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(en) Canada, A&S*, Upping the Anti #1 - Indigenism, Anarchism, and the State: - An Interview with Ward Churchill

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Thu, 21 Apr 2005 08:33:21 +0200 (CEST)

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Ward Churchill is one of the most outspoken activists and scholars in
North America and a leading commentator on indigenous issues. Churchill's
many books include Marxism and Native Americans, Fantasies of the Master
Race, Struggle for the Land, The COINTELPRO Papers, Genocide, Ecocide,
and Colonization, Pacifism as Pathology, and A Little Matter of Genocide:
Holocaust and Denial in the Americas.
In his lectures and published works, Churchill explores the themes of
genocide in the Americas, racism, historical and legal (re)interpretation
of conquest and colonization, environmental destruction of Indian lands,
government repression of political movements, literary and cinematic criticism,
and indigenist alternatives to the status quo.
Churchill has recently come under attack for views expressed in the article
Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, written in the
immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
An important part of the future of US academic freedom in the coming years
will likely be determined by the outcome of the ongoing attempts to strip Ward
Churchill of his academic position at Colorado University in Boulder. Two
members of Autonomy & Solidarity sat down with Ward Churchill in Toronto
in November of 2003 to do this interview. It was transcribed by Clarissa
Lassaline and edited by Tom Keefer, Dave Mitchell, and V lerie Zink.
Upping The Anti: We want to start off by asking you about
your thoughts on the anti-globalization movement which, in
terms of anti-capitalist struggles, has been one of the most
significant developments in the past decade. This movement
has also been criticized in the US context, as being largely
made up of white middle class kids running around "summit
hopping". What's your take?
Ward Churchill: I think the anti-globalization movement, for
lack of a better term, is a very positive development in the sense that
it re-infuses the opposition with a sense of purpose, enthusiasm, and
vibrancy. The downside is that it's a counter-analytical movement in
that it thinks it's something new. We used to call it "anti-imperialism,"
just straight up. The idea that "globalization" is something new, rather
than a continuation of dynamics that are at least 500 years deep, is
misleading. That needs to be understood.

UTA: In your book Struggle For The Land, there's an
essay called "I Am Indigenous." Can you elaborate a bit on the
politics and genealogy of indigenism?
WC: Perhaps I can by way of your introduction of yourselves. You
know, you say you're post-Leninists. Fine. But why are you something
that goes beyond Leninism, rather than something that isn't?
UTA: It's a reflection of the roots of where our political
grouping came from.
WC: But you top that off by describing yourselves as
revolutionaries, and I'm saying "why?" Do you aspire to overthrow the
presiding order in the Canadian state so that you can reorganize the
state in a more constructive fashion? Then you're a revolutionary. Do
you want to see the Canadian state here when you're done in some
form or another? If not, then you're a devolutionary and you might
want to call it by its right name.
UTA: So would you say that no anarchists could call
themselves revolutionaries?
WC: If they do, they're deluding themselves. They're not
understanding themselves or the tradition that they're espousing in
proper terms because, for starters, anarchists are explicitly anti-statist.
And the object of a revolution is to change the regime of power in a
given state structure. So I think "revolutionary" is a misnomer.
UTA: One of the issues with devolution is that, at least
potentially, it represents an attempt to go back to some kind
of ideal way the world once was. But we can't just roll back the
clock of history.
WC: No, of course not. But again we're into this implicitly
Marxist progression, and anarchists aren't especially progressive. In
fact, you get a physical fight from some of them for using that term,
because they consider it an insult. And I think properly so. There's no
immutable law of history. The structures, however, aren't immutable
either, and they can be devolved.
One conflation of terms that really bothers me a lot, which seems
to be plaguing the discourse still, is the conflation of the term "nation"
and the term "state." You have this entity out there called "the United
Nations." It really should have been called "the United States,"
because to be eligible even for admission to the Assembly you have
to be organized in that centralized, arbitrary structure. No "nations"
as such are even eligible for admission to the United Nations. "The
United States" was a name already taken, however, and this was very
useful in obfuscating the reality.
But the upshot of that is that you've got a whole lot of anarchists
running around thinking they're anti-nationalist, that nationality,
nationalism in all forms, is necessarily some sort of an evil to be
combated, when that's exactly what they're trying to create. You've got
four or five thousand nations on the planet; you've got two hundred
states. They're using "anti-nationalist" as a code word for being anti-
statist. With indigenous peoples, nationality is an affirmative ideal,
and it hasn't got any similarity at all to state structures.
You may have nations that are also states, but you've got most
nations rejecting statism. So you can make an argument, as I have, that
the assertion of sovereignty on the part of indigenous nations is an
explicitly anti-statist ideal, and the basis of commonality with people
who define themselves as anarchists. We've got to deal with our own
bases of confusion in order to be able to interact with one another in
a respectful and constructive way.
UTA: Are there correlations between your indigenous
perspective and anarchism? Many people might make the
argument that, in fact, indigenism is an ancestor to anarchism,
and not vice versa.
WC: Well, that is precisely my argument. The two are not
interchangeable, point for point, but they have far more in common
than they have dividing them, if each is properly understood. And part
of the task here is to make them properly understood. If you look
at green anarchy, for better or worse, you're going to find all kinds
of references to commonalities with indigenous peoples on every
basis, from social organisation to environmental perspective. It will
take some time, but you can make that conceptual bridge between
indigenism and anarchism, and it's understood.
I would see the main distinction, on this continent, as being a
detachment from base. Indigenous peoples are grounded, quite literally.
There's a relationship to the land that has evolved over thousands of
years, and that's completely denied to the people from the settler
culture who self-describe as anarchists. With that distinction made,
however, we've got all kinds of principles in common, aspirations in
common, perspectives in common, and we need to build upon those
in order to develop a respectful set of relations that allow us to act in
unity against that common oppressor that we share.

UTA: After the Seattle actions, you were part of the
debate around the whole question of "diversity of tactics."
Do you see the Black Bloc as being an interesting or relevant
political phenomenon?
WC: It's not that I think that breaking the windows of Starbucks
is somehow going to bring the system crashing to its knees, or that they
even had a conception of what they were actually up against. Clinton
deployed Delta Force for that one in case things really did start to
get serious. I mean that's as serious as it gets in terms of repressive
capacity in the United States. These are the surgical assassination
units, and they were deployed in Seattle.
But if you're going to go up against that, or if you're actually going
to do serious damage to the structure of things, it isn't going to happen
in some sort of a frontal confrontation with whatever deployment of
force the state makes. So it is symbolic, in the sense that it's educational
and kind of empowering. But if you're going to engage with that force,
you're not going to simply wake up one morning, take a pil.l along with
your glass of water and go out prepared to do it. You have to build the
consciousness, you have to build the psychology, you have to build
the experiential base, and you have to build the theoretical base, and
that happens step by step by step. Maybe the thing that happened in
Seattle was a sort of, "let's get out of the chat rooms and see if we can't
actually make a physical confrontation." There hasn't been anything
significant along those lines for 25, 30 years in the US.
Now, on the level of street confrontation, what can we deduce
from that experience? Well, maybe a first lesson would be: if you
actually want to engage in street confrontations as part of a further
building trajectory, you might want to ditch the uniforms and stop self-
identifying as somebody the police want to neutralize immediately.
Unmask yourself, put on a phony beard, or a clean shave. Mask yourself
in another way. Just this level of tactical evolution, they've refused. And
this is part of what leads some people to purport that the Black Bloc
is more of a fashion statement than it is a serious political tendency.
I'm not convinced of that, but people are clinging to their signs and
symbols at a very basic level, in a way that precludes taking the action
further. You get these cataclysmic statements of what is necessary, and
yet they won't even ditch the funny little signifier of their identity as
a Black Bloccer.
UTA: Is there a correlation between the militant tactics
and direct confrontation against the state proposed by the
Black Bloc, and the ways in which the Weather Underground
evolved from the Days of Rage in Chicago? Do you see a similar
kind of progression? What are the lessons to be learned from
how those movements failed in the 60s?
WC: The Weather Underground is another thing that I will
completely defend. Of the spectrum of responses mounted by the
white left at the time, Weather was the most valid response of all,
which does not mean that it actually had a viable strategy. But the
response pattern was entirely legitimate. But ultimately, they got
boxed into symbolic actions, and that is explicitly the case now as
Brian Flanagan and Mark Rudd, who are in this new film about
the Weathermen, are saying "you know, we made a conscious decision
to do only property actions," which was not the original impulse and
not the original understanding. It was a sort of wounded response to
having three people killed in the Greenwich townhouse explosion.
Well, in human terms I understand that these were their friends and
all that, but if you are actually serious about engaging in an armed
struggle and plan on testing the capacity of the United States, you have
to anticipate that you're going to incur casualties. And three is hardly
an insurmountable toll that's been taken. So again, you had middle
class kids who were posturing as something else, and legitimately
wanted to be something else and tried to transcend their origins. But
they couldn't do it in and of themselves, and they didn't really have
an interactive relationship with other movements, organisations, or
people coming from a different experiential background and temper.
They were a sort of bourgeois response. So you're saying you're going to
do one thing, but actually you're unprepared to do it. I can understand
that, but I don't accept that as being a model.
I'm more encouraged by the fact that people are looking seriously
at the Black Liberation Army (BLA) and such, despite the valid critique
that there was a certain Stalinist content to the organization. And that
raises the question of how exactly, without getting into a centralized,
arbitrarily disciplined organization, you mount a clandestine struggle.
That's a serious question. How do you go about it? It's not laissez-faire,
it's not everybody do your own thing. It can't be, or you're dead. But the
BLA and other such organizations were willing to sustain casualties in
a serious way over a protracted period. And they were ultimately burnt
out because they had no basis for recruiting additional members from
some broader context or mass movement to replace the casualties,
and that's a lesson to be learned and addressed as well.
Weather presented a certain example, but not a model. From
that example you can extrapolate the next model, say, the BLA or
the Puerto Rican Independence movement. You can analyze and
understand where it was that they went wrong, address those issues,
and build a more viable model now. But you can't do that based on
knee-jerk reactions and notions of personal purity, which is my critique
of pacifism. You're probably familiar with that critique, and the people
who will be reading this are probably reasonably familiar with it as
But pacifism is not the only dimension that this would apply to,
anarchists in general have this zealous notion of the purity of the
political. They are dismissive of anybody who defines themselves as
being part of a national liberation movement, without examining that
movement in any coherent way. When someone sits down and talks
with them about it, well then their objections evaporate. But they
won't abandon the purity of whatever the particular posture is that
they're occupying long enough to become effective.
That's the problem with the refusal to abandon the mask and
the black T-shirts in a certain context too. The Black Bloc is more
interested in the affirmation of identity than they are in actually
accomplishing their goals and objectives. These are transient things, I
would hope. I don't see them as being a basis to dismiss or discard the
impulse at all. I see the impulse as being primarily a positive impulse,
and you need to take to its logical set of conclusions. The Black Bloc is
the preoccupation of anarchism. Their willingness to physically engage
the state at a certain level, as well as to engage in discussions that
interrogate their own sets of precepts, are both encouraging signs.
UTA: It's clear that the Canadian and US governments
have expressed serious concerns about the anti-globalization
movement and the radical wing within it. You've written
extensively on the repression of radical movements in the 60s
and 70s, and specifically about COINTELPRO. Can you talk
about some of the key lessons that radicals today should keep
in mind?
WC: You have to be a thinking movement. We can outthink these
guys in certain respects. Part of that is never underestimating what
it is that they're capable of, and never underestimating our capacity
to come up with a situational response to them. In what used to be
called counter-intelligence, now it's called counter-terrorism, you have
guys who devote their entire careers to this. They have an aptitude, a
flare for it. And by the time they retire they get really goddamn good
at it. In a certain sense, their work is based on perceiving what in the
immediacy of a situation might be best, based on their experience, to
accomplish a desired result. You could say that it's more intuitive than
codified, and our response has to be the same. We have to develop
bodies of expertise based on experience in dealing with these things,
not just reading the books, and understand that we can't come up
with a formula or a recipe of what it is that will work. We have to use
common sense and critical understandings of how counter-intelligence
processes have worked in the past, and to the best of our ability, obtain
information on what they have in place now.
I mentioned the Delta Force earlier. There's actually a protocol
that allows the President the discretion to suspend the Posse Comitas
act and to utilize particular forces within the US military for the
maintenance of civil order. They go to the very highest shelf, the
"special" of the Special Forces. All the Delta Force does is train for
and execute missions to take out strategic targets among oppositional
groups, wherever they happen to be. They were in Seattle in case
they were necessary to eliminate the leadership, as defined by the
intelligence sources of the US, of the people who shut down the World
Trade Conference. They've also been introduced to control prison
riots. They were deployed at Waco, which ought to tell you something,
and they were deployed at Ruby Ridge. This needs to be absorbed into
our collective understanding of what we're up against and to shape the
nature of our response patterns accordingly.
I think that this takes care of the idea that we're going to do
this by candlelight vigils, moral arguments, petition drives and
electoral politics: all of these can be useful in terms of organizing our
own communities, but it's going to have absolutely no effect on the
structure of power. We're going to have to go to bare knuckles and
understand the mechanics of power, and how it ultimately maintains
itself ­ obfuscation, mystification, and by keeping people confused
and divided. If people don't stay divided they're going to ratchet it
up to the next increment, which includes false incarcerations and all
the rest of that. And ultimately you're going to be dealing with the US
military's Delta Force. Those are the terms of engagement.
I run through all of that because by and large, even among the
self-described most militant sectors, there's not really a recognition
of what it means. They consider themselves to be imbued with certain
sets of options based upon varying degrees of social privilege, as if
those are going to continue to apply if they actually become a serious
threat to the status quo.
Now based on that consciousness, you can begin to develop
techniques that apply to the given situations, and there is no recipe
for that either. Maybe it's affinity groups in some places but it's really
contingent on the situation. For example, in some cases Black Bloccers
say that they're going to organize based on long term friendships and
interaction with people who they know are not infiltrators because
they hooked up together when, in all probability, they were too young
to have been recruited by the FBI. And they've evolved as an insular,
self-contained little group ever since. It's certainly hard for intelligence
agencies to penetrate groups like that.
The national structure of the American Indian Movement was
penetrated pretty successfully, because you had people drawn together
in an organization from a whole variety of locations to function as a
sort of a governing council. That was a really bad model. Where we
were impenetrable was actually on the ground with the action end
of the organization, because these were all family units. The Means
family, the Robidoux-Peltier family and their cousins were all related
and had grown up together. Well, how exactly do you plant somebody
in the middle of that? You don't.
So I would say that affinity groups, however they are to be defined,
might be the situational response in a given context. There are others.
The thing that is most critically important is to thoroughly understand
the techniques that are used by counter-intelligence, usually at the
lower levels, and not do the job for them. That means not gratuitously
calling people `cops' in order to resolve political disagreements, which
has been an endemic practice on the left. Often intelligence agencies
don't even need to insert provocateurs because they can rely on the
activists to do it to themselves. Maybe they stimulate it a few times;
they plant a few documents, they do whatever they do. The rule of
thumb should be: if it acts like a cop and talks like a cop, maybe you
treat it like a cop. But you don't call it one. You don't feed into that. If
somebody is destabilizing and threatening and they're compromising
the integrity or the security of the group, you simply eliminate that
person by putting them outside the group. You don't make a public
show of it, and you don't put out wanted posters unless you actually
have concrete evidence that this is a police operative or infiltrator.
See, we put ourselves in such a compromised position from
internal dynamics and bad practices that all they have to do is take
this tottering structure, push it, and give it some momentum. At the
level that we're organizing now, bad practice is our worst enemy, not
the police state. There isn't anybody that I know of who is actually
mounting a clandestine operation to try to challenge the authority of
the state at this point. We're in a building period, and how we build is
contingent, in a large part, on the internalization of these lessons.
UTA: In the US in the 60s, some people on the radical left
saw that the elements that were moving first into struggle, the
actual radical forces that could overthrow the system, were
the movements that had the least to loose and the most to gain
from such struggles: the Black Panthers, the American Indian
Movement, etc. But how can we achieve the destruction
of state power without the conscious, active support of the
majority of the people, including significant sections of the
white settler population?
WC: You can't win so long as the bulk of the population is actively
in some fashion or another deployed against you. But that doesn't
mean that the bulk of the population ultimately has to actively join
you either.
I think this is where the Weathermen misunderstood what the
dynamic was at the time. They thought people were much more actively
committed to physical engagement with the state than ultimately
proved to be the case. In retrospect, it's clear that they weren't.
The Weathermen thought they saw a parade and tried to position
themselves to lead it. They were going to be the vanguard. What's
new? We've got three hundred white guys who decided they had their
finger on the pulse of history, so they were going to jump in front. They
said they were acting in solidarity, but they were defining themselves
as a vanguard. The white guy is going to lead the Revolution. They just
misdiagnosed the conditions that might precipitate revolution, and
ended up isolating themselves.
This would also apply to the BLA, although they had far stronger
base in the community than the Weatherman ultimately turned out to
have. The significance of the role of the armed struggle was profoundly
misunderstood at that particular juncture by virtually all of the actors.
They believed that the armed struggle was going to be the catalyst in
bringing about a comprehensive transformation of society. And that
wasn't the case at all. What led them to this false conclusion was a
withdrawal of consent on the part of increasingly massive numbers of
people. You really had a significant proportion of the population that
was rejecting, in substantial part, the thrust of US policy. They weren't
going to go to war with it, they were just not going to contribute to it.
That's the key.
You don't have to have the preponderance of the population
engaged in some sort of a final campaign to bring down the government.
What you do need is the ability to cause an increasing number of
people to withdraw consent from some key sectors that keep the
system functioning. And if an appreciable number of those people are
going into more active forms of resistance and are supportive, at least
to the extent that they won't give you up to the cops and that maybe
they will make a contribution, be it monetarily, or by providing you
sanctuary, I think that's attainable over the long haul. You have to have
a much greater weight in order to take the structure intact and then
rearrange its organization, than you need to have it begin to unravel
and collapse, and that's actually the aspiration that I hold.
You also have to create counter-models that people can look at,
that they can be attracted to: `Oh yeah, there is another way of doing
this and maybe I'd be more comfortable in that context. I don't know
for sure because I haven't lived in it, but it looks like something I
might like to explore.' That leads to withdrawal, and creates doubt as
to the inevitability of state structures and that's what you're trying to
Not that you're going to supplant the structure of the state with
co-ops, or little land occupations, collectives and so forth. In the 70s
in particular, there was this whole notion that you could simply create
a society that you want within the shell of the old one, and eventually
the old one will wither away. Well that ain't going to happen either.
You're going to reach a certain threshold and then the state will begin
to actively repress you and try to crush you.
The Black Panthers' breakfast for children program, their
community clinics, alternative educational institutions, job placement
programs, housing initiatives, and all the rest, when viewed as a package
in and of themselves may seem like a very liberal agenda. But it was
framed in terms of a very coherent program of self-determination, of
self-sufficiency, that sought to remove those service delivery sectors
of responsibility from the state, and to place them in the hands of the
You don't see a lot of that happening these days. For most people
in the anarchist community who organize in their little collectives
and get together and eat their bean sprouts and shit... it's only for
themselves, at the present time. If you want to talk to factory workers,
you need to connect with them where they are, not where you think
they should be. You need to get over your prohibition on ashtrays.
You keep asking me why nobody shows up, except you, when you
organize an event ­ there's the answer. I've answered the question
about 15 times. You may have ideas, you may have counter models and
they might be constructive, but if people ­ coming from the bowling
alley or something ­ have to spend 15 minutes reading your fucking
signs about what they can or can't do in exchange for the privilege of
entering your sacred premises, they're going to go bowling instead.
Get over your bicycles and go down and bend a wrench with a gear-
head for a while. Do what he's fucking doing. Maybe he'll learn how to
talk to you and vice versa.
But that's like shedding the black uniforms. It's a real psychological
barrier to some anarchists, because they've got the solution to the
world's problems somehow in code form in their minds. They posit
an implicit demand that people are supposed to acknowledge the
superiority of their vision as the price of admission. So get the fuck
off the university campus and down into a union hall. Put ashtrays on
the goddamn tables. Make some babysitting services available. And
try to package it in a set of terms that can appeal to the people you're
trying to reach. Call it spin if you will, call it packaging, call it Madison
Avenue ­ but how you pedal it, how you try to reach people, is really
important. They're probably not about to put safety pins in their
eyelids and all the rest of that shit. I understand why you're doing
it, and I'm not objecting: it's just that you've got to realize that there
are some other people out there you need to reach if you're going to
be successful, who don't feel that way. And you need to respect that.
Because you're ultimately demanding that they respect you. That's a
reciprocal proposition.
* A&S - Autonomy & Solidarity is an anticapitalist antiauthoritarian
revolutionary network in Canada.]

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