Elevate Difference

Black Bloc, White Riot: Anti-Globalization and the Genealogy of Dissent

My fascination with the anti-globalization movement, like my own baby steps into activism, is a late bloomer. I came of age when my peers were shutting down Seattle. I was reading Marx for the first time in college when IMF protestors took to the streets in DC. Yet throughout my extended adolescence, radical politics was background noise. I never paused to find out why globalization made people so angry. Like a lot of people growing up white and middle class, militancy was excessive and embarrassing. Admirable in heroes of the past, the world is civil now (I felt), with no need for insurrections or rage against the machine.

Yet most of the activists in the streets of Seattle also came from nice, white, middle-class homes in suburbia. In fact, this was a common critique of the anti-globalization movement in North America. Instead of multiracial inclusion, the movement seems to reproduce the same racial and class privilege so abhorrent in global capitalism.

This is precisely the criticism AK Thompson tackles in Black Bloc, White Riot. His response is not a how-to for recruiting people of color and/or those lower on the socioeconomic scale. Instead, his aim is to analyze the anti-globalization movement in its white, middle-class character. I.e., rather than complain that the movement is too white so let's find some black and brown people, he wants to account for why young white people came to the movement at all. After locating it in the particular experience of whiteness, he can proceed to the limitations of the movement's politics (as well as its strengths).

Referencing radical favorites like Paulo Freire, Audre Lorde, and Fight Club, and full of phrases like "the white experience of constitutive lack," the book reads like many a lefty intellectual's work. Whether you find this annoying or exhilarating, the arguments boil down to a few simple ideas. A key theme is turning toward a politics of production rather than representation, by which Thompson means focusing on how to get things done, not the symbolic significance of objects and images. For instance, don't worry that gas masks look monstrous in the eyes of the media; focus on the fact that wearing them allows protesters to face tear-gas-hurling police. It's about what one does, not how one appears.

Thompson also emphasizes the importance of violence. Violence, he argues, is a productive force like labor, which puts one in direct material contact with the world and explodes the representational politics that are deadly to the soul (when nothing substantial is accomplished) and deadly to the body (when unjust social structures persist in creating poverty, illness, and climate change). As force is monopolized by governments, historically it is only when groups proved capable of violence that they received political recognition and agency: colonized peoples, immigrants, and women.

In Chapter Four: “You Can't Do Gender in a Riot,” Thompson anticipates criticism that advocating violence amounts to accepting a sexist, patriarchal model. He argues the material fact that women can and have engaged in violent political struggle. Furthermore, participation in violence is one arena that allows activists to transcend gender. He quotes a female Black Bloc member, who explains how the baggy clothes and black hooded sweatshirt allows her gendered identity to disappear—a perfect example of the politics of production.

I wouldn't recommend this book as a first introduction to the movement. But if you are familiar with the stakes and the story of anti-globalization, it's an analysis worth considering, regardless of race and class background.

Written by: Charlotte Malerich, December 24th 2010