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Black Bloc, White Riot author AK Thompson on uprisings, “violence,” and other age-old questions

By AK Press | January 30, 2017

Call it the return of the repressed. Reviewing footage from the D.C. demonstrations on January 20, I couldn’t help but weep. Between the people locked down with PVC pipes in static blockades, the demonstrations that swelled to proportions so great that even journalists were forced to use adjectives like “historic,” and the magnificent meme-able resurrection of the swarming black bloc, the scene could not help but remind me of the exaltation that overtook an earlier generation of radicals at the dawn of the new millennium. Seattle may have been a riot, but it was also a game changer. It upped the ante, and it set the tone for the cycle of struggle that would follow.

Like radiation emitted along with its glow, though, Seattle also unleashed a series of heated debates that were never fully contained or resolved. Unhelpfully, these debates were often framed as showdowns between propositions that were as abstract as they were antithetical. Did we need mass action or direct action? Should we do summit hopping or local organizing? Did politics demand that we produce a new world or should we struggle for better representation within this one?

It was questions like these that compelled me to write Black Bloc, White Riot, a book released by AK Press a full decade after the dust kicked up by the Seattle cycle had settled. I imagined that, if the polarizing debates were reviewed and reassessed, they might yield new insights that could be of use as we planned our next move. In particular, I wondered whether the question of violence deserved fuller consideration than had been allowed under the terms of that uneasy truce so many of us had signed beneath a banner proclaiming our “respect for a diversity of tactics” (I didn’t have much respect for tactics that wouldn’t work).

Consideration or not, I didn’t have to wait long for the violence to return. Around the time the book was released in the summer of 2010, the debates flared up again—this time in Toronto, where an obscene meeting of the G20 (surrounded by fences and thousands of cops) succumbed to umbrage as smoke billowed up from burning police cars. When Occupy Oakland began rioting against police evictions the following fall, the discursive polarity reached new heights as journalist Chris Hedges—otherwise so austere—embraced his new role as cartoon villain.

Because recursions such as these suggest that the questions under consideration are impossible to repress (because they point toward truths that are impossible to ignore), events like N30, the Toronto G20, Occupy Oakland, and our most recent J20 must be viewed as being both politically and analytically significant. Still, the fact that debates since the inauguration now sound so familiar, the fact that they’ve fallen so readily into the ruts we carved at the turn of the century, suggests that—collectively—we still have some working through to do. To this end, and once again, I propose that we recall our past failures so that we might finally trace a new course.

Learn more about AK Thompson’s book, Black Bloc, White Riothere.

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