It happens often enough: peaceful demonstrations that end up with a violent confrontation between some demonstrators and the police. The government (as well as some of the peaceful demonstrators) would blame it on ‘anarchists’ for infiltrating their demonstration and causing violence.
Well, sometimes the ones fighting the police are real anarchists, while on other occasions, they are just plain hooligans. What is the difference, and why should you care?
One obvious difference is what they wear. Anarchists wear black, and they often cover their faces with ski masks or something. Hooligans don’t usually wear black. They often have the ‘gangsta’ look to them, with the hoods of their jackets up. Anarchists tend to be more ‘punk’, with colored hair etc, while hooligans are more often skinheads.
Ideological and Political Differences
But there are ideological and political differences too. Anarchism is a left political ideology that believes that society would work better without the ‘state’. That people should organize themselves thru ‘civil society’ (in its broad meaning, not only ‘NGOs’) alone. The ‘state’ is the dictatorship of the capitalist ruling elite, which has a monopoly of violence and power to suppress the rest. It has soldiers, police, the courts etc to do that, and these are instruments of oppression.
Hooligans, on the other hand, are either rightists, racists, or even nihilists who are against everything. They do not espouse an alternative society, they just hate the one they are in.
Many anarchists live in collectives, mostly in abandoned houses; they live simple, alternative lives. They do not have an organizational structure, but anarchist collectives cooperate with each other by direct consultation. For 99% of the time, they are peaceful, normal members of society.
Hooligans are organized into street gangs, in a system where the most violent ones are the leaders. When they are not rioting, they engage in petty crimes.
Anarchists engage in violence for political reasons. For them, violence is done against the instruments of the state (the police), and sometimes on symbols of capitalism (e.g. bank offices). They fight the police as a way of challenging the state’s monopoly of violence. They cover their faces as a sign of protest (since in Germany and some other countries, covering your face in public will get you arrested). When they go violent, they attack the police at their strongest point, and make sure that they are in front of the demonstration, so that nobody gets caught in between. They attack weak points of the police only when they are trying to break through barricades that protect something like a WTO meeting.
Hooligans engage in violence because it is fun, and also because they can get something (literally) from it. They loot shops and burn private cars. They cover their faces to avoid arrest. They often strike when there are no police around. And they don’t care who gets caught in between; they often throw rocks from within the ranks of peaceful protesters.
I don’t share the Anarchist analysis of society, nor their vision. But I have a lot of respect for them. In 1991, I was with a ‘Study Tour of Eastern Europe’ organized for Filipinos. Among our hosts were the anarchists (‘autonomen’) of East Berlin. The East Berlin anarchists showed us a video which showed their recent assault on the neo-Nazis’ headquarters in Berlin. The neo-Nazis had been terrorizing Berlin’s Asians, who were mostly Vietnamese whom the former communist government had brought in to work there. The neo-Nazis attacked all Asians they saw, including Japanese and Filipino.
It would have been scary for a Filipino to walk in Berlin in those days with the neo-Nazis on the loose. But the anarchists attacked the neo-Nazis directly, while the police and authorities had just stood by. The anarchists assault on the neo-Nazi headquarters in Berlin forced the neo-Nazis to permanently withdraw from the city. When they were showing us around, I felt extremely safe – no neo-Nazi will dare harass me then. I learned not only that anarchists are migrant-friendly and environmentally conscious; they were also deeply aware of the history and culture of their city.
Now let us get back to the question of violence during demonstrations, especially in the case of Occupy Wall Street type of protests. It is possible to discuss with anarchists, and explain to them why they should not engage in violence. If your reasoning is valid, they will accept it. Or, they may convince you to include their violence as part of the demonstration’s program, it all depends. They may even help in policing your ranks against infiltration by hooligans.
But if the violence is caused by hooligans, the demonstration’s organizers should simply apprehend them and turn them over to the police. Talking to hooligans will get you nowhere.