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Violence at the RNC

Benjamin Blumberg, Ian Morrison

Platypus Review 7 | October 2008

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In March 2003, millions took to the streets worldwide to protest the impending invasion of Iraq. Despite their numbers, the efforts proved in vain. The war went on; the protests dwindled. But however attenuated, there are still protests. In Minneapolis/St. Paul this August, some 10,000 marched against the Republican National Convention. But as organized rallies gave way to irrational violence, the inadequacy of five years of failed Anti-War activism and Left opposition came into sharp relief.

Most of the confrontations amounted to simple, momentary blockages of traffic. By all accounts, the police grossly overreacted: harassing journalists, brutalizing protestors, arresting the innocent. But more fringe elements in activist culture were also on display. Some hurled bricks through the window of a bus transporting delegates; others sprayed delegates with unknown irritants. These actions may seem excessive and irrational, beyond the objectives and attitudes of the wider movement. But their deeper motivations lies within the mainstream of activist culture today.

The helplessness of the anti-war movement has turned the Left’s disappointments and frustrations into pathology. Energy is directed, not towards revolutionary change, but against social integration. For college-aged youth this means the transition from parental authority to working life. The anxiety and fear built up around this process of socialization creates a political imagination directed at forming ruptures and breaking points in society — everything, from organizational meetings to attending protests, centers on creating a wall of resistance against one’s own inevitable absorption into society.

As seasoned anti-war activist Alexander Cockburn pointed out last year, “an anti-war rally has to be edgy, not comfortable. Emotions should be high, nerves at least a bit raw, anger tinged with fear.” (“Whatever Happened to the Anti-War Movement?” New Left Review, July-August 2007). Such emotionalism points to the way present forms of helplessness have been naturalized into one of the anti-war movement’s core assumptions, turning trepidation into a political program.

Naturalizing helplessness, today’s protesters celebrate simple altercations with the police as victories. Violence seems to cleanse the individual of their ‘bourgeois’ conformity. Attending a protest means breaking with the decadence of consumer society, creating a ‘prefigurative’ space, trying to ‘create the new world in the palm of the old.’ Each blow of the truncheon dramatizes the difference between protestor and police. The rougher the conflict, the more the protestor feels free from the burden of society.

Yet, young protesters only elicit a police beating in order to sensationalize their own submission to authority. And, ironically, this is coupled with a clear awareness that the tactics employed are utterly inadequate in addressing the issues these protests propose to be fighting. In the age of Predator drones, blocking a highway will not stop American military might.

The Left’s helplessness, on full display in Minneapolis, has eroded the very function of protest. Once, protest demonstrated the vitality and relevancy of the demand for social transformation. Thousands in the streets could not be ignored. But protest has devolved into an insular subculture of self-hatred, frustration, and anxiety derived from a pathological attitude towards social integration. Activists who equate social domination with their experience with tear gas, tazers and rubber bullets block the development of a more serious and effective Leftist politics. |P

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