Given the amount of time spent discussing the handful of bank windows smashed during Wednesday’s Oakland general strike, you might imagine that many people care about property damage; and yet, if you look for such people, who are they? Liberals complain about property damage during the various marches and actions, but they’re quick to add that it is not they themselves who are disturbed or offended; rather, they are concerned about the effect this property damage will have on others, particularly the cops who will react violently and the media who will focus on images of destruction to the exclusion of whatever else the demonstration achieved. The liberal’s position here is perverse in the Lacanian sense: it expresses itself not as an actual desire, but as a desire to be the instrument of the desire of some fantasized other. Part of what supports this disavowed desire is that the objection to property damage can present itself as neutral, even expert, strategic advice. It’s bad strategic advice, though, and I think in a revealing way.
The supposed strategic advice is based on the idea that, if we act in certain ways, the media and police will react in particular ways. But the media has a bunch of structures around which they build stories, and they will slot the actual events into these structures as they see fit; so, whatever the the most militant or photogenic action of the day happens to be gets wedged into the “outrage” slot, if the script calls for an outrage, and whether that particular outrage is property damage or something else is basically irrelevant. As reclaimuc put it on Twitter, “the media will always be terrible, no matter what we do.” This is even more true of the idea that property damage “provokes” the police, which really badly misunderstands the way in which public order policing works. Police responses are not, in general, decided by individual police witnessing specific events, but by senior police and political leaders deciding how to deal with the protest as a whole. If the police attack protestors, it’s because they’ve decided to attack protestors, not because of anything the protestors did (this is also why worrying about police infiltrators is usually pointless; police may use provocateurs to stage-manage their intervention, but the form of their intervention is decided in advance and is independent of what either protestors or provocateurs do).
In both cases, the liberal position is based around a belief that we can control how we are perceived, and how the state (and its ideological apparatuses like the media) will respond to us. Or actually this could be put more strongly: the criticism reveals the liberal’s desperate need to be in control. The fact that protestors have very limited ability to prevent state crackdowns, and certainly individual protestors can do almost nothing, is scary, and it conflicts with deeply held liberal beliefs about how the state works, and how protesting can change it.