If Not Now, When? If Not Here, Where?
Whisky Sour analyses the August 2013 arson attack on a police firearms training facility at Black Rock by Anarchist group The Angry Foxes Cell
“Every man or every power whose actions consist solely in surrender can only finish by self-annihilation. Everything that lives resists; that which does not resist allows itself to be cut up bit by bit.” Georges Clémenceau, 1905
On 27th August 2013 the night sky above Portishead, Somerset, was illuminated by a major fire. The almost finished £16 million police firearms training facility at Black Rock, intended to train officers from the Avon & Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire forces, was entirely destroyed. Despite the efforts of firecrews, it was two days before the blaze was extinguished. But so much destruction was not caused by a cigarette butt or a careless wire – while smoke was still rising, a local Anarchist group claimed responsibility.
The Angry Foxes Cell put out a communiqué on Bristol Indymedia which gave details of how they carried out the attack, making the veracity of their claim beyond doubt. Two vehicles used by private security firms G4S and GEOAmey were attacked in Bristol at the same time as the police centre. According to the statement, the group's motives were twofold: to draw attention to, and combat in a direct way, the growing militarisation of the police, whose greater use of firearms threatens our freedom and has resulted in a number of 'controversial' killings; secondly to strike a blow against the agencies involved in the cull of badgers, which is aimed at reducing TB in cattle. The actions were timed to coincide with the start of the cull, the usefulness of which is at best dubious and which has provoked much opposition and protest in the south-west and the other areas it has been carried out. As the Angry Foxes said, “Through attempting to facilitate the cull and stop resistance, the police shore up the interests of the agricultural industry and land-owning classes.”
If you haven't heard about this significant event, don't be surprised – there's been a virtual news blackout. The fire was briefly reported on local TV news and press at the time, but despite being described by the police themselves as 'devastating', it only merited a brief mention in the Guardian and Telegraph and no coverage on national BBC TV. With smoke visible over 12 miles away it was impossible to cover up entirely, but evidently someone in authority considered this to be too dangerous to be made too public. Anarchism is a threat again? Imagine the treatment if this had been 'Islamic extremists' – the enemy the State needs versus the enemy they cannot admit exists.
You could be forgiven, from the media non-coverage, for thinking this was an isolated attack. Far from it. A bank was recently firebombed, railway tracks were sabotaged in May 2012 and the cars of Tory MPs and the Lord Mayor were burned in November 2011. All in or around Bristol. Whether the work of the Angry Foxes or of a previous incarnation, the May 22nd Group, they were all linked to the (awkwardly named) Informal Anarchist Federation (IAF), better known in Italy as the Federazione Anarchica Informale or FAI. It is important to point out that they are not to be confused with one of the British national organisations the Anarchist Federation (AF) who have been critical of their actions, nor with the FAI in Spain, the Federación Anaquista Ibérica, nor yet with the Federazione Anarchica Italiana, nor for that matter with the Football Association of Ireland. (This choice of name can hardly be coincidental, do they seek to implicate these organisations?) This appears to be a very loose network of groups operating around the world in places as far-flung as Australia, Chile, Greece, Russia, Italy and Indonesia. What unites them is the classic insurrectionist doctrine that action is 'the way', and that such action in itself is capable of creating political developments of a revolutionary, and in this case libertarian, nature. IAF-related groups have carried out all manner of actions, mainly destroying property, but also causing human casualties on occasion and differing from earlier guerrilla-type groups in that their ideological background is Anarchist rather than Marxist, and that environmental issues are a key part of their agenda. It is easy to see why this should be so: when we see the impotence and self-interested greed with which world leaders approach climate change and the destruction of Amazonia, it seems the perfect example of the redundancy of government.
So, what should we think about this action? No-one was hurt in the attacks, and there is no doubt they significantly damaged the state apparatus which was the target, and the plans for more armed police will have received a substantial setback. Although the badger cull may not be of primary concern, it is clear the timing of the action will have gained maximum value in this arena too, by confronting the agencies involved head on, in a way which peaceful protesters cannot. It must make at least some individuals reconsider their personal role in these contentious areas.
However, in evaluating such an action, we must look at all the outcomes, both positive and negative. Information is hard to come by, but we can imagine the fallout from this attack in the Bristol area must be causing problems for people. With modern media, email address lists and phone contacts it is easy for police to drag in numbers of people with some connection to the Movement and even victimise known innocents in the hope of getting information and generally intimidating activists. The cases of the Grand Jury Objectors in the US illustrate the destruction which can be unleashed on innocent people (see here and here). This kind of thing can make the work of those trying to locate Anarchism as a positive force in wider society all the more difficult: we have spent decades trying to overcome people's fears, to dispel the caricature/myth of the bomb throwing Anarchist, and a spectacular 'outrage' can undo all this work. In this case however, with its careful targeting of the most aggressive element of state machinery, we have an action which may be seen sympathetically by many people.
Furthermore we cannot look at these actions individually, we have also to make a judgment on the wider strategy of which they form a part. It is only right to draw attention to the fact there is a plurality of views on this issue and parts of the Anarchist movement are critical of such actions. The events around Bristol, which we could characterise as 'sabotage' are definitely not acts of terror. But some continental groups connected with the AIF have carried out terrorist actions in the general style, if not political framework, of the Red Brigades / Red Army Faction. For example on 7th May 2012, masked men shot Roberto Ardinolfi the CEO of nuclear engineering / arms firm Ansaldo Nucleare in Italy; letter bombs aimed at politicians have resulted in an injured secretary. 'And what?' you may ask, 'as acts of terror go, its hardly the Hamburg firestorm, and weren't the targets guilty of worse crimes?'. Well firstly, these spectacular actions, which without doubt lend a certain glamour to those who carry them out, have the effect of provoking the State into greater repressive measures, which hinder or even undo the decidedly unglamourous day to day organisational work of others in the Movement and beyond. This was in fact the conscious strategy of the Red Army Faction: to provoke a massive State response which would cause the masses to come to their senses thus leading to the overthrow of the system. As a strategy, it has failed, a number of times, leaving the State stronger than ever. Secondly, because of the clandestine nature of planning and executing such actions as bombings and shootings, and to a lesser extent the sabotage we are concerned with here, it is necessary for the guerrillas to go underground, to lead a life which is increasingly remote from the struggles of everyday life. Even those with egalitarian, libertarian politics, increasingly begin to take on the characteristics of a vanguard, out of touch with those they seek to champion. This process of isolation is well documented by Bommi Baumann, himself a member of the June 2nd Movement, in his book Terror or Love.
This is not to seek to belittle the considerable personal risks involved in making the Portishead action, but to bring up some of the questions posed by an insurrectionist strategy. Indeed, in a world where the means of fighting to defend ourselves and our class are increasingly closed off, criminalised or recuperated, the frustration is something we can all identify with. Who can feel anything but a warm glow when a bank goes up in smoke? But the usefulness and significance of such actions depends also on the social context (what stage is the struggle at) and the efforts to communicate to the wider world what these actions mean, to bring people along with us. For example, will damaging a rail line do anything more than create irritation and resentment among passengers at the 'pranks' of these 'hooligans'? Capitalism is fundamentally a social relationship: it cannot be dismantled by isolated spectacular actions which are not integrated into a mass movement any more than by 'marching for peace' or consuming 'ethical' commodities. An example of insurrectionist thought is provided by Nikos Maziotis who was tried in Athens in July 1999 for putting a bomb in the Ministry of Industry and Development in support of the campaign of remote villagers against the mining company TVX GOLD. He gave an eloquent testimony, which is both inspiring and moving and which can be read here.
The fact is that the insurrectionist path and that which puts organisation first have long been distinct strands within Anarchism, and while we may try to locate ourselves so as to bridge the gap by accepting the need for both approaches, we must be aware of these differences in order to adopt a position.
The aim of this article, beyond spreading awareness of the hushed-up Portishead action, is to provoke thought and provoke debate. What do you think?
- Whisky Sour
Anon. - You Can't Blow up a Social Relationship. See Sharp Press 2006.
Baumann, Michael 'Bommi' – Terror or Love. 1979
Gelderloos, Peter – Insurrection v. Organisation. 2007
Sorel, Georges – Reflections on Violence. Collier Books 1906