On Property and Protest
From T. Thorn Coyle
Disclosure: property destruction is not a tactic I personally use, so that colors what I’m about to say. Take or leave my opinion as you will.
I want to talk about property destruction.
The first thing that needs to be said:
In looking at property destruction, we must always first look at the major destroyers of communities, land, water, and sky. Monsanto. Wells Fargo. The US Federal government. White Supremacy. The police. Imperialism. Plutocracy…we can add to this list for days. Any critique of, or support for, property destruction must be grounded in the awareness of who the most destructive culprits actually are.
They are not masked people in the streets.
Second, I want to distinguish between property destruction as spontaneous uprising –an emotional response to direct brutal oppression and disenfranchisement– and planned action. A few instances of spontaneous uprising are: the rebellions in Watts, Ferguson, or at Stonewall. These are all examples of people with little recourse, who’ve been pushed too far, for too long, and finally snap. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” as Dr. King said.
Now I want to speak of property damage as a form of planned protest:
My support for and critique of property damage both come from asking the same questions: “Is it strategic action?” and “What is the aim?”
One example of effective and strategic property damage comes from French radical farmer José Bové. He’s done many strategic actions of destruction. My favorite is when he gathered a group to dismantle a McDonalds being built in their village. The McDonalds threatened their small village industries, their commerce, and also signified the encroachment of global capitalism that was a threat to their way of life.
This sort of strategic property destruction is a very effective tactic, with a clear aim.
For me, smashing windows of small, upscale businesses once a year is not good strategic action. Does it drive out gentrifiers and displacers? It doesn’t seem to. In most cases, they sweep up, collect insurance money, and move on.
Smashing smaller local businesses also serves to alienate the community, pushing them further from solidarity and action. For example: I’ve heard directly from Black community members upset that a local clothing design shop and store –that was Black owned and contributed to various community projects– was targeted during protests because it was seen by white activists as part of Black neighborhood gentrification. The action pushed community members away from any possible engagement or solidarity.
Targeting large banks or major corporations on a regular basis as part of an ongoing series of actions? I would feel differently about that, and many community members might also feel differently, especially if there was an educational arm releasing propaganda to explain that this large bank chain was targeted because of predatory lending or foreclosures.
A side question that crops up in this discussion is: “Am I directly putting others in danger right now?”
Here’s one example of what I mean by the second question: people who stand way behind a crowd and throw projectiles at police from relative safety while putting folks in the front in direct danger. I’m not OK with that at all. That is reckless cowardice.
A second example happens often when white activists refuse to take leadership from or pay attention to more marginalized groups. At post-election 2016 actions in Oakland, militant African leadership encouraged white activists to not engage in property damage. They called for “revolutionary discipline” for a variety of reasons. Things were still smashed. That happens. Often.
The next day, when members of the African-led group went to set up for another action, they were targeted by police, threatened, and almost had their sound equipment impounded and truck towed. Police accused them of inciting a riot.
So another thing to keep in mind, besides “is it strategic and what is our aim?” is this: Who might we be putting at risk? Are there people of color in the group, or in leadership? Are trans people present? People with disabilities? Undocumented immigrants? Children?
If the answer to any of those is “yes” it is best to not use a large action as cover and protection for property destruction. There are other times to do strategic action if that is your choice of tactic.
We can’t let the wish to destroy undermine efforts to build solidarity. Being run by high emotion or inflated ego is not strategic or effective action.
While I don’t engage in property destruction myself, over many years I’ve been friends with those who do (Catholic Plowshares activists, I’m looking at you). These were always in critique of the larger destructive systems. To not engage that larger critique is to miss the point entirely, and only pits us against one another and plays directly into the hands of those who most directly oppress our comrades and the most vulnerable members of our interlocking communities.
I would like to see people working toward solid aims. On occasion, it feels like some people are just acting out. Also, not having strategic aim makes it much easier for infiltrators/agitators/provocateurs to enter our ranks and incite people to non-strategic action or putting others in danger.
In my opinion, if we are going to build long-term, sustainable, society-changing activist communities, we must also always ask “What purpose/whom does this action serve?” And “What is our plan?”
I hope that anyone engaging in, critiquing, or supporting planned property destruction considers these sorts of questions.
In solidarity. Toward love, equity, and justice.
Here is an excellent article that I didn’t see until I’d already written my essay above. It makes similar points to mine, but brings up other very important points as well, including speaking directly to the racism of some white activists and how that impacts communities of color. I encourage you to read it:
More on José Bové:
T. Thorn Coyle
T. Thorn Coyle is a magic worker and Pagan committed to love, liberation, and justice. Thorn is the author of the novel Like Water and the collection of magical tales Alighting on His Shoulders. Her spiritual writing includes: Sigil Magic for Writers, Artists & Other Creatives; Make Magic of Your Life; Kissing the Limitless; Evolutionary Witch-craft; and Crafting a Daily Practice. Thorn works to build a society based on love, equity, justice, and beauty.
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