punishing dissent

a note for those who don’t know – veg*n means vegetarian/vegan.

so i was at the anarchist bookfair on saturday, and went to see lierre keith speak (author of the vegetarian myth). i had been unsure about attending her talk because i tried to read the book and it only frustrated me. although she makes some interesting arguments about agriculture being the root of all evil, i found her logic overall to be really faulty and i disagreed with her conclusion (essentially, that nobody should be veg*n and all veg*ns are delusional). but i decided it would be really interesting to see what kind of questions people asked and how she responded, and maybe ask her a question or two myself.

the room was really full and she was up there talking talking talking, when all of a sudden three people emerged from the stage curtain behind her and one, two, three pies hit her in the head and face. some of the audience cheered, keith screamed something as she stumbled away from the mic, and a slight tussle broke out in the front of the crowd with some people screaming pro-vegan things and others screaming at the pie throwers. after a short delay, the rest of us recovered from the shock and started booing. a man took the mic and said something about how anarchism is about letting everyone have a say, and we shouldn’t be silencing people we disagree with. there was widespread applause.

i’m bothered on so many levels by this action.

i mean, it’s annoying that so many people are sponging up her faulty logic and offensive views of veg*ns. she’s no anarchist and her book is detrimental to veg*nism. she’s disingenuous and judgmental – in her book she claims to harbor no negative feelings or opinions toward veg*ns, yet implies multiple times that veg*ns are dangerously deluded, naieve, disconnected from reality, and frankly not worth listening to. but it’s not like she’s dick cheney – i don’t know that she deserves to be physically attacked for her opinions. she’s generally on our side. she is explicitly against factory farming, has an intense desire to fix the planet that most likely everyone at the bookfair shares, and shortly before the pieing, had been discussing how destructive capitalism is and expressing appreciation for the fact that nobody in this space would argue that point with her. i think we should be challenging her with ideas, words, reasoning – not bullying her and throwing tantrums (see “words not pie” link in my comment below).

as a vegan, i’m disappointed that one of keith’s negative assertions about veg*ns was proved in that moment. in her book she talks about the sometimes violent, fiery anger demonstrated by veg*ns who are religiously attached to veg*n philosophies and lifestyles. whenever i read something like that i bristle, because it’s such a reversal of the way things usually are. dominant culture in this country is very pro meat-eating. many people become defensive and angry when confronted with the idea that eating meat is deplorable to some. sometimes even simply sitting at a table with a quiet veg*n is enough for someone to launch into a defensive speech about why they love meat. so when people diss veg*ns for being defensive or protective of their choices, i think, “well, of course they are! they’re challenged and minimized all the time. what’s your excuse?” but i also think about how i and most other veg*ns i know are very capable of having, and prefer to have, calm, intelligent discussions with people about our dietary choices. it has been my experience that only a very few veg*ns exemplify the “crazy veg*n” stigma, yet it is applied with a broad stroke to the whole community by people who either have an agenda or who happen to encounter a lot of the crazies due to the nature of their public work. as a former vegan of 20 years, keith should know this. in fact, she should know a lot that she appears not to – like the fact that being vegan will not cause your spine to collapse. but i digress.

as an anarchist, i’m incredibly frustrated with the hypocrisy of this pieing. someone was punished for expressing an unpopular opinion in an anarchist space – shutting up people we disagree with by physically attacking them smacks of dictatorship, not anarchy. i value dialogue and was looking forward to the challenge of listening to her openly and contributing to the inevitable debate to follow during the question and answer period. obviously, that never happened. a message that could easily be taken from this incident is that veg*ns and anarchists have no solid theoretical ground to stand on, because if we did, we wouldn’t need to shut down dissenting opinions with pranks. newsflash: all of humanity will never share all the same opinions and values, so we need to be able to tolerate dissenting points of view unless we plan on recreating totalitarianism under the banner of anarchy.

there’s a gaping rift i often feel in anarchist spaces. on one side, there are people who seem to be attracted to anarchy as the ultimate individualistic approach to life. people who want to be able to do whatever they want without having to consider what anyone else may want. people who think anarchy means the utter absence of accountability – i.e. chaos. and then there are those, like myself, who believe the exact opposite. i believe that the only hope we have for success lies in strengthening interpersonal connectedness and building supportive communities. maybe we don’t need laws to tell us how to behave, but what we do need is mutual respect and a willingness to try and understand each other. do we want to reinforce the state’s idea that the absence of their “protection” means hordes of unfriendly people will be creating violence and chaos in our communities, or do we want to demonstrate how mutual support, community dialogue, and owning our responsibility to care for one another could replace the false security imposed upon us through oppressive state control? btw, to clarify, my feelings of frustration with this perceived rift were brought up by this incident, but i don’t mean to imply that the pie-ers are individualistic, uncaring jerks. i don’t know them. maybe they just don’t think it’s that big a deal to cover someone’s face in pastry, and i could see that. but i still think it was an ineffective action that created more publicity and book sales for keith, yet will save no animals and convince nobody who wasn’t already inclined to disagree with her.

i guess we don’t all want the same thing, but that’s kind of the point. it’s supposed to be okay for us to not all want the same thing. we’re supposed to be fighting for our right to want different things, to live different ways – as long as we don’t get in anyone else’s way or oppress or harm others with our choices. aren’t we? and if keith is harming other beings with her choices and her opinions (she is), how are we to deal with that? by oppressing and harming her? how do anarchists propose to deal with folks who cause harm in the absence of a police presence? ultimately, the result of this pieing was that the police were called… the police. were called. to the anarchist bookfair. to handle a dispute. something has gone terribly wrong here. i feel that this approach to dealing with dissent was counterproductive and should not be encouraged in a prefigurative anarchist community.


March 15, 2010. Tags: , , , . Uncategorized. 7 comments.

The shooting of Oscar Grant III, Pt. II: Protest strategy.

In my last post, I discussed how I’ve been disturbed by the valuation of Oscar’s life based on certain aspects of his lifestyle. How we need to avoid using the state’s (or any) value markers to assess the relative tragedy of someone’s murder while demanding the same from authorities. Now I’d like to talk about responses people have had to the property destruction during the protest last Wednesday.

Let me start by saying that I was not there and my opinions are based only on report-backs and others’ responses. So there may be details I’m missing and questions about the appropriateness of my voice here. Regardless, I think that any time a protest involves property damage or violence, it is important to follow it up with nuanced discussions about why people are so angry; why some people felt that the more peaceful tactics being employed were insufficient to either express their rage or get the attention of power; whether the destruction contributed to garnering a desired response from authorities; and how, in the event of future destructive outbursts, protesters can channel their rage in more appropriate directions.

I’m not hearing this sort of balanced evaluation much, if at all. Even on radio shows I usually consider pretty radical (Hard Knock Radio, for one), the responses have largely been blanket disapproval of any sort of destructive protesting, regardless of the situation and the success of other tactics being used. There is only dismay and disappointment, people talking as though the loss of a business is equatable to the loss of a life, and plenty of words like “unproductive”, “violent”, and “anarchist”. I have to take issue with these terms specifically.

“Anarchist”. The fact that something is out of control and destructive does not make it anarchist. Please learn something about anarchism before you use it as a label for all things chaotic! Not simply another word for lawlessness, anarchism is a very well thought-out set of ideological theories that, whether you agree with them or not, are far more complex than they are given credit for. Also, even if people doing the destroying consider themselves anarchists, that doesn’t make their actions “anarchist” any more than, say, a punch thrown by a capitalist is a capitalist action. Unless there is a specific anarchist agenda related to an action, it does not become “anarchist” simply by virtue of the (possible) political beliefs of the perpetrators.

“Violent”. While the destruction of property can be considered violent in certain situations, it isn’t violent in and of itself. It is completely situational. For example, would the destruction of an air force bomber to prevent it being used to kill thousands of people qualify as violent? I don’t think that could be considered anything but anti-violence, since it potentially prevents more suffering than it causes (if it causes any). However, destroying the property of someone who has very little to begin with – for example, throwing all the worldly possessions of a homeless person into a trash compactor – would qualify as violence in my book since it causes much suffering and ameliorates none. Most people apply the word “violent” indiscriminately to all property destruction, and this has the effect of making property seem as important as living beings. That’s an extremely harmful idea to foster, not to mention it’s also propagated by the state.

If the definitions above are applied to this particular protest, where the property destruction was unfocused, it can probably be said that both violent and non-violent destruction occurred. I wouldn’t call the smashing of an empty police vehicle or a McDonald’s window violent, for example, but smashing up the car of a man on crutches as he stands there pleading with you is definitely fuzzier for me. Violence or not, I have sympathy for the car owners and business owners whose lives were made more difficult. But it should always be remembered that windows can be replaced; is financial hardship a fate worse than death?

“Unproductive”. When people are not being heard no matter what they do and it’s a matter of survival, things are gonna get ugly. This is the fault of power that is deaf, dumb and blind to the needs of the people, not the fault of the people sweating it out in the corner they were backed into. While it’s helpful to look at ALL the events of Wednesday and ask ourselves how they could have been more effective, I don’t think a blanket condemnation of lashing out against property is an effective or particularly accurate review of events. An examination of traditional “non-violent” protest strategy would show the vast majority of it to be unproductive as far as effecting real change. Just as there exist effective and non-effective uses of various “non-violent” tactics, there also exist effective and non-effective uses of property destruction as a tactic.

Focused property destruction in a capitalist state can be extremely productive and can be incorporated into a wider strategy of other non-violent tactics. For example, property destruction could be used by “peaceful” community organizers as leverage with the state in the days following, insisting that the force of people’s anger is proof that they must waste no time in setting things right. Instead, the opportunity is wasted on lamenting protesters’ lack of self-control and strategy, admonishing people to use restraint next time. Standing behind the justifiable anger and the intent behind property destruction while presenting the powers with a choice – listen to our demands or face more unrest – might transform the destructive actions into constructive actions.

Maybe if folks organizing protests these days were less staunch about discussing exclusively pacifist tactics, people who do end up engaging in property destruction could be afforded the space to strategize and come up with more effective windows to smash than what just happens to be in front of them. I don’t expect that major organizers would actually come out and condone property destruction, I’m just saying they should allow people the space to talk about what to do (what sort of things to target, how to focus the destruction more effectively on the state) in the event that things turn in that direction.

Having said all that, the family of Oscar Grant have come out in the last couple days and said they don’t want any more destruction in his name, and people absolutely need to listen. While folks understandably want to use this latest police murder to demand justice for the wider POC community, this is also a singular personal tragedy for the people closest to Oscar and they should be heard and respected right now.

In the event of further destruction related to this incident, there needs to be a concerted effort on the part of organizers to distance those actions from this specific case and align them with a larger nation-wide movement to end police brutality and corruption.

January 10, 2009. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , . Uncategorized. 3 comments.