Toronto is host to the latest G-20 summit and with it the now-inevitable protesters, including some sort of "black bloc" dedicated to protest through vandalism. Even since the Seattle demonstrations of 1999, governments hosting the gatherings of leading economic powers have justified greater restrictions on protesters of all kinds by referring to the menace represented by the masked or black-clad vandals. Also inevitably, some more pacific dissidents accuse the black-clad ones of being agents provocateurs, and probably within the black-clad ranks themselves distinctions are drawn between morally or strategically acceptable acts and those which would raise suspicion that the perpetrator is a government plant. The debate over the civil obligations of dissent is all-encompassing, with some people apparently believing that the civil modifier of civil disobedience has been overstressed since the 1960s, while others reflexively discrediting any dissent that finds violent expression. Predictably enough, Toronto policemen doubt whether the vandals have any actual political agenda or legitimate dissent from the decisions of the G-20, dismissing them as mere thugs doing violence for its own sake, for kicks. I don't doubt that many of the peaceful protesters feel the same way, and it wouldn't surprise me if they were right about at least some of those who burn cars or break windows.
But I can't dismiss violent dissent absolutely. I can't characterize vandalism as terrorism, for one thing; the black blocs aren't in the same category as the black shirts, for instance, or any of the color-coded political street gangs that imposed their will (or their fists) on people from the 1920s forward. If they started beating up Tea Partiers (or vice versa) it'd be a different story. For now they seem to be groping for the most effective way to tell the powerful that they are angry and fed up, and that current conditions are intolerable. They seem certain that merely to march and wave signs and go home isn't getting the message across. Marches haven't stopped much of anything lately, at least in the United States. Dissent works quite nicely here. We have elections, and those can actually put people out of power. We have free speech, too, but since we reserve accountability for election time, our elected leaders have the prerogative (some might even say the duty) not to listen to us when we protest their actions. There's no proof that dissidents represent a majority of anything, after all, and the implicit principle of democratic republicanism as practiced here is that voters empower their representatives (including that presumptive representative of all the people, the President) to govern according to their own consciences (and the Constitution, one hopes), not on specific instructions from the masses. The problem faced by protesters of all temperaments is the fact that your leaders have no obligation to listen to you until they receive their next authorization at the polls. So how do you make them listen, presuming that you make a right to be heard a corollary of your freedom of speech? The Tea Parties have one answer, which is to make it clear that they intend to vote as a bloc against the policies they abhor and the politicians who advocate them. But the black blocs represent a body of opinion that is at least superficially excluded from elections -- their parties won't appear on most ballots. From outside the Bipolarchy mainstream (though the latest demonstrations have taken place in Canada, I refer to the U.S. now) they most likely see elections as an unlikely if not an inadequate vehicle for necessary change. The changes Tea Partiers hope for would be meaningless (at best) for the black blocs. For them there may be no alternative to raising the stakes through intimidating displays that promise further violence in the absence of reform. But that must still seem unsatisfactory to other observers who don't identify with either the government or the black blocs. What right has a minority to force any change in policy?
The challenge for such groups is to win mass support while carrying on their campaign, to convince more people that conditions are as awful as they claim and that their currently minimal violence is justified by the injustice of government. As anarchists, the black blocs face a big challenge in such a project, and the hopeless nature of their ideology may well justify the dismissals of their demands. But people with more plausible demands may face the same dilemmas down the line. If electoral politics appear incapable of accommodating their demands, must they concede their status as impotent minorities and simply shut up? Or do they make a similar effort to shake others out of their supposed stupors so that they recognize that the anger expressed on the front lines of protest is actually more widely shared? Can people make their leaders listen when they need to listen, and not just when the leaders want to or have to by law? You may not care about the battle of Toronto today, but you may want to think about these questions for the future.