The following is a transcript of a talk delivered in Seattle on July 20, 2020, lightly-edited by the author for readability. A video recording produced by Red May is online here. (Taken from Illwilleditions.org)
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I want to begin with a shout-out to what happened here last night, and to the working class of the city of Seattle, to the rebels of the city of Seattle: I really liked what I saw, that’s why I’m here, you know, to feel that vibe. I would also like to send my solidarity to comrades in Greece. It was they who allowed me to experience insurrection for the first time in 2008. The lessons I’ve learned and the experiences I had there have been so valuable this time around, even though we are in a much different social context. Moreover, a comrade was recently killed at the hands of the police there. To the fallen comrade, Vasillis Maggos, I want to say: rest in power.
“The working class in every country lives its own life, makes its own experiences, seeking always to create forms and realize values which originate directly from its organic opposition to official society.”
—CLR James, Grace Lee Boggs, and Cornelius Castoriadis, “Facing Reality”
1. The George Floyd Rebellion was a Black led multi-racial rebellion. This rebellion cannot be sociologically categorized as exclusively a Black rebellion. Rebels from all racialized groups fought the police, looted and burned property. This included Indigenous people, Latinx people, Asian people, and white people.
2. This uprising was not caused by outside agitators. Initial arrest data shows that most people were from the immediate areas of the rebellions. If there were people driving in from the ‘suburbs,’ this only reveals the sprawling geography of the American metropolis.
3. While many activists and organizers participated, the reality is that this rebellion was not organized by the small revolutionary left, neither by the so-called progressive NGOs. The rebellion was informal and organic, originating directly from working class black people’s frustration with bourgeois society, particularly the police.
4. Not only was the police-state caught off-guard by the scope and intensity of the rebellion, but civil society also hesitated and wavered in the face of this popular revolt, which quickly spread to every corner of the country and left the police afraid and in disarray.
by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (New Yorker, June 8, 2020)
The national uprising in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old black man, by four Minneapolis police officers, has been met with shock, elation, concern, fear, and gestures of solidarity. Its sheer scale has been surprising. Across the United States, in cities large and small, streets have filled with young, multiracial crowds who have had enough. In the largest uprisings since the Los Angeles rebellion of 1992, anger and bitterness at racist and unrestrained police violence, abuse, and even murder have finally spilled over in every corner of the United States.
For most of America’s history, one of the most righteous anti-white supremacist tactics available was looting.
As protests in Ferguson continued unabated one week after the police killing of Michael Brown, Jr., zones of Twitter and the left media predominantly sympathetic to the protesters began angrily criticizing looters. Some claimed that white protesters were the ones doing all of the looting and property destruction, while others worried about the stereotypical and damaging media representation that would emerge. It also seems that there were as many protesters (if not more) in the streets of Ferguson working to prevent looting as there were people going about it. While I disagree with this tactic, I understand that they acted out of care for the struggle, and I want to honor all the brave and inspiring actions they’ve taken over the last weeks.
by J. Kaspar (‘Fire to the Prisons’ # 7, Autumn 2009) PDF read / print
“I do not demand any right, therefore I need not recognize any either.” – M. Stirner
On the night of August 8th, 2009, hundreds of inmates at the California Institution for Men in Chino rioted for 11 hours, causing “significant and extensive” damage to the medium-security prison. Two hundred and fifty prisoners were injured, with fifty-five admitted to the hospital.
On Mayday 2009, three blocks of San Francisco’s luxury shopping district were wrecked by a roving mob, leaving glass strewn throughout the sidewalk for the shopkeepers, police and journalists to gawk at the next morning.
On the early morning of April 10th, 2009, nineteen individuals took over and locked down an empty university building the size of a city-block on 5th avenue in Manhattan, draping banners and reading communiqués off the roof. Police and university officials responded by sending helicopters, swat teams, and hundreds of officers to break in and arrest them all.
The Glass Floor
The riots¹ (or the riot, spread out and fragmented in time and space) which broke out in Greece following the murder of the young Alexander on the evening of 6th December 2008, are productive of theory. They are practically – that is to say consciously – the self-understanding of this cycle of struggles in its current phase – they are a theoretical and chronological landmark. With all its limits, this movement is the first proletarian reaction (albeit non-global) to the crisis of restructured capital. In terms of its production of theory, this movement can be considered, more or less arbitrarily, according to six essential characteristics:
The praxis and discourse of these riots make of the current crisis of capitalist reproduction a crisis of the future of this mode of production.
The characterisation, in a topology of the reproduction of capitalist social relations, of the moment of oppression and coercion in the self-presupposition of capital.
The question of whether the rioters had a “peripheral” character in relation to a “core” of the working class, that is to say the question of the unity of the class and of its recomposition.
The overcoming of what was the contradictory dynamic of the anti-CPE movement in France, and this bears some relation to the second point.
The overcoming in the struggle of the objectivity of the course of capital and the activities of the classes involved as choices, decisions, tactics, and strategies.
The questioning of the theory of value and of the crisis of the capitalist mode of production in the light of an attack of capital outside of production and the spreading of practices of sabotage.
(some points have been gathered under one chapter)
Much has been written about the gilets jaunes and there relation to both politics, of the left and the right, and historical waves of labour unrest. In this article, Joshua Clover argues that the gilets jaunes are in fact a texbook example of a contemporary riot, and may be best seen as an early example of an approaching wave of climate riots.
France, having bequeathed to the world left and right as political concepts, now seems intent on exploring the dynamics of a situation in which the longstanding spectrum no longer functions according to custom. At that level of abstraction, the topography there is now something like an isosceles triangle. The right belongs to Rassemblement national and worse, having radicalized itself along a nationalist course. Having suffered through the Pasokification that has eroded Parti Socialiste, a lefter left remains by default. Both are condemned to oppose the technocratic center in ways that seem to set them in a formal alliance: both national chauvinists and those who can still recall the clarion calls of communism and anarchism necessarily oppose a shared enemy. Once out the front door, however, they are repeatedly compelled to fight each other out in the streets in moments of direct combat that cut out the middleman, né Macron. This triangular drama begins to suggest why the uprising of the Gilets Jaunes has proved so chaotic and, from a distance (perhaps up close as well), so hard to parse. Many participants declare themselves apolitical, living downwardly mobile lives in the middle of the triangle, averse to the seductions of any party promises. Meanwhile, if it is about gas prices and the collapse of purchasing power, why are there melees between fascists and antifascist fighters? Each position must struggle with both of the other vertices of the triangle in wars of position and in street fights of maneuver. And this too is a simplifying schematic. Wisdom demands that I leave the detailing of the uprising’s striated social forces to those with greater local experience.
The following text appeared December 6th on the French platform lundimatin; they describe it as the best sociological and political analysis to date on the yellow vest movement. Although we are no more optimistic about the “non-ideological” character of the first phase of the yellow vest phenomenon than we are about the antiquated methods of organization it supplanted, the movement itself has become a battleground to determine what form the next wave of opposition to neoliberal austerity will assume—and no one can afford to stand aside. This text concludes with a cool-headed appraisal of the risks and possibilities before the gilets jaunes and all who will follow in their wake.
Contrary to all that we’re hearing, the real mystery is not that we revolted, but the fact that we didn’t do it sooner. What’s abnormal is not what we’re doing now, but all that we’ve put up with until now. Who can deny the bankruptcy of the system, from every angle? Who still wants to be shook down, robbed, and left precarious for nothing? Will anyone weep as the wealthy avenues of the 16th arrondissement are plundered by the poor, and the bourgeois watch their gleaming SUV’s go up in flames? As for Macron, he can stop complaining; it was he who asked us to come to him. A state can’t keep legitimating itself by reference to the corpse of a “glorious revolution” and then denounce the rioters as soon as a revolution gets going.
Announcing Continuous Live Coverage of the G20 in Hamburg – crimethinc
Welcome to Hell!
Today—July 6, the first day of an international mobilization against the 2017 G20 summit in Germany—we’re be posting continuous live updates, providing firsthand reports and analysis of the events in Hamburg. Tune in right here for continuous updates running late into the night and resuming on Friday if all goes well. We welcome field reports, footage, and updates. Send them to us at G20@crimethinc.com—we’ll sift through them, fact-check them, and blast them out into the world.
The Police Lost Tonight in Hamburg
Summing up the First Day of Resistance to the G20
While the city of Hamburg is slowly quieting down, there are still many streets on which demonstrators continue to keep the police at bay, pelting them with projectiles and building barricades. It is fair to say that the police will be busy all night. As we’re wrapping up our live coverage of the first day of actions against the G20 in Hamburg, it’s safe to say that the police lost tonight.
The residents of Hamburg woke up this morning to the news that a large number of Porsches had been burned in the outskirts last night, giving an indication of the ungovernable energy with which Hamburg would resist this intrusion.
Despite the police controlling busses and trains full of activists at the border, they simply could not stop the crowds that gathered in the city center for the Welcome to Hell demonstration. The crowds they had to fear were not a few radical activists listed in the files of the secret police, but the population of Hamburg itself, which came together in opposition to the militarized policing that the G20 forced on the city.
The German police had brought together approximately 20,000 officers, including troops from other EU countries, with the intention of utterly quashing resistance. They brutally raided the camp that activists set up to accommodate protesters, then attacked people who gathered to enjoy themselves in the streets on July 4 and 5. They did everything they could to spread fear, in hopes of intimidating people out of showing up to the demonstrations to express their feelings about capitalism and the state.
It didn’t work. The Welcome to Hell demonstration attracted multigenerational crowds prepared to participate in blocs, black and otherwise. Thousands of people came together with joy, courage, and determination. In response, the police attacked a permitted demonstration without any justification—creating panic, severely injuring many people, and making more than 50 arrests in the first wave of repressive violence.
Yet this only served to foment more outrage against the authorities, which spread all around the city in the form of burning cars, barricades, and multiple simultaneous clashes and demonstrations of thousands. The strategy of terrorizing and kettling people with tremendous numbers of officers using brand-new militarized police equipment and brutal force simply failed. There were too many people on the streets and the police lost control. They report that 76 officers were injuredin Hamburg tonight.
There was a lot at stake today. The German state and the world leaders wanted to show that they are in control, that their reign is popular—or, failing that, that they can successfully dominate the population. They wanted the world to see that they can freely harass, intimidate, and oppress people without consequences. They wanted to flaunt their power by bringing the G20 to a center of resistance. Instead, they demonstrated their weakness.
Tonight, with the help of courageous people from around the world, Hamburg stood up and said Enough. We are humbled and inspired. We will continue tomorrow.
Distorted by the bourgeois press, reduced to a mere ‘race riot’ by many on the left, the L.A. rebellion was the most serious urban uprising this century. This article seeks to grasp the full significance of these events by relating them to their context of class re-composition and capitalist restructuring.
April 29th, 1992, Los Angeles exploded in the most serious urban uprising in America this century. It took the federal army, the national guard and police from throughout the country five days to restore order, by which time residents of L.A. had appropriated millions of dollars worth of goods and destroyed a billion dollars of capitalist property. Most readers will be familiar with many of the details of the rebellion. This article will attempt to make sense of the uprising by putting the events into the context of the present state of class relations in Los Angeles and America in order to see where this new militancy in the class struggle may lead.
Before the rebellion, there were two basic attitudes on the state of class struggle in America. The pessimistic view is that the American working class has been decisively defeated. This view has held that the U.S. is – in terms of the topography of the global class struggle – little more than a desert. The more optimistic view held, that despite the weakness of the traditional working class against the massive cuts in wages, what we see in the domination of the American left by single issue campaigns and “Politically Correct” discourse is actually evidence of the vitality of the autonomous struggles of sections of the working class. The explosion of class struggle in L.A. shows the need to go beyond these one-sided views.
An airport is a funny thing, one that gives you access to other places but is not much of a place itself. But its underlying character has changed dramatically in the last few decades. If the glamour and hope of flying off for a visit or a new life still cling to the terminals, the airport has become a hub for the workaday circulation of goods at a global level.
This has been peculiarly true since the global downturn of manufacturing in the seventies. In April 1973, Federal Express delivered its first package; four decades later, FedEx has the fourth-largest fleet in existence. By freight it is the biggest airline in the world. At Oakland International, my local airport, the FedEx hangar and logistics hub crouches independent of the two modest passenger terminals, a behemoth with the gravity of a planet. It’s their world; we’re just living in it.
This transformation has happened behind the back of consciousness, and largely beyond our descriptions of the political situation. It would be hard to say it played a role in the protests of Saturday night. The narrative drama of airports — from Tom Hanks vehicle The Terminal to the flight of Edward Snowden — is about those who can’t leave or can’t arrive, and so end up trapped in this metaplace, separated out from life. It is funny or strange or exciting. Except of course behind all of these it is surely terrifying being seized by uniformed thugs, thrown in a room, at the mercy not of fate but arbitrary laws and state power.
This week brought another uprising against the police, after a police officer shot and killed a 23 year old man, Sylville K. Smith, in the Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee. The uprising, which saw right-wing Governor Scott Walker call-in the national guard to sit standby in case the riots escalated, happened against the backdrop of continued rampant police killings and the growing social degradation of poor and working people in the United States. This is the second time in two years that Walker has called in the National Guard to deal with protests against the police and the fourth alongside Ferguson and Baltimore in the US.
But these rebellions point to deeper tensions caused by the systems of domination inherent within industrial capitalism and white supremacy, which is policed and protected by this government. In the case of just Milwaukee, Niles Niemuth wrote:
Milwaukee has been devastated by decades of deindustrialization and financialization, which has produced the highest levels of inequality since the 1920s. The factories that provided decent wages and benefits for tens of thousands of workers have all but disappeared.
The city lost three-quarters of its industrial jobs between 1960 and the 2010. The disappearance of manufacturing employment had a particular impact on black male workers in the city. From 1970 to 2010, the employment rate for black men aged 16 to 64 in the metro Milwaukee region fell precipitously, from 73.4 percent to only 44.7 percent.
The city’s overall poverty rate in 2014 was 29 percent, nearly double the national rate. Children and youth aged 18 and under were the worst affected, with more than 42 percent growing up poor. More than 43 percent of the population in the Sherman Park neighborhood lives below the poverty line.
At the same time, despite continuous slumps in US productivity, the rich just keep getting richer. As Andre Damon wrote:
In 2015, the International Monetary Fund noted in its annual report that the decline of business investment is at the heart of the failure of the global economy to recover from the 2008 crisis, despite the flooding of financial markets with cheap credit.
Major corporations are hoarding trillions of dollars in cash, which they are not investing in production or research and development. Instead, they are using it to buy back stocks, increase dividends, and carry out mergers and acquisitions, all of which increase the payouts of Wall Street CEOs and shareholders.
As a result, stock markets around the world are at or near record highs, corporate profits are surging, and the wealth of the top 0.1 percent in the United States and internationally continues to soar at the expense of the working class.
But while it is becoming more and more clear that the only solution the elites have to continued immiseration and poverty that is endemic in capitalism is simply more repression and police, the very system of industrial resource extraction and production that is making a few elites so rich is also threatening all life on this planet. This summer, scientists have recorded the hottest months ever in June and July.
At the same time, the South was hit by disastrous floods that destroyed homes and left many homeless as Obama vacationed at Martha’s Vineyard and thousands were crammed together in shelters and curfews were put into place to stop people without food or water from looting. In many ways, all of these instances should be seen as signs of not only the kind of system we live under, but the trajectory it is hurling us towards. While the rich and powerful drink wine in tranquility, our homes are washed away, we work harder and harder for less and less, and an ever growing police presence watches our every move and taxes, harasses, and kills us without cause. Meanwhile in the background, the military is at the ready should a rebellion pop off.
But a rebellion is growing, and one that cannot be contained or smothered by either the police or the military, or the attempts of politicians, activist bureaucrats, or media pundits to stop people from fighting for and creating a world worth living in.
In this first issue we outline our basic conceptual framework and illustrate the current state of class conflict in China. We also include translated reports and interviews with the proletarians engaged in these struggles, pairing our theory with primary sources drawn from class dynamics that might otherwise remain abstract.Though taking the futureless present as our starting point, our first issue is also in a way performing burial rites for the dead generations who have populated the collapse of the communist horizon in East Asia. This issue therefore begins with a long-form article on the socialist era, “Sorghum and Steel: The Socialist Developmental Regime and the Forging of China,” the first in a three-part series aiming to narrate a new economic history of China (the next two parts will be included in subsequent issues), before moving on to a pair of analytic articles on contemporary urban and rural struggles, as well as original translations and interviews with individuals engaged in them.
In the last two weeks, we first saw violent clashes with fascists and white nationalists which rocked the west coast and shut down an attempted rally by the Traditionalist Worker Party, and now we are seeing sustained activity against the police. Helping kick things off has been two extremely high-profile police shootings of African-American men that went viral in less than 24 hours. The first was that of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the second is that of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Despite these cases receiving the most press and outrage due to their videos being shared across the internet, in the week before and after both shootings (which occurred only a day apart from each other), 28 people were also killed by police in the short month of July. Currently, over 580 people have been killed by law enforcement officers in 2016, averaging over 3 people per day.
As news and anger over the shootings has spread, organic and self-organized protests, rebellions, freeway shutdowns, and violent confrontations with the police has also begun to grow, starting in Louisiana and then growing to cities in Minnesota, California, New York, Colorado, Alabama and everywhere else. It seems that the eruptions, riots, and blockades of the summer and fall of December 2014, following the Ferguson Insurrection and the wave of indignation and mobilization that spread after Darren Wilson was found not guilty as were the police that killed Eric Garner in New York, has not been forgotten. More people are joining the fight and the protests and demonstrations are continuing. Also, the rhythm and time between eruptions is growing less and less apart and there is a remembrance and building of confidence around disruptive tactics. Despite this positive aspect of the last week, still a sea of politicians lie in waiting ready to put a wet blanket on the fires of revolt.
This latest round of outrage is marked by the fact that the “Democratic Socialist” candidate, Bernie Sanders has now officially dropped out of the race and backed Hillary Clinton, leading to a massive backlash and disappointment with the entire political circus. It is a good thing that many people aren’t hoping for a candidate to represent them; we can only hope that instead we put faith and hope in ourselves to change our conditions and build revolutionary alternatives. Interestingly enough, with all of these events taking place so close to election time, this cycle of struggle hasn’t (yet) been sucked back into the political sphere or subsumed by the Democratic Party. Let’s help it to stay that way.
Moreover, this round of demonstrations has taken place alongside a chorus of violent attacks on police (as well as widespread vandalism) which have occurred throughout the United States, including a deadly shooting by a former military man in Dallas, Texas. Despite the media and police waging a counter-insurgency campaign against the Black Lives Matter movement (which is overall an attack on anyone that acts or is critical of white supremacy and the police in the US), this wave of action shows no sign of slowing down. In short, in-spite of the media and everyone in power telling people its time to go home, people aren’t listening.
At the same time, we’re also seeing more and more far-Right groups coming out to the demonstrations in an attempt to support the police: ranging from Neo-Nazis, armed Trump supporters, to militia types. Again, the “threat” of black insurgency is driving many of the Right to organize themselves to protect the established social order. The government in some instances is also using this moment to push back on some of the “gains” made by the BLM movement in the last two years; for instance in North Carolina police now do not have to share footage from their body cameras with the public.
Lastly, some Black Lives Matter groups continue to pull an anti-anarchist line, and use language such as “white outsiders” which parrots the statements of police as a way of breaking the fighting spirit of those involved in demonstrations, especially those that would use force to defend themselves. “Leaders” within the movement also continue to act as a means to destabilize any attempt to generalize the revolt. For instance in Atlanta, BLM protest leaders met with police and city officials and agreed to a “cooling off period,” in exchange for a public forum with the police on relations with the community. In short, “protest leaders” and police worked together against the protests, ending them before they continued to become even more disruptive. We need to think critically about this reality and push back against liberal and managerial elements which seek to defang resistance movements while at the same time building relationships with the base of those that make up these social struggles.
We also have to think about the fact that some within the Left are now talking about physically abolishing the police along with mass incarceration and prisons. While its great that these staples are now being taken seriously by some, we also have to remind people that this is only going to happen when people take control over territory, land, and communities in a revolutionary struggle with the established order. We can’t abolish the foot soldiers of white supremacy and capitalism while leaving this systems intact. Moreover, there has to be a conversation about what are we doing and why? Are we taking action as part of a revolutionary push to change the world and destroy a system of power, or are we simply trying to get the attention of the media, the police, or the government to create small changes?
The previous two weeks were just as enervating as the ones preceding, if not more, since the French police have newly discovered nasses (net, like fishing net), also known as ‘being kettled’. Several heavy tear-gassings and nullifying kettlings converged with an extremely low-pressure system, a lot of rain, and many people who were already under slept from April and May. Tuesday the 10th, for example, began with a 7am call for blockades, a word of the week. The plan, it seems, was to block Bercy, the train and bus terminus, since there was a strike from Sud, a rail workers’ union, the same day. This was well organised and began at Opera, where early risers boarded the metro, going on several lines, and in several directions, before ending up in a wild chase – in the station, out of the station, back in the station. The cat and mouse dispersed around the station of Dugommier at about 8.30am, which was encircled by gendarmerie. Manuel Valls passed the law sometime around lunchtime using a special decree 49-3, which was brought in during the instability between the 3rd and 4th republics.
The weather all week was so low pressure, so as to invite serious, lingering headaches, rain with no relief. Assemblée Nationale at 18h was obscured by mist, flares and smoke. A heavy CRS and Gendarmerie presence gradually pushed everyone back, split them. One manif sauvage, a little naively, since there were only 50 people, set off around 19h, after which the rest were kettled on the quayside, forced down next to the water, where the windows of luxury boats displayed Parisians? tourists? serenely lindy hopping or swing dancing in a top window. Police blocked the quay, letting only fluorescent runners through, then fired off tear gas. Protesters ran, stopped, since there was nowhere to go. River police – how mobile they are, in any circumstance – passed on speedboats as kids threw what they could: missiles, pieces of scaffolding. The gas continued for several hours, as, completely trapped on the road above the quay, unable to breathe, or to descend, lungs filled over and over with acrid gas.
It’s been kicking off all around France against the government’s attempts to introduce the so-called ‘El Khomri’ labour law, or ‘loi travail’. This piece of legislation is an all-round shit deal for workers, and involves such policies such as extending the working week up to 46 hours, from the current official 36 hours, and enabling companies to sack workers with minimal justification. Since protests began, the government has backtracked on a number aspects of the law, like a proposed cap on the amount of compensation an employer must pay to unfairly dismissed workers.
It seems that the students, who have played a major part in the resistance to the law, know very well what it takes to achieve results. Not a-b marches or shortlived occupations, but disorder, chaos, sabotage, property damage, disruption to transport systems, reprisals for state repression, joining the dots between apparently separate ‘issues’, and sustained struggle.
Here’s a bit of a run down of what’s been happening in France this past month in response to the ‘loi travail’, translated from Cette Semaine, Attaque and Paris-Luttes.
In Bordeaux, dozens of people opted for immediate and direct action following a student assembly, and trashed a Bordeaux University building. According to the mainstream media, all the computers were destroyed, the doors had been kicked in and the walls graffitied. The instruments in the music hall were also destroyed. Money and files had been taken, damage in total estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of Euros. This action was part of a wave of demos that took place across the country that day.
In Paris, an action was carried out on the Centre Pierre-Mendès-France de Tolbiac, at Paris-I-Panthéon Sorbonne university. The following translation of their communiqué comes fromInsurrection News:
“University of Tolbiac, March 22, an occupation of the N lecture hall is planned to hold a general assembly, but cops, security guards and management are all here to prevent it. In a wink, all of them disappear and the door of the lecture hall opens miraculously. We now understand that opportunists of the movement negotiated behind the backs of all. Like what, there are no miracles. It is precisely for this reason that, pissed off, we decided to sabotage these power games.
While students were getting sloshed in their supposedly occupied lecture hall, we decided to have fun in a whole different way. We climbed the 7th floor to ransack administration offices, cutting cables, throwing various liquids on various electronic devices, administrative papers are destroyed and two computers are stolen to be quietly destroyed.
This is the realization of a precise will to not be limited to speaking out, to general assemblies, or demos (whether at 11 or 13:30), but to counter any form of collusion with power, all powers.
The following is a preview article from the forthcoming first issue of the Chuang journal.
Denim and its Discontents
The story is now familiar: One morning in the spring of 2011, a migrant street vendor is harassed and beaten by police. That evening, rumors fly over the internet that the vendor has died. Hundreds of people gather in the streets, enraged by the apparent murder. They burn cars, loot ATMs and attack the riot police sent to disperse them. But they do not disperse. The riot spreads over several days, with participants growing into the thousands. Journalists who come to report on the events are held by security forces. Rumor of the uprising spreads over the internet even as the government uses all its resources to cut off access to the information.
Despite its striking similarity, this is not the story of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor, harassed by police, whose self-immolation sparked the Arab Spring. The man in the story above was instead Tang Xuecai (唐学才) a Sichuanese migrant in the city of Guangzhou. The riot took place in Xintang, one of the Pearl River Delta’s many manufacturing districts, this one specializing in denim, with the majority of the rioters themselves migrant laborers in factories making jeans for export. And, unlike the riots and strikes that followed the death of Bouazizi in Tunisia, the Xintang riot was ultimately crushed as police took control of the district, made mass arrests, and forced the majority of migrants back to work
Aside from this stark comparison, there was nothing particularly special about the Xintang riot. In a strictly quantitative sense, cities like Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Dongguan in China’s Pearl River Delta (PRD) see more riots more regularly than even Athens. If one adds strikes, blockades and other such “mass incidents” to the list, Chinese protests regularly surpass global trends in scale and severity—especially since a lack (or exhaustion) of legal alternatives tends to transform what might be a benign picket or protest elsewhere into a multi-factory uprising that risks destroying millions of dollars of equipment. Yet we do not often see the avenues and alleys of Xintang as we see those of Athens, lined with burning cars as riot police advance and swarms of rioters scatter underneath the dim gold glow of a McDonalds sign. Instead, images of Athens burning are posed against the glowing skylines of China’s coastal cities, intercut with upward-trending graphs of productivity, profitability, progress.
Underneath the graphs, however, such “mass incidents” have been increasing over the last decade. This rising unrest is, in fact, recognized by numerous official sources, such as the Annual Report on China’s Rule of Law (No 12). Other than attempting to tally and taxonomize the “incidents,” this report also noted that roughly 30% of them took place in Guangdong province, in which the PRD is located. But many such reports, including this one, take only a small number of mass incidents reported in major media outlets and generalize from this subset. Others, such as the China Labor Bulletin’s strike map, mine reports from the Chinese internet in a much more systematic way, but the data stretches back only a few years. Their map is also intentionally focused on strikes, rather than all “mass incidents,” and therefore often excludes forms of unrest that are initiated outside the workplace and do not take the form of labor grievances.