Hamilton: What Are We Fighting For?

Submitted anonymously to Northshore

I rarely read fiction. I regret that truth and so every few months, when I get given a book of dystopian sci-fi or imaginative history, I stumble through it halfheartedly. I know that fiction has a lot to offer in terms of expanding our realm of possibility, of inspiring creation of new worlds. Someone near and dear to me once advocated for changing my reading habits by explaining that non-fiction changes what we know but fiction changes how we think. And yet, I find myself falling back into the practical guides for non-monogamy, the exposés of political corruption, the treatises on decolonial feminism. I’m driven by the internal desire to dismantle systems of dominance and hierarchy. If I can learn enough about them, maybe I’ll be better equipped to aid in their destruction. Theory to practice to theory to practice.

Of course, I don’t have to choose between fiction or non-fiction. I can let my tastes and desires ambulate between the two genres. Perhaps one day, when the problems of the world feel less urgent, I’ll gravitate towards the creative potential of fiction. But for me, right now, things do feel immediate. And grave. And aggressive. I feel as though there are battles to be fought on all fronts and me and my comrades are standing back-to-back in a circle with swords drawn. To those who say this rhetoric is alarmist, I say you’re not paying close enough attention. Or maybe living too much inside your bubble.

My politics mean a lot to me. I take them very seriously. A casual friend date with me nearly always involves discussions of autonomy or gentrification or land reclamation. I most often have weeks where I have more organizing meetings than alone time. I won’t partner with someone who doesn’t share my principles, primarily because I need to be able to confide in them and lean on them during the inevitable periods of my life where state repression will play a role. I live and breathe my convictions.

But my beliefs aren’t a static set of ideas, they’re a dynamic and beautiful tapestry of truths that evolve with the introduction of new information and experiences. The only constant in this world is change, and that’s a good thing. I want this world to change. While sometimes victory shared alongside friends shifts my politics by figuring out what works, I’m more often changed by failure – figuring out what doesn’t. The root of transformation is conflict. Friendships become stronger when arguments are resolved and commitment to the relationship is confirmed time and time again. We have a name for those shallow relations who only stick with us through the good times – fair-weather friends.

We have a tendency as people to shy away from what feels uncomfortable and lean into what feels nice. There is nothing wrong with this inclination and I believe we are well served by listening to our intuition. The problem arises when these sensations are then attributed a moral value. Happiness and harmony and calm are seen as “good” things and sadness and anger and discord are seen as “bad”, instead of simply two sides of a coin. There is no way to understand joy without despair. There is no way to know peace without conflict. Hurricanes serve a valuable purpose for the sea. Forest fires are very good news to blueberries, but less so to squirrels. It’s important to remember that creation often necessitates destruction.

I do not believe that we can build a society within capitalism that rejects hierarchy and oppression, or that said society would someday grow to naturally overtake the state resulting in an anarchist utopia. My visions of the future necessitate destruction of the current order. When I raise my fist at cries of smashing the state, I literally mean as much. Sometimes that destruction looks like taking down ideas, sometimes it looks more like taking down buildings. The world is going to change whether we like it or not, the only control we have is in shifting it’s direction. I am not afraid of a drastically different world or the transition and I’ll spend my life trying to convince others to embrace the unknown in the same way. It’s going to be okay, we’re in this together.

So along we go as organizers, as anarchists, as friends, traversing the tricky terrain of putting thought into action. And then something happens. Specifically, the Locke St Riot. But we can speak about this in more general terms as well. This isn’t the first time tactics and strategy have sown division in our circles, and – we can hope – it won’t be the last. I understand the reaction from the business class in Hamilton, and I understand the reaction of my fellow anarchists to the bloodthirsty and immediate embrace of mob violence. It’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to seek safety. But it’s not okay to write off the action as bad, or the principles behind the action as bad, because you associate your feelings of fear and discomfort and confusion as bad. I’m not writing this to ask you to accept what happened uncritically as a show of solidarity. I’m writing this to implore you to step into the confusion as an opportunity to clarify and grow your own politics.

There are infinitely interesting and important questions that arise in the wake of the Locke St Riot. Feelings of discomfort are valuable tools in assessing where we feel unclear or inconsistent in our political analysis. They help us to identify what questions we need to be asking ourselves. Am I truly willing to see the property of the wealthy seized or destroyed? To what extent do I actually support the destruction of Canadian society? How much of my own comfort am I willing to sacrifice in pursuit of a new social order? And maybe most importantly, am I prepared to accept violence as part of the revolution?

Because what happened on Locke St shouldn’t be reduced to simple property destruction. There were people eating in those restaurants and sitting in cars and those people were afraid. While there was no threat to their personal safety, they also had no way of knowing that. These are concepts that I wrestled with in the days and weeks after the riot. I came to the conclusion that I was okay with a moment of social disorder that caused some people to feel afraid. To the larger questions, posed above, the answers would read: yes, totally, most, and yes. My politics do not condemn violence as universally bad, as never the answer. My politics see the rich being afraid as inevitable.

These are unpopular answers with a large segment of Hamiltonians. Living a politic that sees as much value in destruction as creation is a difficult position. And at some point putting those politics into action is going to lose us the favour of huge swaths of the population. Not everyone in this world stands to gain from a future free from oppression. Redistribution means taking from the rich, not waiting for them to give it up willingly. Direct action means doing it ourselves.

And before you get ahead of me, I’m not trying to say that everyone needs to mask up and loot Locke St or lock down to a bulldozer. All revolutionary work is important, including that which remains behind the headlines. I am, however, saying that we need to remain committed to our politics and to each other even in times of great turmoil. Especially in times of great turmoil. That means not jumping ship as soon as liberals pick up pitchforks. It means not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It means defending our spaces and our ideas.

What happened on Locke St wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t some glorious moment of revolution. It was messy and provocative and emotive. It was human. And it wasn’t about creating a new world in the same way that the majority of our organizing is. It was about the urge to destroy that which oppresses us, to fight back, to defend against the gentrifying onslaught on our neighborhoods. It was about creating space. Because that is the role that destruction plays in creation. It creates space for new ideas and conversations, and sometimes new buildings, new societies, new life. It is possible to defend destruction in its own rite. But I would argue that it is easier in the context of protracted struggle. As someone who is committed to lifelong anarchism, I see moments of destruction as necessary to make room for the project of creative growth. I can even see them as beautiful.

But maybe underneath it all, what happened on Locke St makes you uncomfortable because you see the downfall of capitalism as a lofty aspiration and not a real goal. Perhaps you realize, on some level, that you would be satisfied with more equitable treatment and access under the current system. That what you are really fighting for is a bigger piece of the pie. I argue that those are feelings you have a political responsibility to explore. If you decide that your unease with the riot was grounded in a belief in pacifism, then argue it. But maybe you realize that you’re just a little scared. Scared of coming to terms with what your politics really mean. Scared that living your beliefs will inevitably lead to the loss of your security. It’s okay to be scared. Fear can cause us to freeze and it can cause us to run, but it can also cause us to fight. And that is what I’m asking for. Don’t pontificate on social media, don’t denounce The Tower, don’t try to force anarchism into a pacifist box – step into the struggle and hold your friends tight. Talk about tactics. Sharpen your politics. Prepare yourself for what comes next.

A recent article in the local news ended with flimsy conjecture about the meaning of the flaming, crumbling tower that acts as the symbol of our local anarchist social center. With just a bit of digging, the author could have discerned that it was a reference to The Tower tarot card.

A card that represents upheaval.

The flaming tower embodies a moment of reckoning for an order built on false pretenses. It represents a revolutionary moment that clears the way for something new to rise from the ashes of the old. It is conflict embodied. It is something we should all embrace. For the problem isn’t the existence of conflict, but our inability to process it in a healthy and constructive way. Moving through conflict together is what builds trust. It’s what builds communities. On the other side of conflict is connection, commitment, and courage. I’m going to keep fighting because it’s what I believe we need right now. We need to make space. But know that I hope to live to see the day where the need for destruction has passed, where the oppressive systems which keep us down and divided have been dismantled, where we have space to create new worlds. I hope you’re standing next to me. I hope to imagine fantastical utopias and see them as possibilities. I hope to read fiction.

2 thoughts on “Hamilton: What Are We Fighting For?”

  1. I feel you and I would be good friends (we may already be). I also rarely read fiction, I also gravely want a radically different world. I eat and breathe my politics and it all feels immediate and important. And so on.

    The main thing that jumps out at me while reading your article is you are creating a stark binary in what you assume about people’s reactions. There is a wide gulf between people “jumping ship” out of personal, unclarified fear, and people being on the same page as you about the importance of what happened on Locke St.

    This whole paragraph: ” But maybe underneath it all, what happened on Locke St makes you uncomfortable because you see the downfall of capitalism as a lofty aspiration and not a real goal. Perhaps you realize, on some level, that you would be satisfied with more equitable treatment and access under the current system. That what you are really fighting for is a bigger piece of the pie. I argue that those are feelings you have a political responsibility to explore. If you decide that your unease with the riot was grounded in a belief in pacifism, then argue it. But maybe you realize that you’re just a little scared. Scared of coming to terms with what your politics really mean. Scared that living your beliefs will inevitably lead to the loss of your security.”

    To me I see that paragraph setting up a straw man argument that must come from your personal biases, worldview, and dare I say, bubble. Bubble doesn’t have to be an insult. We all have them around us, things that limit, shape, and reinforce how we see the world.

    I’m not jumping ship, and I’m certainly not scared in any of the ways you outline. But also by no means do I think the smash-up on Locke as a “revolutionary moment that clears the way for something new to rise from the ashes of the old,” or creating a “future free from oppression.”

    I ask this without antagonism, but honestly, how did it “create space for new ideas and conversations, and sometimes new buildings, new societies, new life.” I really think that if you drop your ideology and identity, there is no way at all that smashing yuppied storefronts and rich people’s homes and cars can actually lead to “new buildings, new societies, new life.” This is not the Paris Commune or Zapatista territory. This is fucking Canada, and there is no hope beyond very brief ruptures.

    I don’t understand how it is defending “against the gentrifying onslaught on our neighborhoods.” I get it in theory, but what about the actual reality in Hamilton? Tangibly, really, how has this defended against gentrification? I have pored over as much media as I can in the days following Locke St., and I see thousands of people supporting Locke St. businesses. Locke St. business owners may feel a little more uneasy, but that changes nothing in any material sense of capitalism on Locke St. I see that it brought mainstream people together in support of capitalism, and against anarchy. I know that judging our actions by how mainstream people respond can be a slippery slope, because we don’t want to pander to the lowest common denominator. But I just don’t see how the action, as sweet as it may have felt to be there, actually accomplishes any long term goals.

    You may see me as a bad anti-capitalist for saying this, but I think the profoundness you attach to what happened on Locke St. is a symptom of the self-supporting bubble you seem to be in. And I really don’t see any viable endgame to nihilistic, anti-social approaches that come from a tiny bubble that on its own does not have anywhere close to the material power to accomplish the lofty goals we share.

    I also have no tears to shed for Locke St., but I still think the smash-up did more damage than good. I don’t know the way forward, but I do know the approach you speak of involves too much depersonalizing of people and ultimately too much isolation to offer something worth putting my dreams into.

  2. I agree with many of your points in terms of strategy & I appreciate the feedback.

    Several times during the piece reiterate that I’m not asking folks to uncritically accept Locke St as some revolutionary moment (“What happened on Locke St wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t some glorious moment of revolution.”) You choose to quote my description of The Tower tarot card as my reading of Locke St 🙂 The stated reason for writing this was to reach out to folks who have come out of the woodwork to say that destruction is bad and counter revolutionary, that we can’t be engaging in action that would cause anyone to be afraid, & that this was inexcusable violence. Then using those criticisms to leave anarchism and abandon our spaces while they’re actively under attack.

    I think there’s lots of tactical and strategic criticism to be had about what happened. I also haven’t heard anyone defending it as a perfectly timed or placed action. And what I asked in this article was for people to stick around and reflect on they’re own politics (“I’m not writing this to ask you to accept what happened uncritically as a show of solidarity. I’m writing this to implore you to step into the confusion as an opportunity to clarify and grow your own politics.”) Shit is never going to be perfect and we can learn a lot from our mistakes. And it’s politically lazy not to. I want to see us getting together and talking more.

    It’s good to criticize this riot happening at this time, but not to write off riots altogether. And I want people to consider how having to personally face some of the backlash to this riot could have maybe cause them to take a position that is different from riots observed at a distance. All riots are followed by repression & criticism & division. We just don’t normally have to engage with it. That’s not going to be a factor for everyone, but I think it has a role to play here.

    And I wanted to put an argument out there in favor of embracing destruction as a creative force. As food for thought in the discussion. To complicate the notion that every action has to be both destructive and separately creative. Stopping pipelines from being built isn’t creative but it’s worthwhile. Ask yourself if the Locke St riot actually encouraged gentrification? Or if some yuppies had their love-in and moved on to business as usual. Perhaps having to double down on their efforts to convince Torontonians that Hamilton is a wholesome place, a blank canvas of opportunity free from opposition.

    And, yes, people aren’t stoked on Anarchists right now. But I’d argue a lot of those folks weren’t before either. But A LOT of folks have also stepped up for us and paid first visits to The Tower to drop off donations and offered to come help us defend the space from white supremacists. That’s dope. It’s bubbled to assume thatthe backlash happening online is also what’s happening on the street.

    Probably you weren’t my intended audience for this piece. It sounds like you’ve given it a lot of thought and haven’t abandoned anarchism and have your own tactical criticisms. Great! Hopefully at some point well end up strangers to each other in a room somewhere and I’ll get to hear them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.