secrets gave us an idea of the magnitude of the campaign of targeted surveillance being carried out by governments and corporations. We know today that there are many other unscrupulous firms profiting from illegal spy operations—such as the Israel-based NSO Group, recently involved in targeted infection of the devices of journalists investigating the Iguala massacre in Mexico, which used base tricks to lure their victims into compromising their own devices.
This anonymous unmasking of HackingTeam was a brilliant operation with global repercussions.
A business like Hacking Team depends on secrecy. To infect their targets, in many of the cases something called a “zero day”1 is used. A zero day is a vulnerability in a computer program that has not been publicly disclosed yet, which can be exploited by anyone who knows about it to attack computer programs, data, or networks, in many cases offering complete remote control over them. Recently, surveillance capitalism has created a net of companies that act as brokers, buying these vulnerabilities in black and gray markets. The price for a single zero day can range from $10k to $300k or even $1 million.
Spyware companies like Hacking Team “weaponize” these vulnerabilities, gluing several of them together and selling licenses to the forces of repression so they can simply “click and spy,” with the added possibility of custom developments for penetrating the systems that belong to chosen victims.
The window of opportunity to take advantage of these “zero days” gets shorter over time. The more you use the knowledge of an unknown vulnerability, the higher the chances that someone will notice the attack and start investigating the holes that allowed it, and the higher the likelihood that other groups will find the same holes. The opportunity to use the vulnerabilities ends when the software in the user’s device is patched to fix the errors: this is why it is so important to keep our devices up to date. However, there are cases in which the manufacturers of our devices make the update procedure difficult or even impossible.
Vulnerability brokers and spyware vendors make it possible for technically incompetent people to infect, spy, and exfiltrate data from their targets just by filling forms and clicking around a web application. We saw this when we were able to dissect software like XKeyscore or Hacking Team’s Galileo suite.
The irony is that selling dumb-proof spy tools to the cops can give you a false sense of security. Phineas found that the compromised systems were using absolutely lame passwords such as “P4ssword,” “wolverine,” or “universo.” No one is free from the basic rules of operational security!
Hack the Planet! Erdogan and Rojava
Another advantage of cyberspace is that you do not have to travel to attack a target on the other side of the world. You do not even have to get out of bed, although often that is a good idea in order to keep a balanced mind.
“I hacked AKP,” Phineas announced in 2016 after having breached the servers of the ruling Turkish party. A dump of more than 100GB of AKP files and emails was passed on to the revolutionary forces in Kurdistan. Phineas had to hurry because Wikileaks published the information before he even finished downloading all the data.
Information is not the only thing that arrived in Kurdistan thanks to hacking actions: Phineas also exploited a vulnerability in the security systems of an undisclosed bank and sent 10,000 euros in bitcoin to Rojava Plan, a group coordinating international solidarity with the autonomous region of Rojava.
Mossos and Scapegoats
In May 2016, after watching the documentary “Ciutat Morta,” Phineas thought about trying a simple attack on the Catalan Police Forces. Ciutat Morta is a film about the 4F case, a famous case in the history of the Spanish state in which repressive forces tortured and imprisoned several young people from South America as an act of revenge after a policeman was put into a coma by the impact of a stone following a police charge in downtown Barcelona.
As a result of this new hacking action, using a well-known vulnerability, Phineas defaced the website of the union of the Catalan police with an ironic manifesto declaring that the organization “was refounded as a union in favor of human rights.” A data dump with personal details of some 5000 police accounts appeared, along with a 40-minute video tutorial on the techniques used in the hack.
Shortly afterwards, the police carried out several raids on social centers and hacklabs in Barcelona, then claimed to have caught the famous hacker. Only hours later, journalists reported that the same person had contacted them to say that “he was alive and well” and that the police forces had only imprisoned a scapegoat who happened to have retweeted the info in the dumps.
But Who Is This Phineas Phisher, Really?
One of the most interesting consequences of the Phineas Fisher actions is the look you see in the eyes of your fellow hackers when you discuss the topic with them. Chileans will tell you that Phineas is obviously a Latino. Squatters in Barcelona swear that the tone is familiar. Italians will do the same. US-Americans think she or he speaks like one of them. And then there is the commonsense assumption that, like any good hacker, Phineas must be Russian—one of those Russians who speaks surprisingly good Spanish.
There is indeed something familiar in the actions of this ghost: a deep sense of justice and internationalism, and the feeling that his actions will continue to remain under the radar, because—just as inthe past—nobody could believe that a person living an otherwise ordinary life could be the mind behind such deeds.
The truth is, no one cares—except for the cops, who are having a hard time identifying this persona despite all their adversarial modeling paraphernalia and stylistic analysis tools. We don’t care about the identity of the person who does these things. It doesn’t matter, in the end: when that identity is burned, a new one will appear. Once you ditch the cult of personality, you suddenly gain a lot of freedom.
What we do care about is that, whoever it is, it is one of us, and his actions help us to realize our power.
These direct actions show that, while a lot of effort and dedication might sometimes be needed to cultivate a concrete skillset, most of the time nothing extraordinary is strictly needed. Perhaps you are not particularly technically inclined, but you might be good with people: often, that is the only thing that is needed to pull off an awesome hack. Or you might not come from a technical background, but a determined and playful perseverance can achieve more than any formal training when it comes to making a breach in the realm of cubicle bureaucrats that only care about enforcing policy.
Security is not an absolute quality; there will never be an absolute power in cyberspace. Quoting Phineas: “That’s the beauty and asymmetry of hacking: with 100 hours of work, one person can undo years of work by a multi-million dollar company. Hacking gives the underdog a chance to fight and win.”
The actions of a humble but motivated hacker can go further than the big, inflated egos of the cyber-security industry, or the academics who do not dare to act outside of the box. It’s not always the big hacks that change reality: someone who learns how to stay anonymous, someone who is not afraid and keeps the discipline needed not to leak personal details already has a huge advantage. Not having an ego to feed is also crucial in the business of keeping one’s personal freedom.
Eventually, Phineas Fisher went silent. “I killed the accounts because I had nothing else to say.” And probably it was enough. Sometimes a little action is all that is needed to shift the collective mood, to render us aware of our own power.
Epilogue: Silent Years of Expropriation to Come
Phineas Fisher is dead. It was more than a name: the tip of an underground network of practices and desires. It was not one, but several actions. Cybernetic guerrilla: hit and hide.
However, as anyone who wrote to the hackback email can report, Phineas is still enjoying freedom these days. Engaging in charming conversation, he or she will demonstrate that state does not have absolute control. As he likes to repeat: it is still possible to attack the system and get away with it.
Phineas has kept himself busy. He enjoys talking from the shadows about his new occupation. As he told us:
“Expropriation has some material effects, but it really is an ideological weapon. The rules of this system are not immutable facts, but rules imposed by a minority, and rules that we can question, change, and even break. When someone robs a bank, the State spends huge resources investigating it, not because it makes any economical sense to spend 100k while investigating a 3k robbery, but they spend it because it protects the shared illusion of private property. They try to wipe out that rebel spirit that plays outside of their rules.”
“You don’t need computer science studies to be able to participate in what the former NSA chief Keith Alexander refers to as responsible for the greatest transfer of wealth in the world’s history. In this big project, most of the work is not done by hackers, but by lay people, those who know how to find addresses where to receive post and parcels, how to use a fake ID in a convincing way, and how to use a burner phone. Those are all the skills you need to open a cellphone contract, open bank accounts and ask for loans, make online purchases and receive them. Everyone can learn how to use the Tor Browser and bitcoin, and participate in the darknet markets. Mafia and organized crime acknowledged this change, but anarchists open to illegalism and expropiation did not yet realize that we are not in the pre-internet world anymore, and that there are better tactics than robbing a bank with a gun. We are living an unique moment in history, and we have a great opportunity.”
Indeed we do. Long life to hacking, and to all silent expropriations to come.
To learn more about software vulnerabilities and government cyberwar, watch the documentary Zero Days about the “Stuxnet” affair. ↩
What is an anarchist game? Is it a game that promotes anarchist values? A game that depicts anarchist activities? A game that subverts and destabilizes power structures? What can gaming theory teach anarchists—and what can anarchists teach through games? To explore these and other questions, we conducted the following interview with TL, game designer and artist of Bloc by Bloc: The Insurrection Game.
—Why do you think creative activity is important for anarchists?
Creative resistance is one of the essential elements of a thriving anarchist movement. Play and imagination allow for the kind of experimentation that can reveal cracks in the systems of control. Anarchists need to be able to imagine other worlds and other forms of life in order to position their activities in opposition to this one. When creativity is allowed to flourish in anarchist spaces, it’s easier to neutralize stifling and toxic modes of social organization.
—Is Bloc by Bloc just a form of entertainment? Or are there other dimensions to the project and what you hope it will accomplish in the world?
Bloc by Bloc is a tabletop game that simulates the urban rebellions that we have seen in cities around the world over the past 10 or 15 years. The goal of this project is to produce a fun and educational gaming experience. I don’t want to pretend this is anything more than that. That’s one of the reasons the graphics in Bloc by Bloc are playful, reminiscent of colorful cartoons. It’s important that we don’t take the project too seriously or overstate its political impact. That would be misleading and disrespectful to everyone who has been out there in the streets in real struggles that have real consequences.
But games can be powerful tools for exploring complex ideas. That’s one of the main reasons I continue to work in this medium.
When we play games, we create stories out of the interaction between players, game mechanics, and components. The best games craft rich and emergent stories that change each time we play them. These stories mirror archetypical narratives that we find throughout society. This is why games can feel so meaningful: they create a temporary space in which we can safely explore the stories that define our lives. This space is referred to as “the magic circle.”
Bloc by Bloc creates a magic circle in which players can explore stories of contemporary revolt and resistance. It’s a response and a challenge to the ubiquitous narratives of colonization, industrialization, statecraft, authoritarian hero-worship, and chauvinist violence that dominate much of tabletop gaming—and digital gaming even more so. In this way, it can be understood as an anarchist intervention in the world of gaming.
—Does Bloc by Bloc have antecedents? What were your points of reference when you were designing it?
A group of us first started brainstorming ideas for an insurrection board game in the summer of 2010. None of us were experienced gamers; we had very little to draw on in terms of antecedents. Our points of reference were the struggles and insurrections we had been following very closely. The uprising initiated by a teachers strike in Oaxaca, Mexico during the second half of 2006 had a major impact on these early conversations that would eventually shape the contours of what we now call Bloc by Bloc. The youth revolt that spread across all of Greece following the police murder of the young anarchist Alexis Grigoropolous in the Exarcheia neighborhood of Athens in December 2008 was another point of inspiration. Here in Oakland, the protests and riots in response to a white police officer killing a young Black man named Oscar Grant in January 2009 gave us firsthand experience with some of the ways these moments can unfold.
Based on these recent historical events, we stitched together the general framework for the game. We knew that all the players would need to be factions of the insurrection and that the game would somehow play the role of the state. We also decided that the game would be a race against time until the military or some kind of federal force intervened to reestablish order. And finally, we came up with a list of actions that players should be able to take: barricading, looting, occupying, and clashing with police. This laid the foundation for the game; all of these ideas are central to Bloc by Bloc 8 years later. Probably due to our limited knowledge of game mechanics and theories of gaming, we didn’t get very far in the actual game development process back in 2010. “The Insurrection Game,” as we called it at the time, sat on the shelf for years. It wasn’t until after another round of even larger uprisings around the world between 2011 and 2014 in places like Cairo, Istanbul, and Ferguson that I felt motivated to circle back to the project. I studied some contemporary tabletop games like Settlers of Catan, Pandemic, Forbidden Desert, and Dead of Winter, and I read up on theories and approaches to game design.
In early 2015, we began playtesting the first working prototypes of Bloc by Bloc. At first, the game was unplayable. But the iterative process was in motion.
Since then, I have learned more about the history of subversive and anti-authoritarian tabletop games out there in the world. Suffragetto is a game from 1909 that simulates women’s suffrage protestors clashing with police. What we now know as the game Monopoly was originally a game called The Landlord’s Game that critiqued real estate speculation and finance capitalism. Class Struggle*,Chicago Chicago, and Mai 68 Le jeu are a few other titles from the 1970s and ’80s that attempted to simulate popular uprisings. A few years ago, some Italian comrades created a game called Riot that features anarchists, autonomists, police, and nationalists fighting each other in the streets. It’s interesting to note that most of these games assume that one player needs to take on the role of the police. This is something we knew from the very start we would not be including in the framework for Bloc by Bloc.
—What are the advantages of the tabletop game format for telling these stories, as opposed to, say, a novel, a film, a video game, an oral history?
Creating Bloc by Bloc allowed us to explore social upheaval through the lens of systems thinking. A game is a great way to simulate the cybernetic forms of control exercised by institutionalized power. And it allows players to experiment with emergent forms of cooperative strategy to liberate themselves from these oppressive systems. There really isn’t another medium out there that enables this sort of emergent systems approach to telling these stories.
Another important way that tabletop games are great for telling these stories is that they are inherently social. There’s something powerful about exploring the dynamics that shape social insurrections through discussion, play coordination, and conflict with others face to face around a table.
However, this format also comes with drawbacks. A game is itself a sort of cybernetic system made up of various positive and negative feedback loops. The necessity of creating a stable gaming system that functions as a fun game makes it impossible to fully simulate real world events, which are defined by their chaotic and ever-changing nature.
—Tell us about some of the specific components and dynamics of the game, and how you crafted them to convey strategic lessons about real life.
One of the most important changes in the second edition of the game is an improved semi-cooperative mode. In Bloc by Bloc, each player has a secret agenda card. The majority of these cards are social agendas. Players with social agendas are in solidarity with each other and must work together to defeat the state and win the game cooperatively. However, there are also vanguardist and nihilist agenda cards. Players with these cards have to secretly undermine the social insurrection; they are playing to win the game alone.
It’s possible to remove the vanguardist and nihilist cards and play the game in fully cooperative mode. This is probably the best way to play your first game; it’s how most people chose to play the first edition. But that’s not the experience we originally set out to create with Bloc by Bloc. A simulation of urban insurrection should include the internal tensions that one always experiences within social movements and uprisings. This semi-cooperative experience also creates a more dynamic play space that allows for deeper strategy. And it prevents the problematic behavior of alpha players who dictate what other players should do on their turns. This tends to happen in almost all fully cooperative games. Ironically, by introducing an element of uncertainty and suspicion among players, you protect their individual agency.
Another mechanic in the game that people are often surprised by is how movement works. Most games force you to move your pieces one space at a time or to count the number of spaces you are able to move. In Bloc by Bloc, movement is restricted by access, not distance. If there is an open pathway using roads, highways, and metro stations, you can move your blocs as far as you want with one action. Even the largest cities in the world can still be crossed in a few hours as long as the corridors of movement are open. As the game deploys police and they move throughout the city, this access becomes increasingly restricted. This is a reflection of how we are able to move within contemporary cities. Zones of exclusivity and institutional power are not protected from popular uprisings by their distance from those who have the potential to rise up. They are protected by security forces and systems of control that limit access and control space.
Just about every mechanic in Bloc by Bloc can be understood as the intersection between some kind of strategic lesson and the necessity of balancing the game to create a stable system full of emergent potential. It’s possible to read into each of these mechanics and draw conclusions about real world insurrections. But at some point, remember, this is just a game! A PDF of the Bloc by Bloc 2nd edition rulebook is available online for anyone interested in taking a closer look at the game’s mechanics.
—How do your values shape how you approach game design? Is there an ideological dimension to this project?
I try very hard to avoid taking a dogmatic approach to this work. Games are a great way of letting people explore interconnected ideas and systems without being overly didactic. However, I’m sure it’s apparent to everyone that this project is grounded in political ideas.
I would say that the game development process for Bloc by Bloc was guided by a specific ethical framework. A crucial part of that framework is that it centers those who struggle under capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the state as the protagonists. I refer to these protagonists of resistance as “social antagonists.” The blocs are those who organize themselves to rise up from below. This isn’t a game that places the conquerors or the powerful at the center of the narrative.
Another important element of this framework is an understanding of the importance of social insurrection. If we take a moment to reflect on the past two decades, we see an impressive array of uprisings and rebellions around the world. Social insurrection is a defining feature of our time. It is a crucial form of resistance and joy in a diverse array of cities in these first decades of the 21st century. Insurrections sustain social movements and they have reshaped the political map. But they also bring with them the potential for severe repression and reactionary backlash. So it’s important to not romanticize these moments of conflict and to understand their consequences.
It’s also important not to fetishize the violence involved in these uprisings. Destruction and popular expropriation are necessary parts of sustained insurrection. But the success of these uprisings is not determined by their ability to destroy or kill. Urban insurrection is most effective when it transforms social relationships across a whole city and repurposes urban space. We can see this most clearly when an insurrection is an expression of everyday resistance and organizing. This creates the social fabric from which an insurrection can draw the power to reshape entire cities and societies.
—Is this an anarchist game?
I think that’s debatable. Bloc by Bloc is a game for gamers more than it is a game for anarchists. We’ve always wanted this project to stand on its own as a game that people can enjoy even if they’re unfamiliar with or uneasy about the theme. As I said before, it’s an intervention in the world of gaming in that it challenges the usual narratives of oppression and exploitation.
There are a few other ways that it differs from most games. We have attempted to manufacture the game in a relatively ethical fashion here in the US. The vast majority of games are manufactured in China to take advantage of cheaper labor. And all of the files one needs to create DIY printed copies of Bloc by Bloc 2nd edition will be released online for free, as we did with the first edition. But overall, Bloc by Bloc doesn’t attempt to break out of the specific form set by the standards of contemporary tabletop gaming.
The question of what an anarchist game could look like is very interesting. Maybe Bloc by Bloc is a step in this direction. But a truly anarchist game would likely take place in the everyday terrain of our lives. It would craft a magic circle that empowers the participants to subvert real forms of control and domination. And it would be easily replicable, even for those with limited resources. Maybe anarchists and other social antagonists already play games of this sort all the time without specifically referring to them as games?
My hope is that this project can be part of a much larger creative process that utilizes play and imagination to unleash our collective potential to fight back and reshape the world.
For more information on Bloc by Bloc, please visit the Kickstarter page for the 2nd edition.
For gamers’ perspectives on the themes of colonialism and domination in Settlers of Catan, check out:
This June, CrimethInc. operatives will be traveling throughout Sweden and Finland presenting on our book, From Democracy to Freedom, and comparing notes with Scandinavian anarchists, anti-fascists, and rebels about resistance to tyranny around the world. We will be visiting the book fairs in Stockholm and Malmö and nearly a dozen other towns. Please join us at one of these events!
We will be presenting on From Democracy to Freedom at Stockholm’s day-long Anarchist Book Fair alongside many other speakers and publishers.
Democracy is the most universal political ideal of our day. George Bush invoked it to justify invading Iraq; Obama congratulated the rebels of Tahrir Square for bringing it to Egypt; Occupy Wall Street claimed to have distilled its pure form. From the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the autonomous region of Rojava, practically every government and popular movement calls itself democratic.
And yet it was democracy that brought Donald Trump to power, not to mention Adolf Hitler.
What is democracy, precisely? How can we defend ourselves against democratically-elected tyrants? Is there a difference between government and self-determination, and are there other ways to describe what we are doing together when we make decisions? Drawing on From Democracy to Freedom, the latest book from the CrimethInc. collective, we will explore these questions and more. Join us for a lively discussion!
June 4: Turku, Finland
Anarchist Resistance in the Trump Era // Trumpin aikakauden aktivismi Yhdysvalloissa
How did Trump come to power, and what does his rise tell us about this era? What strategies are anarchists in the USA using to counter Trump’s agenda and the rise of grassroots nationalism?
Framing Trump’s Presidency in a global context, we will discuss the new conditions for social struggle and explore the approaches to self-organization and self-defense that anarchists have employed in the United States since the end of 2016.
Miten Trump pääsi valtaan ja mitä se kertoo aikakaudesta, johon olemme matkalla? Mitä strategioita anarkistit Yhdysvalloissa käyttävät torjuakseen Trumpin agendaa ja ruohonjuuritason nationalismin nousua? Pohdimme valtakautta globaalissa kontekstissa ja keskustelemme uusista olosuhteista yhteiskunnalliselle kamppailulle, sekä tutkailemme itseorganisoinnin ja itsepuolustuksen tapoja, joita anarkistit ovat Yhdysvalloissa hyödyntäneet vuodesta 2016 lähtien.
June 5: Helsinki, Finland
Anarchist Resistance in the Trump Era // Anarkistinen vastarinta Trumpin aikakaudella
Demokratiasta vapauteen – Valtiovallan ja itsemääräämisoikeuden eroista
Demokratiasta on tullut aikamme universaalein poliittinen ideaali. George Bush vetosi siihen oikeuttaessaan hyökkäystä Irakiin, Obama onnitteli Tahrir aukion kapinallisia sen tuomisesta Egyptiin ja Occupy Wall Street julisti löytäneensä sen puhtaimman muodon.
Käytännössä jokainen hallitus ja kansanliike kutsuu itseään demokraattiseksi aina Pohjois Korean Demokraattisesta Kansantasavallasta Rojavan autonomiseen alueeseen.
Mutta mitä demokratia tarkkaan ottaen on? Onko olemassa jokin yhdistävä tekijä näiden erilaisten demokraattisuuden ilmausten välillä? Ja pystyykö yksikään niistä täyttämään lupauksensa? Tällä luennolla lähestytään demokratian käsitystä kriittisestä näkökulmasta, ja tarkastellaan kuinka demokraattiset diskurssit ovat palvelleet viimeaikaisia yhteiskunnallisia liikkeitä Yhdysvalloissa, Espanjassa, Kreikassa, Bosniassa, Sloveniassa ja muualla ympäri maailmaa. Luennolla pohditaan myös sitä, mitä tarkoittaisi, jos vapautta tavoiteltaisiin pikemmin suoraan kuin demokraattisen hallinnon kautta.
Luento pohjautuu Crimethincin kirjaan, joka on syntynyt vuosien kansainvälisen keskustelun tuloksena, jossa on ollut mukana eri yhteiskunnallisiin liikkeisiin ympäri maailman osallistuneita henkilöitä. Sen ytimessä on kysymys siitä, mitä me oikeastaan olemme tekemässä, kun teemme päätöksiä yhdessä.
Today, following the revelation that the prosecution had dishonestly concealed evidence in the trial of defendants arrested during protests against the inauguration of Donald Trump, the judge dismissed charges against seven defendants in the long-running J20 case and threw out the conspiracy charges against all the remaining defendants. But dozens still await trial for standing up to Trump on January 20. We have to keep the pressure on until all the charges are dropped—with the long-term goal of making it impossible for the US justice system to inflict harm on anyone ever again.
On January 20, 2017, during the inauguration of Donald Trump, the police closed off a city block in Washington, DC, arrested everyone on it, and charged them all with 8 felonies each. The goal was clearly to terrorize protesters off the streets. Since then, the prosecutors have been forced to drop one charge after another, but they’re still threatening dozens of defendants. The state will take every single freedom from us that we let them.
Those who took action on January 20 are heroes. We need to fight back by all means necessary.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, authorities have just carried out new raids and arrests in Italy, France, Switzerland, and Spain in ongoing retaliation for the citywide revolt that took place in Hamburg last July in response to the 2017 G20 summit. This comes on the heels of the revelation that the police dishonestly inserted masked agents provocateurs into the “Welcome to Hell” demonstration at the opening of the G20 in order to initiate hostilities on their terms.
We honor the courage of everyone who stood up to the police and the G20 in Hamburg. It’s right to resist. Humanity won’t be free until we build the capacity to defend ourselves against all police and heads of state. This is why the ungovernable actions of those who stood up to them in Hamburg are so inspiring. In the meantime, support the G20 defendants.
What kind of world do the G20 leaders want to create? They showed us a sneak preview at the G20 summit in Hamburg in July 2017: a billion-dollar security budget, over 31,000 fully militarized police, pre-dawn house raids across Europe, agents provocateurs, indiscriminate unprovoked attacks with batons, tear gas, concussion grenades, and water cannons.
If this is the future, who can blame people for resisting?
These posters are based on a poster design we made to support arrestees at the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto. The struggles that are unfolding today are just the latest chapter of a generations-old story. Today, as in 2010 and 1999, we choose to side with the rebels of all eras against the heartless brutality of authoritarian power.
Let’s be clear: we don’t endorse shooting, stabbing, bombing, garroting, guillotining, or electrocuting the President of the United States. Yes, we’ve published a convincing argument that, if there were any justice in this world, “Donald Trump would walk across the desert on a broken ankle, pursued by helicopters and armed men with dogs, before dying of dehydration, terrified and alone, within miles of hospital facilities—as he has forced others to do simply in hopes of rejoining their families.” But we would argue strenuously against anyone attempting to inflict this fate on him. On the contrary, we hope Donald Trump will die of natural causes—and the sooner the better, before anyone gets any crazy ideas. For us, anarchism is not about meting out justice, but making it unnecessary. Here’s why.
In 1901, the President of the United States was greeting well-wishers at the Pan-American Exposition when he unknowingly offered his hand to an anarchist. The younger man slapped it aside and shot the president twice in the stomach.
Neither man survived. President McKinley died of the wound eight days later. Leon Czolgosz died in an electric chair a month after that.
No one doubted that McKinley, a former governor and sitting President of the United States, could change the course of history—just as no one would have expected a steel-working son of Polish immigrants to change much of anything. But in return for his life and $4.50 for a pistol, Czolgosz stamped his name in the history books right next to McKinley’s.
A hundred and twenty years before President Trump, President McKinley campaigned for president on a platform of American interventionism and economic isolationism. During an intense economic depression, he answered to big business funders and took a stand against organized labor. In office, he stayed conspicuously quiet when black postmasters were killed in racist attacks and let white supremacists pressure him out of the political appointment of at least one black postmaster.
To be fair—and to offer him more credibility than any recent US president deserves—when McKinley ordered military interventions, he did so as someone who had seen the cost of war firsthand from the front lines. McKinley had volunteered for the Union in the Civil War and fought as a private, eventually attaining the rank of major. When he went to war with Spain over Cuba, McKinley did so only when public opinion inflamed by the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer forced his hand.
Still, McKinley presided over a process of empire building. The press painted the Spanish-American war as a war of liberation freeing the Cuban people from the tyranny of Spain, but at the end of hostilities, the US had gained control of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. Puerto Rico and Guam remain US territories to this day, without real representation in the US government. Any claim that the US was “liberating” these islands was just window dressing to cover imperialist motives. This pattern will be familiar to everyone who witnessed the “liberation” of Afghanistan and Iraq.
In addition to seizing these territories, McKinley’s administration carried out the annexation of Hawaii. Presidents before him had waged colonial war against the native inhabitants of North America, but McKinley opened the floodgates of American interventionism abroad and openly identified as imperialist. Arguably, the role of the US as the “policeman of the world” dates from McKinley’s administration.
He didn’t stop at occupying foreign territory. When miners went on strike in Idaho and dynamited a mine in 1899, McKinley ordered black troops from Texas to put down the rebellion—a move calculated to increase racial tensions. Afterwards, over 1000 workers were imprisoned in cattle pens for months. The area remained under military occupation until 1901.
McKinley’s death didn’t end these policies. It didn’t make it any easier to be an anarchist in the United States, either. Thirteen anarchists—including the orator Emma Goldman—were arrested and held for several weeks without charges. Socialism gained ground over anarchism in America as a direct result of the attack and the subsequent media demonization of anarchists.
Leon Czolgosz was not popular among the anarchists of his time. His suspicious questions, lack of connections, and zeal for violence left many assuming he was a police infiltrator until he killed the president. Afterwards, the Italian-American anarchists and Emma Goldman were mostly alone in defending him and his actions.
Czolgosz himself was unrepentant. He pled guilty and largely refused to communicate with the judge or even his own defense council. His last words, just before his death by electrocution, were “I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people—the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime. I am sorry I could not see my father.”
His family was not permitted to receive his body. The US government poured acid over it in his casket.
Mobs attacked anarchist communes and newspapers in retaliation. The US government passed anti-anarchist laws. Fear of anarchists paved the way for the establishment of the Bureau of Investigation in 1908, which became the FBI thirty years later. Most of the anti-anarchist laws were not employed until World War I, when they were used against anarchist immigrants and any other immigrants deemed a threat to the nation.
After McKinley’s death, Theodore Roosevelt ascended to presidency. Roosevelt was a moderate with a name for breaking up corporate monopolies, far and away more populist than McKinley. Instead of using the army to suppress miners’ strikes, he threatened miners with the army but then came in to negotiate compromise. He fought against governmental corruption that targeted Native Americans, though he certainly did nothing to return the country to its indigenous inhabitants. If nothing else, Roosevelt may have been the greatest conservationist president the US has ever had, establishing national parks and wildlife preserves all over the country.
On the other hand, while McKinley had introduced the idea that the US might serve as the policeman of the world, Roosevelt cemented this role. He greatly expanded the Navy and stepped in to negotiate peace between foreign powers. This sounds nice on paper, but when we understand peacemaking as a core method of establishing global hegemony, we can see the element of menace implied in this sort of diplomacy.
Roosevelt was far to the left of the majority of his Republican party, perhaps comparable to Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton today. There’s little doubt that the US and the world was better off with him in office than McKinley. It seems likely he would have become president in 1904 regardless.
Not all violent action has left has anarchists isolated from society. In 1886, when police attacked a labor demonstration in Chicago, someone threw a bomb at them. The police crackdown was immediate and overreaching; although at first it seemed to have public support, it eventually provoked a backlash in popular opinion. The worldwide workers’ holiday May Day derives from the global outpouring of solidarity in response to the events in Chicago.
But things don’t always work out that way. A few years later, the anarchist Alexander Berkman attempted to kill the union-busting industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Berkman failed, but more importantly, his attempt did not incite the working class to take up arms against their oppressors. If anything, it alienated anarchists from their peers.
So it went with the assassination of McKinley. By all accounts, it seems to have consolidated public opinion against anarchists.
People all over the world had every right to consider William McKinley an oppressor, elected or not. But did assassinating him advance the cause of freedom? Should we promote attacks on those who hold oppressive power, regardless of the consequences? Is it possible to rid the world of authority figures one bullet at a time?
As we see it, anarchism is not a cult of revenge. Our ultimate goal should not be to mete out punishment according to an economy of vengeance, but to organize so effectively that we render assassinations unnecessary. Focusing on targeting men like McKinley seems to imply a great man theory of history in which specific extraordinary individuals are to blame for all the ills we suffer. Yet were it not for the structures that concentrated so much power in his hands—capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, the state—McKinley would simply have been an arrogant and unlikable buffoon. Those structures are administered by men like McKinley, but they are built on social constructs such as the idea that state authority is inherently legitimate and the habit of conceiving of one’s interests on an utterly individualistic basis. If we are to arrive in a world without oppression, the important question in regards to any tactic is whether it serves to undermine those constructs and catalyze others into action.
As Gustav Landauer wrote, “The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships.” This is not to downplay the importance of resistance; while some have protested that “you can’t blow up a social relationship,” getting free of the social relations that are imposed on us the police and military will surely involve some confrontations. If our current relationship to our oppressors is characterized by obedience, “contracting other relationships” means becoming ungovernable, spreading practices of self-defense far and wide throughout society. The point is that in this struggle, the strategic target is not any particular person within the halls of power, but above all the passivity of those who have not yet taken a side.
Like Emma Goldman before us, we can understand Czolgosz’s attack as the predictable consequence of the frustrations engendered by tremendous inequalities in wealth and power. Czolgosz grew up working in a glass factory as a teenager, lost his job in the economic turmoil presided over by men like McKinley, and struggled to find a place for himself in a hostile and alien world. As more and more wealth concentrates in fewer and fewer hands, the surprising thing is that more attacks like his do not take place.
If anarchism is not a cult of revenge, neither is it for us to sit in moral judgment over the desperate acts of the oppressed and enraged. Rather, we should seek to do away with the conditions that drive people to such desperation in the first place. The only way to guarantee that no human being will ever shed another’s blood again is to abolish all the factors that pit people against each other, starting with the institutions of power.
The tyrants of the world have good cause to be afraid. For all their power, they are made of the same meat and bone as the rest of us. An anarchist reminded everyone of that simple fact. Yet McKinley’s death didn’t bring us any closer to a better world. That part is up to us.
“It is, therefore, not cruelty, or a thirst for blood, or any other criminal tendency, that induces such a man to strike a blow at organized power. On the contrary, it is mostly because of a strong social instinct, because of an abundance of love and an overflow of sympathy with the pain and sorrow around us, a love which seeks refuge in the embrace of mankind, a love so strong that it shrinks before no consequence, a love so broad that it can never be wrapped up in one object, as long as thousands perish, a love so all-absorbing that it can neither calculate, reason, investigate, but only dare at all costs.”
Emma Goldman knew it. Mikhail Bakunin warned everyone about it half a century before the Russian Revolution. Veterans of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army AshantiAlston and KuwasiBalagoon drew the same conclusion. There’s no such thing as revolutionary government. You can’t use the instruments of government to abolish oppression.
Since the mid-19th century, anarchists have maintained that the key to liberation is not to seize the state but to abolish it. Yet from Paris to St. Petersburg, from Barcelona to Beijing, one generation of revolutionaries after another has had to learn this lesson the hard way. Shuffling politicians in and out of power changes little. What matters are the instruments of rule—the police, the military, the courts, the prison system, the bureaucracy. Whether it is a king, a dictator, or a Congress that directs these instruments, the experience on the receiving end remains roughly the same.
This explains why the outcome of the Egyptian revolution of 2011-2013 resembles the outcome of the Russian Revolution of 1917-1921, which resembles the outcome of the French Revolution of 1848-1851. In each case, as soon as the people who made the revolution stopped attempting to carry out social change directly and shifted to investing their hopes in political representatives, power consolidated in the hands of a new autocracy. Whether the new tyrants hailed from the military, the aristocracy, or the working class, whether they promised to restore order or to personify the power of the proletariat, the end result was roughly the same.
Government itself is a class relation. You can’t abolish class society without abolishing the asymmetry between ruler and ruled. Economics is only one of many spheres in which codified power differentials are imposed by means of social constructs; politics is another. Private ownership of capital is to economics what state power is to politics.
Marx and Lenin created tremendous confusion by promising that the state could be used to abolish class society, after which the state would somehow vanish. In other words, “the workers”—which is to say, a party declaring itself to represent them, the same as any other ruling party does—could retain the police, the military, the courts, the prison system, the bureaucracy, and all the other instruments of the state, but these would magically begin to produce equality rather than inequality. This begs the question: what is the state? Above all, it is the concentration of political legitimacy in specific institutions, in contrast to the people they rule over. This is the very definition of inequality, as it privileges those who hold power via these institutions over everyone else. While Marxists and Leninists have successfully seized power in dozens of revolutions, not one of these has succeeded in abolishing class society—and rather than vanishing, the state has only become more powerful and invasive as a result. As the Sonvilier Circular put it, “How can we expect an egalitarian and free society to emerge from an authoritarian organization?”
When revolutionaries attempt to undo the class inequalities created by private ownership of capital by giving complete control of capital to the state, this simply makes the class that holds political power into the new capitalist class. The word for this is state capitalism. Wherever you see political representation and bureaucratic management, you will find class society. The only real solution to economic and political inequality is to abolish the mechanisms that create power differentials in the first place—not by using state structures, but by organizing horizontal networks for self-determination and collective defense that make it impossible to enforce the privileges of any economic or political elite. This is the opposite of seizing power.
Government of every kind stands opposed to this project. The first condition for any government to hold power is that it must achieve a monopoly on coercive force. In struggling to achieve this monopoly, fascist despotisms, communist dictatorships, and liberal democracies come to resemble each other. And in order to achieve it, even the most ostensibly radical party usually ends up colluding with other power players. This explains why the Bolsheviks employed tsarist officers and counterinsurgency methods; it explains why they repeatedly took the side of the petite bourgeoisie against anarchists, first in Russia and later in Spain and elsewhere. History gives the lie to the old alibi that Bolshevik repression was necessary to abolish capitalism. The problem with Bolshevism was not that it used brutal force to push through a revolutionary agenda, but that it used brutal force to crush it.
It’s not particularly popular to acknowledge any of this today, when the flag of the Soviet Union has become a dim, receding screen onto which people can project whatever they wish. A generation that grew up after the fall of the Soviet Union has renewed the pipe dream that the state could solve all our problems if the right people were in charge. Apologists for Lenin and Stalin make exactly the same excuses for them that we hear from the proponents of capitalism, pointing to the ways consumers benefitted under their reign or arguing that the millions they exploited, imprisoned, and killed had it coming.
In any case, a return to 20th-century state socialism is impossible. As the old Eastern Bloc joke goes, socialism is the painful transition between capitalism and capitalism. From this vantage point, we can see that the temporary ascendancy of socialism in the 20th century was not the culmination of world history foretold by Marx, but a stage in the spread and development of capitalism. “Real existing socialism” served to industrialize post-feudal economies for the world market; it stabilized restless workforces through this transition the same way that the Fordist compromise did in the West. State socialism and Fordism were both expressions of a temporary truce between labor and capital that neoliberal globalization has rendered impossible.
Today, unfettered free-market capitalism is about to swallow up the last islands of social-democratic stability, including even Sweden and France. Wherever left parties have come to power on the promise of reforming capitalism, they have ultimately been compelled to implement a neoliberal agenda including austerity measures and repression. Consequently, their ascension to power has drained grassroots movements of momentum while enabling right-wing reactionaries to pose as rebels in order to tap into popular unrest. This story has recurred in Brazil with the Workers Party, in Greece with Syriza, in Nicaragua with the Ortega administration.
The only other model for “revolutionary” government is the barefaced state capitalism represented by China, in which elites are amassing wealth at the expense of laborers just as shamelessly as they do in the United States. Like the USSR before it, China confirms that state administration of the economy is not a step towards egalitarianism.
The future may hold neoliberal immiseration, nationalist enclaves, totalitarian command economies, or the anarchist abolition of property itself—it will probably include all of those—but it will be increasingly difficult to preserve the illusion that any government could solve the problems of capitalism for any but a privileged few. Fascists and other nationalists are eager to capitalize on this disillusionment to promote their own brands of exclusionary socialism; we should not smooth the way for them by legitimizing the idea that the state could serve working people if only it were properly administered.
Some have argued that we should suspend conflicts with proponents of authoritarian communism in order to focus on more immediate threats, such as fascism. Yet widespread fear of left totalitarianism has given fascist recruiters their chief talking points. In the contest for the hearts and minds of those who have not yet chosen a side, it could only help to distinguish our proposals for social change from the ones advanced by Stalinists and other authoritarians.
Within popular struggles against capitalism, state violence, and fascism, we should grant equal weight to the contest between different visions of the future. Not doing so means assuming in advance that we will be defeated before any of these visions can bear fruit. Anarchists, Mensheviks, Socialist-Revolutionaries, and others learned the hard way after 1917 that failing to prepare for victory can be even more disastrous than failing to prepare for defeat.
The good news is that revolutionary movements don’t have to end the way the Russian Revolution did. There is another way.
Rather than seeking state power, we can open up spaces of autonomy, stripping legitimacy from the state and developing the capacity to meet our needs directly. Instead of dictatorships and armies, we can build worldwide rhizomatic networks to defend each other against anyone who wants to wield power over us. Rather than looking to new representatives to solve our problems, we can create grassroots associations based in voluntary cooperation and mutual aid. In place of state-managed economies, we can establish new commons on a horizontal basis. This is the anarchist alternative, which could have succeeded in Spain in the 1930s had it not been stomped out by Franco on one side and Stalin on the other. From Chiapas and Kabylia to Athens and Rojava, all of the inspiring movements and uprisings of the past three decades have incorporated elements of the anarchist model.
Proponents of state solutions claim they are more efficient, but the question is—what are they more efficient at? There are no shortcuts to liberation; it cannot be imposed from above. If we aim to create genuine equality, we have to organize in a way that reflects this, decentralizing power and rejecting all forms of hierarchy. Building local projects capable of addressing immediate needs through direct action and solidarity, interconnecting them on a global scale, we can take steps down the road toward a world in which no one can rule anyone else. The kind of revolution we want cannot happen overnight; it is the ongoing process of destroying all concentrations of power, from the domestic sphere to the White House.
As the crises of our era intensify, new revolutionary struggles are bound to break out. Anarchism is the only proposition for revolutionary change that has not sullied itself in a sea of blood. It’s up to us to update it for the new millennium, lest we all be condemned to repeat the past.
Two weeks ago, we published a report from the uprising in Nicaragua that began in April. Since then, the situation has only intensified. Here is an update from our comrades in Nicaragua, describing the most recent developments and the stakes of the struggle. In Nicaragua, we see an uprising against the neoliberal policies of a “left” government in which a movement is attempting to resist right-wing cooptation in the absence of an established anarchist or autonomous movement. We are concerned about the prevalence of nationalist and rhetoric and imagery, but we believe that it is important to support revolts against authoritarian governments in order to generate dialogue that could open up a revolutionary horizon. Just as it will not benefit leftists to support unpopular and oppressive “left” governments, it does not benefit anarchists to refuse to engage with insurgents whose goals are still evolving.
For the past month, Nicaragua has seen daily protests against the government of Daniel Ortega. This is being called La Insurreccion de Abril (“the April Insurrection”). Over the last two weeks, these protests have escalated to countrywide blockades and urban barricades. Organized students are occupying three public universities (UNA, UPOLI, UNAN). Nicaraguans in every major city have taken to the streets to demand complete systemic change, including the resignation of Daniel Ortega. Riot police and Sandinista Youth continue to carry out pro-government repression, although this has died down in Managua, Masaya, Matagalpa, and Jinotega.
“It’s been amazing to protest in the streets of Managua without government or Young Sandinista repression. We’ve been able to do this for ten days now. It’s the first time since Ortegas came to power that we’ve been able to take the streets in this way. I truly feel as if the city is ours. We’re witnessing amazing street art, art projects, and interventions. We don’t know what’s going to come out of the dialogue. Government reform, police reform, new elections, autonomous regions?
I feel good, but it has been exhausting. We have good days and bad days. I feel emotionally drained, just working and working and working. Not really taking time to think. It’s been exhausting to live on a day by day space and time. So many doors have been opened!
Classes began at UNAN, the largest public university in the country, on Monday, May 7. Students organized a protest inside the university campus, staging a sit-in and then spending the night. This continued until the university shut down. UNAN is now occupied with an estimated 500 students inside. The students are organized as a commune with rotating personnel guarding the barricades, receiving aid, maintaining communications, re-painting old murals, and staffing a medical center. All the major roads towards the UNAN are barricaded and defended by students, causing major traffic congestion. Nevertheless, drivers cheer the students on as they pass the barricades.
The demands of the UNAN student groups are comparable to those announced by other student organizations: justice, peace, the completely restructuring of student unions, an immediate end to the repression carried out by police and Sandinista Youth, and university autonomy. Other universities, like UNA (the agrarian university), have already created their own student governments outside the state’s framework of legitimacy.
The student representatives of the Coalition of Students have announced that the students of each university should organize as best fits their local conditions, whether that means through the UNEN [the government-sponsored student union] or outside of it—whatever path will lead towards educational autonomy.
During the second week of May, police and Sandinista Youth carried out periodic attacks on UNAN each night, but people protected the entrances to the universities with cultural activities like music and singing; people spent the night at the gates of the university to secure the safety of the students inside. It’s now been about two weeks since the last major confrontations at UNAN involving police and Sandinista Youth.
In discussions with comrades who work and operate inside of UNAN, they report that they’ve never experienced this kind of togetherness and collectivity. They describe a union that transcends class, gender, and race, people united around the cause of justice and autonomy.
“Several contacts inside of UNAN advised me not to enter to conduct interviews, since it is likely that there are infiltrators from the Sandinista Youth inside the campus who would recognize me and might harass me outside.”
Managua experiences about fours marches every day, organized in different parts of the city. Each march has a different theme and a corresponding location. Marches have been connecting new historic places, like Camino de Oriente (where the revolt started) and Rotonda Jean Paul Genie (the new roundabout, which is not a memorial site) to places like UCA and Rotonda Ruben Dario that are in the center of the city.
We have witnessed marches organized by diverse sectors of the population: various colleges and high schools, alumni marches, marches of teachers and professors, marches organized by the private sector. Mothers and family members of the victims murdered by the police have also led their own marches.
At the same time, taxi drivers have created their own protests, mobilizing around the spike in the price of gasoline. You can see the phrase No + Alza (“stop the rise”) painted on windows of taxis, buses, and cars.
Nicaragua pays the most for gasoline despite having the strongest relationship to Venezuela. There is no transparency in this transaction. A general boycott of PETRONIC, the State-owned petroleum company, is also taking place.
The confrontations are now predominantly occurring outside Managua in smaller cities like Masaya, Sebaco, Matagalpa, Estelí, and Granada. These confrontations have led to looting and chaos in the streets as families try to protect their homes and businesses. Since the police and state officials are doing the absolute minimum, in some places there has been a push towards self-government and local assemblies. We have seen several small business sectors organize themselves to prevent looting and crime; at the same time, we have seen groups making deals with the local police to protect neighborhoods.
Most of these confrontations occur when the police disrupt protests, creating a state of emergency in a given locale. This gives looters an incentive to attack gas stations and supermarkets. Pro-government news sources then report the looting, blaming the protestors for everything. It is well-documented that the police have used live ammunition on protesters.
We can see the response to these confrontations on the walls of the city streets. Sin Justicia no hay Paz! “There is no peace without justice!” No eran delincuentes, eran estudiantes. “They were not thugs, they were students.” Se busca asesino with an image of Daniel Ortega: “Wanted Murderer!”
Fue el Estado (“it was the state”) is one of the most popular slogans we see spray-painted in every corner of the city. This slogan conveys the popular idea that the Orteguista government has corrupted the state, and the state is responsible for all the violence, destruction, and death. In this narrative, the solutions that are implied are oriented toward restructuring the state so that it will cease to be affiliated with a political party and more “neutral,” catering to the needs of the whole population, not just the Orteguistas. Obviously, this is not an anarchist analysis.
Solutions outside of the state are slowly emerging, but the process is not complete. Neighborhood assemblies, community patrols, student unions, trash collection schedules, and pirate transportation have emerged as necessities in practice: short-term solutions. As anarchists, it’s our task now to demonstrate that these can offer long-term possibilities for autonomous community-run participatory structures.
On Monday, May 14, it was announced that the “dialogue” between the state and the student movement plus the private sector and “civil society” [various NGOs and other groups] would occur on Wednesday, May 16. The student movements originally stated that they were willing to engage in dialogue, but that the ongoing police repression made it impossible. Nevertheless, a day later, a part of the student movement agreed that they would be at the dialogue table.
So far, two sessions of this dialogue have taken place; the next session is scheduled for Monday, May 21. Everyone expected the first session to turn out to be a trap against the students, but it turned out that it was a trap for the state. The church (the mediators of the dialogue), “civil society,” the private sector, and the campesino movement all supported the students in their demands that the government put a stop to the repression and recall all police personnel. For the first time in Nicaraguan history, a student interrupted the dialogue, stood up to face Daniel Ortega, and attacked him on account of his authoritarian and violent government. Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo never give interviews to the press, so it was amazing to see them so vulnerable.
The second session of the dialogue concluded with an agreement that the government would have their police and paramilitary forces stop attacking protestors in return for the students calling for the road blockades to be lifted. The road blockades have completely paralyzed the economy. Despite this agreement, the Agrarian University was attacked on the night of Saturday, May 19 and four students were injured. Consequently, the deal is off and the blockades are back up.
A key player in all of this is the CIDH (Commision Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, “Inter-American Commission for Human Rights”). They are currently compiling evidence and testimony to present a report on whether there have been human rights violations in Nicaragua. They will present this report later this week. This report could trigger international repercussions against the Ortegas. The CIDH, of course, is essentially a neoliberal organization answering to the Organization of American States.
The immediate demands presented to the government include justice for the 63 people who have been murdered in the course of the repression. This would involve a trial of the government and police officials responsible for their deaths. Through such a trial, there would also be a push towards separating the police from the Orteguista party, as originally stipulated by the constitution. A more far-reaching reform of the police could also happen. Through this reform, people will also push for a complete change in the system of government, including educational autonomy and separation between the Orteguista Party and public institutions.
The Autoconvocados (“Self-Assembled”) movement controls the streets with the power to mobilize hundreds of thousands in Managua, enjoying the freedom to protest for the first time in over ten years. Any negative response or suspicious activity of the government will be received with public demonstrations.
No justice, no peace.
On Horizontal Organizing
The Autoconvocados movement is an umbrella term that can be used by everyone, but only some events are approved and legitimized by the Autoconvocado committee, a group of about 10 organizers that run the official Autoconvocados Twitter account, among other things, to which they post official events. This group operates through consensus and has no leaders.
The Student Coalition is the group representing the students in the dialogue with the rest of the State. This coalition includes representatives of major universities all over the country. It is a coalition of five different student groups, operating horizontally and through consensus. According to the media, two leaders have emerged; this is how the media attempts to create leadership. In fact, the organizing is very much horizontal. This student coalition has the capacity to rally hundreds of thousands of people, setting the tone for the discussion and reaction. One part of the coalition is the Coordinadora Universitaria Por la Justicia y la Paz; out of those with delegates in the dialogue, they have been the closest to a feminist perspective.
All the other public affinity groups that have emerged, like the Artistas Autoconvocados and Arquitectos Autoconvocados (artists and architects), are basically different sectors that are organizing themselves non-hierarchically to set up actions and promote events. There are no public leaders in these movements, only delegates and representatives.
Overall, the most obvious aesthetic of the opposition is nationalism. It is under this banner that all the solidarity and direct action has happened.
All the same, there is a lot that is horizontal about this movement. Small affinity groups organize through social media to deliver medical supplies, food, and resources to communities that have suffered from rioting and looting. Basically, these horizontal organizations are promoting a culture of participation and consensus. A culture of listening and suggesting. A culture of face-to-face politics. A culture of solidarity and inclusivity. A culture of direct action. All things we would have never learn through “party system” politics.
In terms of the future, it is this practice that is creating the theory for the short-term goals. Practices come first. First, we need people in the streets to react to the immediate actions of the government. But in this situation practice cannot create long-term goals. For that, we will need theory.
Text Messages from the Uprising
“Today was the happiest day of life.”
“I’m at the safehouse making bulletproof shields out of garbage cans.”
“They are killing us with snipers, send help send help”
“I’m on my way to Costa Rica. There were people outside my house telling me that they were going to burn down the house and kill me.”
“A tree of life fell on top of E——!”
“There are barricades surrounding your neighborhood, you can’t get in.”
“I have a group of 70 gang members ready to fight, just let us know where to go.”
“We need to occupy the Central American University.”
“Your meme made the national newspaper!”
“Friends, just got out of a meeting, our TV show has been canceled, it was too radical.”
“They’ve burned two trucks in front of my house. And the house behind mine is on fire. I need to get out of here.”
“I’m outing pro-government supporters on Tinder.”
“Don’t, worry V—– sent a drone to check out the situation.”
“Friends, I made this new group because I think there were infiltrators in the other group.”
“VICE wants an interview, what should we tell them?”
In Paris, on May Day 2018, nearly 15,000 people joined a confrontational march rejecting capitalism and the state, including a black bloc of 1200 people. Intense clashes immediately broke out with the police. This is the story of the events leading up to May Day, what we experienced that afternoon in Paris, and what comes next.
Tension has been building in France for years now, from the street confrontations of 2016 against the Loi Travail to the defense of la ZAD at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. Here, we offer firsthand reports from the events of May 1, 2018 in Paris and discuss the aftermath of this day in order to participate in the critical analyses that have emerged within our radical circles for several days now.
May Day is observed as International Workers’ Day in France, as it is in many other countries. For more than a century, workers, trade unionists, traditional leftists, and anarchists have demonstrated together or separately to pay tribute to the struggles of the late 19th century and the introduction of the eight-hour workday.
Yet May Day has never been limited to legal demonstrations. On May 1, 1891, in Fourmies, soldiers shot at striking workers, killing nine people—including four under the age of 18—and injuring 35 more. Afterwards, a crowd took the streets of Clichy brandishing a red flag. At the end of the demonstration, police attempted to seize the revolutionary emblem, provoking a riot. Gunshots echoed in the streets and some policemen were injured. Three anarchists were arrested and detained. Tried in August 1891, the defendants were sentenced to up to 5 years in prison. These events awoke the convictions of many future radicals, including the notorious anarchist François Koënigstein, better known by his nickname, Ravachol.
In France, May Day also has other connotations. In 1941, aiming to force a rupture with socialism, Marshal Pétain—fervent anti-Semite, head of the French government during the occupation, and among those chiefly responsible for state collaboration with the Nazis—passed legislation declaring that May Day would be called la Fête du Travail et de la Concorde Sociale (“the day of labor and social harmony”). Since then, Labor Day in France continues to bear the name “Fête du Travail,” paying tribute to Pétain’s maxim ”Travail, Famille, Patrie” (“Work, Family, Fatherland”).
During the 1950s and 1960s, Labor Day disappeared in France. During the war in Indochina (1946-1954) and the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), successive French governments seeking to preserve their colonial holdings instituted a State of Emergency (1955-1958-1961). The state used this “exceptional” law granting special powers to the executive branch to forbid demonstrations of all kinds in France. It was only on May 1, 1968 that people in France were once again able to take the streets to celebrate Labor Day.
More recently, in 2016 and 2017, anarchists and other autonomous rebels succeeded in taking the front of the afternoon May Day demonstration, relegating trade unions and political parties to the end of the procession. By adopting an offensive strategy—attacking every single potential target on our route—we brought new life to the demonstration, interrupting the ritual it had become.
As we approached May Day 2018, we faced a new challenge. Once again, we had to rewrite the story.
The Storm Approaches
“We are the birds of the coming storm.” –August Spies
This year, May Day took place in the context of France celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the uprising of May 1968. This event had a massive impact on the collective imagination—not only in France, but also worldwide, as evidenced by the slogans, artwork, and images of rioters throwing cobblestones it summons to mind. The so-called “revolution of 1968” saw massive demonstrations, general strikes, wildcat strikes, and occupations of universities and factories throughout France. Initiated by Parisian students, the revolt spread to working class milieux and then to many other demographics. What began as a local struggle became a national upheaval. According to historians, May 1968 represented a new form of cultural and social movement that emerged outside of traditional parties and trade unions. This movement challenged consumer society by critiquing its ideology of productivity and profit, but it also questioned the authoritarian political model of the time and put the notions of individuality and personal subjectivity at the center of the struggle.
From traditional leftist activists to career politicians and reactionaries of all stripes, everyone has something to say about May ’68. The struggles of May 1968 became yet another component of the society of the spectacle. Since the beginning of 2018, the French government, politicians of every party, the corporate media, and the Ministry of Cultural affairs have all been commemorating this long-past social and cultural upheaval that supposedly marked a turning point in French history. The museum exhibitions serve to fix the possibility of revolutionary change in a long-concluded past, but they are not even the worst part. For example, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a former student activist who became the self-proclaimed heir of the revolution of May ’68, took up a career in journalism and politics and finally came to support President Macron and his neoliberal policies. We can appreciate the irony of the situation and the hypocrisy of the French government as it actively strives to suppress any contemporary form of experimentation—see, for example, the recent evictions at la ZAD and of several occupied universities.
In response to this political farce, some radicals published a call announcing that “instead of commemorating May 1968, we could try organizing a beautiful month of May 2018.” You can read translations of this call here. The authors invited people to converge in Paris in order to dethrone the myth of May 1968 and precipitate the fall of Macron and his government. This can only be understood in the context of the social, economic, and political situation in France today. As some have argued, the growing anger against President Macron and his reforms could become a serious threat for the government. For months now, railroad workers, airplane company employees, civil servants, students, professors, postal employees, hospital employees, and many others have been out on strike or protesting government policies. If all of these groups joined forces against the authorities, the impact would be considerable.
Two days before May Day, the Police Prefecture of Paris published a press statement in which Michel Delpuech, the Police Commissioner, announced that he would receive the trade union leaders and other organizers of the demonstration to warn them about the potential for public disorder that threatened the smooth functioning of the march. Amid typical redundant gibberish, the communiqué stated that:
“During the traditional May Day demonstration, activists of protest groups belonging to extremist movements are planning to violently attack law enforcement and capitalist symbols. […] Thus, in the continuity of May 1, 2017, and accentuated by the 50-year anniversary of the events of May ’68, activists want to take advantage of this demonstration to engage in multiple attacks and destruction against street furniture, banks, real estate or insurance agencies, car dealerships… and violently attack police forces. It appears that incendiary devices could be used.”
In view of this threat, the Prefecture deployed some 1500 policemen and gendarmes in order to insure order during the march. Regarding the risks of violence, the communiqué added that:
Under the order of the public prosecutor, numerous checks and searches will be implemented upstream and on the outskirts of the demonstration, as well as at nearby public transport access points.
A particular vigilance and attention will be brought to the detection of all objects considered to be potential weapons.
Any individual breaking the law will be subject to immediate arrest in anticipation of a judicial procedure.
Video-protection in real-time will be used to identify individuals trying to blend in the crowd in order to commit acts of violence.
Any material item will be collected for the purposes of judicial exploitation [sic].”
With such statements, the authorities sought to set the tone for May Day in advance. Anyone who wished to do anything to express discontent beyond marching passively would face uncompromising repression. The Police Prefecture of Paris also sought to increase its control over the May Day demonstration by imposing a shorter route than usual. Instead of the classic route linking Place de la République to Place de la Nation, the 2018 march was only authorized a two-mile walk between Place de la Bastille and Place d’Italie, a route that seemed to offer fewer potential targets for rioters. It was obvious that authorities hoped to lead us into a trap.
In response, some radicals of the “cortège de tête” (“the leading procession”) published their own communiqué on May Day morning. Regarding the threats and injunctions made against them, they answered:
“We, members of the leading procession, announce for May 1 that we are going on renewable strike concerning the role assigned to us by authorities in the demonstration. We are making the call to retaliate by invading the Latin Quarter as soon as the demonstration has been dissolved.”
Joking aside, many of us were determined to break the spell of May ’68 once and for all by invading the streets of Paris for May Day and letting our dreams, inventiveness, and rage speak for themselves.
The Storm Rages
“Fuck May ’68, fight now!” –Unknown
On May Day morning, as is customary, several small morning gatherings occurred before the classic massive demonstration in the afternoon. That morning, no fewer than five different actions were planned. Around 10 am, traditional unions and organizations (including the CGT, FO, FSU, Solidaires, and UNEF) gathered at the Père Lachaise cemetery in front of the “Mur des Fédérés”—the wall where many of the last participants in the Paris Commune were executed. (Although the Communards died fighting as revolutionaries, they have been dead long enough that these legalistic organizations can risk keeping company with them.) At 10:30 am, a morning demonstration took place in Saint-Denis, a northern suburban city. At 11 am, after leaving their own traditional morning procession, some people gathered in downtown Paris in memory of Brahim Bouarram, a 29-year-old man killed on May 1, 1995 by supporters of the French National Front after they left the National Front May Day morning procession. At noon, as usual, the traditional annual anarcho-syndicalist march left Place des Fêtes to walk to the departure point of the afternoon procession. Finally, around 1 pm, people were supposed to meet at Place de la Bastille for a lively gathering to support the ZAD.
In view of the threats of the authorities, we decided to play it safe and joined the anarcho-syndicalist march to get a sense of the situation in the field. Once we reached Place des Fêtes, some of us decided to redecorate the police station with personal messages and posters about the Haymarket affair and the origins of May Day. As more and more people arrived, it was already apparent that a lot of autonomists, anarchists, and other radicals had decided to join the morning festivities before the afternoon march. Throughout the crowd, we could hear people speaking in French, Italian, German, and English. International call or not, some comrades had decided to visit France and spend May Day in Paris with us.
The morning march finally started. Everything went smoothly; trade unionists and families walked alongside autonomists and newer generations of anarchists while police remained almost invisible the entire time. Some of us took this opportunity to take action: banks and insurance companies saw their front windows smashed and colorful messages appeared on the walls. As we were approaching Place de la Bastille, the departure point of the afternoon procession, tension and apprehension were palpable. Would the police actually stop and search everyone attempting to join the May Day demonstration? Not at all! As the anarchist procession passed a group of policemen in plainclothes (members of the anti-criminality brigade, the BAC) and insulted them, we reached the Place de la Bastille. We had entered the belly of the beast without a hitch!
When we arrived, the Place de la Bastille was packed. Thousands of people already thronged the streets, making their way through the numerous food trucks, traditional organizations, political stands, and balloons. As in 2017, we decided to leave traditional organizations behind us and hurried to catch up with the front of the procession. Along the bassin de l’Arsenal, hidden by the blossoming trees, the colorful crowd progressively changed color. Waves of black appeared among the leading procession. Once everyone was properly changed and equipped, we all moved forward to reach the first lines of the march, already located on the Austerlitz bridge. Once on the bridge, we realized that we would not be at the front of this May Day demonstration, as another crowd of activists was already walking ahead of us.
The beginning of the demonstration was quite strange. While we waited on the bridge, a line of journalists separated us from the front of the procession. All the corporate media outlets wanted to have their own footage of the impressive bloc that was occupying the bridge. For long minutes, we remained completely static; several smoke bombs and torches were lit and the banners at the front formed a perfect line. To us, this entire situation was unproductive and somehow narcissistic, as it seemed that part of the bloc was completely at ease with having their pictures taken by photographers. We felt that they were actively participating in the political spectacle of May Day by playing their role and posing so the media could broadcast their sensational images. In the end, when people were tired of waiting, fireworks and large firecrackers were thrown at journalists to push them back. After several unsuccessful attempts, the bloc charged them and thus finally managed to cross the bridge.
Once we reached the other riverbank, we found police forces and water cannons waiting on both sides. This created confusion in our ranks. For several more minutes, no one knew what to do or what we were waiting for. Would police forces try to split the procession and carry out an enormous mass arrest before the march even started? While the bloc paused again, indecisive about what to do next, the journalists recreated their line in front of us, taking more shots of the famous “black bloc” while preventing us from reaching the other group of demonstrators ahead of us.
Then things began to accelerate. Someone climbed a post and started to smash a city camera with a rock. As the journalists continued filming us unrelentingly, we were finally compelled to respond by smashing or spray painting every single camera in our path. It was time to put out the eyes of the state; in such a situation, rather than being neutral tools, cameras are connected directly to the apparatus of repression. Then the first advertisement billboards were smashed, along with some bus shelters. It seemed that we had finally found our pace.
We entered the boulevard de l’Hôpital, passing the Jardin des Plantes (a large public park) and the rue Buffon, where additional police units were already blocking the street, until we reached a McDonald’s. The storm broke. Activists took out all the front windows of the fast food restaurant while others enthusiastically decorated the walls. As the windows fell to the ground, others entered the restaurant, destroying and looting everything inside. At the end, someone threw a Molotov cocktail inside. Other activists extinguished the flames, as inhabitants living in flats above the restaurant started appearing at their windows.
From this point on, nearly every window display was smashed and every wall spray-painted. The march continued thus, destroying everything in its path, until it reached two car dealerships. Again, some activists ran to the front windows and shattered them. Others entered the premises of one car dealership, wrecking everything inside. Finally, they pulled two cars out onto the sidewalk and set them on fire.
On the other side of the street, not far past the Austerlitz train station, several activists were breaking down the barriers around a construction site. Behind the fencing, they found an excavator. This, too, was set on fire. As the flames consumed the machine, someone took the time to spray-paint “ZAD everywhere” on it. Whatever happens at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, the ZAD will survive! Perhaps not in its current form—as the process of normalization seems to leave fewer and fewer breaches open for experimentation—but its spirit continues to inspire us in other struggles, as this tribute action demonstrates.
At this point, we looked ahead and saw that we couldn’t go any further: police forces were waiting with anti-riot fences and water cannon trucks. They were blocking the route of the demonstration, probably to prevent us from reaching the district police station located a little further ahead on our right. At the same time, confrontations with police broke out at the construction site near the train station. It seemed that police were located inside or near the station, behind additional fences. Law enforcement units answered our projectiles with showers of tear gas canisters, which created a great degree of confusion. As reported by lundimatin:
“Then, we witnessed the most absurd scenes of the day. Dozens of activists in black threw hundreds of stones over the fences at an enemy that was completely out of reach. Others threw stones at a machine in flame, others at a McDonald’s that would no longer cause any harm to anyone. Actions that showed that the static but overwhelming and ubiquitous police presence was about to win, that is to say, to diffuse powerlessness. There was certainly a lot of will and determination during these events, but it ended being compressed in a restricted space where in reality frustration and fear prevailed.”
Little by little, the police trap was closing. While we were distracted by the confrontations near the construction site, the police lines blocking the boulevard ahead of us took the opportunity to move forward with their water cannon trucks, then filled the streets with tear gas. Our only option was to retreat. We were pushed back near the ruins of the McDonald’s. There, we were blocked between the thick clouds of tear gas, the closed fences of the park, and a disoriented and panicking crowd. Facing the jets of water cannons and uninterrupted showers of tear gas canisters, some of us tried to resist with Molotov cocktails and stones, but without any real success. As the intensity of confrontations escalated, people began to escape by climbing over the fences of the public park. Eventually, realizing that the increasing panic could lead to a potential tragedy, firemen decided to open the gates of the park. A breach was opened, and some of us took this opportunity to exit the confrontations. Shortly after, police units fanned out to attempt to arrest people inside the park.
Those who stayed on the boulevard de l’Hôpital continued retreating as the water cannons were now in full use. They ended up crossing the bridge we had departed from and then tried to start several actions by taking other routes. Some joined the march of the CGT, others went back to the bassin de l’Arsenal in order to bypass police lines and harass them. For the occasion, a huge barricade was built to slow the police while others were attacking another car dealership and several stores. Then, as police reinforcements arrived, activists dispersed into the nearby streets, only to gather again a bit further away to begin another spontaneous demonstration. Several Autolibs—electric car sharing vehicles owned by the Bolloré industrial group—were set on fire during the action. Later, the Place de la Bastille was occupied by police, who repeatedly tried to surround people in order to carry out additional arrests, while other small groups of activists were blocked in a nearby boulevard by other law enforcement units. The authorities cleared the entire square of any potential activists.
Once the afternoon demonstration was definitely over, people began to converge around a bar located at Place de la Contrescarpe, in the Latin Quarter, the same district where most of the confrontations of May 1968 had taken place half a century earlier. The main objective of this event was to gather people from different political horizons in order to meet, debate, and create new connections. Unfortunately, police forces were already on site when the first groups of people showed up at the square. As more and more people arrived, police left the square so people could occupy it, but not without stopping and controlling some groups that wanted to join the gathering. Clashes erupted, with police repeatedly beating and pepper-spraying the crowd. The rest of the night witnessed an ongoing cat-and-mouse game between activists and police forces, involving several reoccupations of the Place de la Contrescarpe.
During these events, several spontaneous demonstrations took place. In one case, activists succeeded in escaping police units by entering an already occupied building of the EHESS, the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences. Fascists and neo-Nazis armed with gulf clubs were patrolling the Latin Quarter at the same time. They assaulted several activists who were on their way to the gathering, injuring at least one individual.
After the Storm
May Day 2018 was a special day on several different levels. First, fully 14,500 people joined the non-affiliated march, demonstrating behind or alongside a black bloc of 1200. These are the figures provided by authorities. That means that about half the people who attended the May Day demonstration decided to abandon the traditional political marches. We saw the first signs of this in 2016. It reveals a deep change in terms of political traditions. It seems that more and more people are searching for something more in their activism while losing faith in trade unions and political parties. We are glad to see that this is continuing to spread. To illustrate this phenomenon, here is a translated extract of a personal account written after May Day 2018. The authors explain why they decided to join the leading procession despite their “non-violent” moral stand:
“[…] We recognize that we might have come to the head of the procession because we are attracted by the smell of powder, with the feeling that ‘this is where things happen.’ All this precisely because elsewhere, there is not much going on. The rest of the march is nothing but a deadly boredom, both politically and philosophically. The trade union processions are saturated with trucks, sound systems, a technical power that crushes all life and reduces demonstrations to, at best, a nice walk, at worst, a funeral march. These regulated parades do not disturb anyone and always end with the ritual discussions about figures. The human reduced to numbers: beautiful result!”
The great number of radicals present during May Day—the largest black bloc constituted in Paris so far—along with the intensity of the attacks (31 stores attacked and 16 cars damaged) and our mobility and determination not to be separated from the rest of the leading procession: together, these created difficulties for the authorities. Because the police decided to avoid direct confrontations with demonstrators in favor of maintaining a security perimeter from a distance, they were not able to contain us or track all of our movements once we had no option other than to retreat. Because of the chaotic situation, the Police Prefecture of Paris, with the agreement of trade union leaders, decided to simply cancel the May Day procession. A surprising decision, when we bear in mind that beforehand, the Prefecture had discussed an alternative route with trade union leaders in case violence occurred during the march. It is always instructive to see the masks of trade union leaders fall, revealing how superficial their convictions are.
Later that night, authorities, politicians, trade union leaders, journalists, and “specialists” of all kinds continued to argue over the events of the day and the tactics used by police against the black bloc. Journalists and politicians are still having a great deal of trouble understanding that the “black bloc” is not a specific entity but a street tactic; the black bloc was blamed not only for the cancellation of the May Day procession, but also for all the evils of our modern world. As usual, the same old patronizing discourse distinguishing “good demonstrators” from “violent thugs” returned to center stage in these debates. What irony, to see self-proclaimed leaders celebrating May 1968 one day, then denouncing demonstrators the next day on account of some of the same confrontational tactics.
Due to intensifying polemics regarding the tactics used by law enforcement during the afternoon, the Prefect of Paris had to improvise a press conference to explain why the police did not simply charge the crowd to put a stop to the vandalism. The Prefect explained that the results of the day were extremely positive in that, despite the property damage, only one policeman had been lightly injured and the police had carried out numerous arrests. On our side, we don’t know how many people were injured during the confrontations.
The trap the authorities had set for May Day 2018 ended up being more effective than we expected: afterwards, we learned that over 250 people had been arrested during the day. That night, the authorities announced that more than 100 had been taken into custody, and that the first court appearances were already scheduled for the end of the week.
On Thursday, May 3, six individuals went to court; all of them refused immediate appearance. Their trials will be held at the end of May and in mid-June. In the meantime, two friends were put in pre-trial custody and three under judicial control. On May 4, seven individuals were indicted, two were convoked later, and thirteen just received reminders of the law. Three defendants accepted immediate appearances: two were discharged, and the last one received a 1000-euro fine for carrying a smoke bomb and spray-paint cans. The others will be tried later. Two more people were put in pre-trial custody and others under judicial control. We send our love and support to everyone arrested on May Day—not only in Paris, but everywhere. For those seeking more details about the several days of hearings concerning the events of May Day in Paris, we recommend this report by the Parisian legal team.
Even if this massive wave of arrests ends up being simply a symbolic gesture orchestrated by the government and the Police Prefecture of Paris, the number of individuals held in custody shows their determination to increase repression towards anyone suspected of belonging to the leading procession—even simply on account of clothes, accessories, or medical supplies. By spreading fear of being arrested for “participating in a group formed in order to commit vandalism or violence,” the authorities aim to discourage demonstrators from the practices of the leading procession, and to compel everyone else to dissociate from us. History will show whether we can avoid this trap.
The storm of May Day 2018 is over. It’s time for us to reflect on the events of that day, the strategies and decisions on the field, and some attitudes and postures within the leading procession that, in our eyes, are becoming problematic. Many personal essays and reflections have already appeared online on the subject, indicating that everyone feels there is room for improvement.
Deserting Social Media, Keeping a Low Profile
As anarchists, we are all aware of the risks that new technologies can involve. It is no surprise that our phones and computers can be tapped and that our favorite websites and social media platforms are monitored by the authorities. This is why, for strategic reasons, we believe that we should minimize our dependence on social media and new technologies in general. How many times has online information—statements, posts, pictures, friendships, events—been used against us in court to add more charges to our cases? We need to be more cautious with these tools in order to protect others and ourselves. As younger generations of activists are joining us for actions like those of May Day, we have to find ways to pass on proper security practices to new participants before they get themselves into trouble.
A Facebook event entitled “May Day 2018: A Day in Hell” and a call for a “revolutionary, determined, and fighting procession” were posted online before the eyes of the world. Our point here is not to attack the authors of this call, but to consider the use of social media as a platform to announce actions. What is the goal of advertising such an event online? Publicity, certainly. It is true that we need to announce events in order to draw people to them who are not already involved in our circles, but perhaps there could be a way to do this that would not also forewarn the authorities as to the character of our plans. When we do so, it enables them to prepare strategies for media narrative and repression in advance. Of course, the authorities already suspected that we intended to join the traditional procession and unleash hell, as we did in the past; but we should not make it easy for them to predict where and how we will strike, nor to identify the most confrontational elements. Regarding such press statements from our side, they may sometimes be necessary, but we should avoid publicity stunts of all kinds, and we also have to consider what the process is by which it is determined which actions are announced and how. These announcements can make things possible, but they can also make things impossible. One of the greatest structural challenges of organizing in the 21st century is how to resist the dictatorship of those who have the most media access.
Because we openly announced our intention to carry out a frontal assault, the authorities had plenty of time to prepare a trap for us. They used this call to warn trade union leaders and to stir up the tensions that exist between them and some individuals in the leading procession. We should take care not to use rhetoric or publicity strategies that will leave us more isolated and vulnerable in the end. There is no doubt that the government is increasing its pressure on us, and an approach that works once may not work so well the next time. Michel Delpuech, the Police Commissioner of Paris, reported that the police and government officials were generally pleased with the results of the law enforcement strategy they used on May Day, and that they already knew in advance what our main targets were: the train station and the district police station.
All this raises a lot of questions regarding our discretion, our capacity of staying under the radar while getting organized until the day of the action, and also our capacity of remaining unpredictable. We should not depend on social media to communicate among ourselves, and we should be intentional in determining which information we share in different venues. There have to be other safer ways to reach out to others—especially newer generations—without having to rely on social media or voluntarily drawing attention to ourselves before an action. For us, the solution lies deeper underground, in our informal assemblies, gatherings, meetings, and parties, where real human interactions and affinities can flourish. It is there, and through meeting new people in the streets or during actions, that we can develop and extend new informal connections and solidarity while escaping as much as possible from the constantly increasing state surveillance.
Down with Radical Rituals, Postures, and the Cult of Images
Another concerning issue is that since its first appearance in 2016, the head of the leading procession—the “black bloc”—is becoming more and more ritualized, at the risk of becoming a caricature of itself. When at first, groups of students, anarchists, autonomists, and other radicals decided to take the head of the demonstration at the expense of trade unions, it was to open up new horizons for activism in France. This strategy worked: new forms of action and solidarity emerged as people decided to secede from the trade union processions. The leading procession became an uncontrollable body for which diversity, mobility, and spontaneity were the watchwords.
Two years later, the situation has changed. Of course, we are happy to see that the leading procession still exists and keeps attracting more and more people. Nevertheless, when we decide to take part in an action, everything follows a familiar pattern: we join the demonstration, we reach the front of the procession, we change our clothes for anonymity, we create a bloc at the head of the leading procession, we pose with our banners and smoke bombs for photographers, we march, we shout the same slogans, we attack some targets, we confront police forces, we escape and disband. Once again, we have reached a plateau, and we find ourselves fulfilling a role in an orchestrated spectacle. What used to be an unpredictable spark, a way of outflanking specific demonstrations, is now becoming an expected form of action. In ritualizing our strategies, we end up integrating them into others’ expectations and facilitating the task of the police at the same time. We have to create a new momentum in our actions. Only our creativity and originality can add new subversive, spontaneous, and chaotic elements to the “black bloc” strategy.
As a starting point, we could start by refusing the cult of images, an integral part of the “society of spectacle.” It seems that there is a lot of work to be done in this regard among the monochrome bloc of the leading procession. For us, it is clear that images of all kinds are nothing more than invisible chains that tie us to the narcissistic and materialistic aspects of the prevailing order. We should not be imitating popular images of struggle; we should seek to interrupt a way of living based on emulating images. While the autonomous bloc was waiting on the Austerlitz bridge, we witnessed a strange scene in which dozens of photographers captured footage of the autonomous procession, while some of us proudly posed with banners and smoke bombs. It took the crowd a long time to show the first signs of irritation against journalists, even though they repeatedly blocked our path.
Regardless of the intentions of journalists, their profession endangers us. They record us before, during, and after actions; often, they are positioned between us and our targets, or our comrades, or the police. Their presence can distract us from other important objectives, obstruct our movements, and incriminate us afterwards if police utilize their footage for investigations. After May Day, discussing this subject with comrades, we all agreed that some of the newer generations in the leading procession probably decided to join us only because they saw images online of the confrontations during the movement against the Loi Travail. Unfortunately, the power of images is a double-edged sword: on one side, it can make people choose to join us, but on the other side, they might remain fascinated by this warrior posture and the production of spectacular images.
As the government tries to intensify control and repression, we have to be especially careful regarding the presence of cameras during actions. Once, the only cameras we had to be worried about were police or city cameras. Today, they are everywhere. But this should not make us accept them as inevitable: we need to keep journalists and cameras out of our procession, without any exceptions. What is more important, the dissemination of images flattering our egos, or making it possible to act freely during demonstrations?
For more information about the issue of cameras in our radical processions, you can read the zine“Dialogue imaginaire avec un-e défenseur-euse de l’image photographique d’individus.”
Improving Our Organization, Strategies, and Solidarity
Rather than taking for granted the simplistic dichotomy of “victory” versus “defeat,” we would like to discuss several points that could be improved for future actions. Some decisions taken on May Day raise questions that we must confront if we want to move forward.
First, when we passed the Austerlitz bridge to enter the boulevard de l’Hôpital, we all realized that police forces were waiting for us on both side of the procession. This clearly made us uneasy for some time. Then, when we finally decided to move forward and reached the McDonald’s, we realized again that police forces we blocking the nearby street rue Buffon. In our view, as soon as we ravaged the McDonald’s, we were already within the trap of police forces, as anti-riot fences and water cannon trucks were blocking us from progressing further. In other words, starting at that specific moment, we had no options except to retreat via the park, to return across the bridge we had just crossed, or to endure the police attacks. Next time, we need to be more aware of our surroundings, to anticipate the movements of law enforcement, and to think ahead of time about possible escape routes in order to avoid the moments of panic that we saw on May Day. We are fortunate to be able to say that we succeeded—for the most part—in escaping and outflanking the massive police presence, at least for a moment. But we could certainly do better.
We also should revisit individual decisions, such as the choice to throw a Molotov cocktail inside the McDonald’s when people were living above the restaurant, or to set cars on fire on the sidewalk so that flames threatened the apartments above them. The point is not to criticize the use of Molotov cocktails, but to consider when and where to use them. We should never risk collateral victims because of our decisions. Let’s avoid another tragedy like the one that took place in Greece several years ago in the Marfin bank fire. A tragedy like that would affect all of us on several different levels.
Also, we need to take better care of each other during actions. On May Day 2018, many people were not equipped to endure the showers of tear gas. Many people experienced panic attacks or respiratory issues while caught in a middle of a large confused crowd. We saw at least one person with a head injury receiving medical attention from firemen. It is obvious that we need to bring more medical supplies with us to these actions.
Finally, let us recall that solidarity is one of our greatest assets. Today, about 50 arrestees await trial. Several gatherings took place in front of the police stations in which individuals were incarcerated. These actions need to intensify, and not only because friends known to us personally are detained. Solidarity is for everyone, friends or not. One idea for future actions could be to find new tactics to protect each other from being arrested, or to respond to arrests.
Our Rage Must Not Be Contained
It is now apparent that the autonomous procession, in all its diversity, needs to use creativity to break out of the current stalemate. To accomplish this, we need to free ourselves from the defeatist rhetoric that tends to crop up in our discussions, to accept criticism, and to abandon the ritualized framework of the leading procession. We need to become unpredictable again.
Regarding the argument currently circulating to the effect that we should join forces once more with trade unions, we have some reservations. Let’s not forget that trade union leaders are the ones who negotiate with every successive government to determine the length of the chains with which we are all bound. We don’t need longer chains, but to be rid of chains once and for all! And what about the trade union service personnel who attacked students and radicals on several occasions during the demonstrations of 2016?
Let’s make it clear that we don’t want to join forces with trade unions—with an authoritarian and hierarchical political apparatus. Rather, we want to create connections with everyone—unionized or not—who is disillusioned with the presiding political hierarchies. We can form these connections during blockades, in spontaneous actions, or in the leading processions.
Here are some closing thoughts that we could discuss in hopes of opening new breaches in our struggles:
First, why not take law enforcement by surprise during major events like May Day? Instead of converging for the afternoon demonstration as we usually do, we could desert the demonstration. As police units would be positioned along the official route, we could seize this opportunity to carry out actions everywhere else, outside the official route of the demonstration. Certainly, such action requires a lot of preparation and organization. The goal would be that every single affinity group that would otherwise have constituted the head of the leading procession should attack a specific target, all at the same time. It might not work, of course—calls for “autonomous actions” often fall flat, and this strategy (branded as “Plan B” for the 2007 G8 summit in Germany) has failed before. People usually need to experience a certain amount of concentration to gain the morale necessary to take transformative action. But if we could decentralize our efforts, we could outmaneuver the police and draw more people into the confrontations.
Another solution could be to dissolve the autonomous bloc at the head of the leading procession, as the latter is now becoming too predictable and somehow too slow. In doing so, we might be able to use to our advantage the fact that the majority of the crowd in the leading procession supports our actions, so as to move through the crowd like free electrons, attacking one target after another. If they had to control the entirety of the leading procession, police forces would constantly being harassed or overtaken by events. As mentioned earlier, traditional trade unions are still eroding, and more people are joining the leading procession; therefore, we can expect more and more people on our side. Strategically, it would be a nightmare for law enforcement. How would they carry out arrests amidst thousands of uncooperative individuals? If they sought to divide the procession, they would risk being surrounded by demonstrators as they were on May Day 2016; if they charged the crowd, it would be a public image nightmare for the government. The Police Commissioner of Paris made it clear that the current strategy of the police is to avoid direct confrontations; if this continues, it means that sending undercover officers into the crowd to arrest specific individuals is not an option. Our mobility and agility would be a precious asset. Finally, distributing the confrontational black bloc throughout the rest of the leading procession would dissolve the dividing lines of identity, creating confusion for the authorities as to who to target and opening up the possibility that people who had not previously expected it of themselves might cross the threshold into action.
One thing is certain: the present situation cannot continue. As the authors of an article entitled “Ce sera tout?” (“That will be all?”) put it:
“The self-satisfied ‘leading procession’ has now been instituted as a norm of superficial radicalism to the detriment of inventiveness, effervescence, and riotous joy, thus removing all its subversive significance and opposing the savage and uncontrollable aspects that no longer find a place to express themselves within it.”
It is vital to consider every single criticism made of the leading procession, in order to find solutions to escape from this dangerous stalemate. We need to rethink everything and begin acting according to a different logic.
All of that being said, the events of that afternoon continue to fill our hearts with warmth, joy, and passion. Count on us to continue smashing every single symbol of the prevailing order until we reach its very foundations.
This is a short list of French-language texts about May Day 2018 in Paris. You can find a more complete collection here.
Two weeks ago, thousands of French police attacked the ZAD—the Zone a Défendre (Zone To Defend)—an occupied area in which the French government tried for decades to build a widely unpopular airport. Yet every conflict conceals other conflicts within it. Inside the movement, there have been bitter differences about how to deal with power dynamics, whether to negotiate with the authorities, and how to resist the divide-and-conquer tactics of the state.
In the US, we have watched the struggle around the ZAD without presuming to understand all the factors at play. Yet the debates taking place there have spilled over to our side of the Atlantic as well. In hopes of helping other rebels who may confront similar challenges to think through the nuances in advance, we’ve translated two texts from different sides of these debates, “ZAD: Second Round” and “When Lama Fâché, Llama Spit!” Both appear below with annotations.
Although we can only speak hypothetically from this distance, the fact that the disputants frame their arguments as matters of strategy and principle compels us to weigh in on these questions ourselves. We don’t pretend to offer a comprehensive analysis of the events; we can only evaluate the narratives put forward in the texts that are currently available.
While we want all the perspectives in these debates to be heard, we have reservations about both sides. It’s precisely because we identify with both parties in any conflict between anti-authoritarians that we always aim to be critical. Our chief goal must be to come out of each conflict stronger and more capable of evaluating our effectiveness rather than simply getting drawn into ideological gang warfare complete with jingoism, loyalty pledges, and smear campaigns.
A Little Background
On January 17, in the same statement in which he announced the abandonment of the airport project, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe
declared that the French government was determined to regain control of the ZAD:
This is the second decision that I announce today: we will end the area of lawlessness that has flourished for almost 10 years in this area…
The three roads that cross the site of Notre-Dame-Des-Landes must now be returned to free circulation for all. Squats overflowing onto the road will be evicted, obstacles removed, traffic restored. Otherwise, the police will carry out the necessary operations…
The illegal occupants of these lands will have to leave by the spring or will be expelled.
The same day, an “official” press release signed by five of the many organizations involved in the struggle at the ZAD asserted that they would oppose all evictions, but also that they would grant at least one of the Prime Minister’s demands themselves:
Regarding the question of the reopening of the road D281, a road closed by the state in 2013, the movement will take the matter in its own hands.
A few days later, on January 22, against the wishes of an outraged minority, a group from the ZAD destroyed the barricades and habitations along road D281. This did not stop the state from raiding the ZAD on April 9 with the intention of evicting and destroying dozens of habitations.
Comments on “ZAD: Second Round”
In “ZAD: Second Round,” below, and another widely circulated text, “The ZAD Will Survive,” the authors justify negotiating with the state and destroying the inhabited fortifications along the road D281 on the grounds that it was necessary to maintain the unity of the movement. By this standard, however, the strategy failed on its own terms. We wouldn’t be debating this in the US if their wager had succeeded.
The blame for the dispute is laid at the doorstep of people who are described as “ultra-radicals,” whom the authors accuse of willfully snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in order to be beautiful losers—all this, for not wanting to open up the route that the police then used to carry out the eviction. If this debate were taking place here in the US, we would almost certainly hear these people called “outside agitators,” and the ones calling them that would be either Democrats or authoritarian leftists like the Workers World Party.
The authors’ charge is that those who wished to keep the road fortified had not made themselves comprehensible to the rest of the movement. But it seems to us that there was already a problem if the movement could divide along these lines. It’s all well and good for those who won the ensuing power struggle to congratulate themselves on not “withdrawing into their own private domains,” to speak about seeking “a path in common” while carping about those who have spread “a binary and depressive account of the situation.” Rather than blaming those who lost the power struggle, however, we should concern ourselves with the processes by which “radicals” end up “outside.”
There are always conflicts within social movements. We agree with the authors of “ZAD: Second Round” and “The ZAD Will Survive” that the more we can hold together in the face of state pressure, the stronger we will be. But if a rupture is inevitable and we are forced to choose, we should not justify siding with those who seek to coexist with the state over those who seek to confront it on the grounds that this decision is necessary in order to confront it. Those who make a habit of this may indeed be able to “build power,” but only on the terms set by the state.
The same goes for making decisions in order to be “intelligible” in the media. That should never outweigh the necessity of showing others who choose to confront the authorities that we can be reliable comrades.
Obviously, it is always better not to have to make this choice, to resist the pressure to divide a movement into tractable and intractable. But the authors of “The ZAD Will Survive” and “Second Round” themselves acknowledge that this division has taken place, in accusing those who have not taken their particular approach of marginalizing themselves. It seems to us that this marginalization cannot have been a unilateral process. The goal of not letting “radical” ideas or goals be marginalized cannot justify marginalizing those who espouse them.
There are larger questions at play here. Is unity necessarily the best way for a movement to build strength? Or is it better to foster an irreducible diversity of approaches, so that negotiation will be, if not impossible, at least—useless? By asserting the necessity of pursuing a “common” strategy and speaking of “the” movement as a unitary thing—a singular noun—the authors come down firmly on the side of the former approach. Yet the only way that those who wish to negotiate with the state can speak from a position of strength is if they are flanked by an “intractable” alternative that the authorities fear will gain momentum if negotiations fail.
In the US, this phenomenon is famously illustrated by the leverage that the negotiator Martin Luther King, Jr. gained from the “intractable” Malcolm X. The disciples of MLK ended up occupying public office, ultimately perpetuating the status quo, while many who followed the example of Malcolm X spent decades in prison. We should try to avoid being forced to choose between this binary, but that always begins by refusing to sell out the “intractables,” from whom all leverage originates.
This is not to say that, if everyone at the ZAD had agreed on it, it would necessarily have been a mistake to dismantle the barricades on the D281. There are limits to what any group of people can do—the number of risks they can run, the number of barricades they can defend at once. The problem, rather, is that some participants forced their strategy on others and then sought to justify this in the name of unity and efficacy.
If negotiating with the state and evicting the D281 was intended to diminish the likelihood of an attack from the state, then, once again, it failed on its own terms. It’s axiomatic—and countless decades of struggle confirm this—that you can’t make the state stop demanding compromises by compromising with it.
We have heard various arguments in the name of pragmatism in favor of negotiation—to the effect that if it could secure the ZAD as a space to foster future rebellions, that would ultimately justify it. It seems to us that it was naïve to imagine that the state could be placated. Siding with those who wished to negotiate against the “intractables” does not strike us as a bold refusal to fall into a trap set by the state, but rather as a choice to step directly into it. To avoid falling into the trap set by the state, the proponents of the ZAD would have had to refuse any kind of division whatsoever. As usual, the internal fault lines that run through our movements are our greatest vulnerability.
There’s a bigger question here, once again, about what counts as success. What is the essence of the battle being fought here? According to one account, it is a contest for control of a piece of land, pitting two different social bodies against each other; in that case, it is strategic to use any means to expand the composition of one’s preferred side. According to another account, it is a battle between two different ethics—an ethic of governing, and an ethic of resisting governance, refusing to govern. If the latter is the battle that we are really invested in, then courses of action that are otherwise quixotic start to make sense.
To quote Durruti, “It’s not the barricade but the rifle you have to hold on to.” If you lose the barricade (e.g., the ZAD, a squat, a particular engagement with the state) but retain the rifle (the collective ability to fight, immunity to narratives that legitimize state violence, a commitment to solidarity over opportunism), you can still move from one engagement to the next, building capacity. If you lose the rifle, but retain the barricade, it may appear that you have won, but thirty years later you will look around and find that you are where the once-formidable Dutch squatting movement is today.
This illustrates how the charge of being “ideological” rather than practical or flexible can conceal genuinely different goals, different standards of what counts as effective. Various parties have hurled the charge of being “ideological” rather than strategic at anarchists since at least the 1870s. None of them have proven to be more strategic when it comes to the question of how to undermine the state without simply replacing it.
A few of the arguments implicit in “Second Round” would be less surprising coming from authoritarian socialist parties—above all, the stuff about the “ultra-radicals” giving the police an excuse to “justify” their presence. If we let the police determine for us what counts as “good optics,” what “the general public” will be able to understand and what they won’t, we’ll never be able to build the capacity to take on the state. In the final analysis, we can gauge our success by how difficult we have made it for the police to justify themselves at all.
From across the Atlantic, we presume honest intentions on the part of the authors of “The ZAD Will Survive” and “Second Round.” Under tremendous pressure from all sides, determined not to fracture, they made a wager that they could hold the movement together and dissuade the state from attacking if only they… carried out a little internal policing. When the smoke cleared, their wager had not succeeded, and they had acted against their own anti-authoritarian values. Most any organization could have made the same mistake; there are anarcho-syndicalist and platformist groups that might have made this mistake more readily. What we’d like to hear from the authors, ideally, is a critical evaluation of their wager and some reflection on whether it is actually consistent with their ethics and goals.
Comments on “When Lama Fâché, Llama Spit!”
Now we turn to the opposing perspective, the one expressed in “When Lama Fâché, Llama Spit!” as well as a variety of other Indymedia articles. For want of better terminology, we’ll call this the position of the “intractables.” If “ZAD: Second Round” and “The ZAD Will Survive” pass briskly over the controversy in a soothing voice, the Indymedia articles present strident cries of betrayal.
The authors of all of these texts—“Second Round,” “The ZAD Will Survive,” “Lama Fâché,” and the other Indymedia articles—agree that it is a problem that the less radical wing of the movement around the ZAD might be inclined to collaborate with the government towards the “normalization” of the area. The authors of “Second Round” have a solution for this, however problematic: by breaking solidarity with the “ultra-radicals,” they hope to maintain ties with those who might otherwise simply place their faith in the state. While the authors of “Lama Fâché” do not make this error, they don’t propose an alternative, either. Passing judgment on those guilty of betrayal is a poor compensation for giving them cause not to betray.
In this light, their critique of the logic of “composition” is useful as a diagnosis but offers no solutions. It is not enough to decry the logic of coalition building. Any effective resistance will need to involve many people of many perspectives. The question is how to legitimize autonomous action and open defiance, so the state and reformist elements cannot arrange for it to be isolated and defeated.
We would prefer to hear from the “intractables” an analysis of how it was that they permitted themselves be sidelined. What were the strategic points along the way at which they could have made their case more convincing? Surely they too could have built a consensus with a wider range of ZADists. If not a consensus strong enough not to fracture in the face of state pressure, then at least a consensus strong enough that—when the fracture came—the other insurrectionists would stand with them.
If their perspective is the one that we would prefer to see legitimized, it’s shameful for them to limit themselves to standing at the back of the room, shouting insults as the meeting goes on without them. It is not enough to be in the right. We have to find effective strategies that give force to our ethics. We depend on the “intractables” to find ways to surmount the impasses, to overcome binaries, to transform would-be betrayers into trustworthy comrades.
The narrative can’t simply be a story of betrayal. If the only thing we can learn from this conflict is that even those who also claim to be against the state will also betray us, that won’t help us to prepare for future struggles. It won’t help us to be more strategic. It won’t help us to put the pieces in place so we won’t have to worry that when we refuse to back down, our actions will “justify” the actions of the police in the eyes of the media and the general public—even after 40,000 people have come together to defy the police.
ZAD – ROUND TWO
Published on April 9 at Lundimatin. An alternate English translation is available here.
We have been preparing for this for five years, while at the same time having so far ensured it could never happen. But we are now at the beginning of a new, great police operation whose breadth and duration we still don’t know. The State was supposed to take its revenge, there was always supposed to be a second round. Everywhere in this country, the people who have come to the ZAD ask themselves how far Macron will go to put an end to one of the most beautiful collective political adventures of the past decade, to put an end to the possibility of a space where other forms of life are sought. While barricades are again formed on the roads of the ZAD’s wooded grove, everyone here embraces each other and asks themselves what will still exist tomorrow of all that has formed the vibrant heart of our existences day after day. What tonight’s embraces say, above all, is that five years after Operation Caesar,1 we must face this new invasion, hold on at all costs and again make sure the future stays open.
In the wake of the airport project’s abandonment, we have lived through a turbulent time of numerous tensions and temptations—temptations to withdraw into our own private domains, or to simply give up altogether. Yet for many of us, this time has also been marked by a continuous investigation into what could still sketch out a path in common. Over these last weeks, it has at times been quite upsetting to see how far a binary and depressive account of the situation has been able to spread. For our part, in this hour of truth, we prefer to return to what seems to still allow us the capacity to conceive of a path in common. Before the storm blows in again here, these lines we write provide a way to transmit why it remains vital for us to continue to defend the ZAD, both here on the terrain and wherever you are in the following days. In the following months as well, because Caesar 2 will not overcome what we continue to uphold here.
WHAT NEGOTIATION DOESN’T MEAN
After the abandonment of the airport project, the movement decided to enter into dialogue with the government in an attempt to negotiate its vision for the future of the ZAD. This sequence forced us to confront ourselves with new challenges. We felt guided by objectives that were at once clear and extremely complex:
neutralize in the best way possible the near absolute need for the State to take revenge on the ZAD by an operation of eviction, and by doing so allow the inhabitants of this territory to remain in all their diversity;
-maintain as much as possible the margins of autonomy that have given a proper meaning to this experience, while also finding the means for a stability desired by a number of people here;
maintain and amplify, finally, collective control over the lands of the ZAD and its connections with other ongoing forms of resistance.
In this period, for us, there was never a choice between negotiating OR fighting. We never bet that we would at once obtain, in the offices of the State’s institutions, what we wanted. Negotiation is only one of the levers of which the movement availed itself after the government’s abandonment of the airport project, supported by a relation of forces maintained through years of resistance. According to this perspective, the same forces that plan an offensive negotiation also organize in parallel an assembly before the prefecture when the State’s response is unsatisfying. The same forces that, over the course of the past weeks, have led a juridical and political combat against all the evictions and organized a protest in Nantes with refugees and those living with inadequate housing, are also those that plan to engage in physical resistance when they come to try to evict the places of the ZAD.
Throwing themselves in to the gamble of negotiation with the fear of losing the ZAD’s cutting edge in the process wasn’t something that was obvious for the occupiers. It wasn’t any more obvious for others who are part of the ZAD to pursue struggle and to include the fate of the post-abandonment period, together with the other urgent decisions that this period would require, in the hands of large and heterogeneous assemblies. These are the risks and mutual overcomings that, as always, have permitted us to continue to move forward together rather than to desert or wither in isolation. In this case, we firmly believe it was then necessary to make an attempt there at that moment so that, each time the negotiation revealed its limits, we could continue to go beyond it.
The capacity of the airport movement’s composition has been a lasting nightmare for the government, for whom it was extremely unpleasant to imagine the movement could last beyond the project’s abandonment. At the start of these negotiations, clearly one of the government’s primary objectives was to explode our decision to organize a common delegation. The government also had to curb its desire to address future stakes in a divided manner: from the refusal of evictions to the movement’s collective control of lands, from a firm opposition to the return of classical agricultural management to the wider question of amnesty. The prefecture tried to separate representatives from among us and convene them one by one to a steering committee strictly dedicated to agricultural management. One cannot forget the force of this bait and the energy the prefecture put into avoiding rejection. The framework we had slowly developed almost exploded—but the maneuver finally failed. The ACIPA2 declined the prefect’s invitation, while the peasant Confederation called an organized assembly before the steering committee, which decided to hear and respect the message of the movement. The common delegation survived. The prefecture had to immediately go back on its positions and accept to speak again with the steering committee. The maintenance of only agricultural activities turned into “agriculture that is wholistic in every sense.” It has almost already been won that several hundred hectares of lands saved and maintained collectively, beyond the historical lands, must be dedicated to projects connected to the movement. It is a considerable first step, but still doesn’t resolve the fate of the combat connected to the ZAD’s habitats and the need for collective control over the property after this transitional phase to ensure it is viable for whatever comes next.
In this first phase of negotiations, the prefecture announced its desire to sort out unacceptable criteria and called on those who wanted to have a chance to remain to apply for a personal agreement and to register as soon as possible with the MSA.3 Some were unable to scrutinize the horizon with anything other than preconceived schemas and the passion for defeat; immediately they portended betrayal by those who would surely benefit themselves at the expense of others. Indeed, it would have been easy to cut a deal and run at any time over the last few weeks with some simple short letters and paperwork. The prefecture was waiting for that. But the reality is that, despite the pressures, no one fell into this trap.
Nobody filed to go individually through the selective examination: we did not agree to let ourselves be separated out. On the contrary, there was a political and concrete refusal of these injunctions. What was maintained was the claim to the land and the search for a protective and collective framework for all, including a global agreement regarding the lands of the movement. It is this real solidarity that impedes the prefecture today on at least two levels: to continue the negotiation in the way that it initially sought and to legitimize its operation of selective eviction.
In this context, however, there is still much talk of “radicals” or “intractables” on the one hand and cowards eager to negotiate or peasants quick to normalize conditions on the other. It is remarkable to see how much this fiction pleases both the dominant media, the prefecture and the preachers of the good morals of a fantasized radicalism. But for most of those who have defended the ZAD, cultivated and lived in this grove in recent years, this division is only a fiction. Among those who hold to a common line in the movement through negotiation AND the fight, among those who want to stay here and really maintain the ZAD as a shared space, there are also people and crews from each category: peasants, younger and older squatters, the “historical ones,” adherents of the ACIPA, neighbors, naturalists, syndicalist comrades, nature enthusiasts, activists of the Coordination…4 In the optics that the ZAD continues to spread, the idea that everything should be legal or remain illegal forms two sides of the same (bad) coin. These positions come from ideological fetishes, one as sterile as the other when applied to pursuing struggles on the terrain. Those who really participated in the unfolding of the movement in recent years, who were not content to merely comment on the internet, are well aware that these oversimplified “legalistic” or “illegal,” “violent” or “non-violent” visions never corresponded to what made our force effective and allowed us to bend the will of the State. They are not more adapted today to meet the horizons and objectives of the “6 points.”
It was never a question for us of entering a process of normalization with a bowed head, but rather to determine what would allow us to hold onto all the places of life and activity through this reconfiguration of the situation. To do this, it is necessary to determine, step-by-step, what will be best at preserving margins of autonomy and support so that we do not end up submitting in isolation to all the constraints imposed by forms of market and industrial production. This entails very real practices in a concrete power struggle with a powerful enemy and not fancies of an ideal world. To know this, it is enough to trust the attachment we have to the meaning that has been found for years in the free re-invention of the relation to what we produce.
ENOUGH WITH THE ROAD MYTHOLOGY
From weeks of physical resistance to Operation Caesar in 2012, we know that the effectiveness of the ZAD’s defense has never rested solely on a road barricaded by an isolated group, much less on the nostalgic obsession for this device outside of times of attack. But, it has always been a possibility for us, when the time comes, to block the different strategic access points and to hold the ground in very different ways, with a varied set of supports both in and outside of the zone. Unfortunately, the tension of recent weeks surrounding the road has, among other risks, the potential to undermine this possibility of broad resistance.
We have tried for months to leave no political opening for the State to evict anyone. Having won this bet many times in recent years, in our opinion it was still absolutely tenable to remain after the abandonment of the D281 road barricades, despite the threats of the Prime Minister. The prefecture needed a suitable story to make these threats concrete. He needed people who could embody the caricature of the famous “ultra-radicals.” Some brilliantly took the role expected of them, especially on the issue of the road D281, reducing the stakes of the struggle to a story that became more and more incomprehensible for the vast majority of those with whom they had fought, for their neighbors and in general for most people near and far who heard about it. By blocking the work the first time, a few people—not to be confused with people living near the road—justified the police presence we had for weeks, allowing them to get boots back on the ground. The destruction of some asphalt at the end of the job, while the police could still withdraw, while the situation was clear and we could still hope to find a common strength, brought despair (for a time at least) to many of those who have continued to provide unwavering support for the threat of evictions. When the General Council5 refused to open the road under these conditions, the evictions in question found a major justification and became almost inevitable.
FACING WHATEVER COMES
The force of this struggle has been to constantly go against the current of certainties maintained by both the identitarian “radical” ghetto as well as the classic “citizen” militancy. In this respect, the movement has always collided with those that enclosed themselves within one of these polarizations and forced disruptions upon those that have wanted to accompany it. It has found its own path and laid a foundation for a unique front at once anchored, offensive, and popular. This simple fact has been for many of us an astounding political event and the motor of a historical defeat of the State. It is not surprising, however, that the advent of another phase brings new concerns and new hopes along with ideological scleroses. The sequence following victory is a moment of truth where the real consequences of the groups involved are unveiled. In this tense phase, there have typically been two responses that sabotage our common engagements and the movement: block the work on the road OR publicly dissociate from an assembly organized by the movement in the face of the steering committee in order to support the mixed delegation. The sad truth is that, on one side some have preferred to weaken the common structure by wasting away over obsessions that are indefensible to the rest of the movement, while on the other side some have been quick to forget about holding a common line in the face of governmental pressure. Some brilliantly applied themselves to justifying a partial eviction and putting those who would be targeted in the most isolated position possible. Others kept virtually silent as the eviction operation approached. We could hold onto and rehash such bitter observations endlessly. But another much brighter truth is that, all told, most people who over the years formed the basic community of this struggle also braved its dangers and trials together and remained faithful to the promises they made to one another. It is this truth that we must continue to cling to if we do not wish to perish in self-fulfilling prophecies of the inevitable downfall of spaces of autonomy and collective adventures.
Despite the disputes that have undoubtedly weakened the movement and its legibility in recent weeks, it goes without saying that the State’s plans to evict will be met with a fight. Whatever pitfalls we fell into at times, the actual foundation of the ZAD and the hopes it continues to raise did not fall apart over a few weeks of sadness. We can feel this in the forces that remobilized on the eve of the operation, in those who had their doubts but then heard the call and immediately got on the road, in the last minute assemblies, in the barricades of all kinds of things that stand up against the armed forces of the State and the story that the government is getting ready to tell…
We are going to have to go through a violent ordeal that could reshuffle all the cards. But we have no doubt that the ZAD will survive Caesar 2. What we continue to bring to the movement will be neither a docile display of alternativeness nor a radical ghetto. Rather, we will continue to make of struggle a breadbasket and of resistance a common good, a place where people who live and meet are as diverse as they are surprising, a territory that makes you want to organize seriously, to live fully, a permanent building site for wonderful constructions and waking dreams. We still need places where not relying on the economy and institutional management is visibly desirable and possible. And we need these places to last, even if they have their share of impurities and messiness. Because the spaces that excite us most compel us to assemble and put our ready-made politics into question. We believe that, essentially, it is through the ZAD that we will continue to galvanize tens of thousands of people across the country.
And now we must stand up!
Voices in common
When Lama Fâché, Llama Spit!
Published on April 10 on Indymedia Nantes, after initially appearing in print, as described below.
This text has been handed out a first time during the demonstration of March 31 against all evictions at Caen. We gave it out again this Monday night [April 9, 2018, the day the evictions at the ZAD of Notre-Dame-des-Landes started] while about 200 people walked the streets with a beautiful energy before reaching an empty train station with no departing trains.6 During this action, the cops were discreet.
By handing out this text, we wanted to show our solidarity with the people facing the current evictions [at the ZAD] of which Lama Fâché [“Angry Llama”] was the first cabin raided. At the same time, we wanted to express where this solidarity was coming from and convey that it was not duped by the games of power in the zone, and by the appetites of composition that are making their way at the ZAD as well as in many other cities…
Finally this text, written at the end of March, does not mention the aggression that took place at the ZAD these last days.
When Lama Fâché, Llama Spit!
“All parties, all trade unions, and their bureaucracies, are oppressing the proletariat, as much as the bourgeoisie. (…)”
–Comité pour le maintien des occupations (“Committee for Maintaining the Occupations,” CMDO) [the original one, not the copy (sic)] La Commune n’est pas morte (“The Commune’s Not Dead”), June 1968.
On January 17, the Macron government decided to drop the airport project at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. Just this once, opponents succeeded in stopping a major project. Needless to say, Manu [Emmanuel Macron] is not captivated by the virtues of a grove free from those concrete masses. His friendships and interests are completely different. Except that, in this situation, there is a strategic occasion to seize: an opportunity to disarm a solidarity movement that inhabits more than just a grove, but also some lives and imaginaries. And to do this by normalizing a space where, for many of its protagonists, a deeply rooted struggle was questioning much more than just an airport.
Unfortunately, as is frequently the case in such circumstances, some fringes of the movement decided to respond positively to this normalization. In the hours following the announcement from the government, the Assembly of the movement decided in an authoritarian manner to defer to the recommendations of the prefecture by paving the way for a military occupation of the site, by agreeing to clear the [road] D281 of obstacles and barricades. And this by evicting, against some inhabitants, two cabins occupied occasionally or more permanently. Quickly, troops of gendarmes took possession of the place. Drones, video devices, and directional microphones invaded the landscape.
If this same Assembly, in a text of 6 points, affirmed wanting to maintain unity among the various components of the struggle, being opposed to all evictions, and taking charge of the future of the movement, its first actions have been on one hand to “liberate” a part of the ZAD and to offer it to its new partner, the State; and on the other hand to negotiate with the institutions in power. On March 19, the Assembly made a call for a gathering to support “a delegation including all of its components—inhabitants, farmers, elected representatives, naturalists, neighbors” that seemed to represent the whole movement. Here, the old adage that says that in politics it is necessary to judge actions rather than words applies again…
When the State ordered the launch of Operation Caesar against the ZAD in 2012, it did not expect to hit a snag. Within a few days, the eviction got bogged down in this wetland before some 50,000 people decided to reoccupy the land and build cabins. That day, when political activists, non-profit volunteers, and trade unionists were invited to put their respective flags away, marked the prelude to a massive and determined resistance, the famous “cyst” described by Manuel Valls [Minister of the Interior and then Prime Minister under Holland’s presidency].
In the past, this geographical area has known numerous struggles, such as the protests against the nuclear plants of Carnet and Pellerin, in which some connections appeared between farmers and the workers of 1968. These fragile but rich complicities continued to develop while rooting themselves in past struggles, as well as in a strong sense of resistance sharpened within occupations that had begun several years earlier.
However, over the years and due to the success of this struggle, the legitimate complicities formed in this resistance have finally given way to a strategic and instrumental way of understanding the struggle: composition.
Contrary to the image that certain people have never ceased to convey, there have always been conflicts at the ZAD and within the movement against the airport. From daily conflicts regarding the different ways of living the occupation that played out between livestock farmers and anti-speciesists, between anti-feminists and feminists, etc., to the ways of living the struggle between partisans of direct action and partisans of disobedience, between institutional activists and autonomists, between supporters of assemblies and supporters of affinity groups, between the pro-media and the anti-media, between “against the airport” and “against this world.”
What took place here was built on a juxtaposition of logics. From its origin, the slogan against the big useless infrastructural projects encompassed intentions and operational modes that were completely opposed. The far left saw economic mismanagement; EELV [Europe Ecologie Les Verts, the French Green Party] saw a project that was not compatible with their vision of green capitalism; farmers saw the theft of their lands; primitivists saw an attack on a sanctified nature; and for some radicals, they saw one of the many ways that capital and the State control the conditions of our lives. The first three are hoping for a development dictated by capital and the State that will be more likely to correspond to their desires; the last two want to put an end to the development of the land itself, for reasons that are sometimes not very compatible. Moreover, some activists are managers and administrators, while others promote horizontality and self-organization.
What held everyone together was that everyone had always needed each other to keep the struggle going. The ACIPA needed the help of the ZADists to occupy the lands that were about to be destroyed; the ZADists needed the help of the farmers and organizations to serve as a shield and to legitimate their struggle. The relationships between these groups were based on reciprocal dependency, which bound them in an instrumental way. Although, obviously, the struggle contained much more fun moments.
Behind the public image of unity, deep antagonisms waited to resurface at any opportunity—for example, when activists threw stones at cops. There will always be a Julien Durand from the ACIPA to denounce, in the lineage of Bové or Mélenchon [respectively, the political figures of EELV and La France Insoumise], the dangerous irresponsible persons inhabiting the grove dedicated to destruction, or a team of the Verts (members of the Green Party) to ape the opening of a house while wearing new boots bought the same morning at Montparnasse [the Parisian train station that link the French capital to the West region of France]. This occurred on many occasions—for example, during the demonstration in Nantes in February 2014 when we saw Julien Durand, spokesperson of the ACIPA, playing the contortionist by disassociating his organization from the property destruction that took place that day while avoiding openly condemning the “casseurs” [thugs]. In other words, marking his disapproval with some strategies and actions while seeking to maintain unity with a part of the inhabitants of the ZAD whose help he still needed at the time. In the following months, pacification involved refusing any new demonstration to take place at Nantes. Part of the “ZADists” did not fail to respect this injunction.
This composition is organized around components that pile up acronyms. L’ACIPA is one of the historical anti-airport groups. It is a coordination of opponents that gather smaller organizations. The COPAIN brings together the farmers who, for the most part, are linked to the Confédération Paysanne [Farmers Confederation]. Then, there is the movement Assembly, initiated by occupiers.
“For a long time, [the movement Assembly] was a place of debate and pooling of ideas and projects from the different groups that took part in the struggle, without the pretention of making decisions in a unitary way. For me, the ‘movement’ was linked to this creative space where different tendencies could obtain information and respond to each other, assert themselves and criticize each other, without denying their autonomy in taking initiatives. I think that this is what some people started to call ‘composition’—anyway, that is where I heard the word for the first time. In the heat of the moment, I didn’t really pay attention to it; people were talking of the ‘movement’ and its ‘components.’ Later, I concluded that the concept of composition seemed more like a way of pacifying the situation, to talk about it with more appealing words that didn’t reveal the conflicts and contradictions. In short, to send us to sleep, in order to undercut this boiling energy by constantly looking for a ‘middle path’ [a path of compromise and concessions], and that when we hear the word ‘movement’ we end up forgetting the diversity that can give us the element of surprise in our hurry to make a mass that moves ‘all together.’”
There is never a shortage of self-proclaimed revolutionary or reformist strategists to impose in the name of unity, pragmatism, urgency, a specific direction and the uniqueness of a movement. Some leaders emerged among the occupiers themselves, mobilizing their material force, their networks, their power… not only for the benefit of the community as a whole, but also to structure an ideological hegemony in the zone and within the struggle. Alongside the “institutional” activists, they condemned some actions, like the attack on a journalists’ car, or the action in which some manure was thrown during a conference for an electoral campaign of France Insoumise at the Vacherie, an occupied dwelling at the ZAD. Their vision of “composition” is to muzzle divergences and impose their discipline on the movement.
In charge, the Comité pour le maintien des occupations (CMDO) and some accomplices, pompously baptized as a reference to its Situationist ancestor of ’68. An ancestor that, back then, maintained a clear distance from all the trade unionists and leftist bureaucracies. In this committee, some old celebrities from the autonomous movement do not hesitate to play the role of spokespersons for the media, to arrange complicities with all kinds of bureaucracies, to accept the game of negotiating with the State. In other words, to become managers of the struggle.
These same celebrities, thanks to their class backgrounds, can monopolize resources and discourses, systematically discredit their opponents, insult them, threaten them. The last of the uncontrollable activists who had not left the movement Assemblies yet ended up leaving them, disgusted by this behavior.
Composition ends up showing its limits once the objective has been achieved or the struggle defeated. If a text in 6 points officially claims the management of the ZAD by an authority arising from the movement, the components of the movement are essentially seeking negotiation. However, for the moment, the State does not give up anything.
For several months, a specific assembly focused on thinking about the future of the ZAD after the airport. On this issue, certain groups like ACIPA or COPAIN took the lead. The proximity of many of their protagonists with some old Larzac activists enables them to present some old recipes. The proposal is a “normalized” zone, under a STCL lease with the State, co-managed by the farmer confederation and the State environmentalists. This is this option defended by José Bové, an old Larzac and EELV activist, friend of Hulot (the current Minister of Ecological and Solidarity Transition) and Julien Durant from ACIPA.
The normalization of the [road] D281 bears the influence of this strategy. For this occasion, accustomed to its hegemony, the CMDO did not even take care to abide by the rules, nor rely on an Assembly vote. In the days that followed, about 200 people dismantled the barricades—not without jostling some reluctant activists who refused the decision, getting ahead of the work of law enforcement on this occasion. Lama Fâché, a cabin installed on the road, was dismantled. Some activists rebuilt it a little further. Since then, the Assembly that represents only one side of the ZAD, admittedly the side involving the majority of occupants and those taking part in the struggle, attempts to negotiate.
To maintain unity, the ideologues of the composition have broken off unity with those for whom this struggle meant something more than just obtaining a farm or field through negotiation with the State. This struggle has reminded us that the “Friends” are not necessary friends, that COPAIN [“friend” in French] are not necessarily friends.
All this reminds us that one format alone cannot ensure horizontality. Some activists who always hated assemblies have invested themselves in them. Not for the potential of freedom and self-organization that they could offer, but on the contrary, for the logic of government, control, and submission that they promised. If on our side we are still attached to assemblies, it is for completely different reasons: to coordinate, to be able to expose the power games of some groups, to avoid feeding the narcissistic postures of groups. In short, for their anti-authoritarian potential.
Composition is to self-organization what chains are to freedom. For our part, during assemblies, we have always defended the collectives and organizations of individuals that were against strategic composition between organizations or groups. We are of those who have always refused to cosign texts with organizations, and not only “political” ones.
The piling of acronyms is not an identity, nor an autonomous force, but on the contrary expresses submission to a general staff. It is as if there were some kind of concern at seeing the decomposition of the Left—the Left that has never been anything other than a facet of submission—and that we should help it to get back on its feet, or even become part of it. To compose is to play a role, to play a role in creating a broad front. It means carrying out your activities via an essentially strategic approach rather than an ethical one. Above all, all this only produces dispossession, and spaces where everyone is urged to follow the path already drawn for them, rather than seeking to build complicities and create something common without suppressing differences and different personal realities. To compose essentially means to renew the old political tradition in its most sordid aspects.
Today this ideological apparatus of the milieu seems to have caught on like a fever. Assemblies for asylum seekers can now welcome a senator of EELV previously allied with Valls to visit their squats; anti-repression collectives are thinking of informing the local CGT union of their actions, although this union condemned the actions of “casseurs” in 2016; the Maison de la grève (“House of the Strike”) welcomed Houria Bouteldja [an author criticized for open anti-Semitism and homophobia]; members of the Parisian cortège de tête protected the premises of Emmaus, an organization that is an accomplice of the machinery of eviction… It is necessary to say that for others, it has been some time now that as “elected representatives of ‘the territories they inhabit,’ it can be riots on Thursday, and Municipal Council on Monday.”
What the ideology of composition spreads is a discipline of the milieu that favors connections with the syndicalist, political, and associative Left [i.e., unions, politicians, and non-profits] over any effective radical alternative. The ritualized spectacle of controlled direct action serves to satisfy activist impulses and warlike affects while maintaining a false insurrectionary image. The spectacle of contestation rather than the contestation of the spectacle.
The Comité El Condor, in passing.
Caen, March 2018.
Operation Caesar was a failed police operation on behalf of the French State to evict the ZAD in 2012. ↩
ACIPA is an acronym for the Association citoyenne intercommunale des populations concernées par le projet d’aéroport, or Intercommunal Citizen Association of Populations Concerned by the Airport Project, a group created in the year 2000 with the goal of fighting the airport project at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. ↩
The MSA, or Mutualité Sociale Agricole, is a social insurance agency that provides health care, pensions, and other social protections for agricultural workers. ↩
The coordination des opposantes. The “Coordination of Opponents” of the Notre-Dame-des-Landes Airport Project was created by 14 organizations opposed to the airport project in September 2003 in order to prepare a joint letter to Prime Minister Raffarin and Minister of Transport de Robien during the project’s early research stage. Since then, these organizations meet monthly to discuss the issue and organize joint actions. Today, more than 60 organizations comprise the Coordination, including associations, unions, political movements, and collectives. ↩
Conseil regional, the “General Council” or departmental assembly, departments being regional administrative entities in France. The specific general council referenced here is the one that oversees the Loire Atlantique department of France. ↩
For several weeks now, railroad workers have carried out numerous strikes to defend their status and oppose the opening of the railway market to competitors. ↩