Whose Streets? The Toronto G20 and the Challenges of Summit Protest: A Review

Whose Streets?: The Toronto G20 and the Challenges of Summit Protest, eds. Tom Malleson and David Wachsmuth. (Between The Lines, 2011).

Reviewed in this essay: Whose Streets?: The Toronto G20 and the Challenges of Summit Protest, eds. Tom Malleson and David Wachsmuth. Between The Lines, 2011.

Chris Hedges got into a lot of trouble from the occupy movement recently. I happened to be in Oakland when the whole brouhaha over his controversial Truth Dig piece, “The Cancer in Occupy,” hit the fan, and I was hanging out with the very Occupy Oakland activists whose militancy Hedges thought he was taking to task. The consensus was that Hedges had dangerously missed the mark in trying to characterize militant occupiers as “Black Bloc,” further playing into the hands of the right by blaming militants for alienating mainstream supporters and inviting increased police repression. In a subsequent open letter to Hedges posted by anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, Graeber states the grievance with “The Cancer in Oakland” plainly: “not only factually inaccurate, it is quite literally dangerous. This is the sort of misinformation that really can get people killed.” The inaccuracies underlying Hedges’ argument, Graeber charges, aren’t even up to date: “It was back in 1999 that people used to pretend “the Black Bloc” was made up of nihilistic primitivist followers of John Zerzan opposed to all forms of organization. Nowadays, the preferred approach is to pretend “the Black Bloc” is made up of nihilistic insurrectionary followers of The Invisible Committee, opposed to all forms of organization.  Both are absurd slurs. Yours is also 12 years out of date.”

Ouch! The issue, in other words, is not ideological or strategic differences, but rather Hedges’ total mischaracterization of the activist element he was condemning, and his use of inflammatory rhetoric in addressing a public who has no way or reason to believe anything otherwise. Herein lies its danger.

Perhaps Chris Hedges should read Whose Streets? The Toronto G20 and the Challenges of Summit Protest, Tom Malleson and David Wachsmuth’s new anthology of articles reflecting on the politics of 2010’s G20 protests in Toronto. Perhaps most people should. Against criticisms sometimes waged against radicals for sequestering themselves into marginal scenes of arcane activist-speak, here finally is an accessible compilation which attempts to publicly showcase the reflections of organizers, participants and researchers involved in the contentiously represented anti-G20 mobilizations. To that effect, it’s a good read for activists seeking to take stock of their response to the billion-dollar assembly of elite world leaders, and an essential read for those observers of current uprisings against austerity who’d actually like to understand them.

If the content reads at times unevenly, then it is perhaps because the range of experiences which make up—and should make up—any given social movement is also uneven. People at all levels of political consciousness and experience participate, and debates such as the ones featured here form an important part of the political education of movements. The result is that readers might not find all the pieces adequately insightful (I admit I didn’t), but the majority of the pieces, like Clare O’Connor’s challenging argument about the political ambivalence of the term “community” as an organizing edifice, offer sophisticated, complex and refreshingly honest examinations of the way movements might hold themselves accountable.

To its benefit, the compilation also strikes a nice balance between the intimate and the structural, moving us through testimonials of the emotional experience of arrest toward the geopolitics of neoliberal restructuring; from the racial politics of “summit hopping” to the militarization of urban policing strategies. It also, and most importantly, gives a broader readership the opportunity to assess what actually happened during the G20 protests, beyond looped video tape of burning cop cars, rather than accepting and reproducing mainstream dribble about anarchist violence and black bloc nihilism.

It might even help flip the script, as the discontented citizens of Greece are at this moment doing with their bodies en masse: suggesting that the true nihilists aren’t wearing hoodies—they’re wearing suits.