The G20 meeting of world leaders took over Toronto a couple weekends ago and it was pretty much impossible as a citizen of the city not to witness at least some of what became a very messy, complicated conflict enacted on the streets.
I headed out on Saturday, June 26th, to see what was going on downtown. At Queen's Park -- the green area surrounding the seat of the provincial government -- I observed a parade of peaceful protests supporting a dizzying variety of mandates. One group sought democracy in Vietnam. One woman held back both rage and tears as she described to me how her father's manufacturing job had been outsourced internationally. There were even some animal rights activists out in force.
After a few hours of marching down several major thoroughfares of the city with this coalition of worldly concern, I decided to head home. On my way, I happened to run into a group of protestors donned in black and red, who I later found out were known as The Black Bloc.
This group of fifty or so semi-disguised marchers, making insistent progress down Queen Street towards the financial district, were lead by a young woman who passionately shouted through a megaphone:
"WHEN I SAY PEOPLE, YOU SAY POWER!"
And the people answered:
"PEOPLE! Power! PEOPLE! Power!"
The spectacle was electrifying. The genuine anger with which this group strode and shouted caused me to fear them and yet also become contagiously stirred up myself at all of the abuses against less-powerful people the world over.
Then the leader started shouting out a line from "Killing in the Name," the old Rage Against the Machine song:
"FUCK YOU I won't do what you TELL me! FUCK YOU I won't do what you TELL me!"
As I rode my bicycle in front of the group, keeping a distance as I sensed I could be in physical danger at any moment, I watched members of the Black Bloc shattering the windows of Starbucks and wreaking general havoc on the architecture of Bay Street, the center of banking and commerce in Canada's largest city. At that point I split, but later saw footage of Black Bloc members setting a police cruiser ablaze.
The Black Bloc's destruction made all the headlines, of course, and pretty much everyone -- cop leaders, the mayor, peaceful protesters, political pundits -- came down on them for their nihilistic display of anti-authoritarianism. The main conclusion drawn was that their violent anger was overshadowing more useful forms of protest and dialogue.
Wondering what the Black Bloc's mandate is, I did some research and discovered that, besides being commonly comprised of anarchists, they don't really have one. In fact, from what I read, the Black Bloc is not a cohesive group at all but instead a protest tactic of disguise and destruction used by a rotating group of loosely affiliated individuals for various purposes since the 1980s.
As the son of a consciousness objector in The Vietnam War who taught me the benefits of pacifism and non-violent protest through stories of Ghandi and the Civil Rights Movement, I'm not about to say that Black Bloc tactics are the most effective force of change. But, I do think it's worth thinking about why anger so extreme that it disregards severe punishment comes to exist in the first place. And it's something I've heard little discussion of to date.
A recent influence on my speculations about group dynamics comes from Arnold Mindell, who was one of my parents' Jungian-trained mentors in the 1980s and beyond. As part of the research for my memoir, I read Sitting in the Fire: Large Group Transformation Using Conflict and Diversity, a book that I recommend to anyone who is interested in group conflict -- between countries, within countries, at companies, or even in families.
In the book, Mindell has written an entire chapter on the role of "the terrorist" in group conflicts. For Mindell, the definition of a terrorist is simply "[G]roups and individuals fighting against mainstream power from socially marginal, minority or disenfranchised positions..." It's a definition that I think can be applied to The Black Bloc.
A few quotes from the book about why those in the terrorist role resort to the use violence:
"The terrorist arises in us all when we feel unheard or unable to protect ourselves from oppressive situations created by people and groups that are too big, powerful or awesome for an individual to fight ‘fairly'."
"If terrorists spoke directly, those who have rank would punish them. Social power, in the experience of terrorists, limits freedom, represses communication and makes it dangerous to speak openly."
"[Terrorism] is characterized by disempowered groups' attacks on the mainstream for the sake of equality and freedom. What appears as random and unjustified violence to the mainstream is actually freedom fighters' attempts to compensate for the hurts they have suffered."
I was discussing the Toronto G20 recently with a friend and he compared Black Bloc behaviour to that of his two year old. "Sometimes," he told me, "when my son is pushing his truck and can't get through a tight space, he'll wriggle it around until he figures it out. But if he's tired or cranky for some other reason, he'll start screaming and pounding on the truck, throwing it over."
Those who easily dismiss the Black Bloc will simply nod their heads at that and say, "Exactly, they're acting like children!" But I think what's happening with my friend's two year old simply highlights an aspect of human behaviour that starts very young and never really goes away. Yes, it would of course be better if protesters would be reasonable and speak articulately within the bounds of democracy, but the question we should ask is: how did these violent protesters -- or the families and communities that they come from -- find themselves in such difficult life situations while also feeling exhausted and hopeless than anything would ever be done about it?
For those who would say they're just angsty -- and in some cases, middle-class -- kids looking to have fun, I'd suggest we were all angsty kids at one point, but not all of us were driven to such extreme measures. Why were these kids?
In Sitting in the Fire, Mindell discusses the pointlessness of insisting that all political discussion be done calmly and rationally. Some more quotes from the book:
"Hidden ‘mainstream' power lies behind the generally unexpressed assumption that oppressed people must dialogue politely to work out their problems, even though someone who feels oppressed usually does not want to speak gently."
"Today, conflict-resolution schools often deal with social issues in an academic fashion and avoid working with the experience of rage. The mainstream in every country tends to skirt the anger of the oppressed classes. Politics and psychology pressure outsiders to assimilate and integrate. Western thought is biased toward peace and harmony."
"Ironically, procedures that implicitly or explicitly forbid anger ultimately provoke conflict, because they favour people who are privileged enough to live in areas where social struggles can be avoided."
This is not meant to be a simple apologia for the destruction wreaked by the Black Bloc on Toronto. Also, I recognize the situation would have also been different if those tactics had harmed or killed a person. Even Mindell admits that the terrorist role can go too far: "It is a quick step from getting back at an individual for a specific wrong to getting back at everybody for everything," he writes. "That is how terrorists go too far and become the problem they set out to fight against: they too are guilty of the unconscious abuse of power."
It is worthy of noting, however, that the Black Bloc mostly just harmed inanimate objects and buildings, whereas there have been reports of people being physically and emotionally harmed by police tactics.
Indeed, in the ensuing weeks since the G20 protests, stories continue to proliferate on Facebook, Twitter, and network news. One man had his prosthetic leg torn off of him, was dragged across the ground and detained without being officially arrested or processed. A gay detainee was told to "act straight" while in the prison. And a female journalist was threatened with rape by a guard at the G20 detention center.
Now, I'm not going to knee-jerkingly blame "the police" -- which is itself comprised of thousands of individuals with a vast array of personal histories and motivations -- but as these stories continue to be exposed, you can sense the anger of the populace rising. And it's an anger that slowly closes in on that which I witnessed from the Black Bloc two Saturdays ago.
One of Mindell's main suggestions in Sitting in the Fire is that facilitators of group conflict mediation figure out how to achieve dialogue between those in the terrorist role and those in the mainstream. Terrorists are, after all, people -- people with needs that are not being met. The problem in the case of the Black Bloc is that they represent an anger bred from such potent frustration that these anonymous individuals have given up on the very attempt at having their specific needs voiced.
I found out last week that a friend of mine was shot by a rubber bullet while she was fleeing riot police with her teenage daughter. This particular protest occurred outside my window and I witnessed how a minor scuffle -- I don't know who started it -- turned into a full-on advance of cops in armour. From my view, it appeared that the policeman shot his rubber bullets randomly into a crowd that was, for the most part, retreating.
When my friend's teenage daughter grows up and has something to protest, will she do it peacefully? What happens when it's no longer viable to peacefully voice ones opinion, or when one's needs are not listened to by those in power?
"Just as no one person or group is the mainstream," says Mindell, "so no one person or group is the terrorist. We all find ourselves sometimes in the place of power and other times trying to gain vengeance for past abuse of power."
To be honest, as far as the Black Bloc is concerned, I'm not sure where to begin. Would members who marched in black come out and speak if they were given the forum to do so without a threat of arrest? Should we simply consider them a lost cause and instead focus on the concerns of those who are still peacefully voicing them?
It does seem too easy to me, however, to simply dismiss expressions of anger. In the ideal version of his or her life, no one really wants to become violent. But I think we can all understand where it comes from and admit that under the right circumstances, it could be us.