Radical Geometry: A Constructive Critique of the Radical March on May Day

photo by Joyofresistance

by Gina Ronning

OK radicals–it’s time to sit down and have a serious conversation on what it means to have strategy and tactics in a political action. First, for those more timid about challenging the status quo I feel it imperative to remind our citizenry that despite local ordinances the right to peacefully assemble absent of a permit or fee is a constitutional right. If the powers that be have changed the law so that this is not the case, then in terms of nonviolent struggle this would be considered an unjust law in which we are rightful, if not dutiful to challenge.

The purposes of this post is not to get in to semantics over what defines a radical or not, however, let’s be clear about one thing: there are parades, and then there are protests. A call for a diversity of tactics implies that both of these are good and needed, and each serves to fulfill different needs for different groups. The parade is a community-building event, it shows solidarity, unity and in large numbers its very presence can have a tremendous impact over particular political and social outcomes. Very little strategy is required for such an event, as it is bought, paid for and organized by both the community and the State.

Protests on the other hand, directly seek to engage with very specific unjust laws and or practices. Protests are not safe, simply because there will always be an inherent risk when any form of direct confrontation occurs, particularly between activists and institutions of power. Nonviolent struggle doesn’t mean the absence of violence, it refers to the willingness to accept the risk of such violence brought on by the oppressors as we seek to engage and have our voices heard, as well as the willingness to refrain from committing acts of violence towards the oppressor. Whether one agrees with this philosophy or not is a separate debate, the point I am making is that we must not confuse the nature of parades and the nature of protests.

By nature, “the protest” seeks to disrupt the status quo. Therefore, any law, policy or ordinance, which would seek to minimize this disruption, will forever be at odds with its constitutionality and the reasons why “the protest” even exists! The state will always seek to defend and preserve its own interests, and “the protest” will always seek to disrupt these interests. For us “radicals” the concept of obtaining a permit to create such a disruption is not only counterproductive, but endangers the foundations of freedom and democracy. First, the desire and ability to march in the streets without a permit is NOT a radical idea, but it is made out to be so by those who would seek to be disrupted by actions that are indeed clearly intended to disrupt the daily routine of the system. Secondly, criminalizing acts of democracy (such as marching without a permit) is the exact type of tactic used by power to de-legitimize causes of social justice.

The radical march on May Day was only radical in the sense that we intended to exercise our freedom despite the risk of excessive use of force and abuse by Portland Police. With that being said, if we are going to engage in protests which seek to challenge the issue of permitted versus unpermitted, we must also be willing to engage in coordinated strategies and tactics that will bring fruitful results of such actions. This did not happen on May Day for this specific action.

Perhaps it is a general lack of knowledge, a generational gap, perhaps it is the level of mistrust and/or the paranoia that permeates all forms of security cultures? What ever it is, the knowledge on how to conduct effective and strategic street maneuvers has clearly been misplaced among “radicals”. I consider myself a radical, so here it goes…

As I reflect on the events surrounding the “radical” un-permitted march, I witnessed many things. Some observations were hopeful and uplifting. I saw unity and collaboration among a diverse group of individuals in moments of high intensity. What was clearly lacking however was an understanding of how to maneuver and engage with police formations. There was also a lack of willingness, and or responsiveness on behalf of what some might refer to as ‘organizers’ to include a diversity of tactics, and in diversity of tactics I am referring to the coordinated strategies involving tactical march formations and responses. I really believe that this was not due to a lack of interest, but rather a lack of knowledge and experience. Most people were afraid and unclear on what to do, while others were over reactionary and instead of being strategic allowed emotions to flow in a manner, which resulted in needless arrests and unnecessary confrontations.

Police were intense as usual — this is nothing new. Their approach was classic, and predictable, and represented the exact same response they always have. On cue one could predict how many would arrive, when, where and how they would employ, and yet despite this predictability, protesters were surprised and caught off guard each time. This is a very fixable issue but it requires skill, discipline, control and leadership. Leadership for me is not a dirty word, particularly when it can come in a variety of forms, even if only in a unified understanding of a tactical plan, and those willing to assist in its fruition.

Effective street tactics require calm in the eye of the storm. It requires coordination, and the restraint of knee jerk reactions. It requires the employment of well thought out tactical maneuvers, which disarm and disrupt the usual response of state control. It’s not about being antagonistic, it’s about achieving the desired goal. It is also about expending the least amount of energy and resources as possible. You don’t have to be a great military strategist, but at the very least, you need to know your goals, your tools, your participants, your environment, and your obstacles.

There are many definitions of what it means to be “radical”. For some it means dressing in black, and taking on the persona of the famed black bloc approach. However if one wants to take on this persona, it might suit them well to actually be trained and knowledgeable in black bloc strategy, and also have the ability to facilitate this action among others who are not knowledgeable. To be radical is not in the color of clothes you wear, or in your level of disdain for the system, how loud you can yell at the police, but in how one engages with the status quo to achieve the desired results.

Inexperience and lack of knowledge in direct actions and or protests, and taking others in to a situation of direct confrontation with police is irresponsible and needlessly jeopardizes activists and community members, not to mention its complete ineffectiveness in getting desired results, such as maintaining an entire march route without being bullied by the police. For a march that was intended to be “radical” we spent most of our time on the sidewalks, if I wanted to do this I would have chosen the parade.

Since I am not one to complain without taking action, I will be organizing a workshop on what I will call “Radical Geometry”. I welcome collaborators who have knowledge to share. This form of knowledge needs to be shared. Find me if you’re interested, or come to the workshop, or do a workshop of your own. It will get posted on all known calendars and will happen sometime in late May or very early June. I am no expert in the traditional sense of the word, but my years as an activist and observer have equipped me with what I consider to be basic street smarts, and simple yet effective formations, maneuvers, and tactics that can assist any activist who wishes to exercise their freedom of speech absent of governmental/corporate fees and permission. We must empower our community to not only engage in actions, but to engage in them well informed. This isn’t about being radical: it’s about being effective.

  10 comments for “Radical Geometry: A Constructive Critique of the Radical March on May Day

  1. Worthless
    May 9, 2012 at 3:50 PM

    Bravo! Far too often I see Occupy leading marches, heading back, and slapping each other on the back. “We achieved a lot today!!”

    What did we achieve on M1? Did we bring in new people to the occupation? No. We alienated more of the ‘in the middle’ people who don’t think shouting at police is effective. Did we force our agenda through? Nope. M2, everything was exactly the same. Exactly. As far as I can tell, all we achieved on M1 is getting a few of our people arrested, and gotten ourselves even further opposed to the police. For those who think we live in a police state now, just wait until OPDX goes from ‘hassle’ to ‘problem’.

    Far too often Occupy events resemble mindless flailing about rather then a protest. We have done great and effective things before. “Move Your Money Day” was a brilliant and effective move. Occupy TriMet was another smart protest. If Occupy really wants to make change, then we got to get smarter. ‘Cause right now we are making change. We are giving reasons to increase police budgets, alienating the people we are supposed to represent, and buying into the labels that they are giving us. We are changing Portland. And not for the better.

  2. BONK!
    May 9, 2012 at 3:56 PM

    +1. Better defensive street tactics are sorely needed.

  3. Anonymous
    May 9, 2012 at 6:29 PM

    Remind us again how the person who met with the chief of police after the Oakland solidarity protest in November, and agreed in principle to a code of conduct based on police demands, is somehow qualified to offer advice on a diversity of tactics? I don’t care what tactics were employed on May Day, the cops were intent on attacking us. For every defensive move we make, they are willing to escalate force in order to counter it. More communication and coordination is obviously important to mitigating their effectiveness. But there is no magic answer to avoiding repression besides staying home or capitulating to the police, which was Gina’s M.O. prior to this sudden change of heart.

    • Jackie
      May 9, 2012 at 8:35 PM


  4. Anonymous
    May 9, 2012 at 10:31 PM

    I would like to say that I agree with this post for the most part. However it has been a long time since I have seen that many people willing to take an action like that. Usually may day is just a parade and that’s it and May Day started as a radical day lets not forget this. I think some credit should be said for getting that many people out on the streets ready to push the limits in order to take our rights back that have been taken away like the idea of having to get a permit to protest.
    With that being said yes I think we could of been more effective with more people trained, and knowing what our goals and objectives were. I am glad to see that there is more willingness to have a diversity of tactics that was the big battle for so many years most of the old left just wanted to do activism in the way the system allowed by voting, petitions and getting a permit to march and would turn in anyone who did not want to do these things. Now that there is more acceptance of this the conversation should turn to what are the most effective direct actions for what situations.

  5. john gardner
    May 10, 2012 at 6:57 AM

    I think the most effective protest (recently) was the students that got pepper sprayed in Davis. They peacefully sat in protest and the world saw what the police did. I didn’t attend the unpermitted march on M1, I would have but it wasn’t on the calender. I watched all the video the next day and it seemed like it was occupy vs. the cops, there seemed to be no other focus or issue except let’s fight the cops. I think the cops won because all the other reasons for marching were forgotten in the confrontations. I felt like the 1% had found our number. All our energy wasted on the cops. We were sucked into a situation that had the appearance of something we are trying to end in this violent world, and just what the cops are defending. I was so glad when the anti-police brutality march was put on hold. Don’t waste any more energy fighting the cops. They will win every time, your playing right into their hands and they represent the biggest bunch of killers and thieves every assembled. I’m all for civil disobedience but it needs to focused on an issue and if there are any mistakes made, the cops need to make them, like in Davis.

    • rothstei
      May 10, 2012 at 12:37 PM

      While I agree with some sentiments in your comment, I think “let’s fight the cops” is quite false. There was no fighting of the cops. While numerous marchers were charged with assaulting officers, the video evidence shows that the police were the one’s doing all the assaulting. Protesters were beaten with sticks, punched, hit with bikes, put into pain submission holds, had their hair yanked, and their faces slammed to the pavement. Nothing even slightly resembling this was done to the cops by the protesters. While yes, several things could have been done on the part of the protesters to make the outcome of this march better, it was not “occupy vs. the cops”. It was “cops beat the crap out of people”.

      • Anonymous
        May 10, 2012 at 8:34 PM

        Change comes through force either peacefully or non peacefully. Which one will be more effective is the question we need to start asking ourselves.

      • john gardner
        May 11, 2012 at 5:43 AM

        You are so right, it was “cops beat up occupy”, and it was wrong for police to beat, tackle and arrest anyone for jaywalking. It looked like some of the arrested protesters were on the sidewalks. I’m sure it’s going to happen a lot more. But why did it happen? Were the cops on a rampage that day? Did anyone verbally abuse (a form of violence) the police that day? And even if they did, the cops shouldn’t be incited to violence by a few nasty words. But they are. I wasn’t there so I don’t know. I did attend the permitted march and rally and heard the chant, “Fuck the cops” quite a few times and a person should have a right to express themselves without being beaten.
        What needs to be asked is, “what are we trying to accomplish by our actions?” “If I am going to be arrested, how will it advance the objectives of creating a better world?” I’ve never been arrested while protesting, but when it happens, I want it to really count. I want it to bring attention to some issue. I want it to be clever and strategic. I want to be innocent of anything that might insight the arresting officers to brutalize me. I want it to be so well coordinated with the other protesters that if I am beaten, there will be a high resolution video camera recording every swing of the police baton. On that glorious day (lol), I don’t want my civil disobedience to bring any harm to my fellow occupiers, but as much disruption as possible to “business as usual” for this corrupt system.
        My favorite march in Portland was the unpermitted F29. Remember when we were in Mordor and the mounted cops got kettled by the crowd. It looked for a few seconds like things were going to explode, but the protesters raised their fists and chanted, “peace, peace, peace ……”, and everyone calmed down. Some one had gotten into Wells Fargo and chained themselves to the desk of some executive, they were arrested making a statement without endangering anyone else. We didn’t end ALEC that day but it seems that ALEC is on the run.

  6. .paul
    May 12, 2012 at 4:07 AM

    I entered the people’s march at 5th and pioneer sq. I agree strategy is needed, should be fun, uplifting and very creative chaos. Pioneer place was impromptu and awesome, a lot of citizens and shop keepers were laughing and engaged. We chanted, were heard and left w/o incident, very cool.

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