First Tear Gas, Now Bullets

Activists Weigh the Cost of Confrontation

Like Blackstar many come from a generation that has never seen nonviolent protest achieve real change. "Fear is a very important thing," says Rockstar, a 22-year-old anarchist from New York. "It's all we have in terms of power leverage. We don't have money to buy our politicians. If you don't have money, that's all you have."

Veteran activists argue fear alone can't sustain a cause—or even get a message across. "The militant fringe of the movement that's willing to engage in public acts of vandalism or scrap in the streets has done an amazing PR job," says John Sellers of the Ruckus Society, a direct-action training group. "It's one of the most dynamic in growth because it's so emotionally charged.

"But since Seattle, we still have to slow down and talk about what we're fighting for, and what does our victory look like," Sellers adds. "That vision has to inform what we do. Do we want to build a movement that's about throwing chunks of cement and then celebrating when we take a cop out? Or a movement that has respect for life, and that represents a moral and ethical high ground to the violence perpetrated by the state?"

Such idealism is vulnerable on the street, where protesting has become a kind of extreme sport, requiring ever more elaborate uniforms of protective gear, training in tear-gas survival and scaling walls, cell-phone-wielding communication teams, and an army of street medics to treat the wounded. In Quebec, kids joked that instead of forming anarchist soccer leagues they ought to take up lacrosse to boost their skill in volleying back gas canisters at the next showdown. After the April summit, Sports Illustrated ran a photo of a protester whacking a gas canister with a hockey stick—a rather worrisome editorial wink.

As a rite of passage, summit hopping has become chic. Trumping protesters' ire, the Gap has begun hawking its jeans in window displays that feature anarchist flags and slogans like "Freedom" and "We the People" in fake black spray paint. Similarly, Apple is using the image of young militants waving red flags in a new "Think Different" ad, and Lipton is running an iced-tea commercial that spoofs on activists getting blasted with water cannons.

You can't blame the corporations for seeking to co-opt anti-corporate rage. "The violence has become almost ritualized," says Mike Roselle, a forest advocate for Greenpeace who founded the Ruckus Society and helped start Earth First! "People aren't that freaked out by someone breaking a Gap window anymore. They're not blaming provocateurs. They know this is a serious grassroots uprising that spans leftists, environmentalists, labor, and students, and that people are not afraid to keep coming back for more."

Perhaps more surprising than the nearly 5000 tear gas canisters that police fired at demonstrators in Quebec was the willingness of the crowds to hold their ground. By the second day, it wasn't just black-clad anarchists and nihilist street kids dashing into the fray to hurl back the fuming, red-hot canisters, but ordinary college kids, angry locals, even a mother with a child on her back, incensed that the cops had fired into her group of peaceful demonstrators. The summit became a lesson in how indiscriminate force can radicalize a movement. "The cops basically just inoculated a whole new generation of kids who aren't afraid of tear gas anymore," says Danaher of Global Exchange.

Yet there's a danger in getting caught up in these protests as a form of abstract guerrilla theater, divorced from the real consequences of globalization. Or the consequences to yourself. Eric Laferriere, a protester in Quebec, was hit in the neck by a plastic bullet and underwent an emergency tracheotomy. He left the "Carnival Against Capitalism" with a six-inch metal tube in his throat. And with authorities now targeting activists as the new domestic "terrorists," protesters who engage in more militant actions could well get stiff jail terms. A judge in Eugene, Oregon, recently sentenced a young member of the Earth Liberation Front to more than 22 years for his role in setting fire to three SUVs and in the attempted arson of an oil truck.

The heightened level of street combat isn't likely to cool off any time soon. Some anarchists are looking to launch a campaign of chaos in Washington, D.C., during the September meeting of the IMF and World Bank. An Internet call for a militant Black Bloc action reads, in part: "We will not rest until every last bank has been burned, till the memory of banks has been erased from our world."

While it's hard to take such claims seriously, the old ground rules of protest are changing. Demonstrators are increasingly reluctant to denounce people who engage in vandalism or fight with cops, for fear of splitting the movement into "good" and "bad" protesters. And they share a creeping sense that the cops will behave violently no matter what activists do. "The police are leaving less and less room for nonviolent protesters to get their message across through traditional civil disobedience," says Laursen of the Direct Action Network.

"It's really hard to say all we're going to do is lock ourselves down in an intersection if the police are going to use a lot of violence against us."

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