Burning the Bridges They are Building
When I moved to Seattle many years after the infamous upheaval of 1999, I found almost no remnants of whatever had existed here. Certainly, I could find other anarchists, but for a long time I found myself in variations of the same conversation: How do we reach each other? What are we doing? Why does nothing happen?
And then, finally, I was with other anarchists in the street—friends and acquaintances, but others, too. Who are all these people? We were all in black masks. This was the first black bloc in Seattle in about a decade. Hundreds of posters all over town had announced a demonstration against police violence in the middle of Capitol Hill as part of the West Coast Days of Action Against State Violence April 8-9, 2010. The size of the demonstration was modest—probably around 80 people—but nearly half the crowd came en bloc.
Anarchists in the Puget Sound1 had been inspired by recent events elsewhere: the Greek insurrection of December 2008, the riots following the murder of Oscar Grant in 2009 in Oakland, and, most recently, the wild and disruptive demonstrations in Portland.2 These were significant to us for many reasons. Anarchists played an active and critical part in all of them; they showed that people can actively resist the violence of police; they revealed that when people act on their rage, they open a space in defiance of the violence of everyday life. In this space, new social relations come to be as the authority of the state and capital are challenged. These distant fires had stirred the flames in us, and we took the streets that day ready for a fight.
But if the mild clashes of April 9 set off any sparks, they didn’t seem to catch in the moment. At one point, cops used their bikes as mobile barriers to push the crowd out of the street and onto the sidewalk. As a cop on a horse cornered the group, one demonstrator tossed a paint bomb right at the cop’s head. Incredibly, the paint-filled light bulb bounced unbroken off the helmet of the dazed cop, whose only reaction was a look of dim confusion. The paint bomb broke harmlessly on the street in a red splatter. Worse, the blow didn’t embolden the crowd. Instead, there was a collective gasp of shock: I can’t believe someone did that!
In the end, the police cleared the streets, beating and arresting three demonstrators and capturing two others blocks away after they left. Despite the fact that the police had committed the only real violence, the five arrested faced charges including assaulting an officer and rioting. In addition, the local anti-authoritarian scene was soon parroting familiar stereotypes: those people ruined the protest for the rest of us; violence never solves anything. I went home having experienced a harsh reminder of where I was. This wasn’t Greece, or even Oakland, or even Portland. I lived in Seattle. The spell of social peace isn’t broken here. Nothing happens.
Less than a year later, anarchists were in the streets in black masks again. But I wasn’t lost in what I wished could happen. Something was happening. The occupied streets, the broken glass of police cruiser windows, the undercover forced out of the demonstration with a blow to the head, the smoke bombs hurled to keep horse cops at bay, the youth chanting “Eye for an eye, a pig’s gotta die!“—Seattle was seeing revolt explode beyond the control of both managed protests and state repression. This wasn’t an insurrection like Greece, or even a series of riots like Oakland. But for a brief period between January and March 2011, people broke years of inertia to interrupt the social peace. And, as in the struggles that had inspired us the preceding April, anarchists played a critical role in fueling the flames.