The Poetry of Flames: The Arson Trials in France–From the Courtroom to the Streets

This report details the trials following the arson of a police car set on fire in May 2016 during the upheaval against the Loi Travail in France, and all the expressions of solidarity that accompanied them—including a fresh outbreak of arsons against police infrastructure.

Months pass, years pass, yet the situation in France remains unstable as the rhythm of social and political struggles accelerates. The events we will describe here are a consequence of the political situation in France and in Europe as a whole: the repercussions of the 2008 international financial crisis are still noticeable in our daily lives, European governments and their security policies can’t contain or palliate the “refugee crisis,” the ISIS attacks, the State of Emergency, the COP21, increasing disillusionment with traditional political parties, never-ending austerity measures, elections in which the far right is gaining more and more power.

As is typical in France, the end of the summer holidays heralded the resumption of struggle. Indeed, the newly elected and self-proclaimed “revolutionary”1 French President Emmanuel Macron and his government are preparing a new liberal version of the labor legislation that was the cause of the struggle against the loi travail.. The current version was imposed by the previous Socialist government only a year ago, under Hollande’s presidency, despite a wave of social upheaval that shook France in protest against it.

Demonstration against the new Loi Travail (labor law) on September 12, 2017.

Facing this new offensive aimed at making labor conditions and life itself ever more precarious, people once again took the streets on September 12 to fight against the new “Loi Travail XXL.” You can read a short review of the events here and watch a video here. More demonstrations are planned to increase the pressure on the new government and its neoliberalism-2.0 vision of society. In anticipation of the first major demonstration against the new work reform, Emmanuel Macron addressed the local French community while visiting Athens:

“(…) Democracy here is fragile; the peace that we have invented in Europe after the War is fragile; the spirit of culture that we have defended and carried here is fragile; this universal drive that brings you here today is fragile. This is why all of this is so fragile that I want to say two things in conclusion. I will be absolutely determined and I will not concede anything—neither to the lazybones, nor to the cynical, nor to the extremists. And I ask you to have the same determination, every single day. Do not concede anything—neither to the egoists, nor to the pessimists, nor to the extremists.”

We can appreciate the contempt and cynicism of this quote.

But the most significant events of September 2017 took place inside the High Court of Paris. Some 16 months after the events, nine individuals faced trial for participating in a spontaneous action and counter-protest in which a police car was set on fire. The trial was scheduled for September 19-22, 2017.

The Day We Stole Fire

Lundimatin summarized the context surrounding the fire that happened on May 18, 2016 at Quai de Valmy.

In, May 2016, while the upheaval against the Loi Travail was still at its height, a police union named Alliance seized the République Square in Paris, the site of the ephemeral French movement Nuit Debout. The union’s main objective was to stage an illusory reconciliation between the French population and their police. To do so, the union invited some major figures from the Front National, the far-right and fascist French political party. As police agents took pictures with fascist stars, other police units that were still on the clock protected their colleagues’ gathering.

Tensions increased between counter-protesters and law enforcement units, who were shoving and pepper-spraying activists as usual. A spontaneous march broke out in response. On its way through the streets of Paris, the crowd encountered a police car stuck in traffic. The car was attacked and set on fire.

The burning of the police car.

In response, Manuel Valls, then Prime Minister, said that he wanted “relentless sanctions” inflicted on the individuals who took part in the attack. The judicial machinery didn’t take long to designate and arrest its first suspects. When the trials started, two defendants remained incarcerated, six were under judicial control, and another individual couldn’t be found, as he never responded to the summons sent by the court.

Threatened by the uncontrollable rage rebels had unleashed in the streets, which sent sparks of insurrection flying throughout Paris and other cities, the French government saw in this event a perfect opportunity to re-establish order and reassert its authority. As the trials approached, we all knew that they would be dramatically publicized and politicized, as they would pit anti-authoritarians against the institutions of the police and the state itself—and also because the authorities could use the verdict to intimidate anyone who might wish to express opposition towards the state, its laws, and its policies.

Will they succeed? That has yet to be seen.

Clashes in the streets during demonstrations against the new loi travail.

Reducing Their World to Ashes

The following text has been assembled from translations and adaptations of various reports on the trial hearings and articles related to the case. In sharing these narratives, we hope to offer a broader understanding of the case, and to reveal the obvious political repression and spectacle organized by the court, the police, and the state against our companions.

Waiting for the trial to begin.

Day 1: September 19, 2017

This article was originally published on Wednesday, September 20, 2017 by Non Fides.

Paris: Report on the First Day of the Trials Concerning the Police Car Set on Fire

Large numbers of people converged in front of the 14th chamber of the high court, even before the starting hour of the hearing. Journalists were there too. First, they took pictures of those who wanted to be photographed; then they snapped away at the defendants when they were asked to enter the courtroom. Their microphones hovered over the heads of the supporters. Part of the crowd protested and reacted: some umbrellas were opened and brandished so no pictures could be taken, several familiar faces were heckled, and later on, some stickers were stuck on camera lenses. During the defendants’ exit, by a side door, a welcome stampede enabled the crowd to push the journalists away while they were trying to steal some images.

Meanwhile, people rushed in front of the closed barriers and slowly started to warm up by asking for a bigger courtroom. Numerous lawyers also entered the room one by one.

There were at least 18 people in lawyers’ clothing inside the room.

The police let the judiciary press enter the room until the box was full; then they let the defendants’ families enter one by one after checking their IDs. Cops insisted on selecting who was allowed to enter the room and who was not, so only those considered “really close,” “the parents,” “the dad and the mom” were allowed to enter the room. Eventually, however, they ended up letting some of the defendants’ close friends enter without asking for any ID. Finally, they announced that five or six seats were still available for the public.

Inside, some seats remained available, as well as some space for those who preferred to remain standing, but a large part of the public stayed outside with the rest of the journalists.

Once the judges were seated, a lawyer took the floor to complain about the lack of space and demanded a bigger room “in the name of all the defense lawyers.” Someone in the audience pointed out that the room was also way too small to welcome all the relatives and the public who wanted to show support at the trial. The judge replied curtly that this person was not allowed to speak.

But as an answer to the lawyer’s request, the hearing was suspended a first time.

It resumed after half an hour. Some additional chairs were brought for the lawyers and in order to enable more journalists to enter the room.

When the judge tried to call the roll of the defendants, the lawyers went further by explaining that the conditions of the trial were not “worthy of a normal defense,” as they were prevented from having physical access to their files. A lawyer added that it was important to let the journalists enter the courtroom, as it was a “symbolic case” involving police violence. Another took the prosecutor to task for being personally responsible for scheduling the trial in such a small room. In their turn, journalists put pressure on the court to allow their colleagues outside to report on the hearing. To that end, they even threatened to leave the courtroom all together.

The president of the bar, previously called by the defense lawyers, asked for some calm and to take into consideration the observations and requests made by the defense. The judge responded that additional chairs had already been brought to the room. The latter was also talking at some point about letting everyone in the audience sit in on the hearing by establishing some kind of rotation, to take place every two hours. He also insisted on the “serenity” wherein the trial had to take place.

Meanwhile, outside, the slogan “a bigger room” was amplified to such an extent that we could actually hear it over the repeated calls for calm made by the Judge. Throughout the entire hearing, we would hear inside the courtroom all the slogans chanted by those who remained outside and continued to demand “a bigger room” and freedom for the prisoners.

The defense lawyers stood up to officially protest.

One of them explained that it would be impossible to rotate the public: how to choose among them? How to deal with those who would not want to leave? Should we rotate the journalists too? He asked for the hearing to be suspended for the rest of the day and for the trial to resume in a bigger room the next day.

Another comment: even with the added chairs, the lawyers didn’t have access to their computers, and couldn’t open their files properly, while the prosecutor was comfortably seated on his chair with a direct access to a computer. There was no “equality of arms.” The Judge told him not to be so excessive, and asserted that this problem is always solved in practice.

A lawyer threatened to move the arguments to the juridical field and cited the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as the rights of the defense. He threatened to file requests to nullify the trial if it continued under such circumstances.

The judge took him at his word and said that the court was ready to deliberate on referral requests as well as on nullity requests if they were formulated, and this after the prosecutor’s opinion. The lawyers confirmed.

The prosecutor didn’t have any opinion of the adjournment’s request, as he didn’t know the availability of the other rooms in the court. He insisted on saying that “since the first minute of the hearing, the defense’s rights were respected” and insisted on the efforts provided by the court, explaining that the day’s circumstances were the fault of lawyers who added their names to the original list of participants, and that the public and the journalists already had enough space.

The room growled inside. We could still hear chants and shouts coming from outside.

The hearing was suspended once again so the judges could rule on the request for adjournment.

In their turn, the judges announced the end of the hearing for the day. The trial would resume the following day (Wednesday September 20) inside the 16th Chamber at 1:30 pm, one floor downstairs. We were expecting a criminal chamber (like that day) with probably more space for the lawyers and at best 20 to 30 more people in the public, but probably no more “serenity” than that day.

Anyway, the cops took the people gathered outside of the room off the premises of the high court as they chanted numerous slogans, including “Fire to the prisons!” and “Freedom for all!”

Outside the courtroom.

Day 2: September 20, 2017

This article was originally posted on Thursday September 21, 2017 by Non Fides.

Paris: Report on the Second Day of the Trials Concerning the Police Car Set on Fire

On Thursday, the hearings began at 10 am in the 16th Chamber. The pressure was set up from the entrance of the Court where gendarmes physically searched bags after checking them through x-ray scanners. They were especially looking for stickers, handouts, and umbrellas as they had received the order to seize such items. These security measures blocked the progress of the waiting line. As a result, numerous supporters found themselves stuck outside, as well as four defendants who hadn’t been summoned. The latter finally gained access to the courtroom at 1:50 pm.

The hearing opened with the roll call of the defendants and the civil parties, the reminder of the charges, and the roles attributed to everyone involved in the case.

Then, several lawyers argued to nullify the trial. First, the lawyers of two individuals still incarcerated claimed that their detention was irregular, as no written decisions were published after the previous hearing on July 17, 2017. Another lawyer filed a conclusion concerning the inadmissibility of considering the police union Alliance as a civil party in this trial. They based their argumentation on specific case laws that specify the conditions in which a professional union can or cannot form a civil party during a trial.

The Alliance lawyer answered this request by contesting the admissibility of the conclusions, arguing that Alliance has been a civil party since the beginning of the trial, and such criticism should have been made earlier.

After the lawyers replied to the arguments presented by the prosecutor, the court left the room for a moment, then returned. It was decided that the “incidents would be added to the content,” which means that the decisions regarding the requests to nullify would be pronounced only during the verdict of the trial.

A dozen police officers from Alliance occupying two rows in the back of the room were making comments such as “Can’t they force these assholes to stand up?” (referring to the individuals who refused to stand up when the members of the court entered the room), to which some people answered them: “Shut up!”

Then the judge began summarizing the facts. The testimonies of some storekeepers were read, numerous videos were presented and watched, and the statement of Allison Barthélémy—the passenger officer in the burnt car—was read, even if she wasn’t present inside the courtroom.

Next, Kevin Philippy, the driver of the car, was interrogated at the bar. Some laughs were heard inside the room when he asserted that his “aggressor” was targeting his head because he “wanted to put him on the ground so he could finish [read: kill] him.”

The judge continued the summary of the investigation, mentioning the interrogations of some individuals arrested on May 18 but not accused in the case, as well as the testimony of the anonymous cop who testified against four of the defendants. A lawyer highlighted that the chronology in the judge’s account was incorrect, as the latter hadn’t mentioned the interrogations of the actual defendants yet, while people were arrested before the publication of the testimony of the anonymous police officer (the intelligence police officer code name during the trial was T142). The judge justified himself saying that he did so “to be clearer.”

The first defendant was interrogated. She appeared before the judge in custody and accused of throwing a small metal post into the front windshield of the police car. The judge quoted her previous interrogations and commented on several pictures attached to the file, but the questioning ended soon as the defendant refused to talk.

A second defendant was called to the bar. He was accused of hitting the car and one of the police officers with a metallic rod. He recognized the facts and explained them by the increasing anger he felt while taking part of several demonstrations and realizing the disproportionate police violence during them. He ended his explanation by saying that he regretted his actions and apologized to the police officer. For almost two hours, the judge and the prosecutor interrogated him. They confronted him with other videos of the demonstration, in order to try to demonstrate that he was also violent towards police officers on other occasions.

After a hearing suspension, the judge reviewed the calendar of the trial. He announced that the discussions would start on Thursday and Friday at 10 am and the verdict would be given on Friday September 29.

Then a third defendant was called to the bar. Only accused of “participating in the gathering,” he was questioned on some elements found during a house search, in particular on his helmet collection, on the choice of the brand of his jacket, on the events of the demonstration, and on the fact that the latter was unauthorized. The question of knowing when he decided to put his hood on seemed to be really dear to the judge’s heart, who was showing at the same time a pixelated picture in which we were supposed to see the defendant putting his hood on. The room protested, but according to the favorite sentence of the judge, “everyone will appreciate this.” (We thought that it was his role to “appreciate” whether the evidence was correct and admissible, but whatever.)

In turn, the fourth and last defendant of the day was called to the bar. He was accused with the same charges as the previous one, but also for refusing to have his DNA taken during his arrest. In a situation similar to the previous one, an object was extracted from the sealed evidence in order to learn whether it was a truncheon or a broken stick of a shovel. Then a debate began regarding the presence of “tear gas” in his house (we supposed that the judge was referring to pepper spray).

The courtroom reacted when the judge presented some pictures that supposedly showed the defendant. It was obvious that it wasn’t him in the pictures, especially because the individual in the so-called evidence was a smoker, while the defendant is not. His lawyer protested that there was no objective element in the accusation. The defendant admitted his presence at the demonstration but insisted that he wasn’t next to the car during the attack and that he wasn’t masked.

At 8 pm, the hearing was over. It would resume the next day at 10 am for the interrogations of the other four defendants.

The police intercepted two individuals as they exited the court and forced them into an unmarked police car. They were sent to an unknown destination, maybe because they were seen on video cameras putting stickers inside the Court premises.

Arrests at the Exit of the High Court, during the Trial Concerning the Police Car Set on Fire

It seems that a small group of people were blocked at the exit of the court with their identity taken. Finally, two individuals were immobilized in one corner of the courtyard (the walls had bars on them) before being taken away for having put some stickers inside the premises. The police may have used video surveillance to bring these charges. Some of the people present during the arrest reacted and tried to block the police car that was taking the two arrestees away.

If the crowd had been more numerous and more determined, it would probably have been possible to make this arrest more difficult to manage, or at least not to let the cops do their dirty work so quietly.

“Fire to all the prisons! Hurray!

Day 3: September 21, 2017

This article was originally posted on Friday, September 22, 2017 by Non Fides.

Paris: Report on the Third Day of the Trials Concerning the Police Car Set on Fire

The hearings took place from 10 am until 7:30 pm, with an hour break at noon.

The four defendants who hadn’t been interrogated the previous day were questioned one after another. The first one was accused of hitting the driver and breaking the back windshield of the car with a post. The second one was accused of having been present in the area during the attack. The third was accused of having pointed out the cop car during the movement of the crowd through the street and for having raised his arms to the sky when the police car was set on fire. The fourth and last defendant was accused of having broken the back right side window of the car with a small post.

Then the judge presented the evidence against the ninth defendant, accused of throwing the flare inside the car. This defendant wasn’t present in the courtroom and wasn’t represented by a lawyer.

The atmosphere inside the courtroom was tense. Two individuals who came to support the defendants were expelled, and one of them was directly thrown off the court premises. Gendarmes were threatening us with expulsion if we looked at our phones, while the Alliance cops (who came to support the civil parties) seemed to play “Candy Crush” in the back of the room. On several occasions, there were loud reactions among us concerning the remarks of the prosecutors or the behavior of the gendarmes and Alliance cops.

At one point, the gendarmes in front of the courtroom tried to admit a pro-cop individual dressed in a blue, white, and red shirt (patriotism is fashionable). It was the same individual who had been insulting people the previous day. Some supporters decided to block him, but unfortunately police officers took that opportunity to expel some supporters from the premises of the high court. The pro-cop guy was permitted to stay in the courtroom while most of the evicted persons were not allowed to re-enter the court.

The two individuals arrested the previous day were released after 24 hours in jail, with no further action taken against them so far. Inside the corridors of the court, an investigation was taking place. Two police officers with photos of anarchist stickers were wandering around looking at the walls. At some point, the closest restrooms were entirely disinfected and cleaned—but not for long, as soon after, they were covered with graffiti and stickers once again.

In addition, the previous night, a total of 1500 square meters of police barracks containing vehicles and offices had been set on fire in Grenoble in solidarity with the defendants. The next afternoon, during the demonstration in Paris, the cortège de tête (the head of the march) was chanting: “A la 1re, à la 2,e à la 3e voiture brûlée, liberté pour tous les inculpés.” (“At the 1st, at the 2nd, at the 3rd car set on fire, freedom for all the defendants.”)

Footage of the demonstration that took place in Paris on September 21.

Day 4: September 22, 2017

This article was originally posted on Saturday September 32, 2017 by Non Fides.

Paris: The Prosecutor Requests Years of Prison in the Case of the Police Car Set on Fire

The verdict, initially scheduled for September 29 at 11 am, was postponed and delivered later. A more precise date was given the following Wednesday, September 27, the day when the lawyers would finish their pleas from 9:30 am until 1 pm, during a final hearing. Moreover, at the end of the day, around 9:30pm, the court had to decide whether to release Kara and Krem, still incarcerated at the time of the trial. The court refused to release them. In solidarity, part of the audience shouted “Freedom” and “Courage” inside the courtroom.

The prosecution’s closing speech was delivered by the two prosecutors, Olivier Dabin and Emmanuelle Quindry. They said it was “the trial of some rioters” organized “in a horde.” Other choice quotations included, “Where and who are the fascists and extremists when we fight the police, the justice system, the journalists?” “During a house search, we found the stickers of the ultra-left movement.” “I challenge anyone to say that justice covers police violence.” “The great Lénine said, ‘Anarchists are reactionaries.’” “For the uncompromising ones, silence is a right but it is also a silence of approval.”

The charges and threatened sentences:

  1. Against the individuals accused of participating in “a gathering with the objective of committing violence,” but also for “voluntary violence on a PDAP” (Person in Charge of Public Authority), with 4 aggravating circumstances: violence in an assembly, use of weapons, and masked face:

    • Joachim (Swiss): 8 years imprisonment coupled with a detention order (he is currently on the run; an arrest warrant has been issued, as he is accused of throwing the flare that set the cop car on fire).

    • Antonin: 5 years imprisonment with a one-year suspended sentence coupled with an order to be kept in jail and forbidden to take part in any demonstration in Paris for 3 years. He already served 10 months of preventive detention.

    • Nicolas: 5 years imprisonment with a two-year suspended sentence without a detention order (due to his “clear act of contrition during his hearing” and the absence of “recidivism risk” according to the prosecutor), and being prohibited from taking part in any demonstration in Paris for 3 years. He already served 13 months of preventive detention/remand.

    • Krem: 4 years imprisonment, currently kept in detention and facing a ban on taking part in any demonstration in Paris for 3 years. He had been in preventive detention/remand for 7 months.

    • Kara: 3 years imprisonment with a one-year suspended sentence and a 3 years ban of entering the French territory (due to her US nationality). She had been in preventive detention/remand for 16 months already.

    • Thomas: 3 years imprisonment with a two-year suspended sentence coupled with a ban on participating in any demonstration in Paris for 3 years. No detainment order (this means he faces one year of actual imprisonment).

  2. Against the individuals only accused of having taken part in “a gathering with the objective of committing violence”:

    • Angel: one-year suspended sentence and a ban on taking part in any demonstration in Paris for 3 years. He already spent 42 days in preventive detention/remand.

    • Bryan: one-year suspended sentence and a ban on taking part in any demonstration in Paris for 3 years. A €1000 fine for refusing to give his DNA. He already spent 4 days in preventive detention/remand.

    • Leandro: one-year suspended sentence and a ban on taking part in any demonstration in Paris for 3 years. He also already spent 4 days in preventive detention/remand.

    Requests made by the “civil parties”:

    • The police union Alliance asked for €5000 for “moral prejudice” regarding their professions (with arguments such as “these acts of violence are similar to terrorist acts”). The lawyer of Alliance is Ms. Delphine Des Villettes.

    • Kevin Philippy, the cop who was driving the car, asked for €30,000 of “damages and interests” (his lawyer is Ms. Michèle Launay). Kevin Philippy, security assistant, tried to pass the official exam to become a policeman four times without success. Thanks to the incident of the police car arson, he was exempted from the exam and accepted into the police school of Sens, from which he “graduated” on March 20, 2017. Currently a trainee police officer, he will be given tenure in March 2018.

    • The judicial agent of the State asked for €1500.

Bonfire of the vanities.

Day 5: September 27, 2017

This article was published on September 28, 2017 by Paris-Luttes.Info.

Report on the Last Day of the Trial for the Police Car Set on Fire

The defendants Kara and Krem attended, but in custody, under arrest.

This morning, the atmosphere was really quiet inside the Court. Absolutely no noise from outside disrupted the pleas of the two lawyers besides the anxious sound of the sirens of police cars.

The hearing started with the plea of Antoine Vey, the lawyer representing Nicolas.

In front of a rigid, even stoical judge, Antoine Vey began by denouncing the political aspect of the trial: the instructions of Manuel Valls, who had been Prime Minister at the time, but also the use of police premises during custody in which flags of the police union Alliance (known for extremely reactionary politics) were displayed on the walls.

He also highlighted the fact that the prosecutor shook hands with the civil parties when she arrived at the court that morning, adding, “You would never do that with the defendants!”

He explained that the defendants having been described as guilty even before the trial took place, and that this had had serious consequences for them.

Antoine Vey defended Nicolas affirming that he “did not handle the events, he did not manage this violence. He did not claim it.” After quoting Foucault about “the facts, the sanction, the torture,” the lawyer asked for the sentences to be personalized.

“Because there is violence during demonstrations, we should not take part in them? (…) Is it the ideas that are on trial?”

Antoine Vey came back to Nicolas’s personal political path, how he had been shocked by the violence of law enforcement agents towards demonstrators during the protests against the Loi Travail. Nevertheless, his client is not an “ideologue.”

“Madam the prosecutor, you remind me of Javert!” the lawyer said frankly concerning the severity of the sentences demanded by the two prosecutors on Friday, September 22. (In Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, Javert is a police inspector who becomes obsessed with the pursuit and punishment of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict.)

“Being armed doesn’t mean wearing a black vest, a beanie, and some sunglasses!”

Then, he explained that the “weapon” wasn’t an iron bar but a flexible metallic rod. He demanded that Nicolas should be judged with clemency. “He was severely punished, he is inserted in society. There is absolutely no more reason to put him back to prison, except for the sake of a putrid political message.”

Antoine Vey concluded his plea affirming that: “If you send him back to prison, you would have judged him, but you would have not brought back justice.”

Then, it was the turn of Arié Alimi, Antonin’s lawyer, to plead.

He started his speech by showing some compassion towards the civil parties, then reminded the court that his grandfather was a police instructor in Algeria during the state of emergency.

He explained that since the events in Sivens (where the young demonstrator Rémy Fraisse was murdered on the night of October 25, 2014 by a police grenade), there has been a clear change of doctrine regarding law enforcement.

“How can we explain why there are no more children and strollers during demonstrations nowadays? (…) Before, the doctrine was to keep the crowd away, today it is to hurt and to discredit a social movement.”

He said to spare a thought for Rémy Fraisse, the Traoré family, Théo, and the Bergson’s student (all victims of police violence). He expressed himself strongly against the imbalance in the prosecutors’ closing speech.

“An eight-month suspended sentence for the police officer who fractured the nose of the high-school student of Bergson—against eight years imprisonment coupled with an arrest warrant for a flare thrown inside a police car! This is not intelligible!”

For several years, Antonin was constantly targeted by the DRPP (the Intelligence department of the Parisian police). In the 11 cases the DRPP presented against him, Antonin was discharged, or the cases were dropped.

“This is a calumnious denunciation against my client, I can go so far as to say so.”

The lawyer denounced the administrative logic of the famous “notes blanches” (“white notes”) of the Intelligence service. “The anonymous testimony doesn’t make any sense anymore.”

Arié Alimi analyzed the anonymous testimony (“T142”). The police officer indicated at numerous occasions that he didn’t want to answer the lawyers’ questions. According to Arié Alimi, the testimony is no longer credible. The police officer’s refusal to explain his statements could allow the defense to initiate legal proceedings against him.

Antonin had an injured wrist in May 18, 2016, an injury that he received a month and a half before the day of the demonstration, “therefore, he couldn’t lift the post during the events” explained his lawyer.

“We are confronted with a method in which we want a result, an answer, from the very start!”

Then, Alimi returned to the clothing and physical details mentioned during the hearings that were used to charge Antonin. Nike shoes, for example, are a very common brand among young people. Keeping your phone in your pocket is only doing “what everybody else does.” Antonin has dark rings under his eyes? A lot of young people “spend their nights in front of the television or partying.”

The lawyer brandished several pictures taken from videos and printed on cardboard paper to support his arguments concerning the common clothing features of demonstrators. According to Arié Alimi, the prosecutor didn’t use all the pictures available in the file. The prosecutor “lied intentionally.” The testimony of the police officer was that Antonin was wearing a neck warmer and not a hood; moreover, during house search, they didn’t find the incriminating vest. “He is not the aggressor!” said his lawyer. The “kung-fu” police officer (a nickname given to Kevin Philippy, the police officer assaulted during the events) didn’t even recognize Antonin behind the one-way glass.

“What additional proofs do you want? (…) Why did we stubbornly and against all odds accuse Antonin? (…) We absolutely wanted to condemn a political opponent. Politics contaminate our justice, we are in France, not in Russia!”

Arié Alimi asked for discharge for Antonin.

The verdict of the trial was to be delivered on Wednesday, October 11 at 10 am.

The court cleared out while Krem and Kara were handcuffed before being sent back to prison. Shouts of “Freedom!” echoed in the hallway of the high court of Paris.

Our rage is inextinguishable.

Then, Slowly, the Fire Spreads…

Solidarity has always been a core principle of anarchist values. Without a doubt, it is an extremely important weapon, especially during moments of hardship or isolation. As in every upheaval that ends with massive waves of repression, the demonstrations against the Loi Travail in 2016 sadly resulted in numerous people being injured, arrested, and prosecuted.

Nevertheless, acts of solidarity broke out immediately. Activists snatched arrestees back from the police during demonstrations, preserving their freedom. People gathered in front of police stations where friends were arrested and organized benefit shows to cover arrestees’ legal expenses.

Regarding the arson trials, you can find a detailed list of solidarity actions here. A version of this list is available here in English.

One action even made the national news. In the middle of a week of the trials, some people decided to send a clear message to the state and all forms of authority, expressing love and solidarity with the defendants. On the night of Thursday, September 21, a group entered a police barracks and set it on fire. Here is the translation of their communiqué:

Incendiary Solidarity

This Thursday (Sept. 21), at 3 am, second day of the trial of the burnt cop car.

We have entered the gendarmerie barracks of Vigny-Musset. We set on fire 6 intervention vans and 2 logistics trucks. The garage and the warehouse were devastated for more than 1500 square meters.

This action is part of the wave of solidarity attacks with the individuals on trial during these days.

Big hugs to Kara and Krem.

A thought for Damien, who was beaten up by cops recently.

Whatever the outcome of the trial will be, we will continue attacking the police and their justice.

Our hostility is a spreading fire.

Some nocturnals.

…and the Pressure Increases

Needless to say, the attack against the gendarmerie station, as well as the intensity of the arson, caught the attention of the French government. According to the French newspaper Le Monde, the Minister of the Interior, Gerard Collomb, who is well known for his authoritarian tendencies, announced his “consternation” and “indignation” about this attack. He added: “The gendarmerie will do everything possible to seek and identify the authors of this particularly serious act, so they can be accountable for their actions in front of the court. (…) All measures are being taken so the equipment and the vehicles can be replaced rapidly.”

Another mainstream article, this time from Libération, explains that the entire offices of the gendarmerie were reduced to ashes, including the criminal investigation department. Moreover, the “wave of attacks” mentioned in the arson communiqué echoes the arson of five police vehicles in Limoges on Tuesday, September 19, 2017, a few hours before the opening of the trial. In the same article, we learn that local authorities noticed that, lately, numerous anonymous arsonist actions and communiqués were posted on independent medias platforms such as Indymedia. According to the journalist, this reveals a special use of arson among some radicals, especially against “necro-technologies”: arson against a mobile phone antenna in Ardèche last July; arson of Enedis’ vehicles and offices in Grenoble last May and in the department of Drome last June (Enedis, or ERDF, is the company that controls and manages the electrical network in France); or against “social control,” like the arson of CCAS vehicles in Grenoble last March.

The remains of the police station in Grenoble.

Immediately following the appearance of this arson communiqué, the French authorities once again undertook to employ the chief tools at their disposal, fear and intimidation. Even if we all know that the state will always defend its legitimacy and power by all means necessary, we can perceive an obvious escalation of state repression against anarchists and radicals. One of the best examples is the aftermath of G20 in Hamburg. After the rebellion against the G20 summit that lit up this past summer, in addition to several trials and sentences requested against people arrested during the G20, the German government struck back against “left-wing extremism” by shutting down Linksunten Indymedia and raiding several houses.

In France, several hours after publishing the communiqué on their website, Indymedia Grenoble received an email from the Office Central de Lutte contre la Criminalité liée aux Technologies de l’Information et de la Communication (a police organization dedicated in fighting cyber-criminality), asking them to remove the arson communiqué within 24 hours and threatening to shut down the media platform. The communiqué is considered to be “advocating terrorist acts.” You can read a copy of the email sent to Indymedia Grenoble here. Indymedia Nantes also received this official request. Surprisingly, and without giving a clear explanation of their decisions, both websites decided to give way to the authorities’ request. You can read their communiqués (still in French) here and here. Meanwhile, mainstream media outlets published the same communiqué without receiving any threats from authorities.

These events raise several questions: How independent can alternative media be? Why obey the threats of the police and the state? How “safe” are we when we use such platforms? How far are authorities willing to go to track down anarchists and other radical activists? But also—how can we effectively resist this escalating repression? It is more important than ever to discuss these issues as the witch hunt continues in the streets, the courtrooms, and online.

The remains of the police station in Grenoble.

The Verdict: The State Attempts to Extinguish the Flames

The following is an adaptation and translation of an article posted on October 11, 2017 by lundimatin.

Quai Valmy: Summary of the Sentencing

The nine defendants were condemned to a total of 30 years of prison and more than 40,000 euros in damages.

The police presence was particularly visible this morning in front of the high court and inside the halls of the palace. Numerous gendarmes were also supporting the walls of the courtroom. Once the defendants sat down, the hearing started with the conclusions raised in limine litis. The court stated that having the police union Alliance as a civil party in this trial was admissible, and that the detention orders against Kara and Ari (aka Krem) were legitimate.

Then the court examined the content of the case file and the main charges selected. The president invoked a restrictive use of the concept of participating in a gathering with the purpose of committing violence, and concluded that the simple fact of hiding one’s face wasn’t enough to confirm this charge. Regarding the intentional element mentioned in the charges, he reckoned that the individual had to show a will to participate, or for others to participate, in these acts of violence.

Concerning the anonymous testimony, without discussing the quality or legitimacy of the witness, the court insisted on its convincing force, but pointed out that this testimony itself wasn’t enough to establish guilt. Therefore, other elements and evidence should support it. Regarding the acts of severe violence, he highlighted that, apart from the use of the metal bar, posts, and flares or smoke bombs, the fact of hitting an immobilized vehicle with bare hands, while two persons where still inside the vehicle, was sufficient to be characterized. Concerning the destruction of the vehicle by arson, the Court concluded that the collective action contributed to the realization of the damage.

Then, the court discussed the facts.

Regarding Angel and Bryan, the court concluded that the charge of participation in a violent gathering couldn’t be used against them from the moment that the investigation failed to establish where the two defendants were during the assault on the car, so the court discharged them. However, Bryan was sentenced for refusing to give his DNA.

Concerning Kara, the court reminded the audience that she recognized her culpability. Then, via the voice of its president M. Alçufrom, the court talked at length about the hypothetical consequences of her action… “And what if the windshield had shattered? The two police officers would probably be dead…” The president even discussed Kara’s journey: she came from the US, then stayed in Germany and Kurdistan, adding that “she held back from assaulting police officers in other countries,” and affirmed that somewhere else, for such actions, “she could have vanished into thin air in the proper sense, as well as in the figurative sense.” According to the president, she “took the liberty of acting that way” because she knew the behavior of the French police.

Regarding Nicolas, the president noted that he immediately recognized the facts, then insisted on the seriousness of the committed acts. M. Alçufrom considered that when exiting his vehicle in flames, the police officer “tried to escape from a certain death,” this is why it is important “to honor the courage of M. Philippy,” who “wasn’t a kung-fu police officer, but a courageous man.” Considering the regrets expressed by the defendant, the court estimated that “his recidivism risk was low.”

In the case of Antonin, the Court mentioned the “blunt identification” made by the anonymous witness. Then he took every single photograph presented by Arié Alimi (Antonin’s lawyer), examined all of them, and noticed some differences with the assailant. He even mentioned a different coloring of the eyebrows between the two individuals. However, the different color tones of the clothing could be attributed to the different angles and point of views of the pictures taken… On the fact that the anonymous witness (who pretended that he was constantly looking at Antonin during the action) didn’t see Antonin changing clothes, the president concluded, “there were too many people to see everything.”

The court retained as incriminating evidence the contradictory declarations of Antonin during the investigation, declarations that all turned out to be false. The court even asserted that the tracking and triangulation of his cellphone enabled them to locate him near the store he said he had spent the afternoon in, but unfortunately, there was nothing to prove that he was actually inside of it. The court imputed the blows against the driver to him, as well as the insertion of the post in the back windshield of the car, due to “the perfect correlation between the attacker and Antonin.” In the meantime, the court invoked “the absence of any reasonable doubt” regarding his identification. The president qualified these as acts “of extreme gravity” which embodied an “urban guerilla scene,” and asserted that Antonin attacked the police officers as some others would “attack black people because they are black.” Finally, the court also condemned the absence of regrets expressed from the defendant, the refusal to discuss the violence endured by the two police officers, and multiple internet researches on the effects of different acids. The president concluded by asserting the existence of a risk of recidivism.

Concerning Léandro, prosecuted for participating in a violent gathering, the court concluded that his behavior wasn’t passive, that he encouraged the authors of the violence by his presence. The president reminded him that when the court asked him why he didn’t step back when the attack started, he answered during the hearing that “he didn’t have to step back.” The court concluded with a “characterized” participation to the violent gathering.

Regarding Thomas, the president recalled in detail his behavior during the demonstration, mentioning the blows and punches he administered to the car, though this aspect hadn’t even been mentioned in the file previously. He was convicted for acts of violence and degradation.

Concerning Ari, the Court concluded that his passport picture matched in all criteria the picture of the assailant taken in the metro (his eyebrows and his two moles—note that this picture also precisely matched two other individuals at the beginning of the investigation…). Regarding the specific strand of hair, the court explained that they only based their identification on the black and white picture that was handed to the defense (and not the color photo inside the official case file). Then, they mentioned that the clothes seized in the squat (sunglasses and black gloves) were identical to those visible on the videos. Considering Ari guilty as charged, the court said that his silence didn’t enable them to know his motivation, but anyway, “no cause could justify the use of violence.”

To finish, the court concluded that Joachim (from Switzerland) had been identified in the picture, and that the study of his phone record allowed them to establish his actual presence in France during the events. The president concluded saying that Joachim could have killed the police officers and that a flare was at least as dangerous as, or even more dangerous than, a Molotov cocktail… [sic]

In conclusion, the following sentences were pronounced:

Angel: Discharged.

Bryan: Discharged for taking part to the gathering, but sentenced to a €1000 fine, with a reprieve of €500, for refusing to give his DNA.

Léandro: Guilty for taking part in the gathering, 1 year suspended prison sentence (and no ban on participating in demonstrations).

Thomas: Guilty, sentenced to 2 years imprisonment with a 1 year suspended sentence.

Kara: Guilty, sentenced to 4 years imprisonment with a 2 year suspended sentence, held in detention.

Ari: Guilty, 5 years imprisonment with a suspended sentence of 2 years and 5 months, held in detention.

Nicolas: Guilty, 5 years imprisonment with a suspended sentence of 2 years and 6 months, without a detention order.

Antonin: Guilty, legal recidivism, 5 years imprisonment with a 2 year suspended sentence without an order for detention.

Joachim: 7 years imprisonment with an arrest warrant.

The last six defendants were also condemned to pay a total of €5000 to the police union Alliance; €6100 to the State judicial agent for Mme. Allison Barthélémy; €7300 to the State judicial agent for M. Kévin Philippy; €10,000 to Mme. Barthélémy for her moral prejudice, and €12,000 to M. Phillipy for the prejudices endured. Finally, each of them would have to pay €600 for procedure costs…

A poster inviting people to gather in Ménilmontant on October 11 to respond to the verdict.

Yesterday, Today, or Tomorrow: The Fire Will Never Go Out!

Several gatherings were organized to greet the verdict of the trial on October 11, 2017. Many people gathered outside the court around 10 am to support the defendants. As mentioned in the article by lundimatin, numerous law enforcement units were protecting the surrounding area and entrances to the high court, which is located on Ile de la Cité in the center of Paris. According to one article, when the verdict was pronounced, people outside the courtroom shouted “Tout le monde déteste la police/la Justice,” “Ni oubli, ni pardon,” “Liberté!” (respectively, “Everyone hates the police/Justice,” “No forgetfulness, no forgiveness, “ “Freedom!”) before being pushed out of the building by police forces.

Later that night, several hundred people gathered in Ménilmontant despite the deployment of police forces in all the neighboring districts (between République and Bastille). According to an article published by Paris Luttes Info, there was a similar police presence on the night of the last presidential election.

The action started, but rapidly police forces intervened and managed to block part of the crowd. However, the police didn’t succeed in containing the collective rage and euphoria of the night. The greater part of the procession avoided the police lines and rushed through the narrow streets of Paris, determined to express their love and solidarity with the defendants and to show their hate for the state and its justice. Walls were repainted with messages, the storefronts of banks, a clothing company, a business school, and jewelry stores were smashed, and several trash containers were set on fire. Then the storm dispersed and vanished into the darkness of the night.

Meanwhile, the mobilization against the “Loi travail XXL” continues. The last demonstration took place on October 10, 2017, drawing between 210,000 and 400,000 people everywhere in France. (In France, like everywhere else, authorities and organizations are always at odds as to the number of people taking the streets). After the afternoon demonstration in Paris, several hundred people decided to occupy the Institute of Geography at the Sorbonne University. Police units swiftly blocked the entrance so no one could enter the building. While the occupation was in effect, the occupiers published the following communiqué:

We, occupiers of the Institute of Geography, occupy this site for several reasons. First, we refuse all neoliberal and security policies, whether from Macron or not. We occupy in the same state of mind as the ones who filled the movement of spring 2016 with life. We also occupy in solidarity with the defendants of the Quai Valmy case. We ask for the release of all the defendants, knowing that this is the trial against the Loi Travail. Finally, we occupy to protest against the filthy feast of the managers of the biggest companies in France, who are coming to celebrate the victory of “France as a Business” on October 12 at the “pré Catelan” in the Bois de Boulogne. To their wealthy banquet, we oppose our feast and invite anyone who relates to this occupation to come and support it. Particularly, we are calling academics and intellectuals to take position in favor of the occupation, so the threat of eviction that it faces will be harder to carry out.

Against the capitalist occupation of the world, let’s occupy universities!

You can read the communiqué in its original version here.

The heavy verdicts in the arson trials remind us once more that police and the justice system are simply two arms with which the state dominates the population. Whatever type of political system you live under, from dictatorship to social democracy, police and the justice system will always fulfill the same purpose: enforcing the power and authority of the state while imposing a supposedly “natural” social order on society via intimidation, harassment, and violence.

In these strange times, when blatant new waves of nationalist and fascist ideology are spreading alongside virulent economic and neo-liberal reforms, when a permanent state of emergency supports a steady stream of new authoritarian policies, it seems undeniable that more obstacles, hardships, political repression, and uncertainties are to come.

However, let’s not surrender, never! There’s too much at stake.

This is why our love, solidarity, and thoughts are with those behind bars or in courtrooms facing charges, as well as with everyone still out there in the streets, on the run, or hiding somewhere in the shadows, who continue fighting with all their hearts against authority, capitalism, and the state without any rest or truce.

Our insatiable thirst for freedom will always be stronger than any of their laws, bars, or walls, stronger than the concrete and steel they continuously surround us with. Let our love and rage speak through an unstoppable and uncontrollable incendiary storm!

From the J20 in the US to the G20 in Hamburg, from the streets of Paris to the Greek prison cells—

Fire to the prisons! Fire to their justice! Fire to the state! Fire to their world!

  1. In November 2016, while running for president, Macron published a book entitled Révolution, in which he tried to embody a new political posture, supposedly more pragmatic, and claimed to supersede the traditional opposition between Left and Right. 

Blocking the Nazi March in Gothenburg: Using Every Tool in the Toolbox against Fascism

On September 30, several hundred fascists participated in a march in Gothenburg called for by the Nordic Resistance Movement (NMR), a neo-Nazi organization that openly professes the doctrines of Adolf Hitler. Over the past year, members of the NMR have bombed several refugee homes and a left-wing bookstore in Gothenburg, while members of the Finnish branch of NMR murdered a passer-by at a demonstration in Helsinki. In Gothenburg, over 10,000 counter-demonstrators utilized a diversity of tactics to block the NMR march from reaching its starting point; although the police were the ones who physically stopped them, previous precedents show that the police will support and protect the neo-Nazis unless forced to do otherwise by grassroots anti-fascist momentum. It should give us pause that neo-Nazis in a country as small as Sweden could produce a rally on the scale of the one that fascists organized in Charlottesville last August. Here, we present an account from one of the many groups that participated in the counter-demonstration.

The following report was authored by Andreas of the group “Inte rasist men…” You can find an extensive photo gallery of the aspiring murderers and bullies who participated in the Nazi rally here. For a Swedish take on why it is a mistake to rely on police to keep fascists in check, read this.

Police barricades holding back anti-fascists.

On September 30, the openly fascist Nordic Resistance Movement (NMR) intended to march in Gothenburg. This date was not chosen by chance. They chose it as a result of the year-long debate about far-right publication Nya Tiders’ (New Times) right to attend the annual book fair taking place in Gothenburg at the same time—and also because it was Yom Kippur. NMR has well-documented ties to Nya Tider; like others on the far right, they claim that modern literature and media are to blame for the supposed downfall of Western Civilization. Add to this the media exposure from Nazis marching outside the book fair and the opportunity to disrupt one of the most sacred Jewish holidays and you can see why this date was attractive to the NMR.

On the day of the march, more than 10,000 antifascist counter-demonstrators filled the streets of Gothenburg to await the arrival of the Nazis. Among them, a small group of around 50 people, dressed up like members of the Rebel Alliance from Star Wars, clearly stood out. This group was coordinated by the non-profit anti-racist activist and research collective “Inte rasist, men…” (“Not racist, but…”), or IRM, of which I am a member. The plan for the day was to ridicule the Nazis by marching parallel to them and blasting the Imperial March on a huge portable loudspeaker while dressed up like Jedi, X-wing pilots, C3PO, Yoda, and Princess Leia. We sent a box of Darth Vader masks to one of the Nazi leaders before the event, sarcastically inviting them to join our “Star Wars LARP.” Fortunately, we could not execute this plan, as the Nazis were blocked, beaten by police, and had their leader arrested. They didn’t even make it to their planned starting point.


Inte rasist men… on September 30.

IRM is a group of eight people and consists of researchers, writers, podcasters, techies, and even a cartoonist. Over our five-year existence, we have amassed a fairly big following, some of who volunteer with us, and we have become something of a household name in Sweden. Our work consists chiefly of researching and exposing the racism, sexism, and homophobia of politicians belonging to the racist Sweden Democrats (SD) party. We estimate that our work has helped remove at least 200 SD politicians from their positions. Of course, in a party like the SD, there’s always another racist waiting to step up.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve also ventured into street activism, which has led to us taking on a larger part of the Swedish extreme-right movement. For example, when NMR marched in the Swedish city of Falun on May 1, we borrowed the German “Right against Right” concept by donating money to an anti-fascist charity based on the distance the Nazis walked. On the day of the march, our activists lined up by side of the planned route, holding signs with messages like “Nazis against Nazis,” “A small step for a Nazi, a big step for humanity,” and “You march, we donate.” The Nazis were not amused. On another occasion, we succeeded in planting a sign with our logo right behind the party leader of the Sweden Democrats while he was being interviewed during the annual Swedish politicians week, so that every single picture of him in the media also contained our logo.

Neo-Nazis in Gothenburg on September 30.

From the start, our strategy has been aimed at humor and exposure. Our internal motto is “Make racism awkward again.” We have also made an effort to be inclusive, as we feel that a broad anti-racist movement which transcends the traditional right/left boundaries of Swedish party politics is needed to counter the momentum of racist and fascist groups in Sweden. The Sweden Democrats have been growing steadily for ten years. According to some polls, they are now the second biggest party in Sweden, a worrying development. This has resulted in a creeping and hard-to-notice normalization of racist and fascist rhetoric and ideas, which has pushed the bar for what is acceptable and enabled organizations like NMR and Nya Tider to grow. We want to push back, and we feel that the best way to accomplish that is to address the root cause by exposing the SD for what they really are.

Leading up to September 30, NMR had been negotiating with the police. Their initial request for the march route was denied: they wanted to march through the city center, past the book fair and a synagogue. They were given a shorter and less central route. The Gothenburg city office stepped in and shortened the route even more, so that they were only permitted to walk a few blocks some distance from the city center and the synagogue and book fair.

The terrain.

Two weeks before September 30, 50 people from the NMR appeared unannounced in the Gothenburg city center, marched down the parade street, and gave a few speeches in a city square. The police, who had been tipped off about the action a few days earlier but claimed to have “misplaced” the information, gave the Nazis a police escort. When the news spread, anti-fascists rushed downtown and you could soon hear chants of “Alerta, alerta antifascista!” in the streets. The Nazis were gone by then. To many, this march was a worrying display of their power.

Afterwards, police officials defended the right of Nazis to march without a permit, made it clear that they would not attempt to identify the organizers of the march despite having filed a criminal report, and denied that the Nazis were engaging in hate crimes such as “agitation against an ethnic group.” This is indicative of where the police stand in regard to fascist organizing in Sweden.

The neo-Nazi promotional march in mid-September.

On September 30, IRM met up with our participants, went over our strategy for the day, and then found a good spot to start our little parade. At the same time, the NMR assembled in the parking lot of a supermarket a few kilometers outside of town. They began to walk towards their designated starting point, accompanied by journalists and police.

Then the news came in that the Nazis had attempted to depart from their permitted route to aim for the city center. In response, the police pushed them into a corner near another supermarket and formed a ring around them. When people on the streets of Gothenburg heard about this, they headed for the spot where the Nazis were being delayed and managed to completely block the streets leading into the city from there. This gave the police no option but to hold the Nazis there for the time period that their demonstration permit allowed, then let them make the humiliating walk back to their assembly point. As one Swedish journalist put it, “What was going to be the biggest Nazi march since World War II ended up being a humiliating walk between two supermarkets.”

Swedish police attacking anti-fascist demonstrators on September 30.

A smoke bomb thrown by counter-demonstrators.

While we were a little disappointed that our Nazi-trolling plan could not be fulfilled, we took our group and walked around the city center, much to the amusement of our fellow counter-demonstrators, who spontaneously burst into applause when we arrived. All in all, it was a glorious day. Gothenburg showed that there is no room for Nazis on our streets.

We considered it especially important that a large number of the activists who joined us to protest the Nazis were first-timers. They were a diverse range of people from teenagers to a grey-haired old lady, none of whom had experience taking to the streets. It was encouraging that they chose to join us in this demonstration, against the most violent Nazi organization Sweden has ever seen. We also received countless messages on social media cheering us on and asking when our next activity will be so that others can join in. We feel that this is how anti-fascism should work: it should be a broad movement of all ages, sexes, and religions, coming together to fight, regardless of political affiliations or preferred methods.

We hope that this text can be an inspiration for others to start their own anti-racist or anti-fascist organizations, or to broaden the scopes and approaches of existing ones. The rise of racism and fascism is global, and we need to share ideas and work together to overcome it. No pasarán!

The Opioid Crisis: How White Despair Poses a Threat to People of Color

In dominant American discourse, white people are always the protagonists. Their problems and dilemmas, pleasures and pain, are treated as everyone’s primary concern. Even if you are not included in this narrative, you’re forced to reckon with it. While we anarchists would like to see a world in which no character is a caricature, in which people are not divided by race and only take delight in our differences, we are all currently obliged to pay attention to the problems of white people because, in their pain, they frequently lash out at those they perceive as their enemies. The opioid crisis is a prime example.

In an interview on National Public Radio, author Margaret Talbot describes a scene she witnessed at a softball practice in West Virginia:

“There were a bunch of middle school-age girls sitting on the ground comforting each other and crying, there were two little kids running around crying and screaming, and there were a lot of adults trying to help them and escort them away from the scene because two parents who had come to their daughter’s practice, a man and a woman, had both overdosed simultaneously and were lying on the field about six feet apart and in obvious need of resuscitation. Their two little younger children who had come with them were trying to get them to wake up. So Michael and his colleague were able to revive the parents using Narcan, which is the antidote to opioid overdoses—reverses them. But as is increasingly the case, it took several doses to revive them because they had probably had heroin that was cut with something stronger, possibly fentanyl. And so this was the scene that was witnessed by many people in this community who were at this softball practice on an afternoon in March.”

Some of those adult witnesses, Talbot says, were encouraging the EMTs to let the parents die. This inhumanity is shocking; it’s no mystery why people like the ones in this story are trying to get high. Few people feel like their lives are worth much these days; constant low-level stress over money, family, relationships, social disorder, health, and work are features of everyone’s lives. When you’re poor, and perhaps socially isolated, those things compound. Poverty is only occasionally dramatic or joyful; mostly, it’s crushingly boring and stressful. If you are prescribed pain medication because of an injury or chronic pain, the euphoria and floating freedom may be the best you’ve felt in years. This is how most people now start their opioid addictions.

In the 1990s, US doctors were reconsidering their beliefs about pain. Recognizing the toll that constant, low-level pain can take on the body—much like the effect of poverty upon the spirit—doctors began to prescribe pain medication more freely, believing that being free from pain might speed recovery, as well as being a boon in itself. Pharmaceutical companies told doctors that their latest pain medications were not likely to be addictive.

This claim is true for some—some people can take opioids for a couple of days after surgery and then switch to over-the-counter medicines without a hitch. But opioids hit other people’s brains differently: they experience intense pleasure and comfort, and after a couple of weeks of ease, going off the medication can feel unbearably bleak. So people kept going back for more—and, eventually, word began to circulate about which doctors would freely prescribe pain medications. Some of these offices were the frequently-exposéd, cynically-motivated “pill farms”; others just trusted their patients. Pain is pain, the doctors reasoned, and addiction is not a sin; is it really so bad to prescribe people what they need to feel OK in the world? What is the line between Adderall and speed, Oxycontin and heroin? Only legitimacy. For people who were not comfortable thinking of themselves as criminals, it felt more possible to exaggerate to a doctor than to buy heroin on the corner.

As word spread about the accessibility of these opioid pills, heroin dealers saw their market slipping away. Cartels in Mexico, Guatemala, and other countries took notice, and started producing heroin so pure that it could be cut much more, producing a larger amount of product that could be sold for less. They also began cutting it with different chemicals, which made it far more potent and potentially deadly; and, of course, cutting heroin to sell on the black market is not an exact science.

When the government finally started tightening regulations for prescribing opioids and raiding pill farms, millions of addicts were left desperate, and turned at last to explicitly illegal drugs, which were now more affordable than ever—and far more dangerous. While rates of opioid and heroin addiction are not actually higher than they used to be, the rate of people dying from overdoses has skyrocketed. The doses people are used to taking may be five times as potent as before. Surely no one wants to get high at their kids’ soccer practice: what they want is to feel normal rather than ravenous for a fix, able to cheer their kids on, so they fix a hit before they arrive… but sometimes, instead of enabling them to function, the medicine knocks them out.

The face of white despair: some of the people who passed away in the recent epidemic of overdoses.

It’s obvious that this crisis is receiving very different coverage than the crack epidemic of the 1990s or the heroin epidemic that preceded it in black communities. Those waves of drug use became a pretext for mass incarceration, mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws, permissible racial profiling, and militarized schools, all of which put a disproportionately black and brown population in prison, disenfranchised of voting rights and unable to find legal work once they emerge. These ex-prisoners are therefore unable to exert even the slightest leverage on the government policies that incarcerated them via the traditional political means of voting, lobbying, and cutting deals. They are likely to be forced to break the law to survive, which may mean they return to prison.

A cynical person might speculate that it’s no coincidence drug laws are being reformed precisely when white people are experiencing this crisis. White people have always used drugs, of course, but it has only recently been considered a major problem. Although 33,000 people died from overdosing in 2015, there does not seem to be a corresponding wave of repression directed at that population. The liberal affect about the epidemic is one of intense sadness and loss, as though they are surveying the damage left by a hurricane—something beyond anyone’s control. Conservatives, as usual, have plenty of judgment to offer: users are depicted as trailer trash, judged for the very poverty that may have driven them to use. But there’s often a second note of anger: both impoverished white community members and the politicians they elect are looking for someone else to blame.

It’s no surprise who the scapegoat is. Black and brown people are always blamed for white despair. The same old tired narratives are trotted out: these drugs are coming from south of the border; they’re taking our jobs; their civil unrest is wrecking our communities. White people reminisce about when their towns used to have industry—jobs for lower-class people that supposedly promised a possible way out of poverty or at least allowed them to remain poor in a stable sort of way. Few white people, however, have turned towards radical politics in response to deindustrialization; most of the predominantly white communities that benefit from Medicaid expansion drug treatment still voted for Trump, who promised to repeal Obamacare. This is not entirely bad news, as it suggests people cannot be easily satisfied—they want something wholly different, not just harm reduction—but it is disturbing in light of how Trump’s presidency is likely to continue to affect black and brown people.

All this feels depressingly routine for anyone who has been paying attention to the dominant arc of US history. Ironically, far from being responsible for the problem, many of the migrants coming to the US are fleeing the violence of the cartels responsible for producing these drugs, which are funded by the US citizens who consume their wares, not by the Mexican and Central American migrants fleeing their zones of control.

Sure, narcotics are coming directly from Mexico into North Dakota! Mexicans must be to blame!

Many black people in the 1970s and ’80s fought against police harassment and for black self-determination and community involvement in drug user recovery—and sometimes, unfortunately, for heavier legal penalties and increased police harassment of predominantly black drug users. In contrast, white people seem less eager to take responsibility or demand change along those lines. The self-declared sons of white America feel robbed of their birthright, and they want it back from their black, brown, immigrant, and off-shore brothers… never considering that it could be their own parents who are to blame. Some whites acknowledge that reforming their own behavior is part of the solution to their social problems, but many of them—such as the Proud Boys—aim to do so only in order to glorify and renew the misogynist, racist foundations of “Western civilization.”

There is another way out. In his book, In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Mate reviews studies performed on rats that illumine an alternative solution to the dilemmas of white America. Mate describes how researchers addicted rats to cocaine. Predictably, the rats came back for more cocaine regularly, even feverishly. But when the rats were removed from solitary, clinical surroundings and put in a natural environment in which they could find each other and engage in more interesting activity, the rats, though already addicted, were much less interested in cocaine than in the rest of their lives.

People are not rats, and cocaine is not an opiate, but the implications are clear enough. To put an end to the problem of harmful addictions in our society, we have to make our world livable. This is also a way to understand the anarchist project.

Graffiti in Montréal. The crisis is taking a toll in Canada, too.

As anarchists, we aspire to fight the causes of unhappiness and poverty, to counter the strategies that our oppressors employ to drain us of emotional and material resources that could be employed outside their marketplace. We aim to interrupt the destruction of our world and our relationships and our ability to share. If we love people who are suffering from drug addiction, regardless of their race, we must make the world a more livable place. Let’s create a world no one would want to escape, in which the idea of a drug that would make us feel less alive—or a cellphone or a video game or any other product—is self-evidently undesirable.

This means maintaining cooperative projects to support those fighting to free themselves of addiction—even Alcoholics Anonymous was founded by people reading the anarchist Peter Kropotkin to learn about how groups based in horizontal organizing and mutual aid could address their own needs together. But it also means attacking the foundations of authority in this society. When we fight against the power that capitalism and the state currently possess to determine all the possibilities of our lives, we are also fighting against the causes of addiction, racism, and despair.

Part of this undertaking is refusing to let white people blame other broke people for their difficulties. We have to show clearly who the enemy is and create avenues for finding affinity and solidarity across racial lines while demonstrating the kind of activity that it will take to solve our shared problems. We must refuse to sanction scapegoating, yet simultaneously resist the urge to treat groups of people as monsters—even those who scapegoat. The divisions that racism imposes in our communities are responsible for much of the suffering that white people experience, too—everyone has a stake in abolishing white supremacy as well as the institutions that depend on it to maintain their sway. We must introduce an [anarchist tension] ( into all these ongoing struggles for survival.

When we imagine this task on a global scale, it appears almost impossible. Fortunately, we encounter it broken up into smaller steps every single day.

For a world without despair or the power disparities that cause it.

Democracy, Red in Tooth and Claw: On the Catalan Referendum–The Old State, a New State, or No State at All?

On October 1, during a referendum on Catalan independence, Spanish police attacked crowds of voters, smashed out the windows of schools hosting polling stations, and beat senior citizens at random. In response, a massive general strike took place in Barcelona on October 3. By setting up this opposition between the violence of the Spanish police and the self-organization of Catalan voters, proponents of independence have created the impression that nationalism and democracy offer a solution to state oppression and police violence. In the process, they’ve invested Catalan police and politicians with renewed legitimacy. Yet what if democracy, nationalism, and police violence are not opposing phenomena, but three aspects of same thing? Here, we argue that the way to achieve self-determination is not to create a new state, but to abolish the state as a model for human relations.

Don’t take our word for it, though. Let’s back up and see if there’s any coherent way to resolve this conflict over state sovereignty besides the anarchist model of abolishing all states.

The ones who put out the fires.

Which Side Is Democratic?

Both sides claim to be fighting for democracy. The Spanish police present themselves as the defenders of law and order, while the proponents of Catalan independence say they seek self-determination through elections. These are two different visions of what democracy entails.

Or are they? Let’s look closer.

If democracy simply means being assaulted by police in the name of Constitutions ratified before you were born and laws passed by career politicians, there isn’t much to distinguish it from dictatorship. The fact that the salaries of the officers who beat you are paid with tax money they extort from you just adds insult to injury. The Spanish state needs to legitimize those laws, police, and taxes with democratic elections or else it will be obvious to everyone that their rule rests on force alone. This explains some of the innuendo about how the majority of Catalan people don’t actually want independence.

But the partisans of Catalan independence face a version of the same paradox. What weight will their referendum carry if the result is not implemented via laws, police, and taxes? In calling for an independent Catalan state, they are calling to replicate everything they currently object to in Spanish rule. Catalunya already has its own police and tax collectors, which treat those who resist them just as violently as the Spanish police treated aspiring voters on Sunday.

So it’s not a question of which side is democratic. They both are. The question, rather, is which elections, laws, and police should hold sway—the Spanish ones or the Catalan ones? To answer that question, we have to confront a deeper problem, the question of sovereignty.

The defenders of democracy.

What Makes Elections Legitimate?

Was the referendum on October 1 legitimate? The Catalan government asserts that it was. Meanwhile, Spanish President Rajoy maintains that “a self-determination referendum in Catalonia didn’t happen,” in the longstanding tradition of politicians like Donald Trump who proclaim reality by fiat.

What does it take to make a referendum legitimate? Is it a question of what proportion of the population participates? Or is the important thing whether the vote adheres to an established protocol?

According to the Catalan government, 90 percent of the ballots cast on Sunday were for independence. On the other hand, only 42 percent of registered voters participated in the referendum—2.2 million people out of 5.3 million registered voters. That still seems like a pretty good turnout, considering that 12,000 Spanish police were violently attacking voters all over Catalonia, inflicting nearly 900 documented injuries and surely a great deal more that went unreported. But it still accounts for less than half of the registered voters and considerably less than half the population.

Opponents of Catalan independence boycotted the election. Even if they hadn’t boycotted it, most of them probably wouldn’t have risked being beaten by Spanish police in order to vote for those police to continue to wield authority. It is entirely possible that the majority of the residents of Catalunya don’t want independence, regardless of the results of the referendum.

On the other hand, for reference, no Presidential election in US history has ever included more than 43% of the total population. Countless people have boycotted the US elections without that dissuading those who rule from Washington, DC. If we decide the Catalan referendum wasn’t representative enough, we should probably reject the legitimacy of every US Presidential election as well.

Others argue that what makes an election legitimate is not what proportion of the population participates, but whether it takes place according to proper protocol. This argument is most popular with the extreme center, the sort of people who are sticklers for the rules regardless of what the rules are or who wrote them. Before we buy into this argument, let’s recall that it was protocol that kept women and people of color from participating in elections for the first century and a half of US democracy, just as the current rules still serve to prevent many people of color from voting today. Adherence to protocol is no guarantee of inclusion or egalitarianism.

But the real problem with relying on protocol is that it returns us to the problem of sovereignty. If two different governments establish two different sets of rules, how do we determine which is legitimate? Every existing government came to power by rejecting the authority of its predecessor. We can’t simply do whatever the authorities tell us; we have to make our own decisions about what is right.

Catalan demonstrators—and Catalan police.

The Problem of Sovereignty—Democracy, Nationalism, and War

What should determine which polity people belong to? Nations generally determine this according to place of birth or parentage. The former approach perpetuates the feudal system; the latter makes nationality a kind of caste system. Neither of these models is “democratic” in the sense of guaranteeing everyone equal rights and participation in society. They also don’t offer any guidance as to what we should do when competing polities both demand our fealty, as will occur in Catalunya if this conflict intensifies.

Should the answer to this question be determined by majority rule? There are many problems with that approach. For example, it doesn’t address the question of scale. Partisans of independence comprise the majority of the population of Barcelona—does that mean they should be able to force their agenda on the minority that opposes it? Catalans comprise a minority within the Spanish state—does that mean Spain should be able to force them to remain Spanish subjects? Spain comprises a minority within the European Union, which itself is a minority within the United Nations. Should world politics simply be a matter of ever bigger majorities forcing decisions on minorities?

Nationalism has developed as a response to this quandary. Understanding the question of sovereignty as a competition to amass majorities at all costs, people form blocs on the basis of superficial similarities such as ethnicity, language, religion, and citizenship. These blocs contend for control within each state and in conflicts between states. This struggle takes place nonviolently as democracy and violently as war—wherever you find democracy, war is never far away.

There are two grievous problems with this approach. First, it exacerbates internal hierarchies; second, it imposes conformity and the struggle to dominate others as the dual basis of all relations. In practice, nationalism means being oppressed and exploited by people of your own ethnicity, language, religion, or citizenship. To defend ourselves against those who aim to rule us, we have to join forces across the boundaries of identity, forming common cause on the basis of shared aspirations for freedom and peaceful coexistence. Nationalists promise to deliver self-determination on the basis of shared identities, but true self-determination demands symbiotic relationships that transcend identity.

The principle of majority rule itself is the problem. On the one hand, the theory of majority rule suggests that we are obligated to accept whatever the majority desire, prescribing a complete abdication of ethical responsibility. On the other hand, the practice of majority rule tacitly implements the principle that might makes right, reducing all relations to cutthroat competition.

Because majority rule is the foundation of democracy, we should not be surprised when democracy serves to legitimize and mobilize the violence of the state, in turn provoking rival states to do the same thing in response. This is the dual risk posed by the independence movement in Catalunya: it could establish a new state just as oppressive as the previous one, but more difficult to question on account of appearing more representative—and it could trigger open hostilities between entrenched state actors who become incapable of imagining each other as anything other than enemies. The latter scenario appears very unlikely for now, but we are not the only ones to speculate that as economic and ecological crises intensify, the Syrian civil war will become a more common template for the politics of the future than the social democracies of the 20th century.

Beware the tides of nationalism.

Anarchist Alternatives

Anarchists have long sought a way out of the traps of nationalism and democracy.

In place of citizenship, that holdover of feudalism and the caste system, we propose voluntary associations that do not claim exclusive control of populations or places. In place of nationalism, we propose mutual aid across all lines of identity. In place of the state, we propose true self-determination on a decentralized basis. In place of democracy, the principle of majority rule, we propose the principles of horizontality and autonomy. In place of the wars that nationalism and democracy always foment, we propose solidarity and transformative justice.

What could this mean in Catalunya today, where partisans of Spanish sovereignty clash with partisans of Catalan independence? Our answer is utopian, but it offers a point of departure to imagine what we could aim to accomplish in our social movements besides setting up new state structures.

Let Spain be a voluntary association comprised of everyone in every land who identifies with it, and let Catalunya be another such voluntary association among a thousand more. Let all of these associations coexist on the condition that none seeks to rule the others or deprive them of resources. Let each association set out to create commons rather than to amass private wealth, and let all join forces to defend themselves whenever anything threatens these commons or the liberty of the participants.

In this vision, each person could participate in as many different associations as she saw fit. Each association would function as an experiment in collective creativity, shaped alternately by consensus-based decision-making and by the spontaneous interplay of the participants’ self-directed activities. In place of the cutthroat competition of capitalism and statecraft, each of these associations would strive to offer the most fulfilling model for cooperative human relations. A process of natural selection would reward the most generous and nourishing projects rather than the most selfish and brutal, without reducing them to a lowest common denominator or imposing competition as a winner-take-all zero-sum game.

This vision predates the anarchist movement; it has antecedents in a variety of indigenous societies and federations. It is already the model via which anarchists in Barcelona and elsewhere around the world organize themselves in networks of assemblies, social centers, organizations, and affinity groups. Even if we can’t implement this vision on the scale of a region or a continent yet, we can act according to its logic, building networks of mutual aid and standing up to tyranny wherever we encounter it.

From this vantage point, we can see that when police attack people attempting to utilize voting booths, anarchists should intercede—not to defend the voting booths, but to protect people from police. We should make it clear that winning referendums will not bring us closer to the world of our dreams—the important thing is to develop the capacity to create the relations we desire on an immediate basis. At the same time, we have to make clear everything that connects the Catalan police to the Spanish police and other police the whole world over. We have seen the Catalan police attack demonstrations over and over, the same way the Spanish police did on Sunday. If they provoke less outrage when they attack migrants, workers, and anarchists than when they attack voters, that only shows us how far we have to go.

Anarchists on the Catalan Referendum: Three Perspectives from the Streets

On Sunday, October 1, the Catalan government held a referendum about Catalan independence from Spain in flagrant defiance of the Spanish government. Massive open clashes between Catalan voters and Spanish police took place throughout the region. A general strike is called for October 3 as a showdown looms between rival politicians and, perhaps, rival states. This situation poses complex challenges: how do anarchists show solidarity to partisans of Catalan independence against police repression without legitimizing nationalism, democracy, or a new Catalan state and its police? We spoke with several anarchists throughout the region and translated these three reports to offer insight into how Catalan anarchists are approaching these questions.

The Mossos d’Esquadra (Catalan police) announced that the polling locations would be closed or evicted by 6 am Sunday morning. This can be understood as a way to to encourage people to turn out to protect the voting centers. The Guardia Civil and riot police of the Policia Nacional (Spanish police) had been ferried into Catalunya on cruise ships and accommodated at hotels. They began evicting voting centers early in the morning, inflicting at least 844 documented injuries across Catalunya. Over a hundred people were hospitalized, some in serious condition. The actual number of injuries may be considerably higher. In one instance, an old man had a heart attack after a police charge; police attacked again as people were trying to revive him. Another was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet.

Farmers blocked the streets from the Port of Barcelona to prevent more Spanish Guardia Civil from exiting their cruise ships.

First Perspective: An Overview

Yesterday, October 1, the referendum for Catalan independence took place in the middle of an enormous police operation. The government in Madrid threatened to close the places where voting was going to take place; in order to prevent that, people occupied those spaces two days ahead of time, including half of the high schools in all of Catalunya. In some towns, people even took off the doors so that they could not be closed to lock out potential voters.

People came together starting at 6 am to protect the ballot boxes, while police showed up outside at many polling stations to remove them. The watchword of the day was to defend the ballot boxes nonviolently and within this framework were seen many diverse shows of spontaneity: tractors blocking roads, people running and organizing themselves to make sure that all of the points where police could go were covered. In some towns, the police were stopped with barricades. One highlight for me is that in the town of Sant Carles de la Rapita, the Guardia Civil were forced back with a hail of stones.


In thousands of towns, people opposed the police. It’s difficult to know how far self-organization reached, although in the big cities, most people drank the Kool-Aid of nonviolence and let themselves be beaten. This created some surreal situations: police beating people who wanted to vote and confiscating ballot boxes in order to “defend democracy,” firefighters forming security cordons to protect voters from police, confrontations between Spanish and Catalan police. All this generated sympathy from the people towards the Catalan police (who are known for being real motherfuckers), to such an extent that people applauded when they saw the Catalan police vans pass by. It was Kafkaesque.

At the end of the day, President Rajoy was pleased with the actions of the police and affirmed that in Catalonia “there had been no referendum.” On the other side, Puigdemont, the Catalan President, said that Catalonia would apply the referendum law according to which they must proclaim the new Catalan Republic in the days following the referendum, and appealed to European and international heads of state to mediate the process.

Catalan firefighters showed up to act as a barrier between the Guardia Civil and those trying to access polling places.

Spanish police beating Catalan firefighters.

There is no single anarchist position on all of this. All anarchists reject institutional politics, bourgeois nationalism, and class collaboration, and we will never applaud the Catalan police. At times, the situation is not inviting to anarchist participation. Even so, there are many who affirm that where they live, they find themselves on the side of those who decided to take the streets. What anarchist can stay indoors while police threaten and beat people who desire to have more of a say in their lives? It is tempting to want to break up the Spanish state or, if not to destroy it, at least to debilitate it through a popular struggle. And when people are in the streets, this presents the possibility that things might overflow, exceeding their limits… although at the moment, this is difficult, since it is politicians who hold the initiative.

Anarchist and antiauthoritarian organizations and unions and independent unions have called for a general strike on October 3. Yesterday, at the eleventh hour, the CCOO and the UGT (the “fire-extinguishing” unions that re-absorb and domesticate popular struggles) and the ANC along with the Omnium Cultural (the organizations that articulate bourgeois nationalism in its purest form) joined the call for the general strike.

Visca la terra lliure de patriotismes! Here’s to an earth free of patriotism!

Guardia Civil raided over 300 of the 2300 polling places around Catalonia.

Guardia Civil raiding a polling station.

Second Perspective: Mixed Feelings

I’m writing this to you just after getting out of an assembly because tomorrow there will be a general strike in Catalunya. Actually, they don’t consider it a strike, more like a work stoppage. From the neighborhoods, people are organizing piquetes [blockades] and some demonstrations. These have been tireless days, filled to the top. I’m guessing you have seen the images of the day’s events on October 1, which were really, really crazy.

Anarchists have showed up late and ill-prepared for the independence process. For five years, the proposal for independence has been gestating, from both the Generalitat (the Catalan government) and leftist, independentist Catalan political parties like the CUP. Anarchist and anti-authoritarian movements haven’t really kept up with the movement for an independence referendum. So this whole thing has caught us almost by surprise, which doesn’t put us in a good light, considering that it’s been going on for five years. Often, we live in our own bubble while the world changes and forces build without us realizing it.

Starting some months ago, various neighbors, including some who belong to the (independentista) National Assembly, others to the CUP party, and other people who are closer to the independentista movement all started to organize themselves into committees in defense of the referendum. Spanish censorship was ramping up ahead of the vote, and the state was taking measures to control what appeared on the internet, especially in the moments right before the referendum.

Through these neighborhood defense committees, people organized assemblies that are not controlled by the (indepedentista) National Assembly, nor by the Catalan government, which is the driving force behind the referendum. There have been tensions between representatives from the National Assembly, the government, and the neighborhood assemblies because the assemblies questioned instructions from the Catalan government about how to defend their towns. In the days leading up to the referendum on October 1, there was a lot of nervousness on the part of the government because there were many parts of the independentista movement that they couldn’t really control. In the end, the neighborhood assemblies were responsible for much of the logistics of what happened on voting day, determining how people organized themselves and how they defended the polling stations.

The violence of the Spanish police.

Anarchists hadn’t thought about what to do in relation to this movement until the referendum was approaching and the Spanish state began to crack down on civil liberties. Faced with the censorship imposed by the state, a large number of anarchist groups from different parts of Barcelona, who have already been organized in their own neighborhood assemblies and social centers, decided to give support to the local independentista movements.

Within the anarchist movement, there are people who support the referendum itself, and also people who don’t. Independentist people are demanding basic democratic rights and civil liberties, such as the right to vote, and some anarchists believe that anarchists should be out there with them. There are also people involved in the independence movement who we lost track of years ago when the political parties like CUP and Podemos that gained momentum after the 15M movement in 2011 institutionalized the energy from the streets. Now, with the referendum, people are returning to the streets, so we decided it was an important moment for us to be out there too. But this has created a good deal of debate within and between anarchist collectives, because we are definitely not coming from the same place politically as many of the independentistas.

For us, it has been really complicated. For me personally, sure, I hold contradictory positions all the time, like supporting certain reformist campaigns or engaging with single issue movements… but to defend a democratic process towards national independence… it’s very hard to figure out where I stand. Many of the comrades in our neighborhood are trying to figure it out too.

We have been organizing ourselves and coordinating with independentista groups that have been active in the neighborhood. We attended some assemblies and announced that on the day of the referendum, we would open up our social center as an info-point with food and outlets for charging cellphones, a place where you could rest up and get hydrated. This was also a way of suggesting to people who believed in self-determination, albeit through statist means, that there are other ways to take direct control over our lives, in these spaces at the margins of society.

So yes, we decided to lend our support. Yesterday was the day of the vote, and there was no other topic either on the news or in discussions on the street. It was the only subject of conversation.

Anarchist graffiti in Barcelona, September 2017.

On the street where I live, there were two polling stations. Starting at 5 am, we went out onto the street and erected barricades. Catalan police came to tell us we weren’t allowed to do that. Then they marched, and from 8 am the whole voting thing commenced. There were so many people out. Honestly, it was difficult not to get swept up in what was happening—lots of elderly people, lots of excited people. On one hand, it was really exciting; on the other hand, it was a bit ridiculous, in that the independentista voters were acting like they were doing the most clandestine, badass thing in the world.

I’m sure everyone has already seen the scenes of violence showing the Policia Nacional and the Guardia Civil in high schools in Barcelona and other towns around Catalunya. We heard that the Policia Nacional were deployed close to where we were. Things intensified from there and that lasted the whole day.

Many Catalan anarchists have voted. I voted too. The truth is it was difficult not let yourself get carried away by the moment.

More police violence.

As for an anarchist analysis of what’s going on…

Many of us went home yesterday very annoyed because we had a lot of differences with what was happening. About two weeks ago, the anarchist collective here in my neighborhood had a discussion about whether or not to defend the process of national “self-determination.” There were many people close to us, with whom we share a lot of political affinity, who said it was better to struggle against the institutions of a Catalan state because it would be a smaller state. Many people also supported the process in hopes of destabilizing the Spanish state because at the moment the Spanish state is very weakened. It’s a moment that could tip either way.

Personally, I don’t like either of the options. We can’t lose track of where we stand as anarchists. I think we should be supporting people in the streets, but I truly believe the worst thing that could happen to us would be if a Catalan state gained independence. In the end, it’s just a way to legitimize the social and political exclusions that exist today to believe that we’d have more control over them in a smaller state. But it’s hard for people to see a Catalan state as something other than their own, especially after struggling for years to achieve it.

While people went out to vote impassioned to the point of tears, several police murders have taken place in Barcelona in the last several months without any response. Meanwhile, thanks to the referendum process, the Mossos d’Esquadra have gotten a PR makeover as the good guys; until this, they always received negative press coverage. The Policia Nacional (Spanish police) have practically tortured people, leaving many with visible injuries. On the good side, they’ve turned public opinion against them. So the militarized Policia Nacional now look very dirty, and the Mossos de Escuadra seem more “clean”—although their current “clean” image just means they will be able to utilize this legitimacy to employ violence with fewer obstacles.

I believe we have to acknowledge the disobedience of the Catalan people, their confrontation with the police, and the resistance that they’ve demonstrated. It has been incredible. Like I’ve mentioned, the anarchist movement has arrived late and ill-prepared to a process that has been gestating for five years already. We can’t expect to do the work of years in just a couple weeks. Carving out our own space is difficult and we have to take a humble approach to it.

The people of Catalunya against the police of Spain.

Spanish nationalists sending off the Guardia Civil on their trip to Catalunya.

Third Perspective: Some Analysis

The point isn’t to help build a new state, but rather to demonstrate through practice that self-organization, networks of mutual aid, and assemblies are the real alternative to the Spanish state, and through this we find each other, some of us being anarchists, but many others too. What is clear is that the struggle against statist hierarchies is not on its way out: it simply continues in a different context. If a Catalan state comes to exist, we will maintain our opposition to the state from the very same networks with our own practices, our own communities, our own economies of mutual aid.

My enemy continues to be capitalism, the military, the clergy, the farcical politicians and bankers. Anarchists don’t stop being anarchists just because they express solidarity with people facing retaliation from the state. I know perfectly well what happened in 19371 and that we must not abandon our memory of the previous times we were betrayed by statists, but we also must oppose current state repression—or else will we simply stay put, watching? Our struggle is to be present in the streets to offer our vision and denounce the violence of the state, whether it be Spanish, Catalan, or Chinese!

We must learn about what happened in the past, when anarchists were betrayed. We should try to make sure it doesn’t happen again, which is to say, we should foment a consensus among anarchists and anti-authoritarians for when this situation is over, when we will continue building self-organization. I, at least, for many years now, have been working for this 24/7, and whatever happens I will continue doing it as I’ve done every day.

Anarchism is not a dogma, neither is it a religion. It is a form of life, a way of feeling and acting as a human in harmony with the earth. Every era has its context, and it’s true that those who believe in the state have betrayed us before, but we forget that without us, they won’t change either! We will continue influencing society despite ourselves.

The Anarcho-Independentista current is criticized by comrades who are more “orthodox” or dogmatic, depending on how you see them. There are some who support the idea of independence without a state. It’s not a majoritarian position, but I consider it a valid one. For a long time, anarchists have not focused attention on the subject of independence. Now this issue has served to inspire debate and discussion; we disagree with each other, but we try to come to some consensus.

I don’t know if we ought to vote or not, but I do know that the Spanish government is getting more fascist by the day. It’s not that it surprises me, in any case I am against a government that approves the slogan “better bloody than broken,” referring to the Iberian peninsula and so-called Spain, which already indicates how old this subject is—something that has been going on for centuries.

#Jo també soc anarquista.

People applauding the Catalan police.

As for which anarchist organizations have taken positions on this issue…

The CGT has called for a general strike in Catalonia which will be supported by the CNT-AIT, the historic organization that nowadays is much smaller than the CGT, an anarcho-syndicalist union that is more “open” and participates in union elections, with over 25,000 members in Catalunya. The CNT-AIT, sadly, does not represent even a 25th of this amount. The other CNT has a very hard split with the Independentistas and is against anarco-independentistas.

The Cooperativa Integral Catalana, despite not being a specifically libertarian (i.e. anti-authoritarian) organization, has many members who are activists. Their structure is horizontal, based in non-hierarchical assemblies, and they make decisions by consensus. It’s dedicated to building self-organized economic networks and protecting small non-hierarchical projects in Catalunya. They are supporting the strike.

Oca Negra and Proces Embat are anarco-independentista organizations that organize with the CGT in some aspects of the struggle.

The Federació Anarquista de Catalunya is another relatively new organization with a position in favor of celebration of the referendum.

Further Reading

1O: El Poble i les Seves Gàbies: an anarchist analysis in Catalan, speculatively exploring possible scenarios in the independence referendum, that appeared on September 20.

Fire Extinguishers and Fire Starters: An Anarchist Analysis of the 15M Movement of 2011

The Rose of Fire Has Returned: The General Strike of March 29, 2012

After the Crest: Barcelona Anarchists at Low Tide, an analysis from 2013

From 15M to Podemos: The Regeneration of Spanish Democracy

  1. Here we refer to the situation created by the ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia), the Catalan State, and the PSU (Communist Party) in 1937 in the middle of open revolution and civil war. They were determined to annihilate anarchists and wipe out their important contributions to the collectivization of farms and workplaces and to the struggle against the fascist reaction led by Franco. They forcibly integrated anarchist militias into the state military. There were fierce confrontations between the Stalinists and the anarchist CNT-FAI, who had the support of non-authoritarian communists of the POUM. This produced numerous armed confrontations between both sides. Let’s just say that many comrades remember this and don’t want to have anything to do with the contemporary ERC, even less with the Catalan Democratic Party (PD Cat), nor with the CUP, although this last party seems to harbor certain libertarian tendencies in its ranks. 

The Rise of Neo-Fascism in Germany: Alternative für Deutschland Enters the Parliament

Last week’s elections in Germany brought the ultra-nationalist, neo-fascist, and partly neo-Nazi party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) into the German parliament for the first time with approximately 13% of the vote. They join the far-right parties that have significant political power in over a dozen other European countries. Why is the far-right gaining ground in German politics? And what can partisans of freedom and equality do to halt their advance?

From 1933 to 2017, democracy has offered fascists a road to power in Germany.

The victory of the AfD is just the latest consequence of a process that has been unfolding over several years. We can situate them in the continuity of fascist political activity in Germany since 1945. Starting in 2014 with the rise of far-right street movements like Pegida, an acronym for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West,” a large part of German society has moved towards reactionary positions.

This was part of the global wave of reaction beginning that year in the wake of revolutionary upheavals from Greece and Egypt to Spain, Turkey, and Brazil, including the Occupy movement in the US. After the window of revolutionary potential closed, the far right struck back, taking advantage of the unresolved crises to rally people against scapegoats—for example, fomenting anti-immigrant resentment in response to the waves of refugees arriving from economic disaster areas and war zones in Central America, North Africa, and the Middle East. Nationalists took the lead in political conflicts like the Ukrainian revolution and won a series of electoral victories culminating in the election of Donald Trump. When we fail to solve the problems generated by capitalism and colonialist war, this leaves the field of social change to proponents of tyranny and oppression.

Germany has remained an island of the 20th-century prosperity and social democracy, benefiting economically from the crises in southern Europe and the developing world. Yet here, too, society has been slowly and steadily polarizing. In July, massive riots took place in response to the G20 summit in Hamburg, despite the efforts of over 31,000 officers to impose a police state. The right wing has taken advantage of this to call for even more repressive policing.

An AfD demonstration.

But the shift to the right is part of a deeper process taking place around Europe and the US: the AfD was gaining ground alongside PEGIDA long before the G20. Not coincidentally, the rate of fascist attacks has also increased tremendously since 2014.

AfD started as a party combining market-liberal ideas with a strong nationalist wing. Founded in part by elite conservatives who opposed Germany’s financial bailout of Greece, the party has always sought to turn Germany into a gated community; the identity of the outsiders that nationalists promise to protect against always shifts according to convenience. Over the past few years, the ultra-nationalist right wing, the so-called Kyffhäuser Flügel, gained more and more control over the party, shaping it into a neo-fascist project. The cooperation between AfD with neo-Nazi movements like “Die Identitären” is well-documented.

On the left, the density of foreign residents; on the right, the proportion of votes cast for the AfD.

The AfD won the greatest gains in former East Germany, where almost no refugees have been resettled. People are always most afraid of that which they have not themselves experienced. Neoliberal capitalism has taken a toll on many communities in East Germany, drawing away the youngest and most ambitious parts of the population, but many AfD voters are disproportionately wealthy. The AfD victory is not simply a reaction to economic hardship, but rather a case of demagogues manipulating fearful, bigoted populations for their own gain.

Even before this election, AfD was already pushing German politics in an authoritarian direction from their position within the regional governments. For example, they asked several dozen times for the government to ban, which was finally executed by the conservative minister of internal affairs. They also shifted the frame of what is acceptable to say in a political context in Germany, breaking down social taboos against expressing openly racist, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic ideas.

Fascist member of AfD, Björn Höcke.

The political parties of the German establishment have been caught flat-footed by the rise of PEGIDA and the AfD. Sarah Wagenknecht, spokesperson of the left-wing Die Linke party, even expressed some sympathy for them. During the so-called refugee crisis, the AfD helped shift the government from a more liberal approach towards a more reactionary position.

The AfD bears some similarities to the so-called alt-right movement in the US. Members of AfD have gone to great lengths to appropriate the discourse of “free speech” to legitimize fascist organizing. Both movements aim to normalize racist and fascist discourse in order to push society towards totalitarianism and smooth the way for neo-Nazis to take state power. All sorts of “democratic” groups and structures that do not share the goals of the AfD have offered them platforms to spread their ideas in the name of “dialogue.” Yet if they gain power, neither the “alt-right” nor the AfD will have any more use for “free speech”—this much is clear.

Graffiti offering a helpful clarification about the AfD.

In the beginning, anti-fascists weren’t sure how to respond to the AfD. Some hesitated to attack them, as they did not appear to be old-fashioned street-based neo-Nazis but “ordinary concerned citizens.” Over the past year, however, it has become clear that this is a neo-fascist mass movement. In response, anti-fascists have carried out more and more actions to openly interfere with their organizing. Immediately after the elections, protests against the AfD took place in Berlin and many other cities. In Berlin, in an attack reminiscent of the fascist murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville last August, a cab full of AfD members drove into some protestors, injuring two of them.

We have to stop thinking of members of the AfD as lunatics and take them seriously along with the threat that they pose. Immediately after the elections, some AfD supporters went to a building housing refugees, screaming that they would burn it down and waving AfD flags. Meanwhile, in parliament, they are planning their next attacks on emancipatory movements.

Fascist Beatrix von Storch, one of the AfD’s most prominent members and a lawmaker in the European parliament, who argued that police should be allowed to shoot migrant women with children, after being hit in the face with a pie during an AfD meeting.

Some anti-fascists have feared that in resisting far-right parties, we could drive more right-wing conservatives into supporting them. But fascists are not created by opposition to fascism—they are the result of successful fascist recruiting. We should seek to alienate people from the far right by all means—for example, by excluding AfD members from all public events, including family gatherings, bars, and concerts. It should not be possible for them to create the impression that they receive tacit support from the rest of the population, nor to cultivate an air of political and social legitimacy.

In some German cities, such as Flensburg, the AfD have been unable find locations to host their events, and when they have organized public activities there has been so much resistance that these could only take place due to a major police presence. Where the AfD has met with powerful street resistance, they have not been able to increase their percentage of the vote as significantly. This may simply be correlation, rather than causation, but no one joins a fascist party to be a victim. When participating in fascist activity fails to help them achieve their goals or give them an outlet for their agency, we can hope that they will ultimately focus on other things.

Nationalism is no alternative: a design promoting sabotage targeting the vehicles of neo-Nazis.

The struggle against fascism can only be won in the streets, in society as a whole, not in the voting booth. As parties like the AfD gain momentum all around the world, we have to step up to fight them while also working to create genuinely liberating solutions for all the problems created by capitalism and other forms of hierarchy. From Germany to the United States—good luck, comrades.

The Spiral of Police Violence: A Work of Art Criticism

It has recently come to light that over 31,000 police officers were on duty in Hamburg during last summer’s G20 summit. Of all the footage taken that week, one photograph truly captures the spirit and quality of policing during the G20. What is it about this picture that fascinates us? In this essay, our arts desk editor analyzes the image, illuminating what makes it so strangely compelling.

The eye begins with the circle of the bicycle wheel. A circle is not a spiral. In the wheel, all spokes exist in perfect tension, extending toward a perimeter that can only go around and around. Circles fascinate us because they are perfect in exactly the way life is not: they are static, endless, utterly smooth. A circle is a closed system. A spiral is a system of dynamic movement. The Fibonacci spiral depicts the mathematical ratios that the growth of cells, the dispersion of sunflower seeds, and the eddies of water in tide pools all have in common. These ratios order the branching of trees, the fruitlets of a pineapple, the flowering of artichoke, an uncurling fern, the family tree of honeybees. They are the first words of the story of all life on Earth. When we lay the Fibonacci spiral across this photograph, the visual rhythms that convey the narrative snap into place.

Above the static circles of the bicycle, our story begins: colorful graffiti, a metal fence supplementing a low stone wall. Above the wall, a procession of police officers tumbles as though blown by an invisible wind. The first to pass over the wall is hunched like a bear, pinned to the sky like a constellation. Even as he rises he is falling: his muscles are limp and he faces the earth as if held by an invisible hook. We can’t tell how much of this motion is voluntary—is he leaping or being pushed?

The officer behind him remains a mystery. Upright and mostly hidden, he occupies a different world. For convenience, we can call this the past.

Moving forward, the eye meets two more foot soldiers of the state. We’ve reached the top of the spiral, where a strong vertical line bisects these figures—one jumping with arm upraised, the other with fingertips reaching earthward. Like combatants in a Brueghel painting, these figures are fixed in awkward and chaotic gestures. We can almost imagine them as one person duplicated at different moments along this cartwheel, then splitting off toward two possible futures.

In the first of these, the jumping police officer lands on his feet and staggers off into the upper right of the frame—the quadrant with people and buildings and pleasant lawns. Here, the birds sing and life is still ordinary. The posture of this staggering figure is familiar to us from zombie films. He lurches toward the bucolic scene. This is a horror movie: the thing that does not feel pain, that will never stop pursuing its quarry. This reading is borne out by the figure of the last officer we see on this trajectory: his foot hovers over a person curled into a fetal position on the ground. This last officer has escaped the pull of the spiral and has broken into a run. In this future, the monsters win.

To see the other possible future, we return to the climax of the spiral, where fate splits along the vertical line. This time, we begin with the falling cop, the one stretching out his arms as though he might dive into the earth, as if seeking forgiveness or escape. There are two ways we can move from here: we can follow the long arc of the spiral—through the running officer and down back to the ground—or plummet straight down. Either way, we arrive at the tangle of fallen police near the bottom of the image, at the center of the spiral.

Here, an officer lies face down with his hands trapped beneath him, one leg splayed upward in abandon. Another rests his helmeted head tenderly on the first one’s ankle as if curling up to sleep. The spiral tightens, reaching its apotheosis in the crook of the other officer’s elbow. We can imagine this elbow as the place a weapon might be cradled, or the frail neck of an arrestee. But here, this hollow is empty. The posture of the prostrate officer mimics the vulnerability of every person ever held to the ground by the police.

We cannot see the force that fixes the officers in place, but we can try to name it. The spiral gives us the clues we need, representing the dynamic growth of all life, order without domination, the possibility of any future.

If Orwell warned of a future in which a boot stomps on a human face forever, this photograph offers a glimpse of an alternate future: a Fibonacci spiral of police falling and being pinned by their own inelegance, into eternity. In this light, we might imagine their leap over the fence as a joyous act of self-annihilation, born of a desperate desire to render themselves harmless. Like Antaeus in reverse, these officers lose their strength in the earth’s embrace, and that is their salvation.

For Further Reference

DON’T TRY TO BREAK US–WE’LL EXPLODE: The 2017 G20 and the Battle of Hamburg

The Ex-Worker podcast, episode #57: Reports from the G20 in Hamburg

Around the Clock Coverage of Resistance to the G20 in Hamburg

“Dear Citizens, This Is Your Police”: In Praise of the Police-Free Zone in Hamburg

“Solidarity with the Police”: Debunking Excuses for State Violence in Hamburg

A zine version of “Don’t Try to Break Us—We’ll Explode” is available here.

The Student Movement in Chile: From Dictatorship to Democracy, the Flame of Revolt

Forty-four years ago today, on September 11, 1973, a military dictatorship seized power in Chile via a CIA-sponsored coup. They murdered thousands of people without trial, tortured tens of thousands, and forced hundreds of thousands into exile in a series of atrocities that some Trump supporters openly fantasize about carrying out in the US. Today, the legacy of the dictatorship persists in the laws it passed and the cutthroat neoliberal policies it introduced, but also in the repressive policing apparatus that serves democracy the same way it served a dictator. And something else persists: a powerful resistance movement. In the latest installment of our series on student organizing, we interviewed an anarchist participant in the Chilean student movement, in hopes of offering a little perspective on what student struggles look like outside the US.

Answers courtesy of Samuel Cactus

Chilean youth in revolt.


Students winning against militarized riot police.

Please trace the origins of anarchist participation in the contemporary student movement in Chile.

Anarchism boomed in Chile during the first two decades of the 20th century. In large part, the workers’ movement spread this ideological current through strikes such as the longshoremen’s strike in 1903, the meatpackers’ strike in 1905, and the famous miners’ strike of 1907 in Iquique. Anarchism began to decline during the 1930s due to the rise of Marxism on one hand and the rise of fascism on the other, while parts of the Left became more and more institutionalized and integrated into the bourgeois electoral system. Over the following decades, anarchism diminished in the workers’ movement until, by the time of the dictatorship (1973-1990), it had become a minority position, more readily found in small circles of intellectuals.

In the 1990s, anarchism began its rebirth in Chile alongside the emerging punk scene and the participation of encapuchados (masked ones) in university protests and street demonstrations. By this time, anarchism was no longer anchored to the workers’ movement; it was being reborn as a part of the counterculture in the streets, squats, high schools, universities, and other informal spaces, among the generations that came of age during the dictatorship while listening to bands like La Polla Records, Los Miserables, Fiskales Ad-Hok, Ska-P, and the like.

There was also the influence of the latter generations of combatant youth during the 1980s. By that time, young people had learned a lot about street combat in the course of resisting the dictatorship, although ideologically this often did not extend beyond opposition to the police. The influence of the heterodox Marxist guerrilla organization MAPU-Lautaro, for example, and the decline of more traditional armed Marxist groups like the FPMR (Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front, the guerrilla wing of the Communist Party) and the MIR (the Revolutionary Left Movement) created a situation in which armed struggle was no longer centralized in the hands of groups that aspired to seize state power. As centralized groups declined, minoritarian groups and positions appeared that organized horizontally and practiced a low level of defensive violence.

This set the stage for the new generation of encapuchados that had been born in the 1990s to advance a new position and new kinds of action in the massive explosion of protest in high schools in 2006.

A high-school student assembly.

“The mask is the face of the people.”

The first protests against university tuition hikes under President Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) had begun to pick up steam in 2004. In 2006, the so-called “Penguin Revolution” broke out. This was the first awakening of students on a massive scale since the protests that took place in the 1980s under the dictatorship. This time, it was a generation that hadn’t lived under the dictatorship, a generation that grew up under democracy yet realized that the ghost of Pinochet was still present—that we were living under the normative framework imposed by Pinochet’s military government and their civil technocrats. We still are today.

At that time, in 2006, the Organic Constitutional Law on Education (LOCE) created under the dictatorship was still in place. It secured a precarious education for the poor and a luxury education for the rich, creating a brutal class divide that manifested itself in the scores on university selection exams. At the same time, Santiago was wracked by generalized discontent generated by the introduction of a new urban bus system (“transantiago”)—a total disaster that had grave consequences for those who had to commute through the modern and bourgeois parts of Santiago.

Graffiti on campus reading “Against all authority.”

Campus autonomy in action.

Throughout the whole process of student rebellion, the question of the legitimacy of violence as a means of political expression came to the fore. The different responses to that question capture all the different positions you could find in this ideologically heterogeneous movement. A new generation of anarchist and Marxist youth differentiated themselves in those debates, emerging in the student protests and the traditional annual demonstrations of May 1 and September 11.

Violence has always been controversial as a method of struggle, but the contradictions within the current student movement center around this question. To put this in historical context, we can contrast these contradictions to the debates of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. In the 1970s, the chief conflict in both the workers’ and students’ movements was about the dichotomy of reform versus revolution—for example, the MIR invoking the need for armed struggle versus the democratic reformism of the Community Party (PC). In 21st century protests in Chile, by contrast, the groups that utilize violence don’t just confront the police—they oppose every structure that centralizes political, religious, economic, or social power. This is why demonstrators sometimes target banks, pharmacies, governmental buildings, churches, fast food chains, and the like.

This is the consequence of the transformation from the dictatorship to the current model of Chilean society. Demonstrators are no longer simply arguing over whether reform or revolution is the best way to abolish the dictatorship. The tension between those who utilize violence against state power and property and those who seek to express themselves through the established legal channels is much more complicated.

One of the reasons for this is that social protest in Chile in the 21st century is heterogeneous and diverse. Many political tendencies cannot even agree on what it is they are disagreeing about. You have reformist sectors like the Communist Party, Revolucion Democratica, older groups like the MIR, and the whole institutionalized Left involved in the game of bourgeois electoralism; then there are Trotskyists of all kinds—Guevarists, old school Marxist-Leninists, neo-Marxists; and finally, there are all kinds of anarchists, including insurrectionary anarchists, individualists, anarcho-communists, anarcho-syndicalists, anarcho-punks, and nihilists. This makes contemporary social protest in Chile complex. Yet with respect to violence, certain polarities emerge. In the moments of confrontation, two positions arise concerning these acts: those who support encapuchado violence against the social order (be they Marxist, anarchist, or otherwise) and those who react against it. For the institutional sector of the student movement, for example, encapuchado violence (what would be referred to as “black bloc” in North America) is an obstacle because it does not focus on “public opinion” and erodes confidence in the powers that the reformist groups seek dialogue with.

In and of itself, the student movement is a social-democratic and reformist movement that doesn’t seek to abolish the state, social classes, property, the capitalist mode of production, or patriarchal domination. Based in bourgeois institutions, it presents violence as counterproductive because rather than rupture, the student movement as a whole seeks an accord with power.

On the other hand, anarchists (who make up a large part of the encapuchados) do not seek a dialogue with power. Anarchists seek direct confrontation; they aren’t petitioning for free education from the state. These differences explain why disputes between institutionally coopted organizations and insurrectionary anarchists often escalate into physical confrontations.

Clashing with police over the walls of the university.

Defending an occupation.

In 2011, when the demand for “free education” became widespread, protest marches drew unprecedented numbers. Consequently, encapuchado violence, police repression, reformist organizing, and all of the tensions between these phenomena reached a peak, as did the student movement itself. The result was recurring physical confrontations involving “pacifists,” reformist students, and militants from institutional left parties over the question of violence and their different goals and positions.

The events of 2011 were a sort of climax resulting from all the accumulating lessons people had been learning since the 1990s. The scale of school occupations and student strikes was something new, but anarchists were hardly the only ones involved. For the most part, the occupations and strikes were intended to press for reformist demands, rather than to take power or as a step towards generalized insurrection. Anarchists made the most of the situation to propagate our ideas, address the newly mobilized students, and carry out actions. No doubt, this was a period of time in which anarchism grew—both in terms of encapuchado paticipation as well as the number of collectives, squats, books published, workshops, dinners, discussions, benefit shows, prisoners, and so on.

Of course, there are plenty of students who are neither Marxist nor anarchist, who simply adhere to the cause of public, free education yet nonetheless don the mask in order to confront repression. In 2011, just as in 2006, the police repression was so intense that reformist students and students who were not ideologically aligned also confronted the police—not with the intention of taking the offensive, but rather from the position of believing in rights, that is to say, reacting against what they considered to be “illegitimate” violence towards a legal movement that shouldn’t be repressed because it was democratic.

On the other hand, certain Marxist tendencies like Guevarists, Leninists, and Trotskyists legitimize encapuchado violence, but only in the service of their agendas—only in certain contexts, only as long as it is “approved of by the masses,” only as long as it’s not “individual action,” only when it is framed within the class struggle. One can identify many anarchists, even within anarchist organizations, who have more individualist positions and who believe in war against society in general (social war), beyond the class struggle. Other anarchists, such as those aligned with libertarian communism or more collectivist currents, also understand encapuchado violence as an expression of class struggle, but without as many conditions as Marxists. They don’t have as many problems with individual action if it is situated in a context of collective protest.

The debate around violence has even produced violence between the student demonstrators. Many times in many marches, in the middle of the confrontations between encapuchados and the police, anarchists and encapuchados have had to face legalist, reactionary tendencies trying to stop them, which almost always ended in phsyical confrontations between these two kinds of demonstrators.

Youth on the march.

Standing up to repression.

What are the different anarchist tactics and strategies for participating in student movements?

Anarchists are involved in the student movement, but without making demands of the state. They participate with the goals of radicalizing the student struggle, propagating anti-authoritarian ideas, and joining in street confrontations. Many anarchists try to politicize their social surroundings at their high schools and universities, above all the comrades more identified with Bakuninism and libertarian communism. The more nihilist, insurrectionary, and individualist tendencies focus more on participating in street violence in the context of mass marches.

Right now, confrontational tactics are used wholly in the service of institutional petitioning, to put pressure on the government. They have no revolutionary goal, because the student movement itself doesn’t have any revolutionary goals.

Regardless, they were important because within the school occupations there were relations of solidarity, activities to benefit the strikes, benefits for prisoners, political forums and discussions, and the like. Lots of kids whose politics didn’t go beyond “free education” or “an end to education for profit” became radicalized by taking part in those activities. Furthermore, although the school occupations and strikes were directed towards a reformist goal, they were expressions of rebellion that defied the authorities and exceeded traditional forms of protest.

This was pretty interesting, especially in 2011. The occupations of universities and high schools served as spaces for libertarian book fairs, punk shows, and discussions; for the months that they existed, they were liberated spaces, where solidarities and horizontal relationships developed outside the dictates of capitalism and convenience. There were potlucks, collective mural-painting projects, books, fanzines, communiqués. There were also instances of resistance and confrontation when the police finally evicted the occupations.

On duty at the occupation.

Keeping the police out.

How does the cost of education affect students in Chile? Does it shape who can go to school? Does it shape the politics and priorities of students? Is there anything that anarchist organizing can do about this?

In Chile, education is the driving force that reproduces and perpetuates class inequality and the domination of one class over the others. Beyond the economic aspect, there’s also the way that education serves as a form of domestication—being made to memorize things rather than think for oneself. There’s more math than anything else, with little time for history, and the history that they do teach you is a linear history comprised of events and dates that don’t require any actual thinking or questioning. All classes are indoctrinated to place blind faith in capitalism and authority.

What can anarchists do about this? Not much. The truth is that the demand for free education from the state is an institutional struggle of reformists, even though some more radicalized sectors take on this demand because they see it as a preliminary step toward a generalized struggle against capitalism. However, anarchists focus more on generating spaces of conflict and radicalization. The objective is revolt, not reform.

Revolt, not reform.

“With or without a mask, showing up for the struggle.”

Talk about the cultural element of student resistance.

This can include murals, book and propaganda fairs, literature distribution (feria), art shows, and workshops. All of this takes place often, but it reached a high point in 2011. For example, there were workshops about subjects indirectly connected to the student movement—such as the laws that endure from Pinochet’s dictatorship, the logic of market-based education, and the solutions that the movement proposed, like establishing new educational laws that would eliminate the privatization of education.

Anarchists hosted workshops that went beyond demanding access to bourgeois jobs and a more “just” education. They proposed a libertarian notion of education outside the relations of authority and domination. The dynamics in these spaces were different than the dynamics inside squatted social centers, for example. The occupations of universities and high schools are almost universally anti-capitalist but diverse in terms of particular ideologies.

Anarchists were always a minority, both in the occupations and in the streets. Yet the marches were so massive—involving 300,000 people by August 2011—that although they were a minority, there were still A LOT of encapuchados. In terms of quantitative damage, they were genuinely a thorn in the side of the authorities, and the police were often overwhelmed.

A festival of resistance.

Poking out the eye in the sky.

Do you want to close with any stories from student struggles in Chile?

The first mass march of 2011 took place as a protest against hydroelectric dams in the south, in Patagonia, a project of the corporation HidroAysen. The government approved the controversial project; in response, there was an enormous, spontaneously organized march in front of the presidential palace, La Moneda. It ended in a big riot.

The pacifist and conciliatory sectors tried in vain to restrain the encapuchados. They ended up just leaving the march. By about 10 pm, almost all the reactionaries had left and only insurrectionary people remained on the streets. Looking down Alameda, the main boulevard through downtown Santiago, one could see various banks in ruins and hear the sounds of glass breaking from the storefronts of companies and institutions. A McDonalds was left in flames. It was beautiful.

The “encapuchado bike rides” (think: “black bloc bike rides”) were also beautiful. I believe three occurred between 2011 and 2013. They were promoted through social networks and by word of mouth. The police didn’t dare try to enter the bloc. The first two of those bike rides drew lots of people—I would venture a guess at 500 or 600 people in bloc, on bikes, destroying political and commercial advertisements and confronting luxury cars. The bloc started at Plaza Italia and, instead of heading downtown towards the presidential palace like every other march does, took off the other direction, towards Providencia, the center of bourgeois high society in Santiago, and finally arrived at the enormous Costanera Center mall—the tallest skyscraper in Latin America, a symbol of capitalist wealth. In the first two bike rides, they managed to enter the mall with their bicycles, chanting “Death to the state! Viva la anarquía!” and writing graffiti on the walls and windows of luxury stores.

But above all, the days of August 2011 were unforgettable. First, there was the day of double protests (day and night) on August 4, then the two-day strike of the CUT (Workers’ United Center of Chile), supported by the students and by labor unions.

On August 4, it was just students taking action, but with an enormous attendance. Starting at 7 in the morning, barricades went up in various parts of Santiago. During the afternoon, people confronted the police throughout the center of the city. In the end, there was no march—the government didn’t authorize it. Yet it was a day of massive, generalized protest, with caseroleos (people banging pots and pans) from their patios or out of their windows. This was unusual, having the support from the majority of ordinary citizens. Even hippies who reject violence were throwing stones at the police in response to the context of indiscriminate repression and authoritarianism.

The days of August were some of the few protests during that period in which violence was regarded as a legitimate tactic by wide sectors of the student movement. On all the street corners downtown, enormous groups of encapuchados were waiting for police cars to pass in order to attack them. There were barricades everywhere, and millions of pesos were lost as a result of the destruction of property. Those were the most generalized instances of revolt I have seen in my lifetime.

Defending campus as an autonomous zone.

Wild in the streets.


Further Viewing and Listening on Social Movements in Chile

The Chicago Conspiracy—A documentary exploring the legacy of the military dictatorship in Chile and the forms resistance takes.

The Ex-Worker podcast, episode #29: Anarchism in Chile, Part I

The Ex-Worker podcast, episode #30: Anarchism in Chile, Part II

Squaring off against Fascism–Critical Reflections from the Front Lines: An Interview

In the three weeks since anarchists helped shut down the largest fascist rally the US has seen in decades, the pendulum has swung back and forth between new public support for anti-fascist organizing and a dishonest, fearmongering reaction spearheaded by the extreme center that plays right into the hands of far-right elements in the police and FBI. Now, fascists are shifting towards a strategy of decentralized attacks while the Trump administration prepares a new racist offensive against nearly a million residents of the United States. It’s more pressing than ever to learn from our victories in order to strategize for the next round. We spoke with a participant in the front lines of the clashes in Charlottesville about why an under-equipped anti-fascist contingent was able to defeat a more numerous body of fascists, how to halt the creep towards authoritarianism, and what courage means in these struggles.

In Charlottesville, on Friday night, August 11, if the torchlit march had not encountered any protesters around the monument or elsewhere—if it had been able to proceed without meeting any opposition—what do you think the consequences would have been?

Well, it’s easy to be doctrinaire when you’re speculating. I mean, any time fascists do something provocative without opposition, it sets a new baseline for them. It’s like, “Oh, marching with torches and chanting ‘Blood and Soil’ is a pretty low-key thing to do, let’s always do that at our gatherings from now on. It’s fun and easy!” But I think it strengthens their movement even more when they encounter opposition that they can easily defeat, which is what actually happened on Friday. If that had been the only event in Charlottesville, or if the rest of the weekend had gone the same way, it would have been a gift to their movement.

I try to imagine the perspective of a fresh young recruit. He’s posturing and puffing himself up, but he’s nervous too. He feels awkward putting on that white polo shirt, he feels nervous carrying a torch at first. But then he sees everyone around him doing the same thing, his voice is amplified by a hundred voices saying the same words as him, and that nervousness turns into elation. So right there, his body learns an important lesson: “When I feel scared, these are the people who make me safe. When I feel weak, these are the people who make me strong.” This is like church, you know. That whole process happens even if not a single counter-protestor shows up. He already knows that most of the world is against him.

If there’s tangible, physical opposition, the nervousness is going to be more intense, but so is that gut-level lesson learned from a victory. So when we confront these things, we should recognize that we’re raising the stakes. I think groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) fixate on that side of things when they try to discourage people from counter-protesting. I think their attitude is, we can’t do anything about these young men’s acculturation into hate groups, but we can deny them opportunities to really get hardened. Or maybe they think that acculturation happens in internet forums, not torch marches. I don’t know. I think anarchists sometimes understand this process better than sociologists, because we’ve been through something similar, in subcultural spaces or street marches or whatever.

Also—about what happened Friday night—we’re not static. Even when we take a loss that strengthens the movement we’re fighting against, it can strengthen us too. Friday night seriously shook people, but it probably made us more determined and smarter on Saturday. I almost want to say wiser. We knew exactly what kind of victory we needed to deny them, and we knew we would have to do it without the advantage of physical superiority. If no one had showed up to oppose them on Friday, maybe we would have made worse mistakes the next day, against a sharper adversary. There’s no way to know.

Why were anti-fascists not as prepared to respond on Friday night? Can you say anything about the motivations of those who still chose to confront the torchlit march?

The details of that march were announced much later, that’s the main thing. Also I think some kinds of counter-protestors are always going to stay away from a nighttime event like that, because it’s more likely to be crazy. Some people were prepared, but it was just different situations.

I do think Friday highlighted one weakness we have right now, which is that we don’t share much common culture around assessing our group capacity in the heat of the moment. I’ve seen this at other events too. Some of us are used to quietly running the numbers when we’re in a crowd and adjusting the approach accordingly., asking ourselves, you know, what are the odds we can successfully unarrest people if there are issues with the police? Or what are the odds we can physically prevent this group of white supremacists from reaching their destination? Other people, maybe people who aren’t drawing on the same kinds of street experience or think of their goals differently, seem to approach those questions morally rather than situationally. Like, we must not let them reach their destination, therefore we shall not let them reach their destination.

I’m not saying there’s a single correct way to look at it, but if we’re not having those conversations constructively outside of these crisis moments, it’s not good. Those conversations are part of building a strong movement culture.

No dignity in fascism.

On Saturday, it appeared that counter-demonstrators were outmatched by fascists in terms of muscle mass, equipment, numbers, and terrain. It was a terrifying situation. Yet anti-fascists did unexpectedly well in the confrontations. What do you attribute this to?

I think the antifascists had a deeper understanding of diversity of tactics. The presence of counter-protestors with a personal commitment to nonviolence was important, I think, and so were the diverse approaches of those who did use physical force, I mean as far as acting more offensively or defensively.

Unite the Right was all about image. They wanted three things: they wanted to look like victims of antifa/“SJW” aggression, to look like friends of the police, and to look like they were winning the physical battle in the streets. I think all those wires got crossed in Charlottesville because of the diversity of their opposition.

As a side note, we made a conscious decision not to do Saturday in black bloc. I think that helped in those specific circumstances.

So diversity of tactics was important. A lot of these alt-right people are scared of confrontation, even though they fantasize about power. You could tell that made it hard for them to psychologically switch gears; by the time they figured out how to deal with one kind of counter-protestor, the situation had changed and they had to go back to square one. They had to think too hard. They didn’t know if they were going to get punched or prayed at. And the whole time they’re getting pelted with paint balloons, and they just look silly.

Then you had macho types who reacted to that paralysis by going ham, charging in swinging by themselves. That was scary, because these were big dudes who understood violence, but it didn’t really serve their larger goals, and they lost fights because we would surround them and beat them back. It didn’t help those guys that their official rally was up a hill behind barricades.

Finally, there were the guys in full-on riot gear, plexiglass shields and clubs and face-shields, stuff like that. They had a hard time early in the day, marching into the park, because they couldn’t figure out what kind of confrontation they were in; they wanted to beat us up but they wanted it to look like our fault, and they came out worse on both counts. Later, they regrouped, and it seemed like they were ready to crack some skulls in a more paramilitary style: charge out of the park in formation and just trample whoever was in their way. I think that would have happened more if the rally had gone on longer, because they were starting to give up on the whole image thing. We should have had more tools to obscure their vision and keep them at a distance. But the cops dispersed the rally before it went there. I think we can take some credit for that.

This sounds weird, but I think anarchists might have better discipline than Nazis, at least in this kind of situation. Fascists had the advantage when things were really scripted, and a lot of them would have had the advantage in a one-on-one fight, but they were just clumsy when it came to navigating a complex situation. I guess what I’m talking about here is self-discipline. But it has this real communal aspect to it, because we actually care about each other and pay attention to each other, like not just our cliques and affinity groups, but also strangers. You can’t fake that. You can’t squeeze that out of an authoritarian ideology.

Fascists were better equipped than counter-protestors in Charlottesville, yet failed to gain the upper hand.

Some have reported that it was very important that there were guns on the anti-fascist side of the conflict, to discourage fascists from escalating past a certain degree of force. Others have expressed concern about whether guns can be a useful tool in struggles for liberation. Coming away from Charlottesville, what is your impression?

I don’t know if guns were an important deterrent as the day wore on. Maybe they were early on before things really started, when we were just milling around several blocks away. Realistically, if a Nazi had started shooting later in the rally no one would have had a clear shot before he emptied his clip, and once the gunfire started the crossfire would be hellish. So I guess it depends what kind of threat you think was deterred. Probably the deterrent effect was a factor in the open areas where more one-on-one fights happened—you might not pull a knife in the open if you think there’s a chance you’re being covered. But on that topic, the possibility of getting stabbed makes you pretty careful too. We were all thinking about Sacramento.

I can see an argument that the possibility of handguns mixed in the crowd would discourage the guys with shields and clubs from rushing in too aggressively. Maybe it put more pressure on them to stay in very tight formation, which limits how aggressive you can get with a club. I’m just speculating here—I still think the concern with image was a bigger factor for them. Anyway, that’s different from the militia-style, open carry rifles that some people had.

I guess I did see a neo-Confederate man in the front lines reach for his pistol and then change his mind when we yelled that he had a gun. He settled for an extendable baton instead. So that’s an example where knowing that you can be identified and targeted will convince you to keep your own weapon holstered. That deterred him from brandishing a gun, though. He really did have a self-defense mentality, even if it was a racist, delusional one; he was going to pull his gun to “deter” the mob he was facing. It would have been very different if his primary goal had been to kill people.

As soon as you start talking deterrence, you’re talking about an arms race. I think that’s a danger whether the weapons in question are guns, knives, or plexiglass shields. You lose the social character of the struggle and you lose the diversity of tactics. I don’t mind being around assault rifles, but I do mind the paramilitary mentality. We’re susceptible to that mentality when fear clouds our thinking.

If you get into an arms race with a bunch of scared people who have little or no experience of gun violence—I’m talking about antifascists as well as the alt fascists, we’re scared too—you’re creating an extremely volatile situation. All it takes is one jumpy person pulling a trigger.

Probably the only thing you can do is think very concretely about what you’re trying to deter. Reflect. What you’re doing has to be based in experience—yours or a mentor’s or something—and it has to be realistic about the big picture. Otherwise, you’ve just got a very risky security blanket.


Do you have any thoughts about what approaches we should expect fascists to take in the wake of Charlottesville?

It’s a dangerous time. They’ve already lost the battle to look like victims, so some of them will be happy to look like successful aggressors. That could certainly mean they go in the direction of clandestine attacks, but it could also mean they show up at these things looking like Roman legionnaires and they rush us first, hard. Our best defense is numbers, which maybe we have now. Obviously, there are tactical questions for us too.

On the other hand, some of them may try to move back toward a mass movement, and away from the fringe. They might stick to being the “pro-white bloc” at Trump rallies.

What do the events in Charlottesville mean for the strategy of Richard Spencer, who seeks to popularize a new “respectable” white supremacy?

He lost. His strategy lost. The President tried running interference for him, but it didn’t work. I mean, these suit-and-tie Nazis can’t change their character overnight, so they’ll keep trying the same rhetoric, but it’s going to be a dwindling audience.

On the other hand, that rhetoric does enable young alt-right recruits to remain in denial about what they’re signing up for. For the most part, they think they’re the Freikorps, but not the Final Solution. We should also remember, again, that clashes like the ones we’ve been seeing can harden these kids. So the ones who don’t drop out because of fear or shame are becoming a more dangerous kind of cadre. The respectability strategy is basically over, but the same individuals can now go about consolidating their gains.

Can anti-fascists take credit for the ouster of Stephen Bannon? Will his return to Breitbart and the grassroots far right embolden fascists and give them more momentum? Beyond the obvious strategy of “no platform for fascists,” what role should anti-fascist activity play in our struggle against the state, the chief implementer of totalitarian measures?

I don’t really care who takes credit for Steve Bannon’s career change, but I don’t really see it emboldening the far right. You know, the Democrats want to tell it like Charlottesville got Bannon kicked out, because that shifts the focus back to the Oval Office and out of the streets. It might have. I don’t know. I’m glad he’s out, but it’s not my focus. I’m not sure he cares whether he’s directing his movement from inside the institutions or from outside.

What I anticipate is that he’ll try to create a home for all the young people who don’t want to go to Nazi rallies anymore, he’ll push this “alt-left” nonsense, basically he’ll try to do a better version of Richard Spencer’s strategy. That means no Nazis, no Klansmen, just nice Midwestern church people who wouldn’t mind seeing the police gun us down. I’m not sure the momentum is with him now, but we’ll see.

As for the state. We’re still in the midst of an authoritarian backlash in the broader culture, alongside the white backlash. Trump draws on it, but so do his opponents. If you’re trying to get a popular mandate for authoritarian governance, you present yourself as the only force able to contain irreconcilable, violent conflicts within society. That’s what Trump was doing when he talked about the “many sides” of violence in Charlottesville, and I’m sure that’s what his centrist opposition will do when they try to replace him.

Anti-authoritarian can respond to that one of two ways. You can double down on the irreconcilable social conflicts, and say it’s our job to bring them out into the open and fight consciously from the side of the exploited—you know, refuse an oppressive social peace. Or you can dispute the state’s claim that it can resolve people’s conflicts better than we can resolve them on our own. Who does it serve when we perceive our conflicts as irreconcilable, and why do we have to listen to those voices?

Right now, people like Bannon are pushing a vision of a society threatened by deep, irreconcilable conflicts, but they’re not the conflicts a leftist would talk about. They’re citizen vs. alien, West vs. Islam, and so on. We can push for a different way of seeing the structural divisions in our society, and put our bodies on the line for those beliefs, but if that’s all we do we’re giving a lot of ground to authoritarians who want to be the neutral party. I’m talking about mom-n-pop authoritarians, not just the deep state. So I think we have to bring the idealist side of anarchism with us too: don’t just challenge the analysis of our society’s real conflicts, but challenge the state’s claim to protect us from each other. Challenge the belief that we have always needed protection from each other, and always will.

We must not let clashes like the one in Charlottesville confirm the right-wing narrative that mutually beneficial coexistence is impossible.

In Europe, one of the anarchist critiques of antifascism has been that it obscures the necessity of struggle against the state, capitalism, and other forms of domination. Do you see this as a risk in the US? Why or why not?

Like, we imagine that as soon as the last Nazi is dealt with, capitalism and the state will come crumbling down of their own accord, and trans women won’t have to worry about getting murdered for their gender? I don’t see that risk. If you just mean that antifascism can tie down anarchists and keep them from prioritizing the work they really believe in—well, of course it can. It’s a defensive struggle. Defense only works if you’re poised to counterattack, and our best counterattack will always be social movements for liberation.

What I do see is that our experiences of struggle deeply shape our imaginations. That’s true whether your experience is rioting, or community organizing, or fighting Nazis, or just daily survival in a world that wants to erase you. You start to imagine the whole revolution as just whatever struggle you’re used to, but on a larger scale. In addition, you may be limited by your learned instincts and the culture you build up around them.

That may be a problem for the generation that’s been radicalized in the Trump era. There’s the potential for a kind of creeping authoritarianism on the left—the revolutionary left I mean. You know, that whole mythology of the militant. It can obscure the necessity of struggle against—not the state of today, but the state of tomorrow.

But you know, we have a choice about that. We don’t have to be determined by our experiences, even if we’re shaped by them. We can have a more expansive vision of struggle. We can choose what we’re struggling for.

The site of Heather Heyer’s death.

Clearly, it takes a lot of courage to physically confront armed fascists. What does courage mean for antifascists? What kind of courage should we be trying to cultivate? What are the risks of focusing on courage as a value?

Courage is being willing to die for the sake of victory. That’s a straightforward definition. And that is exactly what happened in Charlottesville. One of us died, and we had a victory. That might sound inspiring to some people, but to me it’s fucking nauseating, it makes me want to cry. I mean, I didn’t know Heather, I don’t know if she was preparing herself for the possibility of death. She’s not around to tell us if she wants to be a hero. I do know that some of us entered that weekend consciously accepting that we might die, or that our comrades and loved ones might die. When you take on that kind of mindset, it leaves some scars. I just can’t think about this question in an abstract way.

Some people talk about courage like it’s just a matter of inner righteousness or integrity or something. I disagree with that idea. You can be a person of great integrity, ready to go through the fire for your beliefs, but when it comes time to use the weapons at your disposal you’re too hesitant to make a contribution. Our understanding of courage should capture that readiness to step forward and act without guarantees. That’s why I say it’s about victory.

This isn’t about violence versus nonviolence. Some of the most courageous people I saw in Charlottesville were not throwing punches; they were dressing wounds, or praying, or standing alone in front of a line of advancing riot cops. Those people were all using the weapons at their disposal.

I guess the risk is that courage alone can’t guide you. I mean, courageous soldiers can fight imperialist wars, but that doesn’t make them right. Honor and sacrifice can fuel a spiral of meaningless violence. Sometimes the things that make you hesitate when you shouldn’t are also the things that make you reassess your direction when really you should.

If you want to back way up and look at it, courage is a warrior value, and anarchism is a peace movement. I mean that in the very simple sense that it’s about people treating each other right without being forced to. That’s peace. Obviously, there’s fighting involved too. I’m just not convinced that the things that make us strong in the face of adversity are always the things that make us good to one another, or that being ready for war makes you ready for peace. Maybe that just comes back to making sure that your vision of victory is really worth dying for.

People in Oakland rallying in solidarity with those who fought fascism in Charlottesville.

Smart Phone Feature Request: Guest Mode–A Proposal to Make Smart Phones a Little Smarter and a Lot Safer

Your smart phone knows more about you than anything else you own. A person can learn more about you and do more damage to your life by gaining access to your phone than they could by breaking into your home. What if you are forced to unlock your phone and hand it over to someone? We’re proposing that there should be a way to hand it over unlocked but without access to any of your private information and without access to do damage to you.

Cop Mode” in iOS 11 is a brilliant feature — tap your home button five times and your phone disables Touch ID and requires your passcode to unlock. But as John Gruber and Jason Snell1 pointed out on The Talk Show, even if you have Touch ID turned off and you can’t be legally coerced to enter your passcode,2 you can be physically coerced. With enough torture, anyone will say or do literally anything to make it stop—see CIA black sites, Abu Ghraib prison, and Guantánamo Bay for proof.

There are many situations in which a person cannot be reasonably expected not to give up their passcode: a person entering a country who cannot risk getting turned away3 and a person being physically coerced,4 to name two.

In those situations, it would be useful if the owner of a phone could give an answer to the person demanding it of them without compromising their own privacy. Let’s call it Guest Mode.

How Would It Work?

Let’s say your normal passcode is 1234.5 This feature would let you create a secondary passcode, say 9876. When that secondary passcode is entered on your lock screen, your phone would behave as though you had entered the correct passcode, but it would launch into Guest Mode.

Guest Mode would make your phone appear as if it were a brand new phone in the factory default settings—kind of like private browsing / incognito mode, but for your entire phone. No third party apps. No web browsing history. No text messaging history. No cloud services signed into (iCloud, Google, etc). No photos or videos in your camera or photos apps. No saved notes. No payments in the App Store or for in-app purchases.

Guest Mode could do even more to protect you and your privacy:

  • Hide incoming network activity—your phone’s captor would not receive phone calls or text messages to your phone number.

  • Receive and log incoming network activity to your hidden primary mode—your text messages would be waiting for you when you could use your primary passcode again.

Why, Though?

“I don’t have anything to hide on my phone.” Yes, you do. We all do. As Moxie said, we should all have something to hide.

Our phones are not only windows into our lives, they’re windows into the lives of our friends, family, coworkers… into the lives of any of our contacts. You may think that you have nothing to hide, but you can’t say that for everyone that your phone can access. Protecting your phone’s data is also about protecting your loved ones.

Guest Mode for …Guests

On top of all of the reasons for privacy and security, there’s also the option of actually using Guest Mode for actual guests. You want to hand your phone to your kid. You want to let a lost tourist look up a map address or call a cab. Basically, anytime you want to hand your phone to someone else, but don’t want them to able to see all of your things. Guest Mode is perfect for that too.

Our smart phones are probably the most intimate object that’s ever been invented. They hold so much of our lives in them. They can do real damage to us if they fall into the wrong hands. A feature like Guest Mode would help protect us and those we care about. If you work at a company that makes smart phones or smart phone operating systems, please make this happen. This is an opportunity to use your power and privilege to protect people.

  1. …and many others have before them. 

  2. For now, in the U.S. 

  3. Political asylums seekers. Refugees fleeing a war zone. Hell, anyone who can’t afford to buy another plane ticket. 

  4. Tortured. 

  5. Please don’t use 1234 as a lock screen passcode. For that matter, don’t use a four digit passcode. 0000–9999 is only ten thousand permutations. An attacker could manually brute force that and unlock your phone. A six digit is only trivially more to remember, but increases the total permutations to one million! That still won’t protect you from an automated brute force attack, but it will dramatically improve your odds against a simple phone thief.