After Burnaby Mountain (Part 3)

From diversity of tactics to a dual power movement

David Graeber offers a useful taxonomy of political “action” in his book Direct Action, covering a spectrum of “anything from leafleting in front of a supermarket to shutting down a global summit” (359). Graeber’s taxonomy includes:

(1) marches and rallies, which in most cases are not technically direct actions at all … (2) picket lines, (3) street parties, (4) classic civil disobedience (blockades and lockdowns), and finally (5) Black Bloc actions (361).

This gives one range of what we might call a diversity of tactics—from the more non-confrontational and indirect forms of action to the more confrontational and direct forms of action—and success, as Graeber and others maintain, depends upon “a combination of several different kinds of action” (360).

Diversity of tactics does not mean “anything goes,” and it does not necessarily include actions that can legitimately be called “violent.” Indeed, going by everything I know of, say, in the past five years in Canada—from Occupy to Elsipogtog, Idle No More to Burnaby Mountain—I would not call any action taken by activists or indigenous land defenders “violent”—though certainly there were moments of state violence carried out by the police. I would, however, note that most of these moments of resistance deployed a diverse range of tactics—and the more impact the moment had, the wider or at least more apparent the range of tactics tended to be.

The choice of tactics and actions taken is contingent upon the people and communities involved and the goals they have. Thus, another way of explaining diversity of tactics is by noting that political action is context-based (what do people need to do in a given context? What are they capable of/prepared to do? What is likely to succeed in this context?). There is no one-size-fits-all option, and no universally “better” tactical approach to social change—in part, as I argued in Part 2 of this series, because of the unevenness of contemporary democracies (there are some contexts in which our current system “works,” or can be made to “work,” and many others in which it very clearly does not).

Harsha Walia, in her excellent book Undoing Border Imperialism, also notes that “the question of whether a tactic is effective or not is entirely contextual” (187), and adds two very important details to any discussion of diversity of tactics: first, that it means “respecting a range of tactics”—I’m emphasizing the aspect of “respect” here—and, second, “maintaining communication to ensure comfort and alerting others” (186). I think, diversity of tactics can be claimed as a boon to social movements only when it involves a basic respect for difference—difference of experience, contextual difference that shapes a given community’s choice of action—and clear communication about those differences and the different tactical choices they lead to.

Switch back to Burnaby Mountain this past fall. Using Graeber’s taxonomy, we can clearly identify BROKE, as I did in Part 1 of this series, as employing less direct and less confrontational tactics—largely determined by the context of that community (an older, suburban resident community). The group often referred to as the “Caretakers,” by contrast, employed more direct and at times more confrontational tactics—again, I would argue, something that should largely be understood contextually: the “Caretakers” were generally younger, more socially marginalized, and many had had prior experiences with state violence, thus limiting their “faith” in the existing system and its likelihood of responding to their “peaceful protest.”

Again, as I noted in Part 1, these two groups tended to be critical of their different approaches, and only the intensity and speed with which events unfolded prevented either a complete break between the groups (though it came close), or a potential reconciliation between them.

My question is intentionally simplistic and perhaps naïve: what if these groups had respected their differences, openly acknowledged and discussed them (as being rooted in different social and community experiences), and found a way to allow room for their different tactical approaches? What would this take? What if, on September 13 2014, the groups planning a rally in Burnaby Mountain Park, and those planning a lockdown at the gates of Kinder Morgan’s Westridge Terminal, had respected their different approaches, and communicated and coordinated closely so that neither group felt like the other was “stealing their thunder”?

This last example may be a minor one (nothing that happened on September 13 altered the course of future events much—but it did sow the seeds of disagreement between the two main groups organizing resistance to Kinder Morgan’s work on Burnaby Mountain). Nevertheless, I think it is indicative of the larger problem: how are we going to alter the course of the current socio-economic system? How are we going to stop a pipeline, begin the transition to renewable energy, and ultimately do something about climate change? Again—I don’t believe any one tactic or approach will do it on its own, and what we need is respect for a range of tactical approaches, and better communication and coordination between our diverse actions.

Not very sexy, I know. This probably won’t make anyone happy, but I’m tired of desperate calls for “direct action,” couched in criticisms of those who are not leaping into the fray (without any consideration of why others might not be), and lacking a sense of wider strategy/goals—just as I’m equally tired of the vast majority of people (and I mean here people who acknowledge climate change, inequality, and that “something is wrong” with the status quo) doing nothing impactful enough about the massive, systemic problems we currently face (perhaps simply because their privilege shields them from the immediate effects of these systemic problems). There has to be another way forward—and I think it’s the sometimes uncomfortable way of allowing room, and even respect, for our different experiences—communicating and coordinating together—even when this means those differences seem (depending on your position) more “radical,” or more “liberal,” than you’d normally be comfortable with.

I’ll conclude with one final way of defining diversity of tactics. And this is by mapping diversity of tactics onto the idea of dual power. A dual power movement is one which pursues two seemingly contradictory paths at once: one aimed at short term “reforms” or adjustments to the current system, using the existing channels a democracy affords, and one aimed at the longer term goal of building a “new society in the shell of the old” (as the IWW used to say). Dual power acknowledges what I have called the unevenness of contemporary democracy: there are instances and contexts in which the given system can in fact be used to achieve justice (though this will often involve things like rallies, street marches, and acts of civil disobedience); but there are other instances in which injustice is very much part of the system’s “normal” functioning (think—structural, often racially deployed economic inequality, fossil fuel driven climate change and industrial pollution, expropriation and dispossession of land and resources, often, again, along racial lines, etc. etc.)—thus, what we really need to achieve is system change: an end to “market fundamentalism,” our reliance on fossil fuels and large-scale resource extraction, corporate influence over the political system, etc. etc.

System change takes time. But we don’t have a lot of time. So we need to use the tools at hand to effect shorter-term change (for instance, voting, organizing in opposition to certain policies, proposals, pieces of legislation, etc.), and we need to explore and invent new tools to effect longer term, structural change. We need both. And we need them both now. So we need diverse social movements, where some are working the tools of short term and limited change, and others are working towards systemic change at a very deep level. And we need to acknowledge and respect these different goals and their attendant tactics and actions.

Maybe this is too much to ask. Personally, I want the revolution tomorrow. But I’m not so deluded that I think my wanting it will bring it, or that we are going to find the silver bullet tactic we can all get down with here and now. And I’m not willing to see people thrown under the bus while we figure the revolution out—not if there are means of alleviating injustice at our democratic disposal right now. Activism isn’t an all-or-nothing situation. Social change is messy, uneven, filled with uncomfortable compromises, and often confusing. But it’s also life-affirming, inspiring, community-building, and what we desperately need more of—in all its diverse forms.

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