Our Streets: The Story from the Front Lines & How We Fight

| Strategize!

Above Militarized police and card players sit-in from Trump Inauguration protests by Eleanor Goldfield for Art Killing Apathy.

Note: At the bottom of this story is a bonus video of the black bloc protest by Eric Tien. 

This week, activist-artist Eleanor Goldfield produced a special hour long episode of ACT Out.

Goldfield reviews the actions from the streets of DC over the Inauguration weekend and, more importantly, discusses, analyzes and projects a path forward. Local DC musician, activist and writer Jason Yawn, a musician with Free Children of Earth, joins her to talk tactics, what to do now and the role of artists in the movement.

A particular focus of their conversation was the black bloc tactics used by some of the protesters. Goldfield correctly points out we need to constantly rethink our tactics in order to measure our effectiveness and build people power. Black bloc tactics are put into the context of the weekend, which included actions at every security checkpoint that led into the inaugural march that were quite varied in themselves, as well as the mass Women’s March.

Bank of America broken glass at Trump Inauguration by Eleanor Goldfield for Art Killing Apathy

Bank of America broken glass at Trump Inauguration by Eleanor Goldfield for Art Killing Apathy

Goldfield and Yawn also put the black bloc tactics into the context of the violence many face in the United States and many more face from the United States around the world. Why is it violent for a Bank of America window to be broken and boarded up, but not violent when Bank of America forecloses on a family, forces them to move and their windows are boarded up? Why is it not violent when tens of millions of people in the United States face food insecurity and poverty every day?

Yawn points out that condemning black bloc tactics divides us and that we should not limit ourselves to only permitted protests. He asks: what violence would have to be done to you before you fight back? Is that being done to others in our country? Is it being done by the United States to others around the world? With these questions in mind he points out that opposing black bloc tactics comes from a place of privilege, the privilege of not suffering violence at the hand of the state.

Military vehicles in DC during Trump Inauguration by Eleanor Goldfield for Art Killing Apathy

Military vehicles in DC during Trump Inauguration by Eleanor Goldfield for Art Killing Apathy

Yawn describes how tactics must be analyzed in the context of the situation and  the goals of the protest. In the context of the Trump inauguration, where people want to show they do not want to accept Trump and will resist him in every way they can, the tactics make sense. The same tactics would not make sense on a normal workday during rush hour, in fact they would be counterproductive. He points out that we are challenging the greatest purveyor of violence in the world and in so doing breaking windows is not violence – property damage is not violence. At what point, do we stop asking nicely, he asks.

Free Hugs with militarized police at Trump inauguration protest by Eleanor Goldfield for Art Killing Apathy

Free Hugs with militarized police at Trump inauguration protest by Eleanor Goldfield for Art Killing Apathy

Goldfield raises the question, is there such a thing as a useful tactic that does not disrupt anything? Yawn responds that he is against permitted marches because we do not have to ask permission to protest, it is a human right and one already protected in the US Constitution. These types of tactics are not engaged in to be cool, they must be carefully considered and thought through: will they be effective, is the danger worth the risk, does this protect the lives of others or will they make them worse? What kind of political discussion will come from these tactics? Will there be law enforcement blow black that will do more damage? Will these tactics justify police violence and turn people against the movement?

Will Trade Racists for Refugees by Eleanor Goldfield from Trump Inauguration Protest for Art Killing Apathy

Will Trade Racists for Refugees by Eleanor Goldfield from Trump Inauguration Protest for Art Killing Apathy

These are difficult questions that must be considered. We know from the history of successful social movements that movements that succeed are mass movements. Fringe movements fail. We also know that a mass movement needs to build and draw more people to it. If black bloc tactics are not clearly justified, they can have the effect of pushing people away from the movement. We also know that over the last 100 years broad-based movements weaken the power structure by pulling people from the power structure to the movement. The group that has the biggest impact when they join the movement, or when some of their members do so, are law enforcement and the security state. When they come to the movement, the existing power structure has lost. Do these tactics help achieve that goal?

Silence is complicity, The World is Watching, Trump Inauguration protest by Eleanor Goldfield for Art Killing Apathy.

Silence is complicity, The World is Watching, Trump Inauguration protest by Eleanor Goldfield for Art Killing Apathy.

These kinds of conversations will not happen in the mass corporate media so they need to happen in the alternative media so we can understand why people take the actions they take and what they hope to accomplish.

Yawn points out that the inaugural protests showed a wide breadth of actions from radical to permitted tactics – people wanted to affirm their creative energies and challenge the system. All of these actions were a good sign for going forward and building a mass movement that aggressively pursues the transformation the country needs. The real show of solidarity and people power is yet to come. What happens now is what people do next.

There is much more in the discussion, and also a discussion of the important role of art in the popular movement. I urge you to listen to it. And, there are some great photos and videos worth seeing.

  • Curtis Bell

    We cannot win with violence. Violent events are pushed through the media echo chamber and it alienates your average person. Violence is what the right wing is hoping we will do so they can discredit us. Yes, the US is doing violence here and around the world, but we will not win with it.

  • kevinzeese

    There is no question that research on resistance movements over the last 100 years shows that nonviolence succeeds twice as often as violent movements. The reason is that mass movements win, while fringe movements fail. Not many people want to be part of a violent movement.

    Is property damage violence? Is attaching your self or putting graffiti on pipeline equipment violence? Is cutting a fence to protest inside a nuclear weapons facility violence? Is breaking a Bank of America window violence?

    The tactics for each protest or protest campaign need to be thought through as our goal is to build power and win, not put on a show. What are the goals of the movement? When you know your goal you can figure out the strategy and tactics to achieve it.

    The question is what is effective? When people go through that process weighing the costs and benefits, looking at possible blow back against the movement, seeing how it could lead to greater law enforcement etc., it is rare that violence will be the most effective approach; even property damage protest will rarely be seen as the most effective approach. It is important to think before we act.

  • DHFabian

    “…he points out that opposing black bloc tactics comes from a place of privilege…”

    Yes, the talk always comes down to “white privilege,” based on all the familiar racial stereotypes. Much of the population never made it up into the middle class. Jobs have been getting shut down and shipped out since the 1980s, and family farms went down like dominos. Twenty years into our war on the poor, media ignore (or even deny) the consequences. The overall life expectancy of the US poor has plunged. The majority of poor are white, with masses of these living in the vast spaces between the cities. America is numbly unaware of the quiet death resulting from deprivation of the most basic human needs.

    No question, there is far less violence outside of the cities. The more densely populated an area, the higher the tensions, the higher the crime and violence. Not so long ago, black communities marched to demand more police presence in their neighborhoods. While this is a very complex issue, it’s not surprising that this has resulted in more violent interactions between police and citizens. Still, this violence is defined as racism, even when the cops and victims involved are the same race. When the victim is homeless/white, there is no media outrage, no marches for justice. Violence against the homeless, by police and citizens alike, is so routine that we no longer even talk about it. The very poor still aren’t getting that whole “white privilege” thing.

  • DHFabian

    As Martin Luther King explained, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Much hopelessness is rooted in our poverty crisis — something that hasn’t been a fashionable topic of discussion for many years. Severe poverty in the US had been virtually ended by the time Reagan came to power. By the choices made since then, following so many years of shutting down/shipping out our jobs, it has come roaring back.

    Even liberals have spent the last 20 years “standing in solidarity” only with the better-off. Years of efforts to shine a spotlight on the conditions suffered by the truly poor, whether urban or rural, have been futile. Non-violent efforts are brushed aside year after year.

    When an entire chunk of the population is utterly marginalized, treated as something less than human, a portion of them will strike out in a predictable manner. In an inhuman culture, don’t expect “good (passive) behavior.” Many knew that the Obama years represented the last chance to turn things around. Utter hopelessness has predictable consequences.

  • DHFabian

    The poor don’t have the money and means to organize movements and secure the media coverage necessary to be heard at all. The most that could be done was seen in the Poor People’s Campaign. As large as those peaceful marches have been, they are rarely mentioned at all, even in the media marketed to liberals. When they do note the Poor People’s Campaign, they find it more comfortable to define it as a nice march for black-only low wage workers alone.

  • There is a clear distinction between violence against People and violence against Property that is muddled in the minds of many. Human Rights should take precedence every time over Property Rights. The systemic violence against a hungry person who has no access to the food that fills the grocery shelves across America is a clear violation of Basic Human Rights that derives from protecting the Property Rights of those who “Own” the grocery stores and the food. The direct connection between Property and Money being elevated over Basic Human Rights is the deep systemic flaw in the present system that needs to be confronted if we are to have any hope of a wiser sustainable human civilization.

  • Agreed, but act we must to bring to everyone’s attention the deeper system flaws in our thinking/stories that birth and nurture the global systemic violence that is tear humanity apart from the inside. We need the will, wisdom and compassion of Ghandi to guide us. When the deep and justified anger against the systemic violence lacks understanding, it is simply a bomb that explodes destroying everyone. When it comes to spreading understanding, it is also true that actions speak louder than words. Ghandi almost died many times, not because of the direct violence against him but from his attempts to redirect the righteous anger of those he sought to help away from indiscriminate violence and towards righteous actions.

  • dan

    Yes I agree; all tactics should be considered. Long ago I used to be a pacifist; but non-violence has its limits too….

  • Dariel Garner

    More important than “How We Fight” is “How We Win!”. In conflict, tactics are diatated by strategy, strategy is dictated from goals. If the goal is the replacement of the American Empire with a culture of peace and caring or one another, the strategy and tactics will be very different than one wher the goal is simply impeaching a President or seizing power from the oligarchy. (Note that seizing power is very diferent than creating a culture where oligarchy is impossible to form.

  • Thom Rip

    One tactic already in progress seems effective to me….watch every move (he and they) make..get in the streets, slow it down, disrupt..constantly.

  • Dariel Garner

    “…he points out that opposing black bloc tactics comes from a place of privilege…” I always get confused when I hear this. The history and successful practice of strategic nonviolence has been created by the disadvantaged, most often racial, gender and ethnic minorities. Jesus, Gandhi, King, Chavez, Day, were not active members of the priveleged oppressor class, indeed the entire field of nonviolent struggle has been created by the underclasses.

  • Blue Ackerman

    I get you, Sister….We’re all in pain, and finding our way in the dark now. But igniting all this anger, and destroying small business owners work. (They have to pay a large co-pay to insurance companies, for damages done + lost wages) (bad karma and misplaced anger) There are other things to do All this violence Does draw press attention,…but violent actions muddy the True intent to All, about the protest, and creates longer resolution time Violence (begets) a backlash…Like a big earthquake on an Island coast…the opposite Island is going to be struck by a Tsunami. the same old,”eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” (measure of equality), continues the division…the old paradigm… Not real, magical, transformational, butterfly kind of transition We are all frustrated…but this anger is the ape man way…. Like it’s always been…. Let’s believe new ways of true peace and being…not talking religion or cult Let’s just stop. breathe. unify, not divide. Work to love one another, and work together toward a world without violence…
    A place where All have their basic needs met
    and some happiness “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” We’ll take our life to a higher level Read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”…It’s an old book. He And his family were ripped from their home to a Concentration Camp. His Family was killed. wife. children. maybe in front of him. He was stripped, beaten, tortured, marched and worked shoeless in the Snow, starved, and humiliated. Everyone and everything he ever loved. Gone. Out of a trillion emotions (could imagine frothing, get-even anger), Mr Frankl could have raged, but he didn’t. “He thought of what could never be taken from him by this pure evil? ” What he decided was, “How he responded in return to the ones that imprisoned him.” Viktor Frankl, did not return his captors hate and anger back to them. That attitude changed some of his heartless, frozen, Captors hearts. and freed them from their internal prison. Viktor Frankl was released. Most of those around him weren’t so lucky. We have the free will to choose to live in anger and hate, or try a new way. More than just about emotions, (I believe) our Heart, has a Brain. Research it. It’s faster than the Brain in your head.

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  • “Yawn points out that condemning black bloc tactics divides us and that we should not limit ourselves to only permitted protests.”

    Stupidity on top of obtuseness on top of ignorance. With a hefty dose of testosterone thrown in.

    What divides us, Yawn, are the chest-thumping antics of the Black Bloc. What divides us are pseudo-intellectual arguments about what constitutes violence, and sanctimonious lectures therein. Yes, we know that poverty is violence against human beings. We get it. And throwing a brick through Bank of America’s window doesn’t do shit to alleviate poverty.

    All you’re doing is handing to the authoritarians in our midst a gift on a silver platter. Congratulations. They’ve got you right where they want you.

  • THANK YOU for making these points. To even raise them in “progressive” circles is to usally be shut down as a racist. After decades of being a working poor woman who’s done a lot of anti-racism work (& is now asked by BLM “why are you here?” & endlessly hear from activists of color that as a white person I should jsut “shut up” (& write a check to their organization, of course), I am WEARY of the refusal to see the economic class, sexism & disability (all of which I experience) as real.

  • Black bloc tactics do create a backlash and ammunition for the far right to call the protesters terrorists (not that they would not anyway), so they should be considered carefully. In my opinion, black bloc tactics are only worth while if they actually accomplish something concrete. For example, if you pour sand in the crank case of a machine being used to build the Keystone XL pipeline or strip mine for coal (just a hypothetical example, since I am not actually suggesting doing anything illegal), you can destroy the machine and actually shut down operations for a significant period of time. Similarly, seriously damaging the pipeline itself would actually delay construction and operation, especially if it were done just as the pipeline were nearing operation. However, smashing the window of a random Bank of America or overturning trash cans would not actually delay or interfere with the Trump agenda. It might make you feel good, but it would accomplish nothing but making the movement look like a bunch of thugs out for kicks.