To ACAB or not to ACAB – on the question of violence and punishment within the anarchist movement
Anarchist movement is full of violence. And I'm not talking about rioting on the streets and burning cop cars. There is enough information to prove that the anarchist movement is not about it.
From one side the movement is constantly under pressure of power: both state and private capital are trying to smash the movement for over 150 years. There are many people who went through torture, prison and other forms of violence. The violence of our social surrounding is also brought into the movement. Depending on the country, anarchism can and is organized around the working class communities that are full of internal violence. We rarely speak about that, as most of the people inside the movement who can speak up are not coming from such places.
From the other side, anarchists as many other political movements is plagued by internal violence. This happens when political contradictions reach a high point. Or some personalized forms of violence such as rape or domestic fights. And if the people in traditional liberal or conservative or even leftist parts of the society are eager to call in the state apparatus – they call the police, in the anarchist movement we don't do that. Some people stick to the subcultural ACAB concept, the others – try to explain their position in more complicated ways. However, it all comes to one simple rule: anarchists do not call the police.
This brings some challenges. What is the alternative to the state violence in the conflict resolution? Who is responsible in case of internal conflicts? How the processes should happen and who will be held accountable for what is happening inside the movement?
Couple of year after I joined the anarchists in Belarus quite a serious conflict happened in Russia that provoked discussion inside our own movement. Back then at some music festival a famous punk anarchist star named Ukrop in the evening had a fight with K.. They were staying in the same big tent and some critic appeared from K. on how the common space is used by Ukrop. The tension went so high that Ukrop hit K. in the face. For me the story was clear as the glass of spring water – it is unacceptable to use such violence against your own comrades in any situation. Especially when people are voicing their critic of your behavior.
Paradoxically, there were quite many people who disagreed with that simple notion. Arguments came that discussion was when both were drunk and it was in high tones so it was understandable and there is no one's fault in this fight. It went even further that some parts of the anarchist movement started putting responsibility on K. for the whole story. She provoked Ukrop, and he had to punch her in the face. Because... well, you know the men are extremely sensitive creatures. Especially male punk-rock stars.
The story didn't go in any direction at all. We had our discussion in Belarus, other people spoke about the situation in Russia and Ukraine and the problem was swept under the rug. It was really weird – first you have this big conversations but the next moment everybody is done, and we can move further as if this will never happen again.
I didn't know at that point K., but I knew Ukrop from some organized anarchist circles. It never came up to me to actually talk to him about this situation. He was just marked in my head as some amazing asshole whom you should avoid. What made the story even more complicated for me is the fact that K. left the russian anarchist movement and some time later moved to Berlin. I met her in Minsk at parties and the story never came up in conversations.
Most probably the conflict wouldn't develop differently in other political movements – the person's reputation is often more important in the long run than violence that he/she applies on some parts of society. However, I can imagine that in non-political circles people would call the police and it would be up to the state institutions of violence to resolve the issue. Most probably Ukrop would be punished in some way and K. would even get some money as moral damage.
But as anarchists, we despise this type of conflict resolution. We do not want the state to intervene in our internal problems and many people believe that the movement can deal with these issues.
We are not.
I've heard dozens of stories of such kind since then all around Europe. And to be honest I haven't heard about any conflicts that were resolved. The popular solution that was used many times is expulsion of the person using violence from the movement. This is done really easily and without hesitation if the person doesn't have social connections. When the friendship starts to intervene – that's where the situation gets complicated. Personal connections are among those factors that actually makes it complicated to take part in conflict resolution. Traditional state court deals with that by preventing relatives and close friends to be part of the prosecuting team.
Personal bonds are complicated. At the end of the day you are more likely to believe the version of the story of your friend than of some random person you barely know. Even if both of them are part of your community.
As anarchists, we do not have an answer to that problem. In most of the cases the local anarchist movement is tiny and highly unstable – only few are staying active longer than 3-4 years. In that situation it is hard to find any solution. When the problems appear, people can just walk away or find support in other part of the movement that has little problems with problematic behavior.
Here comes the second story that actually pushed me into refreshing my 15 years of experience with the anarchist movement.
Some person in Dresden had a relationship with the other person. The relationship was not the best story and was violent in itself. However, after a break up the person didn't take NO for an answer and started stalking his former partner. What do you do if you are not part of anarchist subculture? You call the police. They get the guy; he gets some punishment, maybe a ban to approach the person, gets some treatment for his issues – all enforced by the state. But the partner does not believe in such a solution. She never called the police and stayed true to ACAB credo.
Meanwhile, quite many people knew about what is going on and failed to intervene. There are only few people in Dresden who believe that such behavior is OK. But most of the people decided not to act and stay aside. It took almost a year for some individuals to escalate the situation to provoke discussions, at least in a couple of groups. Some of that brought results, some did not.
The story afterwards reminds some bizarre circus. The person who was stalked had to leave Dresden after some time as the psycho terror was going. The stalker meanwhile found friends in the local antifa scene, got accepted to the political boxing gym and even was invited to join some kind of self-defense collective for concerts and other events. That would be a great development if the person would question his behavior, went through some constructive process and recovered from his issues. But that's not the case. Imagine that, the person who is known for stalking, violence and psychological terror is included in positions that are allowing him to exercise violence against other member of our community.
I spoke about this story to dozens of people involved in it in different ways, including to both sides of the situation. Most of the people inside the leftist movement chose not to act on the problem at all. A Common argument I've heard so far: “it is really complicated and I don't know all the details”. Every time I keep wondering how complicated it is to condemn such thing like violence and psychological pressure and the bloody stalking. Is it so complicated to come up all together and say this will not be tolerated in our movement, and we do not accept it? Simple as that. The Story in Dresden still develops. There are some anarchist and leftist groups that are actually trying to find a common ground for this and any other coming problems.
But the anarchist movement is old. And this issues appeared systematically. And generation after generation we are facing the same challenges, and we do not have proper solutions. It is still easy to enter the anarchist movement, do some shit and leave it with no consequences, because we are true to our denial of cooperation with the state.
I believe we should not bring any state in our internal conflict. But we do have to develop working alternatives for our community that can replace police and prison. Otherwise, our prison abolition efforts will be met with another laugh when we stumble again upon the problem of violence inside our own structures.
I'd like to point again and again and again that problems with violence are not coming isolated with some person from a distant island who has nothing to do with our society. And there are very few people who can say that they are not destroyed by the modern capitalist society. So we have to be a community that accepts people with their problems and issues. We should be also a community of people who can help recover from state repressions. Belarusian anarchist movement was hit hard by several people who came out of the prison with prison values after serving years. One of this people started applying prison culture on the anarchist movement, which caused problems that are still going on in Russia/Belarus/Ukraine.
Understanding is not accepting – we can understand all the weight that people are carrying on their shoulders through their life or years of activism. And we should struggle collectively to resolve the issues. There is nothing more frustrating to watch the anarchist movement falling apart because of the violence from inside.
Upon entering the movement, it should be made crystal clear what we do not tolerate in any way. Abstractions are not enough, and we need clear wording. We need the famous volunteer agreements that people would have to sign up by joining the anarchists (leftist movement is way more complicated with its authoritarian and non-authoritarian wings). In the same way as we create right now a structure for media and solidarity, we should create structures that are going to be eager to deal with internal violence and resolve it.
Community accountabilityThere are a lot of alternatives to the traditional punishment concepts. Some of them are older, some of them are younger. In Germany in recent 10-15 years community accountability is one of those ideas that has big presence among certain anarchist groups.
The whole concept is really beautiful and proved to be able to bring changes to violent communities. But so far it was failing miserably inside the anarchist movement. Why? Because there is little community. In some countries we are part of the same subculture, in others – we are different people in different groups. As I mentioned before, the average activist stays in politics for 3-4 years and then moves on with his/her life. This makes it hard to create something stable.
We can bring dozens of other concepts into the movement, but all of them will not work unless we put efforts into accepting them and working with them. And so far I can not imagine that community accountability will replace simple exclusion from the movement of the people who are not eager to cooperate.
And yes, I'm arguing for kicking the person out for violence if that person doesn't want to work out together solutions and accept collective help. Simple as that. And the reason is not that we can't do better. We can and we want to. But while we are talking and trying to develop our own concepts, there is a dangerous situation develops inside our own political community where violent people are left alone and those who are subject to violence have to walk out. And while we are developing those concepts, we have to push some people away, so they can find help in other places. And this is important to accept, because right now instead of actually kicking people out we are all sitting indecisively and waiting for someone else to find the solution to our problem.
To sum up, it is better to act in not the best progressive way but do act on violence than ignore the problem. The violence inside of our groups will not be resolved by itself and no Kropotkin will save us all. So be an anarchist and fight injustice! It will be complicated but it is the right thing to do.
And of course to ACAB?! What else do you think?!