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«Anarchist Direct Actions: A Challenge for Law Enforcement RANDY BORUM University of South Florida Tampa, Florida, USA CHUCK TILBY Eugene (Oregon) ...»

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Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 28:201–223, 2005

Copyright  Taylor & Francis Inc.

ISSN: 1057-610X print / 1521-0731 online

DOI: 10.1080/10576100590928106

Anarchist Direct Actions:

A Challenge for Law Enforcement


University of South Florida

Tampa, Florida, USA


Eugene (Oregon) Police Department

Eugene, Oregon, USA

This article provides a descriptive, operational analysis of the modern anarchist movement, emphasizing the actions of the criminal anarchists and implications for US law enforcement. It begins by explaining some core tenets of anarchist “theory,” and its relationship to violence, then describes the structure, tactics and tradecraft of militant anarchist activists. It concludes that Anarchism is a revolutionary movement, not just a “protest group.” Clearly not all anarchists advocate or engage in violence, but some do. Those individuals and factions pose a particular concern to law enforcement. This article offers some practical recommendations to law enforcement for preventing and managing those direct action attacks that may compromise public safety.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, much of the world trembled under the oppression of a terrorist siege. There was a virtual epidemic of assassinations of major national leaders,1 including a sitting President of the United States.2 Dynamite—the WMD of the day—was in widespread use, leaving waves of fear in its wake. Such was the state of the Anarchist revolutionary movement in the nineteenth century.

The threat posed by anarchists in the twenty-first century is not nearly as dramatic, but no less vexing for law enforcement. They have injured police officers and wreaked general mayhem on major cities. They ostensibly advocate for the same philosophy as their Victorian counterparts, but in a different era and with different tactics.

Understanding modern anarchists and the threat they pose to law enforcement can be challenging. Anarchists are a diverse group. Their ideology, motives, and attitudes Received 21 June 2004; accepted 19 September 2004.

The authors are extremely grateful to Doug Bodrero of the Institute for Intergovernmental Research for his insightful suggestions and contributions to this manuscript.

Address correspondence to Randy Borum, Dept. of Mental Health Law and Policy, Florida Mental Health Institute, University of South Florida, 13301 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa, FL 33612, USA. E-mail: borum@fmhi.usf.edu 202 R. Borum and C. Tilby toward violence vary considerably. With that acknowledgement, this article seeks to provide a descriptive, operational analysis ofthe modern anarchist movement, emphasizing the actions of the criminal anarchists.

This article will briefly explore some core tenets of anarchist “theory,” and its relationship to violence, then describe the structure, tactics, and tradecraft of militant anarchist activists. Finally, it offers some practical recommendations to law enforcement for preventing and managing those direct action attacks that may compromise public safety.

Ideology One often confusing issue for law enforcement personnel is the distinction between anarchists and other “special issue extremist” groups, or what the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have referred to as “eco-terrorists,” such as the Animal Liberation Front and the Environmental Liberation Front. Because the groups are often seen together or referred to contemporaneously, they often have been seen as a monolith of “left-wing radicals,” a characterization that is not entirely accurate. Although some extremists for social causes may hold an anarchist philosophy, many do not. Moreover, some anarchists are activists for their social/political philosophy, but not specifically for ancillary social causes (e.g., animal rights or environmental protection). This article will describe the overlap and synergy that is generating between the movements, but it important to understand that anarchists view anarchy itself as the main cause or objective for which they advocate; it is not merely a means to an end.

Although modern terrorism has its roots in the tactics of early Russian anarchists, anarchism itself is not a terrorist philosophy. Terrorism is tactic, or another way of fighting. It is distinguished from other forms of violence not only by its motive, but by how it defines a legitimate target (i.e., civilian non-combatants). Anarchists—like any extremist or activist group—may use terrorist tactics, but most would agree that anarchism as a social philosophy certainly does not require it.3 Anarchism is a philosophy that advocates for complete liberty, freedom, and equality. The nuances are myriad and complex. Regardless of their intellectual or social merit, though, it is not necessary for the law enforcement professional to completely understand them all to confront the challenges posed by their advocates.

Anarchy holds that individual autonomy and collective equality are fundamental and necessary for a functional, civilized society. It resists the existing hierarchical structure of society that gives some people authority and control over others. In their view, authority imbues power, and power always is used in illegitimate and self-serving ways by those who have it. Power is never used to support the collective good. Power (typically yielded by the “state”) is used to oppress others (i.e., the “workers”). This power is rooted in, and enforced by, violence. Anarchists desire a “social revolution” that destroys the existing conditions of hierarchy and class in society. They protest at political conventions, not because they specifically oppose who is in power, but they generally oppose the notion that anyone is in power.

During the summer of 2004, Anarchists turned out to protest both at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in New York City and the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Boston. At the RNC, Anarchist Affinity Groups migrated in from Chicago, Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, and elsewhere. The primary strategy seemed to be disruption. Large groups comprising thousands of bicyclists (“Critical Mass”) jammed major city intersections in one of the convention’s most effective tactics. On 31 August, a Blac Bloc descended on an antiwar parade, setting fire to a 30-foot dragon float. Several Anarchist Direct Actions 203 hundred arrests were recorded during the convention, but no mass casualty incidents occurred.4 The DNC attracted a somewhat smaller Anarchist contingent (and a smaller contingent of protesters in general), although the Bl(a)ck Tea Society (BTS), a Bostonbased self-proclaimed “anti-authority” group coordinated logistics and “hosted” resistance activities among the group that did attend. Some speculate that protestors with an antiwar focus were reserving resources for the RNC. Others believe that attendance was affected by controversy over BTS’s strategic emphasis on “autonomous decentralized action,” rather than mass action and Blocs.5 Already, it should be clear how anarchists’ world view engenders antagonism toward law enforcement, and brings the two groups into conflict with each other. But beyond a few central, shared ideals, there is little consensus among anarchists about how the existing structure should be destroyed and how the social revolution should occur.

What is generally accepted in the modern movement is that (1) actions speak louder than words and (2) it is more effective (and empowering) to act for oneself than through an advocate or third party (such as an elected official).

The emphasis on action—even violent action—over rhetoric gained momentum in the movement back in the nineteenth century when major figures such as Johan Most were advocating for “propaganda by deed.” The ideas of Peter Kropotkin, and later Emma Goldman resonated with this action-oriented philosophy. As noted in the introduction, some anarchists overseas took to assassinations and widespread, indiscriminate bombings. In the United States, the anarchist “call to action” was ignited mainly within the labor/workers movement, aspiring to the ideals of a new non-capitalist society (the “Chicago Idea”). Its flagship was the “Black International,” more formally referred to as the International Working People’s Association, which proffered trade unions as the agents of the people (“workers”) to act for the elimination of capitalism.

The emphasis on self-direction is embedded in their philosophy of “direct action.” Direct action (DA) is the general term used for acts of protest and resistance against existing societal structures and persons, institutions, or positions of power. In the language of the movement, it has been defined as every method of immediate warfare by the workers [or other sections of society] against their economic and political oppressors. Among these the outstanding are: the strike, in all its graduations from the simple wage struggle to the general strike; the boycott; sabotage in all its countless forms; [occupations and sit-down strikes;] anti-militarist propaganda, and in particularly critical cases,... armed resistance of the people for the protection of life and liberty.” (Rocker, 1988, p. 66)6 In implementing a strategy of direct action, modern anarchist leaders have looked to the experience of prior revolutionary movements in America. One of the most prominent modern examples is the communist Weather Underground Organization, a radical splinter faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that operated between 1969 and 1976. Although the underlying political philosophy of the Weather Underground was communist, in seeking to overthrow the U.S. government, they shared the anarchists’ goal of destroying capitalism, and they certainly shared the philosophy of direct action. The Weather Underground inaugurated its violent campaign on 6 October 1969 by bombing a police memorial in Chicago, igniting the “Days of Rage.” They then led a destructive mob of about 300 through Chicago streets, vandalizing businesses and vehicles. Several people were shot that night and there were other violent confrontations with the police for a couple of nights thereafter.

204 R. Borum and C. Tilby In the mid-1990s, in a parallel to what happened when ultra-radical members of SDS factioned into a terrorist organization, several strong voices in the modern anarchist movement began to reject the left wing’s willingness to work within the established political system. The left was chastised for obtaining permits to protest, and working with authorities to assist in holding a lawful protest. Doing so was considered a “sellout.” In addition, some within the movement argued that peaceful and lawful civil disobedience had been totally ineffective in creating change, and therefore, it would be necessary to resort to unlawful actions in order to deliver the “message” effectively.

Violence Violent Resistance Violence exists as a potential tool of resistance. The questions of whether, when, and to what extent violence is a legitimate tactic, however, are—and historically have been—a matter for substantial debate within the anarchist community.7,8 Charles Merriam once suggested that anarchists could be classified into two types: “the philosophical and the fighting anarchists, one believing in the attainment of anarchy by the peaceful process of evolution and the other by the employment of force and revolution.”9 Today, the issue is referred to as “Diversity of Tactics” (DoT). Strong arguments exist on both sides.10 Some take the “philosophical” position advocated by Tolstoy11 that anarchism must be a movement of nonviolent resistance, and that using violence as a form of activism is completely contrary to anarchist ideals.

In the middle are those who strongly endorse and advocate for destroying property, but not for violence directed toward people. Anarchists oppose property rights, so the destruction of property has symbolic value and is not seen as a violation of an individual’s rights. This is the position held by anarchists such as Michael Bakunin who has said: “in order to launch a radical revolution, it is... necessary to attack positions and things and to destroy [the institution of] property and the State, but there will be no need to destroy men and to condemn ourselves to the inevitable reaction which is unfailingly produced in every society by the slaughter of men.”12 On the other extreme, there are those who argue that the current hierarchical structure is maintained by violence (from the oppressors) and, therefore, can only be defeated with violence. In this view, violence not only is justified, it is necessary. An example is found in the writings of Errico Malatesta who argued it is “necessary to destroy with violence, since one cannot do otherwise, the violence which denies to the workers.”13 Some contemporary organizations continue to maintain this idea. The U.K.-based Anarchist Federation lists among its “Aims and Principles”: “It is not possible to abolish Capitalism without a revolution, which will arise out of class conflict. The ruling class must be completely overthrown to achieve anarchist communism. Because the ruling class will not relinquish power without the use of armed force, this revolution will be a time of violence as well as liberation” (#6).14 Among those who do advocate violence, most would claim that violence is instrumental as a tactic. It is not an end to itself. The intent is twofold: first, to breakdown or destroy the existing structure and second, to precipitate a public uprising that will prepare for, and facilitate, a revolution.

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