Why Riot? by Phil A. Neel
Two years ago in Seattle, on May 1st, 2012, roughly four to five hundred people engaged in the largest riot the city had seen in more than a decade. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of property were destroyed[i], a minor state of emergency was declared, and the next day’s headlines were filled with horror stories of crazy, “out-of-town” anarchists run amok.
This event, occurring on the tail end of the Occupy movement, also quickly became the post-facto excuse for extensive federal, state and municipal investigation, surveillance and ongoing repression of political dissent. Several anarchists in the Pacific Northwest wereput in prison without charge in the fall of that year, only to be released months later, still with no charges filed. Houses were raided in search of anarchist literature and black hoodies. Up to a year later, people were still being followed.
I was one of the five people originally charged for crimes on May Day 2012[ii]. I’ve since pled guilty to slightly lesser charges, in order to avoid going to trial on two felonies[iii]. I pled in the fall of 2013 and completed the bulk of the sentence in the winter, spending three months in King County’s Work-Education Release (WER) Unit. Technically an “alternative to confinement,” living in WER effectively means that you are imprisoned at all times that you are not allowed out for work, school or treatment (for mental health or drug offenses).
This puts me in a unique position. Since I am one of the few people who has pled guilty to certain crimes from May 1st, 2012, including Riot, I do not necessarily face the same risks in talking about—and defending—the riot as a tactic or the impulses behind it. This by no means makes what I say below an exhaustive or fully representative account of why others may have engaged in that same riot. They mostly got away—a good thing in and of itself, though federal charges may still be pending for one window that was smashed in an empty courthouse. But this also means that they cannot speak of or defend their participation without risking repression.
To be clear: I’m not speaking on behalf of any groups who wound up engaged in the riot that occurred on May Day 2012. To my knowledge, the riot was by no means planned ahead of time, and the anti-capitalist march that the riot grew out of, technically an Occupy Seattle event, was itself planned in public meetings. I’m not even speaking on behalf of this specific riot, but instead on behalf of rioting as such, in the abstract. The question “Why Riot” is not simply: why did you engage in this riot, but, instead, why riot at all? And the perspective given here is that of a rioter.
So I’m writing here for simple reasons: to defend the riot as a general tactic and to explain why one might engage in a riot. By this I mean to defend and explain not just the window breaking, not just “non-injurious violence,” and certainly not just the media spectacle it generates, but the riot itself—that dangerous, ugly word that sounds so basically criminal and which often takes (as in London in 2011) a form so fundamentally unpalatable for civil society that it can only be understood as purely irrational, without any logic, and without possible defense.
I aim, nonetheless, to defend and explain the riot, because we live in a new era of riots. Riots have been increasing in absolute number globally for the past thirty years. They are our immediate future, and this future will spare Seattle no less than Athens or London, Guangzhou or Cairo. . . [continue]
Phil Neel’s bold and exciting piece of agitational material “Why Riot?” raises too many points to engage with one response. It’s raw honesty, sophistication, and visceral appeal speak for themselves. As an initial response I will focus only on its conception of “generations,” an error of the piece which unfortunately seems potentially central to Ultra, and the rectification of which will determine the project’s direction. Admittedly this is not the central focus of Neel’s piece, and while it may seem tangential, I plan to return to Neel’s more central theses once familiarizing myself with his source material, and thereby connect the dots. I will also attempt in the near future to concretize some of the recent history presented below, which is admittedly schematic.
Neel echoes Ultra’s appeal to so-called millennials, or “Generation Zero”: “Our future has been looted. Loot back.” Ultra aims to appeal to this particular “generation” of proletarians, and Neel’s “Why Riot?” is thus far Ultra’s most explicit statement to this effect. Citing Blaumachen’s “age of riots” thesis, the piece is geared those who are not finding political expression through rallying behind demands, or joining/building political groups, but through mass actions of refusal of discipline, illegality, and attack against the forms of appearance of capital, or sites of proletarian social reproduction (smashing windows, short-lived blockages of the points of capital circulation, etc.).
Ultra seeks to be a voice for a new generation, defined as emerging from the 2011 cycle of struggles, and this is a very important and necessary project. However, Neel’s emphasis in “Why Riot?” on a particular generation of proletarian againstanother is a mistake. It is wrong not from not only a simple class unity perspective (which is itself a valid objection), but more importantly, given how the class is stratified along lines of race, sex, ethnicity, language spoke, gender presentation, and so forth. Further, it is not an accurate history of how the past forty years of economic crisis have impacted the proletariat, nor is it a factual depiction of the present debt crises, both national and consumer. In Neel’s emphatic and effective appeal to the new generation, the “generation” becomes an abstraction from the reality of class society, its causes, its mechanisms, and its history, relying instead on tropes partially borrowed from the US right, which blame the debt and joblessness of this “generation” on the previous one, instead of on capital… [continue]