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Who's Afraid of the Black Blocs reviewed on Interface

By Gary Roth
Volume 6 issue 2
December 7th, 2014


Francis Dupuis-Déri’s defense of the Black Bloc is disarming in its subtlety. “The Black Bloc,” he tells us, “is not a treatise in political philosophy, let alone a strategy.” For Dupuis-Déri, it is simply “a tactic” (p. 3). But tactics too, as John Berger once pointed out, are often wedded to implied philosophies and unarticulated strategies.

Besides, the very purpose of Who’s Afraid of the Black Blocs? is to give voice to Black Bloc participants. They explain in their own terms why these “ad hoc assemblages of individuals or affinity groups that lastfor the duration of a march or rally” have been ever-present during the last few decades (p. 2). They have emerged as something of a cultural icon. Known for their characteristic use of black clothing and face masks, Black Bloc participants tend to be deeply ethical and deliberate in their decision-making, although not usually in ways appreciated by their many critics and opponents. This speaks to the huge gap that exists between the portrayal of the Black Blocs in the media and the self-consciousness of those who take part in them.

Black Blocs have influenced public discourse out of proportion to their actual size, which has ranged anywhere from a few odd individuals to several thousand people who coalesce at demonstrations seemingly from nowhere and then disappear just as anonymously. Dupuis-Déri traces their roots to West Berlin’s squatter movement of the early-and mid-1980s. He acknowledges too that they are more properly considered a form of struggle specific to this new century.

They are part of the same general trend as the “occupation of squares” that stretches from the Arab Spring to Spain’s Indignados to Zuccotti Park, the Maidan in the Ukraine, and more (Endnotes Collective 2014). Black Blocs have been a feature of the alter-(anti-)globalization protests of the last decade and a half and have now evolved into a regular component of virtually every popular movement in recent years.

The notoriety that accompanies the Black Blocs derives from their deliberate pursuit of “symbolic economic and political targets” (p. 33). Large corporate entities and government buildings are sought out almost exclusively. In the urban areas where the Black Blocs have been active, this means the chain stores, with bank facades and the window fronts of well-known retail outlets such as Starbucks and Gap receiving special attention. In some places, public buildings in central city locations have been preferred instead. In either case, the Black Blocs direct their violence towards inanimate objects, overpriced articles of consumption, and ineffective and corrupt ruling strata, where “the target is the message” (p. 43). As Dupuis-Déri explains, the Black Blocs have modernized and also revitalized the anarchist doctrine of “propaganda of the deed.” The Blocs have been rather scrupulous to avoid small businesses, community centers, homes, and libraries, a pattern that itself gives a clue as to the worldviews that form their political sensibilities. Violence against people is taboo (except when responding to police violence), whereas their critics, as Dupuis-Déri points out with numerous quotes, tend to defend people and things as if these were equivalent categories.

If property damage defines the Black Blocs in the public’s eyes, the Blocs regularly assume other functions at demonstrations. This has included the hauling of food and water to the protest sites, arranging transportation and lodging for out-of-town demonstrators, providing medical support, and serving as a protective barrier that shields non-violent protestors from the police and security forces. On some occasions, they have helped divert official attention from protest sites by creating a ruckus in another area. Because the Blocs function as affinity groups, on-the-spot coordination comes easily. The groups are anti-hierarchical, with decisions reached through consensus. They are capable of making tactical choices in conjunction with other groups, even though their ad hoc formations tend to preclude negotiations that get overly complicated.

One doesn’t wander into a Black Bloc accidently. Participants are typically veterans of previous protests and have received training in direct action tactics and ethics, legal issues, and safety measures. Many of them object to individuals (“activism tourists”) not already a member of an affinity group, since their exclusion cuts down on provocateurs and other violence-prone individuals (p.102). Black Bloc participants often come equipped with shields, helmets, gas masks, and anti-tear gas cream in order to protect themselves from police attacks, and with chains, locks, rocks, clubs, slingshots, and Molotov cocktails to counteract police aggression.

The Blocs now come in multiple colors. Besides the Black Blocs who are known primarily for their trashing of downtown areas, Red Blocs are clusters of leftists still supportive of hierarchical organizations and state-dominated social systems. White Blocs refer to the exclusive use of non-violent tactics. Pink Blocs are generally the most colorful, since they combine antics, art, and satire. A “Billionaires for Bush and Gore” contingent protested the 2004 Presidential election campaign in the United States with formal attire and fake banknotes distributed to police officers in thanks for their role in suppressing dissent. At another demonstration, protestors carried fishing poles with donuts as bait in an attempt to lure the police to them. Examples like these offer Dupuis-Déri ample opportunities to discuss the nuances of Black Bloc beliefs and practices.

Symbolism aside, the Black Blocs are demonized by police, political officials,scholars, journalists, and also other leftists, which Dupuis-Déri documents extensively despite the overall brevity of his book. The mis-characterizations projected towards the Black blocs are both crude and predictable, as: thugs, vandals, anarchists, trouble-makers, prone to violence, a mindless minority, soccer rowdies, proto-fascist paramilitaries, and more. The critics from the left are the most difficult to fathom. The Black Blocs tend towards a mixture of “Marxism, radical feminism, environmentalism, anarchism” (p. 24). Despite this, two issues come to the fore repeatedly—violence, whether directed against property or the police, and the refusal to follow the dictates that government officials and the security forces set down for protestors.

For the Black Blocs, “peaceful methods are too limited and play into the hands of the powers that be” (p.38). They are anti-establishment and reject a notion of representation which presupposes homogeneous communities. This undercuts other groups by limiting their ability to step forward as “people’s representatives” and thereby influence public policy. The Blocs, on their part, have been accused of hiding amidst non-violent demonstrators, a criticism that hit home. In recent protests, they have been overly conscientious about not letting this occur.

Opponents also accuse them of antagonizing the public, even if just the opposite seems to be true. Black Bloc activity tends to boost interest in anarchist ideas and activities. Some Black Blocs have called for a “diversity of tactics,” a matter not well received by these other groups, despite the divide between spokespeople who denounce the Blocs and everyday protestors who want something more than just a peaceful, respectful protest that is easy to ignore.

Dupuis-Déri picks apart just about every negative characterization hurled at the Black Blocs, one of the several strengths of his book. The “propagandhi” of non-violent activists is his special focus. Sometimes, though, he gets lost in arguments not quite germane to contemporary reality. He reaches back to the 1500s, for instance, to show that not just anarchists but also dissenting Christians targeted the royalty for assassinations. Since assassinations haven’t been part of the anarchist tradition for nearly a century already (despite the mythology), the entire discussion becomes a bit unreal. He also relativizes anarchist violence by pointing to the troubled and often bloodied track record of liberalism. His overly brief discussion of the two traditions glosses over significant differences in which the latter’s violence is a product of its use of the state as a means to consolidate and defend its rule, whereas anarchism has rarely ever been tested on that score.

Perhaps most disturbing is Dupuis-Déri’s discussion of the cathartic effects of violence, its psychological benefits. Reminiscent of the pseudo-scientific justifications used by fascists and devotees of brutal sports, violence becomes a form of creative expression. Dupuis-Déri speaks in terms of “restorative violence” (p. 85). These are dangerous ideas, and to say that “emotions are rooted in a social context and a political experience” is only to say the obvious(p. 90). Even overlooking the fact that emotions are also innate, what else could they be except socially-generated and constructed?

What can be said, and which Dupuis-Déri emphasizes with great effect, is that Black Bloc anarchists are much more conscientious about the use of violence than are the many and various security agencies arrayed against them. Police violence is mostly random and unprovoked, directed not only at the Black Blocs but at non-violent demonstrators and bystanders alike. Anarchists are categorized as “pre-terrorists,” subject to intense surveillance, and heavily infiltrated (p. 150). Masking both hides Black Bloc participants and also makes infiltration easy. But also, because they fight back, the police are more hesitant to abuse and brutalize protestors. The Black Blocs both draw and repel repression.

If Dupuis-Déri pushes his discussion further than necessary, it’s because he wants to dissect every possible criticism made of the Black Blocs. Some discussions might have been carried further. Gender dynamics is one such area.

Dupuis-Déri is quite conscientious in describing women’s roles within the Black Blocs. All the same, the Blocs remain overwhelmingly young and male, precisely the demographic that defines violence in society at large. He mentions that anti-fascist blocs tend to be predominately male, while anti-racist blocs attract a preponderance of females. These are the sorts of differences that he might have pursued in much greater depth.

Dupuis-Déri considers the Black Blocs to be “an image of the future” (160). It’s an image, however, that is clad in black and masked. It is an appropriate metaphor as well for Dupuis-Déri’s Who’s Afraid of the Black Blocs? Anarchy in Action Around the World–a view of things to come that one can’t quite discern clearly but only watch in action. Uneven in parts, it is nonetheless highly informative and provocative throughout.

Berger, John. (1974). The Look of Things: Essays. New York: Viking Press.


Endnotes Collective.(2014).“The Holding Pattern.”
Endnotes 3. Available:

About the reviewer
Gary Roth is the author of Marxism in a Lost Century: A Biography of Paul Mattick (Brill/Haymarket: 2014/2015) and co-author with Anne Lopes of Men’s Feminism: August Bebel and the German Socialist Movement (Humanity Books:2000).

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Who's Afraid of the Black Blocs reviewed by Sprout Distro

By Bob
Sprout Distro
December 3rd, 2014

Who’s Afraid of the Black Blocs? Anarchy in Action Around the World by Francis Dupuis-Déri is an attempt to objectively explore and examine the black bloc tactic by casting aside the stereotypes and political dismissals common both in the mainstream media and amongst various radical groups. The book draws on extensive research including interviews with black bloc participants in various actions over the past 15 years (the Quebec student strike in 2012, the Toronto G20 Summit in 2010, the Évian G8 Meeting in 2003, and the Quebec City Summit of the Americas in 2001), research into publications (communiqués, zines, etc) by black bloc participants, and observations garnered from the street.

The author—Francis Dupuis-Déri—has been a close observer of black blocs and a participant in anti-capitalist politics, having been a member of the Convergence des luttes anticapitalistes (CLAC) in Montreal. The 2013 edition of this book is a completely revised English version of a book that was originally published in French in 2003. The English edition offers entirely new perspectives, taking into account recent mass protests and new uses of the black bloc—effectively showing that the tactic, while always evolving, has remained a constant feature of anarchist street protests across the world for nearly 15 years. In the end, Dupuis-Déri shows that the black bloc is a serious manifestation of anarchist beliefs and that as one of the more visible manifestation of anarchist politics, it is worthy of a nuanced exploration that moves beyond shallow analysis.

An Introduction for the Uninitiated

At its core, Who’s Afraid of the Black Blocs? provides an introduction to the black bloc tactic and the anarchist ideas that generally accompany it. The author gets the basics right, accurately describing the tactic, explaining its use, and making tentative statements about the politics of the black bloc. Whereas countless others over the years—from critics on the left to government agencies—have sought to portray the black bloc as a formal group, Dupuis-Déri avoids making that mistake. Instead, the author explains that black blocs differ dramatically from bloc to bloc and that they tend to be an assemblage of affinity groups or individuals, depending on the level of organizing that has been done in advance. They can range from a dozen people to hundreds, with purposes that range from defense of demonstrations to aggressive attacks against property and police.

The author traces the history of the black bloc tactic to the autonomous movement that emerged in Germany in the early 1980s (24). The autonomous movement was an anti-authoritarian movement that blended a variety of ideological influences—Marxism, radical feminism, anarchism, and environmentalism—while advocating for a politics based on individual and collective autonomy in the “here and now” (24-25). In practice, this meant rent strikes and squatting buildings which the movement used to develop a number of different hubs of activity from cafes and meeting spaces to infoshops (25). Black blocs originally grew out of street confrontations aimed at defending squats and attacking fascists, with the term being used to describe the autonomen would show up with a variety of helmets, shields, clubs, and projectiles and combat the police (25). According to Dupuis-Déri, the tactic spread to North America through “the punk and far left or ultra-left counterculture via fanzines, touring punk music groups, and personal contacts of traveling activists” (30). Early uses of the tactic took place at a protest in Washington DC in January 1991 against the Gulf War (30) and it was adopted by the militant anti-racist movement throughout the 1990s (31). Following the targeted property destruction undertaken by a black bloc at the Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in 1999, the black bloc got considerable media coverage, both in the mainstream and leftist press (33). This led to the spread of the tactic throughout the broad alter-globalization movement.

Dupuis-Déri argues that the black bloc is a manifestation of anarchist ideas, a specific and direct response to capitalism and the state. Rather than being so-called “irrational” acts of destruction, the confrontations and destruction undertaken by the black bloc are choices based on a specific worldview. Everything, from the way black blocs are organized to the choice of targets follows anarchist principles (42). Aside from demonstrating a political critique of the existing order, black blocs also are informed by emotion, with Dupuis-Déri arguing that it is joy and rage that motivate many participants (83-85). The author asserts that these “…emotions are rooted in a social context and a political experience. Direct action is a reaction to feelings of injustice and to situations of domination, inequality, and systemic violence” (90). Through black bloc actions, anarchists are able to temporarily liberate space and create experiences outside the norms set by the state and representative political organizations (99). Similarly, while black blocs are often criticized as being divisive and destructive to various “movements,” Dupuis-Déri argues that black blocs embody a critique of representation, both of the state and various “progressive” groups that routinely denounce black bloc tactics (127). The author rightfully points out that anarchists reject the politics of representation, arguing that efforts to “represent” the interests of the multitude result in oversimplification (126). Therefore, the direct action that a black bloc engages in provides both a new direction and a critique of representation.

Re-Examining Old Controversies

Seemingly no discussion of the black bloc would be complete without examining the various “controversies” that have surrounded the black bloc tactic as it has spread across the globe. Many of the common debates are taken up, including the discussion of violence in social movements, that it invites repression, whether or not the participants are just apolitical, charges of sexism, charges that black blocs alienate the working-class, and more.

For those familiar recent anarchist history, most of these conversations have been had at length, even though clear conclusions may not not have been found. As would be expected from an author sympathetic to the black bloc, Dupuis-Déri argues that the violence engaged in by the black bloc is insignificant when compared with the structural violence of the capitalism on a daily basis. It’s a relatively standard dismissal that many anarchists have already adopted, but is probably always worth pointing out. Dupuis-Déri further argues that black blocs also do not engage in violence against people, with the exception being armored police who are prepared to do great harm to demonstrators. Similarly, charges that the black bloc invites repression are easily debunked, with Dupuis-Déri providing numerous examples of authorities’ intent to repress protests regardless of their militancy. While militant threats may be used to provide an immediate pretext for repression, it is often just a way to justify police tactics that were planned well in advance. Another common charge, that black bloc participants are just mindless hooligans or young thugs, is dealt with by way of the author pointing out that most of the black bloc participants he interviewed were experienced activists or were involved in various community and political organizations (37).

In discussing the question whether or not the black bloc is alienating to the “working class” or the mainstream, Dupuis-Déri offers some interesting insights. He provides numerous examples of experiences on the streets where diverse groups of people of different backgrounds have supported black bloc tactics both in the moment (even in some cases by joining in) and afterward in expressing support (sometimes formal as was the case with Brazil’s State Union of Education Professionals [SEPE]) (124). Furthermore, there is a good discussion of the idea of “civil societies” and “public opinions” (118). Dupuis-Déri points out that rather than there being one monolithic “public” or “society” that can be alienated by black blocs, there are different segments of the population that respond differently based on their own individual feelings. As a black bloc participant points out, the assumption about a monolithic audience is usually that it is “white and middle class” (118). The author acknowledges that while violence does attract and dominate media attention, it may have a more positive effect that what is often assumed (117). Citing a study of media coverage following the Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in 1999, Dupuis-Déri explaining that it “boosted public interest in anarchism” (118) by resulting in more visits to anarchist websites and more stories about aspects of anarchism beyond black blocs including “anarchist soccer leagues, book fairs, and so on” (119). He concludes the discussion “there is no truth to claims that the operations of the Black Blocs necessarily widen the gap between anarchism and ‘ordinary’ working-class citizens” (124).

As with the discussion of whether or not the black bloc is alienating, the charge of sexism often leveled at the black bloc goes in some interesting directions in Who’s Afraid of the Black Blocs. While highlighting various accounts and experiences of women and queer folks who have participated in black blocs, Dupuis-Déri acknowledges that men have often retained aspects of their male privilege, including within black blocs (107). Based on firsthand interviews, there are stories of women making banners while men practiced their slingshot skills (107), women shopping for supplies (107), women doing more preparatory work in terms of reconnaissance while men took glamorous roles in the streets (107-108), and observations of men who often function as “lone wolves” in “individualistic ways (110-111). By discussing concrete examples rather than reducing the discussion to the all-too-common and ridiculous charges that violence is masculine, Dupuis-Déri manages to give the discussion new relevancy.

While referencing more recent debates and controversies about the black bloc such as Chris Hedges “cancer of Occupy,” Dupuis-Déri doesn’t really delve into other shifts in anarchist thinking over the past ten or so years. For example, there is relatively little discussion of the role of insurrectionary anarchism, which has in some ways challenged the traditional idea of utilizing black blocs in the context of a mass street confrontation (60-61). At times, other criticisms are referenced, such as the “After We Burnt Everything…” discussion about the Strasbourg NATO Summit and discussions happening in Greece about the use of black blocs (59). A 2002 piece “Has The Black Bloc Tactic Reached The End Of Its Usefulness?” is referenced as well, but that question seems to be answered both in the book and in the streets as numerous black blocs have had varying degrees of “success” over the past decade.

In Conclusion

Ultimately for anarchists and others already familiar with the black bloc tactic and its history, Who’s Afraid of the Black Blocs? doesn’t cover much new ground. Aside from relaying some recent history of black bloc actions in the Montreal student strike of 2012 and providing a relatively international perspective on the tactic, there isn’t a lot of new information here. The historical background isn’t substantially different from what one could find in shorter zines such as Can’t Stop Kaos: A Brief History of the Black Bloc, nor does it provide a practical and tactical introduction to using the black bloc tactic (for that, see zines such as Blocs, Black and Otherwise and How It Is To Be Fun). At the same time, the book doesn’t really have the level of passion that would draw in people new to anarchism. It gives a fine introduction and a detailed analysis, but it lacks the punch that would make readers want to set down the book and bloc up.

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“We will need writers who can remember freedom”: Ursula K Le Guin at the National Book Awards
November 19th, 2014

Ursula K. Le Guin was honored at the National Book Awards tonight (November 19th, 2014) and gave a fantastic speech about the dangers to literature and how they can be stopped.

As far as I know it’s not available online yet (update: the video is now online- see above), so I’ve transcribed it from the livestream below. The parts in parentheses were ad-libbed directly to the audience, and the Neil thanked is Neil Gaiman, who presented her with the award.

"Thank you Neil, and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.

Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

Thank you."

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Robin Bell's Positive Force: More Than a Witness: 30 Years of Punk Politics in Action Reviewed on Alpine Anarchist

By Gabriel Kuhn
Alpine Anarchist
November 2014

Ahead of the big 2012 anarchist gathering in St. Imier, Switzerland, I gave an interview to the Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard. When asked what I considered the most convincing example of anarchism in practice, I pointed to the punk hardcore underground in an effort to avoid the overstressed example of the Spanish Revolution.

It was a daring proposition given that the problems in the punk hardcore scene range from machismo and cliquishness all the way to superficial posturing and outright political ignorance. However, considering the values of DIY, global networks of mutual aid, and the alluring blend of solidarity and anti-authoritarianism it seemed worth giving it a shot.

One of the best things about watching Robin Bell's 69-minute documentary about Positive Force DC was that I felt reassured in my decision; and that despite the fact that Positive Force DC is not an anarchist project as such, something which the film – and in particular the Punk, Votes, Riots outtake in the DVD extras – makes very clear.

Positive Force DC was founded in 1984 by Mark Andersen and Kevin Mattson who were inspired by the Positive Force collective that had formed in Reno, Nevada, around the band 7 Seconds.

In More Than a Witness, 7 Seconds frontman Kevin Seconds recalls the sentiment that had led to the group's foundation: "Yes, a lot about the world sucks, but let's try and change things. We're sitting around complaining, but we don't seem to be doing anything to make a change."

Out of the several Positive Force collectives that emerged during the following years, the one in DC was the only one to survive the 1980s. Among the most compelling descriptions of the project's appeal in More Than a Witness is a statement by Johnny Temple of Soulside and Girls Against Boys fame: "One of the problems with punk was always the insularity of it and the gazing inward, and to this day that's part of the punk rock legacy. In DC, [there was a] looking out at the world and not the celebrating of the self but the celebrating of the potential for making the world a better place."

Formally and aesthetically, More Than a Witness follows punk rock documentary standards: it's essentially a mix of concert footage, photographs, flyers, and talking heads. This works for me, and it works especially well in this case, because the elements are well-balanced and the film tells an actual story rather than being a random hodgepodge of visual clips and sound bites: we are led from Positive Force DC's beginnings and the Revolution Summer of 1985 to the infamous (and successful) 1988 "Meese Is a Pig" campaign to the group's role in spawning the Riot Grrrl movement in the early 1990s to conflicts about organizing and direct action in the mid-2000s, and to the eventual – and ongoing – collaboration with We Are Family, a "unique experiment in senior services, advocacy, and community-building", as the half-hour documentary Green Hair, Grey Hair, included in the DVD extras, puts it.

Among the flyers featured in the film, my favorites are one announcing a DC gig of the magnificent Tribe 8 and another advertising a New Year's Eve show by Zegota. Regarding the concert footage, Fugazi playing on Lafayette Square with open view at the White House is as captivating as 7 Seconds performing "Young Until I Die" at a suburban community center. (The extras contain extended live footage, including The Evens, Beefeater, and, hooray, more 7 Seconds!) With respect to the talking heads, the film relies perhaps a little too much on the big names. I'm not sure, for example, whether Penny Rimbaud or Dave Grohl are really needed in this particular picture (albeit for different reasons). At the same time, Jenny Toomey, Kathleen Hanna, Ian MacKaye, or Mark Andersen provide indispensable information and are, as always, a pleasure to watch. Once again, the DVD extras prove very valuable, since they contain a charming low-budget Positive Force documentary from 1991 (Wake Up! A Profile of Positive Force by David Weinstein) that mainly builds on the testimonies of young activists.

The extras also help answer one of the questions that remain open in More Than a Witness, namely why a fair number of anarchists left the organization in 2005. By juxtaposing different perspectives and interpretations, the twenty-minute outtake Punks, Votes, Riots cleverly traces a conflict that was triggered by the PunkVoter campaign of 2004 and came to a head after a demonstration in conjunction with a Positive Force-organized "Counter-Inaugural Ball" in January 2005.

Unsurprisingly, the extras do not answer all of the questions left unanswered by the film: Why was Positive Force DC the only Positive Force collective to survive? Why does it seem that even in a city like DC the folks attracted by such a collective are predominantly white? Can too much focus on responsibility and social change weigh down the fun of living the punk life? No film can answer all of the questions it raises, so this is no criticism. But it is here where interesting follow-up discussions could start.

A particularly interesting question concerns the very heart of the Positive Force project, namely the relation between punk and activism. How far can this relation take us? Towards the film's end, Ian MacKaye calls activism an "exercise", and Mark Andersen sees Positive Force as a "vehicle" for "the energy, the idea, the attitude, the spirit". Now, does this mean that the form political projects take are secondary to the spirit they convey? But can't conveying a certain spirit has its limits when we don't have the right projects/vehicles? And is exercise in itself enough, or are we exercising for something else? Is revolution an idea that is expressed in all acts of resistance or a material transformation of society's power structures? I myself have no answers to any of these questions, so I'm grateful to More Than a Witness – and Positive Force DC! – for raising them: any kick in the butt prompting us to think further is necessary if we want to collectively advance as activists, punk rock or not.

I'm going to end this with a predictable summary, but I do so with a clear conscience: no one interested in the connections between punk and activism can ignore Positive Force DC, and no one with such an interest can ignore More Than a Witness either. It is an inspiring documentary that should leave anyone wondering what they themselves can contribute to the struggle for social justice. Watch it, if you get the chance – and if you have the extra cash, you might as well pick up the DVD, not just for the excellent extras but also because you'll be supporting We Are Family as this is where some of the proceeds will go.

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San Francisco in the 1970s…

By Ron Jacobs
Weekend Edition November 28th-30th

Decades ago, before any state in the US had ever had any kind of vote to legalize marijuana, a group of marijuana capitalists and reformers held a convention in San Francisco’s Convention Center underneath Market Street. A friend and I attended this convention as members of the interested public. Imagine our surprise when we were met at the entrance by signs forbidding the smoking, selling or otherwise using any illegal substances including marijuana. After asking around a little, we understood that the signs were for real and that San Francisco’s finest were inside the hall in uniform and civilian clothing ready to bust anyone who might decide they wanted to light up and get high. My friend and I left the building for an hour or so, found a good alleyway to smoke a joint or two, bought a six pack of malt liquor, stashed it and went back inside. The hall was full of smokers and people hoping to make money off of smokers. Bongs, papers, books on growing–the whole freaking market place was there. Around noon, we found some paper cups, poured malt liquor into them and sat in some chairs in a corner of the convention center to listen to one of my favorite newspaper writers and Yippie, Paul Krassner, provide his take on things. For an hour and a half, Krassner talked about the SLA, the cops, Nixon, Abbie Hoffman, hippies, Patty Hearst and the irony of a marijuana convention where one couldn’t smoke marijuana.

Krassner had founded his news/satire sheet The Realist almost two decades before that event. Like the satirist Jonathan Swift and Krassner’s contemporary Lenny Bruce, Krassner’s newspaper utilized satire to report the news and, more importantly, to expose the often slimy and nefarious machinations behind that news. All sacred cows were slaughtered and rendered like trophies during hunting season. His point seemed to be telling the truth and pissing off the right people; the latter often being the result of the former. Sometimes those he pissed off were allies in other ways, just a bit too doctrinaire and dogmatic for a Yippie like Krassner.

Usuallly, though, the targets of The Realist’s search for truth were the rulers of the nation, those who funded them and those who protected them. In other words, politicians, generals, bankers, CEOs, newspaper publishers, the courts and the cops.

Not long after that marijuana-less marijuana convention, my friends and I moved to San Diego for a few months. During our stay there, former SF cop Dan White murdered George Moscone the mayor and Harvey milk a city councilman and gay rights activist. The trigger for the murders was the mayor’s refusal to reinstate White to the city council after he had quit. The real motivation seemed to actually lie in White’s homophobia and right wing politics. Right before these murders, hundreds of folks from the Bay Area had died in a mass murder-suicide at the Peoples Temple compound in Guyana. Krassner had recently finished covering the trial resulting from another notorious Bay Area event–the kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), conversion to radical revolutionary and capture by police of heiress Patty Hearst. He would eventually also cover the trial of the ex-cop turned city councilmember turned assassin Dan White. His recently released book Patty Hearst & The Twinkie Murders presents Krassner’s take on both of these trials.

The Patty Hearst story raised a lot of questions on the Left. There were those who believed the SLA was a covert operation to ferret out radicals and set them up to commit spectacular and suicidal acts in the name of revolution. Others on the Left considered the group’s members to be legitimate leftist revolutionaries and supported the deeds of the SLA. Still others believed the SLA were legitimate and their actions were foolish and based on very faulty politics. Krassner’s coverage of the trial was some of the best being printed, with skepticism fairly meted out to all sides involved. His work was partially informed by the investigative work of Mae Brussell, whose recently released collection of writings, titled The Essential Mae Brussell:Investigations of Fascism in America, includes a good amount of her investigation into the origins of the SLA. Questionable connections of some of its members to far-right groups and the verifiable fact that the group’s leader Donald DeFreeze had been in the employ of the California Highway Patrol’s internal security division informing on Black revolutionary groups seemed to lend legitimacy to the possibility that the SLA was a black op.

The Dan White trial took place in 1979. What should have been an open and shut case of premeditated murder became a showcase for a San Francisco divided amongst itself. Dan White’s defense team, with a good deal of help from the mainstream press in the city, turned him into a martyr for the old white heterosexual and religious power structure which was fighting to retain its grip on San Francisco’s City Hall and other power centers. White’s victims–George Moscone and Harvey Milk–represented the post Haight-Ashbury San Francisco, with drugs, gay sex, leftist politics and every other aspect of a world feared by the Old Guard and celebrated by the new. Paul Krassner is obviously of the latter world. His reportage of the Dan White trial used that cultural/political divide as a contextual framework and succeeded wonderfully. The section in this new release captures this perfectly.

Like I stated before, just like his predecessors Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain and Lenny Bruce (to create an unlikely trinity of men who plied a trade in satire), Paul Krassner understands satire’s purpose. He is a master at exposing the truths beyond and behind the presented facts and their manipulation by the powers that be. Utilizing humor, quality reporting, and a healthy and essential sense of the absurd is what made his magazine The Realist such fun for so many years. HIs latest offering, Patty Hearst & The Twinkie Murders, continues the tradition.

Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies SeriesAll the Sinners, Saints, is the most recent novel in the series. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.    He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Sunset Daydream: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by CounterPunch. He can be reached at:

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The ordinary, extraordinary life of David Hartsough

By Ken Butigan
Waging NonViolence
November 12th, 2014

Years ago, my friend Anne Symens-Bucher would regularly punctuate our organizing meetings with a wistful cry, “I just want to live an ordinary life!” Anne ate, drank and slept activism over the decade she headed up the Nevada Desert Experience, a long-term campaign to end nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site. After a grueling conference call, a mountainous fundraising mailing, or days spent at the edge of the sprawling test site in 100-degree weather, she and I would take a deep breath and wonder aloud how we could live the ordinary, nonviolent life without running ourselves into the ground.

What we didn’t mean was: “How do we hold on to our radical ideals but also retreat into a middle-class cocoon?” No, it was something like: “How can we stay the course but not give up doing all the ordinary things that everyone else usually does in this one-and-only life?” Somewhere in this question was the desire to not let who we are — in our plain old, down-to-earth ordinariness — get swallowed up by the blurring glare of the 24/7 activist fast lane.

These ruminations came back to me as I plunged into the pages of David Hartsough’s new memoir, “Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist.” David has been a friend for 30 years, and over that time I’ve rarely seen him pass up a chance to jump into the latest fray with both feet — something he’d been doing long before we met, as his book attests. For nearly six decades he’s been organizing for nonviolent change — with virtually every campaign, eventually getting tangled up with one risky nonviolent action after another. Therefore one might be tempted to surmise that David is yet another frantic activist on the perennial edge of burnout. Just reading his book, with its relentless kaleidoscope of civil resistance on many continents, can be dizzying — what must it have been like to live it? If anyone would qualify for not living the ordinary life, it would seem to be David Hartsough.

As I finished his 250-page account, however, I drew a much different conclusion. I found myself thinking that maybe David has figured it out — maybe he’s been living the ordinary life all along.

Which is not to downplay the Technicolor drama of his journey. Since meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. as a teenager in the mid-1950s, David has been actively part of many key nonviolent movements over the last half-century: the civil rights movement, the anti-nuclear testing movement, the movement to end the Vietnam War, the U.S. Central America peace movement, the anti-apartheid movement, and the movements to end the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent years he has helped found the Nonviolent Peaceforce and a new global venture to end armed conflict, World Beyond War.

This book is jammed with powerful stories from these efforts — from facing down with nonviolent love a knife-wielding racist during an eventually successful campaign to desegregate a lunch-counter in Arlington, Va., in 1960, to paddling canoes into the way of a U.S. military ship bound for Vietnam; from meeting with President John Kennedy to urging him to spark a “peace race” with the Soviet Union, to being threatened with arrest in Red Square in Moscow for calling for nuclear disarmament there; from confronting the death squad culture in Central America and the Philippines to watching his good friend, Vietnam veteran Brian Willson, get mowed down by a U.S. Navy munitions train.

These are just a few of innumerable vignettes of David’s peacemaking around the world. But there is much more to David’s life story than these intense scenes of nonviolent conflict.

Much of this book recounts how the foundations of his career as an agent of nonviolent change were laid, slowly and organically. His decision to give his life to peacemaking was shaped by the inspiration of his parents, who were both actively involved in building a better world, and by a series of experiences in which he witnessed the impact of violence and injustice, but also at the same time met a series of remarkable organizers who were not content to simply wring their hands at such destruction, including the likes of civil rights movement luminaries Bayard Rustin and Ralph Abernathy.

Most powerful of all, David set out on a series of illuminating explorations, with long stints in the Soviet Union, Cuba and a then-divided Germany. Everywhere he met people who turned out to be complicated, beautiful and often peace-loving human beings. His nonviolence — and resistance to war — was strengthened by seeing for himself the people his own government deemed “the enemy.”

In Berlin — a city split between the East and West after World War II, but not yet separated by the wall the Soviets would build — he took classes on both sides of the divide and experienced up close what the “us” versus “them” of violence feels like: “In the mornings [at the university in the East] I would challenge the Communist propaganda and be labeled a ‘capitalist war-monger,’” he writes. “In the afternoons, at the university in the West, when I challenged their propaganda I was called a ‘Communist conspirator.’ I thought I must be doing something right if neither side appreciated my questions! I didn’t consider myself any of these things: capitalist, war-monger, Communist, conspirator.” Instead, he was a nonviolent activist challenging the confining labels that are used to foment the separations that fuel and legitimate violence and injustice.

David has rooted his lifelong pilgrimage of peace in a simple conviction: that all life is precious. He has helped spark and build one campaign after another when that preciousness is forgotten or undermined.

At the same time, he’s recognized that such a nonviolent life extends to himself. This is where the ordinary life comes in.

David and his spouse Jan live a simple life interweaving family time (including with their children and grandchildren, who live downstairs from them) with building a better world. They are activists, but they rarely let organizing keep them from taking a hike in the mountains or a walk along the seashore. They are regulars at the local Quaker meeting. For decades they have been sharing their home with countless friends, who are often invited to the songfests that they frequently organize in their living room. When I stay with them in San Francisco, there is always a bike ride through Golden Gate Park to be had or time to be spent at a garden a few blocks away with its dazzling profusion of azaleas. Rather than giving short shrift to the fullness of life, David has found a way to live, as we say today, holistically.

David’s life qualifies as “ordinary,” though, not only because it knits together many dimensions of everyday realities, but because it has dissolved the artificial boundary between “activism” and “non-activism.” All of life is an opportunity to celebrate and defend its preciousness, and this impulse gets worked out seamlessly in both watering the plants and getting carted off to a police van after engaging in nonviolent resistance at a nuclear weapons laboratory. Nonviolent action is a seamless part of the rhythm of life. It is a crucial part of the ordinary life. Once enough of us see this and fold it into the rest of our life, its ordinariness will become even more evident than it is now. This was Gandhi’s feeling — nonviolence and nonviolent resistance is a normal part of being human — and David has taken this assumption up in a clear and thoughtful way.

Anne Symens-Bucher reports that she’s increasingly living the ordinary life — she’s developed a powerful example of it called Canticle Farm in Oakland, Calif. And I feel I’m getting closer to it day by day. But if you want to read a page-turner that reveals how one person has been doing it for the last 50 years, get a copy of David Hartsough’s new autobiography, Waging Peace.

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A Line in the Tar Sands excerpt on the Socialist Project

Socialist Project
November 10th, 2014

Drawing a Line in the Tar Sands

Of all possible futures, the least likely is one in which business as usual continues unabated. Peoples’ movements will either succeed in transforming our economic and political systems to build a new world, or we will burn with the old one.

Our title invokes a metaphor of uncompromising resistance because the tar sands are an environmental injustice of the highest order. A ‘Line in the Sand’ means: it has gone this far, but no further. We are confronting an industry that is worth trillions of dollars, and is driven by some of the largest corporations on Earth, which have no goals that are any nobler than maximizing short-term profits and growth. The fight to stop this industry is clearly one of the epic challenges of our age, and only serious and sustained mobilization can turn the tide.

The Athabasca River Basin in western Canada contains one of the world's largest reserves of fossil energy in the form of bitumen, a tar-like substance that must be heavily refined to separate oil from sand and clay – hence the name tar sands.[1] The world's largest industrial landscape now sits atop the Athabasca tar sands, where the industry is wreaking devastation on the homelands of Cree, Dene, and Métis peoples, immense tracts of boreal forest, and the habitat of many animal species.

The Race to Extend the Age of Fossil Fuels: Profits, Power, and Claims of Inevitability

The tar sands landscape is marked by vast deforestation, strip mines, wastewater ‘ponds,’ and freshwater diversions; an expanding network of pipelines and roads; massive refineries and energy generation facilities; and the world's largest earth-moving machines. In addition to its physical size, the tar sands are regularly identified as the world's biggest energy project and site of capital investment. In a major 2008 report, Environmental Defence called it simply “the most destructive project on earth.”[2] If this industrial expansion continues across the Athabasca Basin in the coming decades, the tar sands extraction landscape would span an area the size of England.

While the Athabasca River Basin constitutes the heart of the tar sands industry, its infrastructure is increasingly continental in scope. Pipelines are the vital arteries of the industry, bringing bitumen to refineries and ultimately to markets, and they already stretch over thousands of kilometres across North America. At least 50 refineries have been handling blends of tar sands and conventional oil.[3] Still, this is not enough to satisfy investors’ voracious appetite for growing profits, which are driving an aggressive push to expand, construct, or repurpose a series of pipelines in order to increase rising volumes of production and transport.

Several thousand more kilometres of pipelines are planned, including TransCanada's attempt to expand the Keystone XL pipeline across the U.S. to refineries around the Gulf of Mexico; Enbridge's efforts to build the Northern Gateway pipeline across British Columbia to enable shipping on the Pacific Ocean; and TransCanada's plans to establish an Energy East corridor to the eastern seaboard, where Atlantic shipping and refining may occur. The appetite for growth is plainly reflected in the words of Alberta's finance minister, who claims that the industry soon will require “two or three Enbridge-Keystones” to handle the glut of unprocessed bitumen and continue expanding at the pace sought by investors.[4] At the other end of these pipeline arteries, there is a push for expanded upgrading and refining capacity, port facilities, and ocean-going tankers to widen distribution on a global scale.

This colossal enterprise is driven by a confluence of transnational energy corporations and finance capital. The world's largest oil and gas companies all have tar sands projects; banks and investment funds from around the world have increasingly joined capital based in Canada and the USA. In addition, the industry has been relentlessly subsidized and promoted by the Canadian and Albertan governments in a range of ways: decades of direct and indirect subsidies; lax regulations and a reliance on “self-regulation”; deep cuts to environmental monitoring capacities;[5] the failure to make serious, multilateral commitments to climate change mitigation; aggressive lobbying in the Canadian press and international policy forums; and missions to lock in trade and investment in the tar sands through bilateral and multilateral agreements.[6] Taken together, it is hard to overstate the magnitude of the economic and political power at hand.

Peak Oil; Peak Consumption

Yet pilot operations began in the late 1960s and the quantity of bitumen in the Athabasca tar sands has long been known, so an obvious question is: why has the industry heated up so much since the 1990s, after decades of far slower expansion? The answer relates in part to the fact that bitumen is much more difficult and costly to extract and refine into usable end products than conventional oil reserves. This means that returns on investment are much lower in the tar sands than in places with cheaper production costs (such as the Middle East, historically), at the same time as enormous capital investment is needed to enable the extraction, transport, and refining of bitumen. So it was not until world oil prices began to rise quickly in the face of growing limits to conventional supplies – reflecting the dynamics of “peak oil”[7] – that the tar sands industry became sufficiently profitable for many large-scale energy and financial corporations to ramp up their investments. Here, it is also helpful to remember that oil, coal, and natural gas account for roughly four-fifths of the world's net primary energy supply (that is, the sum of energy used in all production, transportation, and households).[8] Of these, oil is the most crucial, as both the greatest source of energy generation and the overwhelming source of liquid fuel that powers global transportation systems. The centrality of oil in global capitalism is reflected in the fact that oil-centred giants, like ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Chevron, and Sinopec, consistently rank among the largest and most profitable corporations in the world. The geopolitical dimension of this push is plainly apparent in the Harper government's attempts to promote Canada as a world “energy superpower,” which is capable of enhancing the “energy security” for its friends, most notably the USA.

It is clear that the race to expand the production of unconventional reserves like bitumen is tied to the decline of conventional oil and gas reserves. In addition to tar sands, this general pressure is also central to the rise of hydraulic fracturing (more commonly known as “fracking”) for “tight” oil and natural gas and mining of kerogen shale (a bitumen-like substance), as well as increasing offshore drilling in deeper water and higher latitudes for conventional reserves.

This overall shift is increasingly being described in terms of a turn toward “extreme fossil energy,” because of the heightened difficulty, costs, risks, and pollution burden it entails.[9] The Athabasca tar sands are the world's largest “extreme energy” frontier, both because of the size of the area and the scale of bitumen deposits, and because the growth and technological development of the industry there is now helping to stoke the expansion of extraction in similar, though smaller, sorts of reserves around the world, in countries such as Venezuela and the United States.

To hear it from corporate and government elites, this turn toward extreme extraction is more or less inevitable. Their basic argument is that fossil fuels are the lifeblood of modern economies, so further extraction of unconventional reserves in the tar sands and elsewhere is needed to enable continued growth. The basic mantra is that more extraction means more wealth and more jobs. Some industry champions, such as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, take the claim of necessity a step further and celebrate the determination of investors who sink billions of dollars into the technology and infrastructure needed to make harder-to-use materials usable.

These claims of necessity contain a certain degree of truth, but a greater mistruth. The basic truth starts with the fact that fossil fuels permeate nearly every aspect of global capitalism and have a central function powering the relentless pursuit of growth and profits. Thus, the race to expand the tar sands and other forms of extreme fossil energy is indeed necessary to perpetuate the current order of things and, at least in the near-term, the success in this has been reflected in the diminished talk of peak oil. (Here, along with the tar sands, the explosive rise of fracking for oil and gas is especially notable). Of course, extreme energy projects can mean great earnings for financiers from Wall Street to Bay Street, and energy corporations from Calgary to Texas to Europe – though we must be clear that these industries also relate to jobs for ordinary people in countless ways, from the tar sands themselves to automobile assembly lines to a food system that runs on oil. However, the greater mistruth in the claim of necessity for the tar sands lies in the assumption that a growth-dependent, fossil fuel-addicted economic system can and must continue. The reality is that this course is far from inevitable, and that it guarantees disastrous outcomes.

The Line in the Tar Sands: The Growing Resistance

The stakes are rising as the tar sands industry pushes ever harder to expand production, pipelines, and export markets. Fortunately, a growing push-back is mounting against the mighty nexus of corporate and political power on a multitude of fronts. This opposition is grounded in the struggles of Indigenous communities in the Athabasca River Basin, and along existing and planned pipeline corridors. Here, residents have borne the brunt of the ecological devastation and adverse health impacts as their sovereignty has been undermined by both governments and corporations. Indigenous resistance has taken many forms, with community-based efforts to protect their land, water, and autonomy providing the foundation for broader initiatives like the Unist’ot’en Camp,[10] the Yinka Dene Alliance, Moccasins on the Ground gatherings, the Healing Walk, and the Idle No More movement.[11]

As proposals for new and extended pipelines have radiated outwards across the continent, opposition to the tar sands industry has also grown among various non-Indigenous communities and organizations. Movement strategists have often seen pipelines as a strategic vulnerability for the tar sands industry – for two major reasons. First, as suggested earlier, the industry is extremely fearful of how bottlenecks can constrain expansion, and hence both increased pipeline capacity and access to a wider set of refineries are deemed to be essential to continuing growth and investments. At present, much of the tar sands processing capacity is concentrated in the U.S. Midwest, and a glut in bitumen in the region has contributed to falling prices.[12] Tapping into further refinery capacity would increase profits, by avoiding such regional gluts, and by sparing the industry from the costs of building new upgrading facilities in northern Alberta, where these are particularly expensive due to the limits of existing infrastructure in this region. While such bottlenecks remain in place, campaigns against new and expanded pipelines have been able to slow investment in the industry, as investors have become wary of delays with additional pipelines (though it seems that some unfortunately are opting to invest in U.S. shale oil instead.) Rail shipments are growing, but these are more expensive, and cannot substitute for pipelines in terms of the scale of the expansion sought by investors.[13]

The second reason that pipelines are such a strategic vulnerability for the industry is that they provoke resistance by projecting serious eco-health risks onto ever more regions. These threats have been put on stark display in a number of recent spills, including those in the Kalamazoo River in 2010, and in Mayflower, Arkansas, in 2013. The risks of toxic pollution on land and in water bodies have repeatedly served to galvanize frontline mobilizations against pipelines and refineries, and these have grown into a major part of the struggles against the tar sands.

The most well-known pipeline battle has surrounded the Keystone XL proposal, but many other confrontations – ranging from direct actions to court cases – have been intensifying across the U.S. and Canada, as are discussed in several of our chapters. For instance, the Northern Gateway proposal has been met with mounting resistance for the hazards it would pose on land and with soaring tanker traffic moving in coastal waters and around the Haida Gwaii islands. In Ontario and Québec, there have been a range of mobilizations in different communities to oppose the reversal of the flow of the Enbridge Line 9 pipeline, which could enable the company to ship bitumen through southern Ontario and Montreal to the Atlantic coast. Opposition has arisen in response to Enbridge's Flanagan South Pipeline plan that would flow from the Chicago area to the Gulf Coast. After environmental organizations were unsuccessful in filing an injunction against the project, other strategies have been explored by the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance network, among others in the region. Anishinaabe communities in Minnesota have staged protests against the Alberta Clipper pipeline that already runs across their land (stretching from Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin) and Enbridge's plans to dramatically increase the volume of bitumen being pumped through it. In addition, frontline opposition has emerged in response to megaload shipments through the U.S. Northwest, and to stop new tar sands mining in Utah.[14]

Frontline mobilizations from the Athabasca River Basin to sites for existing and proposed pipeline corridors and tar sands refining can be viewed as an extension of decades of environmental justice campaigning in North America, which emerged out of the disproportionate siting of polluting industries, dumps, and resource extraction among poor and often racially marginalized groups.[15] And just as many environmental justice campaigns have become better connected over time, building solidarity based on shared forms of oppression and aspirations, so too are the struggles of frontline communities becoming more entwined.

“The unifying element in these global and local struggles – the proverbial line in the tar sands – is a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the industry and a demand that the bitumen be left in the ground. ”

As the network of resistance has grown, it has increasingly intersected with the efforts of environmental activists and organizations fighting for action on climate change, who recognize how pivotal the tar sands are to any hope of preventing disastrous levels of warming. The unifying element in these global and local struggles – the proverbial line in the tar sands – is a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the industry and a demand that the bitumen be left in the ground.[16]

But beneath this broad goal, there are a diversity of targets and a multiplicity of tactics. The primary targets are, of course, the energy corporations at the helm of the tar sands industry, the Mordor landscape they are creating, and the infrastructure projects they are planning. Secondary targets include things like: government review processes, which promise at least a modicum of public participation; pension funds and financial institutions like the Royal Bank of Canada, which have a crucial role in capitalizing extraction, transport, and refining operations; and campaigns to affect fuel policies in the European Union, which might have forbidden tar sands imports.

Many activists and organizations have converged in mass demonstrations, such as the rally to stop Keystone XL in the United States. Indigenous communities and environmental organizations have presented critical evidence and arguments to the public hearings and environmental impact assessments surrounding pipeline and shipment plans, or campaigners have presented rearguard legal challenges. In Alberta, the tar sands industry is facing legal challenges from the Beaver Lake Cree, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, and the Fort McKay First Nation. Land defence struggles and direct action have ranged from attempts to physically disrupt production, to establishing blockades and encampments on key sites, to spectacular banner drops in the tar sands and on Canadian Parliament buildings. Public education has taken a range of forms, such as speaking tours and the creation of a range of Internet resources.
The struggles against the tar sands industry are also intertwined with an even wider set of movements that are striving toward urgent social, political, and economic change, as they work to build hopeful transitions away from a ruinous addiction to fossil fuels and the pursuit of endless growth. The corporate behemoths driving the tar sands are implicated in myriad injustices around the world, and they – along with their political minions – are among the most powerful forces in the world forestalling such transitions. Challenging these forces also entails a vast range of efforts to organize our societies more democratically, equitably, and sustainably, from our food systems to the design of our cities to the way we heat and power our homes.
It is hard to assess the degree to which different efforts and even victories in the short term might ultimately contribute to the big, long-term objective of keeping the bitumen in the ground. But at the very least, the resistance has already succeeded in making it clear that the continuation of the tar sands industry and other extreme energy projects are far from inevitable, as more and more people come to understand that these can and must be stopped.

Adapted from A Line in the Tar Sands: Struggles for Environmental Justice, edited by Toban Black, Stephen D'Arcy, Tony Weis, and Joshua Kahn Russell (Between the Lines, 2014). A Line in the Tar Sands is a collection of writings from 38 contributors. The collection includes activist, academic, and journalistic perspectives on indigenous, environmentalist, and social justice struggles.

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Why we need to win the battle over the tar sands

By Brad Hornick
October 2nd, 2014

'the fight over the tar sands is among the epic environmental and social justice battles of our time'

As our governments willingly unleash unprecedented destruction upon the earth through the promotion of extractive industries, and growing mobilizations of climate activists challenge climate emergency, I am reminded of a cautionary warning: "the Owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk."

This environmental metaphor conveys that the awareness of a historical period only becomes apparent when that era is coming to a close and as we come face-to-face with urgent tasks that need to be addressed.

As if responding to this desperate need to hurry the inauguration of a new historical era, Stephen D'Arcy, Toban Black, Tony Weis and Joshua Kahn Russell, editors of A Line in the Tar Sands, bring together the voices of activists and academics to argue "peoples' movements will either succeed in transforming our economic and political systems to build a new world, or we will burn with the old one."

This argument, cemented by Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben stating "the fight over the tar sands is among the epic environmental and social justice battles of our time" in the opening pages, suggests the very active tar sands struggle is no less than a life-and-death battle for the future of the planet.

It is a battle that pits these peoples' movement against the largest and most destructive industrial project -- a project driven by the big the most profitable and powerful transnational energy corporations: ExxonMobile, British Petroleum, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, Sinopec.

And, this is a battle on a geological time-scale.  

These corporations are digging up carbon that was produced by billions of years of decomposition of organic matter and remained underground through natural processes, permitting life to flourish on the planet's surface.

In a few short years, this capitalist enterprise has caused a dramatic overburdening, creating massive levels of carbon pollution as waste and a dangerous imbalance increasingly undermining those very life support systems.

And all is driven by crass and class politics.

The tar sands agenda, argues Martin Lukacs, empowers the political machinations of the reactionary Right in Canada. It reinforces a corporate constitutionalism that locks-in trade and investment through bilateral and multilateral agreements that secure investment "certainty" through the engineered collapse of environmental regulatory frameworks.

"In other words," says Lukacs, "these are not pipelines to build a nation. They are a scheme by which to swindle it."

Yet, tar sands infrastructure is quickly becoming the heart of a continental fossil fuel circulatory system with bitumen arteries that deliver the life-blood that fuels a global productive metabolism.

To sever those Northern Gateway, Line 9, Trans Mountain, Keystone XL and Energy East arteries, it is argued, would threaten prosperity and the disruption the economic system as a whole.

However, James Hansen, says that "continuing exploitation of the tar sands would amount to 'game over' for the climate, as it promise[s] to ensure a range of very dangerous feedback loops [that] would kick in -- the so-called 'runaway' climate change scenario."

But, does the battle to sever the tar sands arteries qualify as today's pre-eminent "urgent historical task that needs to be addressed?"

Yes! A Line in the Tar Sands presents compelling arguments as to why this is the central campaign in the wider climate justice movement and how this campaign is transforming activism itself.

Two general trends stand out: inclusiveness and radicalization.

First, the anti-tar sands movement is increasingly influenced by the inclusion of those who are most affected: the frontline communities marginalized by race and/or class. The movement as a whole is thus becoming less middle class, white, male and privileged.

Crystal Lameman, a member of Beaver Lake Cree Nation in Alberta, Canada and an Indigenous rights and tar sands campaigner, notes:

My home is under attack by an industry and by the Alberta and federal governments, which will stop at nothing to get the bitumen from the ground...We are warriors -- Mother Earth's Soldiers...We must follow through for the children and our future. With our boots on the ground, we will persist as we resist the colonial structures that have been forced upon us.

Indigenous activists are, by far, at the leadership of this movement, providing a shrewd political analysis and a spiritual power into the generalized tendency towards despair concerning the large odds activists face.

Clayton Thomas-Muller, a member of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation in Manitoba, Canada and current campaign director for the Polaris Institute's Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign, notes:

A large part of the work of movement building was about defending the sacredness of our Mother Earth and helping our peoples decolonize our notions of government, land management, business, and social relations by going through a process of re-evaluating our connection to the sacred.

Second, the environmental and social justice concerns of the anti-tar sands movement are coalescing by drawing connections between neoliberal anti-environmentalism and much broader assaults on democratic processes and institutions. This leads to the deepening of critical stances against business-as-usual approaches of mainstream environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs), and harsh denunciations of reactionary environmentalism and false, market-based solutions, argues Ryan Katz-Rosene.

Mainstream environmentalism has recently been and will continue to be schooled in new organizing tactics from frontline activists. Dave Vasey, a grassroots activist in Toronto and active in Environmental Justice Toronto, Occupy Toronto, the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network and anti-tar sands campaigning, relates a specific case of ENGO "interference":

In addition, [ENGOs] agreed to work with industry to "bridge the gap" between activists and industry, which involved opposing community struggles. Some bridges don't need to be built, and prioritizing relationships with industry over frontline communities was a critical mistake for ENGOs. This helped industry create the social consent required for public relations, despite widespread opposition by many grassroots and First Nations activists.

More generally, the voice of systematic anti-capitalist and anti-colonial critique leads to an application of strategies and tactics towards more foundational structures through what Stephen D'Arcy calls "secondary targeting."

"Much of the movement's potency," he says, "derives not from its capacity to directly influence the tar sands industry itself, but from its capacity to disrupt the system of financial, political and ideological support on which the industry depends."

The climate justice movement will continue to radicalize and abruptly challenge the priorities of capital. It will confront the traditional environmental movement as well as Left politics as it forges a new constellation of political forces concerned with Indigenous rights and title, migrant rights, labour rights and the rights of nature.

The climate justice movement, to which this volume adds an essential contribution, is at the forefront of revolutionary politics because it is birthed at the nexus of critical contradictions in the planet's society/nature metabolism. The multiple voices in this volume are expressions of this wide historical planetary praxis, nature becoming conscious of itself. 

A Line in the Tar Sands
should be read by activists and theorists alike. It will assist the movement in moving forward.

Brad Hornick is a perpetual student now doing a Ph.D. studying the relationship of climate science to political activism. Check out his blog on rabble for more of his writing and follow him on twitter @bradhornick

Buy A Line in the Tar Sands now | Buy A Line in the Tar Sands e-Book now | Back to Joshua Kahn Russell's Editor Page | Back to Stephen D’Arcy's Editor Page| Back to Tony Weis's Editor Page | Back to Toban Black's Editor Page

The System on High-Low

By Rob Clough
October 7th, 2014

In some ways, Peter Kuper's The System is very much of its time with regard to its view of New York City. Written in 1995, its Times Square is still sleazy and the city (especially its downtown area) was far less gentrified than it is now. That said, its central plot beats--police corruption, racially-charged violence, insider trading, the threat of terrorism--are still all too familiar. This is my favorite of all of Kuper's comics, as it synchs up his interests in urban storytelling, political rabble-rousing, silent storytelling and his personal relationship with New York. It's also his most visually inventive and ambitious, as he spray-painted stenciled sheets to get a gritty, graffiti-inspired effect on each page. Given that the visual theme of the book is the way seemingly random people and things intersect and affect each other, the fact that colors literally bled into one another from panel to panel only helped to reinforce this theme.
While The System is touted as a silent book and there is no dialogue, it's a bit of a cheat to say that it's wordless. Indeed, there are whole subplots of the book that take place in headlines, on newstickers and on TV screens that drive a great deal of the action. We learn that a detective investigating the murder of a stripper is guilt-ridden for accidentally shooting a boy by looking at the newspaper clipping he carries around detailing the incident. We learn that there's a presidential election coming up between the corporate-sponsored incumbent and his firebrand liberal counterpart, and we later learn of the challenger's tragic fate from the papers. We learn of a major battle between two corporate giants who are trying to take over a third company via computer screens and iconography. This isn't a knock against the book; indeed, the omnipresence of media is a reality in an urban setting. That said, this is a book that requires different kinds of reading and rewards readers for keeping track of small details.

There's an orderly sense of chaos in how Kuper designs his pages. He resolutely stays away from any set sort of grid pattern on a page to page basis. In the second chapter, a brutal race-related murder is framed such that the panels are all askew, as though they were rocking or vibrating. Some of his panel-to-panel transitions are simple, while others are more dramatic and abstract, like the scream of a murder victim giving way to the tracks and train of a subway. A pigeon is his go-to way of moving the action somewhere new, as the bird draws away our eyes when Kuper simply wants to shift scenes without having characters intersect.

Peter Kuper's New York is one with predators, prey, and those in-between, trying to live their lives. Some of the characters meet horrible and unjust fates. Others have surprisingly sweet happy endings. Some of the corrupt are busted, while many more of the corrupt continue to exploit and profit off of others. Some murderers walk away clean, while others are punished in the most dramatic and ironic ways possible. Kuper's amazing achievement is keeping over a dozen different stories tightly wound around each other, effortlessly weaving them in and out of each other over the course of a few days. Some of the stories are a bit on the broad side and even feel a bit silly (like a corporate saboteur being brought in to nuke a competitor's building), though after the events of 9/11, who can say what's broad? Relying on simple visuals means Kuper can't afford much in the way of restraint or subtlety, neither of which were ever his strong suit to begin with. In the system, he uses that bluntness effectively and beautifully, making each and every page look like a beautiful bit of street art. Street art is frequently simple, bright and direct, and that's what Kuper aims for here. That said, he also manages to throw in a murder mystery, a political thriller, a cop procedural and various other kinds of stories into the book all at the same time, and pulls each of them off seamlessly. More than any of his other comics, The System is admirable simply because of the beauty of its structure. I do think that the final-panel reveal of a (literal) ticking time-bomb was a tad on the ridiculous side and betrayed the cyclical nature of the storytelling in the rest of the book. It was too much an "end of history" moment for a book that essentially showed that at any given time in the city, there's a cycle of predators and prey, lovers and artists going about their day, the rich trying to exploit the poor and certain elements of the underclasses that try to fight back in their own ways. By teasing an explosive game-changing end felt a bit cheap and went against the grain of the rest of the book. That said, the rest of the book worked as a distillation of much of Kuper's career as an artist and editor.
This edition was published by PM Press; Vertigo originally published it as three monthly issues and then later a collection. This edition is in hardback, is printed at a larger size and on better paper. The colors absolutely pop off the page in this book, and the quality of the paper is a big reason why. The endpapers, commentary and interstitial material give the book a real chance to breathe. This is obviously the definitive version of this book, and I'd point any reader curious about Kuper's career to this book first and foremost.

Buy The System now | Buy The System e-Book now | Back to Peter Kuper's Author Page

Interview: Filmmaker Robin Bell on “Positive Force: More than a Witness”

By Gregory Ayers
DC Music Downloads
November 14th, 2014

When I first moved to D.C., an Anglican priest from the area told me there was “Washington” and then there was “the District.” He meant there was a stark divide between Washington’s image as a seat of privilege and power and the poverty and homelessness literally in the shadows of the nation’s capital.

Positive Force is an activist collective that’s worked for thirty years on behalf of “the District,” so it’s only fitting that one of the area’s best filmmakers and media consultants made a documentary about the group.

Robin Bell, the creative force behind Bell Visuals, is known for his work as a printmaker and live video artist. His portfolio runs the gamut from the political to the artistic, and includes videos he’s done with Thievery Corporation as well as camera work and clips for groups like Pardon Chelsea Manning.

Bell’s latest project is Positive Force: More Than a Witness: Thirty Years of Punk Politics in Action. Over the course of an hour, the film features the members and musicians behind Positive Force and the activist work they’ve done over the decades. Dave Grohl, Jello Biafra, Ian MacKaye, Kathleen Hanna, and Crass’s Penny Rimbaud all make appearances.

Many of Positive Force’s volunteers are featured, as well as co-founders Mark Andersen and Kevin Mattson and other key figures from the group’s history. One of the great things about the film is the wealth of interviews and archival, primary-source video footage Bell incorporates into Positive Force: More Than a Witness. Missed seeing groups like Fugazi, Beefeater, Nation of Ulysses, and Rites of Spring play live? Here’s your chance to see footage of their Positive Force benefit concerts and learn about what inspired these groups and many others.

When I spoke to Bell on the phone, he went to great lengths to point out that while he directed and ultimately edited the film, he had a lot of help from a number people, including producers Meagan Coleman and Hunter Harris, both of whom also assisted with editing, and Jerry Busher and Doug Kallmeyer, who created the film’s original score with Bell.

He also emphasized that a portion of the proceeds from DVD sales will benefit the We Are Family senior outreach network.

D.C. Music Download: Why did you want to make this film? Given your background growing up in the D.C. area, did you have any personal experience with Positive Force?

Robin Bell: I shared some space with Positive Force when I was working with the DC Independent Youth Center in 2003. I never actually volunteered with Positive Force, but I was around them and always liked what they were doing.

There was an opportunity to make this film about five years ago. We were asked to meet up with Mark Andersen. The group was looking to put together a compilation of twenty-five years of footage they’d collected over the years.

The idea came up to do something a little bit bigger, and conversations around that turned into me wanting to direct a feature doc about Positive Force.

Mark Andersen – Mission of Positive Force from Bell Visuals on Vimeo.

DCMD: Given Positive Force had all this footage – you’re working with thirty years of all this great material – how did you decide how to frame all this information?

RB: We chose by listening. Our first interview was with Mark. The interview went for almost three hours, just in one take.

We listened to people. We talked to people. We asked them, “What was important to you?” What events meant something to you? Who were the bands? Who were the people who were part of the scene?”

Over time, there were certain bands that would keep popping up: “Nations of Ulysses, that band meant so much at this show,” or “Fugazi when they played the Wilson Center that time.” Or Beefeater. We were so excited about the Beefeater footage.

The thing with docs and storytelling is that it’s a lot of trial and error. You listen to people, you talk to people, you figure out that the story will kind of develop. You have to start to choose what kind of voice you’re going to take and what style and just stick with that.

For us, it was really important that the concept of Positive Force and Positive Force itself, the group, were the main characters. We have all these amazing people who explain it, but it’s not about the individual per se, but the individual efforts together which made something much bigger.

Ronald Grey – Discrimination in DC in 1950 from Bell Visuals on Vimeo.

Jello Biafra – Making a Difference from Bell Visuals on Vimeo.

DCMD: What do you think is the place of Positive Force in 2014? Why are they still important?
RB: I think PF is insanely relevant today, with the mission of what they’re doing, the empowering of people to actually do something-to go out and organize collectively. It’s as simple as delivering groceries on a Saturday.

To the D.C. audience on Friday, if you still feel strongly about it [after seeing the film], you can come out at 11 a.m. on Saturday and deliver groceries to senior citizens. This is a busy time to do it. They’re also doing shows and concerts; you can help out and work on that. Or, if you have an idea, and you’d like to do something, come to the Positive Force meeting at three o’clock.

I think they’re [Positive Force] super-relevant. As a volunteer organization, it ebbs and flows. You have times where it’s really busy and there are a lot of new people and a lot of new energy. Then you have times where it kind of slows down. It’s just based on the nature of volunteer work.

One thing that’s amazing about watching the film is how people were a part of it, and then they stopped naturally. There wasn’t any trauma, there weren’t any issues. They had to go on and do their own thing. But their experience helped shaped their decision making and their ability to want to do something, which is really cool.

For Positive Force specifically, I think that’s why it’s still relevant and why it’s around today.

Dave Grohl – Community Centers from Bell Visuals on Vimeo.

DCMD: The film ends with the question, “Now what?” What’s that next step? What impact do you hope this film has on people?

RB: My goal pretty much from day one for people from an outside audience was for them to be inspired, to want to learn more, and to try something out for themselves.

In D.C., we’re really lucky to have these examples. In the film, [Positive Force veteran] Katy Otto explains how she thought that every city must have a band like Fugazi. That’s real. I think people in D.C. forget that we’ve got this insanely powerful group that makes real solid music and has a great way of carrying themselves.

Beyond any one style of music, I’m excited for friends of mine who are into electronic music, hip hop, classical music or country to listen to it and go “Wow, we don’t have a venue, let’s make a venue! Let’s organize, let’s do things,” taking a small piece of the puzzle and work on it.

Every person I’ve showed it to who isn’t familiar with the D.C. punk scene gets something out of it, and they’re still inspired by it. That’s something we set out do from the very beginning, to make a piece that’s not only about the past, but also about moving forward.

I love the bits in the credits – Penny [Rimbaud] pretty much sums it up, “It’s happening now, it’s happening now, it’s the moment.”

Positive Force: More Than a Witness premieres at 7 p.m. on November 14 and November 15 at St. Stephen & the Incarnation Episcopal Church. Get more details and purchase your tickets here.

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