Protest vs Violence vs Terrorism: “What’s Left?” February 2018, MRR #417

“Today on the Galloping Gourmet we will be preparing smoke bomb flambeau.”

Scott stood over the grimy stove in the shotgun shack off Ventura Avenue holding a beer in one hand and a saucepan in the other. He had that rakish, Graham Kerr attitude down, although his hippy hair and attire belied his bon vivant pose. Tom and I stood over a tiny formica table piled with a large sack of granulated sugar, an equally large smoked glass bottle of sodium nitrate, several boxes of “strike anywhere” matches, more pots, pans, and bowls, and a copy of Abbey Hoffman’s Steal This Book open to the section on “People’s Chemistry.” Scott directed our work with a wave of the pan and a swig of beer.

“First, thoroughly mix together six parts saltpeter, otherwise known as potassium nitrate, with four parts sugar. Sodium nitrate may be used in a pinch. Then pour the mixture into a medium pan and place it over a very low flame. Heat it slowly and carefully until it starts to melt and blend into a plastic like substance.”

Scott was gay, although that word wasn’t in common use in January, 1971. He’d walked around one of Jake and Connie’s raging parties wearing a colorful paisley cravat. When people commented “nice ascot” to him, he’d smile, wink, swivel his hips, and reply “why, thank you.” Scott had been the one to suggest lining the pan with aluminum foil so the concoction could be removed intact. And as the materials for our smoke bomb liquified and turned brown under my attention, Scott said over my shoulder: “Subtle, a little bittersweet, not blowsy and extrovert. Perfect.”

Tom had been breaking the tops off wooden matches which we intended to embed into the substance once it gelled but was still pliable. That way our smoke bomb wouldn’t require a fuse but could be set off simply by striking it against some hard surface. We intended to detonate the device inside a public meeting of the Ventura City Council as they feinted discussing whether to ratify the People’s Peace Treaty. Negotiated between the North Vietnamese and representatives of the American peace movement, the People’s Peace Treaty didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being ratified, let alone acted upon by either the city of Ventura or the United States government. It was a propaganda instrument and a device for mobilizing anti-war support. Our smoke bomb was intended to protest the farce of disingenuously discussing peace while bombing the hell out of the Vietnamese people. However, as Tom and I wedged match heads into the hardening mass, our efforts were a little too close set. One match scraped another, a spark flew, and the whole thing ignited. Scott grabbed the exploding pan, ran into the backyard, and held the fireworks at arms length as a mushroom smoke cloud roared skyward.

We were greatly impressed by the volume of smoke from our inadvertent test run, and we had enough ingredients left to whip up another batch. But we never got a chance to use our second bomb because the city council meeting was guarded by police who frisked everyone as they entered. Our plans had been leaked, perhaps because we’d done our planning out in the open, in the office of the local Unitarian Church with the minister typing out the church newsletter in the same room. When a member of the congregation entered, heard what we were talking about, and asked the minister what the hell we were planning, the minister said, without looking up from his typing: “I hear nothing, I see nothing, I know nothing!”

I’ve told this story a couple of times before in this column. But unlike a former columnist who was fired in part because he kept repeating his columns almost verbatim, I’ve taken pains to make this retelling original, lively, and interesting. I’m trying to make two points with it, the first being the difference between truth and fact. This story is entirely true but only partially factual, and to illustrate that issue, consider the story of Charles Drew. A black American physician and surgeon before the second World War who isolated plasma from blood, he was involved in a fatal automobile accident in North Carolina in 1950. The myth is that Drew died as a result of having been refused a blood transfusion due to the color of his skin when, in fact, the accident was so severe he didn’t survive. The myth about Drew’s death was not factual, but it was true with respect to race relations in the South during that time.

My story above was not factual in that Scott was not in my original telling. I substituted him because I recently learned that the person upon whom the character Scott is based died. The story however is true, and so the problematic relationship between truth and fact remains. Despite the common meaning of a fact as logic itself, we never have a fact, only evidence for a fact, and that evidence implies a truth. And truth is never self-evident, but can lead via suggestion and inspiration to the facts. Yet facts, like data or statistics, can lie much as the truth, as myth or story, can lie. So, it’s complicated, much more so in this post-truth era.

Second, my story is meant to illustrate the relationship between protest, violence, and terrorism. One of my favorite quotes is from pacifist Marianne Williamson who said: “Birth is violent, whether it be the birth of a child or the birth of an idea.” I’m tempted to say that all life involves violence, beginning with one form of life devouring another form of life in order to survive. Non-violent crime is a misnomer because it usually involves some form of “property crime” resulting in damage to another person’s property, often in addition to emotional harm to the family and loved ones of the non-violent criminal. And the practice of non-violence, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, has invariably resulted in extreme violence visited by the part of the powers-that-be and sometimes the general public against those same non-violent protesters.

We certainly believed in the ’60s that while harming living beings was violence, property destruction was not. Yet back when we were planning to smoke bomb our city council as a form of protest we realized that we were engaged in a certain low level of violence, and that violent protest wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The first smoke bomb went off with a huge chemical discharge of heat and flame, so our tiny group was rightly concerned that anyone sitting near the device when we set it off might be injured, even as we thought nothing of the panic our bomb might cause in the meeting attendees. Many in the Ventura police and city council would have considered what we wanted to do not just violence, but terrorism. The tendency to treat all protest, not just violent protest, as a form of terrorism has only grown since. From the Right’s misplaced efforts to have antifa—which is an organizing strategy against fascism—declared a domestic terrorist organization, to the government’s heavy handed efforts to prosecute the J20 anti-inauguration protesters with multiple felonies involving decades in prison if convicted speaks to the rightwing effort to see all forms of protest and violence, especially on the Left, as political terrorism.

Political terrorism, whether domestic or international, is the use of violence to achieve certain political results, whether frightening a population or cowing a leadership into doing the terrorists’ bidding, softening up the terrorized for a takeover. Terrorism is never terror for terror’s sake. Despite not considering our protest overtly violent, let alone terrorist, we were trying to make a political point, no matter how misguided. And politics has everything to do with how protest, violence, and terrorism are defined as well as acted upon. I wrote last column that the “right” to free speech is a fight for power, pure and simple. So is what is considered protest, violence, and terrorism, and how we deal with them. Right now the government and the Right are trying to criminalize most protest and call it domestic terrorism. We need to make our protests against the government and the Right as widespread and creative as possible.

And we’re itching for that fight.

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