First: I ripped off that headline from the Seattle anarchist gazette Tides of Flame, but it neatly summarizes the big question of the day.
In a post, Paul Constant decries the May 2nd targeted property destruction for upstaging the structural-economic reasons behind the Seattle May Day protests—the wealth gap, the E-Verify and “secure communities” programs that are tearing apart immigrant communities, how Wells Fargo profiteers in the privatized prison industry, etc. People like Paul call window-smashers “know-nothing nobodies” and “thugs” and “idiots.”
This is not necessarily true. There are reasons why thoughtful people sometimes smash windows.
But first, let’s clear something up: Reporters on KOMO and Slog and beyond have made the mistake of calling May Day’s targeted property destruction “violence.” There is an enormous moral distinction between smashing a bank window and smashing a person. Lumping the two under the umbrella of “violence” is linguistically lazy and politically irresponsible. It is worth noting that in the dramatic property-destruction campaigns of groups like the Earth Liberation Front (ELF)—burning SUV lots, ski lodges, and in one of their stupider and more infamous moments, a botanical research facility at the University of Washington—people don’t get hurt.
In fact, the only “violence” I saw on May Day, aside from some minor pushing back and forth between protesters and police and some pepper spray, was a guy in a tie who was (understandably) pissed off when someone broke the rear window of his car. He chased down a protester and they both fell down in the street and had a minor scuffle. That was violence (however paltry). Smashing a window is not violence, it’s vandalism. There is a difference—unless you think of people as the moral equivalent of property.
But back to the central question: Why would anyone use targeted vandalism as a means of political expression? It’s a very, very old tactic, dating back to Jesus smashing up the moneylenders’ kiosks in the temple. And it is still popular among some, but totally anathema to most, today.
The rationale breaks down into three basic frames: one practical, one theoretical, and one a mix of practical and theoretical. Any given act of targeted property destruction usually involves a little of all three.
First, the practical reason: Hurting businesses where it counts—their pocketbooks—is a way to get their attention. When the ELF (which isn’t really an organization, more an ideology, but whatever) burns down a ski resort or an SUV lot, they’re causing damage that hurts the bottom line in some way. We saw this even after the May Day protests. As I was walking home, I saw workers putting up plywood all over the windows of downtown businesses. I asked one of the workers if every business would be boarding up for the night. “Yes,” he said. “Windows are expensive and we are not.” He estimated the cost of one windowpane of that size to be around $800, not including the labor it takes to install it.
Here’s one anecdote about practical anarchist window-smashing, not for the cost to the business but for the sake of transparency and democracy: In 1986, Sean Carlson (who has run Seattle’s Pistil Books, both brick-and-mortar and online for many years) was a student at the University of Washington and part of Students Against Apartheid, an activist group trying to get the UW regents to divest themselves of investments held in apartheid-era South Africa. (Not all of the school’s investments, he told me, just the percentage that was supposedly “held” by the faculty and students. “It was not,” he said, “an unreasonable request.”)
The group began by attending the open regents meetings and making requests. They were ignored. They moved to lobbying and protesting. They were ignored. Finally, the regents closed their formerly open meetings. Carlson tried to attend one, thinking that closing the meetings was in violation of the state’s open-meetings law. Police held the door closed. Carlson, being an anarchist—who believes that personal autonomy should not always and everywhere be subordinate to political authority, which is a much more accurate definition of an anarchist than “one who celebrates chaos”—thought that the police in this case were acting to violate the law rather than support it.
So he smashed a window open so he could reach through and open the door via the crash-bar. He wrestled with a cop and was arrested. He took the case to trial, and a jury dismissed all charges. Who today would say that Carlson’s window-smashing to protest the UW profiting from an apartheid-era government was immoral, uninformed, and “know-nothing”? Sometimes a window-smashing is a profoundly moral act, even when committed by a self-proclaimed anarchist.
Second, the theoretical reason: This is basically the broken-windows theory of policing in reverse. That theory was floated by sociologists in the 1980s and became popular under New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. According to the policing model, an unfixed broken window is a sign of lawlessness and a weak state—one broken window might attract more broken windows which might attract squatters and other forms of lawlessness. Window-breaking anarchists, conversely, want to show that the state is weak and that the state of law and economy we live with is not as inevitable as gravity or aging—it’s the result of human choices. “It is becoming harder and harder for people to summon up disgust when they see a smashed bank window,” writes AG Schwarz, the author of the article in Tides of Flame from which I stole the headline for this post.
We should note that the window-smashers today did not target mom ‘n’ pop corner stores or restaurants. They targeted Niketown and banks, presumably because they had some grievance against those institutions and not others. Their vandalism was not “know-nothing”—it was calculated.
(As for the guy supposedly wearing Nike shoes while smashing up the Nike store? I can’t account for that, nor do I care to. It’s funny how the public sanctimoniously dismisses the actions of anarchists who don’t conform to their idea of what an anarchist should be, while that same public shows a profound disinterest in understanding what an anarchist is or strives to be. Or the circumstances under which a certain person came across a certain pair of shoes. People dismiss an idea out of hand, but then demand some magical ideological purity from those who profess the idea, based on half-assed assumptions. People are goofy.)
Third, the marriage of the practical and the theoretical: A few weeks ago, I interviewed the anarchist theorist John Zerzan, who lives in Eugene, OR, and was dubbed by the press in 1999 as the intellectual godfather of the WTO riots. “People say why do you do this crazy stuff?” he said about political vandalism. “The crazy stuff is what we do every day… You had a lot of anarchists who sniffed around [Occupy] briefly and found it to be nowhere, just minor stuff—reforming, jiggle the tax code—and many were not interested… you have to have real militancy or you’re just wasting your time.”
For Zerzan and others, broken windows—and even arsons by the Earth Liberation Front—are a kind of fire alarm, designed to make us pay attention to what they see as accelerating economic, social, and ecological catastrophe. “Then you get a chance to say why would [someone] do that,” he said. “And the media has to pay some attention to that and people want to know what’s going on.”
The esteemed anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber (who has studied places like some regions of Madagascar, where the state essentially pulled up stakes and left people to sort out their own lives in a de facto anarchist situation) has written about squatters in Christiania, Denmark, who have a Christmas ritual with a similar goal—they dress up as Santas, take toys from department stores, and hand them to kids on the street, “partly so everyone can relish the images of the cops beating down Santa and snatching the toys back from crying children.”
So it’s a question: Did May Day’s vandalism detract from the protests? If it was all hand-holding and vigils and kumbaya, would the press have replaced their coverage of the smashy-smashy with an equal amount of attention to “secure communities” and “e-verify” and how Wells Fargo makes money off of private prisons? Or would that have all been equally—or even more—ignored?
I don’t know. And I’m not a self-professed anarchist, nor a proponent of targeted property destruction (even though I’ve just devoted 1,500 words to justifying it in this post).
But I do know there are compelling, not-entirely-stupid arguments for vandalism as a form of protest, and as a way to force people’s attention towards certain problems that we might otherwise ignore in the deafening static of our undisrupted, workaday lives.
Brendan Kiley writes about theater, drugs, and more for The Stranger. His writing has appeared in Newsweek, the Boston Globe, the Forward, UTNE Reader, and the gently pedagogical pages of Education Update. This article was originally published on May 1, 2012 in The Stranger SLOG.