Trump has announced that he will declare a state of emergency to fund his border wall. The proposed wall and additional security measures will be devastating for migrants and border communities. During the last shutdown, federal employees and federal contractors were forced to work without pay or to scrape by on furlough, while people relying on government assistance were forced to seek out limited community alternatives and refugees were trapped in bureaucratic limbo. Make no mistake—a grassroots movement ended the shutdown. Trump gave in only when air traffic controllers and flight attendants stopped clocking in and airlines across the east coast began to close down.
We refuse to choose between Trump’s openly racist wall and the Democrats’ implicitly racist “smart border.” The differences between Trump’s border wall and a soft-power smart wall are minor variations on the same deadly theme. We will block the border wall. We choose another way: freedom of movement, solidarity, and mutual aid. We can combat Trump’s policies that greet asylum seeking families with tear gas at the southern border, that leave Haitian people to die in boats coming to the United States and 58,000 Haitians in legal limbo, and that criminalize whole communities. We will uplift the inspiring work by black and brown migrant support organizers like the UndocuBlack Network, Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, NorCal Resist, and more, who defend black and brown migrant communities most targeted by ICE harassment, deportation and the police. Together, we can defend refugees, migrants, and government workers. We can re-imagine community safety, and support federal workers and communities under attack. We can demonstrate through solidarity and mutual aid that we can build a world without borders or state violence.
On February 15, we call for a movement from below. It is time to act courageously—together. We need a bold, positive vision of the future in contrast to Trump’s white supremacist fantasy. We need to create a world in which people can move freely, where families can find refuge from danger, and communities are brave enough to welcome newcomers and create a shared sense of belonging. Where refugees now find hostile border guards and black immigrants the dual threats of deportation and incarceration, they should find communities coming together to welcome them with food and shelter. Where federal workers and contractors find themselves unable to pay their bills, they should find communities acting in solidarity to meet their immediate needs.
We call for a “Block the Wall” mobilization on February 19th and 20th against the border wall and against the state of emergency. We can march, take over public space, and organize sick-outs in the nation’s capital. We can block every ICE detention center, field office, and ICE contractor around the country with the occupation of the public space around the facilities. Each of these offices are maintained by working class people in support staff, couriers, cleaning crews, tech services, and social workers. We invite all of these workers to call in sick and join the occupations in the sidewalks and streets.
We call for the organization of mutual aid to support the federal workers and sub-contractors who remain uncompensated for 34 days of unpaid labor, and to support those who rely on government assistance. We call for cooperation to pool and distribute resources immediately to ease the daily struggles of those most affected. We commit to taking care of one another as the state gambles with the lives of millions.
We call for direct support for migrants and border struggles. There are multiple initiatives already demonstrating hospitality to migrants and physically defying the border that separates the United States from Mexico, from autonomous kitchens in Tijuana to indigenous-led anti-border camps in Texas. We will build the capacity to undermine the border, welcome refugees, and demonstrate that free movement can be beautiful, safe, and beneficial for all — so long as the police and la migra stay out of the way.
Share your marches, actions, and mutual aid initiatives with the hashtag #BlockTheWall, or tweet updates to @BlockTheWall on twitter or BlockTheWall123 on Instagram
Central Ohio Street Medic Collective
The Breakaway Social Center
Like many contemporary anarchists, many anarchists of the 19th and 20th centuries maintained relationships with multiple romantic partners, or were involved with partners who did so. Just as it does today, this often precipitated gossip, heartache, jealousy, and interminable emotional processing. A complete history of anarchist polyamory drama would be nearly as ambitious as a comprehensive history of the anarchist movement itself. Here, we’ve limited ourselves to a few poignant anecdotes from the lives of a handful of classical anarchists. There is a great deal more to be told—for example, the love triangle involving Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and Johann Most, or Voltairine de Cleyre’s writing about ownership and possessiveness in relationships.
Why revisit all this, you ask? Certainly not just for the salacious thrill of letting the skeletons out of the closet to dance a little on holidays. No, we return to these stories because our antecedents were just like us, flawed and fallible yet capable of greatness. They were responsible for both heroic acts and gross stupidities (let’s not forget Bakunin’s anti-Semitism). In studying their lives, we might recognize some ways to improve ourselves.
“We want freedom; we want men and women to love and unite freely for no other reason than love, without any legal, economic, or physical violence. But freedom, even though it is the only solution that we can and must offer, does not radically solve the problem, since love, to be satisfied, requires two freedoms that agree, and often they do not agree in any way; and also, the freedom to do what one wants is a phrase devoid of meaning when one does not know how to want something.”
One of the most influential anarchists of the 19th century, Mikhail Bakunin famously asserted “I am truly free only when all human beings, men and women, are equally free.” In his Revolutionary Catechism,1 he devoted a section to the abolition of compulsory relationships, marital or otherwise:
Religious and civil marriage to be replaced by free marriage. Adult men and women have the right to unite and separate as they please, nor has society the right to hinder their union or to force them to maintain it. With the abolition of the right of inheritance and the education of children assured by society, all the legal reasons for the irrevocability of marriage will disappear. The union of a man and a woman must be free, for a free choice is the indispensable condition for moral sincerity. In marriage, man and woman must enjoy absolute liberty. Neither violence nor passion nor rights surrendered in the past can justify an invasion by one of the liberty of another, and every such invasion shall be considered a crime.
There was a 24-year age difference between Mikhail’s father and mother; they had become engaged when his mother was 18 and his father was nearly 42. This was not particularly unusual in Russia at the time. Mikhail grew up surrounded by four sisters, from whom he learned a variety of intellectual pursuits and, above all, the importance of women’s autonomy and self-determination. He came of age fighting alongside them against pressure from their parents to get married to men who did not share their philosophical or artistic interests.
When Mikhail was living in exile in Siberia after being sentenced to death in three countries for participating in the revolutions of 1848 and 1849, he met Antonia Kwiatkowki, the daughter of an exiled Polish teacher. When they married, she was 18 and he was 44.
A few years later, Mikhail pulled off a daring escape from Siberia, circumnavigating the globe to arrive in Western Europe, where there was not yet a price on his head. Antonia joined him, and the two lived together in Sweden, Italy, and Switzerland.
At this point, Antonia was in her twenties, while Bakunin was in his fifties, prematurely aged by years chained up in solitary confinement. Antonia began a tempestuous relationship with one of Bakunin’s young Italian comrades. In the following letter to his Russian friend Nikolaj Ogarev, Bakunin describes the considerable challenges that ensued. His complicated feelings will be familiar to anyone who has struggled to set boundaries regarding a partner’s volatile relationship or struggled to balance the demands of two very different relationships.
December 16, 1869
Antosja arrived. I went to meet her in Arona, the first Italian city at the end of Lake Maggiore, and I spent two and a half days in great anxiety, expecting her at any moment. Contrary to date on the telegram I had received from Naples, she arrived two whole days late, as a result of the storm in the Mediterranean. She traveled by sea, on account of the low price. The poor woman was quite shaken. Imagine yourself in this situation: alone at sea with an eighteen-month-old child, eight months pregnant and of an ideal disposition for seasickness. She spent days without moving on the boat until Gaeto, despite terrible sea turbulence. She arrived to me exhausted and sick. The child is also sick. I took them to Arona with great difficulty. Antosja took a little rest, the little one as well. But in four, three, or perhaps two weeks, she will deliver. You understand that in these conditions, my head is spinning.
Dear friend, I want once and for all to explain to you my relationship with Antosja and her veritable husband. I did a terribly stupid thing, even more than that, I committed a crime by marrying a young girl almost two and a half times younger than me. I could, to justify myself, invoke many extenuating circumstances, tell you that I pulled her out of a vulgar provincial dump, that if she had not married me, she would have become the wife of a monster, of a Siberian police chief. But a fact is a fact, a mistake a mistake and a crime a crime. Antosja is a kind person and a beautiful soul, I love her as much as a father can love his daughter. I managed to wrest her away from the world of trivial ideas, to help her human development and save her from many vulgar temptations and loves. But when she met true love, I did not believe myself to have the right to enter into a struggle with her, that is to say, against this love. She loved a man who is completely worthy of her, my friend and my son in social-revolutionary doctrine, Carlo Gambuzzi. Two and a half years ago, Antosja came to tell me that she loved him and I gave her my blessing, begging her to see me as a friend and remember that she had no better nor more sure friend than I.
A few months later, at the Congress of Geneva, after a long struggle not only on her part, but also on the part of Gambuzzi, a struggle in which furthermore I did not interfere in any way, that I deliberately ignored, Antosja found herself pregnant. Due to lack of confidence, she hid her pregnancy from me, she endured terrible torments, deceived everyone and, under the pretext of going on a trip, went to give birth in a village near Vevey, exposing herself, as well as the child, to great danger. Informed of this without my knowledge, Gambuzzi arrived and took the child with him to Naples. Antosja recovered; as for me, I still suspected nothing.
One year ago, in October 1868, an incident revealed everything to me. The fact that I did not learn this earlier is not the fault of Antosja but of Gambuzzi. From the beginning, she wanted to tell me everything, but he demanded of her and pleaded with her not to talk to me about anything. In this respect, as in many others, he showed himself to be below her. Raised in the bourgeois world of Italy, he still can’t free himself from the cult of propriety and from the point of honor, and often prefers small winding paths to the long straight road. I will say in his defense that the thought of aggrieving and offending me actually terrified him. He has a filial attachment for me and an undeniably warm friendship.
Anyway, having learned the essence of things, I repeated to Antosja she was entirely free and asked her to decide her own fate, without any consideration of me, in the manner that she believed best: to stay with me as a wife—a wife of course only insofar as the public is concerned—or to separate from me and live in Naples openly as the wife of Gambuzzi. She decided on the first option for the following reasons: above all, she is accustomed to me, and the idea of living apart seemed unbearable to her; second, she feared being a burden for Gambuzzi, feared to put him in a situation that he would not know how to extract himself from with honor, given his social prejudices.
So all three of us decided that everything would remain the same as before. The child would spend the winter in Naples (this decision was made in October 1868) and, in autumn, Antosja would travel to Italy, supposedly with a sick Polish friend who would “die” in the summer and entrust her son to Antosja. This fall, Antosja traveled to Naples with the child, and what happened was what was to be expected and what I had predicted: once again, she became pregnant.
She was in despair. So Gambuzzi proposed that she come to give birth in Naples and leave the new child entirely to his guardianship; renouncing him completely, she would return with me after the birth, with the son, our adopted child of the deceased Polish friend (of course a myth). Antosja rebelled against this proposal and stated categorically that for nothing in the world nor for any consideration whatsoever would she abandon her child. A fight began between her and Gambuzzi. They appealed to me as judge. I took the side of Antosja, of course, and wrote to Gambuzzi that his plan was monstrous, that a mother capable of abandoning her child simply for social considerations would be a monster in my eyes.
So Antosja addressed this entreaty to me: leave Geneva, come to Italy and recognize the two children as my own. I did not reflect on it for long and agreed. I felt obliged to accept, because I could see no other way to save Antosja; and having committed a crime against her, it was my duty to assist her. That took place in July or August of this year, precisely at the moment when I announced to you that I had to leave Geneva.
After the Congress of Basel, Antosja pressured me. I hastened to leave and, as agreed, I went down to Locarno, began looking for a home, a nursemaid, and telegraphed Antosja that she could come, that I was waiting for her. For over two weeks, I received no word of reply to my telegram, nor to letters sent after it. I realized that the struggle was continuing between them; I wrote them a synodic letter in which, while describing our mutual situation to them in its true light, I indicated two options for them and demanded that they choose one or the other, namely: either Antosja, renouncing once and for all the love of Gambuzzi and contenting herself merely with his friendship, return immediately to me with my son and my future child, or else she should remain in Naples as the wife, known to all the world, of Gambuzzi, with the two children of their relationship also recognized by him. I offered my stamp of approval for either decision, but I demanded they choose one or the other without delay and stated that I would only agree again to do the first provided that it come into effect immediately.
Antosja arrived. Gambuzzi offered to stay, but she declined the offer.
Friendly relations on my part, as well as on the part of Antosja, continue with Gambuzzi. Their romantic relationship is over. I adopted the children of Gambuzzi, without denying his incontestable right to take charge of and lead their education alongside Antosja. Life here is inexpensive. He will pay 150 francs per month into the common fund and I will do the same. We will stay together, Antosja and I, as long as the revolution hasn’t called me. Then I will belong only to the revolution and myself.
In fact, after this letter was sent, Antonia maintained a romantic relationship with Carlo Gaumbuzzi and gave birth to a third child with him. Mikhail and Antonia continued to live together, and Mikhail participated in raising all three children as if they were his own. Antonia stood by Mikhail even when political conflicts and financial mismanagement alienated him from many of his other comrades and created considerable difficulties for their household. After his death, she finally moved in with Gambuzzi, and the two had one more daughter together.
Errico Malatesta, Emilia Tronzio-Zanardelli, and Giovanni Defendi
While still a teenager, Malatesta met Mikhail Bakunin and joined him in helping to organize the First International and other early anarchist efforts, including armed uprisings in 1874 and 1877. Targeted by the Italian police forever afterwards, he was compelled to spend a great part of his life in hiding or in exile, especially in London.
Around the same time that he met Bakunin, Malatesta had begun a romantic relationship with the anarchist Emilia Tronzio-Zanardelli. Little is known about their relationship, but they likely began seeing each other as early as 1871,2 as Malatesta was involved alongside her brother in the Mazzinist student movement and then the Neapolitan section of the First International. Emilia followed her brother to London in 1879 and began working as a seamstress.
A comrade of theirs, Giovanni Defendi, had gone to France in 1871 to participate in the defense of the Paris Commune, for which he was imprisoned for eight years. After his release, in 1880, he moved to London. That year, he and Emilia announced that they were entering into a union libre:
The undersigned make it a point to announce to you that, on May 8, 1880, they will enter into a free union, in the presence of some socialist friends invited and gathered simply to receive communication.
The reasons that determined them to dispense with legal marriage, as well as religious marriage, are that they view them as bourgeois institutions created for the sole purpose of settling questions of property and inheritance, not offering any serious guarantee to proletarians of either sex, consecrating the subjugation of women, committing wills and consciences for the future, without taking into account the characters involved, and opposing the dissolubility which is the basis of any contract.
The question of children will be settled later in the manner most in accordance with justice and according to the situation that bourgeois society imposes upon them.
-Giovanni Defendi, Emilia Tronzio-Zanardelli
Malatesta had already been living with Emilia before this; he joined the couple at their residence in London in 1881. He lived with the Defendis for much of the next four decades. The British police, scandalized, reported that there were rumors that Malatesta was sleeping with Emilia despite her relationship with Giovanni.
The house and the business of the Defendi couple, where Malatesta lived, 112 High Street in Islington, was a convergence point for everyone that arrived in London. How many stormy and brotherly discussions were had in the little kitchen through the grocery store of the good Defendi family, which served as an Athenaeum!
Emilia had six children, some of whom she may have conceived with Malatesta—including her son Enrico, born in 1883, who accompanied Malatesta when he went to Italy in 1897, and her daughter Adele, born in 1892. When Emilia fell ill in the aftermath of the First World War, Malatesta stayed by her bedside for months, nursing her until she passed away.
In contrast to the dramatic difficulties that beset Mikhail and Antonia Bakunin and Carlo Gambuzzi, the relationships of Errico Malatesta, Emilia Tronzio-Zanardelli, and Giovanni Defendi appear to have been healthy and stable, providing a solid foundation for their decades of political activity. Knowing that Mikhail Bakunin mentored the young Malatesta, we can’t help wondering if the two ever discussed affairs of the heart. Could Malatesta’s graceful conduct in relation to his partner’s marriage have been informed by advice or anecdotes from Bakunin? We know they discussed the political and martial aspects of liberation, but we know less about their discussions regarding its personal aspects, which are just as fundamental to the anarchist project.
Likewise, though Emilia Tronzio-Zanardelli was an important participant in the Italian anarchist movement in diaspora across several decades, we have little documentation with which to understand the substance of her contributions. On the basis of what we do know about her role in organizing, though, we know they were considerable.
“Let’s eliminate the exploitation of man by man, let’s fight the brutal pretention of the male who thinks he owns the female, let’s fight religious, social, and sexual prejudice. In any case, [in the anarchist future] the ones with bad luck in love will procure themselves other pleasures, since it will not be as it is today, when love and alcohol are the only consolations for the majority of humanity.”
-Errico Malatesta, “Love and Anarchy”
América Scarfó, Severino di Giovanni, and Émile Armand
If we don’t know as much as we might wish to about the perspectives of Antonia Bakunin and Emilia Tronzio-Zanardelli, we have a full record of the thoughts of América Scarfó, an Argentine anarchist who began a romantic relationship with a married man while she was still a teenager.
Born in a middle-class immigrant family, América already shared anarchist ideas with her brothers Paulino and Alejandro by the end of her adolescence. Their family rented out a room to an Italian anarchist who had fled with his wife and three children to Argentina on account of the rise of Mussolini. He and América began a vibrant intellectual exchange that blossomed into romance. But then a police raid forced him to go into hiding along with Paulino and Alejandro.
Frustrated by the interference of the state, her parents’ opposition and, worst of all, the criticism of other anarchists, América wrote the following letter across the Atlantic Ocean to Émile Armand, an interanationally known anarchist proponent of “revolutionary sexualism” and camaraderie amoureuse. Armand had revived Zo d’Axa’s individualist anarchist publication L’En-Dehors, largely as a vehicle to promote what today we might call relationship anarchy.
In sending this letter, América was publicly declaring the legitimacy of a relationship not sanctioned by the church, the state, or her parents, just as Giovanni Defendi and Emilia Tronzio-Zanardelli had done before her. But more than that, she was taking revolutionary measures on the terrain that was available to her as a young woman in Buenos Aires: challenging the norms around intimacy, gender, and affective relations in society at large, in her birth family, and in the social circles of her fellow anarchists.
Revolution is not something that the party implements in the parliament or the workers carry out in the factories—it is a project that concerns every single aspect of life, and therefore, every single person, wherever she is situated.
Buenos Aires, December 3, 1928
To comrade E. Armand
The purpose of this letter is, first of all, to ask your advice. We have to act, in all moments of our lives, in accord with our own manner of seeing and thinking, in such a way that the reproaches and criticisms of other people find our individuality protected by the healthiest concepts of responsibility and liberty, which form a solid wall weakening their attacks. For this reason, we should act consistently with our ideas.
My case, comrade, is of the amorous order. I am a young student who believes in the new life. I believe that, thanks to our free actions, individual or collective, we can arrive at a future of love, fraternity, and equality. I desire for all just what I desire for myself: the freedom to act, to love, to think. That is, I desire anarchy for all humanity. I believe that in order to achieve this, we should make a social revolution. But I am also of the opinion that in order to arrive at this revolution, it is necessary to free ourselves from all kinds of prejudices, conventionalisms, false moralities, and absurd codes. And, while we wait for this great revolution to break out, we have to carry out this work in all the actions of our existence. And indeed, in order to make this revolution come about, we can’t just content ourselves with waiting, but need to take action in our daily lives. Wherever possible, we should act from the point of view of an anarchist, that is, of a human being.
In love, for example, we will not wait for the revolution, we will unite ourselves freely, paying no regard to the prejudices, barriers, and innumerable lies that oppose us as obstacles. I have come to know a man, a comrade of ideas. According to the laws of the bourgeoisie, he is married. He united himself with a woman as a consequence of a childish circumstance, without love. At that time, he didn’t know our ideas. However, he lived with this woman for a number of years, and they had children. He didn’t experience the satisfaction that he should have felt with a loved one. Life became tedious, the only thing that united these two beings were the children. Still an adolescent, this man came to know our ideas, and a new consciousness was born in him. He turned into a brave militant. He devoted himself to propaganda with ardor and intelligence. All the love that he hadn’t directed to a person, he offered instead to an ideal. In the home, meanwhile, life continued with its monotony relieved only by the happiness of their small children. It happened that circumstances brought us together, at first as companions of ideas. We talked, we sympathized with each other, and we learned to know each other. Thus our love was born. We believed, in the beginning, that it would be impossible. He, who had loved only in dreams, and I, making my entrance into life. Each one of us continued living between doubt and love. Destiny—or, better, love—did the rest. We opened our hearts and our love and our happiness began to intone its song, even in the middle of the struggle, the ideal, which in fact gave us an even greater impulse. And our eyes, our lips, our hearts expressed themselves in the magic conjuring of a first kiss. We idealized love, but we were carrying it into reality. Free love, that knows no barriers, nor obstacles. The creative force that transports two beings through a flowery field, carpeted with roses—and sometimes thorns—but where we find happiness always.
Is it not the case that the whole universe is converted into an Eden when two beings love each other?
His wife also—despite her relative knowledge—sympathizes with our ideas. When it came to it, she gave proofs of her contempt for the hired killers of the bourgeois order as the police began to pursue my friend. That was how the wife of my comrade and I have become friends. She is fully aware of what the man who lived at her side represents to me. The feeling of fraternal affection that existed between them permitted him to confide in her. And he gave her freedom to act as she desired, in the manner of any conscientious anarchist. Until this moment, to tell the truth, we have lived really like in a novel. Our love became every day more intense. We cannot live altogether in common, given the political situation of my friend, and the fact that I have still not finished my studies. We meet, when we can, in different places. Isn’t that perhaps the best way to sublimate love, distancing it from the preoccupations of domestic life? Although I am sure that when it is true love, the most beautiful thing is to live together.
This is what I wanted to explain. Some people here have turned into judges. And these are not to be found so much among common people but in fact among comrades of ideas who see themselves as free of prejudices but who, at bottom, are intolerant. One of these says that our love is a madness; another indicates that the wife of my friend is playing the role of “martyr,” despite the fact that she is aware of everything that concerns us, is the ruler of her own person, and enjoys her freedom. A third raises the ridiculous economic obstacle. I am independent, just as is my friend. In all probability, I will create a personal economic situation for myself that will free me from all worries in this sense.
Also, the question of the children. What do the children have to do with the feelings of our hearts? Why can’t a man who has children love? It is as if to say that the father of a family cannot work for the idea, do propaganda, etc. What makes them believe that those little beings will be forgotten because their father loves me? If the father were to forget his children, he would deserve my contempt and there would exist no more love between us.
Here, in Buenos Aires, certain comrades have a truly meager idea of free love. They imagine that it consists only in cohabiting without being legally married and, meanwhile, in their own homes they carry on practicing all the stupidities and prejudices of ignorant people. This type of union that ignores the civil registrar and the priest also exists in bourgeois society. Is that free love?
Finally, they criticize our difference in age. Just because I am 16 and my friend is 26. Some accuse me of running a commercial operation; others describe me as unwitting. Ah, these pontiffs of anarchism! Making the question of age interfere with love! As if the fact that a brain reasons is not enough for a person to be responsible for their actions! On the other hand, it is my own problem, and if the difference in age means nothing to me, why should it matter to anyone else? That which I cherish and love is youth of the spirit, which is eternal.
There are also those who treat us as degenerates or sick people and other labels of this kind. To all these I say: why? Because we live life in its true sense, because we recognize a free cult of love? Because, just like the birds that bring joy to walkways and gardens, we love without paying any attention to codes or false morals? Because we are faithful to our ideas? I disdain all those who cannot understand what it is to know how to love.
True love is pure. It is the sun whose rays stretch to those who cannot climb to the heights. Life is something we have to live freely. We accord to beauty, to the pleasures of the spirit, to love, the veneration that they deserve.
This is all, comrade. I would like to have your opinion on my case. I know very well what I am doing and I don’t need to be approved or applauded. Just that, having read many of your articles and agreeing with various points of view, it would make me content to know your opinion.
Her letter was printed in L’en dehors on January 20, 1929 under the title “An Experience.” Émile Armand printed his answer alongside it:
“Comrade: My opinion matters little in this matter you send me about what you are doing. Are you or are you not intimately in accord with your personal conception of the anarchist life? If you are, then ignore the comments and insults of others and carry on following your own path. No one has the right to judge your way of conducting yourself, even if it were the case that your friend’s wife be hostile to these relations. Every person united to an anarchist (or vice versa), knows very well that she should not exercise on him, or accept from him, domination of any kind.”
The lover that the 16-year-old América Scarfó refers to in this letter was, of course, the anarchist Severino di Giovanni, Argentina’s most wanted criminal. When she sent this letter, he was living underground, accused of carrying out a string of bombings targeting the Italian Consulate, the US embassy, the Ford Motor Company, and a monument to George Washington, among other targets. By the time he was captured in January 1931—along with América and her brother Paulino—he was also accused of the most dramatic robbery in contemporary Argentine history and the shootings of various police officers.
At that point, a military coup had taken place in Argentina, Hitler was headed for power in Germany, and the whole world seemed to be sliding rapidly towards fascism. In such a context, we can understand Severino’s actions as a rational attempt to carry out much-needed revolutionary measures on the terrain that was available to him, just as he and América were doing in their romantic relationship.
When the police captured Severino, they rushed him to a doctor to treat his wounds, so as to be sure he would die at precisely the hour they decreed, after the proper show trial. The police reportedly tortured Severino, but none of the arrestees cooperated with the state by informing against their fellows. After the trial, Severino’s lawyer was arrested, dismissed from his post in the armed forces, imprisoned, and deported.
The novelist Roberto Arlt witnessed the scene of Severino’s execution:
He looks stiffly at his executors. He emanates will. Whether he suffers or not, it is a secret. But he remains like this, static, proud.
Only after the execution did they call over a blacksmith to unfasten his fetters—and another doctor, this time to make sure he was dead. Then they executed Paulino Scarfó, too, for good measure.
They had released América, deeming her unfit to stand trial on account of her age.
On July 28, 1999, after 68 years, the Argentine government finally returned Severino di Giovanni’s letters to América Scarfó. América passed away on August 26, 2006 at the age of 93. Her ashes were buried in the garden beside the headquarters of the Argentine Libertarian Federation in Buenos Aires.
There are many different risks to loving fiercely and outside the prescribed lines. Perhaps the only thing worse than these terrifying risks is the deadly certainty that comes of not daring to love.
“For us, love is a passion that engenders tragedies for itself.”
The Knights Errant of Anarchy: London and the Italian Anarchist Diaspora (1880-1917), Pietro di Paola
Anarchism and Violence: Severino di Giovanni in Argentina, 1923-1931, Osvaldo Bayer
Daiana Rosenfeld and Anibal Garisto have produced a documentary about América Scarfó’s relationship with Severino di Giovanni entitled Los ojos de América (“The Eyes of América”).
Bakunin’s Revolutionary Catechism is distinct from Sergey Nechayev’s Catechism of a Revolutionary, which is often mistakenly attributed to Bakunin. In fact, there were serious differences between the politics of the two Russian revolutionists, as Bakunin set forth in this letter to Nechayev. ↩
See Errico Malatesta da Mazzini a Bakunin, la sua formazione giovanile nell’ambiente napoletano (1868-1873) by Misato Toda. ↩
Two and a half decades ago, some of the first people to collaborate on CrimethInc. projects met via the international networks that had developed in the zine underground associated with the hardcore punk scene. We’ve finally scanned the last five issues of one of these zines, Inside Front, to add to our archives. Bear in mind, these are relics from a very different time. We hope, in putting them at your disposal, to offer new generations of anarchists—and punks?—some context for what came before. We’ve also added the hardcore compilations that came with issues of Inside Front to our music page for free downloading.
Once upon a time, in another century—
When only doctors and lawyers had cell phones, and long distance calls were so expensive that punks used hacked phone dialers to trick pay phones into letting them place calls free of charge;
When zinesters secured freedom of the press by scamming photocopies on a scale today’s social media users cannot imagine;
When traveler kids sneaked onto freight train cars to ride for free, watching mountains and oceans whizzing by as the earth rumbled past beneath them;
When the singer of every hardcore band spoke earnestly to introduce each song, if only to entreat audience members to cause each other serious injury;
When punk itself was not an ossified tradition, but a living challenge to corporate aesthetics, in a process of constant challenge and change;
When DIY bands traversed a network of squatted social centers from Trondheim to Santiago, and you could play a hundred shows in a row without ever performing in a venue that was legally owned or leased;
In those days, without the internet, how did people discover and pass on anarchist ideas and tactics?
By embedding these values in rebellious subcultural milieus such as the punk scene—by reading dogeared books about the Yippies, the Situationists, and the Spanish Civil War—and by having adventures.
These three elements—subculture, reading, and adventure—came together in the hardcore journal Inside Front, one of the first projects to bring together people who still collaborate on CrimethInc. projects today. We invite you to explore its pages, as if holding a candle up to the dusty walls of the past.
You can download the CD compilation that came with the final issue of Inside Front here.
You can download the CD compilation that came with Inside Front #13 here.
You can download the CD compilation that came with Inside Front #11 here.
That was the morning we overslept—Friday, the twentieth of January, 2017. It was every activist’s greatest fear: our cell phone alarms blaring in unison, our friends running around us scrambling to get ready, while we just lay there, arms thrown haphazardly across our faces, dead to the world.
How could we sleep with Marius Mason in prison, the polar ice caps gushing into the ocean, and Donald Trump entering office?
For months, reality had hung on us like a bad dream; riding into DC was like entering its epicenter. Every Nazi troll on the internet was promising to gun us down in cold blood. Newspapers were reporting that two million bikers had promised to form a wall of meat between us and the motorcade of the President-elect. We were all going to prison—if we made it out of surgery. If you want a picture of the future, imagine Pepe the Frog stamping on a human face, forever.
All night, we’d discussed the situation, speaking one by one, weighing our options, going around the living room in circles the way one passes one’s tongue over a broken tooth again and again. If Trump entered office with the mandate of an acquiescent population, deporting ten million people would be the new normal. But if we tried to interrupt the spectacle, they would mass-arrest us, put all our names on a list, and our parents and partners would never be allowed to fly again. Would they surround us as soon as we assembled? Would the Nazis shoot us? It was a nightmare from which slumber offered no respite.
And there we were, asleep at our moment of truth. Downtown was filling up with Secret Service agents and crimson-hatted know-nothings as our friends shook us by the shoulders and called out our names. Protesters were already lining up to blockade the checkpoints to the parade route when they resorted to flinging cups of cold water in our faces. It was no use: we were a thousand floors below, wandering the foggy land of Nod.
They wheeled the bed out through the broad double doors of the bedroom, down the narrow hallway, across the living room strewn with backpacks and sleeping bags. They carried it down the steep front steps, bracing themselves against the iron railing. Shoulders to the headboard, they rolled us up the hill past the row houses, through alleyways and intersections and shopping districts into the very heart of the nation’s capital.
The streets were ominously tranquil: a jogger here, a couple pushing a stroller there. There was no indication of the forces massing downtown. The branches of the trees sailed past us overhead, their shadows briefly fingering the bedclothes crumpled across our chests.
Then the buildings opened around us and we were in Logan Circle—the convergence point for the anti-capitalist march, a vortex drawing in all the rage and courage within a thousand miles. Hundreds of our friends had gathered already, their faces concealed beneath bandannas and balaclavas, a swirling maelstrom of anarchists and rebels. More were pouring in from the side streets every minute, pulling on masks and gloves, zipping up their sweatshirts, cinching their windbreakers tight around their wrists, unfurling the great black banners proclaiming NO PEACEFUL TRANSITION—FIGHT BACK NOW—JOIN THE RESISTANCE.
Our friends pushed us to the front of the throng and we set out, a dozen black-gloved hands on the headboard, our cheeks resting on silk pillowslips, our bodies cradled in gauzy silk sheets, the brocaded bedspread folded back beneath our splayed arms as the bed rumbled across the black asphalt. Behind us, the others poured into the street, linking arms, roaring out a full-throated call and response. Are you ready? Yes, we’re ready.
This was the notorious black bloc—bristling, if Trump’s Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense is to be believed, with “banners, shields, bull horns, noise making devices, gas masks, medical supplies, police scanners, spray paint, ladders, bolt cutters, handcuff keys, and code manuals for covert communications,” dressed in “steal toe boots [sic], body armor, face masks, helmets, military gear, sports equipment, and other such attire,” wielding “Molotov cocktails, mace/chemical spray, flares, bats, sign polls [sic], bricks, rocks, glass, nails, padlocks, slingshots, brass knuckles, martial arts weapons, and bottles of waste.” A medieval monster in a modern fairy tale.
Picture the scene as it appeared to the helicopters thundering overhead: the amorphous black mass driving before it the white quadrilateral of the bed—like a Malevich painting, White Square on a Black Block. Ascending higher, the pilots could make out what awaited us a few blocks away: a lattice of metal fences and concrete barriers defended by 28,000 security personnel. It wasn’t the red-hatted fools we had to fear, but the full might of the state. Squads of National Guardsmen clustered around military vehicles at every intersection; fleets of mobile riot police circling on bicycles and motorcycles; vans packed full of armored officers fidgeting impatiently with pepper spray dispensers and bundles of zip ties. All the mercenaries within a thousand miles become a part of the hostile physical architecture of the capitol, become hostility itself.
Freeze the frame, here, as the march arrives at Franklin Square and the police move into action, rushing to flank us on their bicycles, to chase us with their zip ties, to shoot their less-lethal munitions at us. At the front of the march, the two of us lie in the bed, sunk in unconsciousness, limbs and hair intertwined, jolted by the motion of the wheels over the uneven pavement, our limp bodies without the dubious armor of sweatshirts or bandannas, beneath a hovering hailstorm of projectiles—percussion grenades and rubber bullets and tear gas canisters and frozen arcs of pepper spray. Our frail flesh on the chopping block of the state.
A hush falls. The police, the black bloc, the Trump supporters in their stupid red hats, the screwballs at Franklin Square demanding the legalization of marijuana, the photographers and spectators and passersby—all of them remain motionless. Only our friends continue forward, picking up speed, sneakers flying across the pavement as they charge the fortified lines of police, driving the bed like a battering ram before them. Finally, shoving the headboard in unison, they launch us into the void, remaining frozen in place behind us.
The police lines open before us like the Red Sea and we sail right through. Not on account of Molotov cocktails, pepper spray, flares, bats, bricks, rocks, glass, nails, padlocks, slingshots, or brass knuckles, mind you, not because of the polls or stolen toes—it’s very important that you understand this—but because of the dreaming.
On the other side of the columns of Kevlar and polycarbonate, we continue hurtling down the street, zigzagging between the roadblocks, through metal-fenced checkpoints, past detachments of callow Guardsmen and handfuls of stupefied bikers and gauntlets of snappily dressed pundits crowing in victory or wringing their hands. Our bed coasts by regiments of porta-potties standing at attention, marshaled to hold the excrement of a hundred thousand patriots—through the half-filled stands where bootlickers fresh from Rust Belt exurbs crowd together, mouths agape in a monosyllable—and we roll to a halt in the center of the parade route, blocking the way to the motorcade and the future.
The sudden stop shocks us awake. Starting from unconsciousness, we find ourselves in a petrified city.
Blinking, we take it all in: the bleachers dotted with imbeciles—the armored cars—the secret service agents caught midstride, their faces fixed as glowering masks. Behind them, a brass band blows soundlessly, cheeks bulging, sustaining a single inaudible note.
We rub our eyes in unison. But when we open them again, nothing has changed. Pushing back the bedclothes, we swing our legs over the sides of the bed and step from our brocaded barricade onto Pennsylvania Avenue. The air is absolutely still.
Moving in slow motion through this frozen phantasmagoria as if passing through a photograph, a flaming limousine appears trailing a column of smoke like a bridal train. The smoke extends a hundred feet in the air, blotting out the flags, darkening the asphalt, casting its shadow over the uniformed soldiers on parade. The windows of the limousine are smashed out so we can see that there is no one at the wheel. It pulls to a halt before us.
Should we get in? But what address would we give? Where would we like to go?
A mile north of the parade route, life continues as normal. Drivers enter their credit cards into parking meters; cashiers at kiosks dispense cigarettes and chocolate-covered monoglycerides beside panhandlers; waitresses and system administrators toil to placate creditors and absentee landlords. Carpenters refurbish drab box houses in someone else’s suburbs as amateur pundits tweet about someone else’s political party. All sleepwalkers in someone else’s dream, captives in never-never land.
This scene, not the White House, is truly the center of the nightmare, whence come all the other horrors. The police are not needed here—not in such numbers, anyway. The absence of an alternative does their work.
The dreamlessness itself is the police. It is what imposes the nightmare.
For the first time, we look at each other, you and I. What is our dream? What will transport us unscathed through the lines of riot police? Where do we want our burning limousine to take us? Where do we want to go?
Dream alone, it’s just a dream. Dream together, it can be reality.
To wrap up our series on the day of action on January 20, 2017 and the protracted legal struggle that followed it, we present this outside submission from a group including J20 defendants. In May 2018, at the opening of the second J20 trial, a call to action appeared entitled “Freedom for J20 Defendants,” encouraging people to take a more confrontational approach in the solidarity campaign. The following text begins where that one left off, functioning as a reflection, critique, and addendum. While this is not necessarily the way that we would put things, we consider it important that various dissenting viewpoints enter the historical record to inform future organizing. All charges have been dismissed for the J20 defendants. Congratulations to all comrades who fought against this attempt to escalate repression in the US. The prosecutors’ collusion with Project Veritas and their over-reaching approach to the case ultimately backfired. The dismissal of all remaining charges is a significant victory. This thwarts the state’s attempt to set new precedents in criminalizing association as organizational “conspiracy.” The prosecution wanted to crack down on both black bloc tactics and the politics of those who utilize them, transforming street protests and the forms of repression with which the state targets political ideas. Outside of a few plea deals, there were no convictions. The campaign has clearly demonstrated the value of working together and adhering to principles of collective solidarity. We developed new strategies, such as disrupting the prosecution’s evidential groupings and preferred trial order. We built solidarity initiatives that sustained hundreds of defendants’ trips to court. These efforts helped the defendants resist the pressure to cooperate with the state and the plea offers that the prosecution was banking on people accepting. We must celebrate our victories. Yet for some of us, this win tastes a bit bitter. Despite all our hard work, it is more the consequence of the errors and limitations of the authorities than of our own strengths. We feel that we did not effectively take advantage of the moment we were in to affirm our stances. Had we actively fought against repression, we would be in a better position for the struggles ahead. The fervor from Trump’s election, the counter-inaugural protests, the airport blockades—all that initial momentum has tapered off. This is to be expected; in our governed society, it is common for the population to swing between outrage and acceptance. However, we believe that the strategy that we chose in the J20 case has contributed to this inertia. Essentially, we presented ourselves as “innocent liberals” and kept quiet throughout the case, basing our approach in tacit restrictions and disempowerment. We feel this defensive posture has contributed to a collective limitation. This becomes especially clear when we reflect on how we could have used the case as an opportunity to propel ourselves. Instead, our movements and the relationships adjacent to them have been left on the back foot. From this weaker position, we must face today’s problems and try to expand on the revolutionary potential in each moment. After the inauguration, we failed to continue to declare a break from this world. Instead, we reified it. Many within this campaign believed that the conservative approach was the best way—or even that it was the only way. The primary aim of this critique will be to challenge that notion, identify its limitations, and propose alternatives. A Vision of What Could Have Been The J20 case directly impacted roughly 200 comrades across the country and exponentially more by proxy. This was a very large environment to play within and we were situated in a society agitated by Trump’s election and fascinated by us. Imagine a sensational solidarity campaign that made the case known everywhere: a campaign that broke with normalcy and moved forward with a revolutionary affect, building towards a departure from this presidency, presidency itself, global capitalism, white supremacy, rampant misogyny, and the logistics systems that keep them in place—consider the airport blockades against Trump’s Muslim ban. Looking at the international reach of the 2017 Women’s Marches and the longstanding tradition of international days of solidarity among anarchists, a sensational solidarity campaign could have resonated beyond national borders. Imagine if this case and its two hundred defendants had become a reference point for every disaffection. A voice that echoed across lecture halls, social centers, high schools, television screens, workplaces, in the streets, and everywhere else. A root system that overrode concerns for property or civility, insisting on tenacious power from below—a tear from which the fabric of our society began to fray. Imagine an effort that turned the J20 case into a national crisis for the state. What would it have taken to accomplish this? Imagine the momentum from a raucous situation demanding the freedom of two hundred comrades flowing into other social potentialities (e.g., anti-ICE occupations, the national prison strike, anti-fascist struggles). We failed to maximize on building new capacities and bonds and radicalizing and including new people. If our goal is to make governance untenable, we have to strategize expansively. What would increase the longevity of struggle? Along what vectors do struggles coalesce and spread? How do we plan for the next social movement, the next election, the next decade, the next uprising? We exist within a continuum of struggle. Accordingly, we must acknowledge our conditions to make each moment a step towards the next horizon. The question we face after this case’s conclusion is synonymous with the one we face at all times: What now? The question of possibility here is twofold. First, we have to speak about how to build the capacity to make such a vision possible. Perhaps it wasn’t possible at the time. But still, we believe there were a variety of restrictive dynamics within and around the case that limited what possibilities could have emerged. Posters that appeared around Philadelphia. Reflection: What Was We must contend with how the J20 campaign played into “good” vs. “bad” protester dynamics through silence. We maintain our previous position that the narratives established before the May 14 trial set up those alleged to have engaged in property damage to be thrown under the bus. What good is it to assert liberal narratives like First Amendment rights and innocence if there are not also perspectives and actions that advance militant protest and revolutionary politics? The former alone will not create a bolstered defense—nor do they articulate a vision that could take us beyond the prevailing order. The jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. The discovery of the Brady violation was fortuitous, and ultimately led to the prosecution’s defeat. However, there was no guarantee we would discover this violation, nor that the judge would acknowledge it. Effective strategies must seek to counteract our enemy’s intentions while advancing our own. Luck must be factored in, but not made the backbone of a strategy; nor can we rely on the proper operations of the state. In a sense, it was a fluke that the Brady violation unraveled the case. In order for a Brady violation to win, one has first to acknowledge the authority of the court system and second to trust that the court will follow its rules and not create an exception (which is to create and follow a new rule). In this moment, when the state lacked legitimacy, it outmaneuvered us and chose not to protect the prosecutor Jennifer Kerkhoff. This move turned out to be an advantageous but limited outcome for us. The court found that she had violated the defendants’ due process rights to receive all potentially exculpatory evidence through discovery. After the cases were dismissed, the District Attorney’s Office promoted her. By finding a Brady violation occurred, the court minimized the consequences of the state’s mistake, but the DA reasserted its authority, by rewarding the prosecutor, free of compromise. What would it have looked like to use the court’s determination of a Brady violation to delegitimize the state itself? We should reflect critically on this. Why did we hand over so much power and legitimacy to the legal apparatus? Why did we indulge so much in the spectacle of the courtroom? Very little within defendant-led organizing was done to challenge our relationship with the law and its courts. Instead, much work narrowly examined the inanity of the case’s conspiratorial allegations, re-legitimizing the concept of innocence. As anarchists, we are against authoritarian and punitive methods that reinforce power imbalances. We are against prisons and the entirety of the legal system—not simply the nuanced absurdities and contradictions therein. We need to have more faith in what we actually believe in and strive for. By choosing to tread lightly, we compromised an attempt to spread our analyses, ceding significant ground to the authorities. In the sphere of action, things generally remained small. At what point would we have intervened? If things were to turn out negatively in the legal process, it seemed the plan was to “reduce harm” and bid our comrades farewell to prison while hanging onto the coattails of respectability. After the first trial, the state’s strategy seemed to be to isolate the case’s radical elements and drag the broader support efforts into exhaustion. In other words, divide and conquer. This was not a situation in which we were powerless or devoid of options. Within DefendJ20Resistance organizing, refusing to think critically, limiting ourselves, and appealing to civil liberties were dominant habits that went largely unchecked and unchallenged. While these critiques may seem harsh, we don’t wish to underplay the work that went into fighting the case. Our argument is that in the end, the work was politically unsound, qualitatively deficient, and strategically incomplete. “Going liberal” can be considered the “vanilla” of anti-repression; a fairly plain tried and true approach. But there are many other flavors to choose from. We want to take a moment to honor the complete re-imagining of “Jury Nullification” that took place in DC during the second trial. A juror read the words “Google Jury Nullification” written on a bathroom stall inside the courthouse. She looked it up and then proceeded to share the information with the rest of the jury. We are impressed. One person’s bathroom doodle accomplished so much—disseminating information about jury nullification to the jurors, creating scandal, revitalizing the case in the eyes of comrades, giving prosecutors yet another headache, and, of course, giving us all a good laugh. Bravo. Seemingly small actions such as these should not be underestimated. What else could have been done? Where else could we have looked for lessons and inspiration? Fighting repression should be understood as an opportunity to take the offensive. One does not always have to sacrifice substance for results. Looking back on this case, we’re particularly influenced by a few examples. During the Asheville 11 case, supporters called for solidarity actions ahead of court hearings. The “Yo Tambien Soy Anarquista” campaign against Operation Pandora in Spain fought the imprisonment of several anarchists using graffiti, speaking events, marches, and uncompromising political narratives. And the “To Libertarians” strategy from 20th century Spain presented a calculated call to action, leading to the release of more than fifty anarchist prisoners. Through this discussion, we ask that comrades and their respective networks reflect on this. How can we best mobilize support networks? How can we anticipate and combat burnout? How do we encourage each other to participate in the face of gloom? How do we win the support of those who choose to look the other way? How do we draw on historical lessons, generations of wisdom, and a diversity of perspectives? And then—how do we utilize them? The “Yo también soy anarquista” campaign exerted powerful leverage against a campaign of state repression in Spain. The Science of Opposition The case of the Asheville 11 shared some similarities with the J20 case. On the night of May Day 2010, 11 people arrested in the vicinity of a demonstration that involved property destruction were charged with vandalism, rioting, and conspiracy based on scant evidence. After a harrowing ordeal, the prosecution dropped most of the charges and a couple defendants took plea deals for “misdemeanor riot.” Years of stress and repression left the local community fractured and burned out. The elements we’re most interested in are the confrontational ones: the support crew’s call for solidarity actions ahead of hearings, the actions that accompanied them, and the visibility they produced. The call created a specific kind of power and a new angle of pressure because it asked us to extend our repertoire and kept us engaged. Comrades from the Asheville support crew pushed a clear narrative: innocent of all charges, police malfeasance, and the aggressive prosecution to suppress radical politics. The call for actions helped keep the case in the public eye. The police corruption, the controversy over the Asheville Police Department’s evidence room and the departure, indictment, and imprisonment of the chief forced the state’s hand in favor of the defendants. The fact that the case stayed public despite years of delay applied pressure to the prosecutor to drop the charges. The Asheville 11 case can be considered a worst-case scenario: very few people supported or understood the defendants and the state was well-positioned to depict them as mere criminals. Yet even then, solidarity actions did not further endanger the defendants. To be clear, we believe that it made sense for people to employ a cautious approach at the beginning of the J20 case. But we believe that there should have been elements such as these inside the overall ecology of resistance to the J20 case at later points. The J20 solidarity actions were mostly comprised of banner drops, press releases, fundraisers, and the like but generally failed to extend to more confrontational forms. Remaining conformist in narrative and action deprived the movement of dynamism and growth, consequently failing to keep the campaign’s participants and supporters engaged. A year into the case, energy for support efforts had tapered off—a problem in itself, given that criminal litigation often drags on for years. Yet it wasn’t just our side feeling the effects of its duration. At that same time, the state had failed in its attempts to convict defendants in the November trial, looking very bad in its pursuit, and had exhausted countless resources, leaving the lead prosecutor visibly worn. By entering into a new phase of solidarity and changing its nature, the campaign could have revitalized itself, taking advantage of its enemies in a fight they were already losing. At different stages of the case, there should have been shifts. Adaptation is key to survival. A movement that doesn’t develop and leaves its potential unrealized will die. The amount of burnout and fatigue among J20 defendants and supporters both after the first trial and now is indicative of this. The question of adaptation and survival permeates every aspect of our collective existence; we should continually strive to answer it. Imagine if after the first round of dropped charges, there had been a series of eruptions—widespread disruptions and marches expressing indignation at the remaining charges. A moment encouraging social fissure, a crisis: rabble-rousing at universities and workplaces, marches in the streets, interventions and direct actions everywhere. An effort to get more people behind the remaining J20 defendants without their having to adhere to our exact ideas, a reminder that we are all angry and all long to be free, and, importantly, an effort that brought the participants feelings of joy and power. But what was nurtured around the case wasn’t conducive to making any sort of effort like this possible, even autonomously. Everyone was paralyzed by the campaign’s physiology in narrative, atmosphere, and action. Two Accounts At some point after the first trial, there was a meeting in DC with defendants and supporters. During that meeting, someone proposed the idea of having a march that “went against traffic.” Hearing this, someone who does legal support, with a lot of social capital and movement experience, nervously interrupted, “I think this conversation has gone in a very bad direction.” and rushed out of the room. Everyone (including myself) was then forced to think that the idea was bad. Reflecting on this moment now, I don’t think the idea was. This kind of reaction was common around the case. It made discussion impossible, shut down possibilities, and suppressed the development of our resistance to the case. I saw a tremendous amount of initiative and capacity destroyed by attitudes and paranoia. We missed opportunities such as establishing a long-term collective house in DC for defendants and supporters and discouraged many comrades from wanting to be involved. The conditions around the case caused many people to become alienated or hurt. After a year, dozens of comrades wanted little to do with J20 stuff. After the majority of charges were dropped, there was a West Coast J20 speaking tour organized. The tour was an opportunity for people working on the case to raise support and reach out to regions who were less likely to be up to date or entangled in the case. There was a lot of opposition to this tour happening. Defendants and supporters who opposed it didn’t offer many reaons beyond insisting it was potentially harmful to defendants who were still facing charges. In my opinion, this was the result of bad faith and problematic power dynamics. The practice of hosting anti-repression events is understood all around the world. Such events are essential to overcoming isolation. The tour was ultimately able to go through but we were forced to eject a defendant who was still facing charges because others weren’t okay with them speaking. I’m sure that the tour would’ve been a source of empowerment and fulfillment for that defendant but it ended up causing them harm instead. I believe all of us who were on the tour regretted making this decision. But at the time, there was little room to breathe because of how unhealthy the atmosphere around the case was. There was a lot of paranoia in the air and the question of accountability was consistently difficult to address with such a wide pool of defendants. As a movement, we weren’t able to maximize the potential of the calls to action. There was an issue of capacity but there was also an issue of participants feeling dis-engaged, which adversely affected the capacity for actions. In our experiences in many conversations around action, people would severely limit themselves because they weren’t sure what was acceptable. After a year of mostly banner drops and fundraisers, many felt that supporting the J20 case meant dressing nicely and going to court or, at most, helping logistically. When this happens, a few people will stick around but most will turn their attention and energy elsewhere. Actions inform action. In order for actions to generalize, people have to think them up, carry them out, and publicize them so that they can spread. Within the J20 solidarity efforts, there were some fiercer actions, but people seemed hesitant to imitate or advocate for them and people doing work around the case were likely to discourage such things. It makes sense that people doing legal support would be tightly wound, but it doesn’t make sense for people to allow that trepidation to influence our politics and our work as revolutionaries. DefendJ20Resistance was mostly comprised of defendants. As political agents of change, we will not always follow in accordance with what would be considered “legally sound.” Isn’t that why we participated in the action on J20? Isn’t our conflict with the law and its courts the reason why so many of us put in support work against the case? Our solidarity efforts need to reflect our values, or else we risk not achieving meaningful enough goals; we risk inertia. Partisans of more conservative approaches managed to make themselves indispensable. For many defendants and supporters, this was their first bout against repression and they deferred to those with social capital, movement experience, and palatable defensive stances. What would be necessary for us to have other options next time? Folks of more militant inclinations who have just as much experience would have to do the same kind of work. We would have to nurture an environment of solidarity, hospitality, and autonomy. Radical outlets, such as CrimethInc. and It’s Going Down, co-published calls to action including strong narratives: “Make it clear that there will be personal consequences for taking the side of oppression.” “The best defense is a good offense! If there is a powerful movement against Trump and the forces he represents, defendants from the previous clashes will be more likely to receive the support they deserve. Keep organizing new efforts against Trump, police, nationalists, and the pipelines and profiteering from which they draw their power.” CrimethInc. also published a compelling piece after the conclusion of the first trial critiquing the state as a whole. This type of messaging was generally depreciated by J20 defendants and supporters. During moments of hardship, people can start to believe that revolutionary aims are too idealistic and naïve, and this can become infectious. We ask that people think twice about where those feelings and thoughts come from. There is no ignorance in unapologetically fighting for a freer world. If anything is naïve, it is the idea that liberalism will solve all our problems. We cannot rely solely on a few radical outlets to disseminate political narratives. We must come up with our own narratives and diffuse them in our efforts wherever we can, or else they are likely to remain limited to our own circles. We must challenge ourselves to advance our struggles. Our efforts should aim to multiply revolutionary possibilities, which means expanding on what’s already in place, not simply replicating existing modes. We need to do a better job of identifying these strengths and weaknesses in order to adjust our approaches accordingly. A multiplicity of narratives is expected. When have the people who comprise any political body been unanimous in their positions on direct action and resistance? These differences should be encouraged, not stifled. It’s important to create a diverse set of perspectives, complicating the ways in which reactionary forces seek to marginalize revolutionary gestures and their proponents. The J20 case saw some of that but ultimately too little. No tears indeed. We Are All Anarchists Yo Soy Tambien Anarquista. “I am also an anarchist.” In 2014, eleven anarchists in Spain were arrested on terrorism charges in a police action known as Operation Pandora. Seven were imprisoned; the other four were released with charges. After an extensive solidarity campaign and a couple years of court appearances, all of their charges were dropped. The solidarity campaign showed how sensationalized confrontational tactics, a diverse array of actions (e.g., graffiti, speaking events, marches), and savvy uncompromising narratives challenging innocence, guilt, and political targeting can succeed. Anarchists accurately saw the terrorism charges as a means to create fear and isolate the state’s enemies. The campaign was able to fight this and effectively garner broad support. Anarchists saw the danger of their politics being diluted by receiving such wide support. They created narratives that built broadly while maintaining their political integrity. Articulate and clear positions dignified their movement and politics while antagonizing and discrediting the state: “I too am an anarchist.” “Neither innocent nor guilty.” “The terrorist is the one who condemns us to a life of misery, not the one who rebels against it.” “Terrorism is not being able to reach the end of the month.” “The only terrorist is the capitalist state.” As is common in Spain, constant anarchist graffiti maintained an atmosphere of visibility and hostility around the case. Large marches disrupted the flow of normalcy. There were direct actions including blockades and property damage, speaking events that offered discussion and community building, and small-scale clandestine attacks. All of these applied pressure from different angles. “The Pandora solidarity campaigns included a large number of solidarity talks that gave information about the case and also talked about the importance of the practices of sabotage and insurrection that the state was trying to punish. And without a doubt, that made us stronger.” -An anonymous participant in the solidarity campaign against Operation Pandora If the state’s intention is to repress an action or political body, it can be powerful to bring the very topics it is targeting to light: to say what is happening and explain what you think it means. Generally, within the J20 solidarity campaign, discussions such as these were few and often very limited in scope. They often focused on Trumpism, the intensity of the charges, and the right to protest. This reactivity came at the cost of gaining qualitative strength. It even seemed to us that many comrades were actually unable to articulate why anyone would break a bank window or torch a limousine. Comrades near the case chose to forego discussion of why people participate in uprisings, allowing the State to keep the discourse about the more confrontational elements in the sphere of “senseless violence” and criminal activity. Whether this was due to inability or unwillingness, it reduced the overall quality of J20 solidarity. Think about Mark Bray explaining anti-fascism on the news or speaking events that discussed the uprisings in DC after Martin Luther King’s assassination and the 1991 Mount Pleasant riots. The final statement made was fine enough, but it was too little too late. An image from the 1968 Washington, DC riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination—the origin of the charges that were pressed in the J20 case. Lack of discussion of this historical link is an example of a lost opportunity. Broad support and the ability to work with others were key in the Yo Soy Tambien Anarquista campaign. In the US, however, we do not have the luxury of a strong historical memory of struggle nor the same anarchist movement. The efforts to connect with the DC Black Lives Matter chapter provide a good example of what it could look like to connect with others and their struggles in the US. At the time, this kind of work would have the most impact in Washington, DC, the main site of struggle for the case. This also offers an example of the kind of work anarchists can be doing right now to be prepared to combat isolation and repression in the future. [Insert Image: DC Black Lives Matter / Caption: “An example of how the everyday repression that marginalized communities face connects to the specialized forms of repression that activists face.”] The liberal defensive posture taken in the J20 case did garner the case media attention and superficial support from the likes of Democracy Now! But that support was rescinded as soon as “innocent” protesters, medics, and journalists were off trial and alleged breakers were up. Remembering that Democracy Now! participated in the initial media blackout of the case and the events that led up to it, we should have been prepared to shift directions when left-wing populists like them inevitably turned their backs on us. This type of betrayal is to be expected from the democratic left. It is a reminder to think about the lines we are taking and the directions for us to go at certain junctures. And it is precisely at this type of juncture that we are reminded of a saying: “Words divide—acts unite.” After the majority of defendants had their charges dropped, most people tuned out. Given the baseness of American public discourse, many of those who were reminded of the case were likely to be on the side of capitalists and their property. Again, this was the state’s strategy: divide and conquer. At this juncture, what good was appealing to notions of innocence or the right to protest? Accusing the government, the prosecution, and the police of injustice only reasserts the concept of innocence within this context. We prefer to bypass the question of guilt or innocence completely, refusing to participate in the state’s logic. The authors are split on the issue of innocence. Some of us feel that narratives of innocence are useful for garnering wide support and that they should be complemented by stauncher narratives to broaden the discourse of the issues at hand. The others prefer to bypass the question of guilt or innocence completely, refusing to participate in the logic of the state. The latter position presents an interesting challenge for us on the question of innocence. In what ways can we boldly support those who engage in militant protest? How can we dignify black/brown youth who are accused of stealing cigarettes, fleeing, or resisting in other ways that are used to justify police violence without relying on narratives of innocence? How can we combat using the language of our oppressors to create a more liberatory one? There wasn’t a cohesive strategy to support alleged breakers at this point. The campaign had largely disassociated from their situation—for example, many people spread the narrative that defendants were being charged for a handful of windows that only a few were responsible for breaking. This narrative puts alleged breakers on the receiving end of perceived guilt; it didn’t help to spread any justification or support for those who did break the windows, nor for any defendant who might be found guilty of doing so. People acting on their own initiative accomplished some of the best work that came out of the J20 efforts. However, due to confining interpersonal and structural dynamics, much of the initiative that is vital to effective organizing was inhibited. Despite this, the efforts that did make their way through were often celebrated—but only after the fact. Remember, actions inform action. The common response to repression from the onset of this case was hesitation, often constricting the effort of others. We should consider how to hone our reflexes to such situations and the dilemmas they engender—whether that means working more collaboratively or knowing when to branch off. To Libertarians In Spain, in the volatile aftermath of the Franco regime, more than fifty anarchists remained imprisoned while the more reformist elements of the CNT recuperated the movement’s revolutionary gains. These prisoners were not receiving support due to the illicit nature of their accused crimes, which included bank robberies and bombings. Anarchists in the region reached out to Guy Debord in France for help. Debord drafted the text “To Libertarians,” a militant call to action demanding the release of the prisoners. Fully 25,000 people signed their names to the appeal; the text was widely circulated throughout Spain. At that time, the Spanish government was chiefly concerned with fascist threats, leaving it precariously positioned and unable to engage the anarchists. “To Libertarians” clarified for the state what the cost of continuing to imprison dozens of anarchists would be. Thanks to bellicose words, the threat of mass mobilization, and the thorough distribution of the text, “To Libertarians” pressured the Spanish state into releasing the prisoners. The state released them on the grounds of “insufficient evidence,” despite possessing incriminating evidence against many of them. This serves as a golden example of an anti-repression campaign. It retained political integrity, utilized creative ingenuity, and defended its subjects—even the innocent ones. Click the image above to access the PDF. Our aim was to emulate this success. We saw the need to intervene after the defendants’ victory in the first trial and the subsequent dropping of 129 charges. When the prosecution was focusing on defendants accused of more explicit criminality, it was important to defend them outside and against the structures of law and order. We decided to deploy an autonomous strategy. The “Freedom for J20 Defendants” text was circulated ahead of the May trial. The text detailed our dissatisfaction with the general orientation of defendJ20resistance, our analysis of the situation, and an intense opposition to the case, its employers, and the world they inhabit. In response, we advocated a militant call to action. The strategy did not solely rely on the internet; we acknowledge the limitations of today’s oversaturation of information. We figured it would suffice to release it on radical news outlets such as itsgoingdown.org, where our enemies were sure to look. In addition, we distributed physical copies in DC where the case was taking place. An alternate and more explicit version of the text was distributed inside the courthouse café, which was frequented by lawyers, legal workers, police, security guards, and various others. In addition, copies were scattered outside both of the courthouse’s entrances and the entrances of nearby metros. The text was both emailed and physically mailed to various people including the prosecutor, the lead detective, various members of the DOJ and USAO, the former judge, and local news outlets. The text reached various local venues and was handed out to press at a press conference. Alongside the text’s circulation, complementary actions took place to apply pressure. These actions took place immediately ahead of the May trial to maximize stress on our enemies, limit their time, and proactively take advantage of any unforeseen favorable developments. Actions that shifted the atmosphere in DC and vandalism created an air of hostility towards the case. A proposal for a series of anti-repression speaking events threatened to raise social consciousness. The events were to connect various social movements, identifying the state’s mechanisms of repression. The first event took an explicitly agitational tone. Another call-in campaign furthered our goal of making the USAO a living hell. Because these actions occurred as a consequence of the J20 case, they imposed a cost for prosecuting it further. These stickers were seen throughout DC and appeared at all the metro stops near the courthouse before and after trial hearings. Kerkhoff mentioned them at court, provoking only a shrug from the judge. We believe that whoever wrote “Google Jury Nullification” in the courthouse bathroom was inspired by the sight of these stickers throughout the city. The stickers were popular; people mentioned them with joy. There was also a video. It was to be disseminated diffusely, and was for a short time; until some, upon seeing it, contemplated including it in something more concrete. The lack of a customary place to host this video points to a need for more insurrectionary infrastructure in the US. Comrades abroad utilize platforms like Actforfree and 325.nostate.net, which American comrades today don’t generally use.
Perhaps this video can serve to help demonstrate what it could look like for our movement to mobilize revolutionary solidarity in the future. If the prosecution had attempted to use these materials against the defendants, it would only have further extended their overreach. At what point do prosecutors begin to feel hopeless about trying to prove an alleged criminal conspiracy? Does a scandal such as this give them strength, or create further difficulty and confusion? We know the process can become the punishment. When do they declare “Enough”? We did not fear adding to their allegations of conspiracy, as the prosecutors already believed in these allegations and were struggling to prove them. The formal DefendJ20Resistance network was well positioned to fight against a text and video coming out of left field. Again, an attempt by the prosecution would mean an extension of their overreach, engendering activity that could bring things to the public eye. We were anticipating that the materials’ release would create scandal. Some would say “the police obviously made that” and others would surely create distance. A minority may have felt emboldened and at least everyone was healthily challenged in their views. All in all, we were content with making noise and spreading our analysis. It’s hard to say exactly what kind of effect this strategy had. But we would argue that it did indeed have one. It’s telling that we heard nothing about the article despite knowing it to have reached the opposition’s hands. We’d argue that we have to assume all this activity to have been a factor in their decision-making around the time of the second trial and the acknowledgment of the Brady violation. Like a fly buzzing in the room during a focused staring contest, increasing its volume as the contest endures. We reveal this strategy because we desire not to have to rely on a bluff. We want to facilitate the construction of a force capable of triggering widespread waves of disruption in response to crisis or repression. We want to improve and expand on the forms of solidarity we can produce and to bring the “To Libertarians” proposal into reality. Perhaps our first goal should be to arrive at a point at which we can bluff more realistically—for example, by becoming capable of utilizing our collective networks and infrastructure to present a convincing threat of mobilization. From there, the next goal would be pose the same pressure as a reality, not a bluff. (Ideally, we would skip directly to the second goal.) We propose that we need to develop enough movement intelligence and strength to have a shared instinct about when to employ various forms of disruption. This would greatly aide us in fights like the ones against DAPL, against the J20 case, against ICE detention centers and the border—fights in which it is vital to collectively act in such a way as to conjoin our strengths and make such efforts more successful, tapping into tangential possibilities and sustaining a level of uncontrollability. We would love for comrades to critically elaborate and build on this proposal. James Baldwin offers us an American vision for revolutionary solidarity. When Angela Davis was incarcerated, Baldwin wrote an open letter to her in the New York Review of Books: “One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But, no, they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses.” Revolutionary Solidarity Our opponents have interests to maintain; they factor these in when they decide how aggressively to pursue convictions in a particular case. There are boundless forces in any given situation and several ways to engage them. Taking an offensive approach means trying to make the pursuit of such cases or the sustained incarceration of the imprisoned no longer worth it. We could call this the practice of price setting: building on fighting capacities and refusing to allow the state to kidnap our comrades without repercussions. Costs may include many things, such as a prosecutor’s mental health, convenience, the USAO’s functionality (which was disrupted by call-ins), the stability of an individual’s job or even of governance as a whole. The cost of breaking a window isn’t financial but social. As many emphasized, the J20 case was never about broken windows, but political dissent. The function of repression is to suppress. By bringing forth what the state seeks to remove or minimize, we could impose costs on the forces of repression. The state fears the potential that property destruction, both the practice and the meaning behind it, will spread as a social contagion. Some may denounce the logic of “solidarity means attack.” We disagree, advocating another sense of revolutionary solidarity. It is important to remember that certain actions could adversely affect the outcome of any political trial—so choices must be made intelligently—and it is of utmost importance that political actors exercise caution in their activities. But there is a difference between caution and inaction, and the latter is unacceptable. This type of solidarity acknowledges that for the exploited, repression is a continuous ongoing process, and that all of our struggles are intimately intertwined. It affirms that there is a connection between targeted repression like the J20 case and everyday racist policing, immigrant detention centers, and the counter-insurgency strategies developed abroad. It understands that capitalism and the state operate in similar ways in very different places. What methods can we borrow across difference? What instills worry? What creates scandal? What makes the state’s pursuit undesirable? A multitude of things can be done to support the accused and combat repression: street demonstrations, fundraising, public meetings, escalating struggle, attempting to radicalize and connect with current social struggles. We should interweave them all in such a way as to deepen our struggles. For fear of justifying the repression that was already in progress, we did not take a proper stance against this system. Even small gestures such as defendants rebelling against being misgendered in court or speaking out in the face of explicit racism were discouraged. This was a mistake. Repression is an inevitable consequence of conflict; therefore, it must be incorporated into any winning revolutionary strategy. Whether we’re talking about attacks, disaster relief, or a free breakfast program, repression is sure to result if it threatens the interests of capital and state power. We do not benefit from being too tame. Furthermore, additional repression isn’t always inherently negative. We should evaluate it in relation to our overall strategy, not in a vacuum. Additional repression can offer new opportunities in the overall fight. For example, an indictment for an incendiary speech could be leveraged to (re)gain popular support. We have a choice: we can run and hide or fight back. If we give the state an inch, it will certainly take a mile. All our clichés apply here: stand firm, throw down, take up the gauntlet, hold the line—to the barricades! Repression is being meted out precisely because the social situation is becoming more precarious and because the actions for which the defendants were accused threaten the state. This means that solidarity is not simply raising money for legal defense and pleading to the state for leniency. Instead, it is an attack on power, and choosing to attack is not only refusing to bow down, but also contributing to the wider atmosphere of social antagonism. In many countries, a single slogan abounds: solidarity is a weapon. Let’s put it into practice in the US. Towards a Future January 20, 2017 saw the ushering in of a new generation of the radical left, a defining moment in a neo-fascist era. In an epoch with few such entry points, we should not understate the significance of this moment. We will not reiterate the importance of fierce resistance at Trump’s inauguration, but choosing not to act was not an option. We affirm the actions taken that day. Part of what makes these revolutionary days of action effective is how they are followed up. How do we put into perspective the anger and urgency shown that day? How can that moment permeate its way into subsequent moments—to create new ones? What does it mean to understand what occurred from each of our respective localities—and how would it look to externalize these shared perceptions within a larger social framework, creating a subjectivity that can extend beyond activist minorities and radical milieus, beyond protest towards the synthesis of a new world? Using historically grounded black bloc tactics, the counter-inaugural protests of January 20, 2017 manifested a demandless metropolitan riot with an explicitly anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian, and abolitionist orientation. The movement itself existed within a broader spectrum of resistance. Therein lies a strength with the capacity to grow relative to its ability to echo and resonate into the future. Perhaps January 20 can serve as a reference point for revolt in the years to come: an annual day of anarchist activity situated in a collective memory, with an emphasis on building power and expanding our abilities as a movement. In our present context, it feels especially important to intervene from an anti-electoral perspective, combating the next election cycle and the fallacious notion that we only need to get rid of Trump, not the system itself. Defining conflicts compel people to choose sides. There is strength in drawing lines in the sand and demonstrating that the institutions of misery we are forced to co-exist with are neither neutral nor impervious. Spreading signals of disorder can increase our tactical strength as we hone a practice of vandalism, property destruction, public occupation, and rowdiness. This interrupts the narrative of social peace and makes it indisputably clear that people are opposed to the present system and fighting against it. What better moment was there to do that than Trump’s ascendancy? As the failures of the prevailing order become ever more obvious, perhaps we should continue to force fractures of this kind. Some may scoff at insurrectionists who cite the Greek anarchist movement, but the situation in Greece is an accelerated version of our own here in the US. Comrades there have described how various sectors of the population took up the confrontational and combative tactics that had been used by anarchists in moments of crisis, such as after the police killing of Alexis Grigoropoulos. The contagion was so intense that even those who had previously decried these tactics joined in. In France, after years of riots in response to austerity measures, police brutality, and attacks on the ZAD, we are seeing disruption spread [countrywide].(http://ill-will-editions.tumblr.com/post/180774090884/next-stop-destitution-published-on-lundi-matin) “In opening up spaces free from state control, these ruptures offer an opportunity for liberation: an insurrection.” From Ferguson, Baltimore, and Standing Rock to J20, it is not a stretch to say we live in an era of increasing conflict in the US, as well. Like it or not, the future will involve social discord and revolution; things will not continue as they are forever. We would argue for agents of change to fight harder and sooner rather than later. Conflict can open up space for new perspectives, discussions, and forms of engagement while playing an important role in defending any revolutionary forms of life we create. The riot is the focal reemergence of rebellion in our era, when the relevance of the labor movement and the strike along with it has dwindled as global capitalism has expanded and adapted. The riot ascends at a time when our commonality, discontent, and strength aren’t primarily formed by our labor power but by our dispossession. This is a time of destitution, when broad antagonisms will continue to take shape against the state and the police. We ask that we be bolder in what we disseminate, plan, and do. That we begin to take ourselves and the freedom we aspire to more seriously. While acknowledging its limits, we ask that we start taking disruption more seriously. The disruptions that most prominently define our time are the riot, the blockade, the occupation, and, on the horizon, the commune. The decision to retreat from combative tactics should only come after we have gained significant strength. “The question of pacifism is serious only for those who have the ability to open fire. In this case, pacifism becomes a sign of power, since it’s only in an extreme position of strength that we are freed from the need to fire.” -The Invisible Committee In the past, there have been traditions of solidarity that meant continuing the struggles of those imprisoned or murdered by the state. Let us acknowledge the effects of repression from the J20 case as ongoing and strive to continue with the aims of revolutionary struggle as a practice of solidarity with the case’s defendants and supporters. For freedom! -Some comrades (ex-defendants and not) We Coming for Your Finger Sandwiches
On February 1, 2019, officers of the FSB, the Russian state security apparatus descended from the KGB, arrested a dozen people in the latest wave of their campaign of repression against accused anarchists throughout the country. After brutally torturing them over the following 24 hours in order to force them to agree to incriminating statements, they released 11 of them. The twelfth arrestee, Azat Miftakhov, temporarily disappeared within the legal system while the FSB continued torturing him and refusing his lawyer access to him. This is just the latest in a series of events in which the FSB have systematically employed torture to force arrestees to sign false confessions in order to fabricate “terrorist conspiracies” involving activists. This pattern will continue until people put enough pressure on the Russian government to discourage it from disappearing and torturing young people—or else, if this does not occur, until the secret police serving other governments, emboldened by the successes of the FSB, escalate their own use of torture and fabricated “conspiracies” to suppress activism in other countries as well.
Azat Miftakhov is a graduate student of the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics of Moscow State University, where his colleagues have signed an open letter of support for him, reproduced below. Extensive reporting on these events, including interviews with several of the tortured arrestees, is available here in Russian. For more background on the torture cases in Russia, read the full report we published last year. To keep up with Russian solidarity organizing around these cases, visit rupression.com.
New Repression against Russian Anarchists
This text reached us from Russian comrades who coordinate legal support and solidarity for anarchists targeted by the FSB.
On February 1, in Moscow, the Russian FSB raided several flats and arrested 10 people on charges of “conspiracy.” All of them were released after day-long interrogation and physical torture, except one person, Azat Miftakhov. He is accused of “fabricating explosives” and being a member of a “radical anarchist organization Narodnaya Samooborona” (Peoples’ Self-Defense). Over the past year, this organization has become the main target of police repression in Russia: several accused members of the group have been arrested, tortured, or threatened. Some had to leave the country under threat of long prison terms and torture.
One of the arrested anarchists, Daniil Galkin, has reported about the torture. After his arrest, he was beaten and tortured with electroshock in the police car for two or three hours. Under torture, Galkin was forced to say that Azat Miftakhov was an anarcho-communist and took part in anarchist actions. Galkin was forced to give an interview that was compromising anarchists to a federal TV-channel “First Channel” (Perviy Canal), and to promise to “collaborate with the police by providing information about anarchist actions.”
In the police station of Balashiha in the Moscow region, Galkin saw Azat: he was threatened by the FSB officers, and his arms were wringed. According to Galkin, Azat “did not look like a human being” as a consequence of the torture. He also said he heard the screams of one of the arrested women activists, who was kept in the room next to his. He also heard that one of the arrested anarchists had cut his veins and taken pills in order to avoid further torture in hopes of not giving any information about other comrades. According to other witnesses and journalists, that person was Azat Miftakhov.
Azat was kept in detention in that police station until late at night; he was not permitted to see his lawyer. At night, he was dragged out of the police station right past his lawyer, who had been waiting for him, and conducted in an unknown direction. We do not know anything about his actual location, as of February 2 at 6 pm. We think he’s still being tortured and forced to give information about his comrades and himself.
We ask for solidarity actions, the spreading of this news, and financial support.
In Russia (and the recently annexed territories, such as Crimea), there are currently several penal cases in which anarchists are facing “terrorist” charges. These include the “Network” case, the case against anarchist Vyatcheslav Lukichev, the case against anarchist Kirill Kuzminkin, and the case against Crimean anarchist Evgeniy Karakashev.
In order to donate to the legal defense of Azat Miftakhov and other Russian activists:
Account number : 40817810238050715588
Name : AKIMENKOV VLADIMIR GEORGIEVITCH
Please indicate “solidarity donation” when making your transfer.
An Open Letter in Support of Mathematician Azat Miftakhov
The following text was published in Russian and English here.
Considering different sources, on February 1, 2019, Azat Miftakhov, postgraduate of the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics of Moscow State University, was detained on suspicion of manufacturing explosives. He was tortured by the police and Russian Security Service; according to the words of Daniil Galkin, who was detained together with Azat, “he no longer looked like a human being.” Torture had been used to obtain testimony against Miftakhov. Security forces are concealing Miftakhov’s location from his lawyer Svetlana Sidorkina. At the time of this publication, she was not admitted to her client. Consequently, according to information from the lawyer and other detainees, Azat tried to cut his veins.
Azat Miftakhov just started his mathematical career: his first mathematical paper, “On weak convergence of finite-dimensional and infinite-dimensional distributions of random processes” in collaboration with Professor Vladimir I. Bogachev, was published in 2016.
We, the undersigned representatives of the mathematical community and others in solidarity with them, are extremely concerned about the current situation. We demand that the authorities report the location of mathematician Azat Miftakhov and his health status immediately, and admit the lawyer to see him. We also demand that they stop torturing Miftakhov and the other detainees, and we call for a transparent and fair trial.
Update: Azat Mivtahov has been found in the police station in Balashikha, Moscow region. The investigator claims he was arrested only at 19:10 pm on February, 2. Azat and his lawyer confirmed the use of torture.
During the inauguration of Donald Trump, police surrounded and arrested over 200 people in the vicinity of a confrontational march. Prosecutors brought identical felony charges against almost every single arrestee in one of the most dramatic escalations of state repression of the Trump era. For a year and a half, people around the United States mobilized to support the defendants and beat back this attempt to set a new precedent in repression. The J20 case was one of the most important court cases about the freedom to protest in modern US history. We present the full story here to equip readers for future struggles like it.
On January 20, 2017, tens of thousands of people gathered in Washington, DC to ring in the reign of Donald Trump with protest and rebellion, shattering the spectacle of a peaceful transition of power. What could have been a day of resignation and defeat became a flashpoint of defiance and resistance. Aiming to help set a tone of joyous rebellion for the coming years, protestors engaged in street theater, blockades, and militant street actions.
But with resistance comes repression. In addition to shooting pepper spray and concussion grenades indiscriminately at protesters from 10:30 am until well after dark, DC police attacked the Anti-Fascist/Anti-Capitalist March, kettling hundreds of people at 12th and L Street. Several dozen people valiantly charged the police line and escaped, but the majority were trapped in the cold for hours as police slowly arrested and processed them. This was the largest unplanned mass arrest DC had witnessed since the People’s Strike fifteen years earlier.
Of the 234 people arrested, 230 were indicted on identical counts of felony rioting, a charge that is a laughably false interpretation of the relevant statute. The state dropped the charges for 16 people, mainly journalists and a few medics, before the first superseding indictment in February, which also failed to correctly ground the charges in the cited statute. On April 27, a grand jury returned a second superseding indictment increasing the charges to a minimum of 8 felonies each. After a few people took pleas and a judge adjusted the charges to account for the fact that two of the felonies were not even on the books as a legitimate charge, approximately 200 people each faced six felonies (riot and 5 counts of property destruction, charged collectively under conspiracy liability) and two misdemeanors (engaging in a riot and conspiracy to riot, which provided the grounding for the 5 felony property destruction charges).
Defendants could have reacted to these outrageous charges by taking plea deals or going it alone. Instead, in an astonishing display of solidarity, almost two hundred people committed to fighting the charges together despite the extremely difficult circumstances. In an attempt to keep everyone out of jail, the defendants invested in collective legal strategies wherever possible and used solidarity and mutual support to keep each other safe, ultimately choosing to go to trial instead of accepting plea deals.
The J20 case was one of the largest political conspiracy cases in the history of the United States. The state intended to stifle resistance in the Trump era—to criminalize political rebellion, establish dangerous new legal precedents for conspiracy convictions, and send the message that resistance would not be tolerated.
The J20 prosecutions corresponded with a broader wave of reaction extending from the arrests and grand jury investigations of indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock to the backlash against Black Lives Matter and other instances of black-led resistance. They were connected with efforts to make the legal system even more repressive at state and local levels—including the proposal of anti-protest laws in eighteen state legislatures, with the intention of further criminalizing common tactics such as highway takeovers and in some cases making it legal for drivers to intentionally hit protesters in roadways.
The government hoped to expand its repressive powers by recasting holding meetings and marching as a group as evidence of criminal conspiracy. They claimed that being in the same place at the same time dressed in similar clothing added up to conspiracy and that the defendants were aiding and abetting a riot by virtue of their mere presence. The idea was to hold people culpable for acts committed in proximity to them. This is why all 200+ defendants were charged with the same counts of property destruction—the idea was that all 200+ of them had actively participated in breaking a small number of windows.
The charges against the J20 defendants were an experiment. If the state had successfully set new legal precedents with which to convict defendants of conspiracy, it would have impacted protest movements around the country. While the state gambled that they would be able to use collective liability to bring about collective punishment, the defendants staked everything on collective defense. In the end, the state overextended and lost.
How did the defendants and their supporters accomplish this monumental feat? We’ll explore why this case was so important, documenting the legal saga from the arrests up to the day the last charges were dropped, and highlight the legal strategies that defendants used to keep each other safe and prevent the state from gaining another weapon to use against our movements.
Many different actors played important roles in this story. Let’s go through each of them in turn.
For the purposes of this text, anyone who was arrested on J20 and did not take a plea deal falls into the category of defendant. The defendants were scattered around the country, but predominantly on the eastern seaboard. Defendants endured up to a year and a half of legal limbo that disrupted their lives, leaving them unsure of their futures in the face of potentially decades in prison. Many participated in creating legal strategies, publicizing the case to the media, and holding local fundraisers and events to raise awareness about the case—all while holding onto each other for dear life, hoping to get to the other side in one piece.
Many who watched their friends and loved ones enduring this trying ordeal helped by publicizing the case, consulting lawyers, cooking food for defendants and other supporters, publishing articles and editorials, raising money, showing up in court, facilitating spokescalls, and more.
Defend J20 was the public face of the ad-hoc defense committee formed in the wake of the J20 arrests; they maintained defendJ20resistance.org, the chief website offering information about the case and how to support the defense.
Judge Lynn Leibovitz
Known among her colleagues as one of the meanest judges in DC, Leibovitz presided over the cases in DC Superior Court until the end of 2017. She established herself early on as an acerbic and antagonistic representative of the state who was no friend to defendants. Leibovitz had made her name earlier by sentencing a 78-year-old anti-war protester to jail time and imposing a gratuitously harsh sentence on DC graffiti artist Borf, who responded in an interview with the Washington City Paper by comparing her to a piece of excrement. The comparison is unfair: no piece of excrement ever presided over the kidnapping, captivity, and brutalization of thousands of people.
Judge Robert Morin
Morin was the first of two DC Superior Court judges assigned to preside over the case after Leibovitz. From the start, he appeared more sympathetic to the case, hampering the state’s overreach by limiting the Facebook and Dreamhost subpoenas. He issued the sanctions for the Brady violation after Kerkhoff’s office was caught dishonestly withholding evidence.
Judge Kimberly Knowles
The second of two DC Superior Court judges assigned to preside over the case after Leibovitz, Knowles oversaw the second trial.
The US Attorney prosecutes all criminal cases in DC, which does not control its own criminal justice system as a de-facto colony of the US. Assistant United States attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff was assigned lead prosecutor of the J20 cases. She sought to advance her career by ruining the lives of the defendants by any means necessary—remorselessly misrepresenting them, the events of January 20, and the law itself, as well as mendaciously concealing exonerating evidence. Despite batting 0 for 194 with the J20 cases, Kerkhoff was promoted shortly afterwards to head up the felony major trial division, which is often assigned the state’s most important cases. Kerkhoff’s office has a long history of misconduct, J20 not withstanding, making her the perfect candidate to do the state’s dirty work.
Another assistant United States attorney, Qureshi was assigned to help Kerkhoff prosecute the cases. It was Qureshi who filed the motion to drop all the remaining J20 charges in July 2018.
You might think it would make sense for defendants engaging in a collective legal strategy and being tried by the state in groups to be able to share lawyers. But no, that would constitute a “conflict of interest,” in which a lawyer’s ability to represent one defendant could be adversely affected by duties to another defendant. Every single defendant had to have a different lawyer, and some had several lawyers. Some defendants hired private counsel, but most were represented by lawyers assigned at random by the court under the Criminal Justice Act (CJA), sometimes referred to as “CJA lawyers.” A few of these lawyers were extremely capable and willing participants in collective defense, but most were overworked, difficult to reach, hesitant to do what their clients wanted, and absolutely baffled by the idea that their clients wanted to engage in collective defense instead of facing the case as isolated individuals.
The Metropolitan Police Department
The MPD were the ones in charge of patrolling the streets of DC on the day of Trump’s inauguration. They showered protesters and passersby with sting-ball grenades and peppery spray throughout the day, senselessly targeting small children and the elderly. The ranks of the MPD include Commander Keith Deville, who was in charge of police operations throughout DC during the inauguration, undercover DC police officer Bryan Adelmeyer, who attended the January 7 planning meeting, and Peter Newsham, who ordered the mass arrest of almost 400 people at the World Bank protests in 2002 and was named Chief of Police in February 2017. A number of officers provided testimony in the two trials, including Ashley Anderson, Michael Howden, and William Chatman.
DisruptJ20 was the banner under which people organized for J20 and administered the disruptJ20.org site, which disseminated information about counter-inaugural events. The host of the site, DreamHost, was later subpoenaed to provide IP addresses for 1.3 million visitors. DisruptJ20.org is already offline, underscoring the importance of anarchists maintaining our own archives.
Dead City Legal Posse
DCLP was a collective of activists and legal support workers formed specifically in response to the needs of J20 defendants. They put in countless unpaid hours wrangling lawyers, raising money, obtaining housing for defendants and supporters visiting DC for court, reimbursing people for their travel expenses to DC, coordinating solidarity demonstrations at court appearances, and more.
MACC is the legal support arm of the New York Metropolian Anarchist Coordinating Council. It includes anarchists with many years of experience of enduring repression and navigating the legal system. They offered support, insight, and legal guidance throughout the case.
The Scuffletown Anti-Repression Committee is a defense committee formed in Richmond, VA after the inauguration to support J20 defendants and fight state repression on other fronts.
The Legal Saga: From the Arrests to the Dropping of the Last Charges
By the evening of January 21, everyone who had been arrested at the inauguration had walked out of jail into the arms of comrades; the one exception was Dane Powell.1 The arrestees received food, drinks, hugs, cheers, songs, and metro cards on their release, and some were given phones to replace those stolen by the government. At their court appearances prior to release, each had received one charge of felony rioting. This charge was levied indiscriminately against all defendants, even though there is no statute making “rioting” a felony charge in Washington, DC—the city statute classifies it as a misdemeanor. In late January, a grand jury returned an indictment upholding the “felony rioting” charge against nearly all of the arrestees.
Washington, DC doesn’t have cash bail; people had to wait to get out, but they didn’t have to pay to get out. To bail out over 200 people arrested on felony charges in a city with cash bail might have been well nigh impossible. In most places, when ordinary poor people are arrested—often on charges as trumped up as the J20 case—they frequently serve months or years in jail before they get to trial.2
A grand jury released an initial superseding indictment in February 2017, including 214 defendants and dropping charges against 16 people who were mostly journalists, like Evan Engle.
The state made its second move in late March 2017, when attorney Kerkhoff submitted a proposal to Judge Leibovitz to group the cases together. Leibovitz accepted the grouping system, instructing Kerkhoff that she wanted six-person trial blocks because it would be too burdensome for the jury to hear more than six cases at a time. Despite everyone receiving the same blanket charges, the defendants were prioritized into different groups based on alleged conduct and affiliation. There were four different groups, though the reasoning behind the groupings was never made explicit. Group 1 appeared to contain the defendants who faced the greatest risk of spending time in jail. Groups 1 and 2 were comparatively small; most defendants were in Groups 3 and 4. Soon after the groupings were announced, Kerkhoff started to offer plea deals to defendants in Groups 3 and 4. These pleas included a misdemeanor charge reduction and required an allocution—a statement of facts—but did not require the defendants to cooperate with the state against other defendants.
CrimethInc., subMedia, and It’s Going Down called for the first week of solidarity to support arrestees on April 1 to 7, connecting the case to Standing Rock and other struggles taking place around the US. That week, MPD raided an alleged J20 organizer’s house, seizing thousands of dollars in electronics and taking fliers and flags.
On April 27, a grand jury returned a second superseding indictment filed by the prosecution, upholding the initial charge of rioting and adding several more felony charges to each defendant: inciting to riot, conspiracy to riot, and five counts of destruction of property. Roughly half of the defendants were also charged with the same count of assault on a police officer. Three additional people were indicted for the first time under this superseding indictment, including the person who had been the target of the police raid, who was accused of being an organizer of the demonstrations on January 20.
Adding additional matching felony charges to hundreds of defendants rounded up in a mass arrest was unprecedented in the contemporary US legal system; it marked a dramatic escalation in the repression of protest. Essentially, over two hundred people swept up for being in the vicinity of a confrontational protest were being accused of breaking the same handful of windows. Kerkhoff hoped to use Pinkerton Liability to frame the defendants as culpable of the damage even if they did not even see any of the windows being broken. The additional indictments of suspected organizers reinforced the political nature of the case.3
The pre-trial hearings dragged on for months before there was any talk of scheduling trials. The prosecution hoped to have plenty of time to build cases against certain defendants while pressuring the others to accept plea deals. A dozen or so people took pleas in the first few months after the superseding indictment, mostly under the parameters of the Youth Rehabilitation Act, according to which defendants under 24 can have misdemeanors expunged from their record after a year. A total of 20 defendants eventually took plea deals—but remarkably, not one agreed to inform to the state about anyone else.
Some defendants and supporters had begun to organize immediately after the initial arraignment; many more began organizing in response to the additional charges. Many defendants had been scattered and disconnected over the first few months, but the high stakes of the case were becoming clear. At first, informal regional anarchist networks were the chief sources of connection and support; for the most part, these were centered around places where there were many defendants, including New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Richmond, Pittsburgh, Washington, DC, and the entire state of North Carolina. Defendants and supporters began to collectively strategize over spokescalls to facilitate coordination between these hubs as well as loop in the many defendants from other areas.
People spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what a collective defense might look like. Ultimately, they arrived at the following points of unity. While not all of the defendants signed on to the points of unity, over 130 did—an overwhelming majority.
In order to stand together and support one another through this stressful time, we defendants agree on the following points of unity:
We will not cooperate against any of our codefendants, nor accept any plea deals that cooperate with prosecutors at the expense of other codefendants.
We will refuse to accept that any of the charges or actions of law enforcement were necessary or justified.
We will share information, resources, and strategy when possible and beneficial. We will not say anything publicly or privately that has the possibility of harming individual defendants or defendants as a group.
We will support decisions individual defendants make, even if we do not agree with them, as long as they do not directly go against the other principles.
In late spring 2017, there were four large defendant assemblies in DC after several days during which many defendants were arraigned and had their trial dates set. In response to the more vulnerable Group 1 defendants having their trials scheduled first, defendants and their supporters devised a legal strategy intended to force the state’s hand. In hopes of preventing the state from framing the narrative by prosecuting higher-stakes defendants first, defendants adopted an early trial strategy, proposing that some Group 4 defendants should bravely seek early trial dates. If the state lost, this could delegitimize the charges and punch holes in the case for conspiracy and collective liability.
Of course, if the defendants who sought an early trial lost in court, it could have had the opposite effect.
Surprisingly, Judge Leibovitz affirmed the Group 4 defendants’ right to a speedy trial and set two early trial groups for November and December 2017, before the trials already set for Group 1 defendants. All summer, defendants and supporters were busy working with the more responsive attorneys, seeking new lawyers, mulling over legal strategies, creating media about the case, doing interviews as the case finally started to get traction in mainstream news, raising money, researching defense arguments, and struggling to compel lawyers to embrace the collective defense strategy despite their misgivings.
In late July 2017, a hearing took place regarding various motions to dismiss the indictment. Leibovitz threw out the assault on an officer charge, finding that the statute cited was outdated and hadn’t been in effect in 2017. In September, she denied the defense’s motion to dismiss the conspiracy and riot charges, confirming that the defendants could be prosecuted under the riot statute: “Each charged defendant who can be shown to be an aider and abettor of those engaging in or inciting the riot is liable as if he were a principal.” Because the police alleged that the arrestees were a “cohesive unit,” Judge Leibovitz affirmed that there was enough probable cause to uphold the arrests.
In November, soon before the first trial began, Leibovitz issued a ruling reducing two of the eight felonies (“engaging in a riot” and “conspiracy to riot”) to misdemeanors. She clarified that engaging in a riot had always been a misdemeanor charge in DC law, not a felony.
Let us pause in awe at the stupefying hypocrisy of those who profess to believe in the “rule of law.” How can it be that the prosecutor, the court bureaucracy, and two grand juries were permitted to terrorize two hundred defendants with multiple nonexistent felony charges for nearly a year? Surely, if anyone is still naïve enough to earnestly believe in the rule of law, they should consider those who are complicit in pressing nonexistent charges to be the number one threat to civil society. Prosecutors, police, and judges neither believe in nor uphold the rule of law any more than the most iconoclastic anarchist does. The difference is that anarchists are honest about this and propose an ethical alternative, whereas the professionals of the justice industry shamelessly pursue personal gain and little else.
With the first trials approaching, October and early November 2017 saw multiple pre-trial hearings at which Judge Leibovitz again surprised defendants by agreeing with defense attorneys’ insistence on adherence to basic criminal procedure, limiting identification by video footage and affirming basic legal procedures of eye-witness identification. The prosecution seemed stunned that they would have to abide by these basic rules. The prosecution’s strategy of having the lead detective on the case, Greggory Pemberton, identify defendants based on his literally thousands of hours spent pouring over video footage was strictly limited to pointing out identifiable items of clothing and equipment visible in different video recordings and letting a jury decide whether or not the individuals in the footage could indeed be positively identified as the defendants on trial.
Immediately before the November trial began, Kerkhoff’s office dropped most of the charges for the December trial group and reduced the rest to misdemeanors (conspiracy to riot, engaging in a riot, and one count of property destruction). Because the defendants now faced less than two years’ potential jail time, they no longer had the right to a jury trial; instead, Judge Leibovitz was to decide their guilt in a bench trial. It appeared that Kerkhoff and the US Attorney’s office were trying out two different legal strategies while seeking to reduce the workload involved in the prosecution. Even if Kerkhoff lost the trial involving the November trial group, she could still hope Leibovitz would hand down misdemeanor convictions in December. Perhaps Kerkhoff hoped this move would encourage the November trial block to file for a continuance or accept her misdemeanor plea deals, and that afterwards she could either convict the December trial group or try them after Group 1 defendants as she had originally planned. In any case, none of that came to pass.
Eight defendants were originally set to go to trial on November 20, 2017, but only six ended up standing trial and the starting date of trial was pushed up to November 15. One person scheduled to be tried in this block was dropped from it immediately before jury selection, because, as he was told, all of his discovery belonged to a different defendant. The defendants who did go to trial included two street medics and a photojournalist.
The trial lasted six long weeks, starting with jury selection and extending through day after day of deceitful police testimony as Kerkhoff attempted to build a conspiracy case. Kerkhoff admitted from the outset that she had no evidence to prove that the six defendants took part in property destruction. Instead, she sought convictions based on conspiracy; her case rested on demonstrating that all of the defendants willfully aligned themselves with the group. It was cohesion—aesthetic, political, and tactical—that the prosecution deemed criminal. Kerkhoff focused on emphasizing that the demonstrators wore similar clothing, arrived at a predetermined location for a public march, chanted, and covered their faces with masks, goggles, or gas masks.
“The evidence so far against numerous defendants amounts to no more than video footage of their continued presence in the march and their choice of black bloc attire. If the mass arrest was imprecise enough to sweep up journalists and legal observers, how can it be maintained that the police had probable cause to arrest every single other protester for rioting and inciting? If continued presence, proximity, and black garb is sufficient for the necessary legal standard of individuated probable cause for arrest and prosecution under these charges, the DC police and the government have, from day one of Trump’s presidency, lowered the standard for what it takes to turn a protester into a felon.”
In addition to relying on officer testimony as the foundation of her case, Kerkhoff presented video footage surreptitiously taken by Project Veritas, an extreme-right project that “infiltrated” public organizing meetings ahead of the J20 day of action. The collusion with Project Veritas coupled with the prosecution’s practice of withholding and doctoring evidence ultimately proved fatal to the case.
On December 21, after three days of deliberation, the jury acquitted all six defendants on all charges. As one member of the jury told Unicorn Riot, “The prosecution admitted the morning of day one that they would present no evidence that any of the defendants committed any acts of violence or vandalism. From that point, before the defense ever uttered a sound, it was clear to me that ultimately we would find everyone not guilty.”
After the first trial, the case against the remaining defendants began to disintegrate. Fully 188 defendants were still facing charges, and the DC Attorney’s Office promised “the same rigorous review for each defendant,” insisting that they would subject each and every one of the defendants to a similar trial in hopes of securing convictions.
This was just a bluff, a final blustering attempt to terrorize the defendants into accepting plea deals before the prosecution began to collapse. A day before the one-year anniversary of the J20 arrests, for which a third week of nationwide solidarity actions were planned, Kerkhoff’s office dropped all the charges against 129 defendants, including the defendants originally scheduled for the second trial in December. A hearing in March determined that the charges were dropped without prejudice—i.e., the state could theoretically reopen the charges any time before the statute of limitations expired.
The prosecution announced that it would pursue charges against a “smaller, core group most responsible for the destruction and violence that took place on January 20.” According to a motion filed by Kerkhoff’s office,
“The government is focusing its efforts on prosecuting those defendants who: (1) engaged in identifiable acts of destruction, violence, or other assaultive conduct; (2) participated in the planning of the violence and destruction; and/or (3) engaged in conduct that demonstrates a knowing and intentional use of the black-bloc tactic on January 20, 2017, to perpetrate, aid or abet violence and destruction.”
The indictment, however, remained the same. Group 1 defendants were still scheduled for trials beginning in March 2018, while accused J20 organizers were set to go to trial April 17. Part of the Group 1 defendants’ strategy was to seek continuances, hoping to delay trial until after the April trial block. Letting supposed organizers go to trial first would reinforce the fact that these cases were political in nature. Judge Morin granted the requested continuances and the Group 1 defendants were distributed among the other trial blocks.
The US Attorney’s office filed a notice in early March 2018 declaring that it planned to call an FBI agent who worked undercover infiltrating the anarchist movement to serve as an expert witness. They requested that this expert’s identity be concealed for her safety, even though she is no longer involved in active cases. Defense attorneys filed motions to exclude the government’s anonymous witness, arguing that the prosecution had cited no principle or method that could qualify her testimony as “expert.” Judge Morin denied the Government’s witness, alias “Julie McMahon.”
Kerkhoff’s office then requested a continuance for the two April trials, citing the denial of their previous expert witness. It was granted; in court filings, the government emphasized that it needed an expert to win convictions. The US Attorney’s office filed a notice declaring their intention to call FBI counterterrorism analyst Christina Williams as an expert witness. William’s credentials as an expert on the black bloc tactic rely entirely on open source research, including a recent book by Dartmouth professor Mark Bray.
The fourth day of solidarity actions was called for April 20, 2018, following a call-in day to pressure the prosecution. The CrimethInc. call read,
“Until all the charges are dropped, Donald Trump and Jennifer Kerkhoff are publicly humiliated, the US ‘justice system’ is abolished, and every last chicken comes home to roost!”
In mid-May 2018, four defendants started trial overseen by Judge Knowles. The state claimed it didn’t need an expert witness for these trials, so they proceeded as planned. The prosecution attempted to use the same arguments from the first trial to build a case, even though this time, the trial block included alleged “breakers.” Compared to the first trial, this one was a short two weeks.
While the closing arguments were taking place, hearings took place in Morin’s courtroom for the May 29 and June 4 trial blocks. In the course of these hearings, the defense alleged that Kerkhoff’s office had willfully withheld evidence. The defense had filed motions expressing this earlier, after the state uploaded additional video footage that the defense had never seen before to a discovery database shared by the prosecution and the defense. Judge Morin agreed that the state had in fact withheld exculpatory evidence, violating the Brady rule, which stipulates that prosecutors must disclose any information that might help the defense in advance of trial. It turned out that Kerkhoff’s office had not just withheld one video, but at least 69 videos.
Judge Morin indicated that he would introduce sanctions against the US Attorney for the Brady violation, but would rule on them the following week. Kerkhoff tried to pre-empt the sanctions by moving to drop charges without prejudice (i.e., charges can be re-filed before the statute of limitations is up) against seven defendants—the six who were to start trial on June 4 and one who was scheduled to start trial on May 29—and reducing the charges against the remaining three defendants on the May 29 trial to misdemeanors. Due to the wide scope of the Brady violation, Judge Morin responded to the prosecution’s motion by dismissing the conspiracy charges with prejudice (so the charges could not be re-filed) and forbade the government from proceeding on conspiracy charges or Pinkerton liability for all the remaining defendants.
Kerkhoff then dropped all the charges against the three defendants who were to go to trial on May 29. That left 44 defendants with charges.
Back in Knowles’ courtroom, the jury had started to deliberate regarding the verdict. One juror reportedly communicated to the judge that they had seen “google jury nullification” graffiti in the bathroom and had, in fact, looked up the term. Jury nullification is when a jury knowingly and intentionally finds a defendant not guilty if they do not support a law, because the law is contrary to the jury’s sense of justice or fairness or because they do not support a possible punishment for breaking the law. Despite this, neither side pushed for a mistrial. The following day, another juror admitted to the judge that he saw information on twitter that made him question the prosecution’s credibility. This juror remained on the jury, despite requests by Kerkhoff’s office that he be replaced.
After several days of deliberation, the jury failed to find any defendant guilty of any charge. One defendant was acquitted on all charges; the jury was deadlocked on all charges for another defendant and mixed on charges for the remaining two defendants. A deadlocked jury means a mistrials, and mistrials mean that the state can re-file charges within 30 days. But the state never re-filed charges against these defendants.
In the beginning of July, the US Attorney’s office conceded total defeat after a year and half of persecuting the J20 defendants, dropping the charges against the remaining 39 defendants (albeit without prejudice). Against all odds, the defendants had won.
It is encouraging that people stuck together, that most people didn’t plea, that no one informed on anyone else, that people were willing to risk trial even when their best legal and personal option might have been to take a plea deal.
Yet it should not be lost on us that this victory took place on a stage crafted by the state. Facing decades in cages, defendants engaged in this struggle because they had no other choice. And while the charges were mostly bully tactics aimed at trying to expand the definition of conspiracy and liability, the danger was very real. Others got involved in this struggle because they could see the broader implications if the state won. Fundamentally, this was a matter of movement defense.
The victory took place after the much of the process-as-punishment had already been meted out. The J20 charges distracted hundreds of people from engaging in other forms of social struggle for up to a year and a half. They confined a large number of presumably brave and capable people to a state of torpor in which many did not risk engaging in street actions because of the potential impact that could have on their pending cases.
It’s lucky for everyone that the case ended the way it did. It would have been a long and draining process to sustain the level of organizing through dozens of trials or to do ongoing prisoner support.
Defendants and supporters discussed several other legal strategies that were not ultimately employed, including a collective non-cooperating plea agreement aimed at minimizing the risks facing the defendants in the worst positions. The idea of seeking a “global plea” for all defendants surfaced again and again without gaining much traction.
Let’s be clear: all engagement with the legal system is harm reduction. There is no justice to be found in the justice industry. While we achieved certain goals with the strategies we employed, we should evaluate our achievements in the context of our larger aim of building a revolutionary movement that can ultimately overthrow the prevailing order. Avoiding prison time is not the same as winning freedom for all. We must not let the state intimidate us into narrowing the scope of our ambitions or abandoning our original goals.
The State and Its Ambitions
We can safely assume that at least some of the state’s functionaries thought these charges would stick. This is borne out by the fact that the original charges were expanded rather than dropped in the superseding indictment. There’s no doubt that prosecutors wanted to use the threat of 75 years in prison to force people to take pleas, but they also aimed to establish a different reading of collective liability.
It was hardly unusual that the J20 case targeted participants in a black bloc. The state has been carrying out mass arrests at summit protests and criminalizing militant tactics for decades. But this was a broader and more ambitious extension of the use of conspiracy laws. In fact, if the prosecutors had limited themselves to charging a few specific individuals with property destruction, they might have secured convictions and prison time.
The indictment cited defendants as co-conspirators on the grounds that they concealed their faces, wore black, moved as unit, and chanted the same slogans. It cast the black bloc as a coherent ideology rather than simply a tactic. The prosecution aimed to synonymize “black bloc” with riot, implying that anyone wearing black near a bloc is participating in a riot. This new use of conspiracy laws echoed the ways that conspiracy and anti-mask laws have recently been used elsewhere around the world, notably in the Locke Street case in Hamilton, Ontario.
While many people compared this mass arrest to the World Bank arrests in 2002, the state repeatedly referred to Carr, a case involving a much smaller mass arrest in 2005 that occurred the evening of the second Bush inauguration in 2005, following an “Anti-Inaugural Concert.” In that case, a court ruled that the police had broad authority to arrest an entire crowd if it was “substantially infected with violence” and if they couldn’t distinguish who was doing what.
The authorities weren’t just seeking convictions. This is most evident in the way they played their hand: typically, when the cops carry out a mass arrest, they press serious charges against a few arrestees they are sure they can convict while ticketing or fining everyone else. The aggressive persecution of everyone arrested that day reaffirms that the top priority of the administration was to set a tone from day one that resistance would not be tolerated, even if that meant risking a loss in court.
“The charges themselves were the punishment.” We heard this time and time again from those deep in the case. While it’s not clear how high up in the government the order to pursue these charges originated, the J20 ordeal was clearly designed to make protesters conclude that it’s not worth it to protest. If we don’t want that lesson to sink in, we have to use the J20 case to mobilize more protest and organizing than would have occurred otherwise, and ensure that it costs the government more than it intimidates people.
The State Plays Dirty
The state’s overreach extended far outside the courtroom. They demanded vast troves of website data by issuing a warrant to DreamHost, the company that hosted DisruptJ20.org. The Department of Justice initially demanded that DreamHost turn over nearly 1.3 IP addresses on visitors to the site. It should be noted here that site administrators for DisruptJ20.org intentionally didn’t store this data, but DreamHost did. The initial warrant also sought all emails associated with the account and unpublished content such as drafted blog posts and photos.
This prompted much outcry from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and similar groups. The DOJ also seized information from Facebook regarding the DisruptJ20 page and two J20 protest spokespersons via warrants complete with accompanying gag orders that barred the targets from being informed for seven months. Judge Morin eventually ruled that DreamHost could redact all identifying information before handing over data to the court and put additional limits on the Facebook requests, allowing Facebook to redact the identifying information of all third parties.
The government extracted terabytes of personal data from any defendant’s cell phone that was not protected by encryption. At the same time, the prosecution requested a rare “protective” order to keep defendants from sharing police body camera footage with the media—complicating efforts to prepare a defense and shielding law enforcement from public exposure.
Seeking to bully people where it imagined them to be most vulnerable, the prosecutor’s office offered “wired” plea deals to defendants it presumed to share romantic relationships. In a “wired” plea, both defendants have to accept the deal for it to be valid for either. If a couple were offered a “wired” plea deal and refused, Kerkhoff’s office would stipulate that to take an individual plea, either defendant would have to sign a statement of facts potentially incriminating the other.
The state also colluded with right-wing, ultra-conservative Project Veritas, relying on undercover videos of J20 organizing meetings produced by Project Veritas as evidence. Project Veritas is known for heavily editing its videos, and that is apparent in the videos introduced in this case. One of the videos that prosecutors introduced came from the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group, overlaid with audio from a Project Veritas video and including a slideshow of pictures from the protest. Prosecutors played these videos in court just one day after Project Veritas sent a woman undercover to the Washington Post dishonestly pretending to be a victim of Roy Moore, a US Senate candidate accused of sexual misconduct.
The Project Veritas videos ultimately brought about the downfall of the prosecution, as Kerkhoff’s office had dishonestly edited the videos before submitting them as evidence. It’s not unusual that the prosecution lied—practically all prosecutors lie on a daily basis and face no consequences for it—but that they lied so carelessly as to be caught.
“To be sure, the people most affected be prosecutorial deception are often not activists, but people of color facing crimes of poverty and the so-called War on Drugs. The injustice of the criminal legal system extends far beyond the repression meted out against the J20 defendants, with one key difference being there isn’t national media attention to put a spotlight on this kind of daily “misconduct” in the average criminal case. Yes, the prosecution lied about evidence, and that’s a disgusting abuse of power, but we also reject the idea of “good” or “ethical” prosecution in a system designed to lock people in cages or keep them captive through other repressive institutions like parole/probation, electronic home monitoring, and living with felony records.”
Organizing 200 or more people scattered across a continent is no small feat. Communication took place via signal loops, a collective defense listserv, and conference calls. At first, informal regional anarchist networks led the charge to raise money and connect defendants. Later, as the organizing structure became more formal, people organized weekly virtual spokescouncil meetings; the idea was that each region could have one or two people on the call who would report back to their respective comrades. If you weren’t from a region with many defendants, you could just join the call yourself, as could any defendants and supporters who agreed to the Points of Unity. The calls usually involved an array of supporters and defendants.
The ad-hoc defense committee never had a formal structure. It was self-organized, using consensus decision-making processes but without clarity on what constituted a quorum or who, exactly people were making decisions for.
“A listserv and weekly conference calls were our best means of keeping everyone in the loop: sharing updates and motions, communicating about legal matters, making sure everyone had housing and transportation to and from DC for court appearances, coordinating in-person defendant meetings after hearings, asking questions, offering resources, and checking in with people about whether their lawyers were being responsive.”
The establishment of working groups came shortly after, when different defendants and supporters organized themselves into working groups according to their interest and experience. The first working groups focused on legal strategy and media, later supplemented by political organizing, fundraising and finance, social media, wellness, and a cadre of non-defendant facilitators. Weekly bulletins summarized updates on legal developments, plea deals, the media campaign, corporate media coverage, political organizing such as days of action and call-in campaigns, and working group report-backs.
This organizing structure played an important role in getting hundreds of people on the same page. Perhaps the most important takeaway here is the value of keeping in touch. Instead of isolating themselves to navigate the halls of justice alone, defendants reached out to each other to act in solidarity whenever possible. While rare, this approach to legal solidarity could be as useful for a dozen defendants as it was to 198. The early trial strategy came directly out of inter-defendant communication early on, before there were larger support structures in place.
Money, Money, Money
While we dream of a life outside capitalism, we’re still living in this nightmare. We needed cold, hard cash to get through the J20 ordeal. The DisruptJ20 organizers had put out a call for money on the day of the arrests, anticipating that the fight would drag on a long time and raising a large initial sum. Regional anarchists networks raised money for local defendants via crowdsourcing sites and fundraising events in their communities. As time wore on, it became clear that we needed more funds and that some defendants who didn’t have a regional network to fall back on were slipping through the cracks. When you clicked on the “donate” button on the DefendJ20Resistance site, you were pointed to nine different regional funds you could donate to. We could practically hear people putting away their wallets.
To streamline the process for donations, publicize the case, and increase the likelihood that more people would donate, we created a national crowdsourcing campaign; it went live shortly before the first trial opened. Many artists donated resistance-themed art to the national campaign, for donors to receive in return for their generosity. The money was used to reimburse defendants for their travel expenses to DC, to pay for housing and food during trials, and to assist defendants who had hired private counsel, among other needs.
There’s No Justice, It’s Just Us
When you’re planning a militant protest, you can’t expect the law or the Constitution to protect you. Likewise, when things go awry, you can’t leave your fate solely in the hands of lawyers. The vast majority of them, even the ones who are sympathetic and share some of our values, make most of their legal decisions as lawyers. There are exceptions, but if we’re interested in bringing our fight into the courts and the public eye, we have to take ownership over our cases both as a movement and as defendants. Ideally, lawyers can work with us, but they won’t fight our battles for us. As anarchists, if we’re critical of representation in governance and politics, we need to think through the ways this applies when we find ourselves facing down criminal charges.
“Beyond analyzing evidence, defendants collaborated and spent hours discussing the prosecution’s theory of the case and how to craft a dignified defense that didn’t throw their co-defendants under the bus. People came up with point-by-point refutations of the indictment, challenged Kerkhoff’s characterization of the black bloc, and even brainstormed potential expert witnesses. These conversations were invaluable and provided defendants with important resources to bring to their lawyers.”
In the J20 case, there were surprisingly few movement lawyers. Most defendants had court-appointed lawyers (including a few from prestigious white shoe law firms), while a few hired private counsel. One person deeply involved in the case had this to say about the ongoing struggle dealing with lawyers:
“Due to a complete lack of movement lawyers, or lawyers experienced in defending political cases, with maybe one or two exceptions, certain things played out differently than they would normally in this kind of mass political prosecution. First, the reliance on court appointed lawyers or lawyers from high-powered DC firms, and the absence of movement lawyers, meant that their defense of the charges was virtually devoid of politics or left political framing, whether in motions to dismiss, other pretrial motions, or at trial. When the political elements were framed by most lawyers, even the ones who best understood them, they were framed in such a way as to throw the more militant activists under the bus. For the most part, the lawyers also had no idea how to engage with the media to advance their goals in the case.
“Second, a lack of experience working on these kinds of political cases meant the lawyers did not know how to work collaboratively with each other, their clients, or supporters, or else were unwilling to. Each group acted in their own silo with very little engagement. Eventually, the lawyers used a listserv to communicate with each other and there was some collaboration; but with the exception of a handful of lawyers, that collaboration was very limited in scope. Because the lawyers generally operated in their own silo, what limited collaboration did happen wasn’t necessarily communicated with defendants or supporters and even if it was, that didn’t mean that those lawyers necessarily wanted to engage and discuss strategy with defendants or supporters. Fortunately, there were a couple of lawyers who were willing to take strategy ideas from defendants and supporters and transmit those ideas to the broader lawyer group, but that process was less than desirable since the lawyers involved often did not fully understand the reasons behind the strategy and for the most part were not interested in discussing it.
“Third, there was a concerted effort by defendants and supporters to involve movement lawyers from outside DC (since so few movement lawyers seem to reside in the DMV area), but those efforts never really panned out.
So, with the lawyers in one silo and the defendants and supporters in another silo, legal strategies and reasonable ideas for politicizing the cases were relegated to echo chambers in calls and meetings with defendants and supporters. In a collaborative environment with lawyers used to litigating political cases, lawyers would more naturally work with defendants and supporters and concern themselves less with losing “privilege” and issues of conflict; the political nature of the cases and the benefits from collaboration are often seen as more important to a collective process than the losses or complications such collaboration might bring. This is not meant to dismiss the good reasons that people with very different circumstances and risk factors have to maintain separation, but in this case, collaboration would have weighted the legal battle in favor of the defendants.”
It cannot be stressed enough that wherever the lawyers worked together, it was because defendants insisted that they do so. It was defendants standing up to their lawyers and insisting that they would not participate in a legal strategy that benefited them at other defendants’ expense that determined the outcome of the case. And it was defendant labor looking through the discovery—not lawyers—that uncovered the thread that led to the 69 Project Veritas recordings that Kerkhoff had dishonestly concealed.
Shifting the Discourse
In the discourse around J20 solidarity, little space was given order to the rhetoric of rights or the idea of a just or benevolent court. While a narrative of individual innocence might have served some people, most people focused on the violence of the police and the efforts of the state to criminalize resistance. Solidarity regardless of guilt was a guiding tenet: rejecting the legitimacy of the legal system and recognizing the ways it upholds fundamental injustices. Instead of playing into the trope of good protestor vs. bad protestor, people pushed back against the state, identifying it as an enemy, refusing the narrative that there were “good protestors” exercising their first amendment rights while a few “bad apples” spoiled the day.
“More than facts or the notion of guilt, one’s experience and treatment in court is dictated by race, gender, citizenship, and access to specialized and expensive resources. Our support for all J20 defendants is not dependent on whether they did or didn’t do the acts the state alleges.”
However, there was an ongoing tension at play between affirming the beautiful moments of rebellion that occurred on J20 and keeping people as safe as possible in the face of potential prison sentences. Defendants and supporters struggled to maintain integrity as they navigated the complexities of coordinating an outward-facing media strategy that didn’t implicate anyone and an internal political framework that supported illegality and militancy.
Defendants and supporters understood the benefit of shaping the public narrative by generating their own material and “harnessing” corporate media coverage. Defendants and supporters created videos and podcasts, publicizing the case through anarchist media networks. Supporters coordinated synchronized twitter campaigns; Unicorn Riot reported on the trials in detail.
While independent outlets were usually the ones to announce breaking news, the US Attorney’s Office and the legal system on the whole felt greater pressure from corporate media narratives. Coverage of the case appeared in the New York Times, the Washingon Post, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Al Jeezera, and the Independent.
The effort to get reporters into the courtroom for the first trial was a huge success. By broadcasting the vulnerabilities of the government’s case along with its collusion with far-right groups and biased, bigoted police officers, defendants exposed the political motivations of the prosecution. Once news of the acquittals from the first trial spread far and wide, the government had little choice but to dismiss scores of cases. By the time of the second trial, Defend J20 Resistance was able to effectively draw media attention to the evidentiary violations and subsequent sanctions against the government, making it impossible for the US Attorney’s Office to proceed further.
We began the J20 case in a corporate media climate that either refused to cover the J20 arrests entirely or else that covered them in such a distorted way as to give the public a very negative perception of the defendants. Experienced defendants and supporters coached those who were not as experienced in how to work strategically with mainstream and independent media on high-profile cases involving significant danger. Spokespeople were empowered among defendants and supporters who were willing to speak to reporters. Early on, we began issuing press releases to update media on changes in the case and to spark interest.
By the time of the first trial, there was significant mainstream and independent media coverage. The sweeping coverage of the first set of acquittals embarrassed the US Attorney’s Office and compelled the prosecutor to dismiss the majority of the remaining cases. With the prosecutor off-kilter, Defend J20 Resistance never let up, continuing to issue press releases as breaking news was uncovered about fascist and extreme-right collaboration with the US Attorney’s Office and serious evidentiary violations.
Blood, Sweat, and Tears
J20 defense work consumed thousands and thousands of hours of volunteer labor. Many of the defendants and their supporters did not know each other before the arrests. It should not be understated how much work people took on under tremendous stress. Many defendants also had to make weighty decisions while scared and isolated.
While we don’t intend to air anyone’s dirty laundry, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that this arduous process involved conflicts. We speak on these here not to embarrass anyone, but in hopes that our experience can inform future anti-repression organizing.
The defendants were ultimately able to present a strong, unified front, but there were tensions between people accused of different actions, questions about “innocence politics,” and conflicting ideas about goals and strategy. Some people felt their ideas or proposals were stifled or even blocked by a centralized group. There were critiques of the formality of the structure and there were many divisions along lines of experience, region, tendency, identity, and capacity.
New opportunities for flexibility appeared when people were divided into trial blocks and began to coordinate more closely with each other on that basis. Despite internal conflicts, there was room for creative autonomous activities that complimented the coordinated defense efforts.
If anything, we can let this saga inform how we organize in the future. How should people make decisions together? How do we ensure that agency isn’t consolidated in the hands of a small group? And how can we make sure everyone’s voices are heard? What kind of models do we use, especially if we don’t want to fall back on familiar frameworks like spokescouncils?
Aim Beyond the Target
We approached the J20 case as movement defense.
While we should not overlook the specific cases of those who were threatened with decades in prison, in many important ways we were all on trial. The legal precedents around collective punishment, proximity to crime, conspiracy, intention, and liability would have been far-reaching and incredibly dangerous. People fought the charges and supported the defendants not only to protect themselves and each other, but because it was clear that if the defendants were convicted, many similar cases would follow. The case law would be used in future legal battles, especially in contexts in which people are even more vulnerable within the legal system, such as anti-police struggles and indigenous movements.
The capacity and connections we built helped strengthen other struggles against repression across the country. Broadening our solidarity with other anti-fascists, Standing Rock arrestees, and communities that are consistently targeted with police violence helped situate the J20 case as part of a larger movement against the state and capitalism. Aligning with movements against police and prisons, the J20 defendants and supporters fought repression while contextualizing broader struggles against the police.
“We further challenge the valorization of ‘political’ defendants and prisoners over other people whose lives and families are vulnerable to state violence. The people most often and most brutally affected by the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia (MPD), anti-rioting laws, and the horror of the criminal legal system are not protesters on Inauguration Day, but people of color living in so-called Washington DC who face this abhorrent system every day.”
There was a consistent effort to acknowledge that all court cases are political, that the system is rigged against the poor and against people of color, that centuries before Trump was elected the state was already a fundamentally colonialist, white supremacist formation, and that lying and concealing evidence are the standard operating procedures of both the cops and the courts.
In addition to placing the case in a broader context of repression, defense efforts included various tried and true anarchist methods that engaged a broader body of allies to pressure on the state. There was an ongoing call-in campaign to Kerkhoff’s office to push the US attorney’s office to drop the charges. There were four different calls for days of solidarity actions. Many organizers used the case to spread awareness and strengthen ties in their own communities. The July 2017 day of solidarity offered a necessary morale boost after the case had dragged on for six months. And while it may be a matter of correlation rather than causation, Kerkhoff’s office dropped the charges against 129 defendants the day before the third day of solidarity on January 20, 2018.
When we defeat a state offensive like the J20 charges, this frees us to continue fighting on our own terms, rather than being stuck reacting to one assault after another.
“The same force that drives people to rebel and fight also drives people to protect and support each other. What we do and how we move through the world differentiates us from what we are fighting.”
Lessons I: Your Phone is a Cop and Other Tales of Surveillance
Everyone who was carrying a smartphone when they were arrested at J20 had it seized. As if we didn’t already know better! If you are going to a militant protest, leave your phone at home. As some comrades reminded us in the aftermath of J20, “your phone is a cop.” Investigators attempted to break into all of these phones, using a device made by Cellebrite to bypass passcodes and encryption. One defendant received an 8000-page document detailing the contents of their phone, including everything from contacts, emails, and texts to social media data and communications stored in the cloud.
The state had an easier time obtaining data from unencrypted phones, and Android operating systems appear to have been more vulnerable than Apple IOS. But technology changes constantly—what seems secure one day might be cracked the next. Private companies are investing millions in tools like GrayKey that help law enforcement break into phones. We can take steps to mitigate those risks, but simply not bringing a phone with you remains the safest approach.
Although the conspiracy charges didn’t work out for the state this time, we can be sure that all the information they gleaned from seized phones has been saved and analyzed. To some extent, our networks have been exposed and the state has gained valuable insight into who knows whom.
Had all the participants left their phones at home, the amount of potential evidence would have been considerably less. Many so-called “co-conspirator statements” came from recovered smart phone messages. Evidence of “intent to riot” came from emails and text messages. Participation in activist email lists and having activist events on phone calendars was trotted out as proof that defendants had planned to “engage in a riot” on J20.
Pouring over the evidence in this case—hundreds of hours of video footage, innumerable photos pulled from news and social media—it’s striking how much of the evidence was “open source” information. While there were videos from surveillance and police body cameras, much of the evidence came from videos posted to social media accounts. These were from a variety of sources—not just the far-right groups that insinuated themselves into the protests, but also people who were ostensibly “friendly” to the march. A live-stream of the entire march served as a key piece of evidence in the two trials that actually happened and the prosecution planned to use it in every trial that made it into the courtroom.
Romanian hackers infiltrated the MPD’s network of outdoor surveillance cameras for several days before the inauguration, infecting 123 out of 187 cameras with ransomware and rendering them unable to record. While some have hypothesized that this explains why little MPD camera footage was submitted as evidence, the department maintains that MPD had all their cameras back on line by the inauguration.
Lessons II: Mass Arrests
The J20 case poses questions about what kind of risks and losses we need to prepare for as we consider how to resist the state. We’re not advocating for people to become martyrs who do prison time for the revolution—but the state seems to be increasingly using felony, conspiracy, and terrorism charges to try to crush anarchist resistance, and we need to become more skilled at navigating this reality. We shouldn’t expect the authorities to play fair or abide by their own rules, nor can we expect the law to protect us. We have to strategize within the legal system while crafting our own narratives, aligning our legal battles with other vital struggles and communities in resistance to the state.
How do we pass along the knowledge we have gained to a new generation of anarchists? We need to find ways to transfer stories, tactics, and lessons from one generation to the next, filling the gaps in our collective memory. Considering that many J20 defendants were radicalized through the internet, anti-fascist struggles, and Standing Rock, it should not be surprising how many of them were carrying phones when they were arrested. A few security culture trainings ahead of J20 could have gone a long way. As mainstream culture evolves to integrate more technology into our lives, we should keep abreast of the potential impact that can have on our movements.
Most of us increasingly rely on digital communication; we have fallen out of practice using other communication methods we could have employed on J20. We should be handing out pamphlets at every demonstration explaining good security practices, as well as including contingency plans, rendezvous points, and the basics regarding how to keep a march together. A small map of the part of DC we were in could have come in handy, especially with so many people from out of town. So would scout teams running communication.
Next time you attend a serious demonstration, consider not taking your phone, or getting a burner phone if you will absolutely need one. If you are kettled with your own phone, consider smashing it before you are arrested. Seriously—take a deep breath and reflect on whether you would rather hear your text messages read back to you in a court of law and hand over the details of your intimate connections to the state so they can weave a web of association between you and your comrades, or if it would be better to have to ask those same friends to help you get a new phone. If you still can’t bring yourself to smash your phone, at least consider spending your time in the kettle erasing it, wiping it as clean as you possibly can. Even when you’re not going to a demonstration, you should always keep your phone encrypted and secured with a long alphanumeric password; any fingerprint or facial recognition features should be turned off.
The black bloc works best when employed properly. That means ALL BLACK. There should be no logos visible; both your face and hair should be completely concealed. Any markings on your clothes, shoes, bag, or face will be used to identify you, as will your glasses.
If you’re caught in a kettle, get creative: trade clothes with each other until your outfits are so mishmashed that the state will never be able to identify you. Or put all your black clothes in a pile and light them on fire. If it’s not cold, consider adding your shoes to the fire or leaving them behind. Or else everybody could trade shoes, ending up with mismatched pairs. We don’t know the extent to which DNA testing may be employed, but people could pass clothes and shoes around until so many people have touched them that it’s impossible to tell what belongs to whom.
The End, For Now
Ultimately, the state had a hard time building cases against individuals in part because of how they were trying the case, but also because we made it hard for them to build cases against us. In short, the black bloc works—and solidarity gets the goods.
If the day comes where we have to do it all again, we’ll be there in a heartbeat.
”Revolutionary solidarity is the secret that destroys all walls, expressing love and rage at the same time as one’s own insurrection in the struggle against Capital and the State.”
What would constitute real justice for the J20 defendants? If we understand justice as retribution—poetic justice—the police, prosecutors, the judge, and all the other state officials who are implicated in the past ten months of intimidation would be subjected to the same treatment they have inflicted. The police officers would be rounded up and imprisoned; the detective who lied to the grand jury would have his own life ruined by calumny he was powerless to counteract; the prosecutors would be publicly humiliated and forced to face the possibility of spending the rest of their lives in prison. 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 in the Sonoran desert simply in hopes of rejoining their families.
Our oppressors should be grateful that we do not believe in retribution. We aspire to transform society from the bottom up, not to mete out supposed justice. If ever we are the ones to determine their fates, we will aspire to forgiveness.
But the first priority has to be to interrupt the harm that they are perpetuating.
Dane Powell was not arrested during the inaugural protests, but identified and arrested by the MPD the next day, when he went to pick someone up at jail. Held for five days before release, he was initially charged with 14 felonies. After the state presented video evidence of Dane breaking windows and throwing rocks at an initial hearing, Dane pled guilty in April 2017 to rioting and assaulting a police officer. Part of his plea deal included signing a statement of facts about his own behavior on January 20, but he did not incriminate anyone else. Leibovitz sentenced Dane to 36 months in prison, but suspended all but four months on the condition that he successfully complete two years of supervised probation. Dane served four months in a federal prison in Florida. He was the only J20 arrestee to serve time. ↩
If we want to see more victories like the J20 case, one of the first steps is making it possible for poor people to get out of jail. There have been beautiful acts of solidarity with those in jail, like the bailouts of black mothers on Mother’s Day and the mass bailout of those held in Riker’s Island, and there are efforts to eliminate cash bail on the grounds that it unfairly impacts poor people, creating modern day debtor’s prisons. But eliminating cash bail alone won’t necessarily solve the problem—most places would replace it with technological monitoring and allow local courts to decide whom to keep in custody and whom to release until trial. The solution is not to reform the system, but to delegitimize it, challenging the notion that the courts have the right to incarcerate defendants in the first place. ↩
Rioting charges are inherently political in nature. The J20 defendants were originally charged under the DC Riot Act, originally written to criminalize black protest in the 1960s. Shortly after it passed, DC police used the statute to legitimize the arrests of over 6100 people during rebellions following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The law was used to depoliticize rebellion, deeming it “mindless violence.” The Riot Act has historically been used to take the teeth out of political rebellion, but the state often uses additional charges to clamp down on uprisings. While riot charges have recently been pressed against people arrested at demonstrations and protests, those arrested in fierce riots like the black-led uprising in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 are almost exclusively serving time for theft, burglary, or larceny charges. In that case, the state is still trying to depoliticize the situation, pushing the narrative that black-led uprisings against police shootings are not political but criminal.↩
Several blocks before the L & 12th Street intersection, I was already feeling that the march had run its course. At each cross street, we met a line of police, sirens blaring. A few brave souls still managed to fell some final windows on the periphery. Yet while the Bank of America windows had crashed in triumphant cacophony, these windows struck the pavement with an urgency that reflected our increasingly dire situation. We had no destination, no end goal. It felt as though we were running solely to evade police. I knew that it was time to break from the group, yet I still held a kind of separation anxiety.
Leaving has always been hard for me. Dispersing consistently feels liken a haphazardly unthought-out ending tacked onto an otherwise compelling novel. A novel that begins with, “Collectively, anything is possible—you can do whatever you’d like” and ends with, “Everyone goes their own way and pretends to be normal.” Leaving the bloc means leaving the safety of a powerful mass of people, often to wander the streets immediately adjacent to crime scenes, alone, with police looking to single out suspects. There was a rumor circulating that, given their history with lawsuits, the DC police would be unlikely to mass arrest. This false prediction spelled doom for us unlucky rioters, as the police did just that. It was with these thoughts circling my head, alongside memories of past dispersals gone awry, that I decided to stay with the march.
I was with a few friends. We stayed together. We kept track of each other. As the march shrunk in size, we paired off and prepared to jettison ourselves from the bloc. We turned to face an alleyway on L Street between 13th and 12th. I knew very well that this could be my chance to safely exit the march. My friends bolted down the alleyway, not knowing what lay the next street over. For a moment, I thought to follow suit, but decided that too many of us in one place might attract police attention. A few minutes later, I was trapped between a wall and a riot shield. Facing the corridor that had offered safe passage just moments earlier to anyone brave enough to step down its halls, I contemplated the hesitation that had led me to this fate. If there’s anything I can say from my experience being pinned against that wall, it is that a split second of intuition in the street is worth more than weeks of prior planning.
The kettle was where I made my biggest mistake. It was there, and the moments just before, that I put almost no effort into escaping. The police had us sardined together so tightly that I gravely underestimated our collective potential within the kettle. I thought that I was about to be arrested with at most seventy people, less than a third of our actual numbers. I was primarily among strangers. In my heart, I felt that I would participate in a second attempt to charge the police line. It was my fear of being cast as a leader, in a film produced by live-streamers and on-duty officers, that kept me from voicing my intent. Yet if there was any time to risk collective trust and courage, it was there, where we were most vulnerable.
There was larger reason I was compliant in my own captivity. I felt myself above persecution. There are two reasons why one would go willingly to their arrest. The first, they think that they haven’t committed any crime. The second, that they committed a crime so flawlessly that they could not possibly be convicted of it. Both of these presumptions involve a false sense of security; neither save you from prosecution. Though I did not delude myself with the pretense that I had performed a perfect execution of black bloc tactics, I considered myself “high-hanging fruit.” I was counting on the prosecution to be lazy, to lack the funding or time to convict me. When I was in the kettle, I was convinced that I wouldn’t actually be arrested. At worst, I would be charged with a misdemeanor, slapped on the wrist, and eventually end up with a check from a class action lawsuit. Instead, I had to navigate the next year and a half with looming felonies.
I had not come to DC innocently. I knew the risk, the potential repercussions. I chose to look them in the face. The pepper spray and stun grenades were terrifying, but not unexpected. In some ways, they heightened my senses and fortified my convictions. My heart races when I look back on the march—but not from trauma, nor from anxiety. It drums in vigorous reverie, recounts the last time it beat with purpose.
Over the following year, I was forced to tame my heart. In court, I stilled my breathing, attempted to hide my guilt. I kept a caged life. The legal procedure left me fraught with anxiety. I clung to the safety and certainty of routine. I denied every passion, every risk, in hopes that I would be able to convince a jury that I was simply not the adventurous type. My heart sat and sulked. I came to learn that, as a friend so elegantly put it, “The process is the punishment.”
Felonies change things. I catch glimpses of understanding in the eyes of my friends who have faced prosecution to this degree. One of the beauties of black bloc is that I might be anyone under this mask; a restaurant server, a designer, a nurse. Once donned, the mask allowed me to act in ways a nurse can only dream.
To be unmasked is to be held in purgatory between selves. I was no longer the person I was in the streets, yet I could not return to being who I had been just days earlier. At its core, the bloc hinges on the moment when we shed our black clothes and return to normalcy. While there have been times where I’ve de-bloc’ed with a profoundly different understanding of the world, I was still banking on returning to work with only one less sick day. As time passed after J20 and my charges remained, I realized there was a possibility that I might never return to being the person I had been before my arrest.
During the interim awaiting trial, I chose a course of action that seems common among anarchist pending-felons. I applied to college.
For me, college was an attempt to regain some agency in two different ways. In one way, I was trying to influence my potential sentencing. If I could convince a judge that I was an upstanding citizen, then he or she might be a little more lenient in punishing me. Going to college was also an attempt to salvage my future, a future I felt was starting to escape my grasp.
At the time I was arrested, I did not consider myself to have a clear vision of the future. Yet in the wake of my arrest, all successful futures seemed out of reach. Success felt like a mirage, shimmering, hazy, always on the horizon. My case continued and evidence mounted against me. I scrambled to claim any sort of successful future I could before a conviction made one unobtainable. I raced towards the horizon without drawing any closer to it, meeting the same scene in every direction. My charges sent me spiraling and forced me to examine my feelings of helplessness.
When I did so, I realized that all along, I had held within me a concrete image of success after all. It was not the unimaginable utopia I had believed myself to be pursuing. On the contrary, it was all too familiar; I had simply kept it intentionally obscured from myself. When I honestly consulted myself about what constituted my image of a successful future, what I found was indistinguishable from the world I already knew—only in the future I had been imagining, I had a little more money, a better presence on social media. I had been so disgusted by this vision that I had I banished it to the horizon of my mind.
The anarchist canon has changed dramatically over the past decade. Today, we are not as steeped in subculture. Our politics rely a lot less on consumer choices. We’ve come a long way from the cornerstone pieces of the early 2000s. Early CrimethInc. texts took the Situationist exhortation “Never Work—Ever” literally, proposing a sort of exodus that often looked more like voluntary exile; today, as work becomes more and more a part of our social as well as professional lives, the proposal seems unthinkably absurd. We have largely escaped the cultural pitfalls of the punk scene, expanded our access to funding for our projects, even created our own platforms so that anarchist ideas can proliferate. Along with these conscious efforts to grow and develop nuance with age, for me, something has shifted silently in the background.
I gave up my resistance to work—even took up office at some of the same companies I believed were bringing about an apocalyptic nightmare. I closed my eyes, clicked my heels, and repeated “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.” I justified my increasingly indiscriminate use of money, sought to tally up my influence on the world. I became obsessed with power, quantifiable power. I searched for any sign that the anarchist movement was gaining traction, that one day way we could finally make “The Switch.” My measurements for success had paralleled social norms; now they began to overlap with them. Soon Anarchy was just something I believed in. Aside from sharing meals and resources among friends, it was not something I practiced.
To some, the black bloc is a tactic, a means to an end. For me, having lived through a myriad of outcomes, black bloc is a practice. Black blocs are a practice in timing: when to return teargas to the police, when to leave an intersection, when to smash windows, when to disperse. As in all practice, some days are better than others. To be in bloc is to experience what can be possible when the laws that typically govern us are momentarily superseded and how to act when our adversaries try to reassert them. When we participate in black blocs, we are attempting to learn the balance between exercising an otherwise impossible freedom, at the cost of our safety, and maintaining a modicum of safety so that we can continue to act freely.
Every night as I mulled over my legal predicament, I would ask myself the same questions. “Are black blocs a pertinent part of the way we do Anarchy today? Are they just hollow tradition from a bygone era? Are they worth risking the world you inhabit daily for a fleeting experience, however ecstatic?” I think of my friends who are a little older than I, who have better jobs, who were noticeably absent from the
march on January 20. For many people, their little ration of worldly success is not worth the risk.
When I look back to the texts that inspired me as I was coming of age in radical politics, I trace a common thread binding them. Travel logs, accounts of underground healthcare, epics of animal liberation—at their core, all of them conveyed the same story. They told that There is a Secret World Concealed Within This One; a world that I had long since forgotten. The once-common anarchist saying “Another world is possible” is no longer spoken between friends. It is not overlaid on images of riots, nor commonly held as an anarchist truth. I mourn it’s absence. There are those who would say there is no life outside of capitalism, that we are bound to this world by birth. Only recently has the premise emerged that being born into a position invalidates your ability to transcend it.
The truth is that we alone are the visionaries of our success. We define our values, sculpt our objects of beauty. If we build from the blueprints of power and safety laid out in this world, then we will make more of the same. But I believe that we are capable of breaching the precedents of modern life. We can imagine less abhorrent futures, create lives worth living—but to do so, we must abandon the worldly successes we seek for validation. If we want to continue to experience the transcendental, unbridled ecstasy of black blocs, the practice of anarchy and experimentation, then we must create and maintain worlds in which the consequences of a felony rioting conviction are not so dire—worlds worth leaving this one to get to. Another world is not only possible, it is waiting for us. We must believe in our ability to reach it so we can find the strength to depart. We have to let go of our attachments and truly believe that we are capable of taking flight.
In the kettle at 12th and L Street, I felt like a young Icarus, hurtling towards the sun, only to plummet into the sea. All exercises in freedom have these risks. To those who dare to soar, may we also learn to swim, and never fear the consequences of singed wings.
Despite its abrupt end and unfortunate outcome, the march on January 20, 2017 was one of the most inspiring, vitalizing moments of my life. Despite its obvious challenges, I am thankful that facing charges has given me time to reflect. Let me take a moment here to explicitly state, with a clear mind and certain heart, that—having eluded conviction—I would 100% do it again no questions asked. I hope someday to share an experience of elation similar to that of J20 with the readers of this piece. If and when that day comes, may we both avoid arrest and get off scot-free.
Since November 2018, the yellow vest movement has created a political crisis in France and posed thorny questions to radicals worldwide. In the following report, we detail the yellow vest actions from December 8, 2018 to January 5, 2019, recounting how the yellow vest movement defied the calendar—that age-old device for limiting revolutionary movements. Tomorrow, in our next article, we will step back to analyze the different currents within the movement and implications they hold for anarchists, environmentalists, and everyone else who seeks a world without oppression.
The yellow vest movement has posed the most serious threat to President Macron since he came to power in 2016. The unrest began as a grassroots response to the government’s proposal to increase taxes for “ecological” purposes and quickly spread to ecompass many different groups and agendas. Thanks to its protean aspect, but also its supposedly “apolitical” character, the movement has brought people together around shared tactics and frustrations, as the Occupy movement once did.
Since November, the yellow vest movement has become a battleground for many different political parties and groups, especially populists and nationalists. As the movement gained momentum and clashes with the police intensified, anarchists and other rebels joined in, fighting on multiple fronts—against the state, but also against reactionary groups active on the streets. Anarchists attempted to reorient the movement towards more systemic solutions, to diminish the influence and presence of the far-right, and to create connections between different groups and potential allies. The outcome of these efforts remains uncertain.
After weeks of desperately trying to establish dialogue in order to pacify the situation, the government appeared to have finally regained control of the situation by presenting concessions on December 10, 2018. At that time, the lack of clear political objectives, the repression of the previous weeks, and above all the approach of the Christmas holidays seemed to have brought the yellow vest movement to an impasse.
Several weeks later, following a day of action involving 50,000 people on Saturday, January 5, the yellow vest movement remains alive. Another nationwide day of action is called for January 12. Yet the movement is bitterly divided over tactics, goals, values, and structure. The most determined participants have been abandoned by legalists and pacifists eager to negotiate with the government; as often occurs, a major part of the grassroots movement is slowly evolving into something more institutionalized. Meanwhile, far from being defeated on the streets, nationalists and fascists have maintained their footing.
This text picks up where our previous analysis left off, immediately after the massive confrontations of December 8, 2018.
The Aftermath of December 8, 2018
After two weeks of political instability, rioting, looting, rage, and confrontation, President Macron broke with his habit of withholding reaction by delivering an official speech on national television on Monday, December 10, 2018. Lots of yellow vesters were waiting to see if he would finally address their demands.
After reaffirming that his government was working with the parliament to find solutions, Macron presented his new measures. The government promised to increase minimum wage by €100 a month; cancel taxes on pensions for retired persons living on less than €2000 a month; ask employers to offer Christmas bonuses; offer tax exemption on overtime; and fight tax avoidance. However, Macron emphasized that he would not back down regarding the suppression of the wealth tax, one of the most outrageous elements of Macron’s neoliberal agenda.
On December 11, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe presented the government’s measures to the National Assembly. Finally, the government seemed to have a strategy with which to resolve the crisis.
That same night, someone opened fire on the crowd at the Christmas market in Strasbourg, killing 5 people and injuring 11 more. The “plan vigipirate”—an anti-terrorism security plan established in 1995 after several bombings in France—was raised to the level of “attack emergency.”
With another day of action called for Saturday, December 15, 2018, these two events reshuffled the cards.
The government calls for reason, “non-violence,” and dialogue
Following the attack in Strasbourg, the government decided not to forbid the yellow vest demonstrations of Saturday, December 15, 2018, as such decision would have only exacerbated widespread anger. Nevertheless, politicians called for “non-violence” and tried to dissuade protestors from taking part in the fifth nationwide day of action. Government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux said that taking the streets on Saturday would be unreasonable in view of the situation in France following the attack. Some went further, saying that the time had come for the movement to end, while others demanded that “non-violent” protesters distance themselves from the more radical parts of the movement.
On Friday, December 14, 2018, in Brussels for a European summit, President Macron declared that France needed to return to normal, since he had addressed the yellow vest demands at the beginning of the week. “Dialogue is not established by occupying public space and through violence […] I think that the sense of general interest will lead everyone to join a national debate, and to exchange with their mayor, in order to formulate political and sincere proposals.” He concluded by calling French citizens to express themselves in the May 2019 European elections: “In no case should what happened the past weeks should lead to calling into question the democratic election held eighteen months ago.”
Paris on Lockdown
Nevertheless, some protestors were determined to take the streets, and some leftist organizations made calls to join the yellow vesters on Saturday, December 15. For the second week in a row, the government took exceptional law enforcement measures, deploying almost 100% of the police troops all over France—about 89,000 police officers, with 8000 in Paris alone.
The Paris prefect officially announced that for December 15, authorities would renew the law enforcement plan used the previous week with some improvements and modifications. As the previous week, a restricted area would be established near the Champs Elysées and around every major government buildings, while in the meantime, other police forces would control and search all potential demonstrators and carry out preventive arrests.
The decision to re-use this strategy is significant for those who study police strategy, in that it seems to indicate that the authorities had concluded that all things considered, their strategy on December 8 had been effective, in contrast to the strategy they employed in Paris on November 24 and December 1.
Regarding the law enforcement units deployed in the streets of Paris, the prefect said that the authorities’ plan would combine “heavy forces”—comprised of CRS and gendarmes (riot police)—as well as “mobile units” from various police forces including the Anti-Criminality Brigades (BAC), the Securing and Intervention Companies (CSI), the Territorial Brigades, and the Research and Intervention Brigades (BRI). These units would be mostly “kept for the end of the afternoon where violence attempts usually intensify.”
The prefect continued to explain his plan: “last week, we managed well the yellow vest aspect, but we witnessed scenes of property destruction and pillage by some delinquents. Our objective will be to better control this phenomenon.” Mounted police, canine units and 14 gendarmerie tanks would also be deployed in the French capital.
As the previous week, and following the recommendation of the Paris prefecture, numerous stores in “sensitive areas” boarded up their front windows and closed for Saturday, as did most museums and national monuments. For “safety reasons”—i.e., to facilitate police checkpoints—about 40 metro and RER closed starting at 5:30 am.
Once again, it seemed that the authorities had the upper hand on the situation well in advance. They were well prepared and well organized. As before, yellow vesters were supposed to gather near the Champs Elysées, the Opéra, and the Saint Lazare train station.
On the eve of the fifth act of the movement, everything remained uncertain: would the fear of state repression discourage protestors? Would some of us succeed in outmaneuvering the police the way we had the previous week? How would the events of the past week impact the mobilization? Some sources close to the Prime Minister’s cabinet suggested that “moderate” demonstrators were already leaving the movement, and therefore, that the mobilization involve fewer people. The events of December 15 confirmed this forecast.
The Parisian Impasse
In Paris, the contrast with the previous week was undeniable. At 9 am, only a hundred demonstrators were actually present on the Champs Elysées, compared to several hundreds or thousands the previous weeks. In the end, it was easy for police to contain the crowd. That whole morning, the situation remained sterile on the Parisian avenue; protestors escaped from the kettle and ran for several meters, but rapidly surrounded by police forces again. This war of attrition continued all day long.
Further away, near Saint Lazare and Opéra, the situation was similar. Those who attended the morning gatherings fell into the trap set by authorities; police surrounded them from the beginning. The only way to exit these kettles was to accept being searched and remove their yellow vests. Police took this opportunity to focus surveillance on individuals they considered potential threats. We have heard that some yellow vesters were also searching the bags of other protesters in order to evict potential “rioters” from the gathering.
At midday, the first actions and light confrontations took place. At the Champs Elysées, some demonstrators, tired of being surrounded by police forces, escaped the avenue via neighboring streets, forcing their way through a police cordon and initiating a wildcat demonstration. In Opéra, the “pressure cooker” strategy of the authorities bore fruit as the tension among protestors was increasing. As a result, the first tear gas canisters were shot at the crowd.
The rest of the day saw a succession of wildcat demonstrations and processions from a few hundred to several thousands strong walking through the streets of Paris. Some of these actions were more exciting than others, as police did not manage to follow all the crowds, but Paris did not witness the intensity of the previous weeks. Around 5 pm, after employing tear gas and stun grenades against a crowd of about 3000 individuals, police forces started clearing the Champs Elysées using their water canons. This offensive marked the end of the fifth act of the yellow vest movement in Paris. In total, 168 people were arrested and 115 put in custody.
On December 15, the far right was seen in the streets on several occasions. We haven’t learned whether anarchists or other rebels confronted them. Meanwhile, video footage spread widely showing police officers on motorcycles armed with LBD-40 launchers. These images remind us of 1986, when the infamous “voltigeurs”—police on motorcycles armed with batons—murdered a student named Malik Oussekine, resulting in the dissolution of their department. Contacted about these images, the Paris prefecture explained that, for the fifth act of the movement, authorities dispatched about 50 new “voltigeurs” in Paris in order to rapidly intervene in case of trouble.
Reading reports from Paris, it was difficult not to feel frustrated or defeated. Compared to the previous weeks, the crowd was less numerous, less inspired, less creative, less offensive. The yellow vest movement had reached a plateau in Paris, if not an impasse.
Act V: Elsewhere around France
From the beginning of the movement, the authorities and corporate media outlets have focused chiefly on events in the streets of Paris, as if the situation in the French capital represented the yellow vest movement as a whole. But the movement differs dramatically from one city to the next. Rather than discussing “the” yellow vest movement in the singular, it would be more precise to speak of several yellow vest movements, each with its own tactics and goals, in different regions and points on the ideological spectrum.
In Dijon, many people gathered despite the attacks in Strasbourg. Among the crowd, one could hear conspiracy theories; some yellow vesters were willing to confront any “infiltrator” or potential “rioter.” Still, the crowd pursued its ritual march towards the local prefecture. When it arrived at the building, the police shot tear gas at the protestors. Part of the crowd decided to continue their demonstration, marching towards the biggest shopping center in the region, while others remained in the square to confront the police. Unfortunately, no concrete action emerged once the crowd reached the shopping center. In the end, six individuals were arrested and at least ten injured.
In Nantes, about 1200 yellow vesters took the streets. They marched towards the local prefecture but were pushed back by police. For several hours, police and protestors exchanged tear gas canisters and projectiles. In the end, 15 protestors were arrested and four people were injured.
In Marseille, yellow vesters, high school students, trade unionists, and members of a collective against insufficient housing marched together, totaling 2000 individuals. Police arrested 12 people; no damage took place.
In Toulouse, 4500 demonstrators took the streets. As the city had experienced riots during the previous weekend, the authorities requested the use of two tanks and two water canons to maintain order in the city. This equipment didn’t prevent confrontations leading to 30 arrests and 10 injuries.
In Bordeaux, about 4500 people including yellow vesters, students, and trade unionists converged around the City Hall. The overall atmosphere was joyous despite the rain. When the crowd reached the Pey Berland square, they found City Hall protected from both sides by riot fences, police trucks, a water canon, and riot police cordons. After several minutes, the first projectiles were thrown at police forces, who answered with a rain of tear gas and grenades and even used the water canon to disperse the crowd. A drone was also spotted in the sky. Confrontations continued for several hours before the crowd left the square and took the rue Sainte Catherine, the city’s chief shopping street, before being blocked by other police forces near the Grand Theatre. Later that night, some confrontations continued between demonstrators and police forces: at least one car was set on fire, as well as some makeshift barricades. However, the damage and rioting were less intense than the previous week. Altogether, 27 people were arrested and 22 injured.
In Lille, between 1500 and 2000 yellow vesters gathered—as much as the previous week—while in Montpellier, about 1500 yellow vesters met in the city center and informed passers-by about some of their demands, such as the Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC).
Even if actions took place in major cities and groups of yellow vesters blocked several important freeways like those connecting France to Spain as well as traffic circles and toll collection points, the total number of people who took part in the fifth nationwide day of action was approximately 66,000. In other words, half the number of active yellow vesters who participated in the previous nationwide day of action on December 8, 2018.
Obviously, we should take these figures with a grain of salt. They come from the government itself—and since December 15, 2018, corporate media and authorities have made a point of emphasizing the diminishing number of participants in hopes of accelerating the movement’s downfall. As in almost every social movement, both sides—the state and the demonstrators—are stuck in a “war of figures,” as if only numbers determine the outcome of a struggle.
Nevertheless, by any measure, the movement had lost momentum everywhere except in a few cities. The effects of repression, the approach of Christmas holidays, and the concessions had all taken their toll; part of the movement was ready to quit the streets and move towards a more institutional path.
The Aftermath of December 15, 2018
Macron’s government knew that they had won the battle of the fifth act. With Christmas approaching, they had finally succeeded containing the yellow rage of the preceding month. However, they were still walking on eggshells.
After the previous week’s concessions, the government was trying to set up its “yellow vests” plan. On such a short notice, this plan presented a technical conundrum for the government, disrupting the original parliamentary calendar.
President Macron, understanding that the social and political situation was not yet entirely under control, canceled his official trip to Biarritz to prepare the forthcoming G7 in order to be present during the official meeting organizing the national consultation he had promised.
This national debate—due March 1—focuses on several subjects: the ecological transition, taxes, the organization of the state, democracy, and citizenship. It is important to mention that, having been removed from the national debate, the issue of immigration was reintroduced at the last minute on the insistence of some yellow vesters and politicians.
On Tuesday, December 17, after the official meeting, we learned that “the large national consultation” would take place in two phases. During the first one—lasting until mid-January—citizens are asked to speak with their mayors at a local level about the overall situation of the country. The mayors are to report these conversations to the government, so the latter can gain a broader understanding of the issues. Then, for full months, French citizens are invited to a national debate—the second phase of the plan—on the aforementioned issues.
Characteristically, the technocrats of the center suggested a technical solution to the problem of organic rage. As the saying goes, if people are angry, ask them to speak more about their anger. Speaking will take away the urgency to act.
The issue of the Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC) could also be added to this national discussion, as more and more yellow vesters and opposition politicians have demanded. Macron said he was open to dialogue about it. In the meantime, the authorities continued to evict road and traffic circle blockades.
Act VI: The Fight before Christmas
On the sixth nationwide day of action, the authorities counted 38,600 demonstrators around France. For the purposes of this report, we will focus on Paris, Toulouse, and Lyons to understand the events of December 22, 2018. These three specific examples illustrate the heterogeneous forms of the yellow vest movement as well as the different political frameworks that move its protagonists.
In Paris, yellow vesters decided to change their habits by gathering in Montmartre, near the Sacré Coeur, the outrageous religious building erected to thank God for the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871 and to expiate the city from the Communards’ supposed sins. All week, some yellow vesters spread a fake call to gather in Versailles in order to mislead the authorities. This worked: a large number of police were deployed to chase ghosts in the wealthy neighboring city. As a result, several hundred yellow vesters were able to gather without difficulties in Montmartre instead.
During the day, thousands of yellow vesters marched in the streets of Paris in various wildcat demonstrations. Around 5:30 pm, a group of demonstrators reached the Champs Elysées and proceeded down the avenue. The protestors met a convoy of riot police and started attacking and chasing the police trucks. Several minutes later, motorcycle policemen—apparently trying to help their colleagues—began throwing tear gas canisters in order to disperse the crowd. The confrontation rapidly escalated. As protestors closed in, attacking the police officers, one of them pulled out his gun and pointed it at the angry crowd. Far from fleeing, the demonstrators set upon the policemen with renewed anger and courage, forcing them to free. The policeman who drew his gun is a fool; we are lucky he does not have several murders on his conscience today.
Unfortunately, some troubling behavior also took place on this day. That morning, assembling in front of Louise Michel square beside the Sacré Coeur, a group of yellow vesters shouted a supposedly “anti-system” chant. In addition to including extremely vulgar and homophobic lyrics that make light of rape, this chant is the work of a notorious anti-Semitic stand-up comedian. While singing, some protestors reproduced the infamous arm gesture of the same comedian—some type of upside-down fascist salute that supposedly indicates how far the system is actually deceiving us. In a video of this event, one yellow vester is clearly performing a fascist salute.
Later that night, a journalist reported that in the metro, around 11 pm, an elderly woman asked three drunk yellow vesters to stop doing the infamous “anti-system” arm gesture mentioned above. She said: “This is an anti-Semitic gesture. I am Jewish, my dad was deported to Auschwitz where he died.” In response, one yellow vester told her to “Get lost!” while another referenced the “Révolution nationale” (National Revolution), the official ideology of the Vichy regime—the Nazi collaborationist French government during World War II.
These events show a side of the yellow vest movement that some radicals and traditional leftist parties still prefer to ignore. The silence of those who do not address them is extremely dangerous. While advocates of the political center may seize upon events like these to discredit the movement, those who believe that the solution is to refuse to address them at all are ceding ground to the far right—which centrists will then use to present themselves as the only possible alternative. This is why we must always fight on both fronts.
The situation in Toulouse was very different. According to reports, the yellow vest movement remained strong and organized in this city and the surrounding region. The entire week before December 22, yellow vesters developed their actions, aiming to interrupt the economy as much as possible: they organized an illegal fireworks show entitled “yellow fever”” in downtown Toulouse; they blocked several toll collection points and let drivers passfor free; they blocked the trucks arriving and leaving several large retail logistics centers; at the Airbus site of Colomiers, they blocked the supply of provisions to a restaurant belonging to the Elior group to support employees who have been sentenced to pay back the equivalent of two years of their salaries to the group.
Before the traditional Saturday gathering and demonstration, some yellow spoke in the general assemblies about their increasing frustration with the restriction of movement they experienced during the previous actions. Consequently, demonstrators organized several different marches for the sixth act. The authorities appear to have underestimated the possible impact of this new day of action, as the police were only blocking one street when the first march began.
The atmosphere was festive as the crowd headed towards the city center and its traditional Christmas market. After marching through the streets of downtown Toulouse for an hour without interference from law enforcement, the crowd of about 3000 reached the big boulevards. Facing this large and determined crowd, some riot police fled near Jean Jaurès. When the crowd arrived at François Verdier, police began to shoot tear gas; this was a mistake, as demonstrators answered by shooting fireworks at them.
The plan to create several different marches succeeded, enabling the crowd to stay in control of the situation and dictate their own movements throughout the afternoon. Police were constantly running after groups of protestors in the downtown area to carry out arrests. Due to the general confusion and the fact that the demonstration took place the weekend before Christmas, police ended up using tear gas not only against demonstrators but also against shoppers and other passersby.
Later, the crowd converged at Esquirol. Because the demonstrators had succeeded in outmaneuvering the authorities, the collective atmosphere was not just festive but euphoric. No one wanted to leave the streets. The crowd decided to march towards the Carmes district—a wealthy district of Toulouse that never witnesses demonstrations. As the crowd proceeded through this bourgeois district, coffee shops and banks began closing their doors. The police were still far away; numerous targets were attacked, barricades were erected, and urban furniture caught fire.
In Toulouse, the yellow vest movement was far from losing momentum. On the contrary, the actions of December 22 brought new life to it in this part of France.
The situation in Lyons has been difficult since the beginning of the yellow vest movement, as local fascists have successfully used the movement as a platform to spread their ideas and develop initiatives. On December 22, for the first time, people attempted to confront this growing fascist tendency.
For this sixth act, between 1000 and 2000 individuals took the streets. Everything started when several demonstrations organized that day converged to form a large march. Rapidly, the atmosphere among the crowd of protestors became tense as anti-fascists and railroad workers recognized dozens of well-known local fascists.
In the end, a large part of the demonstration began shouting “Lyons, Lyons, Antifa!” and “No demos for fascists, No fascists in our demos!” As a result, the group of fascists left the demonstration. Unfortunately, the same fascists managed to re-infiltrate the march from the rear.
At that moment, police forces were maintaining their distance except a helicopter monitoring the crowd from above. Around 4 pm, the official demonstration ended. Demonstrators were not ready to leave the streets and a more energetic wildcat demonstration followed.
By the time the participants reached the Part Dieu, a famous shopping district, the crowd had gained in numbers. However, police were determined to protect this temple of consumerism. In front of the official Tax building, police blocked the march and shot tear gas canisters at the crowd to push them back towards the city center. Yellow vesters changed their plan, heading towards the university district. Again, as soon as they approached their destination, police blocked their path and dispersed them.
At 6 pm, the cat and mouse game between protesters and police forces started in the Guillotière district. Law enforcement units became overwhelmed by the situation: they couldn’t tell the difference between potential threats and ordinary passersby. They began to shoot tear gas canisters everywhere at random, filling the entire district with a thick poisonous fog. However, the crowd succeeded in regrouping and intense confrontations broke out.
Ssme protestors blocked the entrance of a major retail store selling cultural and electronic products on the last weekend before Christmas. As a result, the store closed its doors for the day. Large numbers of police arrived and dispersed the crowd with tear gas, creating several stampedes in this high-traffic district.
Another cat and mouse game started around the Bellecour square. The crowd of protestors succeeded in outmaneuvering the authorities’ plan. Indeed, police experienced considerable trouble arresting protestors. Consequently, they decided to carry out random searches in hopes of finding potentially incriminating evidence. Finally, despairing at the ineffectiveness of their strategy, police left the area.
The day of action in Lyons ended with police stopping a group of protestors near the Christmas market. At least two protestors were arrested.
Act VII: Keeping the Movement Alive into the New Year
Despite the Christmas holidays and the decreasing participation, some yellow vesters organized a seventh nationwide day of action on December 29. The hard core of the movement was determined to overcome the limits imposed by the calendar and find a fresh impetus for 2019.
In Paris, organizers kept the convergence point secret until the last moment in order to catch the authorities by surprise. That morning, about 60 yellow vesters went to the Champs Elysées. Unfortunately for them, police were already deployed all along the avenue, so nothing occurred.
Then some movement leaders announced the convergence point via social media. Yellow vesters were supposed to gather in front of major media outlets buildings—BFM, RMC, Libération, L’Express—located in the 15th district of the French capital near the Ministry of Defence. The point of this action was to denounce “unfair” media coverage of the movement. In the end, about 400 protestors answered the call.
The crowd began shouting slogans including “Journalists, collaborationists!” “BFM fake news” and “Macron out!” Some demonstrators asked for “free, independent, and objective media” while others tried to explain to police officers that corporate media outlets were the ones manipulating society. Some signs demanded the Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC). Throughout the rest of the day, the group of yellow vesters continued its tour of official media outlets, followed closely by police forces. In the end, most of the crowd dispersed near the Eiffel Tower or were surrounded by law enforcement units. Several confrontations also took place at the Champs Elysées.
Altogether, according to the official figures of the Prefecture, about 800 yellow vesters gathered in Paris, 57 were arrested, and 33 were put in custody.
On December 29, Bordeaux drew the largest number of protestors in France, with a yellow wave several thousand strong—2400 according to authorities, more according to some journalists present.
In Bordeaux, 700 policemen were deployed as well as a helicopter. The authorities revised their strategies by closing the access to the entire Pey Berland square where the City Hall is located and by trying to execute the “pressure cooker” strategy at several occasions—seeking to contain demonstrators in a closed area while increasing the pressure on them.
The demonstration started quietly, but as soon as the march passed law enforcement units near the Gambetta square, tension increased. Along a boulevard, the cours Clémenceau, the first trash bins were set on fire and projectiles were thrown at police who answered with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. Some stores started closing their doors, while the first barricade appeared near the Christmas market. Shoppers were confined inside the market during the confrontations.
This is when the march split. About 50 demonstrators continued to confront police forces, while others marched towards the Victoire square. Some demonstrators started removing their yellow vests and leaving the demonstration. In the meantime, a large number of law enforcement units attempted to disperse groups of determined protestors who were defending themselves with numerous burning barricades. In the end, 25 individuals were arrested. Both yellow vesters and police officers attacked journalists and photographers in the streets of Bordeaux.
In Rouen, about 1000 demonstrators took the streets. As usual, they gathered at 10 am in front of the City Hall. The situation remained quiet until midday, when the first barricades appeared. Almost instantly, police answered by firing tear gas canisters at the crowd. Protestors dispersed into the nearby streets and a cat and mouse game with police forces began.
A bit later, the front door of the Banque de France—the national Central Bank—was set on fire with trash bins, while some of its security cameras were smashed. Meanwhile, other barricades caught fire nearby and near the local law court. By the time police units and firemen arrived, the crowd was already near the City Hall.
Confrontations continued in the city center. Once again, police filled the streets with tear gas. Throughout the day, police experienced a war of nerves with demonstrators. They repeatedly had to clear numerous makeshift burning barricades from the streets in order to follow the crowd.
The protestors carried on until the end of the day; that evening, police continued to use tear gas and stun grenades to disperse them. At least 10 people were arrested and there were 10 injuries. One woman experienced a wound in her forehead and a fractured leg.
Elsewhere in France
In Lille, about 600 yellow vesters gathered for the last nationwide day of action of 2018. Six were arrested and three were injured after police repeatedly used tear gas to disperse the crowd.
In Metz, 300 demonstrators tried to break through a police cordon protecting the local prefecture, while in Marseille, a thousand yellow vestors gathered in front of the arch of triumph to show that the movement was not losing momentum.
In Toulouse, approximately 2500 people gathered under the slogan “Macron out!” and seven individuals were arrested, while in Amiens, 17 people were arrested on account of the local prefecture banning every street gathering and demonstration until January 2, 2019.
On New Year’s eve, several yellow vest groups also gathered in Paris and elsewhere in France—traffic circles included—for “festive and non-violent” demonstrations.
Gasping for Air
As the end of 2018 showed a loss of momentum, the die-hard elements of the movement struggled to keep it alive after the holidays.
Alongside about fifty other yellow vesters, Eric Drouet—an influential leader of the movement connected to the far right, who we have discussed in a previous article— organized a small gathering in Paris on Wednesday, January 2, 2019, to pay tribute to the ten people who died and the numerous protesters injured since the beginning of the movement. Their objective was “to shock public opinion.”
While the group was dressed in plain clothes—they decided not to wear their symbol for this action in order to avoid being clearly identified—several streets away from the Presidential palace, police stopped them and arrested Eric Drouet. This was covered by numerous media outlets.
Drouet and his followers expected this arrest. It was a perfect opportunity to capture public attention by portraying themselves as the victims of government repression. For yellow vesters, this illegitimate arrest was further proof that the government aimed to muzzle the movement and to discourage everyone from demonstrating without requesting authorization from the Prefecture.
This provoked a variety of reactions. The populist leader of the leftist France Insoumise, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who had already mentioned his fascination with Eric Drouet, requested his immediate release, stating that this arrest was an “abuse of power” and that “from now on, a political police force is targeting and harassing the important figures of the yellow vest movement.”
The far right also voiced support for Eric Drouet. Florian Philippot, leader of the political party Les Patriotes and former ally of Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National), who expressed his concern that “the Macron political regime was becoming more and more authoritarian.” The President of the Rassemblement National in the Paris region, Wallerand de Saint-Just also expressed support. Eric Drouet reposted Wallerand de Saint-Just’s messages of support on his personal twitter, confirming his own sympathy for nationalist ideas.
Act VIII: January 5, 2019
On the eve of the eighth nationwide day of action, the authorities explained that they expected a higher participation in the rest of France than in Paris. For the first time since November 17, 2018—when the movement got underway—the Parisian Prefecture received requests from yellow vest groups to demonstrate in the capital. As a result, two different marches were organized for January 5: one between the Panthéon and the district of Saint-Germain-des-Près, and one between the City Hall and the National Assembly.
Government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux castigated yellow vesters who decided to continue the mobilization despite the President’s concessions. According to him, the movement had “been coopted by agitators who want an insurrection and to overthrow the government.” Earlier this week, the Minister of the Interior Christophe Castaner asked the prefects of each region to proceed with the “complete and definitive eviction” of the hundred blockades and meeting points held by members of the yellow vest movement. To do so, the Minister allowed the prefects to use any legal means—financial fees, use of police forces, and so on.
Finally, in addition to the traditional Saturday demonstrations and actions, a women’s yellow vest group decided to create their own event in Paris, for Sunday, December 6, 2019. Organizers specified that this action was “not a feminist struggle but a feminine one,” a statement that speaks for itself.
In Paris, the day opened with the traditional gathering at the Champs Elysées. There, the group of yellow vesters improvised a general assembly near the Arc de Triomphe. Then, as the group gained in numbers, they walked down the avenue towards the Concorde square before police stopped them. The crowd of 1500 headed towards the Saint Lazare district. On their way to the train station, the yellow vesters stopped by Place de la Bourse to boo the international news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP).
In the Saint Lazare area, the march continued towards the city center, despite the heavy police presence in the area. However, near the Hotel de Ville—the departure point of the permitted afternoon demonstration—police forces blocked the protesters. In front of the main City Hall, there were already 4000 yellow vesters. As usual, several banners and signs asking for the implementation of the RIC were spotted. Rapidly, the crowd moved towards Châtelet shouting “Macron out!” before immediately being pushed back by tear gas. After some confusion, the procession changed direction towards its authorized destination: the National Assembly.
The first real confrontations took place near the riverbank when protesters attacked police with glass bottles and stones. Then, on the Léopold Sedar Senghor footbridge, tense confrontations took place. As people attempted to cross the Seine River in order to reach the National Assembly located on the other side, police blocked the access to the bridge and employed tear gas. Note that, during the clashes on the bridge, Christophe Dettinger, a demonstrator and ex-boxer, took on the line of fully armored police with his bare hands and succeeded in pushing them back. Little by little, the law enforcement pressure around the demonstration increased. A boat was set on fire during the confrontations on the footbridge. According to radical sources present on site, the yellow crowd comprised approximately 10,000 individuals.
Near the Assemblée Nationale, police forces had blocked all access routes to the official building. As a result, the march couldn’t go any further and confrontations broke out. Being tear gassed at a dead end, many protestors decided to start wildcat demonstrations through the neighboring streets of the Latin district. There the first barricades were erected and set on fire—especially on the Saint-Germain boulevard. The crowd expressed its rage: every piece of urban furniture, self-service scooter, or motorcycle was smashed, lit on fire, or used as a barricade.
Wildcat demonstrations and confrontations continued in different parts of the city until later that day: in the Latin district, near Saint Lazare, at the Champs Elysées. In the end, government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux had to be evacuated in emergency as a group of yellow vesters succeeded in entering his government ministry building. They used a small construction vehicle to knock down the front door, then entered the property and smashed up two cars.
At least 24 people were arrested that day. Friends present in the streets report a significant presence of fascists and nationalists of all kinds.
Elsewhere in France
For a movement supposedly in decline, a remarkable number of actions and demonstrations took place in France on the eighth day of action. Altogether, something like 50,000 people participated. The number of people involved in street actions almost doubled compared to the previous week.
In Bordeaux, about 4600 people demonstrated. The city remains one of the bastions of the movement. After a quiet beginning, the crowd changed course, entering Sainte-Catherine street and heading towards the Pey Berland square and the City Hall. As soon as the crowd arrived at the square, the first confrontations began. Police answered with tear gas and water canons, while in the nearby streets, demonstrators broke up concrete and cobblestones to use as projectiles. As night fell, the first barricades were erected and several cars were set on fire. Police forces charged the rioters repeatedly, but they were determined to continue. In the end, 11 people were arrested.
In Beauvais, yellow vesters converged at the local airport in the morning; however, no action took place, as police blocked their way. That afternoon, police dispersed a group of 600 people who were trying to enter the city center.
In Lyons, after a traditional march through the city, several thousand yellow vesters blocked the A7 freeway both ways, creating traffic jams.
In Nantes, about 2000 individuals took the streets. As soon as the afternoon demonstration started, confrontations with police broke out. During the clashes, some yellow vesters set fire to a pile of Christmas trees in front of the Cathedral. All afternoon, police forces shot tear gas canisters and concussion grenades at the crowd. At least one person was injured.
In Rouen, between 1700 and 4000 yellow vesters demonstrated. Around noon, protestors threw cobblestones and other projectiles at police, who answered with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. According to authorities, police were confronted with 400 determined rioters. In the end, several people were injured, 19 were arrested, and 18 put in custody.
In Caen, confrontations began in the afternoon when demonstrators who wanted to occupy the Résistance square started building barricades with the fences of a nearby construction site. They also lit fires on the square and threw projectiles at law enforcement units who answered with tear gas.
Other gatherings and demonstrations took place in Toulouse; Saint-Nazaire, where yellow vesters blocked the main bridge during several hours before being dispersed by police forces; Sedan, where protestors blocked the railway for several hours; Dijon, where a group of yellow vesters attacked a gendarmerie barracks; Saint-Malo, where yellow vesters blocked the ferry terminal; Avignon; Marseille; Quimper; near Nancy; near Nîmes, where yellow vesters dumped hundreds of liters of waste oil on the roads; and near Sevrey, where demonstrators were arrested for attempting to block an Amazon logistics platform.
In view of all these actions, it is possible that this first day of action of 2019 shows that the movement has survived the holidays and will continue to be a force this year. But what kind of force? This is the important question.
We will address it in the next installment of this series.
I’m writing from Rojava. For full disclosure: I didn’t grow up here and I don’t have access to all the information I would need to tell you what is going to happen next in this part of the world with any certainty. I’m writing because it is urgent that you hear from people in northern Syria about what Trump’s “troop withdrawal” really means for us—and it’s not clear how much time we have left to discuss it. I approach this task with all the humility at my disposal.
I’m not formally integrated into any of the groups here. That makes it possible for me to speak freely, but I should emphasize that my perspective doesn’t represent any institutional position. If nothing else, this should be useful as a historical document indicating how some people here understood the situation at this point in time, in case it becomes impossible to ask us later on.
Mark my words, Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria is not an “anti-war” or “anti-imperialist” measure. It will not bring the conflict in Syria to an end. On the contrary, what is actually happening is that Trump is stepping back and giving Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan a free hand to invade Rojava and carry out ethnic cleansing against the people who have done much of the fighting and dying to halt the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). This is a deal between strongmen to exterminate the social experiment in Rojava and consolidate authoritarian nationalist politics from Washington, DC to Istanbul and Kobane. Trump aims to leave Israel the most ostensibly liberal and democratic project in the entire Middle East, foreclosing all the possibilities that the revolution in Rojava opened up for this part of the world.
All this will come at a tremendous cost in lives. As bloody and tragic as the Syrian civil war has already been, this could open up not just a new chapter of it, but a sequel.
This is not about where US troops are stationed. The two thousand US soldiers at issue are a drop in the bucket in terms of the number of armed fighters in Syria today. They have not been on the frontlines of the fighting the way that the US military was in Iraq.1 The withdrawal of these soldiers is not the important thing here. What matters is that Trump’s announcement is a message to Erdoğan indicating that there will be no consequences if the Turkish state invades Rojava.
There’s a lot of confusion about this, with supposed anti-war and “anti-imperialist” activists like Medea Benjamin endorsing Donald Trump’s decision, blithely putting the stamp of “peace” on an impending bloodbath and telling the victims that they should have known better. It makes no sense to blame people here in Rojava for depending on the United States when neither Medea Benjamin nor anyone like her has done anything to offer them any sort of alternative.
The worst case scenario now is that the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA), backed by the Turkish military itself, will overrun Rojava and carry out ethnic cleansing on a level you cannot imagine from wherever you are reading this. They’ve already done this on a small scale in Afrin. In Rojava, this would take place on a historic scale. It could be something like the Palestinian Nakba, not to say the Armenian genocide.
I will try to explain why this is happening, why you should care about it, and what we can do about it together.
First of All: About the Experiment in Rojava
The system in Rojava is not perfect. This is not the right place to air dirty laundry, but there are lots of problems. I’m not having the kind of experience here that Paul Z. Simons had some years ago, when his visit to Rojava made him feel that everything is possible. Years and years of war and militarization have taken their toll on the most exciting aspects of the revolution here. Still, these people are in incredible danger right now and the society they have built is worth defending.
What is happening in Rojava is not anarchy. Yet all the same, women play a major role in society; there is basic freedom of religion and language; an ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse population lives side by side without any major acts of ethnic cleansing or conflict; it’s heavily militarized, but it’s not a police state; the communities are relatively safe and stable; there’s not famine or mass food insecurity; the armed forces are not committing mass atrocities. Every faction in this war has blood on its hands, but the People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) have conducted themselves far more responsibly than any other side. They’ve saved countless lives—not just Kurds—in Sinjar and many other places. Considering the impossible conditions and the tremendous amount of violence that people here have been subjected to from all sides, that is an incredible feat. All this stands in stark contrast to what will happen if the Turkish state invades, considering that Trump has given Erdoğan the go-ahead in return for closing a massive missile sale.
It should go without saying that I don’t want to perpetuate an open-ended Bush-style “war on terror,” much less to participate in the sort of “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West that bigots and fundamentalists of both stripes have been fantasizing about. On the contrary, that is precisely what we’re trying to prevent here. Most of the people Daesh [ISIS] have killed have been Muslim; most of the people who have died fighting Daesh have been Muslim. In Hajin, where I was stationed and where the last ISIS stronghold is, one of the internationals who has been fighting Daesh longest is an observant Muslim—not to speak of all the predominantly Arab fighters from Deir Ezzor there, most of whom are almost certainly Muslim as well.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll oversimplify and say that today, there are roughly five sides in the Syrian civil war: loyalist, Turkish, jihadi, Kurdish,2 and rebel.3 At the conclusion of this text, an appendix explores the narratives that characterize each of these sides.
Each of these sides stands in different relation to the others. I’ll list the relations of each group to the others, starting with the other group that they are most closely affiliated with and ending with the groups they are most opposed to:
Loyalist: Kurdish, Turkish, jihadi, rebel
Rebel: Turkish, jihadi, Kurdish, loyalist
Turkish: rebel, jihadi, loyalist, Kurdish
Kurdish: loyalist, rebel, Turkish, jihadi
Jihadi: rebel, Turkish, Kurdish and loyalist
This may be helpful in visualizing which groups could be capable of compromising and which are irreversibly at odds. Again, remember, I am generalizing a lot.
I want to be clear that each of these groups is motivated by a narrative that contains at least some kernel of truth. For example, in regards to the question of who is to blame for the rise of ISIS, it is true that the US “ploughed the field” for ISIS with the invasion and occupation of Iraq and its disastrous fallout (loyalist narrative); but it is also true that the Turkish state has tacitly and sometimes blatantly colluded with ISIS because ISIS was fighting against the primary adversary of the Turkish state (Kurdish narrative) and that Assad’s brutal reaction to the Arab Spring contributed to a spiral of escalating violence that culminated in the rise of Daesh (rebel narrative). And although I’m least sympathetic to the jihadi and Turkish state perspectives, it is certain that unless the well-being of Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria is factored into a political settlement, the jihadis will go on fighting, and that unless there is some kind of political settlement between the Turkish state and the PKK, Turkey will go on seeking to wipe out Kurdish political formations, without hesitating to commit genocide.
It’s said that “Kurds are second-class citizens in Syria, third-class citizens in Iran, fourth-class citizens in Iraq, and fifth-class citizens in Turkey.” It’s no accident that when Turkish officials like Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu list the “terror groups” they are most concerned about in the region, they name the YPG before ISIS. Perhaps this can help explain the cautious response of many Kurds to the Syrian revolution: from the Kurdish perspective, regime change in Syria carried out by Turkish-backed jihadis coupled with no regime change in Turkey could be worse than no regime change in Syria at all.
I won’t rehash the whole timeline from the ancient Sumerians to the beginning of the PKK war in Turkey to the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS. Let’s skip forward to Trump’s announcement on December 19: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”
Let me be clear: Daesh has not been defeated in Syria. Just a few days ago, they took a shot at our position with a rocket launcher out of a clear blue sky and missed by only a hundred yards.
It is true that their territory is just a fraction of what it once was. At the same time, by any account, they still have thousands of fighters, a lot of heavy weaponry, and probably quite a bit of what remains of their senior leadership down in the Hajin pocket of the Euphrates river valley and the surrounding deserts, between Hajin and the Iraqi border. In addition, ISIS have a lot of experience and a wide array of sophisticated defense strategies—and they are absolutely willing to die to inflict damage on their enemies.
To the extent that their territory has been drastically reduced, Trump is telling a bald-faced lie in trying to take credit for this. Just as he did with the US economy, Trump is claiming responsibility for the results of the preceding administration’s policies. More importantly, the achievement he is claiming as his own is largely the work of precisely the people he is consigning to death at the hands of Turkey.
Under Obama, the Department of Defense and the CIA pursued dramatically different strategies in reference to the uprising and subsequent civil war in Syria. The CIA focused on overthrowing Assad by any means necessary, to the point that arms and money they supplied trickled down to al-Nusra, ISIS, and others. By contrast, the Pentagon was more focused on defeating ISIS, beginning to concentrate on supporting the largely Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) during the defense of Kobane in 2014.
Now, as an anarchist who desires the complete abolition of every government, I have no love for the Pentagon or the CIA, but if we evaluate these two approaches according to their own professed goals, the Pentagon plan worked fairly well, while the CIA plan was a total disaster. In this regard, it’s fair to say that the previous administration contributed to both the growth of ISIS and its suppression. Trump, for his part, has done neither, except insofar as the sort of nationalist Islamophobia he promotes helps to generate a symmetrical form of Islamic fundamentalism.
Up until December, Trump maintained the Pentagon strategy in Syria that he inherited from the Obama administration. There have been signs of mission creep from US National Security Advisor John R. Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who ultimately hope to undermine Iran on account of it supplying oil to China. This far—and no further—I can understand the concerns of a pseudo-pacifist “anti-imperialist” like Medea Benjamin: war with Iran would be a nightmare compounding the catastrophe brought about by the war in Iraq. So yes, insofar as the YPG and YPJ were forced to coordinate with the US military, they were working with unsavory characters whose motivations were very different from their own.
To sum up: what has brought about the by-now almost total recapture of the territory ISIS occupied isn’t rocket science. It’s the combination of a brave and capable ground force with air support. In this sort of conventional territorial war, it’s extremely difficult for a ground force without air support to defeat a ground force with air support, no matter how fiercely the former fights. In some parts of Syria, this involved the YPG/YPJ on the ground with US backing from the air. Elsewhere in Syria, it must be said, ISIS was pushed back by the combination of Russian air support and the loyalist army (SAA) alongside Iranian-backed militias.
It would have been extremely difficult to recapture this territory from ISIS any other way. The cooperation of the YPG/YPJ with the US military remains controversial, but the fact is—every side in the Syrian conflict has been propped up and supported by larger outside powers and would have collapsed without that support.
People employing the Turkish, loyalist, and jihadi narratives often point out that Kobane would have fallen and YPG/YPJ would never have been able to retake eastern Syria from Daesh without US air support. Likewise, the Syrian government and the Assad regime were very close to military collapse in 2015, around the time Turkey conveniently downed a Russian plane and Putin decided that Russia was going to bail out the Assad regime no matter what it took. The rebels, on their side, never would have come close to toppling Assad through military means without massive assistance from the Turkish government, the Gulf states, US intelligence services, and probably Israel on some level, although the details of this are murky from where I’m situated.
And the jihadis—Daesh, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, and the others—would never have been able to take control of half of Iraq and Syria if the US had not been so foolish as to leave an army’s worth of state-of-the-art equipment in the hands of the Iraqi government, which effectively abandoned it. It also helped them that a tremendous amount of resources trickled down from the abovementioned foreign sponsors of the rebels. It also helped that Turkey left its airports and borders open to jihadis from all over the world who set out to join Daesh. There also appears to have been some sort of financial support from the Gulf states, whether formally or through back channels.
The Turkish state has its own agenda. It is not by any means simply a proxy for the US. But at the end of the day, it’s a NATO member and it can count on the one hundred percent support of the US government—as the missile sale that the US made to Turkey days before the withdrawal tweet illustrates.
In view of all this, we can see why YPG/YPJ was forced to cooperate with the US military. My point is not to defend this decision, but to show that under the circumstances, it was practically the only alternative to annihilation. At the same time, it is clear that this strategy has not created security for the experiment in Rojava. Even if we set aside ethical concerns, there are practical problems with relying on the United States—or France, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or any other state government with its own state agenda. As anarchists, we have to talk very seriously about how to create other options for people in conflict zones. Is there any form of international horizontal decentralized coordination that could have solved the problems that the people in Rojava were facing such that they would not have been forced to depend on the US military? If we find no answer to this question when we look at the Syria of 2013-2018, is there something we could have done earlier? These are extremely pressing questions.
No one should forget that ISIS was only reduced to their current situation by a multi-ethnic, radically democratic grassroots resistance movement, that incidentally involved international volunteers from around the globe. In view of Trump’s order to abandon and betray the struggle against ISIS, every sincere person who earnestly wants to put a stop to the spread of apocalyptic fundamentalist terror groups like ISIS or their imminent successors should stop counting on the state and put all their resources into directly supporting decentralized multi-ethnic egalitarian movements. It is becoming ever clearer that those are our only hope.
I’m not surprised that Trump and the Americans are “betraying an ally”—I don’t think anybody here had the illusion that Trump or the Pentagon intended to support the political project in Rojava. Looking back through history, it was clear enough that when ISIS was beaten, the US would leave Rojava at the mercy of the Turkish military. If the forces of the YPG/YPJ have dragged their feet in rooting ISIS out of their last strongholds, this may be one of the reasons.
But it is still shocking that Trump would rush to give up this foothold that the US has carved out in the Russosphere—and that the US military establishment would let him do so. From the perspective of maintaining US global military hegemony, the decision makes no sense at all. It’s a tremendous gift to Putin, Erdoğan, and ISIS, which could take advantage of the situation to regenerate throughout the region, perhaps in some new form—more on that below.
The withdrawal from Syria does not necessarily mean that conflict with Iran is off the table, by the way. On the contrary, certain hawks in the US government may see this as a step towards consolidating a position from which that could be possible.
In any case, Trump’s decision is big news. It indicates that the US “deep state” has no power over Trump’s foreign policy. It suggests that the US neoliberal project is dead in the water, or at least that some elements of the US ruling class consider it to be. It also implies a future in which ethno-nationalist autocrats like Erdoğan, Trump, Assad, Bolsonaro, and Putin will be in the driver’s seat worldwide, conniving with each other to maintain power over their private domains.
In that case, the entire post-cold war era of US military hegemony is over, and we are entering a multipolar age in which tyrants will rule balkanized authoritarian ethno-states: think Europe before World War I. The liberals (and anarchists?) who imagine that this could be good news are fools fighting yesterday’s enemy and yesterday’s war. The de facto red/brown coalition of authoritarian socialists and fascists who are celebrating this are hurrying us all helter-skelter into a brave new world in which more and more of the globe will look like the worst parts of the Syrian civil war.
And speaking from this vantage point, here, today, I do not say that lightly.
What Will Happen Next?
Sadly, Kurdish and left movements in Turkey have been decimated over the past few years. I would be very surprised if there were any kind of uprising in Turkey, no matter what happens in Rojava. We should not permit ourselves to hope that a Turkish invasion here would trigger an insurgency in northern Kurdistan.
Unless something truly unexpected transpires, there are basically two possible outcomes here.
In the first scenario, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) will make some kind of agreement with the Assad regime, likely under less favorable terms than would have been possible before the Turkish invasion of Afrin; both sides would likely make concessions of some kind and agree to fight on the same side if Turkey invades. If Russia signs off on this, it could suffice to prevent the invasion from taking place. Either YPG/YPJ or SAA will finish off the Hajin pocket, and the war could be basically over except for Idlib.
Both the Assad regime and the various predominantly Kurdish formations have been extremely hardheaded in negotiating, but perhaps the threat to both Rojava and the Assad regime is so extreme that they will choose this option. It is possible that this is one of the objectives of the Turkish threat, or even of Trump’s withdrawal: to force YPG to relinquish military autonomy to the Assad regime.
YPG, PYD, and company are not in a very good bargaining position right now, but the regime knows it can at least bargain with them, whereas if northern Syria is occupied by Turkish-backed jihadis and assorted looters, it is unclear what would happen next. Rojava contains much of Syria’s best agricultural land in the north, as well as oil fields in the south.
I can only speculate what the terms of this theoretical agreement might be. There’s lots of speculation online: language rights, Kurdish citizenship being regularized, prior service in YPG counting as military service so that soldiers who have been fighting ISIS all these years can return to being civilians rather than immediately being conscripted into SAA, some kind of limited political autonomy, or the like. In exchange, the YPG and its allies would essentially have to hand military and political control of SDF areas over to the regime.
Could Assad’s regime be trusted to abide by an agreement after they gain control? Probably not.
To be clear, it’s all too easy for me to speak abstractly about the Assad regime as the lesser of two evils. I’m informed about many of the atrocities the regime has committed, but I have not experienced them myself, and this is not the part of Syria where they did the worst things, so I more frequently hear stories from the locals about Daesh and other jihadis, not to mention Turkey. There are likely people in other parts of Syria who regard the Assad regime regaining power with the same dread with which people here regard the Turkish military and ISIS.
In any case, there are some signs that this first scenario might still be possible. The regime has sent troops to Manbij, to one of the lines where the massive Turkish/TFSA troop buildup is occurring. There are meetings between the PYD and the regime as well as with the Russians. An Egyptian-mediated negotiation between the PYD and the regime is scheduled to take place soon.
This first scenario does not offer a very attractive set of options. It’s not what Jordan Mactaggart or the thousands and thousands of Syrians who fought and died with YPG/YPJ gave their lives for. But it would be preferable to the other scenario…
In the second scenario, the Assad regime will throw in its lot with Turkey instead of with YPG.
In this case, some combination of the Turkish military and its affiliated proxies will invade from the north while the regime invades from the south and west. YPG will fight to the death, street by street, block by block, in a firestorm reminiscent of the Warsaw ghetto uprising or the Paris Commune, utilizing all the defensive tactics they acquired while fighting ISIS. Huge numbers of people will die. Eventually, the Assad regime and Turkey/TFSA will establish some line between their zones of control. For the foreseeable future, there would be some kind of Turkish-Jihadi Rump State of Northern Syrian Warlordistan.
Any remaining Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, Christians, and other minorities would be expulsed, ethnically cleansed, or terrorized. TFSA and related militias would likely loot everything they could get their hands on. In the long run, Turkey would probably dump the Syrian refugees who are now in Turkey back into these occupied areas, bringing about irreversible demographic shifts that could be the cause of future ethnic conflicts in the region.
We should not believe any assurances from the Turkish state or its apologists that this will not be the result of their invasion, as this is exactly what they have done in Afrin and they have no reason to behave differently in Rojava. Remember: from the perspective of the Turkish state, the YPG/YPJ are enemy number one in Syria.
Now let’s talk about Daesh. Despite the looming threat of invasion, SDF is still finishing off the Hajin pocket of ISIS. If it weren’t for the fact that Turkey is throwing Daesh a lifeline by threatening to invade, Daesh would be doomed, as they are surrounded by SDF, SAA, and the Iraqi army. Let me say this again: Trump’s giving Turkey the go-ahead to invade Rojava is practically the only thing that could save ISIS.
Trump has repeatedly said things to the effect that Turkey is promising to finish off ISIS. To believe this lie, you would have to be politically ignorant, yes—but in addition, you would also have to be geographically illiterate. This describes Trump’s supporters, if no one else.
Even if the Turkish government had any intention of fighting Daesh in Syria—a proposition that is highly doubtful, considering how easy Turkey made it for ISIS to get off the ground—in order to even reach Hajin and the Euphrates river valley, they would have to steamroll across the entirety of Rojava. There is no other way to get to Hajin. If you’re unfamiliar with the area, look at a map and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
The Assad regime holds positions right across the Euphrates River from both the SDF and Daesh positions, and would be willing and able to finish off the last ISIS pocket. As far as I’m concerned, I’d rather see the regime take the losses there to accomplish that than see YPG overextend itself and bleed any further. But the point here is that when Trump says something to the effect that “Turkey will finish off ISIS!” he is sending a blatant dog whistle to Turkish hardliners that they can attack Rojava and he won’t do anything to stop them. It has nothing to do with ISIS and everything to do with ethnic cleansing in Rojava.
If nothing else, even if Assad allies with the Turkish government, we can hope that the forces of the regime will still finish off ISIS. If Turkey has its way and does what Trump is talking about, beating a path all the way through Rojava to Hajin, they will likely give Daesh’s fighters safe passage, a new set of clothes, three meals a day, and this village I’m living in in exchange for their assistance fighting future Kurdish insurgencies.
So there it is: in declaring victory over ISIS, Trump is arranging the only way that ISIS fighters could come out of this situation with their capacities intact. It’s Orwellian, to say the least.
The only other option I can imagine, if negotiations with the Assad regime break down or PYD decides to take the moral high road and not compromise with the regime—who are untrustworthy and have carried out plenty of atrocities of their own—would be to let the entire SDF melt back into the civilian population, permit Turkey and its proxies to walk into Rojava without losing the fighting force of the YPG/YPJ, and immediately begin an insurgency. That might be smarter than a doomed final stand, but who knows.
Personally, I want to see the Syrian civil war end, and for Iraq to somehow be spared another cycle of war in the near future. I want to see ISIS prevented from regenerating its root system and preparing for a new round of violence. That doesn’t mean intensifying the ways that this part of the world is policed—it means fostering local solutions to the question of how different people and populations can coexist, and how they can defend themselves from groups like Daesh. This is part of what people have been trying to do in Rojava, and that is one of the reasons that Trump and Erdoğan find the experiment here so threatening. In the end, the existence of groups like ISIS makes their authority look preferable by comparison, whereas participatory horizontal multi-ethnic projects show just how oppressive their model is.
Overthrowing Assad by military means is a dead project—or, at least, the things that would have to happen to make it plausible again in the near future are even more horrifying than the regime is. I hope that somehow, some day, there can be some kind of settlement between the regime and YPG/YPJ, and the regime and the rebels in Idlib, and everyone else who has been suffering here. If capitalism and state tyranny are the problem, this kind of civil war is not the solution, although it seems likely that what has happened in Syria will happen elsewhere in the world as the crises generated by capitalism, state power, and ethnic conflicts put people at odds.
What can you do, reading this in some safer and stabler part of the world?
First, you can spread the word that Trump’s decision is neither a way to bring peace to Syria nor confirmation that ISIS has been defeated. You can tell other people what I have told you about how the situation looks from here, in case I am not able to do so myself.
Second, in the event of a Turkish invasion, you can use every means in your power to discredit and impede the Turkish state, Trump, and the others who paved the way for that outcome. Even if you are not able to stop them—even if you can’t save our lives—you will be part of building the kind of social movements and collective capacity that it will take to save others’ lives in the future.
In addition, you can look for ways to get resources to people in this part of the world who have suffered so much and will continue to suffer as the next act of this tragedy plays out. You can also look to support Syrian refugees who are scattered around the world.
Finally, you can think about how we could put better options on the table next time an uprising like the one in Syria breaks out. How can we make sure that governments fall before their reign gives way to the reign of pure force, in which only insurgents backed by other states can gain control? How can we offer other visions of how people can live and meet their needs together, and mobilize the force it will take to implement and defend them on an international basis without need of any state?
These are big questions, but I have faith in you. I have to.
Appendix: Rival Narratives
Drawing on this helpful overview, here is a review of the narratives we often see from different sides in the Syrian civil war:
Emphasis on how the US and other countries supported and financed rebels for their own geopolitical ends as the main cause for the escalation of the conflict.
The existence of ISIS is mostly attributed to rebel support landing in the wrong hands and more fundamentally as a result of the fallout of the 2003 Iraq war.
Emphasis on links and cooperation between so-called moderate rebels and groups like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in order to argue they are all part of the same problem.
Varying views on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its legitimacy. This seems to be different from loyalist to loyalist, with some thinking they are almost as bad as traditional rebels and others seeing them as allies against ISIS and Turkish-supported rebels.
Western, gulf Arab, and rebel narrative:
Emphasis on the Arab spring and how the brutal suppression of (relatively) peaceful protests led to an escalation of the conflict and armed rebellion and eventually full blown civil war.
Existence of ISIS mostly attributed to Assad’s actions. Often claiming how his brutal actions and reliance on sectarian militias created an environment in which ISIS could grow and gain support. Moreover, the point is made that Assad’s military deliberately targeted other rebels more than ISIS, and hence is for a large part to blame for its rise.
Emphasis on how there is a clear distinction between moderate rebels and radicals, and we should separate the two in honest analysis.
Views on SDF ranging from unfriendly to outright hostile. Often coushed in emphasizing cases in which the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the SDF worked together. In milder forms, this narrative criticizes a perceived overreliance on Kurds in majority Arab areas, while still recognizing the legitimacy of the organization in majority Kurdish areas.
The Turkish narrative is basically the same as the previous on most issues, with the important exception that the hostility towards the SDF intensifies to the extreme. Here, the links between the SDF and the PKK are emphasized and the SDF is characterized as an illegitimate terror organization that is a threat to Turkey and suppresses local Arabs.
Western, Kurdish narrative:
The conflict is often seen as a historic opportunity for the Kurdish peoples in their quest for nationhood. Emphasis on how Kurds were discriminated against before the war and how they can take matters into their own hands now.
The existence and expansion of ISIS is mostly blamed on Turkey. Especially Turkey’s passivity during the battle of Kobane is highlighted, along with accusations of direct support of ISIS and importing ISIS oil.
Regarding rebels, the views tend to come closer to that of loyalists. Rebels (in relevant areas, anyway) are seen either as Turkish proxies or as radical lunatics to whom Turkey can turn a blind eye. The line between rebels and ISIS is often blurred, though they aren’t lumped in together to the same extent as in the loyalist narrative.
SDF is seen as one of the only sane and moral armed actors in a battle otherwise characterized by bad versus bad. Both rebel and loyalist atrocities are emphasized to support this point of view.
ISIS and radical Islamist narrative:
The start of the conflict is seen as a great awakening of Muslims against their apostate Alawite overlords. Emphasis on the solidarity of foreign fighters towards their suffering Syrian brethren.
This perspective includes ISIS itself and also Al Qaeda and similar radical groups, who see ISIS as a group that betrayed the jihadi cause.
The rebels are seen as naïve sellouts serving the interests of foreign governments and implementing non-Islamic ideals on their behalf. Emphasis is also put on how rebels negotiate and reach deals with loyalists, only to be betrayed and lose territory.
SDF are seen as atheist apostates on the US payroll. The chief difference with Turkey is perhaps the emphasis on lack of religion rather than connections to the PKK.
There is a monument in Kobane marking the furthest point that the territorial expansion of ISIS reached in Iraq and Syria in 2014 during the battle of Kobane. ISIS took 85 percent of the city; they made it as far as this intersection before being turned around by fierce resistance.
In Hajin, where the last ISIS stronghold is, the American position is way behind the front, in artillery range but out of range of any weapons Daesh has, so they can sit there and pound away without being hit back, while the risks are run by ground troops of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This is precisely what the Turkish army would do to us if Turkey invades Rojava. ↩
In fact, there are two major parties in Iraqi Kurdistan in addition to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). They each have their own armies and police; they fought an actual civil war once. They do not like each other at all. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Barzani family dynasty, is more closely aligned with Turkey and the US; it was more closely aligned with Saddam Hussein before. They have bad relations with the administration in Rojava; they are roundly despised here because they basically stood aside and let the catastrophe in Sinjar happen in their own backyard while the PKK scrambled to rush into the breach. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has better relations with Iran, PKK, and the administration here. There is a KDP-related militia called Rojava Peshmerga in Rojava; again, they have a poor reputation because they’ve spent the whole war doing very little while YPG has died in droves fighting ISIS. All this is simply to say that there is no single Kurdish position; there are reactionary Kurdish groups, too. ↩
Mind you, the Syrian rebels were never homogenous; among them, you can find both an element aligned to Turkey and jihadis and an element aligned more closely with YPG/YPJ. Unfortunately, many of those who were interested in more “democratic” solutions to the situation in Syria were forced to flee the country years ago. ↩