Why Riot?

Posted on Apr 30, 2014 | 19 comments

Why Riot?

A printable .pdf version of this piece is available to download at Oplopanax Publishing. Thanks to the folks who designed it.

A translation of the article is also available here, in Mandarin Chinese. Big thanks to the translators.


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 were put 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.


Who am I?

I am a member of the poorest generation since those who came of age during the Great Depression. Born to the “end of history,” we watched the ecstatic growth of the Clinton years morph seamlessly into the New Normal of Bush and Obama.

We have no hope of doing better than our parents did, by almost any measure. We have inherited an economy in secular stagnation, a ruined environment on the verge of collapse, a political system created by and for the wealthy, skyrocketing inequality, and an emotionally devastating, hyper-atomized culture of pyrrhic consumption.

The most recent economic collapse has hit us the hardest. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, the median net worth of people under 35 fell 55 percent between 2005 and 2009, while those over 65 lost only a fraction as much, around 6 percent[iv]. The result is that if you calculate debt alongside income, wealth inequality is today increasingly generational. Those over 65 hold a median net worth of $170,494, an increase from 1984 of 42 percent. Meanwhile, the median net worth of those under 35 has fallen 68 percent over the same period, leaving young people today with a median worth of only $3,662[v].

Despite cultural narratives of laziness and entitlement, this differential is not due to lack of effort or education (my generation is the most educated, as well, and works some of the longest hours for the least pay). The same Pew Study notes that older white Americans have simply been the beneficiaries of good timing. They were raised in an era of cheap housing and education, massive state welfare and unprecedented economic ascent following the creative destruction of two world wars and a depression—wars and crises that they themselves didn’t have to live through.

And the jobs that older Americans hold are not being passed down to us, though their debt is. When they retire, the few remaining secure, living wage and often unionized positions will be eliminated, their components dispersed into three or four different unskilled functions performed by part-time service workers. The entirety of the job growth that has come since the “recovery” began has been in low-wage, temporary or highly precarious jobs, which exist alongside a permanently heightened unemployment rate.


The Old Economy Steve meme took off after the financial crisis, speaking to this divide between generations

The Old Economy Steve meme took off after the financial crisis, speaking to this divide between generations

In the long term, this means that, after having been roundly robbed in almost every respect by our parents’ generation, our own future holds nothing more than the hope that we might be employed in two or three separate part-time, no-promotion positions in the few growth sectors, such as healthcare, where we can have the privilege of being paid minimum wage to wipe the asses of the generation that robbed us.

It is no coincidence, then, that every time we hear a fucking baby boomer explain how we’re so entitled, and how they worked summers to pay for college, we contemplate whether or not disemboweling them and selling their organs on the booming black market might be the only way to pay back our student loans.


Where did I come from?

Meanwhile, this economic overhaul has led not only to a global reordering of where things are made, and by whom, but also to a spatial concentration of economic activity in the US.[vi] Those metropolitan regions that were capable of becoming network hubs for global logistics systems fared best, with their amalgamation of hi-tech industries and producer services. These became the urban palaces, with concentrations of “cultural capital” and redesigned downtown cores (lightly cleansed of “undesirable” populations) built to appeal to tourists and foreign dignitaries.

Beyond this, large swaths of the country were simply abandoned as wastelands, where resource extraction was either hyper-mechanized or too expensive, agricultural goods were produced under heavy government subsidy, and small urban centers were forced to compete for the most undesirable jobs in industrial farming, food processing, waste management, warehousing or the growing private prison industry. In many areas, the informal economy expanded enormously—consistent with global trends, most visible in the worldwide growth of slums.


This is the America I was raised in

This is the America I was raised in

I am from one of these wastelands where the majority of work is informal, the majority of formal industries are dirty or miserable, and where rates of poverty, unemployment, chronic disease, illiteracy, and mental illness are often two to three times the national average. Raised in a trailer several miles off a reservation in one of the poorest counties on the west coast, all of the structural shifts mentioned above were for me not academic abstractions, but living reality. I come from that part of America—the majority of it—where weed is the biggest cash crop, where kids eat Special K like it’s cereal, and where the only “revitalization” we’ve ever seen is when the abandoned factory down the street was converted into a meth lab.

And I was, due mostly to dumb luck, one of the few who was able to earn enough to pay the exit fee. Upon arrival in Seattle, despite having a degree I was fed into the lowest tiers of the labor market. Rather than being some “out-of-town” suburban youth using Seattle as a “playground,” as commentators would claim of the rioters, I was, in fact, one of the multitude of invisible workers that the city depended on—whether hauling goods to and from the port, working in the south county warehouses, cleaning downtown’s sprawling office towers, or, as in my case, working behind the kitchen door.

At the time of the riot, I was working for ten cents more than minimum wage in a wholesale kitchen in South Seattle, where we produced tens of thousands of pre-packaged sandwiches and salads for consumption in upscale city cafés and office buildings. It is not an exaggeration to say that my full-time work schedule (for the duration of Occupy Seattle, which I attended every day after morning shifts at work) amounted to me feeding hundreds of thousands of Seattleites over the several months that Occupy was a present force in the city. It’s likely, then, that those hysteric KIRO-TV commentators claiming that I was part of some “outsider” gang come from the heart of chaos (or Portland, maybe?) to fuck up Seattle have themselves regularly eaten the food that I was paid poverty wages to make.

Despite the language of post-industrial, guilt-free success common to many wealthy Seattleites’ image of themselves, the fact is that Seattle, like any other global city, relies on what is called a dual labor market[vii]. Higher tiers of skilled labor, cultural production, finance and producer services exist atop a secondary tier of less skilled, minimally compensated work in high-turnover jobs with little chance of promotion.

This creates a fundamental spatial problem within capitalism: despite the outsourcing of the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs in manufacturing and resource extraction, the rich can never entirely get away from the poor. The extension of surveillance, incarceration and deportation, the militarization of the police, and the softer counter-insurgency of philanthropy foundations[viii], social justice NGOs, conservative unions and various other poverty pimps are all methods to manage different dimensions of this problem. The riot is what happens when all these mediations fail. And in an era of crisis and austerity, such mediation becomes more and more difficult to maintain.

So in all the media’s talk of “outsiders,” “anarchists” and other terms meant to make the rioting subject opaque to those not immediately engaged in the riot, the one fact that was consistently distorted was the simplest: the thieves in the palace were, in fact, the servants.

I, the terrifying, irrational rioter, am you.


Why don’t I engage in more productive forms of protest?

The other common theme was, of course, the morality play between the “good protestor” and the “bad protestor.” The rioters somehow “infiltrated” the march. They distracted from the “real” issues. They turned “normal” people away from the day’s events, ultimately hurting attempts at reform that were already underway.

There is in this an implicit assumption that there exist “better” forms of protest, and that we rioters do not also do these things. This produces a few small ironies, as when the local alt-weekly, The Stranger, contrasted the negotiated arrest of fast food protestors, who showed their courage by standing their ground and “demanding arrest,” with the May Day rioters, who did nothing but “hide behind bandanas while hurling rocks.” The irony here was that I was myself one of those rioters and one of those fast food workers—having been involved in the fast food campaign from its inauguration, leading a walkout at my workplace in the first strike, planning segments of the intermediate actions (including the wage theft protest, though my pending riot case prevented me from being arrested there), and then briefly taking a paid position with Working Washington for two weeks leading up to the second strike.

Beyond the irony, though, there is the troublesome presumption that this highly negotiated, thoroughly controlled and largely non-threatening activism is somehow more productive in the long term. When I did engage in the fast food strikes, I did so initially as a fast food worker, and the short-term goal there was to build power among food workers in the city. Despite this, no amount of organizing for (often much-needed) reforms can get over the basic problems of reform itself, which is today equivalent to trying to take a step uphill during an avalanche—you may well complete that step, but the ground itself is moving the opposite direction.

What would have been easily achievable, relatively minor reforms in the boom era of fifty or sixty years ago, such as raising the minimum wage to match inflation, enforcing laws against wage theft, and coming up with an equitable tax system, today require herculean effort and mass mobilization, even when ninety percent of the original demand is usually sacrificed simply to show “good faith” at the negotiating table.


Why don’t I like capitalism?

There is plenty more to talk about here—which you can explore if you please. But the basic problem, cut to the size of a tweet, is that the economy is the name for a hostage situation in which the vast majority of the population is made dependent on a small minority through implicit threat of violence.

If we challenge the system’s capacity to infinitely accumulate more at a compounding rate, it goes into crisis—this is basic definition of crisis: when profitable growth slows, stops, or, god forbid, reverses. Whenever this accumulation is challenged, whether by contingent factors such as poor location, or intentional ones, such as a resistant populace, those who hold the power (the wealthy) will start killing hostages.

This is precisely what has been happening over the last fifty years of economic restructuring. Any regions that show significant resistance to the lowering of wages, the dismantling of social services, the export or mechanization of jobs, or the privatization of public property can easily be sacrificed. The American landscape, circa 2014, is littered with just such dead hostages: Detroit and Flint, MI, Camden, NJ, Athens, OH, Jackson, MS, the mining towns of West Virginia or northern Nevada.

The handful of cities (such as New York and Seattle) that were able to escape this fate today pride themselves on being such good hostages. The only reason they were able to survive this rigged game of neoliberal roulette was because of a mixture of sheer geographic luck (often as port cities or pre-existing financial centers) and their absolute openness to do whatever the rich wanted. Public goods were sold off at bargain basement prices, downtown cores were redesigned according to the whims of a few large interests in retail, finance and real estate, and tax money, paired with future tax exemptions, was simply handed out as bribes to big players like Nordstrom and Boeing.[ix]

If we then zoom out to the global scale, it is abundantly obvious that the currently existing economic system—which we call capitalism—is a failed one. If it ever had any grudging utility in raising general livelihoods after its mass sacrifices in war and colonization, that time has unequivocally passed. Aside from the numerous examples cited above, there are a few especially appalling illustrations. Slavery is growing worldwide at a rate higher than at any other time in recent history. Mechanization is set to push massive swaths of workers out of the production process entirely, even while the gains of this increase in productivity are themselves concentrated almost exclusively in the hands of the wealthy. The central role of finance and speculation in the global economy has resulted in massive spikes in global food prices, causing famines and food riots, as well as a situation in which the majority of grain in the world, to take one example, is controlled by just four companies.


Global slavery has been increasing

Global slavery has been increasing

Meanwhile, the bulk of the globe’s basic goods production is increasingly concentrated—both in the producer services of high-GDP metropoles like London, New York and Tokyo and in the “world’s factory” of South and Southeast Asia. The production of these goods is not only dominated by vast, low-wage retailers like Wal-Mart and Amazon, but also increasingly dictated by massive contract manufacturers like Foxconn or Yue Yuen, which concentrate their production in factory cities where the lives of migrant workers are surveilled and managed in a quasi-military fashion.

The concentration of the production process coincides with the concentration of the wealth generated by that process. Even within the old “first world,” poverty and unemployment have been on the rise since long before the most recent crisis. Greece and Spain are only the most visible signs of this trend. In the US, especially, the trend splits along racial lines. Cities and schools are resegregating, though the patterns of segregation are more complex than the redlining of the Jim Crow era. One dimension of this resegregation has been the growth of the US prison system into one of the largest the world has ever seen. Even if calculated as a percentage of population, rather than absolute number, the US today imprisons roughly the same fraction of its population as the USSR did at the height of the gulag system—and our prison population is still on the rise.

Curable diseases are returning en masse, while new viruses are being developed at record rates in the evolutionary pressure-cooker of industrial agriculture. Each economic crisis is larger than the one preceding it, and these crises are not just “business cycles.” Or, more accurately: the so-called business cycle is simply a sine wave oscillating around a trajectory of absolute decline. And this decline, like the last major ones in the global economic system, will only be reversible through an unimaginably massive bout of creative destruction.

In the face of a collapsing environment, a hyper-volatile economic system and skyrocketing global inequality, it is simply utopian to believe that the present system can be perpetuated indefinitely without great violence. Opposition to capitalism has become an eminently practical endeavor.


But… Why riot?

Despite all of this, the riot itself may still seem an enigma. On the surface, riots appear to produce little in terms of concrete results and, when you add up the numbers, often do less actual economic damage to large business interests than, for example, blockading the port. They produce a certain spectacle, but so does Jay-Z.

In one sense, there is often a practical side to many riots, which can be far better at winning demands than negotiated attempts at reform. Despite the fact that reform itself is designed to treat symptoms rather than the disease, it’s also evident that riots are a useful tool even in reform efforts. Riots, accompanying illegal blockades, occupations and wildcat strikes, have proliferated in China’s Pearl River Delta over the past several years, and the result has been that workers there have seen an unprecedented rise in manufacturing wages, which more than doubled between 2004 and 2009. Some scholars have called the phenomenon “collective bargaining by riot.”

Similarly, more and more historical work has been emerging showing that riots and other forms of armed organizing were very much the meat of movements like the civil rights struggle in the US, despite the common perception that these things were somehow “non-violent.” It is, in fact, difficult to find any example of a successful, significant sequence of reforms that did not utilize the riot at one point or another. As Paul Gilje, the pre-eminent historian of the US riot, has argued: “Riots have been important mechanisms for change,” and, in fact, “the United States of America was born amid a wave of rioting.” The tactic, then, should by no means be seen as in and of itself exceptional.

And it’s also not a sufficient tactic unto itself. The function of the riot is less about a religious or petulant obsession with the act of breaking shit and also not entirely about winning any given demand. This was apparent in examples like Occupy, which had no coherent, agreed-upon demands, aside from a general rejection of those in power. This demandlessness was a feature not only of Occupy, however, but of nearly every one of the mass movements that began in 2011, starting with the Arab Spring. In each instance, the only thing that was agreed upon was that the system was fundamentally fucked, and it was this aspect alone that transformed the riots from mere attempts at reform into truly historical procedures.

My generation was not only born into the ecstatic “end of history” of the 1990s, but is also the global generation—of slum-dwelling youth and “graduates with no future”—who are inducing the first pangs of history’s rebirth. And this rebirth has taken the figure of the hooded rioter, as has been evidenced by the increasingly frequent transformation of mass riots into occupations of public squares, which themselves evolved into new forms of rioting and, ultimately, the first major insurrection of the 21st century—which took place in Egypt and has since been largely crushed by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces.

The riot is most important, then, not in its traditional ability to win demands that progressives can only drool over, but instead when it takes on a demandless character. This absence of demands in the riot and occupation implies two things: First, it implies a rejection of existing mediations. We do not intend to vote for fundamentally corrupt political parties or play the rigged game of activism. Though it may be important in particular instances to fight for and win certain demands, such as the demand for $15 an hour, these reforms in and of themselves contribute nothing to the ultimate goal of winning a better world. They can contribute to this project only in very particular contexts, and only when superseded by forms adequate to that true project, as when the growing spate of strikes in Egypt in the years leading up to 2011 was suddenly superseded by a mass insurrection.

Second, it implies the question of power. The riot affirms our power in a profoundly direct way. By “our” power I mean, first, the power of those who have been and are continually fucked-over by the world as it presently is, though these groups by no means all experience this in the same way and to the same degree—the low-wage service workers, the prisoners, the migrant laborers, the indebted, unemployed graduates, the suicidal paper-pushers, the 农民工on the assembly line, the child slaves of Nestle cocoa plantations, my childhood friends who never got out of the trailer or off the rez. But I also mean the power of our generation: the millenials, a label that already implies the apocalyptic ambiance of our era. Or, more colloquially: Generation Fucked, because, well, obviously.

The question of power, though, isn’t simply a question of the devolution of power to the majority of people, though this is the ultimate goal. At the immediate level it is a struggle over power between shrinking fractions of the population dedicated to maintaining the complete shit-show that is the status quo, and growing fractions of the population dedicated to destroying that shit-show as thoroughly as humanly possible, while in the process collectively constructing a system in which poverty becomes impossible, no one is illegal, power itself is not concentrated in the hands of a minority of the population, our metabolism with the natural world bears less and less resemblance to the metabolism of a meth-head scouring the medicine cabinet, and the collective material wealth and accumulated intelligence of the human species is made freely accessible to all members of that species, rather than being reserved as party-swag for half-naked Russian oligarchs.

Pretending that power does not exist directly serves those who presently hold it. And the riot overturns such pretense by exerting our own power against theirs. It is a mechanism whereby we both scare the rich and attract people to a project that goes far beyond the reform of a collapsing world. In this particular instance, it has worked. Many of the fast food workers with whom I organized in the year following the riot understood its portent perfectly well. By May Day 2013, the riot had taken on a life of its own.

The riot, then, is not a hindrance to “real” struggle or a well-intentioned accident where people’s “understandable” anger gets “out of control.” Getting out of control is the point, which is precisely why the riot is the foundation from which any future worth the name must be built.

And we will be the ones to build it. Our generation: the millenials, generation fucked, or, as we’ve taken to calling it: Generation Zero. Zero because we’ve got nothing left except debt—but also nothing to lose. And zero because, like the riot, it all starts here.

In the end, then, you can lose the economics, you can lose the spectacle and the moralizing and the god-awful appeals to cute and fuzzy “social/racial/environmental justice.” Throw all of this in the alembic of the riot, and it boils down to the simplest of propositions:

Our future’s already been looted. It’s time to loot back.


Phil A. Neel


[i] Note that left-wing political riots primarily target property and, secondarily, engage in defensive violence against the protectors of that property, namely police, security officers, or vigilantes. This has been referred to as “non-injurious” violence, since there is an implicit agreement that rioters not cause harm to innocent bystanders, and since persons are not the primary target of the violence. By contrast, right-wing riots exhibit an opposite aspect, where persons, and particularly the least powerful in a situation, are generally the primary target of the violence, with property destruction being the ancillary. This is a well-documented phenomenon. See, for example: Gilje, Paul A. Rioting in America, Indiana University Press, 1996.

[ii] Of these five cases, one has been dropped after significant expense on the part of the city achieved only a hung jury. Out of all five, there have been only two guilty pleas, mine included.

[iii] It’s worth noting here that striking a police officer in the United States is a felony—which also means that, if you hit a cop and are found guilty of the crime, you lose the right to vote (usually for the duration of your multi-year probation, though in some states, such as Kentucky, you are disenfranchised for the rest of your life).

[iv] Ages 35-44 lost 49%, 45-54 lost 28% and 55-64 lost 14%.

[v] If you calculate the same data for Generation X and the younger Baby Boomers, with the same age brackets used in 1984, you see ages 35-44 losing 44% of their median income, though still holding roughly ten times the wealth ($39,601) as millenials. Ages 45-54 losing 10%, holding a median of $101,651, and ages 55-64 gaining 10%, growing to $162,065. Similarly, since 1967, poverty among the 35-and-under age group has increased from 12% to 22%, while, for those 65 and older, it has actually dropped from 33% to 11%.

[vi] For a more detailed academic account of this process, see Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton University Press, 1991.

[vii] See Michael Piore, Birds of Passage: Migrant Labor and Industrial Societies. Cambridge University Press, 1979

[viii] The philanthropic endeavors of the wealthy are similar to the actions of a burglar who, after robbing a neighborhood, returns to that neighborhood to return half of one percent of the loot as gifts—or, in the case of much international philanthropy, in the form of gift cards that you can only use at the burglar’s own department store, as when the Gates family gives loans earmarked to be used only for the purchase of pharmaceuticals from companies in which the Gates family owns a significant share.

[ix] For a detailed account of this process in Seattle, see: Timothy A. Gibson, Securing the Spectacular City: The Politics of Revitalization and Homelessness in Downtown Seattle. Lexington Books, 2003.


  1. The part about food service work hit home a little bit for me. But the thing is, sometimes people work for (hardly) premium wage to make quality food for uber-folks, sometimes people work for shit wage to supply food to folks higher up, but mostly people work shit wage to supply food to others also working shit wage, and guess who’s making all the money off of that?

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  2. This is very will-written and sourced, but the central point is still lost on me. The two implications of the riot explained here are both abstract/ethical: a rejection of existing mediations and the question of power. Sure. But it begs the question of what the concrete social impact of particular riots are. The riots of Occupy Oakland for instance, in my experience universally led to a polarization utterly in favor of, and gleefully seized upon by, the City Hall / Chronicle vanguard of the ruling class. This was not the case with the riots against Meserhle, which engendered widespread sympathy IME and brought large sections of the working class closer to a combative anti-state politics.

    If we’re only concerned with the possible symbolic impact of our tactics, rather than the actual strategic/tactical/social effects, are we any better than the abstract priests of any other tactics (civil disobedience, voting)? And if we do admit that rioting is not ahistorically correct, what is our strategic approach to “why riot?”

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    • This is a great question that is not addressed here: what are the concrete social impacts of *particular* riots.

      Hopefully we’ll get into this more as we post some retrospectives on Occupy and other recent events. The above article really just focuses on the *riot in general* and it’s impossible to draw from this specific strategic suggestions for any/every given sequence of struggles. As is mentioned above, it would be completely wrong to take this as an abstract argument for the use of the riot as the correct tactic in all instances.

      There is a point to raising this in the abstract, though: We argue that the riot, though not a *sufficient* condition for larger-scale social change will be a *necessary* condition of this change. Not only this, but that such change will emerge from the pracitcal questions raised by the proliferation of demandless riots, particularly the question of power and the question of existing forms of mediation.

      These are in no way ethical questions. There is nothing ethical about the rejection of existing mediations — we do not take the moralistic stance of many of the anarchists — this rejection is deeply practical. The argument is that there is no way, practically, for heavily-mediated forms such as the NGO, labor union, progressive political party, etc. to actually build anything beyond their own self-affirmation and expansion. Revolution has never and will never emerge from a gentle growth of “social movements” or “grassroots” unionism. It will emerge, as it has before, from struggles that tend toward *demandlessness*, and that involve violence–whether this be in the form of an occupation, a riot or a wildcat strike that exceeds the bounds of its factory (as we see with many strikes in China today, for example). These mediating forms may provide some initial energy into the process–as when the more autonomous labor unions in Egypt used their networks to call people out for the occupation and defense of Tahrir. Just as often, though, (more often, probably) they will be used to opposite ends. This has nothing to do with the possible symbolic or ethical impact of tactics, but their very real, very practical implications.

      In more concrete terms: the touchstone riot above is the May Day riot of 2012 in Seattle. This had a polarizing effect, as all riots will, but a very good one. Since then, the spirit of the event has taken on a life of its own. Now May Day’s anti-capitalist march is composed largely of young people who are by no means activists and are not at all within the anarchist scene. Many are simply attracted to the power being exerted there, for once, in a direct fashion. It has expanded to the extent that, today, even if no anarchists or activists showed up, the later May Day anti-capitalist events would happen of their own accord. This was hinted at last year, and by this year it was abundantly clear.

      Even the more reformist efforts, such as the $15 campaign and Kshama Sawant’s election in the city emerged out of a general attitude that was very much created by Occupy, and expressed more forcefully in the May Day riot. This isn’t to argue that these are the best products of that cycle of struggle, but simply to point out that they probably would not have been possible without it (riot included).

      Which riots are you referring to in Occupy Oakland? In Seattle we often had small, ill-performed acts of property destruction prior to May Day, which generally had a polarizing effect in the negative sense — particularly because they were more petulant than militant, and were just poorly executed. But these are not the same things as “riots,” and don’t have the same consequences or implications. May Day 2012 was also one of the largest riots Seattle has seen–the largest riot since the anti-WTO stuff in ’99. This gave it a certain magnitude that isolated acts of property destruction do not have.

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      • The argument is that there is no way, practically, for heavily-mediated forms such as the NGO, labor union, progressive political party, etc. to actually build anything beyond their own self-affirmation and expansion. Revolution has never and will never emerge from a gentle growth of “social movements” or “grassroots” unionism. It will emerge, as it has before, from struggles that tend toward *demandlessness*, and that involve violence–whether this be in the form of an occupation, a riot or a wildcat strike that exceeds the bounds of its factory (as we see with many strikes in China today, for example). These mediating forms may provide some initial energy into the process–as when the more autonomous labor unions in Egypt used their networks to call people out for the occupation and defense of Tahrir. Just as often, though, (more often, probably) they will be used to opposite ends. This has nothing to do with the possible symbolic or ethical impact of tactics, but their very real, very practical implications.

        This makes sense to me, and is the line of inquiry that I am interested in. With this as a strategic perspective, I am interested in the complex impact of both mass riots and acts of property destruction on the social forces, especially the ones with a chance of being pulled to our side.

        This no longer seems like the place to have this discussion, but to explain and get a little more concrete:

        As a central example, take the heart of Occupy Oakland: the November 2nd port blockade. Tens of thousands of people marching through downtown Oakland, a festival atmosphere, almost as many marching long miles to the port and partying there in massive crowds. The only day of my life where radicalism leapt onto a mass scale around me. Early in the day, during the anticapitalist march, three blacked-up people sprayed STRIKE onto the windows of the Oakland Whole Foods and broke a couple. The immediate response of the crowd of thousands on that street (who were marching in the anticapitalist march) was to become sectarian against “anarchists” and attempt to split the march.

        In the evening, the burning of trash cans and dumpsters, breaking of windows and attempted occupation of a building occurred…IMO this was a riot. Over the next weeks and months, it anecdotally seemed to me that a vast chunk of the participants of the port blockade became fearful and polarized against the riot and therefore Occupy Oakland, because they viewed it not as a liberation from the confines of reformism (as many viewed the port blockade), but rather a purely destructive assault, seemingly against both nothing and everything.

        I’ve no interest in the endless discussions of exactly how certain things effected certain social forces, or what the demographics of the black bloc were. At this point those things are unknowable, and most discussions of them are just posturing. Where the rubber hits the road for any theoretical analysis of tactics however, is IMO the social consequences of BOTH their eruption from outside of radical thought, and attempts by communists to consciously perform/provoke them. To hedge against the severe tone: thank you for the thought-provoking piece.

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    • As an Oakland native, I think this is an ambiguous case and (as expressed above) a questionable frame. Let us first accept certain aspects: the polarization, and the use made of the threat of violence by bourgeois concerns, was real. It was particularly difficult and painful in the ways it was racialized; it is certainly the case that considerable rhetoric went toward insisting that black communities fundamentally wanted reformist changes and defenses of any gains won by native Oaklanders over the previous decades. This itself was classed as well; the flashpoints in several cases were around the property of black-owned businesses. The tension moreover had the hallucinatory effect (touched on in the article above) of insisting that rioters/the black bloc were themselves all white and non-native: things that were demonstrably not true.

      This was in many ways, it seems to me, a demonstration of the capacity for a social fraction — in this case the black bourgeoisie of downtown Oakland, for the most part — to stand in for the larger community, in part via coalition with the city government and media, police, and redevelopment agencies, as well as a few NGOs: an ad hoc party of order. I did not have a sense that the same politics obtained in Fruitvale or other parts of East O. I expect there are more homeless people in downtown than there are business owners, and I’m not sure one would want to suppose they were part of a “universal polarization.”

      But I am not sure this is the right frame in general. Speaking again for myself, I think that riots have symbolic effects, but they are not fundamentally symbolic events, and it’s a mistake to understand them from that perspective. While we can debate the effectivity of a given riot, I don’t think we can debate the following: riots are coming. The moment when we try to talk about a given riot as a freely chosen tactic — easy to do when you might have taken part, and felt yourself making choices — I think we lose the plot a bit. The idea that we can pick and choose riots, or choose to go back to the era of organized labor strikes, or something else altogether, strikes me as a historical mistake. Riots are and will be an objective fact of the age, and they will without a doubt often be awful, and polarizing, and end up with lots of people in jail, and so on. These are good things to hold in mind, to try to exert some control over, but the task before us is to understand the bases and the directions and the possibilities of riots, not to sit around going, “Are you a good riot or a bad riot?”

      That said, I think there are some positive outcomes from the Occupy Oakland riots, especially if we include the first Port Shutdown, bracketed as it was by riots in the afternoon and late night. Drawing on the Grant/Mehserle riots (among other things), from which OO events are inseparable, Oakland continues to provide a horizon of struggle, to keep the spectrum of possibility as wide as possible. I think this is a real contribution to militant antagonism in the US. The argument that riots in Oakland “went too far” and alienated the community has a truth to it. But so does the certainty that someplace has to go too far; this is a an absolute precondition for any consequential struggle, and we would be foolish to wish or expect otherwise.

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  3. Are you local to Seattle? Let’s make a video.

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  4. I feel like one of the promising dimensions of riots in general is the dimension of accessibility (in spite of all of the identity- based arguments to the contrary) inherent in the action. It seems like an inherently collective form, but I could see arguments to the contrary.

    What I’m wondering is where we should see more individual acts of property destruction (a lone figure smashing a window or ATM in the dead of night, ect…) fitting into this framework? Does it?

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    • That is a separate matter.


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    • This is true. But “Why Riot?” is still the first question that most people ask. Riots are the sphinx, and buried inside this question there is the other.

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  5. I relate to “Why Riot?” fundamentally as propaganda, as an appeal to emotion and the need to convey essential political ideas and principles through prose and appeals to emotion. It is an attempt to relate to the generational implications of riotous forms of revolt and those who have taken part or are sympathetic with it and who may not be in a position to defend what for them might just be socially “instinctual” on their part. It also an effort to communicate with those who are turned off by such forms, and more importantly, by the “generation” who have written off riots and rioters as social parasites (whether this conservatism comes from the left or right). It is giving a voice to a subject in formation, and after all, one can never become a subject without a voice. I believe Hegel asked if something can exist if it isn’t conscious of itself. Marx answered yes, but only *in* itself. How can we understand, relate, and fuse with this subject in formation if we aren’t prepared to understand it on its own terms?

    So while I appreciate what The Fish is reaching at, I don’t think “Why Riot?” can be fit into the framework of strategy and tactics although there’s plenty of merits to thinking about the strategic implications of riots. Similarly with James Frey’s review and critique (http://unityandstruggle.org/2014/05/03/loot-back-from-whom/). While I’m sympathetic to some of the political and methodological interventions of his review, it makes them outside its propagandist context and at the expense of the validity of this piece. The result, on both accounts, are conversations that are happening from completely different starting points and where none of us can arrive toward similar conclusions, even tentative ones. Whatever is abstract about “generation,” whatever could be interpreted as antithetical to class unity, is, in my opinion, a legit rebuke of that conservatism even if (also legit) that rebuke manifests in angry epithets. This is call to arms for a generation (like that term or not) to refuse to accept the narrative of the one before it, that it got what it did by individual elbow grease and boot straps. Bullshit. What they got they did because for capital to be valorized it needed to reproduce the labor-power that valorized it. Today it don’t.

    Having said all this I think the piece needs to be assessed on its merits as propaganda. Given this, maybe it could be argued (?) that there’s an aspect of overgeneralization of the baby boomer generation. In fact, we know that sections of that generation (almost exclusively its black lumpenized and working class section) not only rioted but via the tactic of riots ushered in a completely new working class subjectivity previously submerged in the middle class-led (at least, officially) black movement before it. This involved a certain kind of hostile rejection of the civil rights elders who put themselves in the way of this new subject and who sold them out to the cops and Jim Crow bureaucracy. Can you imagine they also probably considered “disemboweling” some of them or “wiping the asses” of those turned on them. This *dynamic* is likely the only thing The Butler movie got right (ain’t actually seen it yet).

    And hell, as NPC has already mentioned, if we’re going to assess the riot on the merits of winnability I believe Stokely Carmichael summed it up best when he quoted H. Rap Brown: “People don’t like Rap Brown when he says, ‘I’m a burn the country down,’ but every he says [it, black people] get a poverty program.” I’m disgressing. My point is, on the subjective level there’s not just an unchallenged assumption that baby boomers got what they wanted through their own hard work, but more profoundly (and somewhat ironically), a missed opportunity on their own behalf to be a part of the riots of their own generation. Need I recall the ethnic whites of the Midwest who believed they were preserving their “good jobs” by refusing to join the black struggle inside the plants? Well, we all know those plants don’t exist anymore and those good jobs and pensions were eviscerated turning the U Ain’t White (UAW) union from management junior partner to corporate shareholder.

    So maybe they can’t all be tossed into the broad “generation” category (which I don’t think was done so neatly anyway); I can still sympathize with a “fuck you” to those sections of the baby boomer generation that refused to revolt, especially when they come at us with their Stakhanovist ethic. Because that’s why (at least in a partial subjective dimension) they are, as James Frey has skilfully articulated, a fucked generation as well. Again, this isn’t totally subjective and there’s real material divisions within the class that explain why that unity didn’t materialize and which can’t be boiled down to racist ideas, but not every piece of writing has to be “Capital” and let’s not forget Marx made plenty of subjective epithets toward the polecons and other mouthpieces of official rule in Victorian England in that indispensable tome.

    I hope this was worth shit.

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    • Tyler actually raises a great point about how we are using “generation” above–and notes the quality of the refusal at the heart of it, namely, the refusal of certain segments of that generation–it’s majority–to really fuse with and engage the most radical motion coming from their own generation.

      Generation is an interesting concept itself, and one that we’ll write more extensively on later. But one thing that is notable about its usual definition is that generations cohere around certain formative events, also meaning that segments of that generation that are buffered from or deprived of these formative events, or experience them differently, are not as much “of” the generation as others. Here is a case in point: The term “baby boomer,” in most peoples’ imaginations, tends to raise the image of a white person. This is not simply coincidental. It is because “the generation” and the events it cohered around, were dependent upon the growth of the, largely white, post-war suburbs and the demographic boom that came with this suburban settlement, not to mention the complex of cultural features that emerged from the suburbs–namely the counter-cultural rejection of such “conformity” by all the hallmark figures of the white baby boomers’ heyday. But also integral here were the deeper structural shifts going on in the economy at large, laid out very well by Maya Gonzalez in Endnotes Vol. 2 (http://endnotes.org.uk/en/endnotes-notes-on-the-new-housing-question). Understanding these shifts can offer some more crucial insight into why rebellions among these segments of the class were formulated in this fashion.

      Post-war suburbia and its rejection in the late 60s, on the eve of the new crisis era, was, then, really the formative environment for the generation–and not all demographics had equal contact to that environment. More importantly, the fact that this became the center of gravity for the generation was largely due to the outcome of the battles of the era. As Tyler points out, other demographic segments’ experience of the period (in the ghetto riots, the mobilizations of black factory workers–and we could include the Stonewall and White Night riots, the new labor movements among Latin American and Asian immigrants, etc.) were largely rejected by the white boomers. Not rejected outright, of course–they were filtered back into the generational narrative once that had been made palatable through the sanctification of the “non-violent” civil rights movement, the codification of the most legalistic elements of women’s liberation, and the institutionalization of the remnant leaders of all these movements into existing systems of power. But these other potential centers of gravity were ultimately rejected through the white boomers’ predominant refusal to participate in and emulate their most radical elements–this is of course not to say that none of them engaged in or supported these things, which was clearly not the case.

      Our generation today will be engaged in a similar battle. The article above is a call to take the right side and fight the right fight–the side that most of our parents didn’t take in the fight that most of them ran from.

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      • A short one. I am of the baby boomer generation. Actually, overall, I think the description in WHY RIOT is apt. There were, of course those of us (especially African Americans, but even some whites) for whom the description is off base. I participated and was arrested in riots (although we would have called them uprisings). I went to prison on bombing conspiracy charges as an alleged Weatherperson. I worked all kinds of crappy jobs for low wages. I never have left the struggle against white supremacy, white skin privilege, and and Capital (now global). That said I did grow up in an easier time ((for whites), with more and better jobs, more social benefits and much cheaper education (though I, too, had a loan to pay back). That said, also, I have grown weary, and I would presume your generation much more so, of hearing about mine. Learning from the past is always good, but the past is fucking past, the struggle is now. Let me end by saying, I have benefitted from, gained energy from, and learned from those much, much younger than me, who are active right now…it is a two way street. It is time to quit romanticizing, demonizing, and/or talking about my generation’s so called “glory days.” We did NOT win. With global environmental destruction, thanks to capitalist accumulation, perhaps only few short years from rendering us all “obsolete,” the TIME is NOW.

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    • Thanks, Tyler Zee. Definitely “worth shit.” (Now I don’t have to write quite as much to reflect my thinking as i was reading this article.)
      You commented on the author, Phil’s “overgeneralization of the baby boomer generation.” In particular from the article I noticed this phrase reflecting the predicament he sees for his generation: …”after having been roundly robbed in almost every respect by our parents’ generation…”
      Ok, I get that he is quoting the article with the Pew results, which focused in part on the “debt” incurred by the boomers, in the form of social security, the implication being that (if capitalism survives) the millennials will foot that bill. However, given the author’s obvious understanding of how capitalism works as a system, this is, nonetheless, a perplexing, diversionary sentence. Except if, as you point out, it is understood not as analysis but as “propaganda.” I wonder to if it can be understood as cynicism; perhaps Phil mounts “an appeal to emotion” out of a lack of faith that the marginalized millennials can mobilize without tapping into their bitterness as a prime motive source.
      The problem with propaganda, from any quarter, is that it subverts actual analysis. In fact, capitalism IS a system, not a generation, and clearly, the author understands this well. Of course it is a piss-off when some crusty, ignorant old boomer rails against “slackers” of his children’s generation, from his secure perch in suburbia. But to characterize his hapless timing in one phase of capitalism as “robbery” truly misses the mark. He, and his peers, simply populated a phase in the development of capital that resulted (systematically) in a larger share of the “spoils” than it can accomplish now. If we don’t understand capitalism systemically, our energy gets diverted into random, personalized, envious rage. At individuals.
      And of course, part of Phil’s argument is that random rage has its own power. It’s true, of course; for one thing, the rioter actually supports the “moderates” by making them seem—by contrast–imminently reasonable! I accept that social change has moved on “all fronts at once,” both historically and for the future, and riots were a central part of all that. I agree totally that we are in for a catastrophic phase (it has already begun), and it will include much violence, both strategic and spontaneous.
      But it’s harder to pass without comment the cynicism involved in redirecting ire away from the system, and onto a “generation” that (inadvertently) benefitted differentially from its “spoils.” (I say “inadvertently,” because what “boomer” anticipated with glee the relative disadvantage his / her children would face?) Capitalism wins each time when it is able to divide and conquer, separate people, have them turn on one another instead of on it.
      I agree that the leadership will come primarily from those who have borne the brunt of capitalism’s gradual unraveling, and the rest of us are wise to support them, because in the long run, every generation is the loser. But If people’s energies are siphoned off in the direction of “throw Momma from the train,” then we are to that extent, less powerful in our rebellion and in our ability to create a new system.
      Given the long sweep and the global devastation that the capitalist system has accomplished, focusing envy on a “generation” seems by comparison a petty indulgence. It’s as petty as those ignorant comments about slackers that evidently has set the author’s teeth on edge.

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      • sorry! not sure what i did to create all that bold and italics. i hope you can ignore it.

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  6. No matter what the author’s personal experience may be, when they boil the situation down to saying that all millenials have “been roundly robbed in almost every respect by our parents’ generation” they do a great disservice to everyone. Everyone who is not rich has been harmed directly and indirectly by increased wealth inequality over the last half century. Creating a silly idea of class divisions based on age is unhelpful, inaccurate, divisive, dishonest and misleading. And while the author shows that oversimplistic denigrations of rioters and rioting are, well, oversimplistic and denigrating, in the end they fail to offer a very good argument for rioting as strategic or even as enjoyable. Instead of reading this, I recommend listening to “White Riot” by the Clash.

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