On Saturday the 8th of December, York Anarchists organised & participated in the picketing of Starbucks, the tragically ubiquitous conglomerate of white collar criminality & crass American consumer capitalism. We were joined throughout the day by other disgruntled York residents, students and a wide variety of socialist types. Thanks and love to everybody who turned up and made the day’s action so enjoyable – let’s use the huge boost to our morale Saturday gave us to re-establish a place in the street for collective action, critical dialogue and community participation.
A lot has been written, both in support and as dismissal, of the value of UK Uncut national days of action, and rather than merely engaging in a tired slagging off of the reformists/utopians (take your pick), I’d like to try to unpack what it was about our rather fluffy tactics that I consider to be a starting point for encouraging a culture of direct action in our city. Why was our picket so entertaining? Why did my face hurt from smiling so much afterwards? Does activism always need to be a matter of serious business? What was so different about what we did on Saturday that created a sustained space for the perpetuation of radical politics, that so many have sought for so long on similar actions?
Upfront, I’d encourage a quick visit to the PropertyIsTheft blog on Libcom, which did an excellent job of applying a class struggle analysis to the call out, and also means that a rehashing of any of those same points here would be redundant. It’s not the purpose of this post to explicitly advocate any particular set of tactics over the other – whether they are militant or liberal – but rather the point is to try to glean a few lessons from Saturday’s action. What did we do right? What worked? What can we do better? I would also like to emphasise (without being naively triumphant) that the energy around UK Uncut represents an opportunity for us as anarchists & organisers that we would be pretty thick to ignore.
In other cities across Britain, the national day of action against Starbucks seemed to reflect a pretty familiar formula: assemble; attempt to occupy the space (for a short term photo opportunity, in a way that seems to me to be little more than tokenistic); three word chants; get moved outside by the plod; get cold; repeatedly decline to purchase a worthless Trotskyite rag; go home. I don’t mean that as dismissively as it reads, we have all participated in countless similar actions in the past, and I’m a firm believer that doing something (as opposed to nothing at all) is always the preferable course of action. What I’m actually suggesting is that there is a better way forward, that we need to be willing to adapt our tactics in a way that preserves their integrity whilst making them publicly accessible.
There were a few reasons the aforementioned formula wasn’t replicated in York. Firstly, as a matter of sheer practicality, we lack the numbers to engage in a sustained occupation (such as the impressive show of community solidarity from Islington, with participants from a variety of organisations unaffiliated to UK Uncut, such as DPAC) or militant demonstration (such as the joint A-Fed/SolFed event held in Brighton). York is a small city, with a small core of people at the heart of its activist community, and that necessarily influences the way we think about conducting actions.
Secondly, York is lucky enough to have an active chapter of Food Not Bombs, with enough human power & practical resources to sustain a stall on a busy Saturday for several hours.
As a conversation starter it’s pretty hard to beat, and the novelty of giving away free coffee in front of Starbucks was far too amusing to not go through with. There was, however, a far more important contribution from Food Not Bombs than just the acquisition & equitable distribution of teh lulz: to loudly, proudly & publicly proclaim the principle that the means to life *should* and *can be* communal. Indeed, if I take away one thing from the Starbucks picket, it is that most people (to my surprise I’ll admit), respond hugely positively to watching such a principle put in action.
Right from the moment of our arrival, there was a significant amount of interest from the hordes of Christmas shoppers in what we were up to. Even our long-time Food Not Bombs activist was taken aback by how overwhelmingly positive the response was. It would be fair to say that a lot of this was simple curiosity – ‘what the fuck are they doing with those tables and all that cake?’ – but this initial novelty was quickly transformed into amusement, enthusiasm & declared support when we explained who we were and why we were there. Not did only people stop for a free drink, but they stopped to talk, in some cases to participate in the demonstration itself, and overwhelmingly, to contribute what they could spare to IDAS (Independent Domestic Abuse Services, a North Yorks women’s refuge & crisis centre – we raised 121 pounds in about four hours).
This is not to say that York Anarchists think the act of handing out free baked goods is in of itself explicitly revolutionary. It is not, and to pretend that radicalism is as simple as (enabling) passive consumer choice would be to replicate the same kind of wishful thinking we find objectionable in liberals & various other reformist tendencies. It is anecdotal, granted, but in my rather extensive experience of trying to hand people leaflets about one cause or another, I’ve never witnessed such willingness by members of the public to stop and engage in a discussion. If we are looking to communicate our ideas, values & principles to members of the general public, we have to be able to do this kind of thing on a routine basis.
The fact that we were offering tea & flapjack rather than tepid socialist boilerplate went a long way in creating this opportunity for dialogue. But I also think that, rather than the all too often joyless humdrum of standing outside shops with flags and leaflets, what we were doing looked like it was fun. That the stall was placed a bit cheekily made the atmosphere buoyant from the outset, and when you look like you’re enjoying yourself, people will come to you in a way that they might not otherwise. Sure, any picket or action would have captured a measure of public attention, but we weren’t interested in merely creating spectacle, we were (and as anarchists should be) interested in extending the conversation beyond the raising of a big middle finger to an exploitative corporate behemoth, supplementing the novelty & creativity of our picket with critical dialogue & politicisation of the public.
The presence of anarchos (but not just anarchists, in fairness) on and around the stall meant that instead of (however well intentioned) moralising about unpaid corporate taxes, the conversation was focused instead on how Starbucks (rather than being a ‘bad apple’) is absolutely representative of the exploitation of people & resources inherit in capitalism itself. Tax justice was always going to be a talking point, given our participation in a national day of action on just that issue, but such critiques amount to little other than hollow tokenism when they’re not connected to a broader theory of (to borrow a phrase) why shit is fucked up and bullshit.
Given the broad focus of the conversations we were having outside, there could have also been a huge space here for engaging in dialogue with the workers inside Starbucks. Through a blend of circumstance and fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants experimentation, we neglected to exploit this opportunity as well as we could or should have. It does appear that we were hardly alone in this oversight – the inability or unwillingness on behalf of UK Uncut to prominently highlight worker’s struggle in its social media campaigning, press releases etc has been a major bone of contention amongst fellow anarchists – which is not to excuse, merely to suggest that some lessons need to be heeded.
If anything from our sod Starbucks street party needs a drastic improvement before the next time we (or anybody reading this) engages in a similar action, it was the fact we failed to declare our solidarity with the workers in any kind of meaningful way. Despite the fact we did come equipped with leaflets from Wobbly comrades about union organising efforts underway in Starbucks, and some of these were placed inside from time to time by less conspicuous protesters, no substantive links between staff and protesters were established which was an egregious tactical hole on our behalf, especially given that Starbucks had announced the day previously an intention to repay some of their hoarded taxes. By stripping pay & conditions from their workers. (As an aside, it seemed a lot like staff were encouraged by their manager to remain inside the store itself whilst on their breaks. I can’t say this for certain, but save for the boss, no staff came outside in the period of time the picket was running.)
With this acknowledged oversight aside, the rest of the way the demonstration was conducted was undeniably positive. Rather than the simple, impotent hurling of demands to ‘pay your taxes’ (a request that seems fair enough to most people, but is utterly devoid of any real class analysis) at the inanimate Starbucks logo, those who approached our picket were also armed with raw statistics about what austerity in our city looks like, and given information about organisations like the York Welfare Campaign who are actively resisting it.
What was perhaps most significant was that people then shared their stories with us: from pay cuts & forced “redundancies” to experiences with misery profiteering technocrats ATOS; from the withdrawal of care services from elderly relatives to the gutting of support programs for those with disabilities and all the way through to Labour’s enthusiastic, unrepentant slashing of funding to various community organisations & spaces.
The value of such conversations is that, far from the abstraction of austerity presented by the various media tentacles of the corporate state (and pathetically explained in terms that seek to obscure the true effects of “fiscal discipline”), these chats connected personal & local hardship directly to the reign of global capital. Words don’t erect barricades in the streets, collectivise George Osbourne or even get funding restored for worthy social projects in our locality. But everything starts somewhere, and the sowing of radical seeds in Christmas shoppers is as worthy a place as any I suppose, even if that thought definitely sounded anachronistic to me in the planning stages.
At this point, one could reasonably question the value of our warm’n’fuzzy tactics, and I certainly understand the impulse. Indeed, we could have stormed the store for the fun of it, and hell it sounded like a good idea to a few of us at the time, but cooler heads prevailed in discussion by pointing out that realistically, such an act would have probably achieved very little. It’s unlikely that we could have forced them to stop operating for long (as other cities with larger numbers did), and even if we did we’d have been visible only to the hipster fuckwits inside – they’re hardly a receptive audience for politics, no matter how milquetoast – and they crossed the picket in the first place.
It would have also changed the confusing relationship we had with the police, who for the first ninety minutes regarded us with little more than detached bemusement. As we weren’t blocking any fire exits (despite the frequent protestations of Starbucks’ manager), they were happy to let us be, and we were free to continue yelling to the streets all manner of dastardly & subversive things. This pretty amusing dynamic continued until boss-man, decked out in snappy managerial duds, confected a bunch of nonsense about us ‘abusing’ teens trying to go into Starbucks to buy the latte their grandfathers fought the Germans to ensure their right to someday buy… or something… and the cops pleaded with us to move the stall a few inches further from the door.
In the interest of preserving the picket, we did, and promptly resumed exactly what we had been doing previously, until we quite literally ran out of everything. The conversations continued, new allies were made, and to be standing amidst so many people engaging one another in radical dialogue was quite the awesome experience. We continued to poach as many potential customers as would settle for a cup of instant & a vegan cupcake, and those who wished to pay for coffee were encouraged to try one of the several local businesses in the immediate area who actually operate according to the “free market principles” the besuited set are always banging on about. We are fully aware that this is problematic for its own set of reasons, not least of which is the idea that consumer power is any kind of substitute for working class organisation, but the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive in all instances. (Also, one of these businesses refilled our thermoses with boiling water, for free, all day. Bless.)
None of these considerations are intended to devalue or condemn the actions of activists in other cities who did rush/occupy stores, but if the question is of the effectiveness of the day’s action rather than claiming some kind of revolutionary credibility, I think the focus on public engagement is not only defensible, but should serve as a spark of inspiration for other activists in other places. Food Not Bombs is a set of values, but it is hardly intangible. It is also a tactic, a direct action methodology, an act of practical solidarity to those regarded by capitalism as surplus to requirements. It is a worthy thing to feed people for free and merely for its own sake, let alone when you consider how significant a political act that can be in a society that teaches us all that we are commodities in shoes, with no bonds to or responsibility for one another. Another world is possible, and if demonstrating the value of mutual aid, solidarity & cooperation can also involve free cupcakes, so much the better.
UK Uncut is also, broadly speaking, an idea (even if a more formalised structure has emerged since its arrival on the streets in 2010.) The solution to the myriad gripes we on the libertarian left might have about the liberal character of its policy prescriptions is not necessarily scorn (even if sometimes it feels appropriate), but engagement. The UK Uncut network exists in the first place because of a visceral popular understanding of the monstrous unfairness of the current status quo, and this is a highly valuable space for anarchos to organise in for a number of reasons. Foremost amongst these is the consideration that ceding this territory to the brand identity politics and safe campaigning of groups like the SWP would be a fatal mistake. Individual members of the SWP are (and were on Saturday) valuable participants and comrades, but as an institution, they advocate a constipated gradualism that is not merely infuriating, but will totally undermine any kind of direct action ethos if given the chance.
It seems to me that many in our society have been inoculated against radical ideas by various forms of social conditioning to act with reflexive dismissal of someone standing in the street railing about capitalism, even when they might very well share many of the same grievances. The trick we need to learn is developing ways to communicate our critiques in a way that is relevant to the lives of the people around us, by contextualising the rule of capital through someone’s own relationship to and with it. This is not something that will be achieved by dismissing the actions liberals, socialists or greens out of hand, nor will it be achieved by letting the aforementioned tendencies have their own way on everything. Anarchist ideals and organisation strategies are hugely powerful, to the point that even a handful of us present on Saturday were able to almost completely dispense with the standard ‘buy the newspaper, sign the petition’ type of demonstration.
There is clearly value in theoretical integrity, but there is much less so in notions of ideological purity which, when taken to their logical conclusion, so often end up advocating for doing nothing because the politics of fellow participants are considered to be wrong. At this point in late-stage western capitalism, we just haven’t got the luxury of making enemies of our potential allies all the time. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to work together, so why aren’t we seeking to lead by example?
This is not an argument for some kind of kumbaya moment, but it is an argument for taking a direct action philosophy visibly into the streets on a consistent basis. Even if it offends some militant sensibilities to attempt to spark conversations about capitalism with free tea & biscuits, if we are actually serious about winning people to our ideas, we should be willing to embrace any and all tactics that make this possible.
We’ll see you in the streets,