Chapter 2: Mayday! Mayday!
MayDay 2000, or MD2K as some people preferred to call it, using the telescopic style popular on the net, had all the makings of a wild affair. There had already been a J18 and an N30 (that’s June the 18th, and November the 30th to all those not familiar with the style) the last one having hit the headlines in a spectacular way when protesters in Seattle managed to close down the Millennium round of talks of the World Trade Organisation. This was probably the first time that most people on the planet had ever heard of the World Trade Organisation, let alone understood its significance. MD2K was meant as a follow-on from this.
The activist network had been going on about it for months. Flurries of information on the internet. A veritable snow-storm of digital energy whirling about in cyberspace.
I’d joined an e-mail discussion group. My earliest mail came on December 10th 1999, at 3.29 PM, from Mindstar Hardliners. I had no idea who the Mindstar Hardliners were, though I liked the name. The e-mail was labelled (MayDay 2000) Re: Targets. It said:
there’s been a lot of negative feedback from my people.
we don’t want to riot.
you give all of us a bad name and put off many.
you need a little research on the ethics of NVDA
Some 5 months before the event, there was a growing consternation amongst activists that something was likely to go wrong, precisely because the British versions of J18 (in the City of London) and N30 (outside Euston station) had both turned into riots.
After that, e-mails from the discussion group started coming in hard and fast. 10, 12, 15 e-mails over a weekend sometimes. Much discussion, much debate, most of it tetchy. The group had the air of a bunch of hyperactive children fighting over the Wendy House after a heavy dose of sugar. The MayDay 2000 slogan was: OUR RESISTANCE WILL BE AS TRANSNATIONAL AS CAPITAL. Right from the first it was a case of “my revolution is better than yours.”
Or as Space Bunny from the Autonomous Centre said: “The event is described as a festival of anarchist ideas and action. I would be more inclined to participate if it was called a festival of revolutionary ideas and action. I understand some of you want to push anarchism as the solution and as I have said people are going to want to define their ideas more. But despite having been active in the anarchist milieu for 10 years and probably for many to come, and though I think there are lots of constructive elements amongst anarchists and share much with many but not all anarchists, I am not an anarchist myself (although if someone wants to label me one I won’t bother to disagree). Don’t worry I avoid Leninist, trots, national revolutionaries as much as I hope most of you do. But anarchism doesn’t itself offer much in my eyes now, and is more of a hindrance than a help to overthrowing capitalism, bringing about a classless society without wage labour and property. I am happier with the ideas of left communists and the ultra left. MayDay 98 (Bradford) and Easter Rising 99 (Glasgow) were more inclusive not just anarchist.”
So we’ve got left-communist, ultra-left and anarchist, not to say, Leninist, trot and national revolutionary, all vying for position. It’s like a game of football, and we’re all rooting for our team. Or we’re on a visit to the ideological supermarket, and we have to choose which brand to buy. “Communism: formulated by Laboratoire Lenin to wash capitalism right out of your hair.” Or: “Anarchism, for that REVOLUTIONARY FEELING!”
It’s easy to join a Party, for whatever reason. It’s easy to find out what the key words are and to mouth them ritually in a way that gets other people’s trust. These are abstract things, and easy to exploit, for dumb, crazy, inhuman or provocative reasons. What matters is the look in the eye. What matters is the meaning behind the words. What matters, in the end, is loyalty and trust. And you can’t buy those in a Supermarket.
Also, you’ll note, there is a clear aim to all this: “overthrowing capitalism, bringing about a classless society without wage labour and property.” Not modest, these people. After 200 years of more of revolutionary activity, Space Bunny and his comrades believe they can overthrow capitalism. Well why not? If we didn’t think we could do things, we’d never want to try, would we?
It’s just that there’s a little more to revolution than playing a game of football, or going to the shops.
It’s just a little bit more serious than that.
The success at Seattle had already thrown up a number of contradictions. The first—and most important – was a question of tactics. NVDA—non-violent direct action—was generally the chosen course, but there were various interpretations of this. For some this meant passive resistance, merely linking arms to create an obstruction and allowing the police to arrest you. Wearing silly costumes, dancing and singing, doing agitprop theatre on the street: these were other fairly harmless tactics. One such group were doing their theatre in front of a CCTV camera in downtown Seattle linked up to the internet, so you could see what they were up to from any part of the world.
For others the question of violence was a moot one. Did action against corporate property constitute “violence”, for instance? Didn’t the violence inherent in the corporate system far out-weigh the perceived violence of a brick thrown through a plate-glass window? That was the argument.
One prominent group, known as “the black bloc”, were very articulate in their defence of this particular view. To quote from their bulletin:
“On November 30, several groups of individuals in black bloc attacked various corporate targets in downtown Seattle.
“This activity lasted for over 5 hours and involved the breaking of storefront windows and doors and defacing of facades. Slingshots, newspaper boxes, sledge hammers, mallets, crowbars and nail-pullers were used to strategically destroy corporate property and gain access. Eggs filled with glass etching solution, paint-balls and spray-paint were also used.
“The black bloc was a loosely organised cluster of affinity groups and individuals who roamed around downtown, pulled this way by a vulnerable and significant storefront and that way by the sight of a police formation. Unlike the vast majority of activists who were pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets on several occasions, most of our section of the black bloc escaped serious injury by remaining constantly in motion and avoiding engagement with the police. We buddied up, kept tight and watched each others’ backs. Those attacked by federal thugs were un-arrested by quick-thinking and organised members of the black bloc. The sense of solidarity was awe-inspiring.”
The black bloc were highly effective in other ways too. They wore the best uniform—black hooded tops, black bandannas as masks and black sun-glasses—had the best rhetoric, and generally looked and sounded cooler than the other activists. I mean, what’s the comparison: a bunch of middle-aged, meusli-eating hippies in print dresses and sandals, linking arms and singing “we shall overcome”, or these hip, cool-looking dudes, all tooled up to frighten the citizenry?
But their justification for the attacks on corporate property was even more sophisticated:
“We contend that property destruction is not a violent activity unless it destroys lives or causes pain in the process. By this definition, private property—especially corporate private property—is itself infinitely more violent than any action taken against it…. Advocates of ‘free trade’ would like to see this process to its logical conclusion: a network of a few industry monopolists with ultimate control over the lives of the everyone else. Advocates of ‘fair trade’ would like to see this process mitigated by government regulations meant to superficially impose basic humanitarian standards. As anarchists, we despise both positions. When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights. At the same time, we exorcise that set of violent and destructive social relationships which has been imbued in almost everything around us. By ‘destroying’ private property, we convert its limited exchange value into an expanded use value. A storefront window becomes a vent to let some fresh air into the oppressive atmosphere of a retail outlet (at least until the police decide to tear-gas a nearby road blockade). A newspaper box becomes a tool for creating such vents…. The number of broken windows pales in comparison to the number of broken spells—spells cast by a corporate hegemony to lull us into forgetfulness of all the violence committed in the name of private property rights and of all the potential of a society without them. Broken windows can be boarded up, but the shattering of assumptions will hopefully persist for some time to come.
Against Capital and State,
the ACME Collective.”
What chance has “we shall overcome” against this level of rhetoric?
But here again is the fractured nature of the activist alliance: the black bloc actually “despise” (that’s their word) one of the other groups involved in the anti-WTO protests, the fair-trade lobby; they go so far as to accuse those people who want to see humanitarian rights extended as a limit to trade, of being exactly the same as the globalising moguls who would put the rights of corporations above and beyond any humanitarian concerns. In other words, what the black bloc effectively do is to split the alliance.
Who or what is the World Trade Organisation? Why are so many disparate groups (including groups of Capitalists) opposed to it? What is it, exactly, that these people are all protesting against?
J18 had been billed as “A Carnival Against Capitalism”, and the British strand of the N30 protests had been specifically aimed at the partial privatisation of the London Underground, which, of course, would seem to have very little to do with the World Trade Organisation.
The specific aim of the WTO Seattle meeting had been to begin the millennium round of international talks, which were expected to last 3 years. That hadn’t happened. Partly this was due to the protesters managing to shut down the talks, partly to the Third World delegates expressing their dissatisfaction with the overall aims of the talks. This represented an assertion of independence by Third World countries. But the WTO is still intact. It has not been changed in anyway way by the protests. More like a juggernaut hitting a bump, since the purposes and the power of those who created the WTO remain exactly the same.
This is the Party of The Ultra Rich: and they have one main goal: an integrated global economy unencumbered by government restrictions. Globalised. Unencumbered.
This globalisation of the world’s economies is continuing and it may not be possible stop it happening. The world’s economies are being yoked together by various technologies (radio, TV, telephones, fibre optic cables, satellites and computers etc.) This so-called Information technology is drawing the world’s economies into a single huge network.
Maybe no one can stop globalisation from happening. However, there are things that national elected governments could do to reduce the harmful consequences for people. Unfortunately the Party Of The Ultra Rich are fundamentally opposed to any government involvement, as this risks the possibility that people might actively object to being impoverished in this way. They have their own vision, a globalised economy free of government interference: global free trade. Historically this form of economy was called LAISSEZ FAIRE. In a LAISSEZ FAIRE economy, the Party Of The Ultra Rich are free to make all the real decisions—they decide what to make, how to make it, where to make it, who to employ (in any manner they see fit), and where to sell the commodities. In a LAISSEZ FAIRE economy, the role of government is limited to enforcing property rights (the property rights of the Party Of The Ultra Rich), tinkering about with the currency, maintaining a justice system for dealing with disputes, and maintaining a military apparatus to enforce civil and international peace.
So the WTO has nothing to do with trade. It’s only purpose is in creating and maintaining a world-wide economy, in which those who already own most things, will get to own it all, making all decisions without reference to any form of democratic interference. The key institution of the Party Of The Ultra Rich is the corporation, so the aim of the WTO is to ensure that corporations are able to make their decisions freely.
Free trade is freedom for capitalists to exploit, not freedom for the rest of us to be free of exploitation.
The purpose of the WTO is to block the work of governments, who might want stop wage reduction, to improve conditions for working people, to be free of pollution and exploitation, to redistribute wealth. All of these humanitarian notions are described as ‘restrictions on trade’, by which they mean ‘corporate freedom’.
The black bloc anarchists might not agree with this analysis, given that they are against all governments too. Perhaps, even, the black bloc anarchists should support the WTO since it appears that they share the same aim.
So the argument, in effect is about globalisation: or rather, since globalisation may well be inevitable, what form exactly globalisation should take. Do we want a global economy based upon the needs of the many, or upon the demands of the few? A corporate globalisation, or a human one? Ice-cream for the kids or the latest in high tech weaponry for the Military-Industrial Complex?
How many ice-creams would an F22 fighter pay for?
It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Meanwhile on the 8th of December five besuited business men, members of the Struggle Against Financial Exploitation—all of them in their fifties, and none of them anarchists—had sealed themselves into the revolving doors of the Treasury building in Whitehall by lashing bicycle chains around the handles. They claimed that their businesses had been ruined by excessive bank charges. One of them, Keith Whincup, speaking to a Daily Telegraph reporter by mobile phone, said that not only had his business been wrecked, but he had also lost his marriage as a result. He said: “We have locked ourselves in the Treasury. We have barricaded ourselves. We want Tony Blair or Gordon Brown to authorise a full inquiry into our cases. I have got £23,000 of overcharging by one bank and can’t get the police to look at it. This is the only way we can make our point because no one wants to listen.”
And at Stanton Moor in Derbyshire a protest camp was being set up to bring attention to the potential desecration of the Nine Ladies stone circle under threat from a proposed quarry.
A spokesperson from the group put out an appeal over the internet. It said:
“Stanton Moor is a site in Derbyshire, of amazing natural beauty, with a lot of archaeological significance. The Nine Ladies is an ancient stone circle. For years this has been a place to celebrate. In recent years peoples ashes have been spread on the site. It has a lot of significance for people in the surrounding area. The site is now under threat from a proposed quarry that received its planning permission in 1952. This permission would never be granted now. The quarry if carried out will destroy a beautiful area of the valley and go within two hundred yards of the stone circle.”
In Russia, meanwhile, a bunch of anarchists climbed up on top of the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square, where they unfurled a banner, somewhat negatively, proclaiming, “Against Everyone!” This is the place that the old Soviet leadership used to stand to watch the tanks and missiles of the Red Army parade by on MayDay each year. Russia’s NTV television told their audience that the youngsters were radical anarchists while showing pictures of the youngsters scarpering across Red Square and scrambling to the top of the monument unhindered. They stood for several minutes before a police officer managed to get near enough to tear the banner out of their hands.
And in Mexico about 500 students demonstrated in front of the US embassy, saying they wanted to express solidarity with the WTO protests in Seattle (several weeks gone by now) and also to urge the liberation of Mumia Abu Jamal, an American journalist currently on death row in the US. After the speeches stones were thrown at the embassy smashing a number of windows. Fights broke out between the riot police and the students. The police were vicious in their attempts to control the situation. There were 98 arrests, 10 injured students, 6 injured policemen. Two journalists were also hurt. There was a follow up demonstration in support of the 98 arrestees, which almost lead to a second riot. The FZLN (Zapatistas) sent out a press release expressing solidarity with the students and condemning police brutality.
Their slogan was: “We Are Everywhere!”
Then I got a very interesting e-mail. All sorts of things were coming from the group. All sorts of people were writing. It got very confusing at times. This is what the e-mail said. It began with a question:
“Hi this is my first mail to this list, I’ve not been on it very long and I’m not exactly sure what it’s for.”
“It’s about talking about the May 2K demo but it should be made clear that this list is heavily monitored both by police and by journalists. That’s the whole point of it. The great strength of e-mail and the net is that its open, totally free for anyone to access. So the idea is to let everyone know that next year there will be a big event and its going to happen in London and a lot of people are talking about it.
“It’s an interesting tactic. Essentially, its like putting up a load of posters all over the place saying there’s going to be, say, an RTS party. If enough people tell enough people, then it will happen, or at least the powers that be will have to assume it will happen and make plans accordingly, and that’s the important bit, it makes ‘them’ spend the money and deploy their resources.
“Thing is, no-one on here is planning anything, all we’re doing is talking about the issues around doing this thing. So fine, a scumbag journo from a Murdoch gutter rag can read this if they like and get some ideas for a shock horror story—great! let them write about it and give even more publicity to the movement.”
I wondered if it was me they were talking about.
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