Some thoughts on property destruction, violence against the police, and the Black Friday Ferguson solidarity protest (#BlackoutBlackFriday) in San Francisco.
After the non-indictment of Darren Wilson on Monday, November 24th, 2014, very militant protests erupted all over the country, with more the next night and in the days following. The protests explicitly aim to “shut it down”, to interfere with business as usual. Protestors blocked many freeways, closed many a mall, halted BART service across the Bay for two and a half hours on Friday, and some protestors damaged and/or looted property in Ferguson, Oakland, and San Francisco. And in San Francisco there was definitely violence against individual police officers.
The cries of outrage against the response are weaker than usual. We seem to be at a very interesting moment in history in which more people seem sympathetic to property destruction and rioting as a response to the consistent, long-standing dehumanization of African-Americans and their mistreatment at the hands of police. The excellent piece Hey, Step Back with the Riot Shaming has been shared on Facebook tens of thousands of times, and even Time magazine – Time! – has an article entitled Ferguson: In Defense of Rioting.
Late Thursday night I re-watched Do the Right Thing (which I last saw as a teenager around the time it came out). I’m glad I did, as it helped me manage my anger and leaven it with an understanding of the tragic results of acting too directly on that anger. The title of the movie comes from this short clip, that at first reflection seems otherwise unrelated to the rest of the movie:
It’s a good motto to live by, and one that arguably Mookie fails to heed when he calmly and deliberately fetches a garbage can to throw through the window of the pizzeria, sparking a riot that ends in the building burning down.
Lately I’ve been struggling with the difference between what is justified and what is right. One might, for instance, argue that shooting and killing a burglar in your home is justified. But if there is a way to scare that person off without killing them, that would be the morally better thing to do.
So I went to Friday’s protest trying to keep this in mind. I had a simple, crude sign with two sides: “Arrest Darren Wilson” and “Disbar McCulloch” (the prosecutor).
There was much about the march that seemed a little disorganized. It was a classic anarchist “no one and everyone organized it” (blech) march that was later much exaggerated in the usual anarchist media. There were rumors that it was going to try to disrupt the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Union Square, but that occurred at 6pm and this march started gathering at 5pm and didn’t leave until perhaps quarter of six. There was a rally beforehand that started with a white guy downplaying the importance of race in police violence in favor of class; he was quickly disapproved of by the audience and replaced by a guy who basically said “I’m black and this is most definitely about race” to audience clapping. (The audience was mostly but not exclusively white.) Most people were there as individuals, not in affinity groups.
The march went up Market and then up Stockton toward Union Square. It was stopped by riot police at Geary. For a while, people focused on a point of confrontation on the west side of Stockton, where there was a barricade between us and the police. On the east side of the street — just ten feet away — there were no barricades and just a single line of cops. A solid group of 20 or even just 10 people could have broken through the police line. (This is where affinity groups would have helped tremendously.) I tried to gather people but was unable, and shortly a black guy with a megaphone led people south away from the confrontation.
The march then attempted to go up Powell but was stopped at Geary again. Now the cops were more prepared and there were more lines of cops in the intersection. At that point (very early) the attempted property destruction started.
A small group of young people of color chose, in their impatience, energy, and frustration with the march not moving, to focus on a jewelry store. They began yelling “Africa wants its diamonds back!” (little do they know how worthless diamonds really are). Now here’s where it gets ridiculous. One guy had what looked like a wooden broomhandle. He started hitting the plate glass window in front of the jewelry store. Pro tip: they probably have the strongest glass ever made by humans. Pretty soon the weapon was in splinters. At this point someone ran up with a small metal hammer, and even that didn’t do any damage to the glass!
Now this confrontation at the jewelry store had everyone’s focus. To me, it was just disappointing because it was a distraction. We should have been focusing on breaking through the police lines to get to Union Square. (At least the jewelry store closed, so we got one small win.) One woman from the crowd tried to stop people from hitting the glass, arguing “don’t give them (the police) an excuse”. I thought carefully about what was “the right thing” to do. I decided to neither stop the attacks nor participate. But I did stay in front of the store. Everybody had backed up and made space the same way people do when watching a fight. I disrupted this sense of extraordinary space by milling about in that opened-up space with my sign, without participating in the attempts to break the glass.
At this point the march headed away. A friend and I tried to convince people to disperse into groups of 2 or 3, blend in with the shoppers, and reconvene at Union Square proper. Before reconvening I spent a little time carefully orchestrating a sense of light disorder for the shoppers to give people just a little more freedom than they are used to. Two women had pulled barricades away from Stockton at O’Farrell, causing the fake greenery area to blend into the street. I carefully stacked them so as to reduce the sense of disorder that might seem threatening, and encouraged the flood of people to walk across the street at the red light (mostly by my own wandering back and forth, but also by stacking barricades to block cars).
I made my way to Union Square but only my friend greeted me there. Oh well. In the meantime we learned that the march had headed to the Mission, which really disappointed me. The Mission? Again? You want to be where the shoppers are, disrupting commerce. And if you do engage in property destruction, the Mission has seen enough. Fucking hit Macy’s! Saks! Barneys! Even better than property destruction, go into those stores and bring clothes etc out into the street and give them away (particularly to homeless people)! Do something fucking creative!
But I did learn that they had caused the Westfield Shopping Center on Market to close early, so that was a big win.
I didn’t witness any of the property destruction in the Mission but at least some of it was not very principled. A restaurant (Beretta) was hit while people were inside it. VERY FUCKING UNCOOL.
The first thing you learn about property destruction is that it’s different from violence, that is to say, violence against people. But if you engage in property destruction in such a way that you endanger or even frighten people, then it is in fact violent. Hitting the glass at the front of a restaurant that has diners in it is insane, and definitely violent. Someone could have been badly hurt (and not a cop, just a regular person). It’s very disturbing to me that at least one person engaged in property destruction that night who didn’t get this. We have some education to do.
The other thing to keep in mind is the goal of the protest. The goal is to disrupt business as usual. One way is to create disorder, or at least the impression of disorder. The other is to interfere with money-making, the one thing the power structure will really understand and respond to.
The problem with disorder is that it scares ordinary people. It’s hard to overestimate what cowards people can be, especially if their children are around. I saw people almost run away just seeing a demonstration approach. I saw two young women join the march, but then leave, giggling nervously, when they heard someone chant “fuck the police”. Broken glass scares people, and then they align themselves with the police, their “protectors”. If you’re going to start shit, at least goad the police into letting off tear gas and firing rubber bullets so that they’re seen as the bad guys.
But better than that kind of confrontation is simply interfering with corporations’ ability to make money, preferably in a way that doesn’t threaten ordinary people. Blockade. Steal. Disrupt. Re-distribute. How awesome would it have been if we had taken clothing racks from the retailers and set up a catwalk in Union Square and had a big fashion show for everyone (including shoppers) to participate in?
Violence against the police
There was also some violence against the police. Now, some of it is justified after the fact by the production of the funniest Vine ever (click the sound icon in the top left to hear the jeering):
SFPD tells press that two cops were injured at a later time in the protest – one by a brick to the chest and the other by a bottle thrown through a car window. I struggle with watching violence against the police. It seems to me, if there is ever a time that violence against the police is justified, it’s at a demonstration against unaccountable police violence and murder and a corrupt justice system. Keep in mind, the SFPD cops are no angels. They harass and beat homeless people daily. They engage in racial profiling. They killed Kenneth Harding over a $2 Muni fare. They killed O’Shaine Evans just seven weeks ago. They killed Alex Nieto eight months ago and still haven’t released a police report, the 911 call, witness statements, or even the names of the officers involved.
To get that 6-second clip in context, watch the following video from about 2:17 to about 3:49:
Part of me loves this. It is fucking awesome to watch cops not fully in control, taking lots of shit and not being able to do much about it. Because I’ve been on the other side of enough police interactions to really understand FUCK the / PO-lice.
But this is where I need to back up and remember “always do the right thing”. Fucking up cops is arguably justified, but is it right?
I think we all need to step back, take a deep breath, and think about where we are and what we want to do. The ends only sort of justify the means. The means are exactly that – the means, the average, the middle – the way to the ends. Our means may not exactly look like the end result (aka exact prefiguration) but they should be at least be closer to the ends than the current situation. Property destruction – meh-be. Property takeover and redistribution – thumbs up! Pushing against police lines and not letting them stop you from doing what you want to do – great! But throwing shit at cops who are not deploying tear gas, etc – that seems profoundly uncool. It just seems like ganging up on them. I understand the glory of the moment, but I don’t think it gets us closer to liberation – that is to say, liberation for all. Even the cops.