The lessons of may

Thesis I – Reflection, not Ritual

Thesis IIAbandon centralization when faced with unfavorable odds

Thesis IIISpread the ‘how’, not just the ‘why’


May 1st, 2012 once again posed the question of repression and self-defense, like October 1st, 2nd and May 1st 2011 did before it. A question that has yet to be answered appropriately. This contribution aims to investigate what happened and how to proceed from there. It offers no definitive answers, only suggestions to be taken up or discarded.

So, what happened?

May Day 2012, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

At the start of the demonstration on the Mercatorplein, there was virtually no police presence, save for a few regular cops. As the square started to fill, at least 2 snatch squads in plainclothes arrived, observing and mixing with the crowd, discussing amongst themselves. During the speeches more and more regular cops started to arrive but there was no sign of any riot squads yet.

As the demonstration took off, it was flanked by a few regular cops and the snatch squads, followed by a police video registration vehicle close to the back banner of the demonstration. The march proceeded up the Jan Evertsenstraat only to find the street blocked by a line of mounted riot cops positioned in front of a water cannon. As the demonstration turned around, the video registration vehicle and a riot squad van sped forward to position themselves behind the mounted formation. Simultaneously, two riot squad vans drive up toward the left flank of the demonstration while multiple vans start coming in from the direction of the Mercatorplein. Before the demonstration is capable of heading towards one of the side streets (the left of which is already blocked by vans), two formations of riot cops start covering the left and front flanks of the demonstration while another headed to the right to close off the side street. The riot squad formations on the left and front flanks of the demonstration form a closed circle joining up with the formation which had previously closed of the right street, effectively kettling the demonstration. At the same time, the mounted formation had moved forward to back up the riot cops covering the front of the demonstration while no less than 6 vans and a video registration vehicle covered the back. From this point on, moving out of the kettle meant having to break through a riot cop formation, getting through or over the vans closing of the street and all the while avoiding the snatch squads. The moment the kettle was closed, the riot squad formation stayed within baton’s reach of the entire demonstration so that any attempt at escape or defense would immediately have resulted in direct reprisals. The mass of demonstrators was packed so tightly together by the advancing riot cops that movement had become hard and there was little room for any maneuvers, let alone self-defense using banners or sticks.

This allowed the snatch squads to operate with more impunity than usually with the riot squad formations periodically opening up to allow passage and covering the snatch squads by engaging in baton charges against everybody in the vicinity of the snatch squad point of entry. Snatch squads typically operate in teams of 7 with 1 commander, two officers engaging in the actual grabbing and 4 others creating a safe ‘working area’ and shielding off the two ‘grabbers’. The snatch squad operations initially seemed aimed at removing the banners surrounding the demonstration and taking out people with flags but proceeded to arrest quite a few people who carried neither.

During this entire operation video registration vehicles were positioned in front and at the back of the demonstration, recording all events and monitoring them real-time so as to supply both riot squads and snatch squads with information about the demonstration and where to expect resistance. Similarly, during all operations of the snatch squads, a member of the police observation team filmed the entire affair.

Looking back, the only moment a breakthrough would have been possible is in the short space of ‘hesitation’ that occurred after turning around, when the right side street and the way back to the Mercatorplein (which would have offered better chances of dispersing and escaping a potential kettle or holding our own) was still open. This would have required marching on resolutely, something that was hard because there was no preparation for this possibility. In addition, it might have been possible to break through the riot squad lines in the first few moments of the kettle, before the riot vans had blocked off all exit routes and the entire demonstration was in baton’s reach. But again, this would have required being prepared (both mentally and physically) for this possibility and acting on it without a second thought. These scenarios seem implausible though given the general character of the demonstration and the fact that an escape from the initial attempt at kettling would most likely have been met with a riot squad formation blocking of the streets near the exit route.

Of kettles and crowds

The situation that arose during this demonstration isn’t very different from the one during the 1st of may 2011 demonstration in Utrecht. There, too, a line of mounted riot cops blocked off the route (but was broken through because there were no riot cops covering the back or flanks of the demonstration). As the demonstration proceeded a partial circle of at least 2 lines of riot cops closed of the route, only to be joined by a final formation pushing the demonstration into the kettle which again served to keep the demonstrators within baton’s reach so the snatch squads could operate with impunity.

This police strategy is only possible because of a few factors:

    • Size: Kettling is only possible for crowds that are either very passive/avoiding any confrontation or are small enough to be kettled. Usually, larger crowds are first broken up by a few riot squad charges before kettling of the smaller subcrowds is possible. With demonstrations of at most 300 people, given the right location, kettling is only a matter of surrounding the crowd within a short timeframe and solidifying the riot squad lines afterwards. The use of vans is particularly efficient because they can easily block a narrow street and can only be climbed over, not pushed out of the way or broken through, like police lines. When smaller crowds are expected, or the urban terrain is suitable for kettling, we should consider other strategies.
    • Location: Kettling is essentially the formation of an ever tightening police cordon around a mass of people in order to contain them in a specific place, for a specific timeframe, for specific reasons (in order to prevent them marching, in order to arrest them, etc.). When forming a kettle, the crowd has to be surrounded first, it’s exit routes blocked off. This is easier when a crowd is located in a one-way street or other passages with few and narrow exit routes. These, often linear, routes force large crowds to limit their width and favor the defender, something known as the ‘funnel effect’ in military jargon and something that can mainly be mitigated by reliance upon long-range offensive weapons to compensate for the reduction in crowd width. Large, open fields or squares, on the other hand, allow a crowd that spots the kettle on time to disperse and regroup outside of the reach of riot squad formations.
    • Density: It is easier to kettle a crowd that is already densely packed than one that is dispersed and fluid for the simple reason that the latter takes up more space and thus requires more cops to surround. Avoiding density and spreading over an area with a radius as large as possible puts more strain on police resources and makes kettling harder. On the other hand, loose crowds are broken up easier, can be beaten together by a few baton charges and are easy prey for snatch squads.
    • Preparation: When a crowd is not yet fully kettled and there is still room for maneuvering, a prepared and dedicated crowd (or minority within that crowd) can usually force it’s way out in the same way a riot squad can force it’s way in, by forming a wedge directing force at a single point while driving away cover. When faced with a situation where kettling is hard to avoid, due to surprise, small crowds or urban terrain, this is often the only option left apart from surrender or impotent waiting. It’s success, however, depends on how well coordinated and materially and mentally prepared demonstrators are, an option that’s best to be avoided except as a ‘last resort’ because of the potential physical and legal repercussions.

If not this, then what?

The core problem with situations like these, however, is not one of tactics per se, of ‘how to avoid a kettle’ or ‘how to break out of it’. It’s a problem that arises from a lack of strategy, a lack of critical evaluation of past experiences. The demonstrations of the 1st of may 2010 and the 1st of October 2010 were successful in holding off riot cops using banners and a well-prepared and dedicated group of protesters challenged the snatch squads. But simply repeating those forms at every demonstration and hoping it will magically yield the same results without expecting the police to adapt is naïve at best.

Thesis IReflection, not Ritual

A ritual is defined as a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. They are usually tied to tradition, repetition and a stylized preference of form over content. They have social merit and can serve as a set rallying point or implicit guide to action. However, they seem to be a byproduct of a lack of reflection as well.

May Day is, in itself, a ritual. There is nothing bad about that, on the contrary. It allows us to have a set gathering point in time to coordinate our actions and work towards this moment. However, what lacks is another ritual. That of coordinated critical reflection. The formulas of the past are excavated time and time again and re-applied without a moment’s thought. And when they don’t work, there is too little strategic recalibration.

The problem lies with not knowing what form a demonstration or series of actions should take when we want to achieve particular results. When we want to be able to defend ourselves, something that without a doubt has become an absolute necessity, especially in recent years, or want to present a more militant demo practice, we should consider how and where we apply such measures.

For example, the tactic of the Black Bloc outside of mass demonstrations is quite risky. Police forces aren’t spread as thin as they should be, the bloc is easily overwhelmed or ketteled, etc. Paraphrasing the Crimethinc collective:

a. The Bloc should not operate without either the element of surprise or the benefit of broad crowd cover, at least not unless it is expected to be of vast numbers, high morale, and great defensive experience, or unless the purpose of the action is to get a lot of participants arrested.

b. Those operating in a Bloc need to have the support or at least the respect of some, if not most, of those outside the Bloc, so as to ensure their safety on the field, let alone general good will in the activist community. In one historic instance, a Black Bloc was surrounded and cornered by police, who were moving in to finish it off when a march organized by a liberal women’s organization was re-routed to pass through the area and provide members of the Bloc with an opportunity to blend in and escape. To this end, it helps a great deal if the goals or targets of the Bloc are instantly comprehensible to outsiders, so whether or not others agree with the tactic itself they can at least understand why it is being employed.

c. On the other hand, there are cases in which none of these rules of thumb is relevant. Entirely outside the realm of mass actions, as long as the element of surprise is present, there are many other environments in which the Bloc tactic can be applied; indeed, such applications may be the most promising for the future of the Bloc, now that police are very familiar with and prepared for Bloc presence at demonstrations. A Bloc operating swiftly and with the element of surprise against an unsuspecting target can accomplish a great deal, especially if it is of decent size.

d. When acting in a Bloc with no demonstrating mass for cover, the most important advantage you have to work with is surprise. If you organize in such a way that the authorities in question don’t see your action coming, you may be able to get everything done and escape before they’re able to respond. Even when they do arrive, chances are they will not be prepared to make mass arrests, so you can expect them to attempt only to seize individuals; in this situation, the individuals carrying out high risk actions may be able to disappear in the commotion (enthusiasts of civil disobedience could even snarl the police up in petty arrests to facilitate this, though they might thus risk a conspiracy charge if they were connected to the Bloc)—or, if the group is able to act with a high degree of solidarity and audacity, staying close together and not permitting police to get their hands on individuals within it, it might be possible to negotiate a departure en masse, though you can expect to be followed at the very least.

In addition, the functioning of a militant demonstration is only the sum of its parts. When people arrive, unprepared for what might happen, not knowing where others are headed when ‘shit hits the fan’ or whether people have got their backs, coordination becomes difficult and chaos ensues. Again quoting Crimethinc:

Naturally, the affinity group is the basic building block of any Bloc. It is impossible to overstate the importance of engaging in Bloc activity as part of a small group capable of fending for itself and making decisions; to do otherwise is to abdicate responsibility for yourself to the mass, and to deny that mass the benefit of your participation as an equal. Blocs made up of self-sufficient affinity groups can make democratic decisions quickly, can split up into equally effective smaller groups, can handle stressful situations without the added stress of herding a flock of confused followers. It goes without saying that within your affinity group, you should establish common expectations about what goals are, what level of risk is acceptable, what kind of security is appropriate.

Regardless of the total size of the Bloc, each affinity group should be totally self-sustaining, at least in regards to the goals it intends to achieve. Escape routes, legal resources, emergency backup plans, knowledge of the area—every affinity group should have all of these. A buddy system inside a group is useful, so if the group itself is dispersed individuals can take responsibility for the safety and whereabouts of their partners.

This practice is far too often lacking, with people joining and participating in demonstrations as individuals without a clear idea of what kind of action to undertake, when to stay, when to leave, etc. leading to additional panic and a splintering of the bloc.

Thesis IIAbandon centralization when faced with unfavorable odds

In practice this means that central blocks or demonstrations that want to be able to defend themselves against the cops or just don’t want to walk another pointless circle-march through the city should be considered only if a reasonable mass of protesters can be expected (such as more general mass-protests) or when preparations are tight and conditions fully favor such an approach. In such a situation, it is possible to operate on our own terms while having the benefits of a mass march, considering we avoid isolating ourselves. When this is not the case, we cannot try to have both because we’ll end up with neither. When we know there is little chance at mass turnout and we know there is a real possibility of repression, because of regional police policy or the type of event, we should consider decentralization.

Clinging to the formulas of yesteryear, sometimes even to that of the ‘specter of Seattle’, will serve us no good. The state deeply examines the geography, duration and intensity of all struggles. It employs armies of urban geographers, social psychologists, intelligence officers, technical specialists and political scientists to develop policing techniques in the aftermath of anything that threatens to escape state control. This holds true for sports events turned sour with soccer hooligans, working class neighborhoods erupting into riots, disorganized youth violence, wildcat strikes as well as political confrontations. The state studies, investigates, distills intelligence and recalibrates its entire body of violence. We cannot count on pure numerical superiority and spontaneity; instead we have to develop a practice that is in constant evaluation, that is unpredictable and fluid.

A demonstration can serve multiple purposes, chief among them being either ‘sending a collective message’, ‘getting together’ or acting as a platform for a variety of actions in itself. The former only make sense when connected to other struggles, not as a general statement ‘against this’ or ‘for that’ and as such should be considered in the light of those struggles and their dynamic. The latter can be accomplished just as well in a decentralized fashion.

Our struggle should not be exclusively limited to confined spaces, to summits where the elite meet or to designated protest-spots reserved for ‘contained indignation’. Instead, revolt should be more in line with the view both the police and military theory take where every place and time is a potential terrain of conflict.

When we want to avoid people falling prey to police violence and have a demonstration that acts as a platform for a variety of actions, then we should consider organizing through a variety of affinity groups which undertake those actions simultaneously at various locations in the same city or in various cities around the same timeframe. This way, the actions are linked together conceptually, have a bigger impact because of the multitude of actions occurring next to them and it becomes harder for the police to respond effectively. Their tactics, after all, are based on the movement of rigid formations, closed riot squad lines moving from one position to another, covering each other yet all limited to one area in one city.

We could see a glimpse of this ineffectiveness during the student protests in January of 2011 where students scattered so massively and so widely that the riot cops could do little but retreat to defend key positions and block of central streets. Even when they succeeded in holding of the tail of the crowd surging toward the ministry of education, they eventually had to let most of them go because of sheer lack of manpower to control the entire situation. The only units capable of operating effectively throughout the city where mounted riot squads and snatch squads, who eventually managed to aid the regular riot squad in clearing squares because they were met with little resistance from the students. Kettling, however, was impossible.

Thesis IIISpread the ‘how’, not just the ‘why’

Organizing a single event in decentralized fashion doesn’t necessarily require a lot of intra-group trust or close-knit organizing but merely an organizational platform setting out the general idea behind the action (as was done for this 1st of may), what the theme of agitation is and where actions are best to occur along with the note that actions should be up to individuals and affinity groups. The downside is that this approach is that is seems somewhat less accessible for those with little to no experience in demonstrations. However, the same holds true for central demonstrations which are eventually kettled and exposed to police violence.

Hence it is best to, when undertaking actions, spread the ‘how’ as well as the ‘why’. So instead of just using propaganda to explain our actions, why we demonstrate, why we form a blockade, etc. we should explain how to participate – as if it were a game with simple rules. Actions then will become not only propaganda but also an open invitation. When people see how easy it is to undertake action with a small group of trusted friends or comrades who feel the same, the material and mental barrier to entry is lowered dramatically and we avoid a spiral of specialization and marginalization. We should seek to spread anarchism as a practice, as a lived experience, not as a mere idea.

Eventually, when a practice of decentralized action has become widespread, joining in with actions in a decentralized fashion might become as normal as joining a march starting at a central location. The UK student movement has already shown this to be possible, with large marches merely covering a whole host of decentralized, autonomous actions organized through Facebook. The recent London riots have shown that informal and flexible networks of youths text-messaging each-other can turn out to have quite a collective, coordinated impact and the Occupy movement in the USA (most notably Occupy Oakland and the various Occupy May Day actions of 2012) have taught similar lessons.

Toward the 1st of may, or whenever…

The question is, what do we want from may 1st? Do we want it to be a mere propaganda exercise? Do we want to make it a day where various campaigns and struggles are connected in a single march or a series of actions? There are those who might claim that avoiding taking any kind of flag, facial covering or banners with us would allow us to march undisturbed, but this is problematic on many fronts.

First of all, if we give in to every demand the state ever makes simply because the alternative is state violence, we could just as well cease to be revolutionaries, whose aim goes quite a bit further than having a march, one assumes. Secondly, do we want to have only marches from A to B, where we shout slogans, hand out leaflets, completely submit to arbitrary police violence and go home afterwards? Sometimes a simple march and a few leaflets are the best kind of demonstration for that particular moment, but this should not be the general principle and it certainly won’t work if we aim to go beyond impotent activism and towards a movement with teeth. Thirdly, even if we give in to all demands, past experiences show that this is no guarantee to avoid being held by the cops and subjected to repression. Peaceful, defenseless blockades or marches to ‘sensitive’ buildings like embassies or government offices are met with just as much force as demonstrations which are more militant. On the other hand, in some situations we have been able to carry equal amounts of facial covering, banners and flags without repression, such as during March 31st 2012 in Utrecht. Whether this is the result of the peculiar political situation of the mayor in that city or not is not the point.
Lastly, if we do not develop the capacity to defend ourselves and strike back if necessary, we might as well abandon the aim of revolution, an affair which will involve confrontations on a far larger scale and of a more intense nature than the repression of a single demonstration, as the Arab spring, the situation in southern Europe and the Occupy movement in the USA show us. We’ll have to develop an appropriate culture of resistance sometime, albeit in an intelligent and calculated manner.

So, to avoid a ritual repetition of may 1st we’ll have to consider what angle we want to work on, how to experiment with such a practice, investigating the benefits and downsides of the various approaches and make clear what we want of our marches. One thing, however, is clear: we’ll have to abandon the current model and steer towards more fruitful fields.

Video material of May Day 2012:

AT5, Local news

Spirit of Squatters Collective

Some relevant reading material:

Blocs, Black and otherwiseCrimethinc

The Black Block, a hopefully more interesting critique – Anonymous

Occupy Oakland is Dead, Long live the Oakland Commune – Bay of Rage

The New Repression: May Day 2012, Berlin – Crimethinc

Yes, And – Society for the Advancement of Criminal Science

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