RT#6 to Press, Anecdote from Denver


Just today we’ve sent Rolling Thunder #6 to the printer, due to arrive back in about five weeks. To celebrate, we have posted the foreword below, including the detailing of an event from last week’s DNC protests in Denver:


True to form, we completed this issue in the midst of the demonstrations at this year’s Democratic National Convention in Denver, at which anarchists are attempting to reinvent mass mobilizations. Every day endless meetings, false alarms, tense standoffs, narrow escapes; every night, while the others sleep or carouse, endless editing and deliberation. Next issue we’ll be able to report on all this in depth; for now, the following tale must suffice.

A couple hundred people have gathered in a park downtown: some for dinner with Food Not Bombs, some just hanging out, and some in tentative response to a call for a black bloc issued a month earlier but never adequately organized. Armored police are positioned in groups of a dozen all around the park and the surrounding streets, outnumbering the young people sitting around with black sweatshirts in their laps. A vehicle was supposed to deliver banners, but word comes in that the driver has been detained and the car impounded; there don’t seem to be any scouts or communications networks ready. Rumors circulate about some other convergence point. A full hour passes without anyone taking any initiative; even the police seem to lose interest.

Finally, when most people have drifted away and it seems certain that nothing is going to happen, a few people—perhaps ten or fifteen—pull up their hoods and masks and hesitantly begin chanting: “A! Anti! Anticapitalista!” A little air horn gives a feeble toot. They begin walking in a tight little knot.

Who are these lunatics? What are they thinking, masking up and linking arms with hundreds of riot police surrounding them and undercovers at their elbows? This is not the Seattle WTO protests, when the few cops on duty had their hands full dealing with a hundred thousand protesters; these kids are the only ones doing anything this evening, and the whole city is militarized. What can they possibly hope to accomplish?

But others join them. Soon there are a few dozen, in varying degrees of black attire, and then several dozen more. The chant picks up momentum, but this just makes the whole enterprise seem more suicidal. They make it as far as the road, and the nearest squadron of police forms a line blocking their path. There’s nothing for it, the die is cast: they march, awkward and ill-prepared, straight into a shower of pepper spray.

Coughing and choking, the crowd stumbles back to the grass. This should be the end of it, but the numbers keep growing as curious onlookers push forward for a better view. Suddenly someone is shouting out a count, and others join in: “One! Two!” This is yet another mistake—you’re supposed to count down, so everyone knows when the count will end—but on “THREE!” perhaps thirty people are running over the grass away from the police, and everyone falls in behind them. In a few seconds hundreds of people are sprinting across the park to the intersection at the far side, at which police have not yet massed.

The crowd pours into the street. The obligatory road closed sign appears and is dragged into the intersection. The energy in the air is electric now, in contrast to the malaise and uncertainty of a mere ten minutes ago. As soon as the stragglers catch up, the crowd lurches forward, turning the wrong way at the corner, and heads off away from the nearby shopping district. They make it exactly a block and a half before another wall of police forms in front of them; a few seconds later another police line traps them from the back. The nimble ones slip out the edges, but the rest—perhaps a hundred—are penned in. The police shut down several blocks, lining the streets with riot cops, bike cops, mounted cops, paddy wagons, and armored cars, and commence beating and shooting pepper balls at the detainees before arresting them.

The story should end there, but it goes on. An hour later several hundred more people, most of whom were not involved in the march or even at the park, have gathered at the intersection where the road closed sign appeared. A crowd of African-American youth are chanting “FUCK THE POLICE!” at one side while a mass of street kids and middle class citizens stare down the police lines and shout denunciations. Spray paint adorns the walls: POLICE STATE. FUCK A PIG. A helicopter circles overhead, scanning the crowd with its spotlight, but this just riles everyone up more; the atmosphere is getting increasingly volatile. People of all walks of life are showing up to ask what’s happening; strangers who never would have spoken otherwise are debating anarchism, police brutality, and what to do next. Nearby bars have closed their doors and business is disrupted throughout the district. Democratic Party delegates are unable to pass through the area; some are trapped in the parking garage of their hotel. This goes on for hours and appears all over the news.

Later, when the participants assess the march, some rate it a successful disaster: from a tactical standpoint it was a catastrophe, but it somehow created an environment in which the dissent submerged in downtown Denver boiled to the surface. If everyone had been sensible and simply dispersed in the park, nothing out of the ordinary would have happened. Instead, a very small number of people succeeded in shifting the options that confronted everyone else around them—and faced with new choices, many people acted differently than they would have otherwise. Had the initial group been more numerous or better prepared, the transformation might have been correspondingly more dramatic.

In taking on the powers that be, we don’t need to be prepared to win a war with them—we don’t even necessarily need to make all the right decisions or formulate the most airtight plans. We just have to change the context in which others make decisions, to precipitate situations with unforeseen conclusions—so that what a few initiate, many may continue.

Anarchists are specially equipped for this kind of experimentation because we have nothing at stake in the preservation of the current order. In the words of economists and gentrifiers, we are risk tolerant: having little to lose, we can afford to throw ourselves into the unknown and see what happens. Those who must succeed in everything they undertake have to be careful and conservative; nothing new or exciting ever comes from them. Perhaps ninety-nine percent of our projects are dismal failures, but whenever we achieve a breakthrough, it’s historic.

Our successes can be dangerous—when you try something and it works, it’s easy to get trapped in attempts to repeat it. How many new models have we invented over the past decade, really? At our best, we treat ourselves as experimental material, thrusting ourselves into uncharted territory and returning with new innovations. This issue explores some recent attempts to develop alternatives to the standard anarchist approaches we inherited from our forebears. Some of these alternatives have become standard themselves, like the SHAC model; others, such as the approach pioneered by the Swedes who built a social center from the ground up in despair of ever being able to defend a squat, have yet to be tested outside a single community.

Through everything, we should constantly be honing our skills to support each other. Living dangerously can take a lot of different forms, and taking risks all the time can be exhausting even apart from the batons, pepper balls, and prison terms. We need to do a lot more to care for one another than just linking arms when it’s time to charge the police. It’s not easy being experimental material.