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(en) Ireland, Red & Black Revolution* #9 - Learning from May Day: Anti-Capitalist Strategy direct action, militancy and building the movement

Date Fri, 25 Nov 2005 16:09:45 +0200


The experience of May Day brings up us back to some of the
perennial questions thrown up by counter-summits protests: how do
we broaden our movement and what role do direct action and
confrontational tactics have in that process. These are, of course, the
issues that have been mainstay of Red and Black Revolution debates
over the past few years but have been usually viewed through the
prism of events outside of Ireland. The following article is a personal
account of the Dublin Grassroots Network's approach to such issues
in relation to May Day and goes on to argue for increased tactical
flexibility from anarchists within the anti-capitalist movement.

DGN and direct action

The two defining, and in Irish politics novel, characteristics of the
various Grassroots groups -including DGN - has been the advocacy
of non-hierarchical organisation and an insistence on the importance
of direct action in protest. This emphasis on direct action has
undoubtedly helped libertarians carve out a political space for itself.
However, it is clear from May Day and other events that Grassroots
groups have planned over the past three years that we are primarily
focused on spreading libertarian ideas and regard direct action as
only one, albeit vital, element of libertarian struggle. This approach
has meant that at least as much time and effort has been spent on
making persuasive arguments and distributing leaflets as planning
actions.

Furthermore, many of those actions could be characterised as
"fluffy", "moderate" or even simply symbolic. Some of the visiting
protestors thought that we should have been much more
confrontational. I would argue though, that our approach was
principled but pragmatic and that we had to take local sensibility and
political experience into account. I think this is why May Day was a
relative success. What is important is that we communicated our
ideas to a fairly large amount of people and we did so without
compromising ourselves. This doesn't mean I think we did
everything perfectly or that the same approach would yield the same
results in the future but simply that at that particular time in Ireland
these were sensible choices.

To discuss this properly I shall first clarify what sort events DGN
envisaged when planning the protests and what level of
confrontation we imagined this would entail. The overall strategy
and the main aim of the organisers of the No Borders weekend was
to plan events that could potentially involve large numbers of people
(including any acts of civil disobedience). As street confrontations
are, more often than not, determined by the cops it was difficult to
know in advance how all this would pan out but the actions were
devised to minimise the possibility of arrests and to avoid physical
confrontation without giving away our right to protest.

So generally, over the May Day weekend DGN chose to defy rather
than confront - more akin to a pink/silver bloc approach than black
bloc tactics - and The Critical Mass, the No Borders picnic, the
RTS, the Top Oil Action and the Bring the Noise march, and the
mass direct action at Fitzwilliam Square are all examples of this.
Many of these actions had some element that could have been
deemed illegal but the hands-off policing policy employed for most
of the weekend meant that this never became an issue.

Early on in the planning process disruption tactics such as blockades
were also mooted as was the possibility of direct action at the
banquet centre itself but nobody within DGN advocated targeting
property or employing militant tactics against the police. Most
activists, anarchist and non-anarchist alike, thought that widespread
property damage or attacking the cops would be counterproductive
and inappropriate in an Irish context. At the same time DGN
consistently reaffirmed our support for a "diversity of tactics" in
resisting neo-liberalism both at home and abroad. DGN organisers
were conscious of how at anti-capitalist events elsewhere divisions
and splits had emerged between various alternative globalisation
factions over the issue of militant tactics and because of this strived
to avoid the terms violent or non-violent to describe the planned
protests.
In Ireland, one bloc fits all

So why did DGN chose this "fluffy" approach? First of all Grassroots
and its spin-off activist groups are broad libertarian coalitions which
includes people who are convinced pacifists and this has definitely
had some influence on Grassroots initiatives. But the question then
remains why most of the anarchists within DGN, who are not
pacifists, fully supported this approach. In practical terms, DGNers
knew that we were not a small part of a general mobilisation, we
were wholly responsible for whatever mobilisation took place.

The small size of the anti-capitalist movement in Ireland and the
magnitude of the security operation meant that militant action would
probably attract very few people onto the streets and, in all
likelihood, result in beatings and arrests. In the long term it was also
thought that such forms of protest would alienate people and provide
a pretext for the criminalisation of anti-capitalist activity in the
future. However, more importantly these choices also reflect in a
very fundamental way the political orientation of most Irish
anarchists, including the WSM, who believe that mass participation
and direct action should be one of the main objectives of
anti-capitalist activity. This does not mean that we oppose other
forms of protest and resistance but that we think that this orientation
to "mass politics" is more likely in the medium term to build the
confidence and momentum of radical social movements.
Push it, push real good

In the run up to the May Day weekend it was impossible to know if
groups apart from DGN were intending to use more militant tactics
and we were concerned to accommodate a diversity of tactics while
ensuring that there was a clear demarcation between groups that
wanted to use different methods of struggle. The obvious logic of
such a demarcation is to give people participating in protests the
choice of what sort of actions and risks they want to take. To this
end the DGN organisers of the Bring the Noise demonstration met
with most of the international visitors before May Day. It was agreed
that any group who did not want to abide by the general guidelines
drawn up by the march organisers, including using "any form of
offensive physical confrontation", should do so away from the main
march.

This is why the most confrontational action of the weekend, taken
by the "pushing bloc" at the Ashtown roundabout near Farmleigh,
was done separately from the main Bring the Noise march. This bloc
was made up of a mixture of foreign activists including the Wombles
(5), some DGN activists and Irish black blocers. Their attitude was
that it was important to contest the boundaries imposed by the state
on protest so when the DGN march finished they emerged from the
crowd, largely masked up and in formation, and advanced on the
police lines. With only a hundred or so people within the bloc and
another few hundred from the Bring the Noise contingent behind
them there never was any possibility of breaking through the police
lines. In fact, I don't think, even if every single person at the protest
joined in, this would have been a possibility without the use of
molotovs and other weapons. This was never on the cards and
consequently the whole incident had a stagey quality as if we were
all playing our allotted roles in a grand spectacle of rebellion.

However, the pushing bloc did not see the action as an exercise in
futility but a visible and empowering act of resistance. It is open to
debate whether this action was a positive thing for libertarian politics
in Ireland but my own opinion is that, on balance, the pushing bloc's
symbolic confrontation was an important part of the May Day
weekend and a good, if unplanned, example of diversity of tactics in
action. The pushing bloc could certainly not have acted without the
existence of DGN's larger protest and although their action had no
chance of success it served a purpose by showing that through
solidarity resistance is possible.
Tactical flexibility and strategy

May Day shows that, as a movement we need to avoid being boxed
either by others or by ourselves by defining ourselves simply as the
militant direct action wing of the anti-capitalism. Popularising our
ideas and methods of struggle can take many forms and May Day
worked because we took this into account when planning our
actions, dealing with the media and cooperating with groups outside
DGN. Unpredictability, imagination, and a willingness to defy any
limitations imposed either from within or outside will, I believe,
broaden and strengthen anarchism. Sterile purism, dogma and
formulaic thinking, on the other hand, will ensure that anarchism
remains an obscure tendency of left wing thought confined to dusty
rooms above pubs. The difficulty is, of course, to be tactically
flexible without abandoning the passion and the combativity at the
heart of the anarchist tradition. This demands that we are scrupulous
in assessing our own activities and clearly distinguish between media
stunts, symbolic protest and genuinely effective direct action. In that
spirit, the worst lesson to draw from May Day would be that same
tactics will necessarily work in the future or that we can avoid
confrontation and still achieve our aims.

Anarchism is nothing if it is stripped of its willingness to confront
power and the tactical choices made over May Day are not in any
way a blueprint for future struggles. We have quite rightly criticised
the old left for ritualistic and meaningless forms of protest and we
need to examine our own politics with the same rigour. If we are
simply going through the motions, whether repeating the same type
of symbolic protests or property damage at a summit, we will end up
as bad as the Trots.

by Dec McCarthy

5. The WOMBLES (White Overalls Movement Building Libertarian
Effective Struggles) are a loose anti-capitalist group in Britain that
dresses in white overalls with padding, helmets and breathing
protection at protests. They should not be confused with the
animated children's television characters, the Wombles.

This article was originally published as a box in the article
The Ghost of Mayday Past http://www.struggle.ws/wsm/rbr/rbr9/mayday.html
Compared to many other European countries May Day
demonstrations have always been small in Ireland. By the
mid-1990's, May Day had become a fairly underwhelming event. So,
given this dismal tradition why were the explicitly libertarian May
Day events in 2004, comparatively speaking, such a success??).
What emerged over the next couple of months was an ambitious
four-day timetable of events that was themed as a "No Borders"
weekend. The SWP led coalition "Another Europe is possible" also
announced that it was going to hold some type of protest over the
same weekend but based on our previous experience of SWP fronts
we thought it wise to continue planning separately and discuss
possible coordination in the future.

This article is from Red & Black Revolution (no 9, Spring 2005)

Read more articles from this issue
http://www.struggle.ws/wsm/rbr/rbr9/index.html
=============================================
* Journal of the WSM anarchist federation
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