To Disobey and Get Away
November 29, 2013 § 6 Comments
For those unaware of my biases going into this piece, I would like to lay them bare. For one, I believe human industrial activity is destructive to life globally, through the addition of toxins to ecosystems and organisms, to deforestation, climate change, etc. I believe that unless human industrial activity is halted, the mass extinction that this activity has already set underway, will cause ecosystem collapse and likely human extinction as well.
I also believe that human political systems and economic systems have been designed to contain within them no “legal” means of dismantling them. This is to say for instance, that the U.S. government as it is laid out does not contain a legal and accessible path for the so-called citizens of the United States to unmake the U.S. government. The only power “citizens” of the United States have is to vote (so long as they have not been convicted of a felony, are not in prison, have a valid address, and are above the age of eighteen) for politicians and to ask these politicians to act in a certain manner. One cannot vote to end the U.S. government. One cannot vote to abolish the congress or the presidency, etc. This is the bind most people find themselves in around the globe. National governments are allied in purpose and practice with capitalist business enterprises which all seek to exploit the natural world and the labor of the masses for profit.
If the premises I laid out are true — that human industrial activity is destructive to life on Earth, and that this activity is supported and promoted by governments which cannot by any “legitimate” methods be unmade — then people who struggle against this system must break the law; that, or acquiesce to the fate laid out for them. My personal preference is the struggle, and this has been a topic of discussion lately in more and more mainstream circles. Even actor Matt Damon, reading a speech by deceased historian Howard Zinn on civil disobedience, recently aired this conclusion.
In radical anti-capitalist circles, the system at large which combines state and private wealth, force, and power is often referred to as “the machine.” It is an apropos description in that interworking human organizations are a technology of sorts, and that as in a machine, no one part is responsible for the machine’s total behavior, yet each part is necessary for it to function.
If the situation we find ourselves in which I described above is accurate, where then in this machine should those who resist it, strike? Which “gear” as it were, would be the most vulnerable to pressure, allowing those who would fight to save the living planet and human dignity even a remote chance at success?
Often, in conversation at various levels, the “consumer” is blamed for the ills of the world. It is the “consumer” who drives demand for petroleum products. It is the “consumer” who purchases sweat shop labor products from low wage paying big box retailers. This is the argument put forth by those who sit in the upper echelons of the social hierarchy, blaming those in the classes beneath them for “demanding” that corporations set out to drill new deep water wells in the ocean or blow up the mountaintops that sit above coal deposits.
It’s not surprising that those who are rewarded handsomely for sitting in a controlling position at a corporation that is responsible for massive ecological damage would shift the responsibility from themselves to those who ultimately buy their products. It’s more disheartening when those who are themselves a part of the underclasses of society accept this blame and hand it out horizontally.
What this myth of consumer responsibility actually accomplishes is not only to create a self-chastizing public that refuses to apportion responsibility to those who actively decided to engage in destructive practice, but it also generates a motive to seek products that are supposedly less harmful in their creation. This is the force behind “green capitalism.” With this mode of thinking in place, capitalism is safe to continue on it’s way, and the masses who are concerned with the continually growing pace at which ecosystems are destroyed will be convinced that the solution is not in resistance to capitalism, but is in fact on a store shelf waiting to be purchased. This is of course, ludicrous.
Capitalism has as it’s founding motivation, profit. Profit requires growth. As all production is sourced in the natural world, growth necessarily requires larger and larger swathes of the natural world be destroyed so they can be made into commodities to be sold for profit. It doesn’t matter at all if the cars coming off of assembly lines are hybrids, they still require vast mining operations to access the raw materials from which they are made, they still require energy drawn from fossil fuels to be assembled and distributed, they still require for construction a vast workforce fed by mono-crop petroleum based agriculture, and they still require a large quantity of purchasers who acquire the currency for said purchase through labor in the growth based paradigm.
The argument placing the bulk of the responsibility for the destruction of capitalist enterprise on the “consumer” (in quotes because I do not find it wise to condense people to beings whose sole function is to consume) is absurd for a multitude of other reasons. The most glaring, is that not purchasing a product will not necessarily make it disappear. Vegans and vegetarians could easily contest to the fact that their refusal to purchase meat hasn’t actually shut down a single slaughterhouse or feedlot. Their choice to abstain from purchasing product from an industry they despise may make them feel better, but it is not harming that industry. Also, certain industries are backed financially by the state. As airlines have found themselves less and less financially stable over the past decade, the U.S. government has stepped in to keep them afloat. The arms industry is another great example of this. Consumers do not buy depleted uranium munitions, fighter jets, or nuclear missiles, yet they exist in great numbers. The corporations that produce them reap billions and never once have to concern themselves with public perception. The same is true with petroleum companies who receive billions of dollars in subsidies from the U.S. government. If a massive boycott were to commence against oil companies, the U.S. government would deem them “too big to fail,” and would step in and support them financially, as the U.S. government itself is dependent upon a petroleum driven military apparatus and economy.
Less obvious, is that the organization of society itself requires that people utilize certain products in order to survive, primarily, petroleum. Using the U.S. as a template, before petroleum the physical layout of towns and cities was far different than it is today. Mostly due to the age of oil, the creation of the highway system, and with the implementation of zoning concepts, people’s lives and the necessities of life became more and more spread out geographically. The homes were built in one place, the food was grown in another place, and the jobs where people could labor to acquire currency were in another place. A reliance on cars and semi-trucks (a reliance intentionally manufactured by for profit entities such as Standard Oil, General Motors, and Firestone Tire with the aid of government) has built in a requirement for people to depend on the internal combustion engine. Even living in an urban area, where one may predominantly ride a bicycle (ignoring for a moment where that bicycle came from) the food people eat is grown an average of fifteen-hundred miles away from them on petroleum dependent farms, and trucked about the country until it reaches their nearest grocery store. This is true for the clothing they wear, the water they drink, the medicines they take; it all comes from somewhere else and becomes accessible to them via a hydrocarbon. This was a system designed for maximum profit, and no “consumer” can un-design it. To abstain from it would mean death, or at least destitution. The destitute fall victim to the police.
Even if we pushed on our “consumer” and barked, “Go live in the woods if you want to stop the machine of industrial capitalism! Stop supporting it!” Where would they go? Capitalism has sliced and diced all the land and sold it to those with access to capital, or the state has taken it for their own, so they can slowly sell it to industry. There is no place one can legally, permanently settle without first acquiring capital, which requires participation in the system. Not to mention, the surface water is now all poisoned with agricultural run off, mercury from coal fired power plants, etc. so even attempting to live in national parks, hiding from the park staff becomes mostly untenable, and leaves one prey for the state.
It is extremely common for people who have come to recognize the many political, economic, and cultural calamities we face to believe solutions will come from the top of the social hierarchy. The status quo meme is that by pressuring those with political and economic power, the masses can influence the decisions made in governments and businesses for the better. While this may occasionally be true on small issues, these issues are usually symptomatic of the greater malaise of industrial capitalism, and thus they are band aid measures only. If we are talking about actually taking apart the power structures that are rapidly bringing us closer and closer to our demise (and simultaneously existing on a foundation of human misery) then appealing to those in power is pointless. If they had any conscience to appeal to, they likely wouldn’t be actively making unconscionable choices to begin with. Beyond that, even from within the system the system cannot be demolished. The President does not have the power to unmake the executive branch of government. The congress cannot — and would not — abolish capitalism. It’s silly to even pontificate on how the rich and powerful would decide that they should no longer be rich and powerful, let alone go through the process of making this delusion a reality.
So where does this leave us? If the individual’s lifestyle choices have no ability to dismantle industrial capitalism, and if even the people who hold high offices in either state or capital cannot (and absolutely would not) dismantle industrial capitalism, then are we to believe that there is absolutely no method by which this destructive system can be dismantled? That does not seem possible. Systems of human organization are constructs that exist in human minds only. These constructs are made to seem real by the violence perpetuated against those who violate the edicts of the system, but they are indisputably imaginary. We cannot accept that the systems humans invented are permanent and fixed and we are resigned to allow them to play out to their cataclysmic conclusions.
The police, I would like to offer, are one of (if not the) largest obstacles to dismantling the overarching systems of state, capital, and culture which we must remove and replace if we are to survive, and to survive with dignity. I suggest this because without the police the system of capital could not stand. As it exists now, the world is extremely stratified as far as wealth and access to resources are concerned. Obviously, the wealth gap between the west and the global poor is enormous to the point of being disgusting. Even within the west, the wealth gap is quite significant we all know. This wealth gap is maintained they will say, by law, and law is maintained by the force of police and the penal system. I may be belaboring this point, but for a very specific reason, namely that my stated premise at the outset of this essay is that there is no legal method of dismantling the political or economical systems. At the very bottom of our understanding we must embrace the conclusion that the law must be broken, and that the police are the primary hurdle to strategic law breaking.
During the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, multiple attempts were made across the United States to occupy not only parks, but buildings. in other words, to move the struggle from public space (which was still met with violence) to “private property.” The most notable attempt to occupy “private property” was arguably Occupy Oakland’s attempt to occupy a vacant convention center with the intent to create a community center to house the homeless, among other goals. The police in Oakland, working on behalf of the local government in one regard, but working on behalf of the entire system of capitalism and “private property” in another, used swift and brutal violence to beat back would be occupiers.
It seems obvious to me that the point of fracture that must be exploited is at the level of the police. Look at any resistance movement, whether a direct resistance to the claims of the owner class, a resistance to the ecological destruction and genocide of fossil fuel extraction, or even the small and constant unarticulated resistance of life in poverty (whether squatting, stealing to survive, being evicted, selling drugs, breaking zoning laws to garden, etc.) and you will find in every instance, the police are called in to exert violence against the so called “perpetrators.” People have been throwing their bodies into the gears of the machine for generations. Whether striking coal miners and autoworkers in the early part of the twentieth century, or environmental activists who defend forests from the canopies or who set bulldozers on fire, the will to resist capitalism’s immiseration of themselves and their communities has always been and is still real and present.
What there isn’t, at least at this time, is a willingness to overwhelm the police with a greater violence than they mete out, at least not in the comfortable west. Perhaps at this time, this unwillingness to go on the attack against the police is wise. After all, the consequences of failure are severe. In time, the consequences of not going on the attack against the police may become more readily severe and thus change this attitude, but right now, other strategies to sap the police of their power should be employed.
It’s common parlance when speaking of revolution to reference the pillars of power – the ideological and social foundations which hold up any system of power – and how successful revolutions must knock out these supports. In a popular web video called “Revolution, an Instruction Manual,” that was recently released, these pillars are referenced:
“There are three stages of revolution. They are sequential, and they correlate directly with the three pillars of power. The first is the ideological revolution. This is where we undermine the belief systems which support their control, this is where we systematically erode at their illusion of legitimacy, their aura of power. We expose these criminals for the scoundrels that they are and we inspire discontent among those who the state depends on for its functioning. If you’re new to this, welcome to the party. It’s already in full swing, and guess what we’re winning. The powers that be have lost control of the dialogue, and they know it. The second phase is of the revolution is strategic non-compliance or more accurately defiance. This can take many forms, and multiple approaches can be used at the same time. The goal of strategic non-compliance is to interrupt the chain of obedience for as long as possible as many times as possible, to publicize that interruption on as large a scale as possible, to document the police and or military brutality that follows and to distribute that footage far and wide. The purpose of this is to damage the ruling party’s image, because power is all about image. It’s all smoke and mirrors.”
There have been many instances in history where leaders have been overthrown. There have been very few, if any, in which a total revolution has occurred. Rulers and politicians have been ousted, new constitutions written, but almost all political revolutions have left some form of capitalism in their wakes, including the communist revolutions which never dissolved their states, and ultimately turned to state capitalism. It should be stated though, that in the instances where governments have been toppled, it has often been the case that the police and security forces have eventually capitulated to the will of the masses, in essence, ceasing to fight them and either fighting alongside them, or stepping aside altogether. This was the case in East Germany before the collapse of Soviet Communism and it was the case in Egypt before the ouster of Mubarak. It should be noted that in the latter case, anti-Mubarak demonstrators did burn police stations, free prisoners, and take the weaponry abandoned there.
According to Mohamed Gamal Bashir, who participated in the revolution:
“Let’s not forget what happened in the days between 25 January and 28 January, this glossed over part of history,” he says. “There were constant clashes in Omraneya for example, and there were people in Talbiya trying to get to the Foreign Ministry. The fighting continued long after the political elite were tear-gassed out of the square on 25 January.” Bashir speaks of the “harafish,” whom he defines as youth with no prospects who often skirt the edge of the law. He claims that their actions led to the revolution’s success. He says that they burnt police stations in their neighborhoods in response to decades of oppression by police against the poor. “The power of this revolution came from these harafish burning police stations and from the collapse of the Interior Ministry. That was utilized by the political elites who centralized the struggle in Tahrir Square. Without this confrontation, the revolution wouldn’t have been possible, and every police station was burnt to the ground because people have been dying inside them for years.”
Delegitimizing the police sounds like a monumental task, especially in countries of privilege and propaganda such as the US. In the US, Hollywood has carried water, so to speak, for the police for the better part of a century. TV shows and films have consistently presented the police as selfless heroes, who even when they break the law only ever do so for the greater good of the innocent. Reality television shows such as “C.O.P.S.” present a narrative of law breakers never getting away from the police, which not only adds to the mystification of the role of police, but makes law breaking seem impossible to get away with. Media outlets, pundit talk shows and the like, always present police and law as sacrosanct and unquestionable, shouting down anyone who suggests that police are violent or unnecessary. Even in cases of blatant abuse and brutality, media outlets run straight faced and supposedly “level-headed” statements about investigations into said abuse, asking the public for patience while the facts of the case are brought to light. Usually, after such statements in which police higher ups defend actions of brutality as “justified,” the case is swept from public view and the offending officer is returned to station.
Again, confronting the police then in the US and similar states not only means confronting their truncheons, but confronting their image. Cop watching is an amazing tool in this regard, as more and more people post to the internet videos of police acting out violently. But this is not enough. It’s not enough to witness abuse of power if it is not contextualized. The media, doing the work of the social hierarchy, will always blanket the police and their actions no matter how egregious under the context which preserves the system. Derrick Jensen describes this very well in EndGame with his fourth premise:
“Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.”
The long and short of this premise is, “Cop hits you, he gets away with it. You hit cop, you do time.” There may be no immediate way to eliminate the legal consequences of defending oneself against a police officer, but the social context which surrounds this premise can change with concerted effort.
We must also acknowledge that it is not enough to decry the police for perceived misuses of their power, because this allows the police as an institution to remain valid in the eyes of the public. Police in general must be delegitimized. The very idea that a small group of primarily white males can use violence against anyone else, and that no one is allowed to defend themselves against this violence must be shown for the grotesque perversion that it is. Unfortunately, the status quo perception of society requires police to maintain it, so delegitimizing the police as an institution often first requires delegitimizing society itself. This is a difficult Mobius strip of reasoning to have to impart. Humans left free to associate and organize as they please do not require police to maintain their social structures unless these social structures create social strata of “haves” and “have nots.” I think it’s reasonable to assert that no person will voluntarily arrange themselves as a “have not,” and would instead leave a social organism that would make them “lesser” than others, ultimately meaning such social organisms would not exist, or would not exist for very long. Er go, truly liberated societies axiomatically are societies which do not need police and could not have them. Societies that require police to maintain themselves are not free societies, and are thus bound by violence.
This point is succinctly made by Earth First! Journal editor Panagioti in his essay, “The Ecology of a Police State.”
He starts off by stating, “Imagine being an environmental activist in a world where police can get away with killing young people for vandalizing a fast food joint; where a government’s local law enforcers are collaborating with giant energy corporations to stifle opposition; where a sheriff demands funding for a program urging neighbors to snitch on anyone who says they hate said government. Sadly it doesn’t take much imagination, does it? In case you weren’t inspired to click the embedded links above, they reference recent stories of these things occurring in the US. In light of this reality, it’s crystal clear that global ecology will never be stabilized as long as the police have anything to do with it.”
Further into his essay Panagioti references practical methods and attempts at weakening local police forces:
“I know, many of you are nauseous just reading the words “vote” and “election,” but I’m not saying you shouldn’t be sick to your stomach. I’m saying suck it up and learn what’s going on around you. If you avoided every bathroom that smelled like shit, you’d be in a lot of pain and doing possible damage to your excretory system. Likewise, if you ignore what your enemies are doing because its unsavory to your senses… maybe you’re more of a liberal yuppie than you realized. So hold your nose and try going to some City or County Commission meetings for starters. If you live in the New England area, local budgets might actually be something people are already organizing around. If you live anywhere else, it will probably be you and a few other Libertarian Party wingnuts in the crowd. Try and make friends with them, even if they’re drooling on themselves or foaming at the mouth. Chances are they can explain to you in simple terms how the budget works and who the players are. Oh, and try to look half-way decent. Most of these things are televised, and, for better or worse, its likely that someone will approach you in a local bar and say they saw you on the TV.”
What this boils down to is finding ways to make the police less effective. Whether through sticker and wheat paste campaigns using humor as the Otpor! movement in Serbia did, or through local referendums concerning police budgets, or sabotaging police equipment, the time to whittle away at police power is in between flare ups of massive social anger and action, so when it is crucial, police are weaker in the streets, and fewer and further between in the rural areas where devastating infrastructure usually is built.
Which tactic is best employed at which time is a decision to be made by individuals, the larger take away here being that the police and the penal system are the thin blue line between the will to move beyond capitalism, and the ability to do so. While frightening, is there any other conclusion when one recognizes the need for disobedience? When it becomes an accepted reality that laws must be broken for our continued survival, is it not cognitive dissonance to think attacking the law enforcement structure is unnecessary?
We won’t shop our way to a livable planet. We won’t vote our way to a livable planet. We won’t garden our way to a livable planet. We will not maintain a livable planet hiding in our homes, waiting for those with power and wealth to make it so. We will not survive if we are obedient to those who run the machine. To be sure, even outright attacking the industries that kill the living planet may not be enough. There is no reason to hope, only a roll of the dice that is heavily weighted against us. But we have allies. Hurricanes and droughts and wildfires and all of the other natural forces of destruction will grow in frequency as human civilization further destabilizes the climate. We can let the juggernaut of calamity bowl over us, primarily the least among us, or we can act strategically to save habitat, to save life, and maybe, just maybe, have something make it to the other side of the bottleneck.