Action tactics fantasies

If anarchists are going to go to leftist or liberal organized demonstrations, at least let’s not act like fucking sheep!

Over the past six months of mass demonstrations against US military action, Israeli atrocities and other post 9-11 outrages, anarchists have faced the same tactical problem over and over again. It goes like this:

The International Action Center (IAC) or some other non-anarchist activist machine calls for a mass demonstration. At the demonstration, anarchists are there in force. We find ourselves perhaps clustering with our friends and acquaintances to march together. But at the crucial moment when an opportunity presents itself to up the militancy of the demonstration, or refuse to be part of something silly planned by liberal “demonstration leaders”, you hear a lot of sarcastic comments and clever suggestions, but nothing happens. We find ourselves marching together to hang out with our friends, but not really acting to shape the demonstration or provide our unique perspective on the issue at hand. We’re basically acting like sheep, which is to say, being lazy.

I even went to one huge demonstration (on April 20 in San Francisco) where a Black Block of anarchists carrying black flags, some even in face masks, acted the same way. Without direction. Without the capacity to act effectively and spontaneously as a group.

Mass demonstration makes you feel sheep-like, each individual seemingly powerless to direct events. The only option is to continue marching ahead with the mass, even when many individuals in the crowd may wish the whole affair wasn’t so lifeless, formalistic, boring. As an individual, what can you do?

The reality is that even a relatively small group within such a mass can redirect events, but only if such a small group has a certain level of organization, communication and decision making capacity.

What isn’t needed is appointment of an anarchist “leader” or formation of it’s bastard cousin – the anarchist “steering committee”. We don’t need more endless meetings to discuss standing institutional structures or figure out precisely how we should act in advance.

The answer to anarchist ineffectiveness and boredom at mass demonstrations is effective affinity group structure. In Seattle at the WTO, about 40 of us from the East Bay made numerous spontaneous decisions quickly and mostly democratically. Whenever it seemed like we needed to decide which way to go or what to do next, anyone in the group could yell a code word (“Wingnut”) and everyone who heard the word would start chanting it too. Within a matter of seconds, everyone in the group heard the word and we would rapidly form a circle. One member of the group carried a pink flag with a drawing of a Wingnut to help keep us together. In the circle, proposals would quickly be made, debated, and a decision reached. If there wasn’t complete consensus, the group could and did split into smaller groups. The key was the feeling of solidarity, flexibility and a commitment to quick decision making. This simple structure or something like it could be worked out in anarchist scenes around the country as a kind of structureless “understanding”.

At a recent IAC organized Berkeley mass march against the Israeli invasion of Palestinian areas, 40 or 50 activists from Students for Justice in Palestine led the formless crowd into a line of police who were protecting the freeway entrance. There were a number of anarchists marching who generally thought this escalation was excellent.

But then, with the sizable crowd stranded before a riot-geared police line, a lot of us realized that the best next step was to keep the crowd moving around the police line, or at least open a second front to create confusion and disrupt the police. The police accomplish their mission of maintaining order when they’re engaged in a stable stand-off with a crowd. They don’t mind – they’re getting overtime and they know precisely where the crowd is.

When the crowd splits into different parts, a third trying to overwhelm another freeway entrance, a third entering a nearby commercial strip, a third tying the police down at the stand-off, the police with their hierarchical decision making structure and limited number of radio channels and event commanders can’t handle it. The first police line must fall back so officers can be pulled off to deal with other groups.

A number of us tried to organize a break-away march, but eventually realized it was hopeless. We’d get a few ready to go, then look for more to join us, and by the time we returned, the original group would have dissolved. We had no way to make spontaneous, effective, democratic decisions and we had no means for quick, spontaneous communication.

Things would have turned out much differently if the anarchist community had reached an “understanding” for spontaneous affinity group formation, structure and tactics. It’s a shame for anarchists to be spending their time at liberal-organized mass demonstrations with so little to show for it. If we can open up ways to spice things up a bit, our time won’t be spent in vain.