Violence and Activism: Five Variations
Does violence have a place in art? Whether it does, it has featured to a growing extent in the “actions,” or protest-performances, of Petr Pavlensky. The Russian-born provocateur first made a sensation of himself when, in 2012, he sewed his lips shut and stood in public protest of the jailing of members of Pussy Riot. (They were convicted of hooliganism for their punk demonstration, within the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, against the Russian Orthodox Church’s support of then-candidate Vladimir Putin.)
The following year, assistants laid his nude body, wrapped within a tangled nest of barbed wire, before the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg. This action was intended to protest the Russian state’s turning its citizens into “gutless and securely guarded cattle, which can only consume, work, and reproduce.” He was left to be pried free by police.
The year after, Pavlensky sat, (again) in the nude, before Lenin’s Tomb in Moscow’s Red Square, with a nail driven through his scrotum and into the paving beneath. Pavlensky declared that a “naked artist, looking at his testicles nailed to the cobblestone is a metaphor of apathy, political indifference, and fatalism of Russian society.”
Two years and as many actions later, he aimed the violence typical of his performances away from himself and towards property. Approaching the Lubyanka Building, infamous headquarters of the KGB (and now its successor, the FSB), Pavlensky doused the main door in gasoline, set it aflame with a cigarette lighter, and awaited his arrest. He repeated the action in Paris, where, in 2017, he set alight the windows of an office of the Bank of France.
Pavlensky’s transgressive pageantry confirms that carefully fashioned, vaguely symbolic violence, directed at oneself or at property, cannot often fail to provoke widespread shock, and even capture international attention. But how long, in any case, does the attention stand to last? And, if it is not all just for show, how many acts of deliberate, meaningful change does Pavlensky stand to inspire?
And yet, he has placed no body but his own in harm’s way, and damaged only property that belongs to formidable institutions — which is to say, to those who can more than afford the bill for repairs. On those grounds, Pavlensky’s methods lie outside the sphere of truly intolerable violence. But for his eye-catching theatrics to have the potential to achieve real political purchase, he must do more than simply disturb his audience — by shaking its constituents into a state of greater awareness, imparting on them a greater impetus to act.
“Terrorist” is a loaded word, the connotations of which are subject to time and place. It meant something altogether different, at its birth, to the French citizen during Maximilien Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, than to the bourgeois of turn-of-the-century Europe, harried by insurrectionary anarchists’ “propaganda of the deed.” It meant something different to Ireland during three bloody decades of Troubles, than to near-contemporaneous West Germany, then in the homicidal grip of the Red Army Faction. And It meant something different to the world before, and after, the events of the eleventh of September.
Between activist Scott Crow, on one hand; and the F.B.I. (which has a file open on Crow, who has never been charged, that is more than a decade old), on the other, there is a similar disagreement as to the scope of that heavy word. The agency suspects that the man is a terrorist, while the man maintains that he is nothing of the sort.
Crow, fifty-two, is a self-described anarchist, organizer (of such initiatives as the Common Ground Collective, which offered relief to victims of Hurricane Katrina), and activist. He also openly endorses the use of violence. “I’ve had death threats. I’ve had guns drawn on me. I’ve drawn guns on fascists. I’ve been in altercations. I’ve smoke-bombed places. I’ve done a myriad of things to try and stop fascism and its flow over the years,” he told CNN earlier this year. “In anti-fascist work,” so called, “a lot of times we’d end up in scuffles and conflicts with neo-Nazis,” who were armed, he remarked in conversation with the CBC’s Piya Chattopadhyay, in 2017. “I would hit them with a bat occasionally.”
Crow justifies his willingness to engage violently in such skirmishes as a means to deter “fascists,” broadly speaking, from their openly endorsing their creed. “For them to show up in public to speak about genocide and hate,” he claims, “it raises the cost.” Though to what extent such armed, civilian counter-counterdemonstration has sequestered, or can sequester, the proliferation of hatred is not clear. Nor is the efficacy of his fighting the exponents of violence with little besides the very instrument of their choice. For violence alone, without an appeal to principles, can only beget more of the same. Can Crow do much of anything to stop fascism, all but the quintessence of violence, while aping the petty violence that characterizes his purported enemies?
It is a city of looming towers and chasmic thoroughfares, veritable canyons of concrete and glass. In Hong Kong, there are more skyscrapers — three-hundred and fifty-three — than in any other city on earth. There are also, therefore, more shadows.
What has transpired in the shadows of these colossal steel pillars these last months is nothing short of historic. Without any central organizing leadership, millions of demonstrators have descended, as if in a fluid mass, on Hong Kong’s riverine streets and roadways. Thousands have marched, chanted, and picketed; gone on strike, formed human chains, and disrupted public life; vandalized, wrecked, and beaten; been beaten, maimed, and jailed. Thousands have risked their livelihoods, even their very lives. Eight have died, all at their own hand, in protest.
A clear consequence of the protests’ being decentralized is that many strategies and interests, without being vetted, discussed, or approved, have fallen under the anything-goes banner of one amorphous mass. Protestors who advocate non-violent disobedience have marched alongside throwers of petrol-bombs and smashers of windows. Some have carried placards, while others have wielded truncheons. Brutality has been exercised at times intentionally; at others, indiscriminately; and by who, and against whom, it has not always been easy to tell — though far easier to suspect. Further, there is but loose (and often only retroactive) agreement on what means are justified, and what ends are to be settled before the demonstrations are deemed a success. In a crowd without a leader, the mass, if not the mob, rules.
The risk is that, in escalating the number and severity of violent acts, Hong Kong’s fighters for freedom bring down upon themselves, and all Hong Kong besides, the wrath of their nominal sovereign. Theirs is one, to put it almost indelicately, not favourably disposed to dissent. Only thirty years since (in bleak contrast to the contemporaneous mounting of the Autumn of Nations across Europe, east to the crumbling Soviet Union), demonstrators in their untold numbers fell to the rifles and tanks of Beijing. And there is no telling how patient its present-day rulers will remain before such a moment repeats itself. In that dreary light, the phrase “You’re the ones who taught me peaceful protests don’t work,” seen spray-painted about Hong Kong, seems at once righteous and rash. After all, who are but a minority to take to such violent measures, without consent, on the part of millions? Would that justice could be sought in Hong Kong without summoning the military might, already at the gates, of the CCP.
Roger Hallam knows that his time, and ours, is short. Hence the urgency of his woeful message to the inhabitants of the warming earth — who, without prompt, sweeping change to their collective habits, may find themselves amid the worst and widest threat to human life in history. Hence his fury, aimed at the abetters of the ongoing Sixth Extinction and coeval Climate and Ecological Emergency.
Hallam, who is fifty-three, is one of a pair of activists to have founded Extinction Rebellion (XR). “[XR] is humbly following in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King,” Hallam wrote in The Guardian last May. “We are simply rediscovering what people do when they have had enough of failure and really want to make a difference.” Holding true to the principles of that tradition, he insisted that “[we] have to stay strictly nonviolent.”
How well has Hallam lived up to his word? The answer to this question lies with his activities carried out under the banner of Heathrow Pause, so called to distance itself from XR. From September 13th to 15th, Hallam and others belonging to Heathrow Pause were arrested in advance of their (forewarned) flying of drones within Heathrow Airport’s five-kilometre “exclusion zone,” with the aim of halting flights to and from London’s principal airfield.
“This is what the climate emergency means,” Hallam proclaimed, before his arrest, to The Guardian. “A question of life or death. A question of extinction — everyone gone for ever. The only appropriate response now is rebellion. This means demanding an immediate cancellation of the third runway at Heathrow. Stop this planned monstrosity and we will stop flying drones.” He went on: “The consequence of not rebelling is indescribable suffering and death for billions of people. The consequence of rebellion is a chance to avoid the worst. Rebellion means mass economic disruption and deep personal sacrifice. I am a rebel. That’s why I am flying drones at Heathrow.”
Few if any drones flew successfully at Heathrow. Most either were apprehended before they could be launched, or malfunctioned. (Which may or may not have been the consequence of signal-jamming on the part of the authorities, whether the airport’s or the law’s.) Moreover, no scheduled flights were grounded. But the threat that the drones could have posed, had they in fact flown — was it real? (In the case that it was, it is well and good for Hallam to speak of “deep personal sacrifice,” to which he is by all means welcome. But to volunteer others for sacrifice without their consent is not only unproductive, but immoral.) Or was the stunt designed merely to achieve (as per XR’s tactics) the arrest of those involved — no fewer than nineteen would-be disruptors?
These beg yet further questions: how far, in the name of life on earth, ought we to go? If extinction or a thousand-year dark age are truly in the cards, what acts are we ready to commit, in good conscience or ill, to stave off the worst? The legacy of today’s struggle on behalf of the climate, and the shape that it will give to the future, rest upon their answers. Whatever we do, our deeds, with our planet, will remain to those not yet born; either as examples — or as warnings.
“Nothing was your own” in the totalitarian state of Oceania, the setting of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; “except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.” Yet small as was this islet of grey matter, it offered room enough to gain a foothold of resistance. “Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”
Twenty-two-year-old Aslan Sagutdinov must have felt a similar conviction as, one May day in his native Kazakhstan, he stood alone in public, holding a placard as barren and white as the day it was made — and, for no other reason, was arrested.
Sagutdinov, though his sign was blank, might as well have scrawled his message in tall, unmistakable letters. Even the state police understood his meaning well enough; and, by arresting him, did him the favour of proving it right. What is yet more absurd is the insistence, on the part of the local head of police, that Sagutdinov’s transgression lay not with his holding a blank sign, but with his publicly suggesting that “there is no democracy and free speech in Kazakhstan” — as blatant an example of doublespeak, and of hypocrisy, as has ever been uttered. Orwell himself could not have conjured one better.
As Sagutdinov’s inspired deed all too plainly demonstrates, little is needed to show, or shame, tyranny’s tremulous insecurity. With ingenuity and audacity, much can be said in defence of freedom. This, in spite of such a despotic ban as Kazakhstan’s, not just on free speech, but on any speech. And all without recourse to violence. Perhaps the sign that points towards one vision of dissent’s future, too, is blank.