Against Conventional Wisdom: On Violence, Leadership, Protest, and the Gilets Jaunes

Giovanni Battista Bracelli Untitled (1624)

I want to go back to France (of course, I do!); specifically I want to talk about the Gilets jaunes protests and two things that the press is freaking out about: Violence and the lack of leaders. Last week, it seemed as if the English-language press was starting to get that the Gilets jaunes protests are about more then the gas tax, that the protesters are demanding economic justice and a bigger say in democracy. Through staying on the street, the Gilets jaunes forced Macron into concessions — he rescinded the gas tax, rolled back a retirement tax, hiked the minimum wage, and more. However, the press short-shrifts these victories, choosing to focus on violence and the protesters’ “lack of leadership” without providing context about what they are writing about, as if reality is flat.

Saturday’s Evening Standard (UK) marks the day’s protests with the headline “Yellow vest protests: Seventh person dies as violence erupts in France for fifth weekend in a row… as demonstrators clash with riot police in Paris” and an article filled with more riveting graphics than text. The “seventh death”? “A man was killed after he crashed his car into a truck at a protesters’ roadblock on the Franco-Belgian border”! — hardly a life cut short by protest violence!

CNN’s news-site also focuses on violence — more action scenes, tied up neatly with a gratuitous mention of the Christmas market shootings in Strasbourg, the only connection to the Paris protests is that all of this is happening in France. Earlier in the week, the same correspondents published the obligatory “Who are the Gilets jaunes?” piece. The authors focus on “irresponsible” Lefties and Rightists driving or not driving the movement — “Who are they?” becomes “Who knows? We don’t know. No one knows. Where are the leaders?”

The “respectable” BBC is also on the violence beat. Al Jazeera, sympathizing with the beleaguered Macron, worries about the Gilets jaunes’ lack of leadership. Check out other mainstream news outlets and read/see more of the same — dramatic pictures of violence, much fretting, and no context. So, let me give you some context:

Giovanni Battista Bracelli Untitled (1624)

Violence: There are three kinds of violence happening in the Paris protests: Violence against people, violence against property, and violence in self-defense. The press focuses almost exclusively on violence perpetuated by the protesters — violence against property and violence in self-defense. The protesters’ violence against property is presented as if it were violence against people, the result of disorder. The press rarely comments on violence unleashed by security forces and the police upon the protesters — real violence against people. By leaning on the protesters’ violence and easing up on state violence, the press doesn’t just abdicate its responsibility to report fairly on events, it distorts what’s happening and gives cover to those in power. This “lapse” legitimizes state violence against protesters and condemns protesters using violence in self-defense. This is not new.

The Gilets jaunes protests are an outgrowth of protests that have been going on for over a year, protests that Macron has ignored, minimized, or ridiculed. In most of these protests, unprovoked, the police and security forces have violently attacked protesters. Both the protests and the violence have been under-reported or ignored in the English-language press, even when the violence has created scandal.

On May 1, 2018, Paris held its annual May Day celebration, which included marches, rallies, and protests. The protests focused on Macron’s attacks on the working class and income inequality. During the protests, a man impersonating a cop worked over a protester. The attack was caught on film and the man was ID’d. The attacker wasn’t a cop, but someone named Alexandre Benalla. Benalla isn’t some every day schmoe. He is one of Macron’s security officers, his deputy chief of staff, and a close friend. Benalla wasn’t beating on the protester in an official capacity — Macron was hidden safely away from his critic - Benalla working over the protester for the hell of it. Benalla was beat the protester for kicks.

Of course, when Macron learned of Benalla’s extralegal brutality surfaced, the president fired his security man, right? Wrong! At first, Macron acted as if nothing happened. When pressed, he was defiant. Macron spit, “I’m the sole responsible. Now come and get me if you dare” (translation from a correspondent). Macron also dismissed other incidents of police violence against protesters, asserting the government’s “right” to use violence to “enforce public order,” turning pissy and arrogant when challenged.

The French never did like Macron. As I wrote last week, he was the compromise candidate chosen to oppose the Fascist Le Pen. With Affaire Benalla , people started wondering “Who is the real fascist?” People began referring to the president as “King Macron” and his reign a “soft dictatorship.” A recent quote from a 64-year old protester: “I always feared that there was an element of dictator in the way Macron did things.” Though ignored by the English-language press, Affaire Benalla is, with the gas tax and economic inequality, a main issue of the Gilets jaunes protests.

Five weeks ago, when 8,000 Gilets jaunes protesters filled the street, Macron sicced 80,000+ cops on them. Almost instantly youtube was filled with footage of dozens of Darth Vader-looking cops running down individual protesters and wolf-packing them (scenes ignored by the English-language press). The French knew that Affaire Benalla wasn’t just Alexandre Benalla, it is the whole damn government. You see, while pundits here wring their hands over a burning police car in Paris, the people over there are fighting what they see as abuse of power by an autocrat who serves wealth and despises working people.

The instant critique of protesters’ violence against property never mentions that much of the smashing is a response to violence against people by the police. The cops are shooting tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at people — not just protesters but anyone who might be “in the way.” We read of protesters taking out store windows, but little is written about windows shattered by police projectiles (or agent provocateurs). The security forces shoot tear gas canisters at protesters; protesters pick up the canisters and throw them back at the police. Police shoot rubber bullets at protesters, protesters throw bricks and bottle at the cops in response. Police set fire-hoses on protesters, corral protesters with shields, hit them with truncheon, and the protesters fight back.

Protesters rip up the street and overturn cars not for kicks, but to create barricades to protect themselves from police violence while they protest. The police are using violence against people. The protesters are using “violence” in self-defense. There is a very big difference between the two. The press also fails to see that the police are not just a hazard to the protesters’ safety; They are a threat to the freedom to assemble and protest. Fighting the cops is fighting for the right to dissent. Letting the police rule is an invitation to a police state.

Let’s get back to the issue of protesters’ violence against property. First, we have to be 100% no-bullshit clear that one’s view about violence against property is influenced by how important they view the right to property. U.S. Americans’ Declaration of Independence calls for “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Many scholars believe that to “pursue happiness” one must acquire and own property. Institutionally, Americans value property as much if not more than freedom of speech or freedom to dissent.

The French don’t worship property the way Americans do. Their national motto is “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” When French protesters trash a bank, few French freak out. They think of equality and solidarity, not property rights. So, when French farmers invade Paris with their tractors and pour milk and throw eggs at ministry buildings, no one blinks. Farmers who toss beets and potatoes at cops (with a nice white wine sauce and a fresh baguette!) are supported not condemned. Transit workers strike and sabotage trains and everyday people stand in solidarity.

On every one of my visits to Paris, I’ve unwittingly wandered into a protest, a picket, or a strike, some large, some smallish, and I always see trash cans tipped over, a bin on fire, walls graffiti’d, property destroyed. The press freak out over something that, for French dissent, is quite normal, if not accepted. The pundits and reporters frame events through their own prejudices not the values of the protesters or the everyday people of France. Worse, this slant in coverage presents protesters’ violence against property and in self-defense as more troubling than the police violence against people! The underdog is the villain and the strongman the hero!

There is also the question of whether violence against property and in self-defense is truly violence. This is not a semantic question, but one which demands that we look at who is being “violent” and why. A couple years ago, my friend Shon Meckfessel’s published a very helpful book on this subject, called Nonviolence Ain’t What It Used To Be. It is well worth reading, if only to keep your intellect alive and questioning.

Giovanni Battista Bracelli Untitled (1624)

Leadership or lack thereof: The other big media critique of the Gilets jaunes is that the protests have no leaders. This drives the press crazy! The CNN report I reference above equates the lack of formal leadership with CHAOS! Hmmm…rather than argue over whether leaderless protests are de facto chaotic, let’s see what else CNN deems CHAOS!

Budapest, December 14, protests against Orban’s authoritarianism — CHAOS! Tijuana, November 27, asylum seekers protest at border — CHAOS! London, November 22, climate change protests could bring — CHAOS! Tijuana, October 19, “caravan” reaches border and protests — CHAOS! Washington DC, September 5, Kavanaugh hearing protesters asked if they are causing — CHAOS! Chicago, July 7, gun control protest turns to — CHAOS! On May 18, CNN wrote that the protests in 1968 were — CHAOS! CHAOS! is also used to describe Brexit, the Catholic Church child-rape scandal, Donald Trump, and the Democratic Party; however, most often CNN the one word linked to CHAOS! is “protest.”

CNN concern about CHAOS! has little to do with protest’s lack of leadership. What CNN worries about is protesting! I single out CNN, but they aren’t alone. From the respectable BBC to the questionable Russia Today protests are CHAOS! CHAOS! CHAOS!.

When these media outlets aren’t worrying about CHAOS!, they feign concern about the effectiveness of leaderless protests. “How will the protesters get what they want?” they ask. The confusion is understandable as most Americans — even those who regularly protest — are confused about protests. Something bad happens and American protest in order to express their feelings about the badness. Lots of talk of change hides that our marches and rallies are primarily avenues for self-expression. We focus on signage, costumes, and messaging; not demands or how to harness the power of the people we’ve gathered to enact change.

We amass millions of people in support of LGBT rights and turn it into a parade. Millions gather for the Women’s March and that too becomes a celebration, albeit one that inspires people to engage. Even the March for Our Lives, which actually had clear, strong demands, does not use the protest as anything other than a temporary gathering. American protests are short stories, tightly constructed words formed as a beginning, middle, and end, the end often determined by the powers-that-be, the publisher not the author. The rallies and marches happen at locations negotiated ahead of time by protest organizers and those in power. American protests are a mediated experience, as predictable to those in power as the people engaging in the storytime. And because there is no risk involved in this tale-telling, there are few rewards.

To be fair, Americans do know how to strike. Workers organize. Issue demands. If the demands are not met, they threaten a strike. If nothing changes, they set a start date and strike. Workers walk off the job and picket the target of the strike. The bosses are not informed about how many strikers to expect or when or where they will be picketing. They are not given an end-date, because often the strike ends only when the workers’ demands are satisfied. The bosses also are clueless about any other actions associated with the strike — speeches, rallies, civil disobedience, etc. While outreach to the general public is important, the workers do not temper their demands to accommodate “messaging.” The workers also understand that the goal of the strike is to win, not to express oneself. Americans think of strikes only as strikes, when what strikes really are is protest tactic.

Giovanni Battista Bracelli Untitled (1624)

The French don’t create a false distinction between strikes and protests, thus, they are clear about the protest being a tactic. They don’t see the protest as a stand-alone event, but know that they are part of a political continuum, a tactic that is used after voting and petitioning fails, and before one moves on to rioting and insurrection. The protest is a show of force and a threat. You put people on the street and issue demands. If the state fails to react, you bring more people to the street and you start to shut down the city. As the Free Speech Movement’s Mario Savio put it, “You’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”

Eventually, you bring the city to a standstill and keep it there until the government gives you what you want (sounds a lot like a strike, doesn’t it?). Behind the protests is the threat of unrest — which is not violence nor chaos, but the refusal of the mass to be controlled. Sometimes the unrest becomes a riot and from there an insurrection. The government fears insurrection the most, as it is a direct challenge to their power. Protesters are betting on the government giving into demands to starve off an insurrection.

In France, many protests are organized by political parties (large and small) and unions. These protests have formal leadership and predetermined demands. The organizers turn out hundreds or thousands of people, clog up the streets, perhaps in conjunction with a strike. The protest is a push to the government to act. When the government signals that they are ready to negotiate, the protest leaders meet with government officials and deal behind closed doors. Rank & file protesters might have a say in the demands but they are not a party to final negotiation. Most of the time, what is decided behind closed doors is only a fraction of what the protesters want, however because they are beholden to their leadership, when the negotiations are done, they are told to disperse and they do.

The Gilets jaunes might not have formal leaders but they have a set of demands. The central demand is that Macron steps down. While this is unlikely, it needs to be pressed. Without demanding Macron’s resignation, the other demands — end the gas tax, rescind the retirement tax, up the minimum wage, stop the attacks on the 35-hour work week, no more cuts in services, no more tax breaks for the rich and corporations, police accountability, etc. — will be ignored.

The press would like us to believe that no leaders puts the Gilets jaunes at a disadvantage. Really? So far, Macron has folded on the gas tax, retirement tax, and minimum wage. He has done this without negotiating with any leaders, leaders who, by now, would have called the protesters off the street, shorting their demands. Instead, Macron is forced to negotiate with the street.

Macron’s first counteroffer was sending 80,000 cops to stop the protests. When that didn’t work, he had a choice: Shoot people in the street or start with the concessions. Not knowing who to call or exactly what he had to give to save his hide, Macron made major concessions. Ask yourself, who is really at a disadvantage here?

The French understand that protests are not simply self-expression but a power move. Imagine if the organizers and participants of the Women’s March treated their protest as a tactic and were willing to play power politics with their numbers. Had the millions who participate in the Women’s March took to the streets in September, holding cities hostage, refusing to be intimidated by cops, and, yes, when attacked, setting some shit on fire, there would be no Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Now imagine if we were as politically literate as the French, if we had tactical intelligence, if we didn’t believe in the stupid artificial division between the voting booth and the street, if we understood protests as we do strikes, and if we really knew how much power we really have.

Actually, we don’t have to imagine we only have to remember back to January 27, 2017, when Trump signed Executive Order 13769, the Muslim travel ban. The very next day people flooded airports in protest. They did this on their own, without leaders, figuring where else to protest but at an airport.T he ACLU filed suit trying to stop the order. On January 29, one day after the protests started, a federal judge issued a nationwide injunction. People continued to go to airports to protest. The courts continued to respond with injunctions. Then people went home and we forgot how much power we had. We protested as parades and funneled all our energy into lobbying elected officials and working on election campaigns — all fine things but not as powerful when combined with the “CHAOS!” we can cause by disrupting business as usual.

You see, what the order-obsessed — and this includes much of the press — fear the most is not being able to read the present or predict the future. They want to know how many of us are protesting and who to call to get us to stop. When they fail to restrain us, even when we are nonviolent, they call our refusal to obey CHAOS! But is it really chaos? Seems to me that there is another word for it, a much more powerful word. I like to think of it as freedom.

Giovanni Battista Bracelli Untitled (1624)

This piece first appeared in Soriano’s Comment, №40, December 16, 2018. Subscriptions are free. Sign up here.

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