Late in the evening on May Day, 2010 a small group of young people clad primarily in black and with their faces covered by bandannas staged a brief rampage through part of downtown Asheville, NC. Later that evening a similar rampage occurred in Santa Cruz, CA. The Santa Cruz action was undertaken by more people, but the intent seemed to be the same: attack perceived symbols of capitalism and cause property damage. A similar action occurred in Olympia, WA. a few weeks earlier. Almost all of those arrested in the three towns are linked to the current version of the US anarchist movement in some way. Those arrested in Asheville were quickly charged with a variety of misdemeanors and possible felony riot charges, as were those in Olympia. Police are still trying to track down most of the Santa Cruz participants through the use of video.
The reaction of the authorities in Asheville was a reflection of its liberal sensibilities. The police chief lamented the damage and wondered why these young people did this, especially in Asheville. The local Gannett-owned daily newspaper sensationalized the action as if the damage done by the vandals totaled several times more than the $20,000 the police estimated. Local rightwingers immediately began calling for prison terms for the alleged perpetrators and a fair amount of the local conversation revolved around the vandals class origins (which were unknown for the most part). There were even some hysterical comments in the comments section of the online version of the daily paper that called the violence the worst violence to ever hit Asheville. As I pointed out to a local who repeated that statement to me at work, the day before the vandalism occurred a man had shot and killed two of his neighbors in a trailer park not more than three miles from where the vandals did their piece. This double murder, I suggested, surely had to be considered worse than $20,000 worth of property damage.
Now, to the politics of these rampages. As a person who spent many hours of his life researching the history of the Weather Underground, I can not help but be reminded of that group’s first major action (when they still called themselves Weatherman) in Chicago. This action, known popularly as the Days of Rage, took place in October 1969 and involved a rampage of a few hundred Weatherman members running through the wealthy Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago smashing car windows, shops and fighting with the police. Like the rampage in Asheville, some of the targets destroyed by the Weathermen and women were not owned by wealthy people or outlets of some international corporate behemoth. In fact, they belonged to people who actually work for a living.
Unlike the Days of Rage action, the 2010 actions mentioned here occurred in what is essentially a political vacuum. In 1969, the antiwar movement was actively opposing the US war in Vietnam, law enforcement agencies were hunting down Black Panthers and other civil rights activists. Barely a year earlier there had been police riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago and a state of insurrection had existed for weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968. In addition, presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy was killed in June. Today, this sense of crisis does not exist, not even among the more hysterical members of the Tea Party. This isn’t to say that there is not a crisis, but that the sense that there is one is much diminished. Why this is so is a topic for another time, although the role of the media could certainly be a major cause.
Anyhow, even with all of the sense of crisis and approaching doom or revolution in 1969, the Days of Rage action were met with a fairly unanimous round of condemnation from across the political spectrum. The Panthers in Chicago called the action “Custeristic.” The rest of the Left wondered why the Weatherman did what they did. Some called them the acts of a frustrated few.The authorites prepared indictments on charges ranging from vandalism to felony riot. The action was a failure and did more to alienate the people of the US from the Left than anything else. If we look to a more recent example of these tactics, the actions of the so-called Black Bloc in Seattle during the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization certainly qualify. Even there, however, it could be argued that an obvious political context existed in the protests themselves. Furthermore, the targets that were attacked were selected for their role in the neoliberal attack on the environment and labor: McDonalds, Starbucks, and Nike.
I have friends who used to break shit, wear black, and considered themselves anarchists. Some of them really were and some of them just wanted to break stuff. What happened in Asheville and a couple other towns on MayDay was politically motivated nihilism minus any apparent political context. I understand why the young folk did it, but I don’t think too many other people do. It was politically stupid because it did not make any issues clearer. Instead the vandalism became the issue. Hopefully, the vandals won’t get any jail time. After all, this really was just vandalism. High school boys have done worse than this and received community service and restitution. If they do get jail time and the execs at BP responsible for wantonly polluting the Gulf don’t, then it virtually proves some of the points these folks were trying to make.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com