Peter Gelderloos is a radical community organiser from the USA. He has written a number of books including Consensus: A new handbook for grassroots political, social and environmental groups and How Non-violence helps the State as well as being a member of a number of campaigns including local Food Not Bombs, Copwatch and Anarchist Black Cross chapters.
In 2001 he was arrested at Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, previously known as the School of Americas, and spent six months in prison. In 2005 he published his most well known book How Non-violence protects the State in which he addressed the problems with non-violence activism and what the possible alternatives are. It was an illuminating call to arms, which if nothing else served to get a range of people in the anti-authoritarian movement asking questions of their tactics.
More recently in 2007, Peter was arrested in Barcelona and charged with public disorder and being at an illegal demonstration. As he has said the charges against him are “fairly absurd” but because of bail conditions he had until recently been confined to the Spanish borders. However, in January and February of 2008 he was able to travel to the UK on a tour discussing his work about non-violence. The following recording is of the talk that he gave in the RampART social centre on February 2nd, whilst the interview was done the following day in London.
LH: How did you get involved in politics, family, environment etc?
PG: I didn’t come from a radical family or from a radical area or anything like that. I really think that it came from the extreme alienation of suburban life. Then I guess I became involved early in environmental issues and had fights with the school administration in high school. The events in Seattle [November 1999] were also around that time and with the explosion of the anti-globalisation movement; it helped me a lot to find that and to plug in.
LH: So how did you move from there to thinking about the non-violence issue because it seems like quite a long process.
PG: Right after September 11th 2001, I participated in one of those anti-IMF protests in Washington, DC and there the debate about militancy and non-violence was certainly part of it. The non-violent protest was extremely passive whereas the black bloc protest was much more confrontational. And of course the non-violence debate was something had been going on for a long time over there. Overall the movement there is very pacified and non-violence is the default position. But there’s still strong segments of the movement that debate it and seek to use a diversity of tactics.Right after that, in November of that year, so still shortly after September 11th, I went down to Fort Benn in Georgia to protest against a US military base.
The climate at that time was that on the one hand it was a period of what seemed like a growing, and powerful anti-capitalist movement; this was not so long after the G8 protests in Genoa. And then later on top of that feeling of a growing movement was the extreme repression that came after September 11th. And also except from the anarchists and a few other people there was very few protesting in the US. The US was gearing up for war against Afghanistan.
So we had this protest outside a US military base, and it’s a US military base that trains Latin American officers, which was the School of The Americas. It trains them in torture and control. It’s actually one of the longest running pacifist campaigns in the US right now. It has a yearly protest, and every year a dozen or several dozen people are arrested and sentenced, normally for acts of non-violent civil disobedience.
I was never a pacifist but at that time I was still questioning it for myself. And this was certainly one of the events that drew the most committed pacifists in the US so it wasn’t just a matter of a passive protest all the anti-globalisation or anti-war protests were. It would be what some people might call militant pacifism.
For us the purpose wasn’t just to get on the base to get arrested in order to serve witness or anything like that. Our goal was more to be obstructive. Still I was very, very unsatisfied with the ideas around strategy and tactics and effectiveness within the movement. It seemed for many people that it was self-surviving activity to achieve some sort of moral stature rather than to achieve anything. And there were a lot of very committed people in that movement. People that I respect a lot. But there was also a lot of hypocrisy, a lot of self serving tactics, a lot of patronising, and hidden racism with movements that were in the global south under the guise of solidarity.
That event for me accelerated a lot of the debate about non-violence and diversity of tactics. After the protest at the School of the Americas I went to prison for six months and the people that I met there seemed to be much more realistic, much more intelligent with their ideas of society. They understood that the government and capitalism was waging war against them. And they had no pretensions about non-violence, when they asked how I got arrested and discovered that it was more or less that I got arrested on purpose they laughed at me. And with good reason!
Even though they weren’t active in a radical way themselves they were mostly in prison for emulating capitalism on a smaller scale and in not entirely legal way. But they still had a much more realistic understanding of social struggle, and they’re people who are much more likely to support social struggles but who are completely alienated by the ideas of non-violence. I think that the people who are alienated by violence, to refer to the pacifists cliché, are people who are, as a generalisation, too bourgeoisie to support resistance. To support effective resistance.
That experience provided a major impetus for me. Then basically in 2004 there was an anarchist conference in Ohio. The organisers were students and generally within university it tends to be incredibly passive and liberal. The organisers were giving a so-called ‘non-violence vs violence’ panel discussion which of course is a stacked way of asking the question. I was the only person that they could find to speak not on the side of non-violence. And I prepared some thoughts and did a little bit of research for that. But the panel was structured in a way that it couldn’t get beyond clichés or very basic arguments. I was frustrated after that so I went ahead and wrote a book out of the research I had done. Mostly it was pre-existing arguments and criticisms of non-violence along with some criticisms I hadn’t seen anywhere else with research of recent movement memory and more distant movement history.
LH: There was a first edition of the book, and more recently a second edition came out through Southend Press, was there much development or addition between the two editions?
PG: The first edition came out in 2005, and was self-published. And this last May the second edition came out where I was able to fix up a lot of things that I wanted to and was also able to research some areas that I hadn’t for the first edition which were significant: New histories. New authors that had written about it such as Frantz Fanon; I also added a new chapter that is now the largest chapter in book.
It discusses strategies because its too often left out because tactics are really the lowest rung of the ladder and too often people just use actions habitually without thinking about the strategies that these tactics are supposed to advance. I wanted to include a lot more thinking about strategy and also looking specifically at how the four main type of strategies that are used by proponents of non-violence inevitably lead to dead ends. And I think that’s something that isn’t thought about too much. Hopefully that helps strategic thinking about using a diversity of tactics.
LH: Have you been able to evaluate the kind of impact of the book on the movement?
PG: It’s a really hard thing to evaluate. But I think its got a lot of good attention and I’ve heard from people who have started reading books around it or who have said that they got a lot out of the book. It seems a lot of people who are coming across the book who are influenced by their friends are able to give up on non-violence a lot sooner, because like I said in the US its very pacified and it might sometimes take anarchists years of involvement before they’re finally able to give up on that. I’ve heard from a lot of people, especially a lot of high school students who are just beginning to get involved. It seems that in the libertarian anti-capitalist movement, and all these assorted anti-globalisation movements that the younger people are becoming more critical of non-violence and are not immediately accepting it.
LH: You were talking about 2001 being a zenith and in the subsequent struggle against the war that we’ve lost. Do you think that’s part of why people have started questioning non-violence?
PG: Yes, I think that’s a very large part of it. Yeah, the near total failure of the anti-war movement and the very passive tactics that they’ve adopted has frustrated a lot of people. And a lot of people have started thinking about new options. It’s taken a lot of the wind, and legitimacy, out of the idea of non-violence, which had some inflated legitimacy from the environmental campaigns using non-violent direct action campaigns throughout the 90s in the US.
I also think that even though in some ways its less powerful in defining the narrative of struggle than it was before September 11th its become really apparent that the anarchist movement in the US has been growing steadily and I think that with that steady growth people are starting to realise that they could accomplish more than they are now and starting to look at the reasons that they’re being held back, and of course non-violence would be one of these.
LH: Have you found much difference between America and other parts of the West, i.e. mainland Europe or the UK?
PG: Yes, I’ve seen huge differences even just from country to country. And I think the movements in Europe are really lucky to have so many differences so close by because it gives them the opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t. And I think it allows more strategic thinking because the context is different, and the situation and the histories that you all face from different country to country. And I think that promotes thinking about how aspects of the system promote or prevent certain types of activity. The most similar to the US would be the Netherlands and the UK. In the Mediterranean of course non-violence has very little support. And there’s a lot more in the Netherlands and the UK.
LH: Can you speak briefly about what happened to you in Spain?
PG: Okay, to go back to the beginning I came across to Europe for a year to learn more about the social movements over here. I had wanted to spend more time in Spain so in the end I guess I got what I wanted. I had got to what I thought was the end of my trip and I only had time for about a month in Barcelona, and I was there for three weeks, and one day I went to a little squatters’ protest.
The background to this is that Barcelona has an incredibly strong squatters’ movement, with about 50 social centres and hundreds of houses. But this has been heavily repressed with more evictions each year than there are new squats – even though there’s an impressive number of new squats every year. The police are just evicting more of them than people are able to resquat. There’s also some pretty solid cases of repression that have traumatised a lot of people and drained a lot of resources and energy.
That’s the situation that I wandered into not really being able to speak Spanish, let alone Catalan. So at this little squatters’ protest it was a very friendly event handing out fliers, and someone set off a firework designed to send fliers up into the air. It was intended as a communicative thing to shoot fliers into the air. It was very loud, louder than it should have been. But at the end of the day it was just a noise. But the police used it as a pretext to repression which they’d certainly been looking to do in Barcelona and throughout Spain. They rushed on the protest and arrested one person who was holding a banner who also didn’t have anything to do with this firework. I was observing his arrest just to see if someone was getting arrested and to see if they were beating anyone. The police saw me and decided because of the way that I looked that I was also a squatter or anarchist and they arrested the both of us, and then told the prosecutor initially that people were injured – which wasn’t true – and they called the firework a mortar. They said that it was a paramilitary, or alternatively an urban, guerilla action. And then the investigating judge was shouting that if I’d done something like this in the States they’d throw me in Guantanamo [Bay].
The other person who was arrested was a Spanish citizen and he was released after three days. But the judge sent me to Modello prison with a 30,000 euro bail. The charges for both of us were public disorder with explosives. Because of the clause about it being with explosives it makes it a three year minimum sentence and a six year maximum if found guilty.
This also happened within a broader context of Europol identifying the Spanish anarchist movement along with the Greek and Italian ones as a priority; or as one of the greatest internal terrorist threats. The situation was definitely masked in that language to justify what they were doing. Amazingly after just a few days the collectives in Barcelona all pitched in and were able to come up with the 30,000 euro bail!
I was released on provisional liberty and I have to sign in every two weeks. Simultaneously the national police fabricated a deportation charge against me saying that I was in the country illegally which wasn’t true. They invented a date of entry, and I have the real date of entry stamped in my passport, but during the 48 hours allowed for appeal both me and my passport were locked up so it was impossible to provide the evidence for the appeal. That process is also still going on, through a costly appeals process. And if the truth was actually what those folks were interested in, it could all be cleared up in five minutes when I show my passport to the judge. But naturally it’s just another charge to add precarity to the situation. And the deportation would come with a seven year ban from the European Union if it was implemented. For example to come on this tour I had to get authorisation from the judge so that I have papers to show when I try to go back in to Spain in case they try not to let me back in.
And of course if I didn’t come back then the collectives would lose their 30,000 euro bail. The bail was actually so high that the secretary to the judge apologised to me saying that she had never seen anything like that in all the years that she’d been working there.
The trail isn’t scheduled yet. And it could take two years before it is scheduled. And in that time I basically have to live in Barcelona and sign in every two weeks. And its a pain in the ass but repression is inevitable. Hopefully in the end it will backfire on them and create stronger links between the US and Barcelona. My friends in the US for example have been organising some support.
LH: Other projects
PG: Yeah, I’m still doing a lot of writing. I’m helping in some social centre libraries doing some free English classes and yeah, just staying involved in the movement because its really necessary just for survival on both an emotional and physical level. Because I’m in a precarious situation, for one thing I’m not allowed to work which means that I’m dependent on the squatting scene for accommodation. But then its also very necessary to stay within that strong support network, to fight back, and to help with other cases of repression and to support other campaigns since I have the luxury of being out right now, and to spread the information amongst English speaking movements and just hope that the repression backfires by encouraging more action rather than burning people out or scaring people off.
- Insurrection v.s. Organization: Reflections from Greece on a Pointless Schism by Peter Gelderloos for Infoshop.org (April 2007)
- My Arrest in Spain: The Easy Road from Tourism to Terrorism by Peter Gelderloos for Counterpunch (May 2007).
- Arms and the Movement by Peter Gelderloos for Utne Reader (June 2007).