Harsha Walia’s opening remarks on “Diversity of Tactics, Diversity of Opinions”

A newspaper box that has been put through a broken window, the window also has red paint on it
Traces of the February 13, 2010 Heart Attack anti-Olympics demonstration in Vancouver; photo by insurgentphoto

I transcribed this in 2010 from the February 20, 2010 rabble.ca diversity of tactics panel at Media Arts Centre, Vancouver. I’ve made some light edits and added photos when reproducing here. The video originally lived here but it’s gone now. The Internet Archive has audio.

I’d like to start by acknowledging we’re here on unceded, occupied Coast Salish territory. Burrard, Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish land, and thank you to the organisers for hosting this discussion.

I have to admit, in terms of this debate, I know it’s been going on for a week, but I’ve only just read all the Facebook messages and all the emails that are floating around this morning as I was trying to prepare my thoughts, so, I’m really frustrated and really angry, to be quite honest.

And I’m not going to be engaging in esoteric generalisations about diversity of tactics because I think just that very starting point is problematic and I’ll explain why, so I’ll try to be as specific as possible about what happened on Saturday and what the organising of that looked like so that we can be as specific as possible rather than generally making huge generalisations about diversity of tactics.

I want to locate myself within this dialogue first. I don’t personally engage in black bloc tactics but as a long-time community organiser and as a woman of colour, I want to stand in full and firm support of diversity of tactics and in solidarity with those who do and particularly with those who are facing police repression at this time.

I did march on February 13th in the Heart Attack demonstration with other members of No One Is Illegal, which as people know, is a collective of predominantly people of colour and non-biologically male-identified members, and in communication with other affinity groups, which included the Indigenous Environment Network, some Downtown Eastside elders, the Pink Clowns, two members of whom were arrested, and stopwar.ca. While I cannot speak for the personal motivations and intentions of those who engage in black bloc tactics, I think that the distance that I do have from those tactics is somewhat useful in this debate.

Firstly, because there is this idea that only those who engage in black bloc actions support black bloc tactics. This is an attempt to isolate and marginalise our comrades, which I hope my presence and the presence of others there will counter.

Secondly, there’s a dichotomy that is being created between so-called community day-to-day organising and insurrectionary actions. Critics of this past Saturday have made false digs about the lack of organising and commitment to movement-building by anarchists. I am a self-identified anarchist.

A group in black bloc dress walking laterally across the video, one person waving a large black flag
“I am a self-identified anarchist”; photo by insurgentphoto

There are countless examples, but one that I’ll provide that is current is the Olympic tent village, because it it’s being thrown around a whole lot in the context of this debate. As people know, the Olympic tent village is happening right now at 58 West Hastings on a Concord Pacific lot that’s currently being leased out by VANOC. And anarchists, self-identified anarchists, members who engage in black bloc actions have put in countless hours, and by countless hours I mean sixteen-hour days to contribute to the tent village. That includes graveyard shifts to do security, and this might be a surprise to someone, but that includes de-escalation with law enforcement, which the black bloc is completely capable of doing. Construction, cooking, and cleanup of the site, under the leadership of Downtown Eastside residents and elders.

So I want to take a moment here to thank everyone, particularly black bloc and black bloc-identified anarchists wha are supporting the Downtown Eastside tent village.

As someone who is on the site over 20 hours a day, I can say that sadly the same cannot be said to be true of those who appear to be strategically utilising actions like the tent city in debates about movement-building. Finally, one of the... I’m talking generally, here. Finally, one of the criticisms of the black bloc tactic is that it is undertaken by predominantly white males and is therefore inherently oppressive to women of colour and indigenous women in particular. As a woman of colour with a myriad of precarious systemic barriers including legal status and health, and I can only speak for myself, but I can say that the black bloc tactic does not in itself oppress me or render me more vulnerable in protests. So I’d appreciate it if other white men do not make such pronouncements on my behalf or decide what will keep me safe. And perhaps instead they can focus on their own organisational and personal patters of dominance and privilege.

So that being said, I want to make ten quick points on the black bloc.

First of all, the black bloc is a tactic. Like any other tactic, it cannot be judged in itself, but can only be judged as part of a spectrum of a much broader movement, and as part of a spectrum of tactics that we all engage in. The black bloc has various utilities, both defensive and offensive. And I think that one point that’s often missed is the defensive strategies around the black bloc. As people know, a lot of black bloc activity which predates the Heart Attack action going back to the 70s and 80s in Europe includes really important actions, including dearresting comrades, and the very basic principle of "no comrade left behind", that we do not leave people in the police lines and decide to flee, and for that the black bloc is deeply courageous.

And I think the idea that they are simply testosterone-driven is a smear tactic that I don’t think we can buy into, because from my perspective, whether or not I choose to engage in black bloc actions and black bloc activities, the fact that there are comrades who are willing to stand in the front line and defend other comrades is deeply courageous and absolutely demands our support.

In terms of issues related to that, I want to quote, Barbara Ehreinreich who suggests that one of the biggest utilities of the black bloc is it really breaks the heavily ritualised nature of modern civil disobedience. And when we talk about tactics, we have to be able to gauge black bloc tactic amongst many other tactics. So the fact that other tactics may or may not be more effective does not in itself render the black bloc tactic any less effective. I think that’s important to state because it’s all been reduced to whether window-smashing is effective or not, and I think that as a starting point is fundamentally problematic because this movement is about more than window-breaking and it’s also about window-breaking.

In terms of the black bloc tactic and the mask, because Derrick brought up specifically a point of anonymity. I think the fact that people are anonymous is not simply unique to the black bloc; as we know, people don masks around the world. Probably the most romanticised, which is the Zapatistas. If we’re going to be able to have solidarity with global struggles, we have to understand that the reasons for wearing a mask are the same, whether it’s in Chiapas, in Palestine, or it’s the black bloc on our streets. State surveillance and state policing, particularly in the context of the Olympics, where people have had visits by the Vancouver Integrated Security Unit, means that people need to protect themselves. To me, the black bloc is not anonymous. It’s a tactic, and the members of the black bloc are people that are known to me. If people want to come down to tent village, you’ll probably meet many of them.

A police officer violently handling an unmasked black bloc person on the ground, with a ring of photographers surrounding
Photo by insurgentphoto

My second point that I want to make in terms of the black bloc, and I won’t spend much time on it, because I don’t think there’s much debate here, and that is if the black bloc engages in violent tactics. The only response I really care to make to that is that we’re asking the wrong side the question about violence. If we’re going to talk about violence, we need to be talking about corporate sponsors, we need to be talking about the state, we need to be talking about the military, we need to be talking about the police, who daily commit violence on people. As far as we know, not a single individual and not a single animal has been harmed in black bloc tactics. What has been harmed is lifeless windows. So let’s be very clear about what we talk about violence before we start to perpetuate mainstream media rhetoric about violence and play into, and feed into our enemies’ rhetoric.

The third point, and I’ve already talked about this, and that is that all tactics should be judged from the same starting point. I think this is, for me, the crux of the argument. For me, it’s not that black bloc tactics in specific contexts are immune from criticism. If people have criticisms about the 13th that are involved in organising… I need water. I’m really worked up.

If people have criticisms about the 13th, then let’s talk about specific criticisms, but all that we have seen is a general denunciation of property destruction. And as far as I’m concerned, every tactic is immune to criticism! That includes, if we’re going to have mass rallies, where politicians are given a free stage to speak, despite their daily obscenities, and the daily violence that politicians in this government are responsible for, we can talk about the fact that symbolic rallies once a year are equally ineffective. So if we’re going to talk about ineffectiveness, we need to be able to have the same starting point for every single tactic.

And from everything that I’ve seen, we don’t have these debates. I’m thankful for this debate. But the next time that there’s a rally at the Vancouver Art Gallery appealing for a national housing strategy let’s talk about its effectiveness, right, let’s not condemn it. Let’s talk about its effectiveness.

And I think that’s important to state because everything that is happening in terms of denouncing black bloc relies on simplistic caricatures about what it means. All it relies on is these caricatures of white, young males who are hooded in black and go around and smash shit, and black bloc tactics is so much more than that. This is a strategy that is part of a movement, and we can’t romanticise and generalise either way, right, so tactics can be effective, they can be ineffective, but inherently they are neither.

“Let’s not forget, black bloc members were present in the Feb 14th memorial march”; photo by insurgentphoto

In terms of the specifics of the Heart Attack demonstration and the black bloc in general during the convergence, one of the points people have made is that sometimes there are tactics that undermine other tactics. I think what was really specific about this convergence, which is why I would argue Feb 13th, was successful, is the fact that the black bloc has been in communication with the entire organisers of the entire convergence. Feb 12th, as people know, was explicitly called as an action that was inclusive, and in Februrary 12th, let’s not forget, black bloc was present. Let’s not forget, black bloc members were present in the Feb 14th memorial march. Let’s not forget, as I mentioned, the black bloc is present at tent city, has been present in every action. For those of us who are involved in organising, we know this. We know this because we are the organisers. We know this because we’re in communication. And therefore, including the memorial march, because a lot of people have strategically used the memorial march to say that, "Oh, you know, people are worried about the black bloc infiltrating the memorial march." I’m an organiser of memorial and I can say as a member of the memorial march committee, we have never had issues with the black bloc being present at the memorial march. The only issues, in fact, for those who are guardians here all know, explicitly in our guardian sheet, we explicitly mention that if there was going to be any concerns about violence, it would come police provocateurs and not from our allies in the bloc, who knew and respected the protocol of the memorial march, including not wearing face masks.

So in terms of the thoughtfulness of the Heart Attack demonstration, I want to reiterate that there was many conversations and many commitments made to respect the other days of action. The front line of February 12 was held by indigenous elders with two contingents behind them, one of which was the No One Is Illegal/Canada Is Illegal contingent, and the contingent next to it, which was the black bloc. All of this was in consultation with the 2010 Welcoming Committee. The organisers of that demonstration knew this. When the black bloc took the front line on February 12th, that happened in consultation with the elders, two of whom explicitly told us that they were going to go to the back so that the black bloc could take the front line and push through the police line. So before we start talking about what elders want, let’s remember that they explicitly asked for the black bloc to come to the front line.

In terms of Feb 13th and this idea that people were somehow endangered on February 13th, February 13th was explicitly called as a diversity of tactics. Everyone in the movement knows what a diversity of tactics means, and when you go out on the street, you know what you are engaging in. As far as I know, like I said, as someone who marched on February 13th, unmasked, in solidarity with black bloc allies, I did not feel endangered. I can’t speak for everyone else but I can speak for myself, that I was happy to be there, and I was happy to see the black bloc doing their thing.

In terms of the actual demonstration on the 13th, there was various spokescouncils, some of which were publically announced, for anyone who was interested in getting information about what the 13th would involve. There was public meetings and public consult... well, "consultation"’s not the right word, but, public spokescouncils which shared information about what could expect the 13th. So anyone who wanted to find out that information was able to do that.
There was explanation of green zones, there was green zones within the February 13th, and again, at no point did I see the black bloc trying to hide under the cover of over "peaceful" protesters. We were out on the streets, knowing what would happen, people were not at risk on February 13th. I think that’s important to reiterate because the people who were actually arrested on February 13th have not denounced the black bloc, so why are other people doing that?

Fifth point, heh, only halfway through, this’ll go faster. The argument that the bloc is susceptible to police provocateurs. The entire movement is susceptible to police provocateurs! There’s probably provocateurs in this meeting, there’s informants in this meeting, and the actual police provocateurs who were outed, were again, as Derrick mentioned, on Februrary 12th, and those were police provocateurs who were posing as journalists. So in my opinion, the idea that the bloc should not be masked because that would make them more susceptible to police provocateurs isn’t true, and also a very clear example is what happened in Montebello. Which is that when police provocateurs presented themselves as the black bloc, they were first outed by the black bloc.

Sixth point: whether the black bloc tactic is effective. I think a lot of the debate seems to focus around this idea of effectiveness. I hope my earlier points build on this point, which is that the black bloc tactic cannot be judged in and of itself. Like any other mass movement, as Derrick mentioned, we have to gauge them as a long-term campaign. So if we’re going to talk about the black bloc tactic, we have to talk about the black bloc tactic as part of the anti-Olympics convergence, as part of the anti-Olympic movement. In my opinion, we can’t separate those things, and as far as I know, the anti-Olympic movement, as a whole, including all of its parts, has been very successful.

In terms of the black bloc tactic in and of itself, if we are to separate it out, I would argue that it has been effective for several reasons. The first is that the black bloc tactic does actually help build mass movements, counter to this idea that the black bloc movement marginalises mass movements. I think that happens in several ways.

The first is that there is no monopoly on the mass movement. There are a lot of people who don’t engage in what is the monoculture of the mass movement in symbolic protest, who find direct action to be very empowering, and from that perspective, the black bloc is growing, and therefore the black bloc, as part of the movement, is helping the movement grow.

Two black bloc demonstrators in front of an HBC display window, they are engaged in breaking it, spiderweb cracks are visible
Photo from Crimethinc

Second of all, corporate sponsors, in my experience, in the past six years of anti-Olympics organising, have only been mentioned in mainstream media when there has been insurrectionary attacks on them. A lot of these have happened in Ottawa in particular and Montréal. So, in terms of effectiveness, the only times that I’ve seen Hudson’s Bay Company and Royal Bank mentioned and involved in the direct Olympic industry has been when they have taken a hit. I think that’s the reality, there’s been no other times when those corporations have been held responsible in a public way other than when they have taken a hit.

In terms of whether the black bloc tactic of smashing windows is simply symbolic and gains nothing, well again, back to the earlier point. A whole lot of our protests are often symbolic, so we can sit here and have a back-and-forth about whether it’s simply symbolic or effective, but as part of a larger movement, it’s certainly effective.

I would also argue two other points, which is that black bloc tactics actually help open up space for more mainstream tactics to take place. That’s something I cannot emphasise enough. I would argue that the success of the memorial march and the success of the tent city at least in part was due to Saturday, Feb 13th. The reason for that severalfold.

One is that law enforcement, because they create a "good protester"/"bad protester" divide, have been largely absent from the tent city because they know and they want to play up the idea that Feb 13th is the bad protesters and we’re going to let these other spaces go. So I can, without a doubt, that one of the successes of the tent village has been the fact that Saturday, Feb 13th opened a space for that to happen.

Also, the idea that we’ve lost credibility in mainstream media, part of... for what that’s worth, not that we ever had any to begin with... but, for what it’s worth, the mainstream media plays into "good protester"/"bad protester", and again, part of the reason the tent village has gotten positive mainstream media is their own spin, not our spin, that this is a "peaceful tent village" that should be defended and should be supported. So I would argue that black bloc tactics absolutely do help build a broader movement and absolutely do help build a space for various other tactics to take place and they don’t exist in isolation of them.

A point on the mass movement, and this is kind of an obvious one, beyond that, I don’t think that building a mass movement is always a gauge of the success of a tactic. If that was the case, indigenous blockades would not be happening because we’d have to wait for every single Canadian to denounce Canadian patriotism and Canadian nationalism. Direct action happens because there is a need for it. Direct action happens because people are fighting back and we’re not waiting for millions of people to stand beside us for the revolution to happen.

In terms of... two more points, I’m really sorry. In terms of the media and law enforcement, and this is probably a really obvious point, but we cannot let them mediate our debates! This should be really obvious, but the media and law enforcement cannot dictate the terms of our debates. Most of what I have seen is this idea that we have been denounced in the media and therefore we have lost our credibility because of the media. As far as I’m concerned, the media was never on our side, the media is not the gauge of the success of our protests, and the corporate media and the police should not be let off the hook by us replicating their smears, by us replicating their denunciations. Instead, we should be very very clear and we should have some more nuance in denouncing our comrades as violent.

The fact that the media is not picking up on why there was property destruction against the Hudson’s Bay Company is not the fault of the black bloc, let’s be clear. The media has not picked up for seven years on why people are protesting the Olympics. So before we’re going to start denouncing our comrades, let’s be clear about who our allies are and who our enemies are.

In terms of the fact that the black bloc reinforces and legitimises the police state, the resistance will legitimise the police state. If that argument is going to be used then we may as well never be on the streets. To me, that kind of argument is a false one because the police state justifies itself. We cannot hold our allies accountable for the increased police brutality and the increased visits from VISU we may get.

Final point. Solidarity does not equal censorship, folks. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think that anyone who engages in black bloc tactics or supports them is asking for our allies to censor themselves. What I am asking for is to people to not have Facebook comments like "Silly black bloc" or "Fuck the police and fuck diversity of tactics". We can emphasise communication between our allies and as far as I know, I have never seen comments, I’m using Facebook as a gauge, because that’s my only gauge as of this morning about these debates. I have never seen comments coming from any other allies, including other radical allies, denouncing other peoples’ rallies! I have never seen people denounce, you know, why Svend Robinson or Libby Davies, or Jenny Kwan, speaking at rallies. That’s never happened and I’ve never seen it on Facebook, so if we’re going to talk about some kind of equality, of how we want to treat each other with respect, then let’s do that. Let’s not denounce people publically. Let’s not denounce people in vague generalisations. Let’s have a commitment to dialogue, let’s have a commitment to doing so in person. So this idea that somehow the black bloc are the ones running around denouncing people, I haven’t seen that in my experience in Vancouver in seven years, but I have, this week, seen it go the other way around.

I think I want to end. I unfortunately don’t have permission to read this poem, but I hope if Cynthia sees this on TV or otherwise is out there, she won’t mind because it’s... this is, there’s nothing more that I can say. This is from a good friend and a dear sister who wrote a poem... yay, she’s right here!

In honour of anti-Olympic comrades of the Heart Attack action on Feb 13th, these are excerpts:

We are real. These arms, they do break. These throats, they do get parched. These legs, they do crumble. These hearts, they do beat. We do laugh, we do love, we do bleed. We are afraid, we are brave. We do press on and are born every morning thankful for the sun. We will not forget nor abandon ourselves in the face of riot gear, fortified condos, and the ambitions of the rich. Those who would rather be assets than members of a people. We are more than collateral. We will not build a pyre for our sisters and brothers to burn. We will not glorify our own ashes. We will plant trees and build homes and tell our stories. We are here and we are not going anywhere.

Thank you.