riot n : 1 archaic a : DEBAUCHERY b : unrestrained revelry 2 a: public violence, tumult, or disorder b: a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together 3: a random or disorderly abundance especially of color 4: one that is wildly amusing [Old French, “quarrel, dispute”]
It is early afternoon in downtown Seattle on November 30, 1999. Inside the Washington State Convention Center, capitalist investors and government bureaucrats at the World Trade Organization Ministerial are attempting to discuss their plans for the future of life on earth. Outside the sun shines down and the streets are empty, freed temporarily from the tyranny of traffic. In the emptied streets crowds mill about: they talk, make music, and dance. Some people wear colorful costumes or carry placards or banners bearing anti-capitalist messages. An anarchist drum core group marches about in fuzzy black and green uniforms, stopping here and there to excite the crowd with fiery samba rhythms. A hundred or so people wearing black masks roam freely through the area, pausing sometimes to put out the shop windows of multinational corporations or banking institutions.
Others are working on decorating the walls of the city with spar painted messages. The graffiti reflects a feeling of triumphant celebration and joy with messages like “WE ARE WINNING — DON’T FORGET.” Still others have built barricades from newspaper boxes, dumpsters and other urban flotsam. These blockades are staggered: they allow a crowd to flee, but they work to slow the advances of armored police vehicles or tight riot cop marching formations.
As I sit atop a bus stop shelter observing the scene, without warning an armored riot police line begins moving forward, shooting concussion grenades and tear gas straight into the crowd. Despite this provocation most people manage to stay safe and sane. Scrambling down to the street, I rapidly reunite with a group friends. Amid shouts of, “Don’t run!” we link up arms and begin retreating at a rapid walk. Another cry is heard to, “Turn left.” Most of the crowd turns off into a side street, where a breeze from off of Puget Sound blows the tear gas away from us. As we turn, a row of dumpsters is pushed into place at the entrance to the intersection.
The riot police in their black molded plastic armor come up short in front of the hastily constructed barricade. They continue to fire their various so-called non-lethal weapons into the crowd — but individuals wearing gas masks and gloves pick these up, leap atop dumpsters, and hurl the projectiles back at the police. One such searing projectile ends up setting alight the contents of a dumpster. As I watch on from a short distance away, flames leap into the air. The battle continues.
On the streets of Seattle the riot tourist inside me began to bud and poke out its first green shoots. I was present on those streets not so much because of any particular interest in the evil deeds of the WTO. To me that international body was just one monstrous part of a global society based upon domination and exploitation — a system of relations that I personally felt more poignantly in the patronizing treatment I received every day from my bossy, penny-pinching employer.
I came to Seattle to show my disgust not just with the WTO, but with all the other bosses of the world — I came because for the last four years I had considered myself an anarchist, devoted to the ideal of a state-less society, free from hierarchy and coercion, characterized by peaceful cooperation and ecological sustainability. I had expressed these ideals in a wide variety of actions and pursuits, most of them aimed at satisfying my own needs and solving social problems independently of capitalists and government. Where people were hungry and surplus food was being discarded, I worked with the non-hierarchical organization “Food Not Bombs” to turn this wasted food into freely distributed vegetarian meals. When I was homeless but I saw buildings left empty and unused by capitalist landlords, I occupied these buildings and made them habitable. When corporations sought to destroy wilderness areas in the quest for profits, I camped in these areas and undertook other projects to block their devastation. When my own and others' lives seemed empty and boring despite the constant drone of vacuous pop culture attempting to entertain us, I helped to construct and maintain radical social centers and infoshops, spaces that nurture diverse counterculture activities from gardening to non-commercial music performances.
I have participated in these and many other projects aimed at developing anarchist cooperative society, and found most of them equally valuable and compelling. However in the last year and a half, I have found one particular aspect of radical social change compelling to the point of near obsession. What I refer to is the riot: that brief fleeting moment when a mass of people disobey and attack the social order forced on them by violence and hegemony.
But it was not just my experience in Seattle that set me into this pattern of thinking….
It is May 1, 2000. I am sitting on the pavement with some friends at the corner of Parliament Square in central London. Big Ben towers above us. We are surrounded by a crowd of thousands — and beyond that by possibly the largest British police mobilization ever. Beneath blue skies the trees are still gray and leafless, but green banners have been hung from light poles, bearing messages like, “LET LONDON SPROUT,” or “THE WORMS TURN.” All these people have gathered here on this bank holiday for a May Day action organized by the radical ecological activist group “Reclaim the Streets.” This group is well known in the U.K. for organizing illegal street parties in city intersections or even on freeways, events that momentarily transformed the landscape of urban capitalism with huge festive crowds dancing to bumping techno sounds.
But today Reclaim the Streets has not organized a party: instead they have put together what they call a “Guerilla Gardening” action. With materials that the group has provided, the surface of Parliament Square is being remodeled: the turf grass is ripped up and moved into the street, while compost, soil, seeds, transplanted flowers, vegetables and other ingredients of the garden are put in to place with plastic trowels.
Yet there is not enough compost, trowels or space in the Square for all of these thousands of people to be planting — but fortunately other segments of the crowd have different ideas. A statue of Winston Churchill is being redecorated for the new millennium: a morass of spraypainted graffiti covers its base, the clearest being a huge red hammer and sickle and a message underneath the carved in name of CHURCHILL which seems to have been meant to read “WAS A MURDERER.” To complete Churchill's new look he has been crowned with a green mohawk fashioned from the sod stolen from the surface of the Square.
A May pole has gone up at the other end of the Square, and it seems that some ritualistic dances will soon begin — but then suddenly part of the crowd is on the move! Following the beat of a marching drum-core dressed in pagan attire of branches and greenery, people are on their feet and heading out of the Square down Whitehall. As we pass Downing Street, the home of the Prime Minister, a barrage of bottles and other debris is let loose over the wrought iron gates.
A few minutes further down the road the crowd slows, and I can hear cheers coming from up ahead. I push my way forward to see what all the excitement is about, and find that a McDonald's is being demolished. Armed only with boots and bare hands various individuals are attempting to destroy every inch of the American corporate fast food establishment.
I watch as the process goes on for 15 to 20 minutes. At one point a chair from inside the restaurant is used against the large plate glass windows: but the glass is solidly reinforced, and the result is a chair hanging in space with one leg stuck through the cracked but still standing window. One man is determined to destroy the little plastic and glass sign above the doorway which bears the McDonald's logo — to this end he repeatedly jumps up to hang from the pole on which the sign is hung and ineffectually kick at it. But the sign is sturdy, and it takes many kicks to do any damage at all — one of which sends the man’s shoe flying off through the air over the crowd.
Most of the crowd within view of the McDonald's are simply watching on and cheering. Standing on my tippy-toes I look down the street both ways to see if the police are making any attempt to break up the destruction. But a huge snake of thousands of people stretches from Parliament Square where we began all the way up to our eventual destination at Nelson's column in the middle of Trafalgar Square. Far back near the Parliament Square end of the snake I see a police van attempting to slowly move its way through the crowd, but unless it begins mowing people down, the bobbies will just have to wait for thousands of us to get out of their way…
Hours later my friends and I find ourselves back in Parliament Square, again among a group of thousands. This time we are penned in, with riot police blocking every exit — they are letting people into the Square but not out. But only minutes after our arrival in the Square, we are swept up in an escape attempt. Led by a line of people holding up a huge, thick black plastic tarpaulin dozens of feet long and about the height of a person, the crowd charges towards a line of police. The tarpaulin quickly comes pressed up against the police shields. The force of a massive crowd pushes against a line of police only a couple of people deep. With the tarpaulin pressed so close to the officers, it is difficult for them to swing their clubs at all. The protesters, on the other hand, can pound their fists upon the plastic sheet to hit the police in anonymity.
I am hanging a little ways back, because I am still thinking of riot police in American terms: as huge, lumbering columns of meat and meanness. But British bobbies, even the sort that have been brought out today, are relatively more average in size, strength and temperament. Against such a persistent crowd the thin line of police has little hope. The line breaks, and around 100 people surge through. But then, through a combination of timidity on the part of the crowd and quick thinking on the police, the line has regrouped and the escape route is once again blocked. I am still trapped inside, standing beside one member of my group. But the rest of our friends, along with a hundred others, are outside, away from the safety of the crowd, with vans full of waiting police parked all around them. The escaped portion of the crowd hurries away out of sight, and for a few minutes all seems lost. The police line has been bolstered in strength, and it seems as if our friends will surely be descended upon by the forces of the state.
But the whole crowd is now determined to escape and be reunited. We charge again, this time with greater certainty and force, pushing against the line of police. And then — the escaped crowd containing our friends reappear! They let out a cheer which gives us the energy we need to break through the line once again. This time the police do not reform, but instead stand back on the sides of the road as a crowd of thousands liberates itself.
Though they may have sprouted in London, the seeds of my interest in spontaneous, riotous uprising were sown nearly 9 months prior to the WTO Ministerial in Seattle, as I sat in the million volume, redbrick library of Wesleyan University, staring out at winter snow fields and researching for my senior thesis on the eclectic writings of contemporary anarchist theorist John Zerzan.
Zerzan’s social consciousness developed while living in the Bay Area in the chaotic, experimental 60s, but most of his well-known writings were composed while living in placid Eugene, Oregon in the relatively vacant, anesthetized 80s and 90s. Perhaps this is why so many of Zerzan's works contain an underlying assumption, rarely articulated but often hinted at, that there is no rational plan for reversing humanity's trajectory towards escalating domination, coercion, violence, and ecological devastation. In many of his writings Zerzan assumes that most people are so caught up in the routines of bossing and being bossed that only in a moment of unexpected social collapse can a non-hierarchical, non-coercive way of life be rediscovered.
In one essay, written in the wake of the massive riots which engulfed New York City during the power blackout on July 13, 1977, Zerzan counters what he sees as a failure in the general leftist analysis of this uprising: “The left — all of it — has spoken only of the high unemployment, the police brutality; has spoken of the people of New York only as objects, and pathetic ones at that!” Zerzan’s essay, on the other hand, celebrates the fact that people of every race, both unemployed and fully employed, throughout the New York metropolitan area, came together in solidarity and took spontaneous direct action during the failure of the authorities' electrical power system in order to liberate private property hoarded by capitalists, in an atmosphere described by mainstream journalists as a “collective celebration.”
Reading these words from my Ivory Tower, I was intrigued by Zerzan's identification of the riot as a possible chance for celebration, social cohesion and spontaneous escape from authority and hierarchy. But I could see little support for such a hypothesis in my own experiences, or in the experiences of other young anarchists that I knew — most of us simply had not experienced any riots that could be characterized in such liberating terms.
But perhaps we were inspired to try out Zerzan's theories — or perhaps there was just something in the air. Nine months after my first reading of Zerzan’s essay about the liberation of rioting, I stood in the streets of Seattle watching tear gas canisters being thrown back at police over a burning barricade. Six months after that I watched the dismantling of a McDonald’s and charged police lines in London. And only three months after May Day in London I found myself caught up in another riotous protest — this one in the so-called birthplace of American democracy…
As a few hundred people march away from Philadelphia’s City Hall, leaving behind a tense standoff between protesters and mounted police, the heavy August heat is dissipating into a sensuously warm evening. There is a feeling of charged excitement and glee in the air: this crowd is taking off to actively liberate the city instead of waiting in an immobile blockade for the authorities to sweep down upon us.
At the nucleus of the group are a bunch of clowns: the Revolutionary Anarchist Clown Bloc, a rag-tag assembly of several dozen young men and women in ridiculous, colorful costumes. The Clown Bloc has been out taunting the authorities all day long. We have been keeping in constant motion between different barricades and marches, enlivening the crowd and mocking more self-righteous protesters with our parody chants like, “The pizza, ignited, will never be reheated!” or “You say something! I say something! Something! Something!” We have also been parodying, confusing and even on those rare occasions bringing a smile to the police who are out here sweating with us — like when we marched right up to stand face to face with a line of traffic cops blocking a street, danced the hokey-pokey, beat each other silly with fake foam rubber billy clubs, and then dashed off.
Our humorous antics are especially needed today in the city of brotherly love, because a few thousand young people are attempting to shut down the city's center as a protest against the Republican National Convention, which is taking place under heavy guard across town in South Philly. Preemptive raids on protest organizing centers have resulted in mass arrests of activists and the confiscation of prepared puppets, banners and lockboxes, long before any of us hit the streets. On the streets themselves the police are trying to wear down the outraged youth by keeping us constantly on the move by using tactics like charging into tight crowds full speed with platoons of bicycle cops.
But as we head away from City Hall that evening, there is not a cop in sight. Besides the Clowns, our group includes people masked up for the Black Bloc, and members of the spoof street theater group “Billionaires For Bush (Or Gore)” dressed in their plutocratic finery. We stride together proudly through narrow avenues lined with brick and brownstone buildings containing ritzy businesses and apartment houses. The air fills with hissing sounds and car alarms, as some members of the group deflate limousine tires and disable shiny yuppie toys. The clowns start up a chant, “1-2-3-4! We declare a class war! 5-6-7-8! Now it's time to smash the state!"
We have been heading straight in one direction for quite a while, but all of a sudden the crowd turns a corner. Almost immediately, we are being followed close behind by dozens of police on motorcycles with lights flashing and sirens blaring. Some people panic and begin to scatter and run, but cooler heads duck into an alley to wheel out a string of dumpsters and form a barrier between the crowd and the slowly advancing police. Safely behind the barricade I turn to look at a close friend beside me. His clown getup completely obscures any facial expression, but I know that he must be grinning very wide. Nodding towards the dumpsters and the motorcycle-bound police trapped behind them, he turns to me and says in a voice almost maniacally drunk with excitement: “Look at this! THIS is perfect! I AM SO EXCITED."
Turning toward the motorcycle police who have crept up quite close to the blockade now, I point a finger at them and begin shouting, “WE WIN! WE WIN!"
At times I have tried to explain away my cravings for dramatic insurrection by putting it down to impatience, egotism or my upbringing submerged in a culture of fast-paced television images and the sound bites of popular mass media. I have also attempted to apply these pseudo-psychological dismissals to larger groups of people: riots excite anarchists, activists and others, I have told myself, because they are dramatic, confrontational — and they make for amazing images of violence and destruction on the evening news, which fulfill those radical voyeurs too afraid to risk their own skin.
And yet…those brief, fleeting moments of riot in which I have been involved were also characterized by a feeling of joy that has nothing to do with taking on lines of cops or putting out store windows. In fact I am extremely doubtful of the long or short term benefits of violent or destructive behavior in the process of creating global human society based on peaceful cooperation.
But what has been truly inspirational in the riots that I have been a part of, and what makes me keep coming back for more, is that moment of limitless possibility that opens up when an urban landscape is transformed: when a place characterized by the fear of cars, muggers, police, and other strangers consumed in their own rapid movement, turns into a landscape of shared joy and common goals, with no feeling of limitation on what can be done to spread that joy and to accomplish those goals.
I remember a particular moment on November 30th in Seattle. Looking at a street full of revelers in the afternoon sun, a friend turned to me and said, “This is great. We've reclaimed the streets, now we just need to start occupying some buildings.” Another person nearby complained that they were hungry. I told them, “You should just go to a supermarket and take some stuff. I mean all that money and property crap is over now, isn't it?” Then someone came up and told us that the AFL-CIO labor march was coming, and that tens of thousands of workers might be joining us at the barricades soon. My friend spoke up again, “This is perfect. We already have the streets. Next we take the buildings — and then in come thousands of workers to join us, people from every industry who already know how to run everything. We can take the whole city over, and run it for ourselves.”
I don’t know where the anti-capitalist movement or the contemporary anarchist scene is headed: I don’t know if these riotous confrontations with police outside the meetings of the wealthy elite will end in some kind of social revolution, in total martial law, or in COINTELPRO-style infiltration — or if such confrontations will simply become routine and tolerated, like so many other kinds of formerly radical social protest.
But I do know one thing: capitalist society and so-called democratic government continually frustrate and attack any attempts that I make to independently or cooperatively solve social problems. Squatted cooperative houses, radical social centers, or eco-activist tree sits in ancient forests are evicted for defying private property laws. Members of “Food Not Bombs” are arrested and beaten simply for giving away free sustenance to the homeless. All these events, and many much more bloody and tragic, have shown me that as human society exists now, neither I nor the majority of the people living on this earth have any say in essential choices about how we live with each other — whether it is the military-police state, impersonal market forces or some global conspiracy that is really pulling the strings.
But during a riot all of a sudden no individual or small group or ritualized behavior has control any more. The cops aren't in charge, no one respects them, no one respects the rich and their money or property. The spell is broken, the roles are meaningless, and there are just people. All of a sudden there is this amazing feeling that everything can change. You can see clearly that all you have to do is act like things have already changed, like capitalism and government are gone, and free cooperation reigns — all you have to do is act like you are already free, and you will be.
And maybe, just maybe, you can extend that feeling forever.
So are you going to the mass protests being planned this April 21st in Quebec City? The ones meant to stop the ratification of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, the ones that are being plugged as a sequel to the mass actions in Seattle, London and Philadelphia? I don't know for sure whether or not I'll be there, but I hear that it's shaping up to be quite a riot…