Clive Williams’ recent article on the threat anarchists pose to the G20 summit in Brisbane is poorly researched and badly argued.
The ‘Black Rose Syndicat’, the anarchist group that Williams believes is a threat to the G20, is a scam. I wrote about this online creation for New Matilda in December – but I was skeptical about its bona fides when I first read about it in May. ‘Black Rose’ is well known as the name of an anarchist infoshop in Sydney that opened in 1982. Why would someone with no relationship to the infoshop adopt its name and claim to be located in the area of Sydney – Newtown – that houses it? Why would they subsequently make obviously bogus claims about the Syndicat’s status and activity on Indymedia? I was also concerned that the Syndicat was happy to boast on Facebook of its commitment to militant direct action and to invite others to provide the Syndicat with their personal details by purchasing items from its eBay accounts.
Something smelled very fishy about the Syndicat.
Williams, however, accepts all its claims, expressed in a handful of posts to various indymedia sites, at face value. These include its ‘vow’ to cause ‘CAOS and Mayhem’ at the G20 summit, a garbled account of its political intent and organisational structure, and a fictional tale of an encounter between the Syndicat and students at Sydney University.
According to Williams, the Syndicat is an anarchist group based at the University of Sydney that distributes revolutionary propaganda and ‘uses command and communication chains that are flexible to provide greater security’. He adds that ‘some politically-active Sydney University students say most members are not students there and are motivated mainly by the opportunity to cause violence’. This qualification would appear to be a reference to a post on indymedia in which another fictitious group, the ‘Democratic Socialist Club of Sydney University’, admonishes the Syndicat for its allegedly violent proclivities. It would not be stretching credibility to suggest that the author of this article is in fact the Syndicat – especially if, like Williams, one pays attention to spelling and grammar.
In a similar vein, Williams claims that ‘Anonymous Australia’ has ‘vowed to release a list of more than 500 police and military officers’ supposedly having infiltrated activist groups with the aim of obtaining information about their plans to oppose the G20 summit. An astonishing claim, certainly, but what evidence exists to support it? Nothing, apart from one post to indymedia, written in an eerily familiar style: asked to confirm its authorship, ‘Anonymous Australia’ denied responsibility.
As I detailed in my New Matilda article, whatever claims have been made by and about the Syndicat, it has no relationship to either Black Rose infoshop or to any existing anarchist group. Rather it promotes a clutch of eBay accounts that sell books, pamphlets, t-shirts and other merchandise – including men’s and women’s clothing, iPad covers and Lady Gaga CDs – to the public.
Subsequent investigation has revealed that the Syndicat is highly likely to be the imaginary product of one, very artistic Canberra man, a person with zero relationship to contemporary Australian anarchism and little understanding of anarchist theory. Armed only with a thirst for attention, an internet connection, and a series of (often quite bizarre) political preoccupations, he has succeeded in capturing the attention of journalists desperate for a story and intent on justifying political repression – a task which the Queensland government has taken up with no small degree of enthusiasm.
That it took six months for a handful of posts made in May to come to the attention of a Courier Mail writer is one thing; it’s another thing for an academic to take them seriously. In essence, rather than critically interrogate the specific claims put forward by tabloid media, Williams has simply repeated them.
The Black Bloc
In perpetuating the tabloid myth of the Black Rose Syndicat, Williams locates the myth within a broader discourse regarding anarchist participation in anti-summit protest and in particular the role of ‘The Black Bloc’ within these demonstrations. Contrary to Williams’ assertions, however, the black bloc is not, in fact, an ‘international anarchist cooperative’, nor is it ‘probably the first to use the internet and social networking to encourage “flash violence”’. In reality, the black bloc is a tactical formation sometimes employed during protests in order to provide a sense of cohesion, help protect participants from police assault and, in the context of the anti-summit movement, to disrupt their conduct, often by engaging in more ‘militant’ forms of resistance. Historically speaking, the black bloc developed in Germany in the early 1980s, long before the internet or flash mobs, and in response to police and fascist attack upon public protests. It soon spread to other parts of Europe, and occupies an important, albeit often controversial, place within radical social movement history.
It wasn’t long before this particular tactic, closely associated with anarchist, antifascist, autonomist and militant squatter movements, crossed the Atlantic to the United States. According to one source, the first ‘black bloc’ to appear in North America occurred during a protest outside the Pentagon on October 17, 1988; another took part in a protest to mark Columbus Day in 1992. What brought the tactic to the attention of US authorities, however, was the black bloc’s appearance at the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. (And while this is not the place to discuss the Seattle protests in any detail, it has long been established that the violent repression of the protests by police began before and was conducted independently of the disruptive activity of the black bloc.)
The black bloc has become the subject of both intense debate by activists and misinterpretation by academics ever since, making an appearance in Egypt during the Arab Spring and more recently defending protests by striking teachers in Brazil from police attack.
The same confusion regarding black blocs also applies in the case of Williams’ understanding of the history and role of ‘affinity groups’ (often referred to, in the nomenclature of the state, as ‘cells’). Historically, affinity groups (grupos de afinidad) emerged as an organisational tool among Spanish anarchist-communist workers in the late 1800s. They have since been adopted by a wide range of other movements, anarchist and non-anarchist, and assumed particular importance in the context of anti- (or alter-) globalisation protest movements. While the reasons for this are complex, it is partly the result of a widespread recognition of the importance of the micro-political to social movements: an echo of specifically anarchist concerns but with additional resonance among numerous feminist, peace and environmental movements.
Williams’ laments the fact that the security precautions taken by anarchist groups make them difficult for state agencies to infiltrate. This is not an observation with which I necessarily agree.
That aside, if anarchist groups do take security precautions, that begs specific questions about the Syndicat. Simply put, the Syndicat has used Facebook to promote activity which attracts the attention of state agencies. This suggests either: a) a reckless disregard for the precautions anarchist groups are apparently routinely committed to or; b) that the ‘Syndicat’ is actually not what it claims to be.
On either count, any sensible anarchist should avoid it like the plague.
The role of state agencies such as ASIO in infiltrating anarchist groups and identifying anarchist ‘organisers’ is especially noteworthy given the recent screening of a documentary, ‘Persons of Interest’, in which the history of such infiltration, spying and disruption is told through an examination of declassified documents regarding four such persons. The dangerous malcontents featured – Roger Milliss, Michael Hyde, Gary Foley and Frank Hardy – were never convicted or even charged with a serious criminal offence, their major crimes being such things as their active opposition to war, support for socialism, the struggle for land rights and so on. ‘Persons of Interest’ reveals the extraordinary lengths to which ASIO was prepared to go in order to better secure economic and social privilege and state power. The agency’s capacity to engage in this political battle has expanded massively in the ensuing decades, a development which should be a cause for concern rather than celebration.
A passing reference to ASIO’s role in infiltrating groups protesting the WEF in Melbourne in 2000 suggests further flaws in Williams’ argument. If he were more familiar with the S11 protests, Williams would understand that – far from the political situation now having been ‘turned around’ with the emergence of ‘affinity groups’ such as the bogus ‘Syndicat’ and Anonymous networks – affinity groups played a vital role at S11, as they did at other anti-summit protests. If ASIO wished to obtain information on the activities of S11 protest organisers, it was able to do so (and surely did) simply by attending one of many public meetings organised by them to discuss the matter. In the context of anti-summit protest, the challenge faced by the surveillance state is not so much to subvert what are actually long-standing organisational practices as it is not to fall prey to false media reports.
Finally, while the spectre of violence animates Williams’ discussion, in the case of S11 it was police and not protesters who were its chief practitioners, as the litany of broken bones, smashed teeth, cuts, bruises and a later string of successful civil cases will attest. One might also add in this context that Victoria Police cheekily adopted their own anonymising tactics at S11, removing badges and other identifying features in order to blend in better with the ‘blue bloc’. This clever tactic has since become routine at all major (and some minor) protests in which police plan to violently subdue citizens – just as the outcry among commentators has also been subdued.
To mount a defence of anarchism is not the purpose of this piece. Nevertheless, a few words on the subject are necessary.
First, Williams’ grasp on anarchism is about as sure as his understanding of the Syndicat or the black bloc, and barely departs from the standard tropes. Thus in addition to poor spelling and grammar, anarchists are possessed of a violent nature and gross political naiveté: terrorists armed with tiny budgets and febrile imaginations. The sophisticated critiques of capitalist society which anarchists have produced and the mass movements that gave them expression are ignored in favour of an account which emphasises the symbolic content of actions (forming a bloc at a demonstration, breaking shop windows and/or sabotaging surveillance cameras). A broader appreciation of the potential utility of such actions within a specific context like an anti-summit protest, or the relationship between gatherings of the transnational ruling class and capitalist social relations as a whole, informs anarchist thinking on these questions.
Secondly, contrary to Williams’ assertion, it is actually the territory upon which oppositional politics is enacted that has begun to change, rather than the particular problems a large agency such as ASIO may have in infiltrating a small, tight-knit group. Anarchists were early adopters of the internet, with one important website, infoshop.org, publishing online since 1995. Indeed, the software that established the indymedia network – and which the Syndicat has used to publish its demented samizdat – was developed in Sydney in the late 1990s, coming into its own with the Seattle protests and the publication of Seattle indymedia. Of course, the principles of ‘open publishing’ – ‘which allows anyone to self-publish their work on the IMC web sites’ – means anyone reading indymedia should do so with a critical eye, something sadly lacking in Williams’ own account.