The J20 Story We Should Have Told

Just recently, on May 31st, Judge Robert Morin dismissed charges against one group of J20 defendants on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct. This is, of course, excellent news, but this isn’t what I’m interested in. See, this is the first time that I’ve seen the J20 victims in the news since January 20, when there were a few articles reminding us they existed on the one-year anniversary of their arrest, and nothing more. Before that, I can’t remember the last time that I’ve run into news about them. This is a mystery to me.

This is a mystery to me because the J20 arrests should’ve been an incredible propaganda victory for the anarchist community. I mean, I understand how the forces of hegemony work. The hegemonic consensus makes it seem impossible for us to come out ahead defending Black Bloc actions. But this really was an ideal case for us: On Trump’s inauguration weekend, police kettle northwards of 200 protestors, the vast majority of which are known to be innocent of any infraction, and the minority of which have, in the worst case scenario, broken a few windows.  In this kettle, they sweep up members of the press, who they keep kettled with the largely entirely-innocent-even-in-the-eyes-of-hegemonic-law crowd for hours and hours on end, without food, water, or facilities. Once Trump is in office, all 200-some of these people are charged with felonies in a transparent act of collective punishment and swaggering intimidation tactics.

Our narrative on this is clear– we just want to be able to express our first amendment rights! We want to be able to wear black clothes without being arrested for it! We want members of the press to be able to do their job! We could have kept on top of the news cycle for weeks by telling the stories of different people who are clearly innocent, and how their lives are being ruined by the cost of paying bail, or by having to travel back to Washington D.C. for regular court dates, or by having to relive over and over again the trauma of their arrest. These are ultimately sympathetic figures, certainly more sympathetic than the nazis that mainstream news outlets are profiling so favorably over and over again.

But I never heard that story. Somehow, that wasn’t a story that ever got told, and we missed a beautiful chance to pull the window of reasonable discussion leftwards. Why did this happen?

Of course, it is the case that, as anarchists, we will never necessarily get a fair treatment by the media. But we still could have done better! If nazis can get exposure of dubious sympathy, surely we can too. We simply need a clear media strategy.

The problem is our attitude towards black bloc actions. Mainstream media keep talking about black blocs as if they are a movement all of their own, with a nefarious agenda separate from any other already-established institutions, that might have leaders orchestrating all of these black bloc actions behind-the-scenes. In reaction to this attitude, we on the left seem to have picked up a propensity to try to emphasize a counter-narrative about black bloc actions; specifically, to assert that black bloc actions are leaderless, and open to anyone who shows up in black, and definitely all very individualized in different places, and we do this by refusing to speak “for the black bloc” or in representation thereof. This seems to me to be allowing hegemony to win.  

Of course, no one person can speak for everyone in a black bloc action. No one person can assert that they know what a black bloc was necessarily setting out to do. But we must not let this stop us from interpreting black bloc action for the rest of the world, from constructing narratives around it, and pushing those narratives out to the public as hard as we can. If we had taken the gift given to us by the black bloc on January 20th and run with it, instead of allowing the fracturing of the left to continue apace, we could be scoring rhetorical victory after rhetorical victory, which, while of limited use, are yet of use!

Having given up this option for the time being, we cannot reclaim the narrative of the J20 victims now, but we must remain alert for our next opportunity to narrativize proactively, instead of sitting back, “letting the actions speak for themselves,” and letting the right control the narrative uncontested.

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The Anatomy of Escape
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