Sunday, December 12, 2010

New Social Movement (NSM) Theories and Anarchism: 4. Symoblic Direct Actions

New social movements enact highly dramatic forms of demonstration, laden with symbolic representation. Anarchists and anarchist organizations employ direct action tactics both within and apart from regular protest. The former type of direct action exists in an oppositional and confrontational setting, aligned against hierarchical authority figures. The latter type of direct action persist within a counter-cultural milieu where anarchists are prefiguring and creating alternatives to hierarchical forms of social organization.

Anarchists favor protest tactics that are novel and unconventional—i.e. not a standard rally with a slate of formal speakers, followed by a legally-permitted march. Actions are deliberately designed to confront authority and provoke a response, demonstrate how to live differently, or to involve otherwise non-political people in a participatory, political event. Mass media attention is often focused upon these efforts, thus illustrating anarchist values and practices to a wider public audience. Such anarchist actions are also distinct from many conventional NSMs because these actions have a practical component that allow participants to directly target a particular problem and solve that problem immediately, without resorting to requests to authority figures.

Dramatic and symbolic protest may be seen most clearly by the black bloc tactic. Originally, developed by Autonomists from Germany in the 1980s, calling themselves Autonomen, the black bloc is a solidaritious direct action in street protests[X], where all participants wear black (thus the name, “black bloc”), covered their faces for security and anonymity, and operated in affinity groups to challenge police lines (Knutter 1995).[XX] These black blocs serve to disrupt the repetition of typical protest as well as the appearance of police authority at protests (Katsiaficas 2006). Indeed, black blocs are fundamentally “ungovernable” since they are uninterested in negotiation with authority (Paris 2003). According to Starr (2006), what is commonly perceived and presented as black bloc “violence” is in fact both theater and practical self-defense. Black bloc activities include masking one's face, throwing tear-gas canisters back at police, destruction of corporate property, mobile defense, un-arresting fellow demonstrators from police custody, and the use of makeshift weapons—usually objects found on the street—as projectiles for defensive purposes.

The explosive engagements between Autonomen and police were transported to other countries during the 1990s. The first appearance of the black bloc in the US resulted from an initiative by the Love and Rage Network during anti-Persian Gulf War protests (Ickibob 2003). Fascinating visual theater occurs when police wearing indistinguishable riot gear engage with all-black-clad (but still uniquely adorned) activists in the street. Black bloc actions also demonstrated that some activists were willing to defend themselves during demonstrations when attacked by police, which has in-turn instigated inter-movement debates around issues of pacifism, self-defense, and violence.[XXX] Although there is a practical utility to covering one's face with a bandanna—to deter police profiling of people who potentially break laws—there is also an echo of the Zapatistas in the regular use of masks by anarchists. The poor Mayans of Southern Mexico, who form the base of support for the Zapatistas, were continuously ignored by the national Mexican political institutions and they thus chose something dramatic, almost illicit-seeming, to cause the State to pay attention. As a Zapatista leader poetically said, they had to hide their faces in order to be seen (Marcos 2001).

Actions by black blocs are also highly symbolic. During the 1999 WTO protests, black bloc participants smashed the windows of chain stores and multinational corporations. In a communiqué released later, this vandalism was explained as an effort to “smash the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights... Broken windows can be boarded up (with yet more waste of our forests) and eventually replaced, but the shattering of assumptions will hopefully persist for some time to come” (ACME Collective 1999).

A similar phenomenon in Europe has emerged, loosely identified as “disobedients”, who engage in essentially nonviolent direct action during protests by confronting police lines with protective gear such as shields, helmets, and lots of personal padding. Organizations like Ya Basta (Spanish for “enough is enough”) and WOMBLES, have had numerous successes since the mid-1990s in breaking through police lines in efforts to reach protest goals, with the eventual goal usually being the shutdown of a target's functionality. The WOMBLES—or White Overalls Movement Building Libertarian Effective Struggles—and their counterparts creatively and dramatically provoke coverage in the media in ways that protest with standard signs and speeches would be unable to. In London, on May Day 2001, WOMBLES helped to turn downtown London into a large-scale Monopoly game-board, encouraging others to participate in a “lived critique” of modern capitalism during the protests scheduled for that day. “Players” engaged in protests and direct actions at symbolic sites throughout London to articulate and illustrate the ill of capitalism, to “subvert the game” itself (Uitermark 2004). Such anarchist methods are highly confrontational, which is a symbol that anarchists are radicals committed to revolution.

Some protest-based activities combine even more playfulness and humor. The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA) in Britain serve the same role that clowns in rodeos serve—to distract charging bulls (or police officers). CIRCA aims to not only de-escalate potentially violent street confrontations between demonstrators and law enforcement but also to mock authority and its supposedly well-established grip upon civil order. “Radical cheerleaders”, on the other hand, direct their actions towards protesters. Instead of trying to ridicule the authority of police in protest situations, radical cheerleaders provide an alternative “pep rally” at radical protests. Anarchist women (and some men) dress up in homemade “cheerleader outfits” and shake “pom-poms” made from shredded garbage bags. They present radical “cheers” to assembled demonstrators or on-lookers like: “hey all you anarchy fans / let me hear you clap your hands / if you think yer freedom's sweet / let me see you stomp yer feet ”[XXXX]

Anarchists are behind the highly symbolic actions of the Biotic Baking Brigade, who take a decentralized approach to humiliating authority figures. Autonomous groups of activists throughout the world have used the “BBB” moniker to claim “pie attacks” upon hundreds of corporate CEOs, politicians, financial figures, and even former radicals and liberals. By smearing a pie in someone's face—especially when a video camera is conveniently present to record the target's surprise or outrage—the BBB attempts to show that otherwise untouchable authority figures may be “brought down a notch” in the publics' eye. The BBB also uses clever play-on-words and puns in their press-releases to further symbolize their radical dissent: “pie any means necessary”, “let slip the pies of war”, “some people need their just desserts”, “speaking pie to power”, and “pies for your lies” (Apple 2004). These actions reflect Melucci’s observation that NSMs challenge symbolic codes by unmasking obscured technocratic and bureaucratic power.

Another phenomenon—spread globally, like political pieing—occurs the last Friday of most months in cities where cyclists gather to have a rush-hour bike ride through traffic. Critical Mass attempts to create “pockets of freedom” for self- and collective-expression, safety, and community on streets that are otherwise monopolized by cars, which in turn seal drivers off from each other. Such “organized coincidences” are coordinated in an anarchistic fashion—no one is in charge of the rides, anyone can promote and help organize the rides, all participants “police themselves”, and spontaneous direct action creates temporary autonomous zones for people to be free of car culture, if only briefly (Blickstein & Hanson 2001, Carlsson 2002). Anarchists often use Critical Mass as a tool to allow others to “experience anarchy”, and to spread the word about other anarchist projects and events happening in the local area.

Other anarchist direct action strategies assume a less confrontational, and more pro-active and creative orientation. While these approaches are still “protest” of a certain kind, they are less likely to be labeled as such and to emerge during protest events. Two anarchist organizations are not just symbolic in terms of the values their names imply, but also in the consequences their actions suggest. Food Not Bombs (FNB) and Homes Not Jails (HNJ) indicate specific anarchist values about the world within their organizational names, but also utilize direct action to offer examples of potential ways to reorganize social relationships and societal priorities. FNB collects food that would otherwise be thrown-out, cooks meals using the food, and then shares the meals with anyone who would like to eat them, often homeless people. The organization opposes militarism and corporate profiteering, and instead suggests a symbolic reorientation of priorities towards human needs, like housing, food, education, and health care (Butler & McHenry 2000, Gelderloos 2006b). HNJ targets the need for adequate housing more specifically; activists squat abandoned buildings, fix the buildings, and provide the space to homeless families to live in (Roy 2003). This direct action suggests that homelessness and unemployment often lead to downward spirals into desperation, crime, and violence. HNJ represents how basic human needs like housing are essential to stem the tide of rising crime rates and imprisonment—which they argue unfairly harms the poor and people of color.

Perhaps the most dramatic forms of non-street direct action is organized by radical environmentalists, such as Earth First! (EF!). In order to protect old-growth forests from being logged, EF! activists engage in creative forms of civil disobedience, including road blockading and tree-sitting. By occupying stands built high in trees, EF!ers prevent loggers from chopping trees in large areas unless they wish to be responsible for putting tree-sitter lives in danger. This photogenic tactic has been highly successful in many EF! campaigns in recent years in North America (Ingalsbee 1996, London 1998). In the UK, EF! groups have been active in the anti-roads movement where they attempted to prevent new roads from being built (Welsh & McLeish 1996). EF! originally employed a strategy more reliant upon sabotage, but today it focuses upon civil disobedience (Balser 1997), still emphasizing the intensity of resistance to environmental destruction in its slogan: “no compromise in defense of Mother Earth”. EF! sympathizers who wish to engage in eco-sabotage and property destruction are encouraged to do so under the moniker of the ELF, and keep EF! actions within the realm of civil disobedience (Molland 2006).

Direct action is an integral part of the anarchist praxis. Such actions embody polemical symbolism, often illustrating polar opposites: hierarchy and oppression on the one hand, freedom and egalitarianism on the other. However, unlike other movements where symbolism is enough to motivate others (e.g. politicians) to respond, symbolic anarchist actions actually aim to immediately further the goal of a less authoritarian future. Consequently, while usually symbolic, anarchist direct action is also substantive, not merely illustrative. Many of the aforementioned examples of anarchist groupings, including FNB, HNJ, and EF! involve practical and often material resistance, thus differentiating these anarchist tendencies from the more theatrical. “Direct action” is often understood to be an important anarchist quality (Rocker 2004) and, symbolic or not, anarchism is thus a radical and practical movement. Anarchist direct action does not only aim to avoid taking political power in the course of acquiring self-determination, but actively seeks to usurp political power itself. Thus, instead of relying upon representatives to act in one’s favor, anarchists diminish such representative’s influence by accomplishing goals without external assistance. Anarchism does aim to empower others, but not through the means of conventional politics.


[X] For more on autonomist Marxists, see Katsiaficas (2006).

[XX] Ryan (2006) suggests that the black bloc got its name from the black hooded sweatshirts that were the unofficial uniform of Central European squatters. The color could endure stains without showing (p. 50).

[XXX] See One Off Press (2001) for such debates—and a particularly enthusiastic defense of confrontational protest—centered around the 2001 anti-G8 protests in Genoa, Italy.

[XXXX] See CIRCA's website at: See more on the Radical Cheerleaders (and their cheers) at:


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