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What follows is an excerpt from a longer interview with AK Thompson, conducted by E. Colin Ruggero, and published as part of a special edition of Theory in Action titled “Revisiting the Riot: 10th Anniversary of A.K. Thompson’s Black Bloc, White Riot.”
Thompson’s book was first published in 2010 by the anarchist independent publisher AK Press. In it, Thompson explored the links between white middle class radicals and the kinds of political violence that had come to the fore a decade earlier, in 1999, when a new generation of anti-globalization activists had taken to the streets of Seattle in order to disrupt a World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference. The result was several days of rioting, looting, vandalism and property destruction – “black bloc” tactics that A.K. Thompson interpreted as a profoundly constructive attempt by white middle class youth to assert a kind of political power that explicitly abjured white supremacy.
In the years that followed, a number of anti-globalization activists argued instead for the value of sticking with a more conventional social-movement repertoire of non-violent protest tactics. But black bloc tactics reappeared in 2011 during the Occupy Wall Street uprisings – and deployed again in subsequent protests against police brutality against Blacks, notably in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, after the death of Michael Brown.
E. Colin Ruggero: My re-reading of Black Bloc, White Riot brought a number of contemporary issues into sharp focus. I think your book may be more relevant now than when it was first published.
AK Thompson: Black Bloc, White Riot came out in the summer of 2010, nearly ten years after the highpoint of the anti-globalization movement. At the time, I was preparing to defend my dissertation, which concerned the problem of social movement Romanticism, and my roommates had just been arrested on conspiracy charges related to their involvement in mobilizations against the G20 in Toronto in late June. The dissertation had kept me from contributing to that organizing effort (and, I suppose, from getting into trouble), but it also exacerbated my concerns about the campaign’s focus on “community mobilization,” which aimed to overcome the perceived shortcomings of past anti-summit actions by disavowing the Black Bloc repertoire minted in Seattle.
Formalized in a position paper by Holland’s EuroDusnie collective back in 2000, the critique of “summit hopping” and the corresponding “romance of community” to which it gave birth became the foundation for a longstanding debate on the Left about violence and non-violence. In Toronto, organizers aimed at splitting the difference between a mainly non-violent community-building approach and the more militant modes of mass convergence favored by their predecessors. However, the results of the anti-G20 mobilization were far from conclusive. And when the Toronto Community Mobilization Network issued a communiqué following a wave of mass arrests claiming that, somehow and without qualification, “the people won,” few were convinced.
In response to the black bloc actions that took place during the summit, the level of hostility toward militant street tactics expressed in the press, among the public, and even within the movement, had become acute. It was into this context that my book was born, and it seemed unlikely that the arguments I’d advanced regarding the omnipresent and inescapable character of violence were going to get a fair hearing. The growing tension between my views and the movement’s default positions (whether these took the form of a commitment to “nonviolence” or a “respect for a diversity of tactics”) left me feeling like I would have few allies if the work came under attack. Feeling isolated, I settled on a short book tour and started drawing together the small network of radical movement-based intellectuals who’d been moved by what I’d written.
How do you think the relationship between whiteness and representational politics has changed over the past ten years? In my research, I found that the conflicts that emerged during Occupy forced many white activists to confront their own unexamined racism. In Philadelphia, white Occupiers who went on to support Black Lives Matter and more recent anti-ICE campaigns repeatedly cited Occupy as an example of what they wanted to avoid going forward. The focus of their activism has moved from mass mobilization toward smaller local initiatives aimed at addressing “immediate harm” as part of a longer-term, multigenerational revolutionary project.
I’m always heartened when activists critique past efforts and point out their inadequacies. Nevertheless, I don’t think the lessons we derive from our critiques are always correct. For this reason, I think it’s important that the critiques themselves be subjected to ongoing criticism. Here, we might recall how, for Marx, proletarian revolutionaries could be distinguished from their bourgeois predecessors by their tendency to “criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course,” and “come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh.”
The bond between whiteness and representational politics was a major theme in Black Bloc, White Riot, though I was still learning to describe it at the time the book was first published. Theoretically, I was concerned with how white people got inducted into a representational sphere that turned them into ideal subjects while separating them from the violence of politics as such. The historical accounts upon which I built my analysis were all secondhand and relied upon the excellent work of movement-based scholars like Noel Ignatiev and Sheila Rowbotham. Since the book’s publication, I’ve worked to make my understanding of the connection between whiteness and representational politics more complete.
If we recall Cheryl L. Harris’ groundbreaking Harvard Law Review essay on “whiteness as property,” we know that whiteness developed as a property regime during the founding of the United States. As property, however, whiteness needed to be encoded in law, and that law needed to be crafted and enforced by a political class, which took the white people it created as its ideal subjects. In this way, whiteness was linked from the very beginning to the development of a system of political representation. For this reason, and as Harris observed, “the concept of whiteness was carefully protected because so much was contingent upon it.” Indeed, “the very fact of citizenship itself [became] linked to white racial identity.”
By design, Black people in the United States have never had equal standing within this representational sphere founded on property. It’s therefore not surprising that participants in Black freedom struggles have historically had an ambivalent relationship to the action repertoire associated with the modern social movement (the mediated repertoire that arose at the end of the eighteenth century and that presupposed rights, demands, and recognition). Indeed, one need only to recall something like Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts to see how much more militant the tactics of enslaved people had been from those favored by the Abolitionists who were active during the same period. And while Black freedom struggles since the Civil Rights Movement have been more likely to adopt elements from the modern protest repertoire, these tactics have played out against a backdrop of ongoing bifurcated contention. During its most intensive period, for instance, the Black Lives Matter cycle was marked by both rallies and riots.
What are the implications of this history for struggle today? One obvious answer is that, since whiteness comes into being through representational politics, the political critique of representation can become an important means of challenging white supremacy. Disavowing the property regime or the paradigm of political representation upon which whiteness was founded eventually brings activists—whether or not it was their explicit intention—into conflict with whiteness itself. For this reason, I think direct actions taken against existing property relations (whether in the form of riots, strikes, blockades, vandalism, or looting) can become the basis for powerful interracial alliances that, at their threshold, might serve to destabilize the structural foundations of white supremacy.
In my research, I’ve found that the speed and reach of gentrification in Philadelphia over the past decade has forced many activists to confront their relationship to “the local.” Do you think this shift has been affected by changes in the landscape of enemies we now confront?
On both the left and the right, I think white people are becoming more aware of enemies, though the conceptions are obviously very different. On the left, we’ve moved from fighting entities that were difficult to perceive directly (e.g. the IMF and World Bank) to fighting Nazis in the streets, and I think this experience has made struggle more concrete.
This new awareness has been facilitated, however, by the fact that a significant cohort of activists at the beginning of the century had already begun to shift from making demands on constituted power to making it less possible for this power to function. Today, the whole modern social movement repertoire is being called into question, and its presuppositions no longer seem as tenable as they once did.
According to Charles Tilly, the modern social movement was made possible through a series of historical developments associated with the emergence of modern democratic nation states. These developments allowed the campaign, the modern repertoire of action, and the public display of worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment to converge. Taken together, these factors led to the emergence of the modern social movement, and it was a generative constellation.
But even when “the modern social movement” seemed to enjoy a self-evident status, it always coexisted with and was shaped by other modes of contention. In the United States, protest waves have often kicked off with Black freedom struggles, which have had an ambivalent relationship to the modern repertoire. I think the unique contributions of these struggles become more evident as the conditions that enabled the modern social movement to emerge erode. This shifting terrain has influenced the tactical behavior of white movements, which still have so much to learn from Black freedom struggles. One outcome of this process is that the paradigm of contention connected to the modern social movement no longer seems like an obvious default. In the process, violence has become more normal.
I agree that the past decade has witnessed a return to street-level political violence. How do you think this new openness to violence is playing out in terms of representation? Are there examples of pitfalls, successes, or potential warning signs for the future?
In his last year in office, Trump proposed that antifa should be classified as a terrorist organization. This characterization rucks many commentators as absurd, since antifa is not an organization but a series of political commitments, which emphasize direct confrontation with the aim of ensuring that fascists don’t gain traction. Moreover, when considered from the standpoint of existing legal definitions, the term “terrorist” applies more obviously to antifa’s enemies, who have murdered several people since 2016 in what can only be described as hate crimes.
Many white liberals responded to Trump’s characterization with something like smug satisfaction. Antifa was a problem for them too, since antifa tactics undermined the logic of and space for representational politics. In contrast, other movement forces have conveyed admiration for the principled actions of antifa activists.
Following protests against the Unite the Right convergence in Charlottesville, Cornel West thanked antifa and acknowledged the limits of representational politics. Facing direct, unmediated conflict with a violent non-state actor, West made clear that it was dangerous to imagine that one could win by bearing moral witness alone.
It’s not clear how far this new matter-of-fact openness to violence will spread, and there are obvious reasons that white people will want to maintain their allegiance to the old paradigm for as long as possible. The struggles associated with being Leviathan’s ideal subject probably seem insignificant when measured against the threat of immediate, bodily harm. But fight-or-flight responses are not the same as political programs, and the latter are more likely to emerge from structural conflicts than from episodic ones.
Meanwhile, I think there’s clear evidence that the structural conditions subtending the old paradigm (“the modern repertoire” as Tilly described it) are coming apart, and white people are being forced to choose between trying to symbolically retain their whiteness as they sink with the representational ship, or of abandoning that ship and being thrown into the violent political storm.
The full interview, along with the rest of the special issue, can be found here.
E. Colin Ruggero received his Ph.D. from the New School for Social Research in 2017 and is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Community College of Philadelphia.
A.K. Thompson is the author and editor of numerous books, including Black Bloc, White Riot (2010) and, most recently, Premonitions: Selected Essays on the Culture of Revolt (2018).