That was the morning we overslept—Friday, the twentieth of January, 2017. It was every activist’s greatest fear: our cell phone alarms blaring in unison, our friends running around us scrambling to get ready, while we just lay there, arms thrown haphazardly across our faces, dead to the world.
How could we sleep with Marius Mason in prison, the polar ice caps gushing into the ocean, and Donald Trump entering office?
For months, reality had hung on us like a bad dream; riding into DC was like entering its epicenter. Every Nazi troll on the internet was promising to gun us down in cold blood. Newspapers were reporting that two million bikers had promised to form a wall of meat between us and the motorcade of the President-elect. We were all going to prison—if we made it out of surgery. If you want a picture of the future, imagine Pepe the Frog stamping on a human face, forever.
All night, we’d discussed the situation, speaking one by one, weighing our options, going around the living room in circles the way one passes one’s tongue over a broken tooth again and again. If Trump entered office with the mandate of an acquiescent population, deporting ten million people would be the new normal. But if we tried to interrupt the spectacle, they would mass-arrest us, put all our names on a list, and our parents and partners would never be allowed to fly again. Would they surround us as soon as we assembled? Would the Nazis shoot us? It was a nightmare from which slumber offered no respite.
And there we were, asleep at our moment of truth. Downtown was filling up with Secret Service agents and crimson-hatted know-nothings as our friends shook us by the shoulders and called out our names. Protesters were already lining up to blockade the checkpoints to the parade route when they resorted to flinging cups of cold water in our faces. It was no use: we were a thousand floors below, wandering the foggy land of Nod.
They wheeled the bed out through the broad double doors of the bedroom, down the narrow hallway, across the living room strewn with backpacks and sleeping bags. They carried it down the steep front steps, bracing themselves against the iron railing. Shoulders to the headboard, they rolled us up the hill past the row houses, through alleyways and intersections and shopping districts into the very heart of the nation’s capital.
The streets were ominously tranquil: a jogger here, a couple pushing a stroller there. There was no indication of the forces massing downtown. The branches of the trees sailed past us overhead, their shadows briefly fingering the bedclothes crumpled across our chests.
Then the buildings opened around us and we were in Logan Circle—the convergence point for the anti-capitalist march, a vortex drawing in all the rage and courage within a thousand miles. Hundreds of our friends had gathered already, their faces concealed beneath bandannas and balaclavas, a swirling maelstrom of anarchists and rebels. More were pouring in from the side streets every minute, pulling on masks and gloves, zipping up their sweatshirts, cinching their windbreakers tight around their wrists, unfurling the great black banners proclaiming NO PEACEFUL TRANSITION—FIGHT BACK NOW—JOIN THE RESISTANCE.
Our friends pushed us to the front of the throng and we set out, a dozen black-gloved hands on the headboard, our cheeks resting on silk pillowslips, our bodies cradled in gauzy silk sheets, the brocaded bedspread folded back beneath our splayed arms as the bed rumbled across the black asphalt. Behind us, the others poured into the street, linking arms, roaring out a full-throated call and response. Are you ready? Yes, we’re ready.
This was the notorious black bloc—bristling, if Trump’s Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense is to be believed, with “banners, shields, bull horns, noise making devices, gas masks, medical supplies, police scanners, spray paint, ladders, bolt cutters, handcuff keys, and code manuals for covert communications,” dressed in “steal toe boots [sic], body armor, face masks, helmets, military gear, sports equipment, and other such attire,” wielding “Molotov cocktails, mace/chemical spray, flares, bats, sign polls [sic], bricks, rocks, glass, nails, padlocks, slingshots, brass knuckles, martial arts weapons, and bottles of waste.” A medieval monster in a modern fairy tale.
Picture the scene as it appeared to the helicopters thundering overhead: the amorphous black mass driving before it the white quadrilateral of the bed—like a Malevich painting, White Square on a Black Block. Ascending higher, the pilots could make out what awaited us a few blocks away: a lattice of metal fences and concrete barriers defended by 28,000 security personnel. It wasn’t the red-hatted fools we had to fear, but the full might of the state. Squads of National Guardsmen clustered around military vehicles at every intersection; fleets of mobile riot police circling on bicycles and motorcycles; vans packed full of armored officers fidgeting impatiently with pepper spray dispensers and bundles of zip ties. All the mercenaries within a thousand miles become a part of the hostile physical architecture of the capitol, become hostility itself.
Freeze the frame, here, as the march arrives at Franklin Square and the police move into action, rushing to flank us on their bicycles, to chase us with their zip ties, to shoot their less-lethal munitions at us. At the front of the march, the two of us lie in the bed, sunk in unconsciousness, limbs and hair intertwined, jolted by the motion of the wheels over the uneven pavement, our limp bodies without the dubious armor of sweatshirts or bandannas, beneath a hovering hailstorm of projectiles—percussion grenades and rubber bullets and tear gas canisters and frozen arcs of pepper spray. Our frail flesh on the chopping block of the state.
A hush falls. The police, the black bloc, the Trump supporters in their stupid red hats, the screwballs at Franklin Square demanding the legalization of marijuana, the photographers and spectators and passersby—all of them remain motionless. Only our friends continue forward, picking up speed, sneakers flying across the pavement as they charge the fortified lines of police, driving the bed like a battering ram before them. Finally, shoving the headboard in unison, they launch us into the void, remaining frozen in place behind us.
The police lines open before us like the Red Sea and we sail right through. Not on account of Molotov cocktails, pepper spray, flares, bats, bricks, rocks, glass, nails, padlocks, slingshots, or brass knuckles, mind you, not because of the polls or stolen toes—it’s very important that you understand this—but because of the dreaming.
On the other side of the columns of Kevlar and polycarbonate, we continue hurtling down the street, zigzagging between the roadblocks, through metal-fenced checkpoints, past detachments of callow Guardsmen and handfuls of stupefied bikers and gauntlets of snappily dressed pundits crowing in victory or wringing their hands. Our bed coasts by regiments of porta-potties standing at attention, marshaled to hold the excrement of a hundred thousand patriots—through the half-filled stands where bootlickers fresh from Rust Belt exurbs crowd together, mouths agape in a monosyllable—and we roll to a halt in the center of the parade route, blocking the way to the motorcade and the future.
The sudden stop shocks us awake. Starting from unconsciousness, we find ourselves in a petrified city.
Blinking, we take it all in: the bleachers dotted with imbeciles—the armored cars—the secret service agents caught midstride, their faces fixed as glowering masks. Behind them, a brass band blows soundlessly, cheeks bulging, sustaining a single inaudible note.
We rub our eyes in unison. But when we open them again, nothing has changed. Pushing back the bedclothes, we swing our legs over the sides of the bed and step from our brocaded barricade onto Pennsylvania Avenue. The air is absolutely still.
Moving in slow motion through this frozen phantasmagoria as if passing through a photograph, a flaming limousine appears trailing a column of smoke like a bridal train. The smoke extends a hundred feet in the air, blotting out the flags, darkening the asphalt, casting its shadow over the uniformed soldiers on parade. The windows of the limousine are smashed out so we can see that there is no one at the wheel. It pulls to a halt before us.
Should we get in? But what address would we give? Where would we like to go?
A mile north of the parade route, life continues as normal. Drivers enter their credit cards into parking meters; cashiers at kiosks dispense cigarettes and chocolate-covered monoglycerides beside panhandlers; waitresses and system administrators toil to placate creditors and absentee landlords. Carpenters refurbish drab box houses in someone else’s suburbs as amateur pundits tweet about someone else’s political party. All sleepwalkers in someone else’s dream, captives in never-never land.
This scene, not the White House, is truly the center of the nightmare, whence come all the other horrors. The police are not needed here—not in such numbers, anyway. The absence of an alternative does their work.
The dreamlessness itself is the police. It is what imposes the nightmare.
For the first time, we look at each other, you and I. What is our dream? What will transport us unscathed through the lines of riot police? Where do we want our burning limousine to take us? Where do we want to go?
Dream alone, it’s just a dream. Dream together, it can be reality.
To wrap up our series on the day of action on January 20, 2017 and the protracted legal struggle that followed it, we present this outside submission from a group including J20 defendants. In May 2018, at the opening of the second J20 trial, a call to action appeared entitled “Freedom for J20 Defendants,” encouraging people to take a more confrontational approach in the solidarity campaign. The following text begins where that one left off, functioning as a reflection, critique, and addendum. While this is not necessarily the way that we would put things, we consider it important that various dissenting viewpoints enter the historical record to inform future organizing. All charges have been dismissed for the J20 defendants. Congratulations to all comrades who fought against this attempt to escalate repression in the US. The prosecutors’ collusion with Project Veritas and their over-reaching approach to the case ultimately backfired. The dismissal of all remaining charges is a significant victory. This thwarts the state’s attempt to set new precedents in criminalizing association as organizational “conspiracy.” The prosecution wanted to crack down on both black bloc tactics and the politics of those who utilize them, transforming street protests and the forms of repression with which the state targets political ideas. Outside of a few plea deals, there were no convictions. The campaign has clearly demonstrated the value of working together and adhering to principles of collective solidarity. We developed new strategies, such as disrupting the prosecution’s evidential groupings and preferred trial order. We built solidarity initiatives that sustained hundreds of defendants’ trips to court. These efforts helped the defendants resist the pressure to cooperate with the state and the plea offers that the prosecution was banking on people accepting. We must celebrate our victories. Yet for some of us, this win tastes a bit bitter. Despite all our hard work, it is more the consequence of the errors and limitations of the authorities than of our own strengths. We feel that we did not effectively take advantage of the moment we were in to affirm our stances. Had we actively fought against repression, we would be in a better position for the struggles ahead. The fervor from Trump’s election, the counter-inaugural protests, the airport blockades—all that initial momentum has tapered off. This is to be expected; in our governed society, it is common for the population to swing between outrage and acceptance. However, we believe that the strategy that we chose in the J20 case has contributed to this inertia. Essentially, we presented ourselves as “innocent liberals” and kept quiet throughout the case, basing our approach in tacit restrictions and disempowerment. We feel this defensive posture has contributed to a collective limitation. This becomes especially clear when we reflect on how we could have used the case as an opportunity to propel ourselves. Instead, our movements and the relationships adjacent to them have been left on the back foot. From this weaker position, we must face today’s problems and try to expand on the revolutionary potential in each moment. After the inauguration, we failed to continue to declare a break from this world. Instead, we reified it. Many within this campaign believed that the conservative approach was the best way—or even that it was the only way. The primary aim of this critique will be to challenge that notion, identify its limitations, and propose alternatives. A Vision of What Could Have Been The J20 case directly impacted roughly 200 comrades across the country and exponentially more by proxy. This was a very large environment to play within and we were situated in a society agitated by Trump’s election and fascinated by us. Imagine a sensational solidarity campaign that made the case known everywhere: a campaign that broke with normalcy and moved forward with a revolutionary affect, building towards a departure from this presidency, presidency itself, global capitalism, white supremacy, rampant misogyny, and the logistics systems that keep them in place—consider the airport blockades against Trump’s Muslim ban. Looking at the international reach of the 2017 Women’s Marches and the longstanding tradition of international days of solidarity among anarchists, a sensational solidarity campaign could have resonated beyond national borders. Imagine if this case and its two hundred defendants had become a reference point for every disaffection. A voice that echoed across lecture halls, social centers, high schools, television screens, workplaces, in the streets, and everywhere else. A root system that overrode concerns for property or civility, insisting on tenacious power from below—a tear from which the fabric of our society began to fray. Imagine an effort that turned the J20 case into a national crisis for the state. What would it have taken to accomplish this? Imagine the momentum from a raucous situation demanding the freedom of two hundred comrades flowing into other social potentialities (e.g., anti-ICE occupations, the national prison strike, anti-fascist struggles). We failed to maximize on building new capacities and bonds and radicalizing and including new people. If our goal is to make governance untenable, we have to strategize expansively. What would increase the longevity of struggle? Along what vectors do struggles coalesce and spread? How do we plan for the next social movement, the next election, the next decade, the next uprising? We exist within a continuum of struggle. Accordingly, we must acknowledge our conditions to make each moment a step towards the next horizon. The question we face after this case’s conclusion is synonymous with the one we face at all times: What now? The question of possibility here is twofold. First, we have to speak about how to build the capacity to make such a vision possible. Perhaps it wasn’t possible at the time. But still, we believe there were a variety of restrictive dynamics within and around the case that limited what possibilities could have emerged. Posters that appeared around Philadelphia. Reflection: What Was We must contend with how the J20 campaign played into “good” vs. “bad” protester dynamics through silence. We maintain our previous position that the narratives established before the May 14 trial set up those alleged to have engaged in property damage to be thrown under the bus. What good is it to assert liberal narratives like First Amendment rights and innocence if there are not also perspectives and actions that advance militant protest and revolutionary politics? The former alone will not create a bolstered defense—nor do they articulate a vision that could take us beyond the prevailing order. The jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. The discovery of the Brady violation was fortuitous, and ultimately led to the prosecution’s defeat. However, there was no guarantee we would discover this violation, nor that the judge would acknowledge it. Effective strategies must seek to counteract our enemy’s intentions while advancing our own. Luck must be factored in, but not made the backbone of a strategy; nor can we rely on the proper operations of the state. In a sense, it was a fluke that the Brady violation unraveled the case. In order for a Brady violation to win, one has first to acknowledge the authority of the court system and second to trust that the court will follow its rules and not create an exception (which is to create and follow a new rule). In this moment, when the state lacked legitimacy, it outmaneuvered us and chose not to protect the prosecutor Jennifer Kerkhoff. This move turned out to be an advantageous but limited outcome for us. The court found that she had violated the defendants’ due process rights to receive all potentially exculpatory evidence through discovery. After the cases were dismissed, the District Attorney’s Office promoted her. By finding a Brady violation occurred, the court minimized the consequences of the state’s mistake, but the DA reasserted its authority, by rewarding the prosecutor, free of compromise. What would it have looked like to use the court’s determination of a Brady violation to delegitimize the state itself? We should reflect critically on this. Why did we hand over so much power and legitimacy to the legal apparatus? Why did we indulge so much in the spectacle of the courtroom? Very little within defendant-led organizing was done to challenge our relationship with the law and its courts. Instead, much work narrowly examined the inanity of the case’s conspiratorial allegations, re-legitimizing the concept of innocence. As anarchists, we are against authoritarian and punitive methods that reinforce power imbalances. We are against prisons and the entirety of the legal system—not simply the nuanced absurdities and contradictions therein. We need to have more faith in what we actually believe in and strive for. By choosing to tread lightly, we compromised an attempt to spread our analyses, ceding significant ground to the authorities. In the sphere of action, things generally remained small. At what point would we have intervened? If things were to turn out negatively in the legal process, it seemed the plan was to “reduce harm” and bid our comrades farewell to prison while hanging onto the coattails of respectability. After the first trial, the state’s strategy seemed to be to isolate the case’s radical elements and drag the broader support efforts into exhaustion. In other words, divide and conquer. This was not a situation in which we were powerless or devoid of options. Within DefendJ20Resistance organizing, refusing to think critically, limiting ourselves, and appealing to civil liberties were dominant habits that went largely unchecked and unchallenged. While these critiques may seem harsh, we don’t wish to underplay the work that went into fighting the case. Our argument is that in the end, the work was politically unsound, qualitatively deficient, and strategically incomplete. “Going liberal” can be considered the “vanilla” of anti-repression; a fairly plain tried and true approach. But there are many other flavors to choose from. We want to take a moment to honor the complete re-imagining of “Jury Nullification” that took place in DC during the second trial. A juror read the words “Google Jury Nullification” written on a bathroom stall inside the courthouse. She looked it up and then proceeded to share the information with the rest of the jury. We are impressed. One person’s bathroom doodle accomplished so much—disseminating information about jury nullification to the jurors, creating scandal, revitalizing the case in the eyes of comrades, giving prosecutors yet another headache, and, of course, giving us all a good laugh. Bravo. Seemingly small actions such as these should not be underestimated. What else could have been done? Where else could we have looked for lessons and inspiration? Fighting repression should be understood as an opportunity to take the offensive. One does not always have to sacrifice substance for results. Looking back on this case, we’re particularly influenced by a few examples. During the Asheville 11 case, supporters called for solidarity actions ahead of court hearings. The “Yo Tambien Soy Anarquista” campaign against Operation Pandora in Spain fought the imprisonment of several anarchists using graffiti, speaking events, marches, and uncompromising political narratives. And the “To Libertarians” strategy from 20th century Spain presented a calculated call to action, leading to the release of more than fifty anarchist prisoners. Through this discussion, we ask that comrades and their respective networks reflect on this. How can we best mobilize support networks? How can we anticipate and combat burnout? How do we encourage each other to participate in the face of gloom? How do we win the support of those who choose to look the other way? How do we draw on historical lessons, generations of wisdom, and a diversity of perspectives? And then—how do we utilize them? The “Yo también soy anarquista” campaign exerted powerful leverage against a campaign of state repression in Spain. The Science of Opposition The case of the Asheville 11 shared some similarities with the J20 case. On the night of May Day 2010, 11 people arrested in the vicinity of a demonstration that involved property destruction were charged with vandalism, rioting, and conspiracy based on scant evidence. After a harrowing ordeal, the prosecution dropped most of the charges and a couple defendants took plea deals for “misdemeanor riot.” Years of stress and repression left the local community fractured and burned out. The elements we’re most interested in are the confrontational ones: the support crew’s call for solidarity actions ahead of hearings, the actions that accompanied them, and the visibility they produced. The call created a specific kind of power and a new angle of pressure because it asked us to extend our repertoire and kept us engaged. Comrades from the Asheville support crew pushed a clear narrative: innocent of all charges, police malfeasance, and the aggressive prosecution to suppress radical politics. The call for actions helped keep the case in the public eye. The police corruption, the controversy over the Asheville Police Department’s evidence room and the departure, indictment, and imprisonment of the chief forced the state’s hand in favor of the defendants. The fact that the case stayed public despite years of delay applied pressure to the prosecutor to drop the charges. The Asheville 11 case can be considered a worst-case scenario: very few people supported or understood the defendants and the state was well-positioned to depict them as mere criminals. Yet even then, solidarity actions did not further endanger the defendants. To be clear, we believe that it made sense for people to employ a cautious approach at the beginning of the J20 case. But we believe that there should have been elements such as these inside the overall ecology of resistance to the J20 case at later points. The J20 solidarity actions were mostly comprised of banner drops, press releases, fundraisers, and the like but generally failed to extend to more confrontational forms. Remaining conformist in narrative and action deprived the movement of dynamism and growth, consequently failing to keep the campaign’s participants and supporters engaged. A year into the case, energy for support efforts had tapered off—a problem in itself, given that criminal litigation often drags on for years. Yet it wasn’t just our side feeling the effects of its duration. At that same time, the state had failed in its attempts to convict defendants in the November trial, looking very bad in its pursuit, and had exhausted countless resources, leaving the lead prosecutor visibly worn. By entering into a new phase of solidarity and changing its nature, the campaign could have revitalized itself, taking advantage of its enemies in a fight they were already losing. At different stages of the case, there should have been shifts. Adaptation is key to survival. A movement that doesn’t develop and leaves its potential unrealized will die. The amount of burnout and fatigue among J20 defendants and supporters both after the first trial and now is indicative of this. The question of adaptation and survival permeates every aspect of our collective existence; we should continually strive to answer it. Imagine if after the first round of dropped charges, there had been a series of eruptions—widespread disruptions and marches expressing indignation at the remaining charges. A moment encouraging social fissure, a crisis: rabble-rousing at universities and workplaces, marches in the streets, interventions and direct actions everywhere. An effort to get more people behind the remaining J20 defendants without their having to adhere to our exact ideas, a reminder that we are all angry and all long to be free, and, importantly, an effort that brought the participants feelings of joy and power. But what was nurtured around the case wasn’t conducive to making any sort of effort like this possible, even autonomously. Everyone was paralyzed by the campaign’s physiology in narrative, atmosphere, and action. Two Accounts At some point after the first trial, there was a meeting in DC with defendants and supporters. During that meeting, someone proposed the idea of having a march that “went against traffic.” Hearing this, someone who does legal support, with a lot of social capital and movement experience, nervously interrupted, “I think this conversation has gone in a very bad direction.” and rushed out of the room. Everyone (including myself) was then forced to think that the idea was bad. Reflecting on this moment now, I don’t think the idea was. This kind of reaction was common around the case. It made discussion impossible, shut down possibilities, and suppressed the development of our resistance to the case. I saw a tremendous amount of initiative and capacity destroyed by attitudes and paranoia. We missed opportunities such as establishing a long-term collective house in DC for defendants and supporters and discouraged many comrades from wanting to be involved. The conditions around the case caused many people to become alienated or hurt. After a year, dozens of comrades wanted little to do with J20 stuff. After the majority of charges were dropped, there was a West Coast J20 speaking tour organized. The tour was an opportunity for people working on the case to raise support and reach out to regions who were less likely to be up to date or entangled in the case. There was a lot of opposition to this tour happening. Defendants and supporters who opposed it didn’t offer many reaons beyond insisting it was potentially harmful to defendants who were still facing charges. In my opinion, this was the result of bad faith and problematic power dynamics. The practice of hosting anti-repression events is understood all around the world. Such events are essential to overcoming isolation. The tour was ultimately able to go through but we were forced to eject a defendant who was still facing charges because others weren’t okay with them speaking. I’m sure that the tour would’ve been a source of empowerment and fulfillment for that defendant but it ended up causing them harm instead. I believe all of us who were on the tour regretted making this decision. But at the time, there was little room to breathe because of how unhealthy the atmosphere around the case was. There was a lot of paranoia in the air and the question of accountability was consistently difficult to address with such a wide pool of defendants. As a movement, we weren’t able to maximize the potential of the calls to action. There was an issue of capacity but there was also an issue of participants feeling dis-engaged, which adversely affected the capacity for actions. In our experiences in many conversations around action, people would severely limit themselves because they weren’t sure what was acceptable. After a year of mostly banner drops and fundraisers, many felt that supporting the J20 case meant dressing nicely and going to court or, at most, helping logistically. When this happens, a few people will stick around but most will turn their attention and energy elsewhere. Actions inform action. In order for actions to generalize, people have to think them up, carry them out, and publicize them so that they can spread. Within the J20 solidarity efforts, there were some fiercer actions, but people seemed hesitant to imitate or advocate for them and people doing work around the case were likely to discourage such things. It makes sense that people doing legal support would be tightly wound, but it doesn’t make sense for people to allow that trepidation to influence our politics and our work as revolutionaries. DefendJ20Resistance was mostly comprised of defendants. As political agents of change, we will not always follow in accordance with what would be considered “legally sound.” Isn’t that why we participated in the action on J20? Isn’t our conflict with the law and its courts the reason why so many of us put in support work against the case? Our solidarity efforts need to reflect our values, or else we risk not achieving meaningful enough goals; we risk inertia. Partisans of more conservative approaches managed to make themselves indispensable. For many defendants and supporters, this was their first bout against repression and they deferred to those with social capital, movement experience, and palatable defensive stances. What would be necessary for us to have other options next time? Folks of more militant inclinations who have just as much experience would have to do the same kind of work. We would have to nurture an environment of solidarity, hospitality, and autonomy. Radical outlets, such as CrimethInc. and It’s Going Down, co-published calls to action including strong narratives: “Make it clear that there will be personal consequences for taking the side of oppression.” “The best defense is a good offense! If there is a powerful movement against Trump and the forces he represents, defendants from the previous clashes will be more likely to receive the support they deserve. Keep organizing new efforts against Trump, police, nationalists, and the pipelines and profiteering from which they draw their power.” CrimethInc. also published a compelling piece after the conclusion of the first trial critiquing the state as a whole. This type of messaging was generally depreciated by J20 defendants and supporters. During moments of hardship, people can start to believe that revolutionary aims are too idealistic and naïve, and this can become infectious. We ask that people think twice about where those feelings and thoughts come from. There is no ignorance in unapologetically fighting for a freer world. If anything is naïve, it is the idea that liberalism will solve all our problems. We cannot rely solely on a few radical outlets to disseminate political narratives. We must come up with our own narratives and diffuse them in our efforts wherever we can, or else they are likely to remain limited to our own circles. We must challenge ourselves to advance our struggles. Our efforts should aim to multiply revolutionary possibilities, which means expanding on what’s already in place, not simply replicating existing modes. We need to do a better job of identifying these strengths and weaknesses in order to adjust our approaches accordingly. A multiplicity of narratives is expected. When have the people who comprise any political body been unanimous in their positions on direct action and resistance? These differences should be encouraged, not stifled. It’s important to create a diverse set of perspectives, complicating the ways in which reactionary forces seek to marginalize revolutionary gestures and their proponents. The J20 case saw some of that but ultimately too little. No tears indeed. We Are All Anarchists Yo Soy Tambien Anarquista. “I am also an anarchist.” In 2014, eleven anarchists in Spain were arrested on terrorism charges in a police action known as Operation Pandora. Seven were imprisoned; the other four were released with charges. After an extensive solidarity campaign and a couple years of court appearances, all of their charges were dropped. The solidarity campaign showed how sensationalized confrontational tactics, a diverse array of actions (e.g., graffiti, speaking events, marches), and savvy uncompromising narratives challenging innocence, guilt, and political targeting can succeed. Anarchists accurately saw the terrorism charges as a means to create fear and isolate the state’s enemies. The campaign was able to fight this and effectively garner broad support. Anarchists saw the danger of their politics being diluted by receiving such wide support. They created narratives that built broadly while maintaining their political integrity. Articulate and clear positions dignified their movement and politics while antagonizing and discrediting the state: “I too am an anarchist.” “Neither innocent nor guilty.” “The terrorist is the one who condemns us to a life of misery, not the one who rebels against it.” “Terrorism is not being able to reach the end of the month.” “The only terrorist is the capitalist state.” As is common in Spain, constant anarchist graffiti maintained an atmosphere of visibility and hostility around the case. Large marches disrupted the flow of normalcy. There were direct actions including blockades and property damage, speaking events that offered discussion and community building, and small-scale clandestine attacks. All of these applied pressure from different angles. “The Pandora solidarity campaigns included a large number of solidarity talks that gave information about the case and also talked about the importance of the practices of sabotage and insurrection that the state was trying to punish. And without a doubt, that made us stronger.” -An anonymous participant in the solidarity campaign against Operation Pandora If the state’s intention is to repress an action or political body, it can be powerful to bring the very topics it is targeting to light: to say what is happening and explain what you think it means. Generally, within the J20 solidarity campaign, discussions such as these were few and often very limited in scope. They often focused on Trumpism, the intensity of the charges, and the right to protest. This reactivity came at the cost of gaining qualitative strength. It even seemed to us that many comrades were actually unable to articulate why anyone would break a bank window or torch a limousine. Comrades near the case chose to forego discussion of why people participate in uprisings, allowing the State to keep the discourse about the more confrontational elements in the sphere of “senseless violence” and criminal activity. Whether this was due to inability or unwillingness, it reduced the overall quality of J20 solidarity. Think about Mark Bray explaining anti-fascism on the news or speaking events that discussed the uprisings in DC after Martin Luther King’s assassination and the 1991 Mount Pleasant riots. The final statement made was fine enough, but it was too little too late. An image from the 1968 Washington, DC riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination—the origin of the charges that were pressed in the J20 case. Lack of discussion of this historical link is an example of a lost opportunity. Broad support and the ability to work with others were key in the Yo Soy Tambien Anarquista campaign. In the US, however, we do not have the luxury of a strong historical memory of struggle nor the same anarchist movement. The efforts to connect with the DC Black Lives Matter chapter provide a good example of what it could look like to connect with others and their struggles in the US. At the time, this kind of work would have the most impact in Washington, DC, the main site of struggle for the case. This also offers an example of the kind of work anarchists can be doing right now to be prepared to combat isolation and repression in the future. [Insert Image: DC Black Lives Matter / Caption: “An example of how the everyday repression that marginalized communities face connects to the specialized forms of repression that activists face.”] The liberal defensive posture taken in the J20 case did garner the case media attention and superficial support from the likes of Democracy Now! But that support was rescinded as soon as “innocent” protesters, medics, and journalists were off trial and alleged breakers were up. Remembering that Democracy Now! participated in the initial media blackout of the case and the events that led up to it, we should have been prepared to shift directions when left-wing populists like them inevitably turned their backs on us. This type of betrayal is to be expected from the democratic left. It is a reminder to think about the lines we are taking and the directions for us to go at certain junctures. And it is precisely at this type of juncture that we are reminded of a saying: “Words divide—acts unite.” After the majority of defendants had their charges dropped, most people tuned out. Given the baseness of American public discourse, many of those who were reminded of the case were likely to be on the side of capitalists and their property. Again, this was the state’s strategy: divide and conquer. At this juncture, what good was appealing to notions of innocence or the right to protest? Accusing the government, the prosecution, and the police of injustice only reasserts the concept of innocence within this context. We prefer to bypass the question of guilt or innocence completely, refusing to participate in the state’s logic. The authors are split on the issue of innocence. Some of us feel that narratives of innocence are useful for garnering wide support and that they should be complemented by stauncher narratives to broaden the discourse of the issues at hand. The others prefer to bypass the question of guilt or innocence completely, refusing to participate in the logic of the state. The latter position presents an interesting challenge for us on the question of innocence. In what ways can we boldly support those who engage in militant protest? How can we dignify black/brown youth who are accused of stealing cigarettes, fleeing, or resisting in other ways that are used to justify police violence without relying on narratives of innocence? How can we combat using the language of our oppressors to create a more liberatory one? There wasn’t a cohesive strategy to support alleged breakers at this point. The campaign had largely disassociated from their situation—for example, many people spread the narrative that defendants were being charged for a handful of windows that only a few were responsible for breaking. This narrative puts alleged breakers on the receiving end of perceived guilt; it didn’t help to spread any justification or support for those who did break the windows, nor for any defendant who might be found guilty of doing so. People acting on their own initiative accomplished some of the best work that came out of the J20 efforts. However, due to confining interpersonal and structural dynamics, much of the initiative that is vital to effective organizing was inhibited. Despite this, the efforts that did make their way through were often celebrated—but only after the fact. Remember, actions inform action. The common response to repression from the onset of this case was hesitation, often constricting the effort of others. We should consider how to hone our reflexes to such situations and the dilemmas they engender—whether that means working more collaboratively or knowing when to branch off. To Libertarians In Spain, in the volatile aftermath of the Franco regime, more than fifty anarchists remained imprisoned while the more reformist elements of the CNT recuperated the movement’s revolutionary gains. These prisoners were not receiving support due to the illicit nature of their accused crimes, which included bank robberies and bombings. Anarchists in the region reached out to Guy Debord in France for help. Debord drafted the text “To Libertarians,” a militant call to action demanding the release of the prisoners. Fully 25,000 people signed their names to the appeal; the text was widely circulated throughout Spain. At that time, the Spanish government was chiefly concerned with fascist threats, leaving it precariously positioned and unable to engage the anarchists. “To Libertarians” clarified for the state what the cost of continuing to imprison dozens of anarchists would be. Thanks to bellicose words, the threat of mass mobilization, and the thorough distribution of the text, “To Libertarians” pressured the Spanish state into releasing the prisoners. The state released them on the grounds of “insufficient evidence,” despite possessing incriminating evidence against many of them. This serves as a golden example of an anti-repression campaign. It retained political integrity, utilized creative ingenuity, and defended its subjects—even the innocent ones. Click the image above to access the PDF. Our aim was to emulate this success. We saw the need to intervene after the defendants’ victory in the first trial and the subsequent dropping of 129 charges. When the prosecution was focusing on defendants accused of more explicit criminality, it was important to defend them outside and against the structures of law and order. We decided to deploy an autonomous strategy. The “Freedom for J20 Defendants” text was circulated ahead of the May trial. The text detailed our dissatisfaction with the general orientation of defendJ20resistance, our analysis of the situation, and an intense opposition to the case, its employers, and the world they inhabit. In response, we advocated a militant call to action. The strategy did not solely rely on the internet; we acknowledge the limitations of today’s oversaturation of information. We figured it would suffice to release it on radical news outlets such as itsgoingdown.org, where our enemies were sure to look. In addition, we distributed physical copies in DC where the case was taking place. An alternate and more explicit version of the text was distributed inside the courthouse café, which was frequented by lawyers, legal workers, police, security guards, and various others. In addition, copies were scattered outside both of the courthouse’s entrances and the entrances of nearby metros. The text was both emailed and physically mailed to various people including the prosecutor, the lead detective, various members of the DOJ and USAO, the former judge, and local news outlets. The text reached various local venues and was handed out to press at a press conference. Alongside the text’s circulation, complementary actions took place to apply pressure. These actions took place immediately ahead of the May trial to maximize stress on our enemies, limit their time, and proactively take advantage of any unforeseen favorable developments. Actions that shifted the atmosphere in DC and vandalism created an air of hostility towards the case. A proposal for a series of anti-repression speaking events threatened to raise social consciousness. The events were to connect various social movements, identifying the state’s mechanisms of repression. The first event took an explicitly agitational tone. Another call-in campaign furthered our goal of making the USAO a living hell. Because these actions occurred as a consequence of the J20 case, they imposed a cost for prosecuting it further. These stickers were seen throughout DC and appeared at all the metro stops near the courthouse before and after trial hearings. Kerkhoff mentioned them at court, provoking only a shrug from the judge. We believe that whoever wrote “Google Jury Nullification” in the courthouse bathroom was inspired by the sight of these stickers throughout the city. The stickers were popular; people mentioned them with joy. There was also a video. It was to be disseminated diffusely, and was for a short time; until some, upon seeing it, contemplated including it in something more concrete. The lack of a customary place to host this video points to a need for more insurrectionary infrastructure in the US. Comrades abroad utilize platforms like Actforfree and 325.nostate.net, which American comrades today don’t generally use.
Perhaps this video can serve to help demonstrate what it could look like for our movement to mobilize revolutionary solidarity in the future. If the prosecution had attempted to use these materials against the defendants, it would only have further extended their overreach. At what point do prosecutors begin to feel hopeless about trying to prove an alleged criminal conspiracy? Does a scandal such as this give them strength, or create further difficulty and confusion? We know the process can become the punishment. When do they declare “Enough”? We did not fear adding to their allegations of conspiracy, as the prosecutors already believed in these allegations and were struggling to prove them. The formal DefendJ20Resistance network was well positioned to fight against a text and video coming out of left field. Again, an attempt by the prosecution would mean an extension of their overreach, engendering activity that could bring things to the public eye. We were anticipating that the materials’ release would create scandal. Some would say “the police obviously made that” and others would surely create distance. A minority may have felt emboldened and at least everyone was healthily challenged in their views. All in all, we were content with making noise and spreading our analysis. It’s hard to say exactly what kind of effect this strategy had. But we would argue that it did indeed have one. It’s telling that we heard nothing about the article despite knowing it to have reached the opposition’s hands. We’d argue that we have to assume all this activity to have been a factor in their decision-making around the time of the second trial and the acknowledgment of the Brady violation. Like a fly buzzing in the room during a focused staring contest, increasing its volume as the contest endures. We reveal this strategy because we desire not to have to rely on a bluff. We want to facilitate the construction of a force capable of triggering widespread waves of disruption in response to crisis or repression. We want to improve and expand on the forms of solidarity we can produce and to bring the “To Libertarians” proposal into reality. Perhaps our first goal should be to arrive at a point at which we can bluff more realistically—for example, by becoming capable of utilizing our collective networks and infrastructure to present a convincing threat of mobilization. From there, the next goal would be pose the same pressure as a reality, not a bluff. (Ideally, we would skip directly to the second goal.) We propose that we need to develop enough movement intelligence and strength to have a shared instinct about when to employ various forms of disruption. This would greatly aide us in fights like the ones against DAPL, against the J20 case, against ICE detention centers and the border—fights in which it is vital to collectively act in such a way as to conjoin our strengths and make such efforts more successful, tapping into tangential possibilities and sustaining a level of uncontrollability. We would love for comrades to critically elaborate and build on this proposal. James Baldwin offers us an American vision for revolutionary solidarity. When Angela Davis was incarcerated, Baldwin wrote an open letter to her in the New York Review of Books: “One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But, no, they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses.” Revolutionary Solidarity Our opponents have interests to maintain; they factor these in when they decide how aggressively to pursue convictions in a particular case. There are boundless forces in any given situation and several ways to engage them. Taking an offensive approach means trying to make the pursuit of such cases or the sustained incarceration of the imprisoned no longer worth it. We could call this the practice of price setting: building on fighting capacities and refusing to allow the state to kidnap our comrades without repercussions. Costs may include many things, such as a prosecutor’s mental health, convenience, the USAO’s functionality (which was disrupted by call-ins), the stability of an individual’s job or even of governance as a whole. The cost of breaking a window isn’t financial but social. As many emphasized, the J20 case was never about broken windows, but political dissent. The function of repression is to suppress. By bringing forth what the state seeks to remove or minimize, we could impose costs on the forces of repression. The state fears the potential that property destruction, both the practice and the meaning behind it, will spread as a social contagion. Some may denounce the logic of “solidarity means attack.” We disagree, advocating another sense of revolutionary solidarity. It is important to remember that certain actions could adversely affect the outcome of any political trial—so choices must be made intelligently—and it is of utmost importance that political actors exercise caution in their activities. But there is a difference between caution and inaction, and the latter is unacceptable. This type of solidarity acknowledges that for the exploited, repression is a continuous ongoing process, and that all of our struggles are intimately intertwined. It affirms that there is a connection between targeted repression like the J20 case and everyday racist policing, immigrant detention centers, and the counter-insurgency strategies developed abroad. It understands that capitalism and the state operate in similar ways in very different places. What methods can we borrow across difference? What instills worry? What creates scandal? What makes the state’s pursuit undesirable? A multitude of things can be done to support the accused and combat repression: street demonstrations, fundraising, public meetings, escalating struggle, attempting to radicalize and connect with current social struggles. We should interweave them all in such a way as to deepen our struggles. For fear of justifying the repression that was already in progress, we did not take a proper stance against this system. Even small gestures such as defendants rebelling against being misgendered in court or speaking out in the face of explicit racism were discouraged. This was a mistake. Repression is an inevitable consequence of conflict; therefore, it must be incorporated into any winning revolutionary strategy. Whether we’re talking about attacks, disaster relief, or a free breakfast program, repression is sure to result if it threatens the interests of capital and state power. We do not benefit from being too tame. Furthermore, additional repression isn’t always inherently negative. We should evaluate it in relation to our overall strategy, not in a vacuum. Additional repression can offer new opportunities in the overall fight. For example, an indictment for an incendiary speech could be leveraged to (re)gain popular support. We have a choice: we can run and hide or fight back. If we give the state an inch, it will certainly take a mile. All our clichés apply here: stand firm, throw down, take up the gauntlet, hold the line—to the barricades! Repression is being meted out precisely because the social situation is becoming more precarious and because the actions for which the defendants were accused threaten the state. This means that solidarity is not simply raising money for legal defense and pleading to the state for leniency. Instead, it is an attack on power, and choosing to attack is not only refusing to bow down, but also contributing to the wider atmosphere of social antagonism. In many countries, a single slogan abounds: solidarity is a weapon. Let’s put it into practice in the US. Towards a Future January 20, 2017 saw the ushering in of a new generation of the radical left, a defining moment in a neo-fascist era. In an epoch with few such entry points, we should not understate the significance of this moment. We will not reiterate the importance of fierce resistance at Trump’s inauguration, but choosing not to act was not an option. We affirm the actions taken that day. Part of what makes these revolutionary days of action effective is how they are followed up. How do we put into perspective the anger and urgency shown that day? How can that moment permeate its way into subsequent moments—to create new ones? What does it mean to understand what occurred from each of our respective localities—and how would it look to externalize these shared perceptions within a larger social framework, creating a subjectivity that can extend beyond activist minorities and radical milieus, beyond protest towards the synthesis of a new world? Using historically grounded black bloc tactics, the counter-inaugural protests of January 20, 2017 manifested a demandless metropolitan riot with an explicitly anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian, and abolitionist orientation. The movement itself existed within a broader spectrum of resistance. Therein lies a strength with the capacity to grow relative to its ability to echo and resonate into the future. Perhaps January 20 can serve as a reference point for revolt in the years to come: an annual day of anarchist activity situated in a collective memory, with an emphasis on building power and expanding our abilities as a movement. In our present context, it feels especially important to intervene from an anti-electoral perspective, combating the next election cycle and the fallacious notion that we only need to get rid of Trump, not the system itself. Defining conflicts compel people to choose sides. There is strength in drawing lines in the sand and demonstrating that the institutions of misery we are forced to co-exist with are neither neutral nor impervious. Spreading signals of disorder can increase our tactical strength as we hone a practice of vandalism, property destruction, public occupation, and rowdiness. This interrupts the narrative of social peace and makes it indisputably clear that people are opposed to the present system and fighting against it. What better moment was there to do that than Trump’s ascendancy? As the failures of the prevailing order become ever more obvious, perhaps we should continue to force fractures of this kind. Some may scoff at insurrectionists who cite the Greek anarchist movement, but the situation in Greece is an accelerated version of our own here in the US. Comrades there have described how various sectors of the population took up the confrontational and combative tactics that had been used by anarchists in moments of crisis, such as after the police killing of Alexis Grigoropoulos. The contagion was so intense that even those who had previously decried these tactics joined in. In France, after years of riots in response to austerity measures, police brutality, and attacks on the ZAD, we are seeing disruption spread [countrywide].(http://ill-will-editions.tumblr.com/post/180774090884/next-stop-destitution-published-on-lundi-matin) “In opening up spaces free from state control, these ruptures offer an opportunity for liberation: an insurrection.” From Ferguson, Baltimore, and Standing Rock to J20, it is not a stretch to say we live in an era of increasing conflict in the US, as well. Like it or not, the future will involve social discord and revolution; things will not continue as they are forever. We would argue for agents of change to fight harder and sooner rather than later. Conflict can open up space for new perspectives, discussions, and forms of engagement while playing an important role in defending any revolutionary forms of life we create. The riot is the focal reemergence of rebellion in our era, when the relevance of the labor movement and the strike along with it has dwindled as global capitalism has expanded and adapted. The riot ascends at a time when our commonality, discontent, and strength aren’t primarily formed by our labor power but by our dispossession. This is a time of destitution, when broad antagonisms will continue to take shape against the state and the police. We ask that we be bolder in what we disseminate, plan, and do. That we begin to take ourselves and the freedom we aspire to more seriously. While acknowledging its limits, we ask that we start taking disruption more seriously. The disruptions that most prominently define our time are the riot, the blockade, the occupation, and, on the horizon, the commune. The decision to retreat from combative tactics should only come after we have gained significant strength. “The question of pacifism is serious only for those who have the ability to open fire. In this case, pacifism becomes a sign of power, since it’s only in an extreme position of strength that we are freed from the need to fire.” -The Invisible Committee In the past, there have been traditions of solidarity that meant continuing the struggles of those imprisoned or murdered by the state. Let us acknowledge the effects of repression from the J20 case as ongoing and strive to continue with the aims of revolutionary struggle as a practice of solidarity with the case’s defendants and supporters. For freedom! -Some comrades (ex-defendants and not) We Coming for Your Finger Sandwiches
On February 1, 2019, officers of the FSB, the Russian state security apparatus descended from the KGB, arrested a dozen people in the latest wave of their campaign of repression against accused anarchists throughout the country. After brutally torturing them over the following 24 hours in order to force them to agree to incriminating statements, they released 11 of them. The twelfth arrestee, Azat Miftakhov, temporarily disappeared within the legal system while the FSB continued torturing him and refusing his lawyer access to him. This is just the latest in a series of events in which the FSB have systematically employed torture to force arrestees to sign false confessions in order to fabricate “terrorist conspiracies” involving activists. This pattern will continue until people put enough pressure on the Russian government to discourage it from disappearing and torturing young people—or else, if this does not occur, until the secret police serving other governments, emboldened by the successes of the FSB, escalate their own use of torture and fabricated “conspiracies” to suppress activism in other countries as well.
Azat Miftakhov is a graduate student of the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics of Moscow State University, where his colleagues have signed an open letter of support for him, reproduced below. Extensive reporting on these events, including interviews with several of the tortured arrestees, is available here in Russian. For more background on the torture cases in Russia, read the full report we published last year. To keep up with Russian solidarity organizing around these cases, visit rupression.com.
New Repression against Russian Anarchists
This text reached us from Russian comrades who coordinate legal support and solidarity for anarchists targeted by the FSB.
On February 1, in Moscow, the Russian FSB raided several flats and arrested 10 people on charges of “conspiracy.” All of them were released after day-long interrogation and physical torture, except one person, Azat Miftakhov. He is accused of “fabricating explosives” and being a member of a “radical anarchist organization Narodnaya Samooborona” (Peoples’ Self-Defense). Over the past year, this organization has become the main target of police repression in Russia: several accused members of the group have been arrested, tortured, or threatened. Some had to leave the country under threat of long prison terms and torture.
One of the arrested anarchists, Daniil Galkin, has reported about the torture. After his arrest, he was beaten and tortured with electroshock in the police car for two or three hours. Under torture, Galkin was forced to say that Azat Miftakhov was an anarcho-communist and took part in anarchist actions. Galkin was forced to give an interview that was compromising anarchists to a federal TV-channel “First Channel” (Perviy Canal), and to promise to “collaborate with the police by providing information about anarchist actions.”
In the police station of Balashiha in the Moscow region, Galkin saw Azat: he was threatened by the FSB officers, and his arms were wringed. According to Galkin, Azat “did not look like a human being” as a consequence of the torture. He also said he heard the screams of one of the arrested women activists, who was kept in the room next to his. He also heard that one of the arrested anarchists had cut his veins and taken pills in order to avoid further torture in hopes of not giving any information about other comrades. According to other witnesses and journalists, that person was Azat Miftakhov.
Azat was kept in detention in that police station until late at night; he was not permitted to see his lawyer. At night, he was dragged out of the police station right past his lawyer, who had been waiting for him, and conducted in an unknown direction. We do not know anything about his actual location, as of February 2 at 6 pm. We think he’s still being tortured and forced to give information about his comrades and himself.
We ask for solidarity actions, the spreading of this news, and financial support.
In Russia (and the recently annexed territories, such as Crimea), there are currently several penal cases in which anarchists are facing “terrorist” charges. These include the “Network” case, the case against anarchist Vyatcheslav Lukichev, the case against anarchist Kirill Kuzminkin, and the case against Crimean anarchist Evgeniy Karakashev.
In order to donate to the legal defense of Azat Miftakhov and other Russian activists:
Account number : 40817810238050715588
Name : AKIMENKOV VLADIMIR GEORGIEVITCH
Please indicate “solidarity donation” when making your transfer.
An Open Letter in Support of Mathematician Azat Miftakhov
The following text was published in Russian and English here.
Considering different sources, on February 1, 2019, Azat Miftakhov, postgraduate of the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics of Moscow State University, was detained on suspicion of manufacturing explosives. He was tortured by the police and Russian Security Service; according to the words of Daniil Galkin, who was detained together with Azat, “he no longer looked like a human being.” Torture had been used to obtain testimony against Miftakhov. Security forces are concealing Miftakhov’s location from his lawyer Svetlana Sidorkina. At the time of this publication, she was not admitted to her client. Consequently, according to information from the lawyer and other detainees, Azat tried to cut his veins.
Azat Miftakhov just started his mathematical career: his first mathematical paper, “On weak convergence of finite-dimensional and infinite-dimensional distributions of random processes” in collaboration with Professor Vladimir I. Bogachev, was published in 2016.
We, the undersigned representatives of the mathematical community and others in solidarity with them, are extremely concerned about the current situation. We demand that the authorities report the location of mathematician Azat Miftakhov and his health status immediately, and admit the lawyer to see him. We also demand that they stop torturing Miftakhov and the other detainees, and we call for a transparent and fair trial.
Update: Azat Mivtahov has been found in the police station in Balashikha, Moscow region. The investigator claims he was arrested only at 19:10 pm on February, 2. Azat and his lawyer confirmed the use of torture.
During the inauguration of Donald Trump, police surrounded and arrested over 200 people in the vicinity of a confrontational march. Prosecutors brought identical felony charges against almost every single arrestee in one of the most dramatic escalations of state repression of the Trump era. For a year and a half, people around the United States mobilized to support the defendants and beat back this attempt to set a new precedent in repression. The J20 case was one of the most important court cases about the freedom to protest in modern US history. We present the full story here to equip readers for future struggles like it.
On January 20, 2017, tens of thousands of people gathered in Washington, DC to ring in the reign of Donald Trump with protest and rebellion, shattering the spectacle of a peaceful transition of power. What could have been a day of resignation and defeat became a flashpoint of defiance and resistance. Aiming to help set a tone of joyous rebellion for the coming years, protestors engaged in street theater, blockades, and militant street actions.
But with resistance comes repression. In addition to shooting pepper spray and concussion grenades indiscriminately at protesters from 10:30 am until well after dark, DC police attacked the Anti-Fascist/Anti-Capitalist March, kettling hundreds of people at 12th and L Street. Several dozen people valiantly charged the police line and escaped, but the majority were trapped in the cold for hours as police slowly arrested and processed them. This was the largest unplanned mass arrest DC had witnessed since the People’s Strike fifteen years earlier.
Of the 234 people arrested, 230 were indicted on identical counts of felony rioting, a charge that is a laughably false interpretation of the relevant statute. The state dropped the charges for 16 people, mainly journalists and a few medics, before the first superseding indictment in February, which also failed to correctly ground the charges in the cited statute. On April 27, a grand jury returned a second superseding indictment increasing the charges to a minimum of 8 felonies each. After a few people took pleas and a judge adjusted the charges to account for the fact that two of the felonies were not even on the books as a legitimate charge, approximately 200 people each faced six felonies (riot and 5 counts of property destruction, charged collectively under conspiracy liability) and two misdemeanors (engaging in a riot and conspiracy to riot, which provided the grounding for the 5 felony property destruction charges).
Defendants could have reacted to these outrageous charges by taking plea deals or going it alone. Instead, in an astonishing display of solidarity, almost two hundred people committed to fighting the charges together despite the extremely difficult circumstances. In an attempt to keep everyone out of jail, the defendants invested in collective legal strategies wherever possible and used solidarity and mutual support to keep each other safe, ultimately choosing to go to trial instead of accepting plea deals.
The J20 case was one of the largest political conspiracy cases in the history of the United States. The state intended to stifle resistance in the Trump era—to criminalize political rebellion, establish dangerous new legal precedents for conspiracy convictions, and send the message that resistance would not be tolerated.
The J20 prosecutions corresponded with a broader wave of reaction extending from the arrests and grand jury investigations of indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock to the backlash against Black Lives Matter and other instances of black-led resistance. They were connected with efforts to make the legal system even more repressive at state and local levels—including the proposal of anti-protest laws in eighteen state legislatures, with the intention of further criminalizing common tactics such as highway takeovers and in some cases making it legal for drivers to intentionally hit protesters in roadways.
The government hoped to expand its repressive powers by recasting holding meetings and marching as a group as evidence of criminal conspiracy. They claimed that being in the same place at the same time dressed in similar clothing added up to conspiracy and that the defendants were aiding and abetting a riot by virtue of their mere presence. The idea was to hold people culpable for acts committed in proximity to them. This is why all 200+ defendants were charged with the same counts of property destruction—the idea was that all 200+ of them had actively participated in breaking a small number of windows.
The charges against the J20 defendants were an experiment. If the state had successfully set new legal precedents with which to convict defendants of conspiracy, it would have impacted protest movements around the country. While the state gambled that they would be able to use collective liability to bring about collective punishment, the defendants staked everything on collective defense. In the end, the state overextended and lost.
How did the defendants and their supporters accomplish this monumental feat? We’ll explore why this case was so important, documenting the legal saga from the arrests up to the day the last charges were dropped, and highlight the legal strategies that defendants used to keep each other safe and prevent the state from gaining another weapon to use against our movements.
Many different actors played important roles in this story. Let’s go through each of them in turn.
For the purposes of this text, anyone who was arrested on J20 and did not take a plea deal falls into the category of defendant. The defendants were scattered around the country, but predominantly on the eastern seaboard. Defendants endured up to a year and a half of legal limbo that disrupted their lives, leaving them unsure of their futures in the face of potentially decades in prison. Many participated in creating legal strategies, publicizing the case to the media, and holding local fundraisers and events to raise awareness about the case—all while holding onto each other for dear life, hoping to get to the other side in one piece.
Many who watched their friends and loved ones enduring this trying ordeal helped by publicizing the case, consulting lawyers, cooking food for defendants and other supporters, publishing articles and editorials, raising money, showing up in court, facilitating spokescalls, and more.
Defend J20 was the public face of the ad-hoc defense committee formed in the wake of the J20 arrests; they maintained defendJ20resistance.org, the chief website offering information about the case and how to support the defense.
Judge Lynn Leibovitz
Known among her colleagues as one of the meanest judges in DC, Leibovitz presided over the cases in DC Superior Court until the end of 2017. She established herself early on as an acerbic and antagonistic representative of the state who was no friend to defendants. Leibovitz had made her name earlier by sentencing a 78-year-old anti-war protester to jail time and imposing a gratuitously harsh sentence on DC graffiti artist Borf, who responded in an interview with the Washington City Paper by comparing her to a piece of excrement. The comparison is unfair: no piece of excrement ever presided over the kidnapping, captivity, and brutalization of thousands of people.
Judge Robert Morin
Morin was the first of two DC Superior Court judges assigned to preside over the case after Leibovitz. From the start, he appeared more sympathetic to the case, hampering the state’s overreach by limiting the Facebook and Dreamhost subpoenas. He issued the sanctions for the Brady violation after Kerkhoff’s office was caught dishonestly withholding evidence.
Judge Kimberly Knowles
The second of two DC Superior Court judges assigned to preside over the case after Leibovitz, Knowles oversaw the second trial.
The US Attorney prosecutes all criminal cases in DC, which does not control its own criminal justice system as a de-facto colony of the US. Assistant United States attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff was assigned lead prosecutor of the J20 cases. She sought to advance her career by ruining the lives of the defendants by any means necessary—remorselessly misrepresenting them, the events of January 20, and the law itself, as well as mendaciously concealing exonerating evidence. Despite batting 0 for 194 with the J20 cases, Kerkhoff was promoted shortly afterwards to head up the felony major trial division, which is often assigned the state’s most important cases. Kerkhoff’s office has a long history of misconduct, J20 not withstanding, making her the perfect candidate to do the state’s dirty work.
Another assistant United States attorney, Qureshi was assigned to help Kerkhoff prosecute the cases. It was Qureshi who filed the motion to drop all the remaining J20 charges in July 2018.
You might think it would make sense for defendants engaging in a collective legal strategy and being tried by the state in groups to be able to share lawyers. But no, that would constitute a “conflict of interest,” in which a lawyer’s ability to represent one defendant could be adversely affected by duties to another defendant. Every single defendant had to have a different lawyer, and some had several lawyers. Some defendants hired private counsel, but most were represented by lawyers assigned at random by the court under the Criminal Justice Act (CJA), sometimes referred to as “CJA lawyers.” A few of these lawyers were extremely capable and willing participants in collective defense, but most were overworked, difficult to reach, hesitant to do what their clients wanted, and absolutely baffled by the idea that their clients wanted to engage in collective defense instead of facing the case as isolated individuals.
The Metropolitan Police Department
The MPD were the ones in charge of patrolling the streets of DC on the day of Trump’s inauguration. They showered protesters and passersby with sting-ball grenades and peppery spray throughout the day, senselessly targeting small children and the elderly. The ranks of the MPD include Commander Keith Deville, who was in charge of police operations throughout DC during the inauguration, undercover DC police officer Bryan Adelmeyer, who attended the January 7 planning meeting, and Peter Newsham, who ordered the mass arrest of almost 400 people at the World Bank protests in 2002 and was named Chief of Police in February 2017. A number of officers provided testimony in the two trials, including Ashley Anderson, Michael Howden, and William Chatman.
DisruptJ20 was the banner under which people organized for J20 and administered the disruptJ20.org site, which disseminated information about counter-inaugural events. The host of the site, DreamHost, was later subpoenaed to provide IP addresses for 1.3 million visitors. DisruptJ20.org is already offline, underscoring the importance of anarchists maintaining our own archives.
Dead City Legal Posse
DCLP was a collective of activists and legal support workers formed specifically in response to the needs of J20 defendants. They put in countless unpaid hours wrangling lawyers, raising money, obtaining housing for defendants and supporters visiting DC for court, reimbursing people for their travel expenses to DC, coordinating solidarity demonstrations at court appearances, and more.
MACC is the legal support arm of the New York Metropolian Anarchist Coordinating Council. It includes anarchists with many years of experience of enduring repression and navigating the legal system. They offered support, insight, and legal guidance throughout the case.
The Scuffletown Anti-Repression Committee is a defense committee formed in Richmond, VA after the inauguration to support J20 defendants and fight state repression on other fronts.
The Legal Saga: From the Arrests to the Dropping of the Last Charges
By the evening of January 21, everyone who had been arrested at the inauguration had walked out of jail into the arms of comrades; the one exception was Dane Powell.1 The arrestees received food, drinks, hugs, cheers, songs, and metro cards on their release, and some were given phones to replace those stolen by the government. At their court appearances prior to release, each had received one charge of felony rioting. This charge was levied indiscriminately against all defendants, even though there is no statute making “rioting” a felony charge in Washington, DC—the city statute classifies it as a misdemeanor. In late January, a grand jury returned an indictment upholding the “felony rioting” charge against nearly all of the arrestees.
Washington, DC doesn’t have cash bail; people had to wait to get out, but they didn’t have to pay to get out. To bail out over 200 people arrested on felony charges in a city with cash bail might have been well nigh impossible. In most places, when ordinary poor people are arrested—often on charges as trumped up as the J20 case—they frequently serve months or years in jail before they get to trial.2
A grand jury released an initial superseding indictment in February 2017, including 214 defendants and dropping charges against 16 people who were mostly journalists, like Evan Engle.
The state made its second move in late March 2017, when attorney Kerkhoff submitted a proposal to Judge Leibovitz to group the cases together. Leibovitz accepted the grouping system, instructing Kerkhoff that she wanted six-person trial blocks because it would be too burdensome for the jury to hear more than six cases at a time. Despite everyone receiving the same blanket charges, the defendants were prioritized into different groups based on alleged conduct and affiliation. There were four different groups, though the reasoning behind the groupings was never made explicit. Group 1 appeared to contain the defendants who faced the greatest risk of spending time in jail. Groups 1 and 2 were comparatively small; most defendants were in Groups 3 and 4. Soon after the groupings were announced, Kerkhoff started to offer plea deals to defendants in Groups 3 and 4. These pleas included a misdemeanor charge reduction and required an allocution—a statement of facts—but did not require the defendants to cooperate with the state against other defendants.
CrimethInc., subMedia, and It’s Going Down called for the first week of solidarity to support arrestees on April 1 to 7, connecting the case to Standing Rock and other struggles taking place around the US. That week, MPD raided an alleged J20 organizer’s house, seizing thousands of dollars in electronics and taking fliers and flags.
On April 27, a grand jury returned a second superseding indictment filed by the prosecution, upholding the initial charge of rioting and adding several more felony charges to each defendant: inciting to riot, conspiracy to riot, and five counts of destruction of property. Roughly half of the defendants were also charged with the same count of assault on a police officer. Three additional people were indicted for the first time under this superseding indictment, including the person who had been the target of the police raid, who was accused of being an organizer of the demonstrations on January 20.
Adding additional matching felony charges to hundreds of defendants rounded up in a mass arrest was unprecedented in the contemporary US legal system; it marked a dramatic escalation in the repression of protest. Essentially, over two hundred people swept up for being in the vicinity of a confrontational protest were being accused of breaking the same handful of windows. Kerkhoff hoped to use Pinkerton Liability to frame the defendants as culpable of the damage even if they did not even see any of the windows being broken. The additional indictments of suspected organizers reinforced the political nature of the case.3
The pre-trial hearings dragged on for months before there was any talk of scheduling trials. The prosecution hoped to have plenty of time to build cases against certain defendants while pressuring the others to accept plea deals. A dozen or so people took pleas in the first few months after the superseding indictment, mostly under the parameters of the Youth Rehabilitation Act, according to which defendants under 24 can have misdemeanors expunged from their record after a year. A total of 20 defendants eventually took plea deals—but remarkably, not one agreed to inform to the state about anyone else.
Some defendants and supporters had begun to organize immediately after the initial arraignment; many more began organizing in response to the additional charges. Many defendants had been scattered and disconnected over the first few months, but the high stakes of the case were becoming clear. At first, informal regional anarchist networks were the chief sources of connection and support; for the most part, these were centered around places where there were many defendants, including New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Richmond, Pittsburgh, Washington, DC, and the entire state of North Carolina. Defendants and supporters began to collectively strategize over spokescalls to facilitate coordination between these hubs as well as loop in the many defendants from other areas.
People spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what a collective defense might look like. Ultimately, they arrived at the following points of unity. While not all of the defendants signed on to the points of unity, over 130 did—an overwhelming majority.
In order to stand together and support one another through this stressful time, we defendants agree on the following points of unity:
We will not cooperate against any of our codefendants, nor accept any plea deals that cooperate with prosecutors at the expense of other codefendants.
We will refuse to accept that any of the charges or actions of law enforcement were necessary or justified.
We will share information, resources, and strategy when possible and beneficial. We will not say anything publicly or privately that has the possibility of harming individual defendants or defendants as a group.
We will support decisions individual defendants make, even if we do not agree with them, as long as they do not directly go against the other principles.
In late spring 2017, there were four large defendant assemblies in DC after several days during which many defendants were arraigned and had their trial dates set. In response to the more vulnerable Group 1 defendants having their trials scheduled first, defendants and their supporters devised a legal strategy intended to force the state’s hand. In hopes of preventing the state from framing the narrative by prosecuting higher-stakes defendants first, defendants adopted an early trial strategy, proposing that some Group 4 defendants should bravely seek early trial dates. If the state lost, this could delegitimize the charges and punch holes in the case for conspiracy and collective liability.
Of course, if the defendants who sought an early trial lost in court, it could have had the opposite effect.
Surprisingly, Judge Leibovitz affirmed the Group 4 defendants’ right to a speedy trial and set two early trial groups for November and December 2017, before the trials already set for Group 1 defendants. All summer, defendants and supporters were busy working with the more responsive attorneys, seeking new lawyers, mulling over legal strategies, creating media about the case, doing interviews as the case finally started to get traction in mainstream news, raising money, researching defense arguments, and struggling to compel lawyers to embrace the collective defense strategy despite their misgivings.
In late July 2017, a hearing took place regarding various motions to dismiss the indictment. Leibovitz threw out the assault on an officer charge, finding that the statute cited was outdated and hadn’t been in effect in 2017. In September, she denied the defense’s motion to dismiss the conspiracy and riot charges, confirming that the defendants could be prosecuted under the riot statute: “Each charged defendant who can be shown to be an aider and abettor of those engaging in or inciting the riot is liable as if he were a principal.” Because the police alleged that the arrestees were a “cohesive unit,” Judge Leibovitz affirmed that there was enough probable cause to uphold the arrests.
In November, soon before the first trial began, Leibovitz issued a ruling reducing two of the eight felonies (“engaging in a riot” and “conspiracy to riot”) to misdemeanors. She clarified that engaging in a riot had always been a misdemeanor charge in DC law, not a felony.
Let us pause in awe at the stupefying hypocrisy of those who profess to believe in the “rule of law.” How can it be that the prosecutor, the court bureaucracy, and two grand juries were permitted to terrorize two hundred defendants with multiple nonexistent felony charges for nearly a year? Surely, if anyone is still naïve enough to earnestly believe in the rule of law, they should consider those who are complicit in pressing nonexistent charges to be the number one threat to civil society. Prosecutors, police, and judges neither believe in nor uphold the rule of law any more than the most iconoclastic anarchist does. The difference is that anarchists are honest about this and propose an ethical alternative, whereas the professionals of the justice industry shamelessly pursue personal gain and little else.
With the first trials approaching, October and early November 2017 saw multiple pre-trial hearings at which Judge Leibovitz again surprised defendants by agreeing with defense attorneys’ insistence on adherence to basic criminal procedure, limiting identification by video footage and affirming basic legal procedures of eye-witness identification. The prosecution seemed stunned that they would have to abide by these basic rules. The prosecution’s strategy of having the lead detective on the case, Greggory Pemberton, identify defendants based on his literally thousands of hours spent pouring over video footage was strictly limited to pointing out identifiable items of clothing and equipment visible in different video recordings and letting a jury decide whether or not the individuals in the footage could indeed be positively identified as the defendants on trial.
Immediately before the November trial began, Kerkhoff’s office dropped most of the charges for the December trial group and reduced the rest to misdemeanors (conspiracy to riot, engaging in a riot, and one count of property destruction). Because the defendants now faced less than two years’ potential jail time, they no longer had the right to a jury trial; instead, Judge Leibovitz was to decide their guilt in a bench trial. It appeared that Kerkhoff and the US Attorney’s office were trying out two different legal strategies while seeking to reduce the workload involved in the prosecution. Even if Kerkhoff lost the trial involving the November trial group, she could still hope Leibovitz would hand down misdemeanor convictions in December. Perhaps Kerkhoff hoped this move would encourage the November trial block to file for a continuance or accept her misdemeanor plea deals, and that afterwards she could either convict the December trial group or try them after Group 1 defendants as she had originally planned. In any case, none of that came to pass.
Eight defendants were originally set to go to trial on November 20, 2017, but only six ended up standing trial and the starting date of trial was pushed up to November 15. One person scheduled to be tried in this block was dropped from it immediately before jury selection, because, as he was told, all of his discovery belonged to a different defendant. The defendants who did go to trial included two street medics and a photojournalist.
The trial lasted six long weeks, starting with jury selection and extending through day after day of deceitful police testimony as Kerkhoff attempted to build a conspiracy case. Kerkhoff admitted from the outset that she had no evidence to prove that the six defendants took part in property destruction. Instead, she sought convictions based on conspiracy; her case rested on demonstrating that all of the defendants willfully aligned themselves with the group. It was cohesion—aesthetic, political, and tactical—that the prosecution deemed criminal. Kerkhoff focused on emphasizing that the demonstrators wore similar clothing, arrived at a predetermined location for a public march, chanted, and covered their faces with masks, goggles, or gas masks.
“The evidence so far against numerous defendants amounts to no more than video footage of their continued presence in the march and their choice of black bloc attire. If the mass arrest was imprecise enough to sweep up journalists and legal observers, how can it be maintained that the police had probable cause to arrest every single other protester for rioting and inciting? If continued presence, proximity, and black garb is sufficient for the necessary legal standard of individuated probable cause for arrest and prosecution under these charges, the DC police and the government have, from day one of Trump’s presidency, lowered the standard for what it takes to turn a protester into a felon.”
In addition to relying on officer testimony as the foundation of her case, Kerkhoff presented video footage surreptitiously taken by Project Veritas, an extreme-right project that “infiltrated” public organizing meetings ahead of the J20 day of action. The collusion with Project Veritas coupled with the prosecution’s practice of withholding and doctoring evidence ultimately proved fatal to the case.
On December 21, after three days of deliberation, the jury acquitted all six defendants on all charges. As one member of the jury told Unicorn Riot, “The prosecution admitted the morning of day one that they would present no evidence that any of the defendants committed any acts of violence or vandalism. From that point, before the defense ever uttered a sound, it was clear to me that ultimately we would find everyone not guilty.”
After the first trial, the case against the remaining defendants began to disintegrate. Fully 188 defendants were still facing charges, and the DC Attorney’s Office promised “the same rigorous review for each defendant,” insisting that they would subject each and every one of the defendants to a similar trial in hopes of securing convictions.
This was just a bluff, a final blustering attempt to terrorize the defendants into accepting plea deals before the prosecution began to collapse. A day before the one-year anniversary of the J20 arrests, for which a third week of nationwide solidarity actions were planned, Kerkhoff’s office dropped all the charges against 129 defendants, including the defendants originally scheduled for the second trial in December. A hearing in March determined that the charges were dropped without prejudice—i.e., the state could theoretically reopen the charges any time before the statute of limitations expired.
The prosecution announced that it would pursue charges against a “smaller, core group most responsible for the destruction and violence that took place on January 20.” According to a motion filed by Kerkhoff’s office,
“The government is focusing its efforts on prosecuting those defendants who: (1) engaged in identifiable acts of destruction, violence, or other assaultive conduct; (2) participated in the planning of the violence and destruction; and/or (3) engaged in conduct that demonstrates a knowing and intentional use of the black-bloc tactic on January 20, 2017, to perpetrate, aid or abet violence and destruction.”
The indictment, however, remained the same. Group 1 defendants were still scheduled for trials beginning in March 2018, while accused J20 organizers were set to go to trial April 17. Part of the Group 1 defendants’ strategy was to seek continuances, hoping to delay trial until after the April trial block. Letting supposed organizers go to trial first would reinforce the fact that these cases were political in nature. Judge Morin granted the requested continuances and the Group 1 defendants were distributed among the other trial blocks.
The US Attorney’s office filed a notice in early March 2018 declaring that it planned to call an FBI agent who worked undercover infiltrating the anarchist movement to serve as an expert witness. They requested that this expert’s identity be concealed for her safety, even though she is no longer involved in active cases. Defense attorneys filed motions to exclude the government’s anonymous witness, arguing that the prosecution had cited no principle or method that could qualify her testimony as “expert.” Judge Morin denied the Government’s witness, alias “Julie McMahon.”
Kerkhoff’s office then requested a continuance for the two April trials, citing the denial of their previous expert witness. It was granted; in court filings, the government emphasized that it needed an expert to win convictions. The US Attorney’s office filed a notice declaring their intention to call FBI counterterrorism analyst Christina Williams as an expert witness. William’s credentials as an expert on the black bloc tactic rely entirely on open source research, including a recent book by Dartmouth professor Mark Bray.
The fourth day of solidarity actions was called for April 20, 2018, following a call-in day to pressure the prosecution. The CrimethInc. call read,
“Until all the charges are dropped, Donald Trump and Jennifer Kerkhoff are publicly humiliated, the US ‘justice system’ is abolished, and every last chicken comes home to roost!”
In mid-May 2018, four defendants started trial overseen by Judge Knowles. The state claimed it didn’t need an expert witness for these trials, so they proceeded as planned. The prosecution attempted to use the same arguments from the first trial to build a case, even though this time, the trial block included alleged “breakers.” Compared to the first trial, this one was a short two weeks.
While the closing arguments were taking place, hearings took place in Morin’s courtroom for the May 29 and June 4 trial blocks. In the course of these hearings, the defense alleged that Kerkhoff’s office had willfully withheld evidence. The defense had filed motions expressing this earlier, after the state uploaded additional video footage that the defense had never seen before to a discovery database shared by the prosecution and the defense. Judge Morin agreed that the state had in fact withheld exculpatory evidence, violating the Brady rule, which stipulates that prosecutors must disclose any information that might help the defense in advance of trial. It turned out that Kerkhoff’s office had not just withheld one video, but at least 69 videos.
Judge Morin indicated that he would introduce sanctions against the US Attorney for the Brady violation, but would rule on them the following week. Kerkhoff tried to pre-empt the sanctions by moving to drop charges without prejudice (i.e., charges can be re-filed before the statute of limitations is up) against seven defendants—the six who were to start trial on June 4 and one who was scheduled to start trial on May 29—and reducing the charges against the remaining three defendants on the May 29 trial to misdemeanors. Due to the wide scope of the Brady violation, Judge Morin responded to the prosecution’s motion by dismissing the conspiracy charges with prejudice (so the charges could not be re-filed) and forbade the government from proceeding on conspiracy charges or Pinkerton liability for all the remaining defendants.
Kerkhoff then dropped all the charges against the three defendants who were to go to trial on May 29. That left 44 defendants with charges.
Back in Knowles’ courtroom, the jury had started to deliberate regarding the verdict. One juror reportedly communicated to the judge that they had seen “google jury nullification” graffiti in the bathroom and had, in fact, looked up the term. Jury nullification is when a jury knowingly and intentionally finds a defendant not guilty if they do not support a law, because the law is contrary to the jury’s sense of justice or fairness or because they do not support a possible punishment for breaking the law. Despite this, neither side pushed for a mistrial. The following day, another juror admitted to the judge that he saw information on twitter that made him question the prosecution’s credibility. This juror remained on the jury, despite requests by Kerkhoff’s office that he be replaced.
After several days of deliberation, the jury failed to find any defendant guilty of any charge. One defendant was acquitted on all charges; the jury was deadlocked on all charges for another defendant and mixed on charges for the remaining two defendants. A deadlocked jury means a mistrials, and mistrials mean that the state can re-file charges within 30 days. But the state never re-filed charges against these defendants.
In the beginning of July, the US Attorney’s office conceded total defeat after a year and half of persecuting the J20 defendants, dropping the charges against the remaining 39 defendants (albeit without prejudice). Against all odds, the defendants had won.
It is encouraging that people stuck together, that most people didn’t plea, that no one informed on anyone else, that people were willing to risk trial even when their best legal and personal option might have been to take a plea deal.
Yet it should not be lost on us that this victory took place on a stage crafted by the state. Facing decades in cages, defendants engaged in this struggle because they had no other choice. And while the charges were mostly bully tactics aimed at trying to expand the definition of conspiracy and liability, the danger was very real. Others got involved in this struggle because they could see the broader implications if the state won. Fundamentally, this was a matter of movement defense.
The victory took place after the much of the process-as-punishment had already been meted out. The J20 charges distracted hundreds of people from engaging in other forms of social struggle for up to a year and a half. They confined a large number of presumably brave and capable people to a state of torpor in which many did not risk engaging in street actions because of the potential impact that could have on their pending cases.
It’s lucky for everyone that the case ended the way it did. It would have been a long and draining process to sustain the level of organizing through dozens of trials or to do ongoing prisoner support.
Defendants and supporters discussed several other legal strategies that were not ultimately employed, including a collective non-cooperating plea agreement aimed at minimizing the risks facing the defendants in the worst positions. The idea of seeking a “global plea” for all defendants surfaced again and again without gaining much traction.
Let’s be clear: all engagement with the legal system is harm reduction. There is no justice to be found in the justice industry. While we achieved certain goals with the strategies we employed, we should evaluate our achievements in the context of our larger aim of building a revolutionary movement that can ultimately overthrow the prevailing order. Avoiding prison time is not the same as winning freedom for all. We must not let the state intimidate us into narrowing the scope of our ambitions or abandoning our original goals.
The State and Its Ambitions
We can safely assume that at least some of the state’s functionaries thought these charges would stick. This is borne out by the fact that the original charges were expanded rather than dropped in the superseding indictment. There’s no doubt that prosecutors wanted to use the threat of 75 years in prison to force people to take pleas, but they also aimed to establish a different reading of collective liability.
It was hardly unusual that the J20 case targeted participants in a black bloc. The state has been carrying out mass arrests at summit protests and criminalizing militant tactics for decades. But this was a broader and more ambitious extension of the use of conspiracy laws. In fact, if the prosecutors had limited themselves to charging a few specific individuals with property destruction, they might have secured convictions and prison time.
The indictment cited defendants as co-conspirators on the grounds that they concealed their faces, wore black, moved as unit, and chanted the same slogans. It cast the black bloc as a coherent ideology rather than simply a tactic. The prosecution aimed to synonymize “black bloc” with riot, implying that anyone wearing black near a bloc is participating in a riot. This new use of conspiracy laws echoed the ways that conspiracy and anti-mask laws have recently been used elsewhere around the world, notably in the Locke Street case in Hamilton, Ontario.
While many people compared this mass arrest to the World Bank arrests in 2002, the state repeatedly referred to Carr, a case involving a much smaller mass arrest in 2005 that occurred the evening of the second Bush inauguration in 2005, following an “Anti-Inaugural Concert.” In that case, a court ruled that the police had broad authority to arrest an entire crowd if it was “substantially infected with violence” and if they couldn’t distinguish who was doing what.
The authorities weren’t just seeking convictions. This is most evident in the way they played their hand: typically, when the cops carry out a mass arrest, they press serious charges against a few arrestees they are sure they can convict while ticketing or fining everyone else. The aggressive persecution of everyone arrested that day reaffirms that the top priority of the administration was to set a tone from day one that resistance would not be tolerated, even if that meant risking a loss in court.
“The charges themselves were the punishment.” We heard this time and time again from those deep in the case. While it’s not clear how high up in the government the order to pursue these charges originated, the J20 ordeal was clearly designed to make protesters conclude that it’s not worth it to protest. If we don’t want that lesson to sink in, we have to use the J20 case to mobilize more protest and organizing than would have occurred otherwise, and ensure that it costs the government more than it intimidates people.
The State Plays Dirty
The state’s overreach extended far outside the courtroom. They demanded vast troves of website data by issuing a warrant to DreamHost, the company that hosted DisruptJ20.org. The Department of Justice initially demanded that DreamHost turn over nearly 1.3 IP addresses on visitors to the site. It should be noted here that site administrators for DisruptJ20.org intentionally didn’t store this data, but DreamHost did. The initial warrant also sought all emails associated with the account and unpublished content such as drafted blog posts and photos.
This prompted much outcry from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and similar groups. The DOJ also seized information from Facebook regarding the DisruptJ20 page and two J20 protest spokespersons via warrants complete with accompanying gag orders that barred the targets from being informed for seven months. Judge Morin eventually ruled that DreamHost could redact all identifying information before handing over data to the court and put additional limits on the Facebook requests, allowing Facebook to redact the identifying information of all third parties.
The government extracted terabytes of personal data from any defendant’s cell phone that was not protected by encryption. At the same time, the prosecution requested a rare “protective” order to keep defendants from sharing police body camera footage with the media—complicating efforts to prepare a defense and shielding law enforcement from public exposure.
Seeking to bully people where it imagined them to be most vulnerable, the prosecutor’s office offered “wired” plea deals to defendants it presumed to share romantic relationships. In a “wired” plea, both defendants have to accept the deal for it to be valid for either. If a couple were offered a “wired” plea deal and refused, Kerkhoff’s office would stipulate that to take an individual plea, either defendant would have to sign a statement of facts potentially incriminating the other.
The state also colluded with right-wing, ultra-conservative Project Veritas, relying on undercover videos of J20 organizing meetings produced by Project Veritas as evidence. Project Veritas is known for heavily editing its videos, and that is apparent in the videos introduced in this case. One of the videos that prosecutors introduced came from the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group, overlaid with audio from a Project Veritas video and including a slideshow of pictures from the protest. Prosecutors played these videos in court just one day after Project Veritas sent a woman undercover to the Washington Post dishonestly pretending to be a victim of Roy Moore, a US Senate candidate accused of sexual misconduct.
The Project Veritas videos ultimately brought about the downfall of the prosecution, as Kerkhoff’s office had dishonestly edited the videos before submitting them as evidence. It’s not unusual that the prosecution lied—practically all prosecutors lie on a daily basis and face no consequences for it—but that they lied so carelessly as to be caught.
“To be sure, the people most affected be prosecutorial deception are often not activists, but people of color facing crimes of poverty and the so-called War on Drugs. The injustice of the criminal legal system extends far beyond the repression meted out against the J20 defendants, with one key difference being there isn’t national media attention to put a spotlight on this kind of daily “misconduct” in the average criminal case. Yes, the prosecution lied about evidence, and that’s a disgusting abuse of power, but we also reject the idea of “good” or “ethical” prosecution in a system designed to lock people in cages or keep them captive through other repressive institutions like parole/probation, electronic home monitoring, and living with felony records.”
Organizing 200 or more people scattered across a continent is no small feat. Communication took place via signal loops, a collective defense listserv, and conference calls. At first, informal regional anarchist networks led the charge to raise money and connect defendants. Later, as the organizing structure became more formal, people organized weekly virtual spokescouncil meetings; the idea was that each region could have one or two people on the call who would report back to their respective comrades. If you weren’t from a region with many defendants, you could just join the call yourself, as could any defendants and supporters who agreed to the Points of Unity. The calls usually involved an array of supporters and defendants.
The ad-hoc defense committee never had a formal structure. It was self-organized, using consensus decision-making processes but without clarity on what constituted a quorum or who, exactly people were making decisions for.
“A listserv and weekly conference calls were our best means of keeping everyone in the loop: sharing updates and motions, communicating about legal matters, making sure everyone had housing and transportation to and from DC for court appearances, coordinating in-person defendant meetings after hearings, asking questions, offering resources, and checking in with people about whether their lawyers were being responsive.”
The establishment of working groups came shortly after, when different defendants and supporters organized themselves into working groups according to their interest and experience. The first working groups focused on legal strategy and media, later supplemented by political organizing, fundraising and finance, social media, wellness, and a cadre of non-defendant facilitators. Weekly bulletins summarized updates on legal developments, plea deals, the media campaign, corporate media coverage, political organizing such as days of action and call-in campaigns, and working group report-backs.
This organizing structure played an important role in getting hundreds of people on the same page. Perhaps the most important takeaway here is the value of keeping in touch. Instead of isolating themselves to navigate the halls of justice alone, defendants reached out to each other to act in solidarity whenever possible. While rare, this approach to legal solidarity could be as useful for a dozen defendants as it was to 198. The early trial strategy came directly out of inter-defendant communication early on, before there were larger support structures in place.
Money, Money, Money
While we dream of a life outside capitalism, we’re still living in this nightmare. We needed cold, hard cash to get through the J20 ordeal. The DisruptJ20 organizers had put out a call for money on the day of the arrests, anticipating that the fight would drag on a long time and raising a large initial sum. Regional anarchists networks raised money for local defendants via crowdsourcing sites and fundraising events in their communities. As time wore on, it became clear that we needed more funds and that some defendants who didn’t have a regional network to fall back on were slipping through the cracks. When you clicked on the “donate” button on the DefendJ20Resistance site, you were pointed to nine different regional funds you could donate to. We could practically hear people putting away their wallets.
To streamline the process for donations, publicize the case, and increase the likelihood that more people would donate, we created a national crowdsourcing campaign; it went live shortly before the first trial opened. Many artists donated resistance-themed art to the national campaign, for donors to receive in return for their generosity. The money was used to reimburse defendants for their travel expenses to DC, to pay for housing and food during trials, and to assist defendants who had hired private counsel, among other needs.
There’s No Justice, It’s Just Us
When you’re planning a militant protest, you can’t expect the law or the Constitution to protect you. Likewise, when things go awry, you can’t leave your fate solely in the hands of lawyers. The vast majority of them, even the ones who are sympathetic and share some of our values, make most of their legal decisions as lawyers. There are exceptions, but if we’re interested in bringing our fight into the courts and the public eye, we have to take ownership over our cases both as a movement and as defendants. Ideally, lawyers can work with us, but they won’t fight our battles for us. As anarchists, if we’re critical of representation in governance and politics, we need to think through the ways this applies when we find ourselves facing down criminal charges.
“Beyond analyzing evidence, defendants collaborated and spent hours discussing the prosecution’s theory of the case and how to craft a dignified defense that didn’t throw their co-defendants under the bus. People came up with point-by-point refutations of the indictment, challenged Kerkhoff’s characterization of the black bloc, and even brainstormed potential expert witnesses. These conversations were invaluable and provided defendants with important resources to bring to their lawyers.”
In the J20 case, there were surprisingly few movement lawyers. Most defendants had court-appointed lawyers (including a few from prestigious white shoe law firms), while a few hired private counsel. One person deeply involved in the case had this to say about the ongoing struggle dealing with lawyers:
“Due to a complete lack of movement lawyers, or lawyers experienced in defending political cases, with maybe one or two exceptions, certain things played out differently than they would normally in this kind of mass political prosecution. First, the reliance on court appointed lawyers or lawyers from high-powered DC firms, and the absence of movement lawyers, meant that their defense of the charges was virtually devoid of politics or left political framing, whether in motions to dismiss, other pretrial motions, or at trial. When the political elements were framed by most lawyers, even the ones who best understood them, they were framed in such a way as to throw the more militant activists under the bus. For the most part, the lawyers also had no idea how to engage with the media to advance their goals in the case.
“Second, a lack of experience working on these kinds of political cases meant the lawyers did not know how to work collaboratively with each other, their clients, or supporters, or else were unwilling to. Each group acted in their own silo with very little engagement. Eventually, the lawyers used a listserv to communicate with each other and there was some collaboration; but with the exception of a handful of lawyers, that collaboration was very limited in scope. Because the lawyers generally operated in their own silo, what limited collaboration did happen wasn’t necessarily communicated with defendants or supporters and even if it was, that didn’t mean that those lawyers necessarily wanted to engage and discuss strategy with defendants or supporters. Fortunately, there were a couple of lawyers who were willing to take strategy ideas from defendants and supporters and transmit those ideas to the broader lawyer group, but that process was less than desirable since the lawyers involved often did not fully understand the reasons behind the strategy and for the most part were not interested in discussing it.
“Third, there was a concerted effort by defendants and supporters to involve movement lawyers from outside DC (since so few movement lawyers seem to reside in the DMV area), but those efforts never really panned out.
So, with the lawyers in one silo and the defendants and supporters in another silo, legal strategies and reasonable ideas for politicizing the cases were relegated to echo chambers in calls and meetings with defendants and supporters. In a collaborative environment with lawyers used to litigating political cases, lawyers would more naturally work with defendants and supporters and concern themselves less with losing “privilege” and issues of conflict; the political nature of the cases and the benefits from collaboration are often seen as more important to a collective process than the losses or complications such collaboration might bring. This is not meant to dismiss the good reasons that people with very different circumstances and risk factors have to maintain separation, but in this case, collaboration would have weighted the legal battle in favor of the defendants.”
It cannot be stressed enough that wherever the lawyers worked together, it was because defendants insisted that they do so. It was defendants standing up to their lawyers and insisting that they would not participate in a legal strategy that benefited them at other defendants’ expense that determined the outcome of the case. And it was defendant labor looking through the discovery—not lawyers—that uncovered the thread that led to the 69 Project Veritas recordings that Kerkhoff had dishonestly concealed.
Shifting the Discourse
In the discourse around J20 solidarity, little space was given order to the rhetoric of rights or the idea of a just or benevolent court. While a narrative of individual innocence might have served some people, most people focused on the violence of the police and the efforts of the state to criminalize resistance. Solidarity regardless of guilt was a guiding tenet: rejecting the legitimacy of the legal system and recognizing the ways it upholds fundamental injustices. Instead of playing into the trope of good protestor vs. bad protestor, people pushed back against the state, identifying it as an enemy, refusing the narrative that there were “good protestors” exercising their first amendment rights while a few “bad apples” spoiled the day.
“More than facts or the notion of guilt, one’s experience and treatment in court is dictated by race, gender, citizenship, and access to specialized and expensive resources. Our support for all J20 defendants is not dependent on whether they did or didn’t do the acts the state alleges.”
However, there was an ongoing tension at play between affirming the beautiful moments of rebellion that occurred on J20 and keeping people as safe as possible in the face of potential prison sentences. Defendants and supporters struggled to maintain integrity as they navigated the complexities of coordinating an outward-facing media strategy that didn’t implicate anyone and an internal political framework that supported illegality and militancy.
Defendants and supporters understood the benefit of shaping the public narrative by generating their own material and “harnessing” corporate media coverage. Defendants and supporters created videos and podcasts, publicizing the case through anarchist media networks. Supporters coordinated synchronized twitter campaigns; Unicorn Riot reported on the trials in detail.
While independent outlets were usually the ones to announce breaking news, the US Attorney’s Office and the legal system on the whole felt greater pressure from corporate media narratives. Coverage of the case appeared in the New York Times, the Washingon Post, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Al Jeezera, and the Independent.
The effort to get reporters into the courtroom for the first trial was a huge success. By broadcasting the vulnerabilities of the government’s case along with its collusion with far-right groups and biased, bigoted police officers, defendants exposed the political motivations of the prosecution. Once news of the acquittals from the first trial spread far and wide, the government had little choice but to dismiss scores of cases. By the time of the second trial, Defend J20 Resistance was able to effectively draw media attention to the evidentiary violations and subsequent sanctions against the government, making it impossible for the US Attorney’s Office to proceed further.
We began the J20 case in a corporate media climate that either refused to cover the J20 arrests entirely or else that covered them in such a distorted way as to give the public a very negative perception of the defendants. Experienced defendants and supporters coached those who were not as experienced in how to work strategically with mainstream and independent media on high-profile cases involving significant danger. Spokespeople were empowered among defendants and supporters who were willing to speak to reporters. Early on, we began issuing press releases to update media on changes in the case and to spark interest.
By the time of the first trial, there was significant mainstream and independent media coverage. The sweeping coverage of the first set of acquittals embarrassed the US Attorney’s Office and compelled the prosecutor to dismiss the majority of the remaining cases. With the prosecutor off-kilter, Defend J20 Resistance never let up, continuing to issue press releases as breaking news was uncovered about fascist and extreme-right collaboration with the US Attorney’s Office and serious evidentiary violations.
Blood, Sweat, and Tears
J20 defense work consumed thousands and thousands of hours of volunteer labor. Many of the defendants and their supporters did not know each other before the arrests. It should not be understated how much work people took on under tremendous stress. Many defendants also had to make weighty decisions while scared and isolated.
While we don’t intend to air anyone’s dirty laundry, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that this arduous process involved conflicts. We speak on these here not to embarrass anyone, but in hopes that our experience can inform future anti-repression organizing.
The defendants were ultimately able to present a strong, unified front, but there were tensions between people accused of different actions, questions about “innocence politics,” and conflicting ideas about goals and strategy. Some people felt their ideas or proposals were stifled or even blocked by a centralized group. There were critiques of the formality of the structure and there were many divisions along lines of experience, region, tendency, identity, and capacity.
New opportunities for flexibility appeared when people were divided into trial blocks and began to coordinate more closely with each other on that basis. Despite internal conflicts, there was room for creative autonomous activities that complimented the coordinated defense efforts.
If anything, we can let this saga inform how we organize in the future. How should people make decisions together? How do we ensure that agency isn’t consolidated in the hands of a small group? And how can we make sure everyone’s voices are heard? What kind of models do we use, especially if we don’t want to fall back on familiar frameworks like spokescouncils?
Aim Beyond the Target
We approached the J20 case as movement defense.
While we should not overlook the specific cases of those who were threatened with decades in prison, in many important ways we were all on trial. The legal precedents around collective punishment, proximity to crime, conspiracy, intention, and liability would have been far-reaching and incredibly dangerous. People fought the charges and supported the defendants not only to protect themselves and each other, but because it was clear that if the defendants were convicted, many similar cases would follow. The case law would be used in future legal battles, especially in contexts in which people are even more vulnerable within the legal system, such as anti-police struggles and indigenous movements.
The capacity and connections we built helped strengthen other struggles against repression across the country. Broadening our solidarity with other anti-fascists, Standing Rock arrestees, and communities that are consistently targeted with police violence helped situate the J20 case as part of a larger movement against the state and capitalism. Aligning with movements against police and prisons, the J20 defendants and supporters fought repression while contextualizing broader struggles against the police.
“We further challenge the valorization of ‘political’ defendants and prisoners over other people whose lives and families are vulnerable to state violence. The people most often and most brutally affected by the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia (MPD), anti-rioting laws, and the horror of the criminal legal system are not protesters on Inauguration Day, but people of color living in so-called Washington DC who face this abhorrent system every day.”
There was a consistent effort to acknowledge that all court cases are political, that the system is rigged against the poor and against people of color, that centuries before Trump was elected the state was already a fundamentally colonialist, white supremacist formation, and that lying and concealing evidence are the standard operating procedures of both the cops and the courts.
In addition to placing the case in a broader context of repression, defense efforts included various tried and true anarchist methods that engaged a broader body of allies to pressure on the state. There was an ongoing call-in campaign to Kerkhoff’s office to push the US attorney’s office to drop the charges. There were four different calls for days of solidarity actions. Many organizers used the case to spread awareness and strengthen ties in their own communities. The July 2017 day of solidarity offered a necessary morale boost after the case had dragged on for six months. And while it may be a matter of correlation rather than causation, Kerkhoff’s office dropped the charges against 129 defendants the day before the third day of solidarity on January 20, 2018.
When we defeat a state offensive like the J20 charges, this frees us to continue fighting on our own terms, rather than being stuck reacting to one assault after another.
“The same force that drives people to rebel and fight also drives people to protect and support each other. What we do and how we move through the world differentiates us from what we are fighting.”
Lessons I: Your Phone is a Cop and Other Tales of Surveillance
Everyone who was carrying a smartphone when they were arrested at J20 had it seized. As if we didn’t already know better! If you are going to a militant protest, leave your phone at home. As some comrades reminded us in the aftermath of J20, “your phone is a cop.” Investigators attempted to break into all of these phones, using a device made by Cellebrite to bypass passcodes and encryption. One defendant received an 8000-page document detailing the contents of their phone, including everything from contacts, emails, and texts to social media data and communications stored in the cloud.
The state had an easier time obtaining data from unencrypted phones, and Android operating systems appear to have been more vulnerable than Apple IOS. But technology changes constantly—what seems secure one day might be cracked the next. Private companies are investing millions in tools like GrayKey that help law enforcement break into phones. We can take steps to mitigate those risks, but simply not bringing a phone with you remains the safest approach.
Although the conspiracy charges didn’t work out for the state this time, we can be sure that all the information they gleaned from seized phones has been saved and analyzed. To some extent, our networks have been exposed and the state has gained valuable insight into who knows whom.
Had all the participants left their phones at home, the amount of potential evidence would have been considerably less. Many so-called “co-conspirator statements” came from recovered smart phone messages. Evidence of “intent to riot” came from emails and text messages. Participation in activist email lists and having activist events on phone calendars was trotted out as proof that defendants had planned to “engage in a riot” on J20.
Pouring over the evidence in this case—hundreds of hours of video footage, innumerable photos pulled from news and social media—it’s striking how much of the evidence was “open source” information. While there were videos from surveillance and police body cameras, much of the evidence came from videos posted to social media accounts. These were from a variety of sources—not just the far-right groups that insinuated themselves into the protests, but also people who were ostensibly “friendly” to the march. A live-stream of the entire march served as a key piece of evidence in the two trials that actually happened and the prosecution planned to use it in every trial that made it into the courtroom.
Romanian hackers infiltrated the MPD’s network of outdoor surveillance cameras for several days before the inauguration, infecting 123 out of 187 cameras with ransomware and rendering them unable to record. While some have hypothesized that this explains why little MPD camera footage was submitted as evidence, the department maintains that MPD had all their cameras back on line by the inauguration.
Lessons II: Mass Arrests
The J20 case poses questions about what kind of risks and losses we need to prepare for as we consider how to resist the state. We’re not advocating for people to become martyrs who do prison time for the revolution—but the state seems to be increasingly using felony, conspiracy, and terrorism charges to try to crush anarchist resistance, and we need to become more skilled at navigating this reality. We shouldn’t expect the authorities to play fair or abide by their own rules, nor can we expect the law to protect us. We have to strategize within the legal system while crafting our own narratives, aligning our legal battles with other vital struggles and communities in resistance to the state.
How do we pass along the knowledge we have gained to a new generation of anarchists? We need to find ways to transfer stories, tactics, and lessons from one generation to the next, filling the gaps in our collective memory. Considering that many J20 defendants were radicalized through the internet, anti-fascist struggles, and Standing Rock, it should not be surprising how many of them were carrying phones when they were arrested. A few security culture trainings ahead of J20 could have gone a long way. As mainstream culture evolves to integrate more technology into our lives, we should keep abreast of the potential impact that can have on our movements.
Most of us increasingly rely on digital communication; we have fallen out of practice using other communication methods we could have employed on J20. We should be handing out pamphlets at every demonstration explaining good security practices, as well as including contingency plans, rendezvous points, and the basics regarding how to keep a march together. A small map of the part of DC we were in could have come in handy, especially with so many people from out of town. So would scout teams running communication.
Next time you attend a serious demonstration, consider not taking your phone, or getting a burner phone if you will absolutely need one. If you are kettled with your own phone, consider smashing it before you are arrested. Seriously—take a deep breath and reflect on whether you would rather hear your text messages read back to you in a court of law and hand over the details of your intimate connections to the state so they can weave a web of association between you and your comrades, or if it would be better to have to ask those same friends to help you get a new phone. If you still can’t bring yourself to smash your phone, at least consider spending your time in the kettle erasing it, wiping it as clean as you possibly can. Even when you’re not going to a demonstration, you should always keep your phone encrypted and secured with a long alphanumeric password; any fingerprint or facial recognition features should be turned off.
The black bloc works best when employed properly. That means ALL BLACK. There should be no logos visible; both your face and hair should be completely concealed. Any markings on your clothes, shoes, bag, or face will be used to identify you, as will your glasses.
If you’re caught in a kettle, get creative: trade clothes with each other until your outfits are so mishmashed that the state will never be able to identify you. Or put all your black clothes in a pile and light them on fire. If it’s not cold, consider adding your shoes to the fire or leaving them behind. Or else everybody could trade shoes, ending up with mismatched pairs. We don’t know the extent to which DNA testing may be employed, but people could pass clothes and shoes around until so many people have touched them that it’s impossible to tell what belongs to whom.
The End, For Now
Ultimately, the state had a hard time building cases against individuals in part because of how they were trying the case, but also because we made it hard for them to build cases against us. In short, the black bloc works—and solidarity gets the goods.
If the day comes where we have to do it all again, we’ll be there in a heartbeat.
”Revolutionary solidarity is the secret that destroys all walls, expressing love and rage at the same time as one’s own insurrection in the struggle against Capital and the State.”
What would constitute real justice for the J20 defendants? If we understand justice as retribution—poetic justice—the police, prosecutors, the judge, and all the other state officials who are implicated in the past ten months of intimidation would be subjected to the same treatment they have inflicted. The police officers would be rounded up and imprisoned; the detective who lied to the grand jury would have his own life ruined by calumny he was powerless to counteract; the prosecutors would be publicly humiliated and forced to face the possibility of spending the rest of their lives in prison. Donald Trump would walk across the desert on a broken ankle, pursued by helicopters and armed men with dogs, before dying of dehydration, terrified and alone, within miles of hospital facilities—as he has forced others to do in the Sonoran desert simply in hopes of rejoining their families.
Our oppressors should be grateful that we do not believe in retribution. We aspire to transform society from the bottom up, not to mete out supposed justice. If ever we are the ones to determine their fates, we will aspire to forgiveness.
But the first priority has to be to interrupt the harm that they are perpetuating.
Dane Powell was not arrested during the inaugural protests, but identified and arrested by the MPD the next day, when he went to pick someone up at jail. Held for five days before release, he was initially charged with 14 felonies. After the state presented video evidence of Dane breaking windows and throwing rocks at an initial hearing, Dane pled guilty in April 2017 to rioting and assaulting a police officer. Part of his plea deal included signing a statement of facts about his own behavior on January 20, but he did not incriminate anyone else. Leibovitz sentenced Dane to 36 months in prison, but suspended all but four months on the condition that he successfully complete two years of supervised probation. Dane served four months in a federal prison in Florida. He was the only J20 arrestee to serve time. ↩
If we want to see more victories like the J20 case, one of the first steps is making it possible for poor people to get out of jail. There have been beautiful acts of solidarity with those in jail, like the bailouts of black mothers on Mother’s Day and the mass bailout of those held in Riker’s Island, and there are efforts to eliminate cash bail on the grounds that it unfairly impacts poor people, creating modern day debtor’s prisons. But eliminating cash bail alone won’t necessarily solve the problem—most places would replace it with technological monitoring and allow local courts to decide whom to keep in custody and whom to release until trial. The solution is not to reform the system, but to delegitimize it, challenging the notion that the courts have the right to incarcerate defendants in the first place. ↩
Rioting charges are inherently political in nature. The J20 defendants were originally charged under the DC Riot Act, originally written to criminalize black protest in the 1960s. Shortly after it passed, DC police used the statute to legitimize the arrests of over 6100 people during rebellions following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The law was used to depoliticize rebellion, deeming it “mindless violence.” The Riot Act has historically been used to take the teeth out of political rebellion, but the state often uses additional charges to clamp down on uprisings. While riot charges have recently been pressed against people arrested at demonstrations and protests, those arrested in fierce riots like the black-led uprising in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 are almost exclusively serving time for theft, burglary, or larceny charges. In that case, the state is still trying to depoliticize the situation, pushing the narrative that black-led uprisings against police shootings are not political but criminal.↩
Several blocks before the L & 12th Street intersection, I was already feeling that the march had run its course. At each cross street, we met a line of police, sirens blaring. A few brave souls still managed to fell some final windows on the periphery. Yet while the Bank of America windows had crashed in triumphant cacophony, these windows struck the pavement with an urgency that reflected our increasingly dire situation. We had no destination, no end goal. It felt as though we were running solely to evade police. I knew that it was time to break from the group, yet I still held a kind of separation anxiety.
Leaving has always been hard for me. Dispersing consistently feels liken a haphazardly unthought-out ending tacked onto an otherwise compelling novel. A novel that begins with, “Collectively, anything is possible—you can do whatever you’d like” and ends with, “Everyone goes their own way and pretends to be normal.” Leaving the bloc means leaving the safety of a powerful mass of people, often to wander the streets immediately adjacent to crime scenes, alone, with police looking to single out suspects. There was a rumor circulating that, given their history with lawsuits, the DC police would be unlikely to mass arrest. This false prediction spelled doom for us unlucky rioters, as the police did just that. It was with these thoughts circling my head, alongside memories of past dispersals gone awry, that I decided to stay with the march.
I was with a few friends. We stayed together. We kept track of each other. As the march shrunk in size, we paired off and prepared to jettison ourselves from the bloc. We turned to face an alleyway on L Street between 13th and 12th. I knew very well that this could be my chance to safely exit the march. My friends bolted down the alleyway, not knowing what lay the next street over. For a moment, I thought to follow suit, but decided that too many of us in one place might attract police attention. A few minutes later, I was trapped between a wall and a riot shield. Facing the corridor that had offered safe passage just moments earlier to anyone brave enough to step down its halls, I contemplated the hesitation that had led me to this fate. If there’s anything I can say from my experience being pinned against that wall, it is that a split second of intuition in the street is worth more than weeks of prior planning.
The kettle was where I made my biggest mistake. It was there, and the moments just before, that I put almost no effort into escaping. The police had us sardined together so tightly that I gravely underestimated our collective potential within the kettle. I thought that I was about to be arrested with at most seventy people, less than a third of our actual numbers. I was primarily among strangers. In my heart, I felt that I would participate in a second attempt to charge the police line. It was my fear of being cast as a leader, in a film produced by live-streamers and on-duty officers, that kept me from voicing my intent. Yet if there was any time to risk collective trust and courage, it was there, where we were most vulnerable.
There was larger reason I was compliant in my own captivity. I felt myself above persecution. There are two reasons why one would go willingly to their arrest. The first, they think that they haven’t committed any crime. The second, that they committed a crime so flawlessly that they could not possibly be convicted of it. Both of these presumptions involve a false sense of security; neither save you from prosecution. Though I did not delude myself with the pretense that I had performed a perfect execution of black bloc tactics, I considered myself “high-hanging fruit.” I was counting on the prosecution to be lazy, to lack the funding or time to convict me. When I was in the kettle, I was convinced that I wouldn’t actually be arrested. At worst, I would be charged with a misdemeanor, slapped on the wrist, and eventually end up with a check from a class action lawsuit. Instead, I had to navigate the next year and a half with looming felonies.
I had not come to DC innocently. I knew the risk, the potential repercussions. I chose to look them in the face. The pepper spray and stun grenades were terrifying, but not unexpected. In some ways, they heightened my senses and fortified my convictions. My heart races when I look back on the march—but not from trauma, nor from anxiety. It drums in vigorous reverie, recounts the last time it beat with purpose.
Over the following year, I was forced to tame my heart. In court, I stilled my breathing, attempted to hide my guilt. I kept a caged life. The legal procedure left me fraught with anxiety. I clung to the safety and certainty of routine. I denied every passion, every risk, in hopes that I would be able to convince a jury that I was simply not the adventurous type. My heart sat and sulked. I came to learn that, as a friend so elegantly put it, “The process is the punishment.”
Felonies change things. I catch glimpses of understanding in the eyes of my friends who have faced prosecution to this degree. One of the beauties of black bloc is that I might be anyone under this mask; a restaurant server, a designer, a nurse. Once donned, the mask allowed me to act in ways a nurse can only dream.
To be unmasked is to be held in purgatory between selves. I was no longer the person I was in the streets, yet I could not return to being who I had been just days earlier. At its core, the bloc hinges on the moment when we shed our black clothes and return to normalcy. While there have been times where I’ve de-bloc’ed with a profoundly different understanding of the world, I was still banking on returning to work with only one less sick day. As time passed after J20 and my charges remained, I realized there was a possibility that I might never return to being the person I had been before my arrest.
During the interim awaiting trial, I chose a course of action that seems common among anarchist pending-felons. I applied to college.
For me, college was an attempt to regain some agency in two different ways. In one way, I was trying to influence my potential sentencing. If I could convince a judge that I was an upstanding citizen, then he or she might be a little more lenient in punishing me. Going to college was also an attempt to salvage my future, a future I felt was starting to escape my grasp.
At the time I was arrested, I did not consider myself to have a clear vision of the future. Yet in the wake of my arrest, all successful futures seemed out of reach. Success felt like a mirage, shimmering, hazy, always on the horizon. My case continued and evidence mounted against me. I scrambled to claim any sort of successful future I could before a conviction made one unobtainable. I raced towards the horizon without drawing any closer to it, meeting the same scene in every direction. My charges sent me spiraling and forced me to examine my feelings of helplessness.
When I did so, I realized that all along, I had held within me a concrete image of success after all. It was not the unimaginable utopia I had believed myself to be pursuing. On the contrary, it was all too familiar; I had simply kept it intentionally obscured from myself. When I honestly consulted myself about what constituted my image of a successful future, what I found was indistinguishable from the world I already knew—only in the future I had been imagining, I had a little more money, a better presence on social media. I had been so disgusted by this vision that I had I banished it to the horizon of my mind.
The anarchist canon has changed dramatically over the past decade. Today, we are not as steeped in subculture. Our politics rely a lot less on consumer choices. We’ve come a long way from the cornerstone pieces of the early 2000s. Early CrimethInc. texts took the Situationist exhortation “Never Work—Ever” literally, proposing a sort of exodus that often looked more like voluntary exile; today, as work becomes more and more a part of our social as well as professional lives, the proposal seems unthinkably absurd. We have largely escaped the cultural pitfalls of the punk scene, expanded our access to funding for our projects, even created our own platforms so that anarchist ideas can proliferate. Along with these conscious efforts to grow and develop nuance with age, for me, something has shifted silently in the background.
I gave up my resistance to work—even took up office at some of the same companies I believed were bringing about an apocalyptic nightmare. I closed my eyes, clicked my heels, and repeated “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.” I justified my increasingly indiscriminate use of money, sought to tally up my influence on the world. I became obsessed with power, quantifiable power. I searched for any sign that the anarchist movement was gaining traction, that one day way we could finally make “The Switch.” My measurements for success had paralleled social norms; now they began to overlap with them. Soon Anarchy was just something I believed in. Aside from sharing meals and resources among friends, it was not something I practiced.
To some, the black bloc is a tactic, a means to an end. For me, having lived through a myriad of outcomes, black bloc is a practice. Black blocs are a practice in timing: when to return teargas to the police, when to leave an intersection, when to smash windows, when to disperse. As in all practice, some days are better than others. To be in bloc is to experience what can be possible when the laws that typically govern us are momentarily superseded and how to act when our adversaries try to reassert them. When we participate in black blocs, we are attempting to learn the balance between exercising an otherwise impossible freedom, at the cost of our safety, and maintaining a modicum of safety so that we can continue to act freely.
Every night as I mulled over my legal predicament, I would ask myself the same questions. “Are black blocs a pertinent part of the way we do Anarchy today? Are they just hollow tradition from a bygone era? Are they worth risking the world you inhabit daily for a fleeting experience, however ecstatic?” I think of my friends who are a little older than I, who have better jobs, who were noticeably absent from the
march on January 20. For many people, their little ration of worldly success is not worth the risk.
When I look back to the texts that inspired me as I was coming of age in radical politics, I trace a common thread binding them. Travel logs, accounts of underground healthcare, epics of animal liberation—at their core, all of them conveyed the same story. They told that There is a Secret World Concealed Within This One; a world that I had long since forgotten. The once-common anarchist saying “Another world is possible” is no longer spoken between friends. It is not overlaid on images of riots, nor commonly held as an anarchist truth. I mourn it’s absence. There are those who would say there is no life outside of capitalism, that we are bound to this world by birth. Only recently has the premise emerged that being born into a position invalidates your ability to transcend it.
The truth is that we alone are the visionaries of our success. We define our values, sculpt our objects of beauty. If we build from the blueprints of power and safety laid out in this world, then we will make more of the same. But I believe that we are capable of breaching the precedents of modern life. We can imagine less abhorrent futures, create lives worth living—but to do so, we must abandon the worldly successes we seek for validation. If we want to continue to experience the transcendental, unbridled ecstasy of black blocs, the practice of anarchy and experimentation, then we must create and maintain worlds in which the consequences of a felony rioting conviction are not so dire—worlds worth leaving this one to get to. Another world is not only possible, it is waiting for us. We must believe in our ability to reach it so we can find the strength to depart. We have to let go of our attachments and truly believe that we are capable of taking flight.
In the kettle at 12th and L Street, I felt like a young Icarus, hurtling towards the sun, only to plummet into the sea. All exercises in freedom have these risks. To those who dare to soar, may we also learn to swim, and never fear the consequences of singed wings.
Despite its abrupt end and unfortunate outcome, the march on January 20, 2017 was one of the most inspiring, vitalizing moments of my life. Despite its obvious challenges, I am thankful that facing charges has given me time to reflect. Let me take a moment here to explicitly state, with a clear mind and certain heart, that—having eluded conviction—I would 100% do it again no questions asked. I hope someday to share an experience of elation similar to that of J20 with the readers of this piece. If and when that day comes, may we both avoid arrest and get off scot-free.
Since November 2018, the yellow vest movement has created a political crisis in France and posed thorny questions to radicals worldwide. In the following report, we detail the yellow vest actions from December 8, 2018 to January 5, 2019, recounting how the yellow vest movement defied the calendar—that age-old device for limiting revolutionary movements. Tomorrow, in our next article, we will step back to analyze the different currents within the movement and implications they hold for anarchists, environmentalists, and everyone else who seeks a world without oppression.
The yellow vest movement has posed the most serious threat to President Macron since he came to power in 2016. The unrest began as a grassroots response to the government’s proposal to increase taxes for “ecological” purposes and quickly spread to ecompass many different groups and agendas. Thanks to its protean aspect, but also its supposedly “apolitical” character, the movement has brought people together around shared tactics and frustrations, as the Occupy movement once did.
Since November, the yellow vest movement has become a battleground for many different political parties and groups, especially populists and nationalists. As the movement gained momentum and clashes with the police intensified, anarchists and other rebels joined in, fighting on multiple fronts—against the state, but also against reactionary groups active on the streets. Anarchists attempted to reorient the movement towards more systemic solutions, to diminish the influence and presence of the far-right, and to create connections between different groups and potential allies. The outcome of these efforts remains uncertain.
After weeks of desperately trying to establish dialogue in order to pacify the situation, the government appeared to have finally regained control of the situation by presenting concessions on December 10, 2018. At that time, the lack of clear political objectives, the repression of the previous weeks, and above all the approach of the Christmas holidays seemed to have brought the yellow vest movement to an impasse.
Several weeks later, following a day of action involving 50,000 people on Saturday, January 5, the yellow vest movement remains alive. Another nationwide day of action is called for January 12. Yet the movement is bitterly divided over tactics, goals, values, and structure. The most determined participants have been abandoned by legalists and pacifists eager to negotiate with the government; as often occurs, a major part of the grassroots movement is slowly evolving into something more institutionalized. Meanwhile, far from being defeated on the streets, nationalists and fascists have maintained their footing.
This text picks up where our previous analysis left off, immediately after the massive confrontations of December 8, 2018.
The Aftermath of December 8, 2018
After two weeks of political instability, rioting, looting, rage, and confrontation, President Macron broke with his habit of withholding reaction by delivering an official speech on national television on Monday, December 10, 2018. Lots of yellow vesters were waiting to see if he would finally address their demands.
After reaffirming that his government was working with the parliament to find solutions, Macron presented his new measures. The government promised to increase minimum wage by €100 a month; cancel taxes on pensions for retired persons living on less than €2000 a month; ask employers to offer Christmas bonuses; offer tax exemption on overtime; and fight tax avoidance. However, Macron emphasized that he would not back down regarding the suppression of the wealth tax, one of the most outrageous elements of Macron’s neoliberal agenda.
On December 11, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe presented the government’s measures to the National Assembly. Finally, the government seemed to have a strategy with which to resolve the crisis.
That same night, someone opened fire on the crowd at the Christmas market in Strasbourg, killing 5 people and injuring 11 more. The “plan vigipirate”—an anti-terrorism security plan established in 1995 after several bombings in France—was raised to the level of “attack emergency.”
With another day of action called for Saturday, December 15, 2018, these two events reshuffled the cards.
The government calls for reason, “non-violence,” and dialogue
Following the attack in Strasbourg, the government decided not to forbid the yellow vest demonstrations of Saturday, December 15, 2018, as such decision would have only exacerbated widespread anger. Nevertheless, politicians called for “non-violence” and tried to dissuade protestors from taking part in the fifth nationwide day of action. Government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux said that taking the streets on Saturday would be unreasonable in view of the situation in France following the attack. Some went further, saying that the time had come for the movement to end, while others demanded that “non-violent” protesters distance themselves from the more radical parts of the movement.
On Friday, December 14, 2018, in Brussels for a European summit, President Macron declared that France needed to return to normal, since he had addressed the yellow vest demands at the beginning of the week. “Dialogue is not established by occupying public space and through violence […] I think that the sense of general interest will lead everyone to join a national debate, and to exchange with their mayor, in order to formulate political and sincere proposals.” He concluded by calling French citizens to express themselves in the May 2019 European elections: “In no case should what happened the past weeks should lead to calling into question the democratic election held eighteen months ago.”
Paris on Lockdown
Nevertheless, some protestors were determined to take the streets, and some leftist organizations made calls to join the yellow vesters on Saturday, December 15. For the second week in a row, the government took exceptional law enforcement measures, deploying almost 100% of the police troops all over France—about 89,000 police officers, with 8000 in Paris alone.
The Paris prefect officially announced that for December 15, authorities would renew the law enforcement plan used the previous week with some improvements and modifications. As the previous week, a restricted area would be established near the Champs Elysées and around every major government buildings, while in the meantime, other police forces would control and search all potential demonstrators and carry out preventive arrests.
The decision to re-use this strategy is significant for those who study police strategy, in that it seems to indicate that the authorities had concluded that all things considered, their strategy on December 8 had been effective, in contrast to the strategy they employed in Paris on November 24 and December 1.
Regarding the law enforcement units deployed in the streets of Paris, the prefect said that the authorities’ plan would combine “heavy forces”—comprised of CRS and gendarmes (riot police)—as well as “mobile units” from various police forces including the Anti-Criminality Brigades (BAC), the Securing and Intervention Companies (CSI), the Territorial Brigades, and the Research and Intervention Brigades (BRI). These units would be mostly “kept for the end of the afternoon where violence attempts usually intensify.”
The prefect continued to explain his plan: “last week, we managed well the yellow vest aspect, but we witnessed scenes of property destruction and pillage by some delinquents. Our objective will be to better control this phenomenon.” Mounted police, canine units and 14 gendarmerie tanks would also be deployed in the French capital.
As the previous week, and following the recommendation of the Paris prefecture, numerous stores in “sensitive areas” boarded up their front windows and closed for Saturday, as did most museums and national monuments. For “safety reasons”—i.e., to facilitate police checkpoints—about 40 metro and RER closed starting at 5:30 am.
Once again, it seemed that the authorities had the upper hand on the situation well in advance. They were well prepared and well organized. As before, yellow vesters were supposed to gather near the Champs Elysées, the Opéra, and the Saint Lazare train station.
On the eve of the fifth act of the movement, everything remained uncertain: would the fear of state repression discourage protestors? Would some of us succeed in outmaneuvering the police the way we had the previous week? How would the events of the past week impact the mobilization? Some sources close to the Prime Minister’s cabinet suggested that “moderate” demonstrators were already leaving the movement, and therefore, that the mobilization involve fewer people. The events of December 15 confirmed this forecast.
The Parisian Impasse
In Paris, the contrast with the previous week was undeniable. At 9 am, only a hundred demonstrators were actually present on the Champs Elysées, compared to several hundreds or thousands the previous weeks. In the end, it was easy for police to contain the crowd. That whole morning, the situation remained sterile on the Parisian avenue; protestors escaped from the kettle and ran for several meters, but rapidly surrounded by police forces again. This war of attrition continued all day long.
Further away, near Saint Lazare and Opéra, the situation was similar. Those who attended the morning gatherings fell into the trap set by authorities; police surrounded them from the beginning. The only way to exit these kettles was to accept being searched and remove their yellow vests. Police took this opportunity to focus surveillance on individuals they considered potential threats. We have heard that some yellow vesters were also searching the bags of other protesters in order to evict potential “rioters” from the gathering.
At midday, the first actions and light confrontations took place. At the Champs Elysées, some demonstrators, tired of being surrounded by police forces, escaped the avenue via neighboring streets, forcing their way through a police cordon and initiating a wildcat demonstration. In Opéra, the “pressure cooker” strategy of the authorities bore fruit as the tension among protestors was increasing. As a result, the first tear gas canisters were shot at the crowd.
The rest of the day saw a succession of wildcat demonstrations and processions from a few hundred to several thousands strong walking through the streets of Paris. Some of these actions were more exciting than others, as police did not manage to follow all the crowds, but Paris did not witness the intensity of the previous weeks. Around 5 pm, after employing tear gas and stun grenades against a crowd of about 3000 individuals, police forces started clearing the Champs Elysées using their water canons. This offensive marked the end of the fifth act of the yellow vest movement in Paris. In total, 168 people were arrested and 115 put in custody.
On December 15, the far right was seen in the streets on several occasions. We haven’t learned whether anarchists or other rebels confronted them. Meanwhile, video footage spread widely showing police officers on motorcycles armed with LBD-40 launchers. These images remind us of 1986, when the infamous “voltigeurs”—police on motorcycles armed with batons—murdered a student named Malik Oussekine, resulting in the dissolution of their department. Contacted about these images, the Paris prefecture explained that, for the fifth act of the movement, authorities dispatched about 50 new “voltigeurs” in Paris in order to rapidly intervene in case of trouble.
Reading reports from Paris, it was difficult not to feel frustrated or defeated. Compared to the previous weeks, the crowd was less numerous, less inspired, less creative, less offensive. The yellow vest movement had reached a plateau in Paris, if not an impasse.
Act V: Elsewhere around France
From the beginning of the movement, the authorities and corporate media outlets have focused chiefly on events in the streets of Paris, as if the situation in the French capital represented the yellow vest movement as a whole. But the movement differs dramatically from one city to the next. Rather than discussing “the” yellow vest movement in the singular, it would be more precise to speak of several yellow vest movements, each with its own tactics and goals, in different regions and points on the ideological spectrum.
In Dijon, many people gathered despite the attacks in Strasbourg. Among the crowd, one could hear conspiracy theories; some yellow vesters were willing to confront any “infiltrator” or potential “rioter.” Still, the crowd pursued its ritual march towards the local prefecture. When it arrived at the building, the police shot tear gas at the protestors. Part of the crowd decided to continue their demonstration, marching towards the biggest shopping center in the region, while others remained in the square to confront the police. Unfortunately, no concrete action emerged once the crowd reached the shopping center. In the end, six individuals were arrested and at least ten injured.
In Nantes, about 1200 yellow vesters took the streets. They marched towards the local prefecture but were pushed back by police. For several hours, police and protestors exchanged tear gas canisters and projectiles. In the end, 15 protestors were arrested and four people were injured.
In Marseille, yellow vesters, high school students, trade unionists, and members of a collective against insufficient housing marched together, totaling 2000 individuals. Police arrested 12 people; no damage took place.
In Toulouse, 4500 demonstrators took the streets. As the city had experienced riots during the previous weekend, the authorities requested the use of two tanks and two water canons to maintain order in the city. This equipment didn’t prevent confrontations leading to 30 arrests and 10 injuries.
In Bordeaux, about 4500 people including yellow vesters, students, and trade unionists converged around the City Hall. The overall atmosphere was joyous despite the rain. When the crowd reached the Pey Berland square, they found City Hall protected from both sides by riot fences, police trucks, a water canon, and riot police cordons. After several minutes, the first projectiles were thrown at police forces, who answered with a rain of tear gas and grenades and even used the water canon to disperse the crowd. A drone was also spotted in the sky. Confrontations continued for several hours before the crowd left the square and took the rue Sainte Catherine, the city’s chief shopping street, before being blocked by other police forces near the Grand Theatre. Later that night, some confrontations continued between demonstrators and police forces: at least one car was set on fire, as well as some makeshift barricades. However, the damage and rioting were less intense than the previous week. Altogether, 27 people were arrested and 22 injured.
In Lille, between 1500 and 2000 yellow vesters gathered—as much as the previous week—while in Montpellier, about 1500 yellow vesters met in the city center and informed passers-by about some of their demands, such as the Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC).
Even if actions took place in major cities and groups of yellow vesters blocked several important freeways like those connecting France to Spain as well as traffic circles and toll collection points, the total number of people who took part in the fifth nationwide day of action was approximately 66,000. In other words, half the number of active yellow vesters who participated in the previous nationwide day of action on December 8, 2018.
Obviously, we should take these figures with a grain of salt. They come from the government itself—and since December 15, 2018, corporate media and authorities have made a point of emphasizing the diminishing number of participants in hopes of accelerating the movement’s downfall. As in almost every social movement, both sides—the state and the demonstrators—are stuck in a “war of figures,” as if only numbers determine the outcome of a struggle.
Nevertheless, by any measure, the movement had lost momentum everywhere except in a few cities. The effects of repression, the approach of Christmas holidays, and the concessions had all taken their toll; part of the movement was ready to quit the streets and move towards a more institutional path.
The Aftermath of December 15, 2018
Macron’s government knew that they had won the battle of the fifth act. With Christmas approaching, they had finally succeeded containing the yellow rage of the preceding month. However, they were still walking on eggshells.
After the previous week’s concessions, the government was trying to set up its “yellow vests” plan. On such a short notice, this plan presented a technical conundrum for the government, disrupting the original parliamentary calendar.
President Macron, understanding that the social and political situation was not yet entirely under control, canceled his official trip to Biarritz to prepare the forthcoming G7 in order to be present during the official meeting organizing the national consultation he had promised.
This national debate—due March 1—focuses on several subjects: the ecological transition, taxes, the organization of the state, democracy, and citizenship. It is important to mention that, having been removed from the national debate, the issue of immigration was reintroduced at the last minute on the insistence of some yellow vesters and politicians.
On Tuesday, December 17, after the official meeting, we learned that “the large national consultation” would take place in two phases. During the first one—lasting until mid-January—citizens are asked to speak with their mayors at a local level about the overall situation of the country. The mayors are to report these conversations to the government, so the latter can gain a broader understanding of the issues. Then, for full months, French citizens are invited to a national debate—the second phase of the plan—on the aforementioned issues.
Characteristically, the technocrats of the center suggested a technical solution to the problem of organic rage. As the saying goes, if people are angry, ask them to speak more about their anger. Speaking will take away the urgency to act.
The issue of the Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC) could also be added to this national discussion, as more and more yellow vesters and opposition politicians have demanded. Macron said he was open to dialogue about it. In the meantime, the authorities continued to evict road and traffic circle blockades.
Act VI: The Fight before Christmas
On the sixth nationwide day of action, the authorities counted 38,600 demonstrators around France. For the purposes of this report, we will focus on Paris, Toulouse, and Lyons to understand the events of December 22, 2018. These three specific examples illustrate the heterogeneous forms of the yellow vest movement as well as the different political frameworks that move its protagonists.
In Paris, yellow vesters decided to change their habits by gathering in Montmartre, near the Sacré Coeur, the outrageous religious building erected to thank God for the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871 and to expiate the city from the Communards’ supposed sins. All week, some yellow vesters spread a fake call to gather in Versailles in order to mislead the authorities. This worked: a large number of police were deployed to chase ghosts in the wealthy neighboring city. As a result, several hundred yellow vesters were able to gather without difficulties in Montmartre instead.
During the day, thousands of yellow vesters marched in the streets of Paris in various wildcat demonstrations. Around 5:30 pm, a group of demonstrators reached the Champs Elysées and proceeded down the avenue. The protestors met a convoy of riot police and started attacking and chasing the police trucks. Several minutes later, motorcycle policemen—apparently trying to help their colleagues—began throwing tear gas canisters in order to disperse the crowd. The confrontation rapidly escalated. As protestors closed in, attacking the police officers, one of them pulled out his gun and pointed it at the angry crowd. Far from fleeing, the demonstrators set upon the policemen with renewed anger and courage, forcing them to free. The policeman who drew his gun is a fool; we are lucky he does not have several murders on his conscience today.
Unfortunately, some troubling behavior also took place on this day. That morning, assembling in front of Louise Michel square beside the Sacré Coeur, a group of yellow vesters shouted a supposedly “anti-system” chant. In addition to including extremely vulgar and homophobic lyrics that make light of rape, this chant is the work of a notorious anti-Semitic stand-up comedian. While singing, some protestors reproduced the infamous arm gesture of the same comedian—some type of upside-down fascist salute that supposedly indicates how far the system is actually deceiving us. In a video of this event, one yellow vester is clearly performing a fascist salute.
Later that night, a journalist reported that in the metro, around 11 pm, an elderly woman asked three drunk yellow vesters to stop doing the infamous “anti-system” arm gesture mentioned above. She said: “This is an anti-Semitic gesture. I am Jewish, my dad was deported to Auschwitz where he died.” In response, one yellow vester told her to “Get lost!” while another referenced the “Révolution nationale” (National Revolution), the official ideology of the Vichy regime—the Nazi collaborationist French government during World War II.
These events show a side of the yellow vest movement that some radicals and traditional leftist parties still prefer to ignore. The silence of those who do not address them is extremely dangerous. While advocates of the political center may seize upon events like these to discredit the movement, those who believe that the solution is to refuse to address them at all are ceding ground to the far right—which centrists will then use to present themselves as the only possible alternative. This is why we must always fight on both fronts.
The situation in Toulouse was very different. According to reports, the yellow vest movement remained strong and organized in this city and the surrounding region. The entire week before December 22, yellow vesters developed their actions, aiming to interrupt the economy as much as possible: they organized an illegal fireworks show entitled “yellow fever”” in downtown Toulouse; they blocked several toll collection points and let drivers passfor free; they blocked the trucks arriving and leaving several large retail logistics centers; at the Airbus site of Colomiers, they blocked the supply of provisions to a restaurant belonging to the Elior group to support employees who have been sentenced to pay back the equivalent of two years of their salaries to the group.
Before the traditional Saturday gathering and demonstration, some yellow spoke in the general assemblies about their increasing frustration with the restriction of movement they experienced during the previous actions. Consequently, demonstrators organized several different marches for the sixth act. The authorities appear to have underestimated the possible impact of this new day of action, as the police were only blocking one street when the first march began.
The atmosphere was festive as the crowd headed towards the city center and its traditional Christmas market. After marching through the streets of downtown Toulouse for an hour without interference from law enforcement, the crowd of about 3000 reached the big boulevards. Facing this large and determined crowd, some riot police fled near Jean Jaurès. When the crowd arrived at François Verdier, police began to shoot tear gas; this was a mistake, as demonstrators answered by shooting fireworks at them.
The plan to create several different marches succeeded, enabling the crowd to stay in control of the situation and dictate their own movements throughout the afternoon. Police were constantly running after groups of protestors in the downtown area to carry out arrests. Due to the general confusion and the fact that the demonstration took place the weekend before Christmas, police ended up using tear gas not only against demonstrators but also against shoppers and other passersby.
Later, the crowd converged at Esquirol. Because the demonstrators had succeeded in outmaneuvering the authorities, the collective atmosphere was not just festive but euphoric. No one wanted to leave the streets. The crowd decided to march towards the Carmes district—a wealthy district of Toulouse that never witnesses demonstrations. As the crowd proceeded through this bourgeois district, coffee shops and banks began closing their doors. The police were still far away; numerous targets were attacked, barricades were erected, and urban furniture caught fire.
In Toulouse, the yellow vest movement was far from losing momentum. On the contrary, the actions of December 22 brought new life to it in this part of France.
The situation in Lyons has been difficult since the beginning of the yellow vest movement, as local fascists have successfully used the movement as a platform to spread their ideas and develop initiatives. On December 22, for the first time, people attempted to confront this growing fascist tendency.
For this sixth act, between 1000 and 2000 individuals took the streets. Everything started when several demonstrations organized that day converged to form a large march. Rapidly, the atmosphere among the crowd of protestors became tense as anti-fascists and railroad workers recognized dozens of well-known local fascists.
In the end, a large part of the demonstration began shouting “Lyons, Lyons, Antifa!” and “No demos for fascists, No fascists in our demos!” As a result, the group of fascists left the demonstration. Unfortunately, the same fascists managed to re-infiltrate the march from the rear.
At that moment, police forces were maintaining their distance except a helicopter monitoring the crowd from above. Around 4 pm, the official demonstration ended. Demonstrators were not ready to leave the streets and a more energetic wildcat demonstration followed.
By the time the participants reached the Part Dieu, a famous shopping district, the crowd had gained in numbers. However, police were determined to protect this temple of consumerism. In front of the official Tax building, police blocked the march and shot tear gas canisters at the crowd to push them back towards the city center. Yellow vesters changed their plan, heading towards the university district. Again, as soon as they approached their destination, police blocked their path and dispersed them.
At 6 pm, the cat and mouse game between protesters and police forces started in the Guillotière district. Law enforcement units became overwhelmed by the situation: they couldn’t tell the difference between potential threats and ordinary passersby. They began to shoot tear gas canisters everywhere at random, filling the entire district with a thick poisonous fog. However, the crowd succeeded in regrouping and intense confrontations broke out.
Ssme protestors blocked the entrance of a major retail store selling cultural and electronic products on the last weekend before Christmas. As a result, the store closed its doors for the day. Large numbers of police arrived and dispersed the crowd with tear gas, creating several stampedes in this high-traffic district.
Another cat and mouse game started around the Bellecour square. The crowd of protestors succeeded in outmaneuvering the authorities’ plan. Indeed, police experienced considerable trouble arresting protestors. Consequently, they decided to carry out random searches in hopes of finding potentially incriminating evidence. Finally, despairing at the ineffectiveness of their strategy, police left the area.
The day of action in Lyons ended with police stopping a group of protestors near the Christmas market. At least two protestors were arrested.
Act VII: Keeping the Movement Alive into the New Year
Despite the Christmas holidays and the decreasing participation, some yellow vesters organized a seventh nationwide day of action on December 29. The hard core of the movement was determined to overcome the limits imposed by the calendar and find a fresh impetus for 2019.
In Paris, organizers kept the convergence point secret until the last moment in order to catch the authorities by surprise. That morning, about 60 yellow vesters went to the Champs Elysées. Unfortunately for them, police were already deployed all along the avenue, so nothing occurred.
Then some movement leaders announced the convergence point via social media. Yellow vesters were supposed to gather in front of major media outlets buildings—BFM, RMC, Libération, L’Express—located in the 15th district of the French capital near the Ministry of Defence. The point of this action was to denounce “unfair” media coverage of the movement. In the end, about 400 protestors answered the call.
The crowd began shouting slogans including “Journalists, collaborationists!” “BFM fake news” and “Macron out!” Some demonstrators asked for “free, independent, and objective media” while others tried to explain to police officers that corporate media outlets were the ones manipulating society. Some signs demanded the Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC). Throughout the rest of the day, the group of yellow vesters continued its tour of official media outlets, followed closely by police forces. In the end, most of the crowd dispersed near the Eiffel Tower or were surrounded by law enforcement units. Several confrontations also took place at the Champs Elysées.
Altogether, according to the official figures of the Prefecture, about 800 yellow vesters gathered in Paris, 57 were arrested, and 33 were put in custody.
On December 29, Bordeaux drew the largest number of protestors in France, with a yellow wave several thousand strong—2400 according to authorities, more according to some journalists present.
In Bordeaux, 700 policemen were deployed as well as a helicopter. The authorities revised their strategies by closing the access to the entire Pey Berland square where the City Hall is located and by trying to execute the “pressure cooker” strategy at several occasions—seeking to contain demonstrators in a closed area while increasing the pressure on them.
The demonstration started quietly, but as soon as the march passed law enforcement units near the Gambetta square, tension increased. Along a boulevard, the cours Clémenceau, the first trash bins were set on fire and projectiles were thrown at police who answered with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. Some stores started closing their doors, while the first barricade appeared near the Christmas market. Shoppers were confined inside the market during the confrontations.
This is when the march split. About 50 demonstrators continued to confront police forces, while others marched towards the Victoire square. Some demonstrators started removing their yellow vests and leaving the demonstration. In the meantime, a large number of law enforcement units attempted to disperse groups of determined protestors who were defending themselves with numerous burning barricades. In the end, 25 individuals were arrested. Both yellow vesters and police officers attacked journalists and photographers in the streets of Bordeaux.
In Rouen, about 1000 demonstrators took the streets. As usual, they gathered at 10 am in front of the City Hall. The situation remained quiet until midday, when the first barricades appeared. Almost instantly, police answered by firing tear gas canisters at the crowd. Protestors dispersed into the nearby streets and a cat and mouse game with police forces began.
A bit later, the front door of the Banque de France—the national Central Bank—was set on fire with trash bins, while some of its security cameras were smashed. Meanwhile, other barricades caught fire nearby and near the local law court. By the time police units and firemen arrived, the crowd was already near the City Hall.
Confrontations continued in the city center. Once again, police filled the streets with tear gas. Throughout the day, police experienced a war of nerves with demonstrators. They repeatedly had to clear numerous makeshift burning barricades from the streets in order to follow the crowd.
The protestors carried on until the end of the day; that evening, police continued to use tear gas and stun grenades to disperse them. At least 10 people were arrested and there were 10 injuries. One woman experienced a wound in her forehead and a fractured leg.
Elsewhere in France
In Lille, about 600 yellow vesters gathered for the last nationwide day of action of 2018. Six were arrested and three were injured after police repeatedly used tear gas to disperse the crowd.
In Metz, 300 demonstrators tried to break through a police cordon protecting the local prefecture, while in Marseille, a thousand yellow vestors gathered in front of the arch of triumph to show that the movement was not losing momentum.
In Toulouse, approximately 2500 people gathered under the slogan “Macron out!” and seven individuals were arrested, while in Amiens, 17 people were arrested on account of the local prefecture banning every street gathering and demonstration until January 2, 2019.
On New Year’s eve, several yellow vest groups also gathered in Paris and elsewhere in France—traffic circles included—for “festive and non-violent” demonstrations.
Gasping for Air
As the end of 2018 showed a loss of momentum, the die-hard elements of the movement struggled to keep it alive after the holidays.
Alongside about fifty other yellow vesters, Eric Drouet—an influential leader of the movement connected to the far right, who we have discussed in a previous article— organized a small gathering in Paris on Wednesday, January 2, 2019, to pay tribute to the ten people who died and the numerous protesters injured since the beginning of the movement. Their objective was “to shock public opinion.”
While the group was dressed in plain clothes—they decided not to wear their symbol for this action in order to avoid being clearly identified—several streets away from the Presidential palace, police stopped them and arrested Eric Drouet. This was covered by numerous media outlets.
Drouet and his followers expected this arrest. It was a perfect opportunity to capture public attention by portraying themselves as the victims of government repression. For yellow vesters, this illegitimate arrest was further proof that the government aimed to muzzle the movement and to discourage everyone from demonstrating without requesting authorization from the Prefecture.
This provoked a variety of reactions. The populist leader of the leftist France Insoumise, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who had already mentioned his fascination with Eric Drouet, requested his immediate release, stating that this arrest was an “abuse of power” and that “from now on, a political police force is targeting and harassing the important figures of the yellow vest movement.”
The far right also voiced support for Eric Drouet. Florian Philippot, leader of the political party Les Patriotes and former ally of Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National), who expressed his concern that “the Macron political regime was becoming more and more authoritarian.” The President of the Rassemblement National in the Paris region, Wallerand de Saint-Just also expressed support. Eric Drouet reposted Wallerand de Saint-Just’s messages of support on his personal twitter, confirming his own sympathy for nationalist ideas.
Act VIII: January 5, 2019
On the eve of the eighth nationwide day of action, the authorities explained that they expected a higher participation in the rest of France than in Paris. For the first time since November 17, 2018—when the movement got underway—the Parisian Prefecture received requests from yellow vest groups to demonstrate in the capital. As a result, two different marches were organized for January 5: one between the Panthéon and the district of Saint-Germain-des-Près, and one between the City Hall and the National Assembly.
Government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux castigated yellow vesters who decided to continue the mobilization despite the President’s concessions. According to him, the movement had “been coopted by agitators who want an insurrection and to overthrow the government.” Earlier this week, the Minister of the Interior Christophe Castaner asked the prefects of each region to proceed with the “complete and definitive eviction” of the hundred blockades and meeting points held by members of the yellow vest movement. To do so, the Minister allowed the prefects to use any legal means—financial fees, use of police forces, and so on.
Finally, in addition to the traditional Saturday demonstrations and actions, a women’s yellow vest group decided to create their own event in Paris, for Sunday, December 6, 2019. Organizers specified that this action was “not a feminist struggle but a feminine one,” a statement that speaks for itself.
In Paris, the day opened with the traditional gathering at the Champs Elysées. There, the group of yellow vesters improvised a general assembly near the Arc de Triomphe. Then, as the group gained in numbers, they walked down the avenue towards the Concorde square before police stopped them. The crowd of 1500 headed towards the Saint Lazare district. On their way to the train station, the yellow vesters stopped by Place de la Bourse to boo the international news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP).
In the Saint Lazare area, the march continued towards the city center, despite the heavy police presence in the area. However, near the Hotel de Ville—the departure point of the permitted afternoon demonstration—police forces blocked the protesters. In front of the main City Hall, there were already 4000 yellow vesters. As usual, several banners and signs asking for the implementation of the RIC were spotted. Rapidly, the crowd moved towards Châtelet shouting “Macron out!” before immediately being pushed back by tear gas. After some confusion, the procession changed direction towards its authorized destination: the National Assembly.
The first real confrontations took place near the riverbank when protesters attacked police with glass bottles and stones. Then, on the Léopold Sedar Senghor footbridge, tense confrontations took place. As people attempted to cross the Seine River in order to reach the National Assembly located on the other side, police blocked the access to the bridge and employed tear gas. Note that, during the clashes on the bridge, Christophe Dettinger, a demonstrator and ex-boxer, took on the line of fully armored police with his bare hands and succeeded in pushing them back. Little by little, the law enforcement pressure around the demonstration increased. A boat was set on fire during the confrontations on the footbridge. According to radical sources present on site, the yellow crowd comprised approximately 10,000 individuals.
Near the Assemblée Nationale, police forces had blocked all access routes to the official building. As a result, the march couldn’t go any further and confrontations broke out. Being tear gassed at a dead end, many protestors decided to start wildcat demonstrations through the neighboring streets of the Latin district. There the first barricades were erected and set on fire—especially on the Saint-Germain boulevard. The crowd expressed its rage: every piece of urban furniture, self-service scooter, or motorcycle was smashed, lit on fire, or used as a barricade.
Wildcat demonstrations and confrontations continued in different parts of the city until later that day: in the Latin district, near Saint Lazare, at the Champs Elysées. In the end, government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux had to be evacuated in emergency as a group of yellow vesters succeeded in entering his government ministry building. They used a small construction vehicle to knock down the front door, then entered the property and smashed up two cars.
At least 24 people were arrested that day. Friends present in the streets report a significant presence of fascists and nationalists of all kinds.
Elsewhere in France
For a movement supposedly in decline, a remarkable number of actions and demonstrations took place in France on the eighth day of action. Altogether, something like 50,000 people participated. The number of people involved in street actions almost doubled compared to the previous week.
In Bordeaux, about 4600 people demonstrated. The city remains one of the bastions of the movement. After a quiet beginning, the crowd changed course, entering Sainte-Catherine street and heading towards the Pey Berland square and the City Hall. As soon as the crowd arrived at the square, the first confrontations began. Police answered with tear gas and water canons, while in the nearby streets, demonstrators broke up concrete and cobblestones to use as projectiles. As night fell, the first barricades were erected and several cars were set on fire. Police forces charged the rioters repeatedly, but they were determined to continue. In the end, 11 people were arrested.
In Beauvais, yellow vesters converged at the local airport in the morning; however, no action took place, as police blocked their way. That afternoon, police dispersed a group of 600 people who were trying to enter the city center.
In Lyons, after a traditional march through the city, several thousand yellow vesters blocked the A7 freeway both ways, creating traffic jams.
In Nantes, about 2000 individuals took the streets. As soon as the afternoon demonstration started, confrontations with police broke out. During the clashes, some yellow vesters set fire to a pile of Christmas trees in front of the Cathedral. All afternoon, police forces shot tear gas canisters and concussion grenades at the crowd. At least one person was injured.
In Rouen, between 1700 and 4000 yellow vesters demonstrated. Around noon, protestors threw cobblestones and other projectiles at police, who answered with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. According to authorities, police were confronted with 400 determined rioters. In the end, several people were injured, 19 were arrested, and 18 put in custody.
In Caen, confrontations began in the afternoon when demonstrators who wanted to occupy the Résistance square started building barricades with the fences of a nearby construction site. They also lit fires on the square and threw projectiles at law enforcement units who answered with tear gas.
Other gatherings and demonstrations took place in Toulouse; Saint-Nazaire, where yellow vesters blocked the main bridge during several hours before being dispersed by police forces; Sedan, where protestors blocked the railway for several hours; Dijon, where a group of yellow vesters attacked a gendarmerie barracks; Saint-Malo, where yellow vesters blocked the ferry terminal; Avignon; Marseille; Quimper; near Nancy; near Nîmes, where yellow vesters dumped hundreds of liters of waste oil on the roads; and near Sevrey, where demonstrators were arrested for attempting to block an Amazon logistics platform.
In view of all these actions, it is possible that this first day of action of 2019 shows that the movement has survived the holidays and will continue to be a force this year. But what kind of force? This is the important question.
We will address it in the next installment of this series.
I’m writing from Rojava. For full disclosure: I didn’t grow up here and I don’t have access to all the information I would need to tell you what is going to happen next in this part of the world with any certainty. I’m writing because it is urgent that you hear from people in northern Syria about what Trump’s “troop withdrawal” really means for us—and it’s not clear how much time we have left to discuss it. I approach this task with all the humility at my disposal.
I’m not formally integrated into any of the groups here. That makes it possible for me to speak freely, but I should emphasize that my perspective doesn’t represent any institutional position. If nothing else, this should be useful as a historical document indicating how some people here understood the situation at this point in time, in case it becomes impossible to ask us later on.
Mark my words, Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria is not an “anti-war” or “anti-imperialist” measure. It will not bring the conflict in Syria to an end. On the contrary, what is actually happening is that Trump is stepping back and giving Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan a free hand to invade Rojava and carry out ethnic cleansing against the people who have done much of the fighting and dying to halt the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). This is a deal between strongmen to exterminate the social experiment in Rojava and consolidate authoritarian nationalist politics from Washington, DC to Istanbul and Kobane. Trump aims to leave Israel the most ostensibly liberal and democratic project in the entire Middle East, foreclosing all the possibilities that the revolution in Rojava opened up for this part of the world.
All this will come at a tremendous cost in lives. As bloody and tragic as the Syrian civil war has already been, this could open up not just a new chapter of it, but a sequel.
This is not about where US troops are stationed. The two thousand US soldiers at issue are a drop in the bucket in terms of the number of armed fighters in Syria today. They have not been on the frontlines of the fighting the way that the US military was in Iraq.1 The withdrawal of these soldiers is not the important thing here. What matters is that Trump’s announcement is a message to Erdoğan indicating that there will be no consequences if the Turkish state invades Rojava.
There’s a lot of confusion about this, with supposed anti-war and “anti-imperialist” activists like Medea Benjamin endorsing Donald Trump’s decision, blithely putting the stamp of “peace” on an impending bloodbath and telling the victims that they should have known better. It makes no sense to blame people here in Rojava for depending on the United States when neither Medea Benjamin nor anyone like her has done anything to offer them any sort of alternative.
The worst case scenario now is that the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA), backed by the Turkish military itself, will overrun Rojava and carry out ethnic cleansing on a level you cannot imagine from wherever you are reading this. They’ve already done this on a small scale in Afrin. In Rojava, this would take place on a historic scale. It could be something like the Palestinian Nakba, not to say the Armenian genocide.
I will try to explain why this is happening, why you should care about it, and what we can do about it together.
First of All: About the Experiment in Rojava
The system in Rojava is not perfect. This is not the right place to air dirty laundry, but there are lots of problems. I’m not having the kind of experience here that Paul Z. Simons had some years ago, when his visit to Rojava made him feel that everything is possible. Years and years of war and militarization have taken their toll on the most exciting aspects of the revolution here. Still, these people are in incredible danger right now and the society they have built is worth defending.
What is happening in Rojava is not anarchy. Yet all the same, women play a major role in society; there is basic freedom of religion and language; an ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse population lives side by side without any major acts of ethnic cleansing or conflict; it’s heavily militarized, but it’s not a police state; the communities are relatively safe and stable; there’s not famine or mass food insecurity; the armed forces are not committing mass atrocities. Every faction in this war has blood on its hands, but the People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) have conducted themselves far more responsibly than any other side. They’ve saved countless lives—not just Kurds—in Sinjar and many other places. Considering the impossible conditions and the tremendous amount of violence that people here have been subjected to from all sides, that is an incredible feat. All this stands in stark contrast to what will happen if the Turkish state invades, considering that Trump has given Erdoğan the go-ahead in return for closing a massive missile sale.
It should go without saying that I don’t want to perpetuate an open-ended Bush-style “war on terror,” much less to participate in the sort of “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West that bigots and fundamentalists of both stripes have been fantasizing about. On the contrary, that is precisely what we’re trying to prevent here. Most of the people Daesh [ISIS] have killed have been Muslim; most of the people who have died fighting Daesh have been Muslim. In Hajin, where I was stationed and where the last ISIS stronghold is, one of the internationals who has been fighting Daesh longest is an observant Muslim—not to speak of all the predominantly Arab fighters from Deir Ezzor there, most of whom are almost certainly Muslim as well.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll oversimplify and say that today, there are roughly five sides in the Syrian civil war: loyalist, Turkish, jihadi, Kurdish,2 and rebel.3 At the conclusion of this text, an appendix explores the narratives that characterize each of these sides.
Each of these sides stands in different relation to the others. I’ll list the relations of each group to the others, starting with the other group that they are most closely affiliated with and ending with the groups they are most opposed to:
Loyalist: Kurdish, Turkish, jihadi, rebel
Rebel: Turkish, jihadi, Kurdish, loyalist
Turkish: rebel, jihadi, loyalist, Kurdish
Kurdish: loyalist, rebel, Turkish, jihadi
Jihadi: rebel, Turkish, Kurdish and loyalist
This may be helpful in visualizing which groups could be capable of compromising and which are irreversibly at odds. Again, remember, I am generalizing a lot.
I want to be clear that each of these groups is motivated by a narrative that contains at least some kernel of truth. For example, in regards to the question of who is to blame for the rise of ISIS, it is true that the US “ploughed the field” for ISIS with the invasion and occupation of Iraq and its disastrous fallout (loyalist narrative); but it is also true that the Turkish state has tacitly and sometimes blatantly colluded with ISIS because ISIS was fighting against the primary adversary of the Turkish state (Kurdish narrative) and that Assad’s brutal reaction to the Arab Spring contributed to a spiral of escalating violence that culminated in the rise of Daesh (rebel narrative). And although I’m least sympathetic to the jihadi and Turkish state perspectives, it is certain that unless the well-being of Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria is factored into a political settlement, the jihadis will go on fighting, and that unless there is some kind of political settlement between the Turkish state and the PKK, Turkey will go on seeking to wipe out Kurdish political formations, without hesitating to commit genocide.
It’s said that “Kurds are second-class citizens in Syria, third-class citizens in Iran, fourth-class citizens in Iraq, and fifth-class citizens in Turkey.” It’s no accident that when Turkish officials like Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu list the “terror groups” they are most concerned about in the region, they name the YPG before ISIS. Perhaps this can help explain the cautious response of many Kurds to the Syrian revolution: from the Kurdish perspective, regime change in Syria carried out by Turkish-backed jihadis coupled with no regime change in Turkey could be worse than no regime change in Syria at all.
I won’t rehash the whole timeline from the ancient Sumerians to the beginning of the PKK war in Turkey to the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS. Let’s skip forward to Trump’s announcement on December 19: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”
Let me be clear: Daesh has not been defeated in Syria. Just a few days ago, they took a shot at our position with a rocket launcher out of a clear blue sky and missed by only a hundred yards.
It is true that their territory is just a fraction of what it once was. At the same time, by any account, they still have thousands of fighters, a lot of heavy weaponry, and probably quite a bit of what remains of their senior leadership down in the Hajin pocket of the Euphrates river valley and the surrounding deserts, between Hajin and the Iraqi border. In addition, ISIS have a lot of experience and a wide array of sophisticated defense strategies—and they are absolutely willing to die to inflict damage on their enemies.
To the extent that their territory has been drastically reduced, Trump is telling a bald-faced lie in trying to take credit for this. Just as he did with the US economy, Trump is claiming responsibility for the results of the preceding administration’s policies. More importantly, the achievement he is claiming as his own is largely the work of precisely the people he is consigning to death at the hands of Turkey.
Under Obama, the Department of Defense and the CIA pursued dramatically different strategies in reference to the uprising and subsequent civil war in Syria. The CIA focused on overthrowing Assad by any means necessary, to the point that arms and money they supplied trickled down to al-Nusra, ISIS, and others. By contrast, the Pentagon was more focused on defeating ISIS, beginning to concentrate on supporting the largely Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) during the defense of Kobane in 2014.
Now, as an anarchist who desires the complete abolition of every government, I have no love for the Pentagon or the CIA, but if we evaluate these two approaches according to their own professed goals, the Pentagon plan worked fairly well, while the CIA plan was a total disaster. In this regard, it’s fair to say that the previous administration contributed to both the growth of ISIS and its suppression. Trump, for his part, has done neither, except insofar as the sort of nationalist Islamophobia he promotes helps to generate a symmetrical form of Islamic fundamentalism.
Up until December, Trump maintained the Pentagon strategy in Syria that he inherited from the Obama administration. There have been signs of mission creep from US National Security Advisor John R. Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who ultimately hope to undermine Iran on account of it supplying oil to China. This far—and no further—I can understand the concerns of a pseudo-pacifist “anti-imperialist” like Medea Benjamin: war with Iran would be a nightmare compounding the catastrophe brought about by the war in Iraq. So yes, insofar as the YPG and YPJ were forced to coordinate with the US military, they were working with unsavory characters whose motivations were very different from their own.
To sum up: what has brought about the by-now almost total recapture of the territory ISIS occupied isn’t rocket science. It’s the combination of a brave and capable ground force with air support. In this sort of conventional territorial war, it’s extremely difficult for a ground force without air support to defeat a ground force with air support, no matter how fiercely the former fights. In some parts of Syria, this involved the YPG/YPJ on the ground with US backing from the air. Elsewhere in Syria, it must be said, ISIS was pushed back by the combination of Russian air support and the loyalist army (SAA) alongside Iranian-backed militias.
It would have been extremely difficult to recapture this territory from ISIS any other way. The cooperation of the YPG/YPJ with the US military remains controversial, but the fact is—every side in the Syrian conflict has been propped up and supported by larger outside powers and would have collapsed without that support.
People employing the Turkish, loyalist, and jihadi narratives often point out that Kobane would have fallen and YPG/YPJ would never have been able to retake eastern Syria from Daesh without US air support. Likewise, the Syrian government and the Assad regime were very close to military collapse in 2015, around the time Turkey conveniently downed a Russian plane and Putin decided that Russia was going to bail out the Assad regime no matter what it took. The rebels, on their side, never would have come close to toppling Assad through military means without massive assistance from the Turkish government, the Gulf states, US intelligence services, and probably Israel on some level, although the details of this are murky from where I’m situated.
And the jihadis—Daesh, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, and the others—would never have been able to take control of half of Iraq and Syria if the US had not been so foolish as to leave an army’s worth of state-of-the-art equipment in the hands of the Iraqi government, which effectively abandoned it. It also helped them that a tremendous amount of resources trickled down from the abovementioned foreign sponsors of the rebels. It also helped that Turkey left its airports and borders open to jihadis from all over the world who set out to join Daesh. There also appears to have been some sort of financial support from the Gulf states, whether formally or through back channels.
The Turkish state has its own agenda. It is not by any means simply a proxy for the US. But at the end of the day, it’s a NATO member and it can count on the one hundred percent support of the US government—as the missile sale that the US made to Turkey days before the withdrawal tweet illustrates.
In view of all this, we can see why YPG/YPJ was forced to cooperate with the US military. My point is not to defend this decision, but to show that under the circumstances, it was practically the only alternative to annihilation. At the same time, it is clear that this strategy has not created security for the experiment in Rojava. Even if we set aside ethical concerns, there are practical problems with relying on the United States—or France, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or any other state government with its own state agenda. As anarchists, we have to talk very seriously about how to create other options for people in conflict zones. Is there any form of international horizontal decentralized coordination that could have solved the problems that the people in Rojava were facing such that they would not have been forced to depend on the US military? If we find no answer to this question when we look at the Syria of 2013-2018, is there something we could have done earlier? These are extremely pressing questions.
No one should forget that ISIS was only reduced to their current situation by a multi-ethnic, radically democratic grassroots resistance movement, that incidentally involved international volunteers from around the globe. In view of Trump’s order to abandon and betray the struggle against ISIS, every sincere person who earnestly wants to put a stop to the spread of apocalyptic fundamentalist terror groups like ISIS or their imminent successors should stop counting on the state and put all their resources into directly supporting decentralized multi-ethnic egalitarian movements. It is becoming ever clearer that those are our only hope.
I’m not surprised that Trump and the Americans are “betraying an ally”—I don’t think anybody here had the illusion that Trump or the Pentagon intended to support the political project in Rojava. Looking back through history, it was clear enough that when ISIS was beaten, the US would leave Rojava at the mercy of the Turkish military. If the forces of the YPG/YPJ have dragged their feet in rooting ISIS out of their last strongholds, this may be one of the reasons.
But it is still shocking that Trump would rush to give up this foothold that the US has carved out in the Russosphere—and that the US military establishment would let him do so. From the perspective of maintaining US global military hegemony, the decision makes no sense at all. It’s a tremendous gift to Putin, Erdoğan, and ISIS, which could take advantage of the situation to regenerate throughout the region, perhaps in some new form—more on that below.
The withdrawal from Syria does not necessarily mean that conflict with Iran is off the table, by the way. On the contrary, certain hawks in the US government may see this as a step towards consolidating a position from which that could be possible.
In any case, Trump’s decision is big news. It indicates that the US “deep state” has no power over Trump’s foreign policy. It suggests that the US neoliberal project is dead in the water, or at least that some elements of the US ruling class consider it to be. It also implies a future in which ethno-nationalist autocrats like Erdoğan, Trump, Assad, Bolsonaro, and Putin will be in the driver’s seat worldwide, conniving with each other to maintain power over their private domains.
In that case, the entire post-cold war era of US military hegemony is over, and we are entering a multipolar age in which tyrants will rule balkanized authoritarian ethno-states: think Europe before World War I. The liberals (and anarchists?) who imagine that this could be good news are fools fighting yesterday’s enemy and yesterday’s war. The de facto red/brown coalition of authoritarian socialists and fascists who are celebrating this are hurrying us all helter-skelter into a brave new world in which more and more of the globe will look like the worst parts of the Syrian civil war.
And speaking from this vantage point, here, today, I do not say that lightly.
What Will Happen Next?
Sadly, Kurdish and left movements in Turkey have been decimated over the past few years. I would be very surprised if there were any kind of uprising in Turkey, no matter what happens in Rojava. We should not permit ourselves to hope that a Turkish invasion here would trigger an insurgency in northern Kurdistan.
Unless something truly unexpected transpires, there are basically two possible outcomes here.
In the first scenario, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) will make some kind of agreement with the Assad regime, likely under less favorable terms than would have been possible before the Turkish invasion of Afrin; both sides would likely make concessions of some kind and agree to fight on the same side if Turkey invades. If Russia signs off on this, it could suffice to prevent the invasion from taking place. Either YPG/YPJ or SAA will finish off the Hajin pocket, and the war could be basically over except for Idlib.
Both the Assad regime and the various predominantly Kurdish formations have been extremely hardheaded in negotiating, but perhaps the threat to both Rojava and the Assad regime is so extreme that they will choose this option. It is possible that this is one of the objectives of the Turkish threat, or even of Trump’s withdrawal: to force YPG to relinquish military autonomy to the Assad regime.
YPG, PYD, and company are not in a very good bargaining position right now, but the regime knows it can at least bargain with them, whereas if northern Syria is occupied by Turkish-backed jihadis and assorted looters, it is unclear what would happen next. Rojava contains much of Syria’s best agricultural land in the north, as well as oil fields in the south.
I can only speculate what the terms of this theoretical agreement might be. There’s lots of speculation online: language rights, Kurdish citizenship being regularized, prior service in YPG counting as military service so that soldiers who have been fighting ISIS all these years can return to being civilians rather than immediately being conscripted into SAA, some kind of limited political autonomy, or the like. In exchange, the YPG and its allies would essentially have to hand military and political control of SDF areas over to the regime.
Could Assad’s regime be trusted to abide by an agreement after they gain control? Probably not.
To be clear, it’s all too easy for me to speak abstractly about the Assad regime as the lesser of two evils. I’m informed about many of the atrocities the regime has committed, but I have not experienced them myself, and this is not the part of Syria where they did the worst things, so I more frequently hear stories from the locals about Daesh and other jihadis, not to mention Turkey. There are likely people in other parts of Syria who regard the Assad regime regaining power with the same dread with which people here regard the Turkish military and ISIS.
In any case, there are some signs that this first scenario might still be possible. The regime has sent troops to Manbij, to one of the lines where the massive Turkish/TFSA troop buildup is occurring. There are meetings between the PYD and the regime as well as with the Russians. An Egyptian-mediated negotiation between the PYD and the regime is scheduled to take place soon.
This first scenario does not offer a very attractive set of options. It’s not what Jordan Mactaggart or the thousands and thousands of Syrians who fought and died with YPG/YPJ gave their lives for. But it would be preferable to the other scenario…
In the second scenario, the Assad regime will throw in its lot with Turkey instead of with YPG.
In this case, some combination of the Turkish military and its affiliated proxies will invade from the north while the regime invades from the south and west. YPG will fight to the death, street by street, block by block, in a firestorm reminiscent of the Warsaw ghetto uprising or the Paris Commune, utilizing all the defensive tactics they acquired while fighting ISIS. Huge numbers of people will die. Eventually, the Assad regime and Turkey/TFSA will establish some line between their zones of control. For the foreseeable future, there would be some kind of Turkish-Jihadi Rump State of Northern Syrian Warlordistan.
Any remaining Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, Christians, and other minorities would be expulsed, ethnically cleansed, or terrorized. TFSA and related militias would likely loot everything they could get their hands on. In the long run, Turkey would probably dump the Syrian refugees who are now in Turkey back into these occupied areas, bringing about irreversible demographic shifts that could be the cause of future ethnic conflicts in the region.
We should not believe any assurances from the Turkish state or its apologists that this will not be the result of their invasion, as this is exactly what they have done in Afrin and they have no reason to behave differently in Rojava. Remember: from the perspective of the Turkish state, the YPG/YPJ are enemy number one in Syria.
Now let’s talk about Daesh. Despite the looming threat of invasion, SDF is still finishing off the Hajin pocket of ISIS. If it weren’t for the fact that Turkey is throwing Daesh a lifeline by threatening to invade, Daesh would be doomed, as they are surrounded by SDF, SAA, and the Iraqi army. Let me say this again: Trump’s giving Turkey the go-ahead to invade Rojava is practically the only thing that could save ISIS.
Trump has repeatedly said things to the effect that Turkey is promising to finish off ISIS. To believe this lie, you would have to be politically ignorant, yes—but in addition, you would also have to be geographically illiterate. This describes Trump’s supporters, if no one else.
Even if the Turkish government had any intention of fighting Daesh in Syria—a proposition that is highly doubtful, considering how easy Turkey made it for ISIS to get off the ground—in order to even reach Hajin and the Euphrates river valley, they would have to steamroll across the entirety of Rojava. There is no other way to get to Hajin. If you’re unfamiliar with the area, look at a map and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
The Assad regime holds positions right across the Euphrates River from both the SDF and Daesh positions, and would be willing and able to finish off the last ISIS pocket. As far as I’m concerned, I’d rather see the regime take the losses there to accomplish that than see YPG overextend itself and bleed any further. But the point here is that when Trump says something to the effect that “Turkey will finish off ISIS!” he is sending a blatant dog whistle to Turkish hardliners that they can attack Rojava and he won’t do anything to stop them. It has nothing to do with ISIS and everything to do with ethnic cleansing in Rojava.
If nothing else, even if Assad allies with the Turkish government, we can hope that the forces of the regime will still finish off ISIS. If Turkey has its way and does what Trump is talking about, beating a path all the way through Rojava to Hajin, they will likely give Daesh’s fighters safe passage, a new set of clothes, three meals a day, and this village I’m living in in exchange for their assistance fighting future Kurdish insurgencies.
So there it is: in declaring victory over ISIS, Trump is arranging the only way that ISIS fighters could come out of this situation with their capacities intact. It’s Orwellian, to say the least.
The only other option I can imagine, if negotiations with the Assad regime break down or PYD decides to take the moral high road and not compromise with the regime—who are untrustworthy and have carried out plenty of atrocities of their own—would be to let the entire SDF melt back into the civilian population, permit Turkey and its proxies to walk into Rojava without losing the fighting force of the YPG/YPJ, and immediately begin an insurgency. That might be smarter than a doomed final stand, but who knows.
Personally, I want to see the Syrian civil war end, and for Iraq to somehow be spared another cycle of war in the near future. I want to see ISIS prevented from regenerating its root system and preparing for a new round of violence. That doesn’t mean intensifying the ways that this part of the world is policed—it means fostering local solutions to the question of how different people and populations can coexist, and how they can defend themselves from groups like Daesh. This is part of what people have been trying to do in Rojava, and that is one of the reasons that Trump and Erdoğan find the experiment here so threatening. In the end, the existence of groups like ISIS makes their authority look preferable by comparison, whereas participatory horizontal multi-ethnic projects show just how oppressive their model is.
Overthrowing Assad by military means is a dead project—or, at least, the things that would have to happen to make it plausible again in the near future are even more horrifying than the regime is. I hope that somehow, some day, there can be some kind of settlement between the regime and YPG/YPJ, and the regime and the rebels in Idlib, and everyone else who has been suffering here. If capitalism and state tyranny are the problem, this kind of civil war is not the solution, although it seems likely that what has happened in Syria will happen elsewhere in the world as the crises generated by capitalism, state power, and ethnic conflicts put people at odds.
What can you do, reading this in some safer and stabler part of the world?
First, you can spread the word that Trump’s decision is neither a way to bring peace to Syria nor confirmation that ISIS has been defeated. You can tell other people what I have told you about how the situation looks from here, in case I am not able to do so myself.
Second, in the event of a Turkish invasion, you can use every means in your power to discredit and impede the Turkish state, Trump, and the others who paved the way for that outcome. Even if you are not able to stop them—even if you can’t save our lives—you will be part of building the kind of social movements and collective capacity that it will take to save others’ lives in the future.
In addition, you can look for ways to get resources to people in this part of the world who have suffered so much and will continue to suffer as the next act of this tragedy plays out. You can also look to support Syrian refugees who are scattered around the world.
Finally, you can think about how we could put better options on the table next time an uprising like the one in Syria breaks out. How can we make sure that governments fall before their reign gives way to the reign of pure force, in which only insurgents backed by other states can gain control? How can we offer other visions of how people can live and meet their needs together, and mobilize the force it will take to implement and defend them on an international basis without need of any state?
These are big questions, but I have faith in you. I have to.
Appendix: Rival Narratives
Drawing on this helpful overview, here is a review of the narratives we often see from different sides in the Syrian civil war:
Emphasis on how the US and other countries supported and financed rebels for their own geopolitical ends as the main cause for the escalation of the conflict.
The existence of ISIS is mostly attributed to rebel support landing in the wrong hands and more fundamentally as a result of the fallout of the 2003 Iraq war.
Emphasis on links and cooperation between so-called moderate rebels and groups like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in order to argue they are all part of the same problem.
Varying views on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its legitimacy. This seems to be different from loyalist to loyalist, with some thinking they are almost as bad as traditional rebels and others seeing them as allies against ISIS and Turkish-supported rebels.
Western, gulf Arab, and rebel narrative:
Emphasis on the Arab spring and how the brutal suppression of (relatively) peaceful protests led to an escalation of the conflict and armed rebellion and eventually full blown civil war.
Existence of ISIS mostly attributed to Assad’s actions. Often claiming how his brutal actions and reliance on sectarian militias created an environment in which ISIS could grow and gain support. Moreover, the point is made that Assad’s military deliberately targeted other rebels more than ISIS, and hence is for a large part to blame for its rise.
Emphasis on how there is a clear distinction between moderate rebels and radicals, and we should separate the two in honest analysis.
Views on SDF ranging from unfriendly to outright hostile. Often coushed in emphasizing cases in which the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the SDF worked together. In milder forms, this narrative criticizes a perceived overreliance on Kurds in majority Arab areas, while still recognizing the legitimacy of the organization in majority Kurdish areas.
The Turkish narrative is basically the same as the previous on most issues, with the important exception that the hostility towards the SDF intensifies to the extreme. Here, the links between the SDF and the PKK are emphasized and the SDF is characterized as an illegitimate terror organization that is a threat to Turkey and suppresses local Arabs.
Western, Kurdish narrative:
The conflict is often seen as a historic opportunity for the Kurdish peoples in their quest for nationhood. Emphasis on how Kurds were discriminated against before the war and how they can take matters into their own hands now.
The existence and expansion of ISIS is mostly blamed on Turkey. Especially Turkey’s passivity during the battle of Kobane is highlighted, along with accusations of direct support of ISIS and importing ISIS oil.
Regarding rebels, the views tend to come closer to that of loyalists. Rebels (in relevant areas, anyway) are seen either as Turkish proxies or as radical lunatics to whom Turkey can turn a blind eye. The line between rebels and ISIS is often blurred, though they aren’t lumped in together to the same extent as in the loyalist narrative.
SDF is seen as one of the only sane and moral armed actors in a battle otherwise characterized by bad versus bad. Both rebel and loyalist atrocities are emphasized to support this point of view.
ISIS and radical Islamist narrative:
The start of the conflict is seen as a great awakening of Muslims against their apostate Alawite overlords. Emphasis on the solidarity of foreign fighters towards their suffering Syrian brethren.
This perspective includes ISIS itself and also Al Qaeda and similar radical groups, who see ISIS as a group that betrayed the jihadi cause.
The rebels are seen as naïve sellouts serving the interests of foreign governments and implementing non-Islamic ideals on their behalf. Emphasis is also put on how rebels negotiate and reach deals with loyalists, only to be betrayed and lose territory.
SDF are seen as atheist apostates on the US payroll. The chief difference with Turkey is perhaps the emphasis on lack of religion rather than connections to the PKK.
There is a monument in Kobane marking the furthest point that the territorial expansion of ISIS reached in Iraq and Syria in 2014 during the battle of Kobane. ISIS took 85 percent of the city; they made it as far as this intersection before being turned around by fierce resistance.
In Hajin, where the last ISIS stronghold is, the American position is way behind the front, in artillery range but out of range of any weapons Daesh has, so they can sit there and pound away without being hit back, while the risks are run by ground troops of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This is precisely what the Turkish army would do to us if Turkey invades Rojava. ↩
In fact, there are two major parties in Iraqi Kurdistan in addition to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). They each have their own armies and police; they fought an actual civil war once. They do not like each other at all. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Barzani family dynasty, is more closely aligned with Turkey and the US; it was more closely aligned with Saddam Hussein before. They have bad relations with the administration in Rojava; they are roundly despised here because they basically stood aside and let the catastrophe in Sinjar happen in their own backyard while the PKK scrambled to rush into the breach. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has better relations with Iran, PKK, and the administration here. There is a KDP-related militia called Rojava Peshmerga in Rojava; again, they have a poor reputation because they’ve spent the whole war doing very little while YPG has died in droves fighting ISIS. All this is simply to say that there is no single Kurdish position; there are reactionary Kurdish groups, too. ↩
Mind you, the Syrian rebels were never homogenous; among them, you can find both an element aligned to Turkey and jihadis and an element aligned more closely with YPG/YPJ. Unfortunately, many of those who were interested in more “democratic” solutions to the situation in Syria were forced to flee the country years ago. ↩
Since November, France has been shaken by the yellow vest movement, a grassroots reaction to President Macron’s proposal to increase fuel taxes in order to force the poor to pay for the transition to “ecological” technologies. Like the Occupy movement, the yellow vest movement cohered around shared tactics and frustration rather than common goals or values; consequently, the movement has been a battleground for many different political agendas and factions. The far right initially took advantage of the movement’s “apolitical” character to gain influence, especially online; but as the movement spread and the clashes with the police intensified, anarchists and other uncontrollable rebels also staked out ground within the movement. Paris, December 8. Although divided as to how to relate to the movement, anarchists and other autonomous rebels chose to get involved in order to confront fascist and authoritarian tendencies from within, attack the representatives of capitalism and the state, and try to reorient the movement towards more systemic solutions. These efforts bore some fruit: fascists have been driven out of demonstrations; anti-capitalist and anti-fascist blocs have marched together in Paris; new connections have arisen between anarchists, autonomists, and other yellow vesters, not to mention rail workers, students, and those who live on the margins of the metropolis; symbols of capitalism and the state have been attacked with increasing frequency; slogans from the protests against the Loi Travail and other radical movements have spread to other groups of demonstrators. Yet the outcome of the yellow vest movement might still benefit any number of different groups, including the far right. Macron’s government has repeatedly attempted to establish dialogue with the spokespersons of the yellow vests. All these attempts have failed. The majority of the movement has refused any negotiation with officials and seems to reject the political system as a whole—this is the secret of its success compelling Macron to promise concessions. At the same time, the movement is not beyond the reach of politicians. Leftist populists and far-right nationalists stand to benefit considerably from the crisis it has created. The tension is still mounting in France. For the second week, students are blockading schools and universities to protest against education reforms; meanwhile, trade unions joined the yellow vest movement last weekend, as did other economic sectors. The government is desperately seeking a way to resolve the situation as the Christmas holidays approach. Hoping to avoid a fifth act in the conflict, on December 10, President Macron promised to grant many of the demands of the movement. Yet the story isn’t over. Another day of action has been called for Saturday, December 15. There have been copycat actions on three continents now, but it does not appear that the yellow vest movement is about to spread worldwide. France has been somewhat out of step with the rhythms of the rest of the world—a wave of riots broke out in France in 2005, years ahead of the Greek insurrection of 2008, but nothing like the Occupy movement occurred there until Nuit Debout in 2016. Still, the yellow vest movement may offer us some hints as to what the next global wave of protest will look like. Perhaps, we can anticipate another wave of movements catalyzed by economic desperation, involving a wide range of participants and ideologies. In order to explore these issues in greater detail, we present the following update from France. The work of many hands, this report picks up where our previous analysis left off, in the aftermath of the chaotic and insurrectionary nationwide day of action on December 1. Paris, December 8. The Aftermath of December 1 The confrontations that took place in Paris and elsewhere around the country on December 1 were arguably the most significant rioting in France since 1968. The intensity caught the government off guard. President Macron rushed back from the G20 summit in Argentina to assess the damage and try to reassert order. Hoping to neutralize the movement, Macron promised to grant some of the movement’s demands. This didn’t placate the majority of protesters, who reaffirmed their determination to demonstrate on Saturday, December 8. Within the yellow vest movement, opinions differed about this new day of action. The images of chaos from the previous weekend were still in everybody’s minds; pacifists and legalists argued fiercely with the more radical yellow vesters. Organizers debated different strategies. Some wanted to march towards the presidential palace; some suggested blocking the périphérique (the Parisian beltway); some proposed that people should gather in front of the Maison de la Radio (the major radio station building) in order to occupy it and seize control of the airwaves; others argued against going to Paris, seeing it as a trap set by authorities, in favor of developing local initiatives instead. As December 8 approached, it was impossible to tell how it would play out. On Tuesday, December 4, the first trials took place for charges arising from the yellow vest demonstrations of Saturday, December 1. Three people were tried on charges included participation “in a gathering, even if temporarily formed, with the objective— characterized by one of several material facts—of preparing and committing wilful violence against persons or destructions or property damages” and “intentional violence on a PDAP” (Person in Charge of Public Authority). The first individual received a €200-fine suspended sentence for violence; the second was sentenced to three months in prison and held in detention; the third was sentenced to a year in prison. This also set the stakes for December 8. On another front, the student strike against school reforms intensified. All week, students blocked their high schools and universities, held general assemblies, built barricades, demonstrated in the streets, and confronted police. Not wishing to fight on multiple fronts at once, the government responded aggressively, with police injuring numerous students. The violent attacks on high school students—usually barely mentioned in corporate media—gained wide exposure with a viral video posted on Thursday, December 6 showing the conditions in which students were arrested at Mantes-la-Jolie. Dozens of students are lined up on their knees with their hands on their heads, some of them facing the wall, surrounded by riot police officers. The person shooting the video remarks, ”Here is a quiet and well-behave class!” The propagation of these images couldn’t have come at a worse time for the French government. On the eve of the fourth act of the yellow vest movement, the video intensified the general climate of rage and defiance towards the police and government. Clashes in Paris on December 8. The flag is the national flag of Brittany, a French region with separatist tendencies. As with so many other aspects of the yellow vest movement, it could represent far-right politics, or it could simply suggest an “apolitical” patriotism. Paris under Siege Fearing that scenes of chaos and “extreme violence” would recur in Paris on December 8, the authorities took drastic preventive measures. For the weekend, Paris would be in a state of siege. Eighteen museums and eight national monuments remained closed for the day, including the Eiffel tower and Notre Dame Cathedral. Both Parisian Operas cancelled their performances, as did other theaters. The Paris prefecture asked the storekeepers of the Champs Elysées, the Matignon, the Montaigne, and the Franklin-Roosevelt avenues to close their stores and board up their windows. The major fancy department store groups Galeries Lafayette and Printemps decided to close all their stores located near the Champs Elysées, the Opera, Montparnasse, or Nation. From 6 am until the end of the demonstrations, a traffic restriction plan would be enforced in order to facilitate the movements of law enforcement. In addition, 36 metro and RER stations would be closed starting 5:30 am in order to facilitate police controls. The restriction affected about 56 bus lines. Several sports events and television shows were also cancelled, postponed, or relocated. Police from the BAC (Anti-Criminality Brigades) in Paris on December 8. The Government Adjusts Its Strategy After the previous week’s fiasco, President Macron instructed Minister of the Interior Christophe Castaner to review his law enforcement strategy in preparation for the fourth act of the yellow vest movement. According to the Minister of the Interior, “the last three weeks have given birth to a monster that has escaped its genitors.” For December 8, the authorities took exceptional measures. Fully 89,000 police officers were to be deployed all over France—almost 100% of the troops—with 8000 in Paris alone. In addition, the state requisitioned 12 gendarmerie tanks, the same ones that participated in the eviction of the ZAD last April and May. Mobile water cannons and helicopters were also deployed in Paris. In contrast with the previous week, the police did not remain static, defending large restricted areas. This time, the only restricted area was designated around the Champs Elysées and the major government buildings. There, police forces were tasked with searching and controlling every single person who sought to enter the avenue. Having been criticized for failing to keep up with events on December 1, police received orders to stick close to protestors, initiate frontal confrontations, and carry out arrests at any opportunity. As the traditional riot police forces (CRS and gendarmes) move slowly on account of their heavy equipment, these tasks were given to the BAC (Anti-Criminality Brigades), the CSI (Securing and Intervention Companies), and other police units. The authorities also set up roadblocks around Paris in order to control vehicles entering the capital city. Several prefectures temporally banned the sale and transport of fuel, pyrotechnical materials, and flammable products in order to prevent people from constructing homemade incendiary devices. In the days leading up to the demonstration, the government ramped up psychological pressure by making several appeals for “non-violence” and demanding that “reasonable yellow vesters, those who do not support violent action, dissociate themselves from extremists and not gather in Paris,” hoping to isolate the most determined parts of the movement. At the same time, with the assistance of media outlets, the authorities tried to spread fear among the population by asking everyone to stay home on Saturday, sending clear warnings to anyone who might join one of the Parisian demonstrations. The trap was set for Paris. Still, the authorities were expecting only several thousand people in Paris, including some “ultra-violent” individuals. Several hours before the demonstrations, an important official and confidential document leaked. The entire law enforcement plan of the Paris prefecture was available online. This document made it easier to understand what to expect in the streets for the following day: 85 police teams were mobilized to control and search individuals in train and metro stations; mounted police were to be present in the streets again; and so on. The authorities have since opened an investigation to find the origin of the leak. On the eve of the fourth act of the yellow vest movement, some comrades published an article on “the rupture in progress,” arguing: “We can’t be sure that this Saturday, the plan decided by the Interior Minister will not be more insidious, avoiding frontal conflicts in favor of targeted arrests—in the German manner, as it were—in order to contain the tension to the point of breathlessness.” The events of December 8 confirmed this forecast. Paris, December 8. Staying outside the Trap It would be impossible to detail all the events that took place in the streets of Paris. Here, we draw on narratives from several anarchists and autonomous rebels, complemented by information from corporate media and other sources. A map showing the clashes of December 8 in Paris. Report #1 This first report was jointly composed by several individuals covering different zones of activity. Early in the morning, groups gathered in various areas of Paris: at Place de l’Etoile, Bastille, Porte Maillot, and République. Corporate media outlets were already broadcasting their litanies: the situation was under control, authorities were already arresting dangerous individuals, the number of arrests was increasing minute by minute. At 10:30 am, the authorities announced that they had already arrested 354 individuals, keeping 127 in custody. Soon, they launched the first tear gas canisters at the Champs Elysées, where about 1500 people had already assembled. By 11 am, the gathering near the Saint-Lazare train station was blocked and surrounded by CRS (riot police). For this reason, we decided not to enter the police perimeter, so that we might stay in control of the situation. At 11:30 am, near the Opera, we met a group of about 1000 people. The whole district was blocked by police forces and checkpoints. You could easily enter the perimeter, but to exit it you would have to comply by presenting an ID and letting them search your bag. Police forces had a “wanted list” in their possession in order to arrest potential troublemarkers. Two tanks were spotted near the Haussmann Boulevard. Because the police seemed to be in control of the situation in this district, we decided to move towards the Champs Elysées. Several police troops were already deployed near Avenue de Friedland—to protect access to the Place de la Concorde—and Saint-Augustin square. That morning, we were a sparse crowd of several thousand individuals walking through a dead city, with about 90% of the windows around us boarded up. At 11:30 am, near the Champs Elysées, thousands of people were converging to enter the avenue. Up to that point, every single demonstrator had been meticulously searched by members of the BAC (the Anti-Criminality Brigade) before entering the demonstration zone. But the gentle pressure created by the arrival of waves of demonstrators trying to enter the Champs Elysées eventually enabled people to break through one of the checkpoints and people succeeded in entering without being searched. When we entered the avenue, there were already a lot of people there. Radical far-right groups were also present. The atmosphere was quite surreal with the entire avenue barricaded and protected. Ridiculous groups of BAC members could be seen at regular intervals on the sidewalks wearing ski masks and swimming goggles and carrying LBD-40 weapons. Further away, near the Place de l’Etoile, police forces launched a charge involving a lot of grenades in order to contain the crowd within the designated perimeter, out of reach of the Arc de Triomphe that had been ravaged the previous week. Once again, the outcome of the situation at the Champs Elysées was a forgone conclusion. We decided to leave and entered the Saint-Philippe du Roule district. There, a lot of yellow-vested groups were trying to figure out where interesting events were happening, just as we were. Little by little, the crowd gathered near Haussamnn Boulevard and Avenue de Friedland. From 12:30 pm until 2:30 pm, while police lines were still blocking access to the Arc de Triomphe, the first serious confrontations started. As soon as we arrived on site, we saw a man shot in the thigh with a rubber bullet. We provided first aid, then wished him good luck and continued our way. For more than an hour, several thousand individuals confronted CRS forces, consecutively resisting charges and tear gas. Some comrades drove out members of Action Française, a monarchist and far-right group, then chanted “Paris, Paris, Antifa!” The confrontations on Avenue de Friedland continued and the first burning barricades appeared. The police charges were unusually violent; we couldn’t count the number of tear gas canisters and flash-bang grenades they used during the confrontations. Several stores and a bank were attacked, but surprisingly, the nearby Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Paris remained almost intact, despite part of the demonstration remaining static in front of the building for some time. Police blocking access to the Arc de Triomphe on December 8. As we were losing ground, the crowd decided to leave this point and marched towards the Saint-Augustin area. There, a Mercedes was set on fire; people erected barricades using the wooden planks that protected stores’ front windows and set them on fire; a luxurious handbag store was looted. As property destruction intensified, police forces tried to surround protestors with three tanks at the intersection between Avenue de Friedland and Courcelles Street. They employed copious amounts of tear gas, but the majority of demonstrators succeeded in exiting the trap. Then the crowd split; some went towards Monceau Park, where a diplomatic car was set on fire, while others departed for Haussmann boulevard, where people erected massive barricades and welcomed police trucks with rains of projectiles. Around 3 pm, as the police presence was increasing in the area—police tanks and trucks were going towards Avenue de Friedland and several BAC groups were patrolling the streets—several groups of protestors agreed on leaving the zone. About 2000 individuals took Capucines Boulevard, with more demonstrators joining in the course of their advance. Tired of trying to get closer to the Champs Elysées, several groups decided to move towards the Climate March that was supposed to leave the Place de la Nation at 2 pm in order to reach République. The situation in Paris was no longer a regular demonstration. There were too many people everywhere in the streets; all the stores were closed on most shopping avenues. This was significant on a Saturday before Christmas. Yellow vests and tear gas in Paris on December 8. Around 4 pm, groups of yellow vesters were arriving at the République square. Gendarmes and CRS were already present in every major street surrounding the square. Their strategy brought back memories of the Loi Travail and Nuit Debout protests in 2016. The Climate March had already arrived, and the atmosphere was mostly festive. Everyone agreed that the demands of the yellow vest and environmental movements were not opposed, and that the divide-and-conquer strategy of the authorities and media would not work. The crowd was heterogeneous but far from being offensive. Therefore, we decided to leave the square, only to discover that individuals wearing yellow vests were not allowed to do so. The atmosphere grew tense, but no one was ready to charge police lines yet. Further away, in the Saint-Lazare district, while police backups were becoming more visible, a march several thousand strong took the large boulevards connecting Opéra to République. Property destruction became automatic and looting frequent. Every window of every fashion store, bank, fast-food restaurant, and similar target was attacked. Several tags also appeared on the walls; the atmosphere in the march was clearly anti-capitalist. The march stopped near Strasbourg Saint-Denis in order to build a large barricade blocking the entire width of the boulevard. The latter was set on fire and more demonstrators joined the festivities. Around 5 pm, some of us decided to go back to Haussmann Boulevard to see what was going on there, but then we heard that a wildcat demonstration was taking place near Grands Boulevards. Part of it took the direction of Châtelet-Les Halles (in the center of Paris) via the street Saint-Denis. Participants sang the International—a nice change from the Marseillaise (the French national anthem). A large part of the crowd chanted “Paris, debout, soulève-toi!” (“Paris, stand up, rise up!”) while the windows of banks continued to fall to the cheers of some demonstrators. At some point, a group of police officers arrived, creating a moment of panic within the procession. Barricades were set on fire in the nearby streets, while protestors threw stones at a police car in the street Quincampoix. The march tried several times to reach the City Hall of Paris, but without success, as police were blocking the streets. Finally, the crowd left the area by taking the small streets of the Marais district in order to reach the square République. Around 7 pm, we arrived at République under a rain of tear gas canisters. The sport outlet store located near the square was attacked, but a police charge ended any hope of looting it. Then, a group left the square and started another wildcat demonstration. As soon as the procession took the street Faubourg du Temple, two police cars passing by were targeted with projectiles. A McDonald’s was also attacked. Further away, some barricades were built and trash bins set on fire. Near the Goncourt metro station, a huge flaming barricade paralyzed traffic and thick black smoke filled the streets. Little by little, the crowd dispersed. Again, today was a great day! Paris on December 8. Report #2 In another personal account, the author presents a different analysis of the events of December 8. Due to the deployment of police in the Parisian streets and the massive wave of arrests that started earlier in the morning, the author experienced the first part of the day as confusing and something of a failure. The psychological warfare carried out by the government seemed to have succeeded, as several demonstrators who gathered at Saint-Lazare felt helpless and anxious before the powerful display of police forces—checkpoints, tanks, water cannons and trucks everywhere. Moreover, it seemed to the author that the majority of the people present for the morning demonstration were inexperienced and didn’t know how to proceed. In the end, the demonstration didn’t happen, and people felt confused, defeated, and, for the most part, wandered around the streets of Paris seeking some sort of action that would finally bring some air within the oppressive trap of law enforcement. Then, around 1 pm, the author explains that the situation changed. Indeed, most police forces had emptied out of the streets in the area—probably to deal with other groups of demonstrators closer to the Champs Elysées. Protestors seized this opportunity to initiate a wildcat demonstration, but unfortunately without any clear objectives as to where to go and what to do. The march seemed really unorganized; at some point, it was attacked by police with grenades before people decided to take another direction. Near the Madeleine square, the crowd met some yellow vesters and rail workers who were coming from the Champs Elysées. The overall situation there was really difficult. In addition to the fierce and violent police repression, demonstrators had to deal with personal trauma and fatigue. Some yellow vesters said that they were exhausted and were hoping that others would take the helm. Around 3 pm, people converged at the Saint-Augustin square. There, the crowd seemed much younger—probably including some high school students—and more determined. As more and more protestors assembled around the square, police shot the first tear gas canisters to disperse the crowd. Confrontations and property destruction continued until no one could bear the gas anymore. Little by little, hours of humiliation and frustration, as well as consecutive police charges, generated an uncontrollable raging crowd. This angry mass started by destroying a Starbucks coffee shop. Then, the crowd split into several processions after a violent police charge. One procession took the direction of Châtelet and the City Hall. Everywhere, capitalist symbols were attacked and stores were looted. At this moment, it seemed that “everyone wanted to smash everything, the only thing that was preventing all of us from doing so was fear.” Around 7 pm at République, as nobody seemed to want to leave the square, the first sporadic confrontations took place. Soon, police forces filled the entire square with tear gas and the crowd dispersed. Later on, around 11 pm, when the square was empty and calm had returned, small groups of militia-like policemen were patrolling the zone with ski masks and guns for firing rubber bullets at the ready. A Starbucks Coffee Shop attacked in Paris on December 8. The graffiti reads “Pay your taxes!” and “Give back the bucks!” Starbucks is known in France for not paying taxes, while profiting on the French market. Report #3 Some friends who were also present in the streets of Paris, contributed this short report on the events of December 8. On Friday, December 7, the city of Paris was readying itself for the day of action called by the yellow vester movement for the next day. Undeniably, the riots and scenes of chaos of the previous week had left scars. From Opéra to République, all major stores and banks were covering their front windows with wooden planks. Would these precautions be enough to prevent damage? On Saturday, December 8, we intended to go to the Saint-Lazare gathering at 10 am in order to evaluate the situation outside of the Champs Elysées. However, due to the deployment of police around the city and the news of the morning arrests, we decided to rethink our plans. In our opinion, there was no more point joining the morning gathering, especially when we knew that in order to do so we would have to be searched at the perimeter and then would probably end up being surrounded by police. Afterwards, while we were discussing strategies and possible impasses and futures for the yellow vest movement, we received the news that some friends had been able to pass through police checkpoints without any complications. In the end, we decided to meet them later. First, we decided to join the Climate March in order to see what was going on there. We were really surprised to see so many people in the streets—25,000 according to the organizers, 17,000 according to authorities. Among the numerous organizations, it is worth mentioning that an anti-capitalist and radical contingent headed the march, and some yellow vesters were also present among the crowd. The latter were thanked several times for being there. However, we decided to leave on account of the explicitly pacifist and reformist messaging of the march. At République, the square was already occupied by several hundred individuals, the majority wearing yellow vests. The atmosphere was light and relaxed. However, police forces were already present in the nearby streets, rue du Faubourg du Temple and rue du Temple. In rue du Temple, after we passed about 15 police trucks, we saw members of the BAC already equipped with ski masks and LBD-40 launchers, calmly talking, joking, and smoking cigarettes with other police officers who were wearing yellow vests. It was obvious that police wanted to infiltrate the yellow vest movement in order to monitor, attack, and arrest protestors from within. As we continued walking towards downtown Paris, we saw numerous traces of the morning’s confrontations—smashed windows, graffiti, and abandoned barricades. Afterwards, wandering around Châtelet, where groups of yellow vesters were converging, we heard the familiar noise of an unruly demonstration approaching. Suddenly, the crowd ran towards us before heading towards Beaubourg. We understood that something had scared the crowd. Nevertheless, we decided to continue walking in the direction that the crowd had just came from. All around us, the atmosphere was strange. Some people who were not involved in the day of actions were quietly drinking in fancy cafés or restaurants, while others were finishing their Saturday shopping—all this in the middle of empty streets, smashed windows, and barricades. It was as if two different atmospheres coincided. Even more surprising, there was absolutely no sign of police in the district. Then, near the street Réaumur, we encountered a march of several hundred comrades shouting anti-capitalist chants. Unfortunately for them, the storm had already ravaged the entire street before them. We stayed there a couple of minutes contemplating the last flames of a barricade before continuing our night walk towards the Grands Boulevards. Earlier in the day, some of us had decided to take a look at what was going on near the Opéra. Once in the area, we were surprised to see that no cars were parked in the streets and there was almost no one driving in this luxurious district. It seemed that, like us, many people were trying to figure out where the chaos was happening. To find it, we simply followed the police helicopter that had been patrolling over Paris since the morning. The police state and the flaming trash that stands in its way. After circumventing two police roadblocks, we saw one of the large demonstrations in the Saint-Augustin square. People were passing in waves; we couldn’t tell what was going on. Considering the overall situation of the day—massive waves of arrests and a large number of police—we located possible escape routes in case of a police charge or crowd stampede. At some point, police tear-gassed the crowd, provoking a moment of panic. We decided to escape via one of the nearby streets, and had to sprint in order to avoid a CRS line that was trying to block us from the rear. In the end, due to the number of people who were slowly arriving, the police ended up stepping back. We took this opportunity to move towards Saint-Lazare, taking advantage of having the whole streets—the whole city?—to ourselves, not knowing what we might encounter in the next corner. At some point, police motorcycles and an unmarked white truck passed in front of us at full speed, then returned coming the other direction several minutes later. Even now, we don’t know what this truck was for: delivering more ammunition to conflict points? Extracting people arrested from confrontation zones to bring them to police stations? Once we arrived in front of the Saint-Lazare train station, we didn’t know where to go. Demonstrators were everywhere in the area, and police were throwing tear gas canisters in front of the station to disperse the crowd. We decided to go back towards Opéra. Then we joined a large march that began to erect barricades out of urban furniture including barriers and wooden planks. Part of the crowd also started smashing everything and looting stores. Everything was happening really fast. The rioting crowd took the large boulevards between Opéra and République. Police attacked the rear of the crowd with tear gas, yet without any real success, as people were running through the large arteries for several minutes. From the left side of the street to the right side, people smashed numerous windows—sometimes without paying attention to their surroundings, sometimes even without wearing a mask. The procession continued its course towards Strasbourg Saint-Denis. At this point, the procession was clearly outside the perimeter established by law enforcement, as the crowd was running among cars. Some stores were open—which did not protect them from being looted or having their windows smashed. Upon reaching Strasbourg Saint-Denis, the crowd slowed down and some of us took this opportunity to leave. When some of us reached the Grands Boulevards later, once again the atmosphere was really strange. The entire boulevard was full of barricades and covered with all kinds of debris. The area was really quiet despite the large number of people in the streets. Tourists, yellow vesters, and protestors of all kind were immortalizing the moment with their phones. A friendly and joyful atmosphere reigned in the boulevard, while further away, towards the Opéra, police lights and clouds blocked the view. We decided to walk towards Place de la République to see if something was happening there—since we had left the Climate March hours ago. Passing through the streets, we admired the consequences of the raging storm that had passed. Some cars were trying to find their ways through the numerous barricades; the front of a fast-food restaurant was smashed; bus shelters were destroyed; anarchist and anti-capitalist tags gave color to the walls. When we finally reached the République square, several thousands of people were already occupying it; a large banner saying “ZAD partout!” (“ZAD everywhere!”) was wrapped around the massive statue. So far, the atmosphere seemed joyful; we decided to wait there to see whether the situation would escalate. Police were already on site; as usual, they were ready to block single exit around the square if necessary. After several minutes, the crowd got bigger and started to get closer to the police lines in front of the rue du Temple. The first torches were lit and the crowd of demonstrators starting encouraging each other and booing the forces of authority. Several projectiles were thrown at the police. Immediately, the first tear gas canisters were shot into the middle of the square, where some demonstrators began to panic. The rains of tear gas canisters continued for a while, and little by little people left the square. Some started a wildcat demonstration, while others simply passed behind the police lines. Once again, the atmosphere was surreal. Several steps away from the Place de la République, people were eating at restaurants and drinking with friends at bars, like they would on any other Saturday night, not feeling disturbed at all by the surrounding chaos, the police, the tear gas, or the helicopter lighting up the square. More proof that although we all supposedly live under the same system, we share different realities and worlds. Later that night, we decided to pass by the République square one more time to see if something was still happening there. When we arrived, the square was almost empty and occupied by BAC officers and other agents in ski masks wielding LBD-40 launchers. Some of them attacked the few people left on the square with stun grenades and rubber bullets. We ended our long day witnessing these scenes of police violence. Place de la République on the night of December 8. Report #4 Around 9 am, as the prefecture of Paris had shut down several metro stations for safety measures, we exited the metro seven or eight stations from our destination: the Place de l’Etoile. There, the most striking thing was the strange—and somehow oppressive—silence in the streets that was regularly interrupted by police sirens. All the shop windows had been boarded up overnight, and after walking only 500 meters we saw the first police cordons checking people and searching bags. One person in front of us was brutally pressed against a wall after protesting when the police confiscated his swimming goggles. We passed through the checkpoint without a hitch, even if having gloves in our possession made the police officers suspicious. Police officers demanded that we open our jackets and vigorously patted us down. Beside us, we saw one person leave a group of demonstrators and make a common gesture of disapproval at a group of gendarmes. Five of them left their ranks to charge at him and slammed him down on the ground. Brave acts of self-expression are admirable, but in that situation, considering the context and the tangible tension among police officers, his behaviour was borderline suicidal. The police were indeed on edge. As we approached the meeting point, the situation became increasingly absurd. We were checked and searched every 50 meters. At every checkpoint, our thoughts were with those who were arrested for carrying harmless item with them. If any of us had tried to speak to them, we would have been arrested as well. Once we arrived at the Champs Elysées, all the stress we had accumulated during our walk vanished when we saw how many people had already gathered and with what enthusiasm. The first great news of the day was that, somehow, a lot of people were still well equipped. To be honest, we don’t know how they pulled this off. The second great news was the large number of individuals present on the avenue. A lot of people seemed really determined. Every time tear gas canisters were shot or stun grenades exploded, the crowd was cheering. These scenes were completely strange. Some journalists from BFM—a 24-hour news channel—positioned on a rooftop were on the receiving end of vigorously expressed insults. While we disapprove of the terms that were used, it is important to note that the collective experience shared during demonstrations develops some common reactions even among those who are “not activists.” All the ingredients were present for the situation to become explosive. We decided to leave the Champs Elysées in order to meet up with other friends. There were lots of people at the next meeting point, as well. The crowd was clearly more “autonomous and radical” than in the Champs Elysées; we saw were more black clothes than yellow vests. It only took a few seconds for the timeless chant “Siamo tutti antifascisti!” (“We are all anti-fascists”) to ring out. The march began moving, but very calmly. So far, there was no real property damage, just a few small attacks on urban furniture. We decided to divide up, again. Unfortunately, we were not able to meet again for almost two hours—our communication tools being completely useless under the circumstances. We wandered the streets with the feeling that we were always arriving after the battles, hearing incomplete reports about confrontations elsewhere in the city. We went back and forth on the major arteries without a clear target while trying to contact other friends. Tension was high throughout the entire city. More and more of the roads were obstructed by trees, debris, and trash bins. We saw tanks racing in the direction to the Champs Elysées. It is noteworthy that at this point in the day, the police presence in the area shifted from omnipresent to sporadic. It seemed, according to what people told us, that something was burning at the Champs Elysées. From where we were standing, a huge blaze could be seen. We had finally found our destination. Once we arrived on site, however, it appeared that once again, we had missed the events. Not at all! An angry and determined crowd of hundreds was coming in our direction. Half a dozen CRS (riot police) trucks tried to go through the crowd. People reacted by throwing stones and other projectiles at them; then CRS units on foot charged and chased the crowd. After a sprint and a good rush of fear and adrenaline, we decided to meet up on a major artery. There, people were smashing all the windows while a tobacco store was looted. The atmosphere was incredible. The crowd was characterized by a collective serenity—probably due to the large numbers present in the streets and the fact that there was no sign of police on the horizon. There was an atmosphere of joy: every time the window of a corporate store chain was smashed, people cheered, sang, or laughed. We had never experienced such thing before. The march continued for another two or three kilometres, leaving nothing intact behind us and building makeshift barricades all along our route. Then, people informed us that a nervous group of policemen were waiting for us a little further ahead. This is when we decided that it was a good opportunity to disperse and quit while we were ahead. For additional personal accounts about the events of December 8 in Paris, we recommend this article and this one.
Mixed Feelings In the end, December 8 was a strange mix of defeats and victories. The day started out perfectly for the government; its trap was working. Early in the morning, police forces were already on alert to search and arrest any potential threat. Controls took place in the streets, at roadblocks, and in train stations around Paris. Every single person with a gas mask, goggles, or alleged projectiles was immediately arrested. Numerous potential demonstrators were put in custody simply for carrying a scarf and swimming goggles to protect them from the inevitable tear gas, like this person in Bordeaux. By 10:30 am, about 354 people were already arrested, with 127 of them were put in custody. All day long, the number of arrestees continued to increase, reaching the gigantic number of 1082 people arrested in Paris with more than 900 in custody. The preventative controls and arrests, as well as the massive presence of police, thwarted a new insurrectionary outburst in the French capital city. For the most part, Saturday morning was relatively calm; no confrontations or destructions were reported in the Champs Elysées. Around 10:30 am, some yellow vesters succeeded in blocking the Parisian beltway near Porte Maillot. Police forces brought the action to an end without using force. In other words, all morning, it seemed that the authorities had the upper hand. The feeling of being defeated before the battle had even begun spread among our ranks, and with it, the frustration and fear of state repression increased. Then, around midday, the situation started to change. At the Champs-Elysées, the strategy of the “pressure cooker”—containing demonstrators in a closed area while increasing the pressure—led to the first confrontations and damages. For example, some yellow vesters attacked a store and tried to break in. BAC agents and other officersunleashed their rage and inflicted the day’s first serious injuries on demonstrators. Fortunately, several teams of street medics were present to provide first aid. Unfortunately, near 2 pm, at the Champs Elysées, a 20-year-old woman lost an eye due to shrapnel from a grenade thrown by police. As the accounts illustrate, in the afternoon, protestors succeeded in turning the tables by outmaneuvering the police. In this situation—facing massive numbers of preventative arrests and a city under siege—creating a breach was not easy. Our decisions to remain—for the most part—outside of the checkpoints imposed by the government and the areas where clashes were occurring with police enabled us to act and move freely, and eventually to give vent to our rage. In the end, all considered, the actions of December 8 were much more effective than those of the previous week. To begin with, the fact that most stores, museums, theaters, and other institutions decided to close on a Saturday before Christmas already qualifies as a serious disruption with animpact on the French economy. On December 10, the Minister of the Economy held the yellow vest movement responsible for the fact that France lost “0.1 percent of growth of our national wealth during the last quarter.” According to the Mayor of Paris, the actions of December 8 inflicted more damage than those of the preceding week. Property destruction in Paris on December 8. Meanwhile, Elsewhere in France… While the French government and national media were focused on the situation in Paris, something just as important—if not more—was happening in other cities. The yellow vest movement began as a decentralized phenomenon; on its first day of mobilization, about 2000 actions took place in France. For this fourth nationwide day of action, about 136,000 individuals participated, creating an explosive situation in several cities. Dijon In Dijon, this day of action was less explosive than the previous one had been. As had become usual since the beginning of the movement, the demonstration took the same route and ended near the local prefecture, where confrontations erupted with police. However, the authorities had changed their strategy since the previous week and anticipated the intentions of the crowd. Anti-riot fences protected the prefecture building and officers deployed massive quantities of rubber bullets and tear gas against protestors. As a result, numerous people were injured, one with a fractured jawbone. In addition to providing a report of Saturday’s demonstration, the authors of this report mention the difficulty of dealing with racist and misogynist behavior within the movement, while insisting on the necessity of not deserting it. While at some point the movement was unpredictable, now it has become a known quantity; the authors mention that they have the impression that they have reached a kind of impasse. However, they still express hope for the future. Since the beginning of the movement in Dijon, they have seen useful practices propagate in demonstrations, including participants wearing proper equipment and establishing teams of street medics. During the last demonstration, a connection arose between yellow vesters and members of the Climate March. Now, the important thing is to make sure that these alliances can last past the holidays. Lyons In Lyons, the situation was more difficult. People started gathering in the morning for the Climate March. Between 7000 and 10,000 individuals showed up, but the march was disappointing. On the bright side, the march showed solidarity with the student movement and some yellow vesters were also present among the crowd. Later, rumors circulated concerning the presence of numerous well-known fascists within the yellow vest contingent; the author of this article confirms the presence of fascists. In Lyons, fascists are quite active in the yellow vest movement, which makes the situation difficult for anarchists and others. So far, it seems almost impossible for radicals to take part in the movement there. At the end of the day, police forces dispersed crowds of demonstrators in downtown Lyons with tear gas, which also impacted passers-by. Toulouse, December 8. Toulouse On December 8, Toulouse was burning. During the preceding weeks, several calls had been made in order to create a real bloc that Saturday. Yellow vesters, students, anarchists, and others individuals were determined to take the streets that day. The demonstration hadn’t even started when the first confrontations took place with police. This time, the rear part of the demonstration was the center of the clashes. As usual, police shot rubber bullets and tear gas canisters, which only escalated the situation. The streets of Toulouse descended into a state of siege warfare and the first barricades were set on fire. The law enforcement strategy failed completely, as the angry crowd dispersed into nearby streets and continued to riot. In terms of strategy, the rear of the march occupied police in confrontations, which enabled the rest of the march to continue its course. Altogether, four different wildcat demonstrations were moving through the city at the same time. At 5:30 pm, despite the prefecture’s efforts, yellow vesters succeeded in marching through downtown Toulouse and reaching the Capitole (City Hall). Confrontations continued until late that night, especially in the Saint Cyprien district. Due to the chaotic situation, police forces even shot tear gas canisters from their helicopter. Marseille, December 8. Marseille In Marseille, yellow vesters, environmentalists, residents who were angry about urban policies, and students took the streets together on December 8. In the morning, about 2000 yellow vesters gathered in the vieux port (the old port) and moving towards the prefecture. Unfortunately, far-right tendencies were present in the march, including rhetoric against migrants and radical leftists. Some participants were even asking the police to join the demonstration. Once the march came back near downtown, yellow vesters tried to get closer to the main City Hall. Police shot the first tear gas canisters at that point and pushed demonstrators back towards the Canebière. The first fashion store was looted as police repeatedly charged several groups of protestors and rioters. Around 4 pm, more than 5000 individuals arrived from the Castellane district. This procession was composed of climate marchers and angry locals. All the different marches and crowds were converging on the Canebière. The different components of the crowd expressed solidarity; everyone was there with the same purpose. Police forces started increasing the pressure by tear-gassing the crowd. Officers of the BAC were also present, mostly to protect stores and other possible targets. That didn’t stop people from attacking and looting several stores, banks, and ATMs. Police forces continued to push back the crowd. Once the crowd reached the Soléam building—a company in charge of the urban planning—every single window was smashed. Confrontations lasted for several hours as barricades and trash bins were set on fire; the Chamber of Commerce’s Christmas trees were set on fire. Police finally dispersed the rioting crowd with tanks. However, the riots continued further: new barricades were erected and set aflame; a parking meter was attacked; jewelry stores were looted. The cat and mouse game between police forces and rioters ended around 8 pm. The authorities arrested about 60 people and injured many more. Bordeaux, December 8. Bordeaux, December 8. Bordeaux In Bordeaux, the situation was quite intense. Everything started around 1 pm, when a group of 100-200 high school students joined the demonstration called for by local yellow vesters. According to local media outlets, 7000 people were already gathering on the docks. The atmosphere was quite friendly but also determined. A joyous crowd started walking through the city in order to reach the City Hall. Passing through the rue Sainte-Catherine, the city’s chief shopping street, demonstrators mingled with bystanders shopping for the holidays. Some stores started closing their doors upon seeing the crowd. The march reached the Place Pey Berland, the main square where the Cathedral and the City Hall are located. Rapidly, the square filled with people. Around 4 pm, some projectiles were thrown at police, who responded with the first tear gas grenades of the day. The situation continued to escalate for about two hours, as yellow vesters and students resisted police charges, tear gas, and rubber bullets. At least one individual was injured by rubber bullets impacts to the face. Around 6 pm, police forces received the order to clear the square. A rain of tear gas canisters fell upon the protestors. Then police forces shifted to stun-grenades. A young man lost his hand as a consequence of trying to protect the demonstrators from one of these. Due to the intensity of the confrontations, the crowd dispersed into the neighboring streets. Some protestors took this opportunity to erect barricades, some which caught fire; several banks were attacked; camera surveillance were smashed; trash tins were set on fire; windows were smashed. A cat and mouse game took place pitting rioters against BAC agents in the streets of Bordeaux. After a final massive police charge, the groups of rioters dispersed. In their escape, one group attacked and looted an Apple Store and set one last barricade on fire. In total, 69 people were arrested, 54 of whom were held in custody. Bordeaux, December 8. Additional reports from other French cities are available here and here. Altogether, according to the Minister of the Interior, the fourth nationwide day of action in France ended up with a total of 1723 arrests, with 1380 people put in custody. Since the beginning of the yellow vest movement, more than 3300 individuals have been arrested, 2354 have been put in custody, and more than 1200 have already seen trial. A trade union demonstration in Paris on December 8. The people with helmets, masks, and goggles are in charge of the security of the march. And Outside France? There have been several attempts to ignite copycat movements elsewhere around Europe and the world. In Egypt, the military tyrant al-Sisi forbade merchants from selling yellow vests ahead of the upcoming anniversary of the Egyptian revolution; in Tunisia, people launched a Facebook page proposing a “red vest” movement; in Iraq, demonstrators in Basra dusted off vests they had worn in a similar protest movement in 2015. Belgium Brussels saw the largest yellow vest demonstration outside France on December 8, with major traffic disruptions, clashes with police, and 460 arrests. The participants were largely middle class and white, but not entirely so. One demonstrator carried a sign opposing fascism; another, no to taxes and no to the immigration agreement. The person holding the sign opposing immigration was booed by the other demonstrators. A group of yellow vesters demonstrating in front of the Alsetex factory of Précigné, France—a company known for producing law enforcement weapons used by the French government. The Netherlands In the Netherlands, the yellow vest movement has largely emerged from the far right. Gele Hesjes Facebook groups appeared around December 1 and grew quickly. That day, small demonstrations drew dozens of participants in a few cities. On December 8, there were demonstrations in more cities, with 200 participants in Rotterdam, about 100 in Amsterdam and the The Hague, and dozens of participants in several other towns. At the demonstration in The Hague on December 1, yellow vest demonstrators displayed fascist symbols including the so-called Prinsenvlag, an old version of the Dutch national flag that has only been utilized by fascists since 1945. Members of several extreme right-wing groups were involved. On December 8, two prominent right-wing reactionaries participated in the demonstration in The Hague, one from Pegida, the other from the PVV, the party of Dutch fascist Geert Wilders. A portrait of the fascist icon Pim Fortuyn could be seen on the yellow vest of one of the participants. In Nijmegen, where the chief organizer has extreme right wing connections, the fascist group Identitair Verzet handed out stickers to yellow vest demonstrators inside the demonstration. In Amsterdam, one demonstrator wore a yellow vest emblazoned with the letters RFVD (Forum voor Democratie), a fascist party with two seats in parliament, even more openly racist than de PVV. The movement in Amsterdam seems to be the least dominated by the far right, so far, with anarchists distributing literature and engaging participants in discussion on December 8. Of course, not all the demonstrators are fascists. You see many complaints about budget cuts, health care structures in disrepair, issues that it makes sense to be angry about. But these are often connected to complaints about the European Union, so-called “globalism,” and so on. Many of the Gele Hesjes discourse has focused on a United Nations agreement on immigration called the Marrakesh pact. In fact, the agreement simply confirms laws and treaties already in place. According to right-wing disinformation, however, this pact means that Europe invites “all of Africa” to come, while outlawing any criticism of migration. It is amazing how many people appear to believe this nonsense. Under these conditions, most of the left are understandably hostile to the yellow vests movement in the Netherlands. It is an open question whether anarchists could have been the first ones to initiate Yellow Hesjes groups and thereby set a different discourse. Hesitation, followed by relief when one’s suspicions are confirmed, can cede the space of social unrest to the far right—with disastrous consequences. A new Facebook group has appeared now under the name Rode Hesjes, “red vests,” stressing solidarity and rejecting racist tactics of divide and conquer. This seems to be a classic left project, making demands to the government and holding itself apart from the social ferment of generalized unrest. Germany Developments in Germany have been mostly farcical; a few far-right groups initially attempted to popularize the yellow vest model, without success. One Nazi group held its regular demonstration in yellow vests. As usual, the majority of German anti-fascists expressed suspicion about the popular movement, though a few groups oriented towards class-war politics criticized this attitude. Anti-fascists in Dortmund organized their own yellow vest demonstration on the weekend of December 8, addressing the contradictions within the movement. In conservative southern Germany, an institutional left group in Munich is calling for yellow vest demonstrations, and the left party Die Linke has endorsed the movement. Entertainingly, a German anarchist apparently started one of the popular yellow vest twitter accounts as a prank, attempting to use satire to mock the conspiracy theories within the right-wing elements of the movement. Unfortunately, this is a bad era for satire, and right-wing German yellow vesters took even the most outlandish tweets seriously until the prank was revealed. Place de la République, where the Climate March ended on December 8. The sign reads something to the effect of “Proud and determined. Women in precarious situations, mad women. The DALO law [which supposedly guarantees the right to decent housing to anyone who is unable to access it by their own means] is a joke. This is a bourgeois bohemian law. Having a roof above our heads is a right. Our lives can’t wait.” Aftermath On Monday, December 10, President Macron delivered an official speech on national television. He acknowledged that the country is currently in “an economical and social state of emergency.” In light of this, he personally asked the government and the parliament to do whatever is necessary to make it possible for people to live decently from their jobs starting next year. Alongside these statements, Macron presented new political measures—including increasing minimum wage by €100 a month starting next year; offering tax exemption on overtime; asking employers to offer Christmas bonuses; cancelling tax on pensions under €2000 a month—in order to answer some of the yellow vesters’ demands. On Tuesday, December 11, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe presented the new government’s decisions before the National Assembly and reaffirmed the wish to find a mutual agreement quickly in order to exit this month-long political and social crisis. So far, it is difficult to evaluate the real impact that Macron’s speech will have on the yellow vest movement’s future. For the most part, political parties—the populist left and the far-right nationalists—jumped on this occasion to denounce the President’s measures and the legitimacy of the actual government. While some yellow vesters—mostly “legalists”—seem satisfied with the government’s announcement and think it is time for the yellow vest movement to accept dialogue, others describe the situation as a farce and aim to continue the fight. Another day of action has been called for Saturday, December 15. A banner on the Champs Elysées reading “Referendum of Popular Initiatives. €(Euro) dictatorship, Banksters in prison!” The idea of establishing a “referendum of popular initiatives” has become one of the most popular demands among some yellow vesters. They took this idea from an existing policy in Switzerland, where, if a petition receives a certain amount of signatures, a referendum must take place on the issue. This is a demand for the kind of participatory democracy that also produced the Brexit vote. The rhetoric of “€ dictatorship” has been used by the far-right for years; like “Banksters in prison,” it focuses on a single element of capitalism, so as to distract from the problems with the system itself. The banner is representative of the kind of crypto fascist and far-right conspiracy theories prevalent among some participants in the movement; further evidence of this includes the french flag and the sign reading “11 vaccines=poison” in the background. Reflections The yellow vest movement continues to surprise everyone on account of its duration, its determination, and its capacity to assume new forms. A month ago, no one imagined that such chaos and political instability were about to unfold in France. Despite numerous attempts to establish dialogue, pacify the social base, and isolate the most radical fringe, the movement is still alive and unpredictable. The focus of the movement has slowly shifted. Several weeks ago, the participants concentrated on protesting the increase of fuel and gas prices and the high cost of living; now, there is more attention on the government and the systemic causes of our difficult living situations. Moreover, part of the movement has also succeeded in opening its ranks to other demonstrators and causes. In the beginning, the movement was almost exclusively composed of people wearing yellow vests and pushing the associated demands; last Saturday in Paris, we saw students, rail workers, climate marchers, trade unionists, individuals from the suburbs, anarchists, autonomous rebels, and “rioters without adjectives” joining the yellow vesters in the street fights. This convergence seems to have pushed the movement towards a more social, leftist, and anti-capitalist approach, and opening up space for marginalized people to participate. For example, in their collective charter, some yellow vesters are asking for the end of French pillaging, political interference, and military occupation in African countries. In a surprising letter published on November 9, several radical yellow vesters proposed an analysis of the current situation based on anti-capitalist and anti-statist arguments. They concluded by saying: “No, our violence is not bad! No, our violence is not violent! No, our violence is a deliverance! Our violence is not bloodthirsty, it is salutary! Now, let us be governed by ourselves, and let’s trust our creative power!” On this boarded up grocery store belonging to a widespread corporate chain, we read: “The earth is burning—when will it be the turn of the Elysée?” The Elysée is the name of the presidential palace. The Threat of Nationalist Cooptation Yet the movement has also involved populists, nationalists, and fascists. The so-called “apolitical” façade in the early stages of the movement enabled far-right nationalists and populist leftists to create connections with the movement and take advantage of its anger for political purposes. This is not surprising, since many of the demonstrators share common ideas with those parties. Regarding the possible end result of the movement, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the leftist populist party France Insoumise or the far-right nationalist Rassemblement National emerge victorious from this political crisis. This is what our comrades from Dijon experienced last Saturday, when they were confronted with xenophobia, homophobia and misogyny during the yellow vest demonstration. The situation in Lyons is troubling in that local fascists are well organized and are using this movement as a platform to spread their ideas. In Paris, fascist groups have been seen since the beginning of the yellow vest movement. Thankfully, anti-fascists are doing everything they can to keep them off the streets. However, some comrades say that to the extent that nationalists have been marginalized within the yellow vest movement, this has not been accomplished by street attacks so much as by expanding the activities of the movement to include tactics—such as property destruction—that are incompatible with right-wing politics. Fascists were able to represent street conflicts with police as a righteous struggle against the forces of centrist neoliberalism, but they have no narrative to legitimize property destruction and rioting. Minimizing or ignoring the presence of fascists within the movement is dangerous. Considering the political and ideological connections many participants share with populist and nationalist parties, the tables could turn overnight. This makes it especially important to attack and delegitimize fascists who wish to participate in the movement, to come up with discourse and strategies that offer them no footholds within the movement, and above all to organize effective anti-capitalist measures addressing the economic problems that confront so many people today. We also must strategize about what to do if nationalists are able to capitalize on the political turmoil resulting from the movement. Even if nationalists are marginalized in the streets, they could still take advantage of the situation to win power in the government. We should be ready for that situation, as well. On this boarded up pharmacy in Paris on December 8, we read: “Macron, Le Pen, Mélenchon, get the hell out!” And after the Crest? For some of us, the events of December 8 were a partial failure because the situation was not as uncontrollable as on December 1, and because the crowds never mustered the courage to confront the police directly. Many people felt overwhelmed by the situation. This seems to indicate that the movement is reaching a plateau, if not an impasse. If things do not shift again, the movement will eventually cycle down and die, at least in Paris. On the other hand, other comrades consider last Saturday a huge success. While the authorities deployed unprecedented police force nationwide and sent a threatening to message to any individual who wanted to demonstrate, thousands of people still found the courage to take the streets, and many of them eventually succeeded in outmaneuvering the police. In Paris, the riots lasted for about seven hours. In the end, there was more overall economic damage than the previous week, which compensates for the fact that crowds rarely engaged in frontal confrontations with the police. Yet here, too, we see the risk of stagnation. The yellow vest movement still lacks a way to expand the horizon beyond blocking traffic, confronting police, and destroying symbols of capitalism. Of course, one could make the same criticism of the police strategy—though the police, too, have shown themselves to be capable of shifting their approach. The tactics of the movement have created a political crisis, but mere escalation is a game that the state can play as well—at least within a limited space. One option would be to intensify occupations alongside blockades and riots—as some yellow vesters did in Saint Nazaire and some students are doing in their high schools and universities. This could create a space for discussion, in which people could develop deeper ties within the movement. It would offer another model for bringing pressure to bear on the state while also putting the participants in touch with their own power to create alternatives. In any case, with the Christmas holidays approaching, the calendar itself—that ancient weapon to contain social struggles within the existing order—is against the movement. The greater question is how the yellow vest movement will have changed the long-term conditions and horizon of possibility in France and around the world. “Merry Christmas, [Em]Manu[el Macron].” This graffito in Paris was intended ironically, but it may indeed be Christmas that saves Macron.
The following text appeared yesterday on the French platform lundimatin; they describe it as the best sociological and political analysis to date on the yellow vest movement. Although we are no more optimistic about the supposedly “non-ideological” character of the first phase of the yellow vest phenomenon than we are about the antiquated tactics and methods of organization it supplanted, the movement itself has become a battleground to determine what form the next wave of opposition to neoliberal austerity will assume, and none can afford to stand aside. This text concludes with a cool-headed appraisal of the risks and possibilities before the gilets jaunes and all who will follow in their wake.
“I’ll end up becoming a communist . . .”
-Brigitte Bardot, interview with Le Parisien, December 1, 2018
“Beautiful as an impure insurrection”
(graffiti seen on a building façade on the Champs-Elysées)
If it might soon prove fragile, for now one of the principle merits of the current mobilization remains to have sent the rhetoric and the tactical repertoire of the left movements of the past century to the Grévin Museum1—all while demanding more justice and equality and without reproducing the anti-tax rhetoric of the post-war right and extreme-right. After the collapse of the Social Democrats signified in France by Macron’s election, we see the collapse of the communists, the (in)soumis,2, the leftists, anarchists, members of the “ultra-left,” and other class struggle professionals or spokespeople of radical chic: and a majority of them, after sneering or holding their noses, are running at full speed after the movement with their factions, unions, parties, media coverage, and blog posts. Welcome to the rearguard!
The delay is obvious, the protest is funereal. Everyone can foresee the calls, editorials, motions, petitions, the route from Place de la République to Bastille announced by the prefecture, their protest marshals and their black bloc, the committees coordinating and negotiating between representatives and rulers, the little theater of representativeness between the leaders or delegates and the “base,” taking the floor through the press or in general assemblies. In short, the final ruins of the welfare state, or rather, of its forms of protest, have gone up in smoke; they are not only useless, but above all obsolete and pathetic, the terms of a completely dead language that may still be spoken for a long time by the ghosts that come to haunt them. One can always count on bureaucrats, professionals, or trainees, and on the army of organic intellectuals of emptiness, to play the ventriloquist, to play the grand game of the Party, to imagine themselves once more in the avant-garde of a movement, for which they are in reality just sad street sweepers bringing up the rear.
Here they are proposing watchwords, soon to be constitutions, enacting rules of good collective conduct, exhorting the inversion of the power struggle, rambling on learnedly about the pre-revolutionary characteristics of the situation, infiltrating protests and meetings, calling for the convergence of struggles… These practices, these speeches were already hollow and incantatory last year during the movements of the railway workers and the students—they are hollower than ever today. For the novelty, the tenacity of the first successes of the “yellow vests” cruelly illuminate the series of almost systematic defeats that have taken place over the past several years in France and the general decomposition into which all the currents of the left, so proud of their heritage and singularity and always so stupidly heroic in their posturing, have sunk little by little over half a century. Far from being an obstacle, it’s precisely the much-disparaged ideological impurity of the movement that has enabled it to spread and rendered obsolete all the unifying voluntarisms of specialized organizations and activists. To the professionals of the leftist order and the insurrectionary dis-order, the movement of “yellow vests” only offers an invitation to travel, to a participation that will finally be free of the established collectivities, like so many ideological and material weights of the past.
The mobilization underway has no need of being inflated—or rather, competed with, if one knows how to read between the lines of the deposed little chiefs’ revanchist declarations—by existing or parallel movements. In the roundabouts and in the streets, by blockade or by riot, it is already bringing together forces that are heterogeneous, politically diverse, or even opposed (though often sociologically close) to encounter and to clash. Instead of using preexisting ideas or shared class consciousness or even videos and messages exchanged on social networks, the movement clings to local sociability, old and commonplace, to interactions outside of the workplace, in the cafés, groups, sports clubs, buildings, neighborhoods. Because the religious character of progressive ideology, with its hackneyed myths and empty rituals, is completely foreign to them, the “yellow vests” don’t appear in the first two weeks of the movement to carry assurances or pat interpretations of their common misery. With suppleness and adaptation, at the risk of division and dissolution, they take to the streets, advance on crossroads and tollbooths without prejudice, without imposed certitude, free of the pathological intellectualism and idealism of the left and of leftists and their fantasy of the proletariat, the historical subject, the universal class.
The movement is situated at the turning point between two periods of capitalism and the modes of government associated with them. In its content more than in its form, it bears the marks of the past, but leaves glimpses of a possible future of struggles or uprisings. The critique of the tax, the demand for redistribution, the correction of inequalities—all these are addressed to a regulating state that has largely disappeared. At the same time, the movement wants less tax and more state. It only attacks the state to the extent to which it has withdrawn from the urban and semi-rural zones. And though until recently the issue was a question of purchasing power, that was the case only as a consequence of ignoring the salaries that for the most part determine the general level of purchasing power even more than taxation does. A remarkable trait of the current period is that no one in the government has thought of blaming the bosses for their wage policies. This tactically incomprehensible restriction of focus demonstrates better than any discourse what interests the leading politicians of the current regime serve, even at their own peril.
Since it defies the parties and expresses itself outside of unions—and even, at the beginning, against them—the movement also confronts the entire system of representation of interests that dates from the Second World War and from the Fifth Republic: a set of mechanisms of delegation attached to the Keynesian administration of capitalism. In thus dismissing the left and leftists to ancient tradition, or better, to formaldehyde, the “yellow vests” complete for some the demands for autonomy that have been expressed since May 1968. But for the same reason, they are also in harmony with the program of destruction of union organizations and democratic institutions that has been implemented under advanced capitalism since the 1970s. Or rather, they are its irreducible remainder, the emergence of which some had prophesied. Keynesian, libertarian, and neoliberal by turns, or all at once, the movement brings with it, in its relationship to the state, the economy, and history, the stigmata of these dying political ideas and the ambivalences of our time.
Nevertheless, the movement proposes, albeit in a still paradoxical form, the first mass politicization of the ecological question in France. This is why one would be wrong to relate the mobilization only to the conditions of class, status, and profession, and to create an oversimplified opposition between the problems of the end of the month and the question of the end of the world. This old reflex is also a remnant of the old regime of regulation and protest. In the movement of the “yellow vests,” labor is not the epicenter any more than purchasing power really is. What the movement protests, beyond ecological injustices (the rich destroy much more of the planet than the poor, even while eating organic and sorting their trash, but the poor are the ones who bear the pressures of the “ecological transition”), is above all the enormous differences existing in the relationship to traffic, which have hardly been politicized until now. Rather than expressing itself in the name of a social position, in this sense the movement makes mobility (and its different regimes: constrained or chosen, diffuse or concentrated) the principal focus of the mobilizations, and, in blocking traffic, the cardinal instrument of the conflict.
The Three Vests
On the level of concrete mobilization, the chief quality of the movement will have been to have invented a new tactic and a new dramaturgy of the social struggle. Weak means, perfectly put into play, will have sufficed to create a level of crisis that has rarely been attained politically in France over the past several decades. The logic of numbers and convergence, which was part and parcel of the mobilizations of the Keynesian period, is no longer the decisive factor: no more need to count on high school and college students, on the unemployed and the retired, on their availability and on their time; nor to seek a central, mediatized, Parisian resonance chamber to give the movement its strength and legitimacy. The unique combination of a proliferation of small groupings in the spaces without spontaneous political life for half a century; of the practice of blockades; and of the obvious, natural, ancestral recourse to the riot, reaching to the very hearts of the local, regional, and national urban centers, has supplanted, at least temporarily, the repertoire of the strike with its imposing and well-established figure.
Beyond this common trait, three practical and tactical tendencies currently appear to divide the movement and determine its future. The first is electoralist in its heart, “citizenist” in its fringes. It already calls for the formation of a brand new political movement, for the constitution of candidacies for the next European elections, and it no doubt dreams of a destiny comparable to the Five Star Movement in Italy, or Podemos in Spain, or the Tea Party in the US. This is a matter of weighing in on the existing political game via representatives whose social characteristics are as similar as possible to the characteristics of their constituents. The most radical ones in this camp are not satisfied with the current political institutions and demand that these be completely transformed immediately: they want their referendum or their “Nuit debout”,3 but in the giant soccer stadiums where they imagine a new deliberative democracy will be invented and put into practice.
A second polarity within the movement is openly in favor of negotiation. It expressed itself in the press last Sunday by calling for discussions with the government and by accepting its invitations before those were retracted. A more or less rebellious fraction of the parliament members and politicians of the majority responded, with representatives of the opposition, the unions, and the heads or seconds-in-command of the party, by calling for a change in course: complete transformations of the Estates General [legislative assemblies], taxation, ecology, inequalities, and other burning subjects. This pole dominated the debates in the third week, but it is quite contested inside the movement, which doesn’t see how a new Grenelle Accords,4 a fortori without unions or legitimate representatives and probably diluted with time, could possibly address the rage. After a false start, the government’s principal advantage is now the time of year; they hope to drown the opposition in end-of-the-year parties and make the discussion last several months. We know as well that, in other circumstances, the Estates General could not dress the wounds.
The third kernel of the movement is dégagiste (oppositional), and in its margins, insurrectionary or even revolutionary. It expressed itself this weekend in Paris and in the prefectures, demanding the immediate resignation of Macron without any other program. It obtained results that are unprecedented for several decades in France by reaching the rich neighborhoods west of the capital and responding to the forces of order with an unheard-of enthusiasm despite the police repression, the numerous victims of violence, hands ripped off, faces battered. A few statistics offer an idea of the violence underway: on December 1, the police shot as many grenades in Paris as they had in France throughout the entirety of 2017 (Libération, December 3, 2018). It is possible that the very acute character of these confrontations has been, in part, the product of a governmental calculation aiming to disqualify the riotous fractions of the movement. This strategy failed last week. It has been the object of mass propaganda once again this week. Whatever happens, the best prospects of this segment of the movement are reminiscent of the Arab revolts of 2011, when a very heterogeneous political mobilization brought down several authoritarian regimes, but without succeeding in going further and affirming a revolutionary positivity.
This portrait wouldn’t be complete without recalling that the neo-fascist possibility spans the three camps of the movement. The extreme right is present in all of them. The identitarian and authoritarian tension is also a possible scenario for all of the tendencies: in alliance with (like in Italy) or by absorption into the electoralists; by disgust or its equivalent, if the negotiators win the day; by backlash or counter-revolution, if the putschists of the left or the insurgents triumph. The extreme right in ambush! All the good spirits are demoralized. Will that be enough to tarnish the movement? In reality, the neo-fascist possibility has been present in France since Macron’s election: it is its necessary double and the most probable consequence. The emergence of the extreme right is occurring everywhere today as the logical consequence of maintaining the neoliberal economic order and police state in conjunction with social crisis, witnessed by the authoritarian turn in many countries since 2008. The existence of this danger is not uplifting, but it is the obvious proof that we are at a crossroads in France, in Europe, and beyond. In critical times, history is always uncertain and molten; the purists and the hygienists of the mind and of politics are at a loss. If they are not yet illiberal, the “yellow vests” are already anti-liberal. But who can say whether they wish for new liberties?
By this measure, the insurrectional riot amounts to nothing, even if the ones that took place November 24 and December 1 in Paris and in some cities in the provinces were of historical scope. We sometimes forget that the French have violently risen up, most often against taxes and the concentration of powers, for nearly four centuries. Over the last hundred years, tolerance for destruction and street violence had considerably weakened. However, since 2016 and the new, fragile understanding between the “black bloc” and assemblies, the demonization of riots has receded. This trend has been reinforced over the past few days by ordinary citizens’ encounters with exacerbated police brutality. A tactical course of action could profit from this advantage, perhaps provisionally, in order to conquer the movement from within and sharpen the precision of its aims.
The storming of the Palace de la Republic will not take place. For the moment, there are still many mechanisms in reserve with which to defuse the situation: the dismissal of the government, the declaration of a state of emergency, the army, et cetera. Let us finish mourning all leftism: revolution itself, understood as event, is no longer a necessity, nor even an absolute horizon. Henceforth, the battle can only take place continuously: that is to say, by attacking, according to priority, the weakest parts of the strategic systems of the presiding power. The media and police, to begin with.
The media are effectively divided on this movement. Some media support the anti-tax position of the “yellow vests” to increase the class interests of their owners, all while fearing popular violence. Other media, ideologically closer to the government, in social affinity with the figure that Macron embodies, are nonetheless held to account by their consumers, who support the “yellow vests” even if they aren’t participating. In a fluid situation, representation is one of the decisive arms of war. However, social networks and various protest sites only partially correct the monopolistic tendency of traditional audiovisual media when they themselves are not won over by shameless counter-truths. We like to imagine a part of the “yellow vests” interfering as soon as possible with one or several radio and television stations, national ones if possible, associating with defecting journalists, thus enablng the historical developments underway to appear more clearly. At the very least, we must immediately expand the instruments of counter-information that we already have.
The police presence is paradoxically the other weak link in the presiding system. It’s a used up, overexploited machine, full of rusty parts and weapons, and whose human cogs experience socio-economic conditions very close to those of the “yellow vests.” This proximity could succeed in dividing the ranks of the police, their unions, if they are pushed where their pains have accumulated, softening the base. The task seems rough, difficult, perhaps impossible, but no uprising occurs without at least a partial reversal of the repressive apparatus. Temporality is tight. We can’t be sure that this Saturday, the plan decided by the Interior Minister will not be more insidious, avoiding frontal conflicts in favor of targeted arrests—in the German manner, as it were—in order to contain the tension to the point of breathlessness. But will that work when a mass radicalization has taken place over the last two weeks against the ordinary practices of the police? At Pau on December 1, the CRS [riot police] took off their helmets in front of the protestors. Didn’t a union (Vigi) already call for an unlimited strike after Saturday? Other unions of civil servants (teachers, fire and rescue departments, the entirety of public services) have formulated similar calls for the next few days and next week. The state apparatus is fissuring slowly.
Aim well, but also persist, above all. Paris is a riot, but Paris is also a trap. A spectacular showcase. The scale of the movement is local. We hope it will remain local and multiply its points of existence as well as the meetings held there. The generalization of the perspective of local “popular” assemblies, like at Saint-Nazare or at Commercy, that are able to draw together other groups beyond the already mobilized “yellow vests,” would head in this direction. This would take resources, energy, force, mutual aid. Locking boxes, both hardware and digital, could be put in place. Politically, the role of the supportive associations and even of sympathetic local elected officials is yet to be determined, like that of the turning of the new year.
All of these considerations, already excessive, are nonetheless small in the face of the questions the movement will face in the future, like those about business and ecology, which have mostly remained on the margins of the current commotion, whereas they are at the heart of all the demands. We will have to return to them. December 8 is only the fourth act of mobilization. All the best tragedies have five.
-Deposed agents of the Imaginary Party
December 6, 2018
The Insoumis, the “untamed” or “not submissive,” is the populist democratic socialist party of Mélenchon. The parentheses in the original French text convey doubt as to whether it is more correct to describe Mélenchon’s devotees as tamed or untamed. ↩
Nuit Debout, “up all night,” was a French knockoff of Occupy that took place in 2016. ↩
The accord that effectively ended the insurrectionary events of May 1968. ↩
In response to Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to increase the tax on fuel for “ecological” reasons, France has experienced several weeks of unrest associated with the yellow vest movement. This grassroots uprising illustrates how the contradictions of modern centrism—such as the false dichotomy between addressing climate change and considering the needs of the poor—can create social movements that offer fertile ground for populists and nationalists. At the same time, the increasing involvement of anarchists and other autonomous rebels in the unrest raises important questions. If far-right groups can hijack movements, as they did in Ukraine and Brazil, can anti-capitalists and anti-authoritarians redirect them, as well?
Yesterday, the Macron government offered its first concession, delaying the fuel tax for six months. At the same time, protests and police violence around France continue unabated; another day of action has been called for this Saturday, with the authorities promising a massive crackdown in response. The involvement of truck drivers and high school students signals that the story has not yet reached its climax. The model has already spread to Belgium and there are demonstrations called in Germany and Spain. As seems usual these days, no one on any side of the conflict seems to have any strategy in mind except to continue escalating.
But who will benefit from this escalation? Will it radicalize ordinary people, equipping them to defend their livelihoods against neoliberal austerity measures by means of direct action? Will it offer the police state a new justification for further repressive laws and measures? Will it bring a far-right nationalist government into power in place of the government of Macron?
Likewise, if this internally contradictory movement spreads to other parts of Europe, what aspects of it will spread? Will it supplant nationalist populism with economic populism, preparing the way for a revolt against capitalism? Will it serve as a vehicle for the far right to create a surge of grassroots nationalism, opening a new era of fascist street violence? Will it continue to be a battleground on which nationalists, anarchists, and others vie to determine what form the opposition to centrists like Macron will take in the coming years?
In the United States, in less reactionary times, the Occupy movement saw some of the same conflicts emerge: legalistic liberals, leftist pacifists, insurrectionist anarchists, far-right crypto-fascists, and unaffiliated angry poor people all converged in the space of the movement and fought to determine its character. At first, it was unclear whether Occupy would be most useful to middle-class democrats, right-wing conspiracy theorists, or the genuinely poor and desperate; in fact, during that time, some of the same pessimism circulated about Occupy that we have heard from a few anarchists about the yellow vest movement. However, after a few weeks, anarchists and other militant opponents of capitalism and white supremacy seized the initiative, especially in Occupy Oakland, focusing the movement on confronting the root causes of poverty in capitalism and ensuring that many of the people who were radicalized during Occupy adopted emancipatory rather than reactionary politics.
We saw the opposite process play out in Ukraine two years later, when fascists gained the initiative via the very same approach anarchists had used in Occupy Oakland—taking the front lines in clashes with the police and forcing their political adversaries out of organizing spaces.
Today, the far right has made considerable gains since 2014, and conflicts around the world are playing out at a much fiercer pitch than they were in the days of Occupy. France has a long history of movements for liberation, including many powerful struggles over the past decade and a half. Hopefully, these have created powerful networks that will not let nationalists take the lead in determining what social movements in France will look like.
But even if we understand the movement itself as a battleground, that only poses further questions. What is the best way to fight to determine the character of a movement? How do we engage in this struggle in a way that doesn’t weaken the movement in a way that offers the advantage to the police? How do we remain focused on connecting with other ordinary participants in the movement, rather than getting mired in a private grudge match with fascists?
In order to explore these questions in greater detail, we present the following update from France. This report picks up where our previous analysis left off, in the aftermath of the yellow vest demonstration of November 24.
The Aftermath of November 24
A week ago, total confusion reigned about the yellow vest movement—and within it. The self-proclaimed “leaderless,” “spontaneous,” and “apolitical” movement against the increase of taxes on gas had reached its first impasse. How could the movement remain unified when people from across the entire political spectrum were participating with completely contradictory views about how to address the government, what sort of tactics to employ, and what narratives to rally around? At the same time, how could the movement resist the attempts from political opportunists and party leaders to coopt it, while continuing to push ? The yellow vest movement was fracturing over these issues.
The day after the Parisian demonstration on Saturday, November 24 that saw the avenue of the Champs Elysées transformed into a battlefield between demonstrators and police, part of the movement voted to elect eight official spokespersons. In doing so, they hoped to reintroduce some good old-fashioned hierarchy and centralization into the movement, so as to establish dialogue with the government.
Once again, with these elections, it was not easy to maintain the appearance that the yellow vest movement was “apolitical.” Two of the newly elected spokespersons had connections with the far-right:
Thomas Mirallès ran for the Front National (now Rassemblement National) in the 2014 municipal elections. To defend himself, he describes this political experience as “a youthful mistake” and emphasizes that since that election, he “has never campaigned again.”
On social media, Eric Drouet has shared videos against migrants and expressed arguments used by the xenophobic far right. Knowing that this could tarnish his new “respectable” image as a spokesperson of the movement, he deleted all his Facebook publications up to November 18.
However, these elections were rejected by another part of the movement that refused to fall into the traps of representation and negotiation. Some yellow vesters explicitly reject the concept of representation: rather than having a spokesperson, the idea is that every participant should speak for himself or herself. Moreover, after the intense confrontations that took place during the November 24 demonstration in Paris, several local organizers decided to distance themselves from the movement.
The conflict within the movement didn’t stop some determined yellow vesters from calling for another day of action on Saturday, December 1, in order to increase the pressure on the government to rescind the tax—or simply to destabilize the government itself. The tone was set!
The Government Tries Dialogue
It is clear now that the French government was not expecting the demonstrators’ rage to escalate, producing hours of rioting in Paris. When another call appeared to demonstrate in Paris the following weekend, the government realized that they were losing the control of the situation. This is why, after weeks of expressing contempt towards the yellow vest movement, members of the government changed their strategy in hopes of pacifying the situation. In this regard, the decision to elect official spokespersons for the movement was a strategic mistake, in that it facilitated the government’s efforts to establish a “dialogue” in which politicians would dictate terms to representatives who would then dictate them to participants.
On Tuesday, November 27, President Macron made a public speech in order to present the creation of the Haut Conseil pour le Climat (the High Council for Climate), the purpose of which is to “provide an independent perspective on the Government’s climate policy.” During his speech, President Macron changed his strategy by directly addressing some of the demands and concerns of the yellow vesters, presenting himself as a pedagogue willing to listen to what people have to say. This political masquerade failed; many members of the yellow vest movement rejected the so-called “helping hand” offered by the president and criticized his hypocrisy, as Macron had categorically refused to meet some yellow vesters just that morning.
Later that day, at the request of President Macron, the Minister of Ecological Transition, François de Rugy, received the leading figures of the movement. This meeting was supposed to establish some kind of dialogue between the government and the movement in order to find an exit from the situation. However, after two hours, the deadlock remained. Unconvinced by their exchange with the minister, the two spokespersons reaffirmed their intention to demonstrate on Saturday, December 1.
Understanding that the situation was escalating as more and more yellow vesters rejected the idea of dialogue and committed to gathering in the streets, the government tried one more time to re-establish dialogue. On November 30, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe invited the eight spokespersons of the movement to a meeting. This meeting was a failure, too: in the end, only one spokesperson out of eight met with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Ecological Transition. A second spokesperson, Jason Herbert, left the meeting shortly after it began.
A Fertile Ground for Populists
That same week, the self-proclaimed “legalist” and “official” part of the movement, including the elected leaders and spokespersons for the yellow vests, presented traditional media outlets with 42 demands. Looking at this list, it is easy to see the confusion within the movement, but also to identify some of the political influences that its protagonists share.
The list includes demands from every position on the political spectrum. There are social demands such as increasing minimum wage, fighting homelessness, and increasing financial assistance to handicapped people. But there are also reactionary demands, including deporting immigrants who haven’t received the right to asylum, blocking migration, developing a policy of assimilation for those who want to live in France, increasing the presidential term from 5 to 7 years, and providing more funding to the Justice department, the police forces, and the army.
Alongside these demands, we saw the now “classic” opposition to the increase of taxes on gas, as well as some ecological, protectionist, and nationalist arguments. The “legalist” or “official” part of the movement was playing a dangerous game in giving populists from the left to the far right reason to support the movement, if not enabling them to coopt it completely.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the leftist populist party France Insoumise, publicly denies that his party has engaged in any efforts to coopt the movement; in reality, the populist leader, who is obsessed with the idea of a coming “citizens’ revolution,” is hoping that the anger in the streets will weaken Macron’s government. This is purely opportunistic, as the leftist populist party aims to increase its ranks by attracting “angry” voters in the 2019 European elections.
On the other side of the political spectrum, emboldened by the wave of far-right victories in the US, Italy, and Brazil, nationalists know that this movement of collective anger represents a great opportunity for them to gain power and confirm their status as a “real political alternative” to the current government. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, leader of Debout La France, has been supporting the movement from the beginning, and some yellow vesters are members of his political party—Frank Buhler, for example, whose video became viral online.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National, believes that the yellow vest movement represents what she’s been describing for years as “the France of the people left behind.” The nationalist party believes that [yellow vesters] “look like our voters. Unhappy and unlucky people because they are usually invisible, and who have a strong contempt for politicians.” This explains why the Rassemblement National has been extremely cautious in terms of strategy. They fear that if they attempt to coopt the movement too obviously, they could turn the demonstrators against them. They decided instead to offer verbal support to the demonstrations without their leaders marching in the streets alongside protestors. They have concentrated on communicating and defending some of the “42 demands” in corporate media outlets. Marion Maréchal Le Pen, niece of Marine Le Pen, said that she was present at the Champs Elysées on November 24 and described herself as “an ardent moral support for the yellow vesters’ suffering,” claiming to have “a lot of empathy for them.”
Preparing for the Unknown
Frustrated at having failed to neutralize the movement through dialogue, and fearing that, for the second week in a row, images of chaos in the streets of Paris would dominate the airwaves, the government decided to take every possible measure to maintain its precious republican order during the demonstrations of Saturday, December 1.
To secure the capital city, prevent or contain confrontations, and deal with the infiltration of radicals and “extremist elements,” the government arranged 5000 anti-riot police (Gendarmes and CRS) for the day. Their mission was to control all the access routes to the Champs Elysées, the meeting location of the demonstration. To ensure that no dangerous objects or possible projectiles would be brought inside the demonstration, the authorities filtered the access points, searching every single person who wanted to enter the perimeter. These controls were to be in effect from 6 am on Saturday, December 1 until 2 am on Sunday, December 2.
In order to protect the most important buildings, symbols, and organs of power, the authorities designated restricted areas where freedom of movement would be limited. All access to the Elysée (the Presidential palace), the Place Beauvau (the Ministry of the Interior), the Hôtel Matignon (the Prime Minister’s office), or the National Assembly was sealed off completely for the day.
Another reason the government took all those safety measures was that the yellow vests were not the only group demonstrating that day in Paris. At 10 am, railway workers were supposed to gather near the Saint Lazare train station to defend their status; they planned to join the yellow vesters after their action. At 12 pm, other trade unions were gathering for a traditional annual march against unemployment and precariousness. At 1 pm, several collectives of Parisian suburbs and antifascists decided to gather at Saint Lazare to join the yellow vest movement.
In short, on the eve of the December 1 national day of action, all the elements were combining to make for a truly explosive mixture in the streets of Paris.
The Fuse Is Lit…
Due to the dramatic scope of what happened on December 1, we cannot provide an exhaustive list of all the actions and confrontations that took place in the streets of Paris that day. This is only an incomplete overview of the course of events. Also, in reference to the images and stories presented herein, it bears saying that some of the protagonists may be members of the far right.
Early in the morning, the first demonstrators began to converge on the Champs Elysées. Police were already deployed and on the alert; all yellow vesters were searched before entering the perimeter of the demonstration. The trap set up by the government was in effect. During the first few hours of the day, police arrested several individuals on accusations of possessing weapons and projectiles.
Surprisingly, the safety plan set up by authorities protected the avenue of the Champs Elysées, but not the Place de l’Etoile—the large traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe. Proposed by Napoléon I in 1806, the Arc de Triomphe was inaugurated in 1836 by Louis Philippe, then King of France, who dedicated the monument to the armies of the Revolution and the Empire. In 1921, the French government buried the Unknown Soldier of World War I beneath it. The flame of remembrance is revived everyday and official military commemorations take place annually in front of the flame. The monument is a symbol of French glory.
Aware that the Arc de Triomphe was not under police control, and knowing that, to access the Champs Elysées, they would have to submit to a search and have their identities checked, demonstrators began to gather around the monument, just outside the police perimeter. At 8 am, about a hundred yellow vesters were already on site, while the official beginning of the demonstration was due at 2 pm. Shortly after, around 9 am, the first confrontations began when yellow vesters tried to force their way through a checkpoint to enter the Champs Elysées. Police responded immediately with tear gas, which only escaladed the clashes.
From this vantage point, it is not easy to confirm precisely who initiated the first confrontations or who took part. As during the previous week, the confrontations included everyone from neo-Nazis and other fascists to anarchists, anti-capitalists. and anti-fascists, not to forget angry yellow vesters from many other different backgrounds and political tendencies.
As is becoming usual with the yellow vest movement, the situation was quite confusing. Some protestors gathered around the Unknown Soldier’s flame as if they were paying tribute to war, nationalism, and imperialism. Others started singing the Marseillaise—the French national anthem. Meanwhile, the more determined protestors were throwing cobblestones at police forces, erecting barricades in the neighboring streets, and setting cars on fire.
Soon, the entire traffic circle was enveloped in tear gas. The situation continued to escalate. Every time the police line got too close, rioters welcomed them with a shower of cobblestones and other projectiles. In the meantime, the first tags appeared on the Arc de Triomphe; this imperial symbol was finally profaned! Sadly, although some of the tags were clearly inscribed by anarchist and anti-statist comrades, others were written by fascists.
The presence of organized fascist groups during the clashes around the Place de l’Etoile during the morning of November 1 is undeniable. Several mainstream media outlets covering the yellow vest movement mentioned their presence among the yellow vest movement. In one article, the journalist says: “Several police vehicles had to leave the Place des Ternes hastily after being attacked by tens of individuals wearing visible far-right symbols.” In another article, the author reports the presence of monarchists, traditionalist Catholic groups, and nationalist and fascist groups, such as the GUD (Groupe Union Défense), a far-right student union—backing up these claims with photographs.
In their personal report about the yellow vest demonstration, anarchist comrades also mention the presence of the far right near the Place de l’Etoile:
“When we arrived at the Place de l’Etoile around 12 pm, it had been already a huge chaos for almost three hours. According to some comrades we met on site, the confrontations had been extremely violent underneath the 8Arc de Triomphe* during the morning. It seems that a lot of people had been injured. It was also in this sector that radical far-right groups were most present during the day. The GUD was there. We saw a good amount of walls covered by Celtic crosses. The far right in its “legalist” tendency also appeared to be well represented among the demonstrators. It seemed to us, and according to several other testimonies as well, that these fascist tendencies stayed present all day long around the Place de l’Etoile. Nevertheless, it was difficult to really quantify them.”
The Arc de Triomphe was the focal point of confrontations throughout the morning. Police repeatedly tried to repel protestors from the historical monument, but not without difficulties, as evidenced by this scene in which a group of demonstrators charged an anti-riot police unit that was trying to protect the edifice. During the charge, one policeman was isolated from his unit and beaten up by yellow vesters.
This event illustrated once more the confusion and disagreement within the movement. While some yellow vesters were attacking the police officer, others helped him to escape from his attackers, so he could rejoin his unit. Later, another yellow vester even returned an anti-riot shield to the police after demonstrators had seized it.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the French capital, other people in yellow vests gathered in the district of Bastille and walked along the large street of Rivoli, passing in front of the main City Hall of Paris, with the objective of entering the Champs Elysées from the opposite side—via the Place de la Concorde.
Around 1 pm, while the Arc de Triomphe was still surrounded by massive clouds of tear gas, a group of comrades decided to change their strategy and create a new dynamic by starting a wildcat demonstration and leaving the stalemate around the traffic circle behind them. Rapidly, a procession of 800 individuals left the square and entered the streets of wealthy Parisian districts. The crowd was quite heterogeneous, but the atmosphere seemed friendly.
On the Hoche avenue, the wildcat demonstration ran into a large procession of railway workers who were heading towards the Saint Lazare train station in order to join the afternoon call made by suburban and anti-fascist collectives. Without thinking twice, the two processions united and continued to march towards the meeting point. This development shifted the horizon of possibility for the rest of the day.
When all the processions converged in the luxurious Opéra district, thousands of individuals were marching through the streets. Over a century ago, during the Belle Epoque era, anarchists such as Emile Henry demonstrated the concept of propaganda of the deed in this neighborhood by attacking the rich and their symbols in their own luxurious district. Here, in contrast to the ambience around the Arc de Triomphe, the atmosphere was comfortable. Within this large procession, there were anarchists, anti-fascists, queer radicals, collectives against police violence, railway workers, garden variety yellow vesters, some people we might describe as rioters without adjectives, and many others, including the simply curious. For the first time, it really seemed that some kind of anti-capitalist and anti-fascist force could gain a foothold within the troubled waters of the yellow vest movement.
Heading south, the large procession finally arrived at Rue de Rivoli—a large street that connects Bastille to the Place de la Concorde, the highly restricted area near the Presidential palace. At this point, part of the crowd decided to go east and continue marching towards the City Hall of Paris—where they were welcomed by police forces with tear gas. The rest of the procession, about 1500 individuals, were determined to go the opposite way and force their way through the police checkpoint near Place de la Concorde.
When they approached the square, numerous police trucks and a water cannon blocked their way. Uninterrupted and intense confrontations followed between radicals and police forces. Barricades appeared on different fronts, projectiles were thrown at police, while a rain of tear gas canisters fell on protestors and the water canon attacked them at full blast. Eventually, however, the water canon seemed to have some technical issues. Some demonstrators seized this opportunity to set a car on fire for use as an additional barricade.
Further away, near Saint Augustin, about 3000 individuals had been gathering at a major intersection since 3 pm, building numerous barricades in the area to block traffic. People were joyously expressing their desire to overthrow President Macron. The fences of a nearby construction site were used to erect new barricades, while others were set on fire. A little further away, police forces were already blocking the streets. At this point, mounted police also appeared. Not thinking twice, protestors began breaking up the asphalt and throwing projectiles at the police. For over an hour, a confrontation continued at this intersection. This shows how determined people were that afternoon. In the meantime, a nearby bank was thoroughly damaged, while other demonstrators flipped a truck over. Law enforcement finally cleared the area of protestors with a massive tear gas attack.
Several different parts of Paris were completely chaotic. Three cars were burning on the fancy Haussmann Boulevard, named for the reactionary urban planner who attempted to make Paris insurrection-proof after the revolution of 1848. Several streets further, an empty police car was destroyed, looted, and set aflame. A crowd of radicals arrived at Place Vendome, well known for its luxurious jewelry stores, the Ministry of Justice, and the infamous column that the Communards once destroyed. Plastic Christmas trees found in the nearby streets were piled up as barricades and set on fire.
While a thick cloud of smoke enveloped the Opera district, the anti-capitalists decided to move towards the Bourse, the historical stock market building—another symbol of capitalism and state power. Granted, since 1998, no more financial transactions are made inside this building. Nevertheless, several windows were smashed, the front doors were opened, and fireworks made their way inside the hall. Then the rioting crowd left the area, attacking another police car in a neighboring street on the way. They used urban furniture and construction equipment to block traffic, destroyed the front windows of several banks, and disappeared into the early night.
The emergence of some kind of anti-capitalist and anti-fascist bloc was an important development within the yellow vest movement. Likely drawing on years of experience in demonstrations such as the May Day and Loi Travail protests, the bloc took advantage of the general confusion to carry out multiple actions throughout Paris with clear objectives and intentions.
In view of such determination, the government and police forces were completely overwhelmed. There are several explanations for this. The first reason is the wide range of people taking part into the riots. It was not just anarchists and anti-capitalist radicals attacking police forces, but also a great number of other angry people in yellow vests including far-right activists and other rioters. Secondly, the protests continued to change and develop throughout the day, assuming unpredictable new forms. Finally, the extreme mobility, diffuse organization, and determination of the protestors made them a match for the officers, who were pinned down by their task of defending predefined areas. Indeed, as most police forces were assigned to positions around the restricted areas or busy dealing with confrontations near the Champs Elysées, they couldn’t respond to the developments in other districts of Paris. Nevertheless, on several occasions, members of the BAC (Anti-Criminality Brigade) were seen in the streets haphazardly shooting rubber bullets at every demonstrator in view.
Many officials and media agree that Paris hasn’t experienced such riots since 1968. To this assessment, we must add the following figures.
It is difficult to tell how much ammunition the police used; numbers vary widely between sources. However, it appears that they deployed about 8000 tear gas grenades, 1000 sting-ball grenades, 339 GLI-F4 stun grenades, 1200 rubber bullets, and 140,000 liters of water during the confrontations.
In the end, during the Parisian demonstration alone, 133 individuals were injured, while the authorities counted 112 cars, 130 pieces of urban furniture of one kind of another, and six buildings set on fire for a total of 249 fires.
Paris was not the only place in France were yellow vesters expressed their anger with actions. In various cities, protestors gathered for this third nationwide day of action; some of them were as determined as those who took the streets in Paris.
In Toulouse, intense confrontations took place between yellow vesters and law enforcement. In Narbonne, yellow vesters set fire to a toll collection point. In Bordeaux, clashes erupted between police and protesters when the crowd of yellow vesters arrived at City Hall and tried to enter by force.
In Tours, a demonstration drew about 1300 individuals. Shortly after the beginning of the march, participants began smashing shop windows, and confrontations with police escalated. One yellow vester lost his hand as a consequence of a grenade thrown by police.
Finally, about 3000 individuals gathered at Puy-en-Velay. Yellow vesters entered the courtyard of the local Prefecture with tires and refused to leave. Some of them set fire to the tires. Police forces tried to disperse the crowd by using tear gas, but this only increased the anger of the demonstrators. Numerous confrontations followed. The prefect himself tried to discuss with the protestors in order to bring back order but without any success. In the end, dissatisfied with the situation, yellow vesters burned down the Prefecture.
The day after the demonstrations, the government knew that it had reached an impasse of its own. President Macron was on a trip to Buenos Aires for the G20; as soon as he heard about the situation in Paris, he returned to France immediately to deal with this major political crisis.
On Sunday, December 2, President Macron met with some of the policemen and firemen who had been in the streets the previous day. He also made a small tour of the damages caused by hours of insurrectional confrontations before heading back to the Elysée palace for an emergency meeting with all of the government. The President asked his ministers to cancel all their business trips for the next two days.
President Macron did not make any official declaration after the meeting. Nevertheless, he personally asked the Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to see all the political leaders of the different parties the next day, as well as the spokespersons of the yellow vest movement.
In the meantime, the left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon requested that every political group in the National Assembly opposed to the government should make a vote of no confidence to denounce the “catastrophic management of the yellow vest issue.” At the same time, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen demanded the dissolution of the National Assembly. Once more, it is not difficult to see who wants to take advantage of the situation.
On Saturday night, the Minister of the Interior said that he was willing to consider all possibilities to ensure republican peace and order in France, even re-imposing the state of emergency to deal with the yellow vest movement. This is gratuitous: in the new antiterrorist law adopted on October 31, 2017, many of the elements that constituted the exceptional aspect of the state of emergency are now fully integrated into ordinary French common law—for example, the creation of restricted zones during events.
Nevertheless, on Sunday, December 2, yellow vesters determined to push their movement further were already planning a fourth round with the government, calling for another national day of action on Saturday, December 8. It happens that on the same day, the global climate march will take place in Paris. For the occasion, radicals have made a call for an offensive contingent. We will see whether it is possible for these two movements to establish a connection.
On Tuesday, December 4, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said that the government had decided to suspend gas tax increases for the following six months. In addition, the government is also suspending new tougher rules on vehicle checks for the same amount of time, and committing not to increase electricity fares until May 2019. In addition, the Prime Minister announced that a debate about taxes and public expenses at a national scale would take place between December 15, 2018 and March 1, 2019. In making these concessions, the government aims to show that it is open to dialogue with yellow vesters.
Nevertheless, it seems that part of the yellow vesters are not willing to give up the fight. The spokespersons of the yellow vest movement rejected the invitation from the Prime Minister to find a way out to the current situation; several local yellow vests groups are calling to continue their actions.
So far, the government’s announcement does not seem to have had much effect upon the ranks of the yellow vest movement. Since the beginning of the movement on November 17, the number of demonstrators has dropped as the intensity of conflict has escalated. Yet even if some yellow vesters have dropped out due to the increasingly confrontational strategy, the last day of action showed that some demonstrators are determined to continue forward.
We still have an unknown horizon before us—and so many dawns yet to break.
As we hoped, an anti-capitalist and anti-fascist front has emerged within the yellow vest movement. In Paris on December 1, this created a convergence point and catalyst for people who do not identify with nationalist narratives. Hopefully, this will help to spread a discourse that identifies the structural causes of Macron’s programs, rather than framing them as the “betrayals” of a politician who should simply be replaced with a more nationalistic populist.
In only three weeks, the yellow vest movement has gone from blocking traffic to demolishing the wealthy districts of Paris. This illustrates the efficacy of direct action, horizontality, and the refusal to negotiate. In the era of globalized capitalism, any movement that is to face down the neoliberal assault on the living standards of ordinary people will be forced to radicalize rapidly in this manner, and to resist all attempts to control, represent, or placate it.
As many anarchists have emphasized before, effective resistance to capitalism requires the participation of a wide range of people, not just those who share a common ideological framework. This means that a movement must spread beyond the control of any one group or position. Indeed, we can understand the yellow vest movement as a widespread popular appropriation of the confrontational tactics that anarchists and other rebels have been employing in France for years—for example, in the protests against the Loi Travail and on May Day.
Yet the widespread appropriation of confrontational tactics is not necessarily a step towards a better world unless people also absorb the values and visions that accompany them. The rise of Trump and grassroots nationalism in the US has been marked at every step by the far-right appropriation of left and anarchist rhetoric and tactics, which they have used to advance their own agenda.
What happens inside a movement against the reigning government is just as important as what happens in the conflicts between that movement and the police. This is why we have emphasized the importance of fighting on two fronts—against Macron’s police and likewise against the fascists who hope to impose their own authoritarian agenda.
There’s No Such Thing as an Apolitical Movement
From the outset, the yellow vest movement has claimed to be an “apolitical” space open to all. This has offered fertile ground for populists and nationalists to promote their ideas. In most cases, they have not been the ones taking action in the streets, but they have often set the discourse online. Fascist groups have gained visibility, too, even if their number seems comparatively modest; they are better organized now than they were at the beginning of the movement. We must not abandon the streets and the movement to the far right.
No social movement is a monolith; each is a heterogeneous space of perpetual change and tension. It is foolish to deem movements worthy or unworthy, standing in judgment like the Pope and relinquishing the ones that do not meet our standards to the influence of our adversaries. Instead, we can aim to intervene in movements in ways that enable the liberating currents within them to gain momentum and become distinct from the reactionary currents. The challenge is to offer other participants models for how to solve their immediate problems and to connect those with emancipatory visions of long-term change—and to do all this without creating tools or momentum that fascists, authoritarian leftists, or other opportunists can capitalize on.
We need to think more about the relationship between street battles and the battle of ideas. Historically, anarchists have often assumed that those who are willing to take the most risks will be better positioned to determine the character and goals of a movement. On the ground, this is often true—for example, if you escalate conflict with the police, it can force centrists and legalists to withdraw. But we should also remember all the times that rebels from oppressed groups have been the ones to take the most risks and suffer the most repression, only to see authoritarians take advantage of our sacrifices to consolidate their power. This is a very old story, from the French revolutions of 1830, 1848, and 1870 and the Italian Risorgimento to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.
We should bear all these lessons in mind when we weigh whether the best way to gain leverage within a movement is to be the ones who take the most risks within it. How can we make sure that our adversaries within the movement cannot force us to take the majority of the casualties while they simply—take power?
A decade ago, in less complicated times, some anarchists and autonomists imagined that, rather than being connected by a common set of values and aspirations, people in revolt could be connected simply by behaving ungovernably in relation to the prevailing authorities. It is still possible to find examples of this “anti-ideological” attitude in France today, despite all the evidence that at least a few of those who wear the yellow vest are simply fighting to enthrone other authorities who will be just as dangerous if they come to power. It would not be the first time that rebellious street violence brought a new oppressive government into office.
Yes, the order that reigns must be undermined by any means necessary. The same goes for the proponents of rival ruling orders. Driving Yvan Bennedetti out of a demonstration is just as important as defending it against the police.
At the same time, it must be clear to all the newly mobilized and politicized participants in these movements that we are not simply robots acting according to a pre-programmed ideological framework, but that we genuinely hope to connect with them, exchange ideas and influences with them, and work together to create solutions to our mutual problems. Our opposition to authoritarians is not a tenet of a religion, but a hard-won lesson about what it takes to create spaces of freedom and possibility.
In this regard, the moments of dialogue between strangers that take place in the street are just as important as the courageous acts by which people hold police at bay and force out fascists. Let’s not be naïve, let’s not disavow our opinions or abandon our convictions, but let’s remain open to the possibility that we could become stronger and more vibrantly alive by working with others we have not yet met, who share our problems but not our reference points.
The Long Game
Sooner or later, this moment of crisis will pass—either the leaders will cut a deal with the state and the police will succeed in isolating those who refuse to cooperate, or Macron’s government will fall and be replaced by another that promises to solve the problems that drove people into the street.
And what then? Will the far right be able to claim that they were the ones who scored the victory against Macron? Most of the aforementioned 42 demands are compatible with both leftist and far-right populist programs; it would not be surprising to see the movement split in two and be coopted by the two populist parties. Since the riots last weekend, both populist leaders have been galvanized by the demand to oust President Macron and his government. It is entirely possible that a far-right government will come to power after Macron. What should we be doing right now to prepare for that situation, to make sure that people will continue to come together in the streets against them?
As we fight—in France, in Belgium, and everywhere else that neoliberal governments are forcing austerity measures on us—let’s be thinking about how to come out of each fight more connected, more experienced, and with a sharper way of identifying the questions before us. Good luck to each of you, dear friends.
Further Reading: Comparing the Yellow Vests with Ukraine and Italy