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Toronto and Vancouver: On legitimate and illegitimate protest

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Toronto and Vancouver: On legitimate and illegitimate protest
Toronto and Vancouver: On legitimate and illegitimate protest

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
Frederick Douglass, 1857

This piece grows out of dialogue with many community members between the Vancouver Olympics in February and the Toronto G8/G20 in June.  It needs saying.

I am writing this for friends who believe that direct action tactics - namely property damage - 'overshadow' the messages of our movement. I have had so many of these conversations that clearly there is a will and a need to make these points public. See news compilation at bottom of page for background.

How you can help: 

See  for details of ways you can help those still facing charges


My pacifism can - must - coexist with your militancy if we are to acheive any of our goals

The thing is that my basic nature is to prefer to avoid physical confrontation. For my own spiritual reasons, as well as straight up fear of being hit on the head or penned in by police, I tend to feel in my gut the same way as many of these voices do who are unhappy with direct action, particularly of the smashy variety - scared, overwhelmed, afraid of the police, and preferring for my own ethical reasons to be gentle in my actions.

At the same time, speaking out of care for and friendships with many people who have thought through their choice of tactics and who may intentionally use direct action strategies as one set in a large and varied toolbox - I can say that in fact, many of those members of our communities who choose to use these strategies are some of the least violent and most responsible, loving people I know in how they choose to live their lives.

If I were trapped on a desert island a la Lord of the Flies, and had to figure out how to survive collectively, share our food and set up a new society, these are the folks I'd want there with me.

They're the ones with the concrete skills in collective decision making and the respect for life that would make me feel the most cared for and safe.

They're the ones who would make sure no one else gobbled up my share of the food, and the ones who would make sure everyone else had a safe place to sleep before they hit the sack themelves, and who would be the first and most willing to take their turn on watch.

They're the ones least likely to put pig heads on sticks and kill each other with conch shells.

I can't speak for any specific actions out on the streets because I'm not there, and I imagine the facts on the ground are mixed - but - if the people I know personally who support direct action are any example, when it is done well, it is not  'wanton destruction' but comes out of a long, deep, intelligent and educated commitment to larger global social justice movements. Contrary to media images or popular perceptions, many who use black bloc tactics across the country do act directly out of communities.

If people here glorify the Zapatistas (which a lot of northern progressives tend to do), then how can we villify people who use the same tactics for the same purposes here?

I think these moments of crisis, and those who create them, help us reach each other in a more genuine way through the haze and bubble wrap of consumerism in which north americans are encouraged to live.

The police, the state, and the corporate media want to separate us into:

'legitimate' protestors: those thousands who walk in incredible numbers with passion and banners - who can be ignored and have arguably little effect - on their own - because the current dominant culture in media and government - i.e. government by elites for elites, and the rest of us can eat cake - no longer takes any notice of expressions of democratic will: Remember the enormous peaceful demonstrations in 2003 when the US stepped up bombing in Iraq? All over the world, we marched and sang in the hundreds of thousands as the bombs dropped, and it acheived not a thing. 

And 'illegitimate' protestors: those who actually challenge the system, those who recognize that marches may - may - have worked in the 1960s but they no longer work today. In fact, I'm not sure they are what really brought about change in the 60s either - if you look at the civil rights movement, the black panthers, etc. in successful social change movements, there was always a more militant wing of the movement that helped make the 'peaceful' events have more weight and effect. And in very concrete terms, when property damage is successful in the financial costs it garners, it can make business-as-usual no longer profitable and thus save lives and ecosystems.

Basically the 'legitimate/illegitimate' labels work to separate us from one another, and the commercial media laps it right up.

Unity in Diversity means space for genuine diversity

The thing is we live in a world with so many different kinds of people in it... and I don't think my personal preference for slow gentle movement needs to overwrite other people's need for direct, militant resistance.

Do our discomforts with one another's choices about how to resist mean that we have to all resist in the same ways? Would we ever want to live in a world, or be part of a movement, in which there is one uniform party line that we all have to buy into (i.e. only one kind of resistance is allowed, only slow, gentle resistance... or only militant resistance)?

In a conflict with someone or something much, much more powerful... when people live their daily lives in fear... sometimes we may need to be free to scream and yell or be really really firm and not allow ourselves to get trampled because that is asserting freedom from the fear that people live with normally - the fear people live with when we all act like everything is fine. Particularly for the people whose livelihoods, lands, and cultures are on the line.

The quiet daily system of aggression is more frightening when people let it poison our bodies and spirits quietly and while acting nice then it is when people are free/liberated to speak the truth - the full truth- about systems of power - even if that means a few inanimate objects get destroyed.

For those who feel strengthened and liberated by speaking out and refusing to be afraid, I think power to them - it's not my way, at least, not right now - and that's fine with them and fine with me.

At this point, while I have a personal (maybe spiritual, maybe self-preservation) discomfort with militancy, so long as it is against inanimate objects, I don't see these things (direct action vs. gentle protest) as in opposition - I see them as complimentary.

And I see them both as profoundly loving and profoundly hopeful.

My gentle approach acheives certain kinds of things, such as the sympathy of middle and upper middle class people who want change without 'plowing the ground' - and there are other things it simply can't do - and I recognize its limitations.

I depend on people with the stomach for more direct action to take those risks. And they do take risks for things I care about, often behind the scenes: when asked to do so, they routinely protect our family-friendly rallies from violent police provocation; when the state attacks, they dearrest people; this tactic can get innocent people out of police kettling like we've seen recently in NYC; and when people who are not normally safe from police (such as homeless folks and indigenous folks) request it, the bloc employs skills at de-escalating standoffs with police, and protects against police takedowns of community events.

And in its most visible role, while it makes me uncomfortable, the black bloc tactic also pushes the neoliberal state to recognize that there is only so far the corporate elite can push the population.

There is only so far the corporate elite can steal from us, repress Indigenous peoples and continue to colonize land, destroy our planet and our ecosystems, erode all of our human and civil rights, take apart our social safety net, and repress or ignore us when we speak up.

There is only so far that inequality between the wealthy and the poor can go, before unrest becomes widespread, and this is an important message for governments and the corporate elite to hear.

I remember how it felt to be part of an enormous demonstration against the war and then realize that our governments were going to go ahead and bomb anyway.

I remember the feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness watching unspeakably, unthinkably horrible things happen and knowing that no matter how many hundreds of thousands of us take to the streets, we would acheive a tiny blip in the corporate media world, and absolutely nothing in the world of international capital and colonial domination.

When you ignore us, and allow only ineffective marches in Green Zones to be 'legitimate', as you dismantle everything we care about and expand your destruction of our cultures, of civil society, and of the planet, yes, eventually more and more people will resist.

Those who choose direct action tactics are standing their ground and speaking the truth to power, at great personal cost. For taking a stand, and for their work to protect people in our communities, I owe them both my honesty and my support.

Instead of denouncements, we need to strengthen dialogue and the capacity to work together, because diversity of tactics is a two-way street.

Instead of denouncing the strategy as a whole, we can strengthen the capacity of the bloc to respond to the needs of the larger protest, as it often does. The tactic was initially conceived not as a property-destruction machine, but as a protective strategy that could break out of police lines like the one we saw in Toronto when the police penned people in for hours at a major downtown intersection. From what I've seen people with more experience and understanding about the purpose of a blac bloc tactic - the capacity for mass thought-out action - know how to use it to protect and work with the larger protest. In Vancouver, at the large peaceful protest on one of the last nights, I watched as Indigenous elders called up the bloc to get between them and the police line, to protect the elders and allow them to continue to sing and drum. We all know how the police treat native people in this country, especially those who stand up. The bloc was respondant to the desires of the elders in that case, and it was inspiring and protective.

Two friends reminded me yesterday that people using black bloc strategies created a sense of safety for them at events during the past year. This is the best and original purpose of the tactic and one we don't hear about in the corporate media.

One woman said that when the police were attacking people in Toronto, she felt much safer seeing the 'dearrests' and protection from police beatings that people in black were able to provide to her and those around her.

Another reminded me that the Vancouver Olympic Tent Village was such a success in part because this same skill set meant we had enough of us around who could tell the police they weren't welcome there - and succeed in keeping police out by de-escalating the very real police violence that threatened the peaceful Tent Village many times.

And, of course, in Montebello, the police provocateurs were the ones with rocks in their hands, acting against the agreement of protest organizers - protest organizers who included those in black bloc. We need to remember that those who use black bloc when appropriate also organize and attend and help at other protests. 

What we need, always, are clear indications of when and where these tactics are going to take place, and the capacity to build community agreements about what takes place when and where, so that we can intentionally either watch, help build the crowd if we choose to do so, or stay away from that day or that part of things.

This way, when undercover police enter our peaceful protests with rocks in their hands, we'll have the support we need to expose them and carry on with the intended action of the day.

When the dialogue and lines of communication between organizers is strong and clear and nourished, all these tactics can play powerful complimentary roles, and we can each respect the call for different kinds of actions.

I think the reason people don't see the value of direct action is because of media and official PR spin.  I'm not suggesting that any of us are fools who suck up what's in the news, but rather that we don't have access to a lot of information, sometimes don't even have access to the very people in our communities  - in the sense of what doesn't get heard, what doesn't get covered, what is downplayed or ignored... what daily regular violence is ignored.

Keep in mind when you denounce people in public settings that we are profoundly surveilled, and that the police want to create mistrust in our movement. When you publicly denounce the strategy as a whole, you're playing into the hands of these police, and you're also denouncing the people who brought you many of the things you probably value over the past years.

Protecting people from police brutality, de-escalating tensions when police try to attack vulnerable communities, and exposing police provocateurs at our rallies: these are all the same sets of skills and they're darn useful. Not only that - the people wearing black may also be the same people who cooked your food, babysat your kids, found you a place to sleep, or sat outside the jail when you got arrested for breach.

Most importantly, the state wants to know that it can attack community organizers and take them away from us and put them in jail.

If you denounce parts of the movement in public, then the state will be able to take and keep organizers. If you stand in solidarity even with those you disagree with, recognizing that we are part of a larger movement and that solidarity is a two-way street, the state will be unable to keep community organizers in jail, because as we saw several times, a mass show of support, and support by prominent people, makes plain the politically motivated, malicious nature of targeted roundups of organizers, and makes the state back down and let people go.


What's the Difference Between Dialogue and Denouncement?

Regardless of your agreement or disagreement in community meetings, in private, in planning sessions, when it comes time to choose what to say in public, steer the conversation towards the real injustice, because if you don't, you  turn the full force of the state against other community organizers. In other words, we need room for internal debate and dialogue, and we need full support of those in jail - which means we need to recognize just how dangerous public denouncements are, and recognize who gets hurt by them when we're dealing with state power and not only with each other. That carefulness about where we put our words makes the difference between dialogue and denouncement.

Rather than turning the dominant opinion, and the full force of the state, against vulnerable people who take these risks to speak truth to power, even those who may destroy symbols - symbols! A Starbucks or Hudson's Bay window is not alive; it is a potent symbol - while people's faces, bodies, lands, and freedoms are being smashed... I prefer to use the conversations as opportunities to build mass movements. Don't let the media trick us into blaming each other.


The protesters in jail deserve kindness and support, whether we share their strategies or not. Let's get them out and be clear in our wholehearted support, and then when we've got them back in our communities and in our arms and around our dinner tables, and out of the arms of the state, then let's strengthen our ability to make space for and compliment each other's approaches - both our gentler approaches and our more assertive ones.

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Here in Vancouver, where I live, many people I care about were involved in a direct action in February against a corporate sponsor of the Olympics games - Hudson's Bay. After the fact, I heard a lot of pain, fear, and confusion from many around me who are struggling with a perceived rift in the global justice movement: a rift between those who want to protest using only gentle tactics such as marches, singing, and sit-ins, and those who want to protest by actively fighting back against the ever-growing police repression in our lives, and by destroying symbols of corporate domination and colonization such as the windows of massive corporations.

I heard from members of the community choir that I sang in at the demos, for instance, that the direct action tactics 'overshadowed' the message of what I'm going to call 'gentle' protestors.

In response, I can't help but note that, if those I know are any example, the people who used direct action strategies in Vancouver are very committed to social change, and spent countless hours organizing things including the direct action 'heart attack' march but also the tent city, the Women's March (Indigenous women in Vancouver's downtown eastside), and the general flag-waving puppeted facepainted large demonstrations.

The behind-the-scenes relationships can look very different - much more cooperative, organized, meaningful and respectful - than media portrayals or even the way events might look to people who just show up for a demo without coming to the meetings beforehand to find out what's planned and how and why. I find it divisive to separate out and demonize those 'bad' protestors from us 'good' protestors, when really we're all the same people doing different work on different days... particularly since the media and police want to make that distinction.

I wonder, given the history of agitation for social change, which always includes direct physical struggle of some sort or another, whether it's helping anyone to replicate that division of 'good' and 'bad' forms of protest against oppression

As my choir director noted, had the result in the mainstream media been better - for instance, had there been an actual discussion of the real issues in the mainstream media - then those who were so upset about how things turned out in Vancouver (people injured and in jail, protesters branded as thugs, media even less sympathetic) would have been cheering the physical tactics of the direct action folks as part of the reason for success. Anyone who attempted to protest the Olympics at all knows that mainstream perspectives had already decided that the protesters were just a bunch of grumps and killjoys.

It is very easy to scapegoat and blame each other within a movement that is striving to be heard by larger forces who so easily manipulate the message: "Good" protesters and "bad" protesters.

 and Toronto

In Toronto, as I write this, the people who have been breaking things are not harming anything alive - they are attacking symbols rather than life - while the corporate status quo is daily harming/killing/destroying not only individual lives but whole ecosystems as a daily matter of course.

As a recent update stated: 'While the media focuses on its predictable ritual of scape-goating protestors, tens of thousands of labour, anti war, migrant justice, Indigenous solidarity, anarchist, environmental justice, anti-oppression, anti capitalist, socialist, student, and community-based activists took to the streets to expose and confront the violent policies of the criminal G20. The reasons they did so - Indigenous self determination; environmental justice; a world free of militarization; income equity and community control over resources; migrant justice; gender, queer, disability, and reproductive rights - are just as relevant today as they were this past weekend.'

The violence i'm seeing in all the reports - from corporate and independent  media alike - is of police en masse with weapons and riot gear penning people in, attacking people, threatening and assaulting trans folk, queer folks and women, beating, trampling, charging, and injuring people (including people with disabilities, people holding babies, elders, journalists, random passersby, people in so-called `green zones`), rounding people up in mass arrests, sending people to the hospital with broken bones, throwing people physically to the ground by their necks, and generally using brute violence and intimidation against the population.

All of which was 'legitimated' by new laws the police initially said were passed quietly (the lawyers and the mayor weren't even informed) - and which turned out *not* to be law at all - stating that within the 'security perimiter' the Toronto police could bodily search anyone they wish upon demand, and could demand that we produce ID without the usual privacy and civil liberties protections we expect in this country.

This is Stephen Harper's Canada - and culturally, people`s acceptance of such a state of affairs smacks of Weimar Germany to anyone who has studied - or lived through - the rise of actual authoritarianism. It is also the side of Canada that those of us who are non-native don`t usually have to see. As Ray says in one of the interviews cited below, the brute force Canada has always used against native people under colonial rule, Canada is now using against the rest of us. Witness the four-hour pen at Queen and Spadina, or the charging at crowds peacefully assembled singing Oh Canada. What the state does to the most vulnerable of us, it will eventually do to all of us, so we must stand in solidarity with those who are most vulnerable. 

I met a woman who had moved to Canada from the former Yugoslavia. She works at the flower shop where I picked up flowers to give to friends as they were released from jail last February. As she cut and wrapped daisies for me, she looked out the front window of her shop at the police lined up outside and the Canadian flags marching past, and said she left and came to Canada to get away from this kind of thing and never expected it here. Her words have stayed with me. "Didn't we learn anything? The german people put up with a lot before things got really bad."




News Compilation

Journalist threatened with gang rape by police while being held; young woman searched "had finger put up her" by Toronto police:

Conditions in Detention Centre Illegal Immoral Dangerous:

Police Drag Man With Cane:!/video/video.php

Childcare/teacher in Green Zone says: "I had a walking stick, and they took it and broke it and pushed me"  Journalist reports: "Police Broke Cameraman's Finger":

"Refuse to be afraid, refuse to be silent":

Report re arrests:

Quiet Boost in Arrest Powers:

New Police Powers:

Police attack seated demonstrators who are singing Oh Canada:

Provocateurs and Media Stunts:

Real News journalist punched in the face by police, and police attack a deaf man for not hearing their commands:

Police Fire at Protestors:

"Your rights don't apply within this building": 18-year-old bystander detainee in mass roundups reports on treatment in detention: filthy conditions, denied water, food thrown on floor, 24-hour lights on, overcrowded containment, threats to gay people told to 'act straight':

"learn what the issues actually are, and why people are resisting":

"Your Bra Is A Weapon and Must be Removed" Reports of freezing conditions, body searches in detention, told to stay away from all protests in the future despite no charges:

Journalist beaten and arrested:

"Whatever they do to native people they will eventually do to everybody else in this country."

Arrestees Disappear Down a Rabbit Hole: Lawyer

Parents of 6 month old awoken with gun to head in  bedroom, no warrants shown:

Police State and Humiliation on Toronto’s free streets:

Police detained and handcuffed journalists:

Woman taking photographs beaten by four men in a van when arrested:

Amnesty International, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Ontario NDP, call for inquiry into breaches of civil liberties during G8/G20:

York University political science professor David McNally talks to the CBC's Carole MacNeil about Black Bloc tactics


Thank you to Patti Powell of Accapelaboratory and to Karine Rogers, Valerie Zink, Imrahn Mitha, Lawrence Boxall, Derrick O'Keefe, Nassim Elbardouh, Anthony Meza-Wilson, Erin Altomare, Mercy Eng and Wayde Compton for dialogue (and words ;P) that shaped some of this post; thank you to friends and organizers who have challenged me, argued with me, and taught me; those thoughts in some form or another make it into everything I write, whether we agree or disagree. And thank you to those who have put themselves on the line to keep our movements strong and thriving. We've got your back.

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thanks for brave wise words

... much needed. Our movement can and must include all forms of protest.

the most resiliant ecosystems

the most resiliant ecosystems are the diverse ones... why would our human systems be any different?


well written!!! good work!

Zapatistas social transformation and breaking a Starbucks window

These are thoughtful and heart-felt words.  Much to think about. 

One comment that strikes me as a little hyberbolic is comparing what hapened at the G20 - the smashing of a dozen or so storefront windows and the burning of three cars - to the Zapatista social and political transformation of a region in Mexico.  The Zapatistas had diverse, wide-spread and deep support among both indigenous and non-indigenous populations in the region.  Their uprising was not the smashing of a few windows at a public demonstration, but a difficult and time consuming building of coalitions among the general public and civil society local and abroad for a new social structure. 

These are not the same tactics at all.

2003 protests

the mass demos in 2003 were re: Iraq, not Afghanistan. No mass mobilization has yet occurred related to Afghanistan, which is important to keep in mind.

Corrected, thnx

thanks for the correction

my two cents worth..

since the cessation of aggressive offense by Palestinians and pro-Pal activists, our movement is globally stronger and larger than ever before in the 62 years since it began, and popular opinion is swinging in our favour more and more every day.. without the support of the majority, you can smash windows, burn cop cars, blow yourself and those around you up if you so choose, it's not going to do you any good.. we've learned how to fight the zionist hasbara effectively, and expose them for what they are.. this took time and a lot of effort, but it's working.. just food for thought.. :)


hey folks, if you're going to make personal attacks on writers, your posts will be moderated and removed. Cheers.

or censored to prevent an opposite message from getting out...


Dawn, why does your message qualify as important to freedom of expression but not the messages of those who don't agree?

An open letter to supporters of Direct Action

An open letter to all who justify, even slightly, the vandalizing of property, the destruction of storefronts and/or the burning of police cars in Toronto during the G20:  

Your public support of so-called "direct action" tactics enabled the criminals who bombed the recruiting center in Trois Rivieres, risking the health and lives of those in proximity of the blast as well as the livelihood of those who rely on this employer to support their families and as such, you are complicit in this attack.

I hope you're happy. You’re creating an even more violent world for tomorrow.

We need to stand up and denounce any form of violence and destruction, unconditionally and with one voice. Otherwise, our silence will continue to empower those who care only about getting their way with abject disregard for the impacts of their actions.

Show no sympathy and offer no support to people who, like little children, break things when they don’t get their way.

police provocateurs...

I'm amazed that there isn't more attention paid to police/government infiltration of activist groups. I think undercover cops are likely to try to get young, impressionable kids (who want to show how "radical" they are) to do illegal things, so they could entrap people or start a violent scene. but real direct action is important and necessary, and true militant activists consider the ramifications of their actions & would never pressure others to do what they're doing! someone once told me "when the Weather Underground blew up the Capitol building, we knew that it was done with 'a wink and a smile' to all of us involved in the struggle!"
I'm a nonviolent person myself, but I definitely appreciate & support what direct action activists do!

 it is scary to think that a "protestor" next to you could be a cop... but to me it shows how low the government/state/whatever will stoop, just to stop us from being heard! This is how a state run by cowards and bullies acts.They want us to be drawn into division and arguments over who is a “good” or “bad” protestor. In a way, I think the horrible things that happened in Toronto woke a lot of people up to how brutal cops are, not just towards "crazy anarchists", but everyone! it will definitely mobilize more people who wouldn't have considered activism before.




Great stuff here, keep up the

Great stuff here, keep up the good work!

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