Thursday, December 20, 2012

Review: Whose Streets?

[Tom Malleson and David Wachsmuth, editors. Whose Streets? The Toronto G20 and the Challenges of Summit Protest. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2011.]

Despite living only four hours away, I did not attend the mobilization against the summit of leaders of the G20 states that happened in Toronto in 2010. My reasons were mainly practical, and I was involved in some of what happened locally in support -- what happened in Sudbury was too little and not always well organized, and my involvement was too little and in some instances too hesitant, but it was something. It was not, however, an occasion for me to experience either the surge of empowerment that comes from collective dissent in moments where dissent is essential, nor the grief and trauma that comes from being hammered with violence and abuse by agents of the state. Nonetheless, I've had enough related experiences in my (socially very privileged) life and spent enough time reflecting on them to know that, (a) it was a moment that required that we stand up and speak out; (b) decisions about how to act in such moments are complicated and never pure; and, (c) the seemingly endless stories of police abuse directed at ordinary people should be evaluated starting from a recognition that they are prima facie plausible, contrary to the impulse held by many of my middle-class white peers, because not only is such abuse characteristic of how many racialized and poor and gender non-conforming and sex working people experience policing on a pretty regular basis, it's also consistent with how I personally have experienced them to behave towards any and everyone during moments where they are being used by the state to stifle dissent.

All of that underlies my reading of this book, as does the fact that I know several of the contributors, that I know of the work of a number of the others, and that I was involved in organizing a launch event for the book here in Sudbury back in January.

This book is, first and foremost, a useful one. All of the contributors were on the streets of Toronto in one capacity or another during those fateful days. The essays are divided, roughly, into ones that look at how the organizing happened, ones that look at what exactly went down, and ones that critically reflect on things. The material and the writers are close enough to the event that it shouldn't be regarded as even attempting to exhaust the things that might be said on the topic, but it manages to do a lot. The book is without a doubt a useful intervention in trying to make sure that the collective experience of this moment of struggle avoids the memory hole which swallows so much of the wisdom transiently won -- hard won -- by movements in North America. The way the material is presented is too raw to be history, and a single book is in some ways only a gesture against the incredible, socially organized pressure to forget. Still, it is an act against forgetting that will make it at least possible for youth in Toronto who are politicized five years from now to get a glimpse into what came not too long before them, and it is a resource that organizers in other places and other times can draw on as they make decisions about whether and how to organize against a summit or other large event that is happening in their town. (The book did, incidentally, quite surprise me by how much it felt like a product of a specific moment. The year is only an increment of two past when these events occurred, but it feels like so much has evolved so quickly in terms of movements and what movements face since mid-2010.)

This book is also a hard book. Or, at least, I found it so. Not difficult in terms of the ideas or the content, but emotionally difficult. And I found that to be true in two different respects.

One is the contentious issue of tactics, which is often framed as a cartoonish question of "violence" versus "nonviolence" but which I think is more usefully broken down into a much longer and more complicated series of overlapping but distinct (and at least partially separately answerable) questions about different aspects of who we are, what we're doing, how we relate to each other, how we relate to the social relations that we are in-and-against, and so on. Now, I personally find questions which internally polarize movements to be especially difficult, and I often respond to that by vigorously resisting the polarization in my own thinking while also largely avoiding the issue, or treading extremely carefully, in what I write and say publically. Which I recognize is not necessarily a great approach. In any case, there aren't actually that many issues like that at the moment, but one of them definitely is this perpetual debate about tactics. I'm not going to get into any more detail about my own thoughts here, though I suspect that they would probably not be regarded with much enthusiasm by true believers from either side of the polarization. I will say that for all that it made it more difficult to read, I did appreciate the way in which this collection as a whole engaged with that debate but did not get bogged down in it, though I had mixed feelings about some of the specific essays that took it up -- certainly some seemed to be claiming to desire to 'get past the impasse' while at the same time framing their arguments in ways guaranteed to reinforce the impasse.

The other way this collection was hard for me was the many essays that talked about the violent and abusive behaviour of the police. And wherever you stand in the tactical debates, as far as I know, not a single activist was charged with anything related to harming a human being -- it was largely about alleged damage to property, or doing things that allegedly might enable others to damage property -- while police actions that caused pain and suffering to real live human beings were ubiquitous over that weekend. Some of those actions are documented in this book. And reading that should be hard, though I think the particular way I experience that hardness is connected to the ways in which my white, middle-class everyday life makes it easy, most of the time, for my awareness of the horrible violence upon which whiteness and middle-classness rest to stay intellectualized, whereas reading some of the accounts in this book in light of certain past lived experiences of my own (generally much milder, but still) forces that awareness deeper into the rest of my body. And there's a particular kind of pain to that denial of denial, though undoubtedly it is much less traumatic than being situated such that you can never, even for a second, avoid the visceral reality of that violence, as so many people are in this world.

Though the how and the what sections do important work, I think it was the final section, focused on critical reflection, that was most engaging for me. I appreciated the analysis of the event by Deborah Cowen and the late Neil Smith, David McNally's efforts to link the overall neoliberal trajectory with changes in policing, and especially Clare O'Connor's essay "What Moves Us Now? The Contradictions of 'Community.'" That last -- some critical self-reflection by one of the organizers of the Toronto Community Mobilization Network, which provided infrastructure for the protests -- helps me to better understand some of the misgivings that I felt but was unable to verbalize in the leadup to the G20 when a tour by a couple of organizers came through Sudbury and talked about their work in southern Ontario. O'Connor's piece builds usefully on another piece of critical movement-based reflection that was also useful to me in that regard, published earlier in radical journal Upping the Anti by TCMN organizer Lesley Wood. Their efforts to name and understand some of the ways in which radical organizers in the lead-up to the G20 managed to be less connected than they wanted (though far from unconnected, contrary to mainstream accusations!) to the constituencies they identified as their base while failing to acknowledge or even really recognize that fact is important not only for understanding this particular mobilization but for developing an overall understanding of the radical left in this moment.

Though it goes a bit beyond what O'Connor and Wood have written, to me their analyses begin to get at larger questions of how ongoing strands of political practice and thought that might be labelled "radical left" or "anti-authoritarian" (and the people who engage in them) exist in relation, or not, with the broader social world. I have often thought since moving to Sudbury that activists in the larger cities like Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal (and certain other pockets in southern Ontario) are able to exist in what you might call "radical bubbles" which make it hard for them to really see the exact contours of how our/their preferred ways of doing things and thinking about things fail to connect in some profound ways with many people who do not already identify with them, but also to see how they do connect, or at least can connect, with people. This may sound super pessimistic, but I don't mean it that way -- I think there are plenty of examples where deliberate political work creates results, and we just need to keep at it. But I think failing to grapple with the complicated ways in which we are both more marginal than it appears from within those "radical bubbles," but also have more raw basis to connect far and wide than some of the less helpful ways of performing "radicalness" can enable, are central to creating the change we want to see.

So I'm glad this book was put together, and there are definitely useful lessons in it. I do worry a bit, though, that it reinforces in yet another way the tendency in both mainstream and activist contexts to make things too much about the moment of confrontation on the streets, and thereby allow too little of our focus to dwell on the G20 (or other elite institution) itself, and hence on the actual material realities (as opposed to rhetorical deployment) of the larger suffering and violence in part organized through the G20 (or other elite institutions). It's not that this larger picture gets ignored in the book, and it's not that we don't need to process, remember, and learn from the event itself, but I remain dissatisfied in general with the tools we have developed for keeping larger and more socially abstracted questions concrete and immediate and subject to action, particularly in the face of more sensational immediate questions, and this book is no exception to that.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


laura k said...

Hi Scott, I attended one of your book events in Toronto, and finally had a chance to blog about it.

All best,
laura k (

Scott Neigh said...

Hi Laura, and thank-you -- thanks for attending the launch, thanks for writing this, and thanks for letting me know about it!

laura k said...

Well thanks for your great work. My impetus for attending was to make sure someone from the war resisters campaign was there for Frank. (I ran into someone else who was there for the same reason). But I was really glad I came out, it was terrific.