A deeper look at the attack on Locke St.

On the evening of Saturday, March 3, 30 masked people assembled in Durand Park, marched west along Aberdeen Avenue smashing car windows and shouting, and then proceeded down Locke Street, throwing rocks through store windows and shooting firecrackers. The only statement they made was a banner reading, “We Are The Ungovernable”, an anarchist slogan that has turned up in previous anti-establishment protests in Hamilton.

Photo by Ryan McGreal

The attack coincided with that weekend’s Hamilton Anarchist Bookfair, and the perpetrators’ tactics exactly matched riot footage that was used to make a promotional video for the bookfair. (Police have stated that they have evidence linking the riot with the fair.)

The main clearinghouse for anarchist organizing in Hamilton is The Tower, a facility that takes a hard line against gentrification and advocates direct action against what it regards as the inherently exploitive system of capitalist liberal democracy governing Canadian society. Anarchist posts explicitly advocate propaganda, graffiti and vandalism against businesses that are believed to be contributing to gentrification, including previous acts of vandalism against businesses centred around the James North and Barton Street area.

To be clear, there does not appear to be any direct evidence linking the riot with The Tower, but the circumstances warrant careful investigation. The Tower denied having organized the riot, but expressed support for it in a statement: “First, no, the actions on Locke and Aberdeen on Saturday night were not organized by the Tower, but yes, we support what happened and are in solidarity with those who carried them out.” The statement continued: “All the dramatics from Locke St show that they expected not only to make money pursuing their self-interest and ignoring its impacts on others, they expected to also be loved for it.”

The Tower allows that small, independent business owners are not “the main driver of gentrification and the suffering it brings”, but that they deserve to be attacked anyway because they have “put themselves on the side of the speculators and landlords, positioning themselves to profit off forces that harm most of their neighbours.” As such, The Tower holds itself “in solidarity with everyone who resists the dominant powers in this city” and “oppose[s] all repression and all collaboration with the police.”

Buried in the statements ethical contortions to celebrate violence without taking responsibility for it, some genuine points are raised about the crisis of inequality and injustice in Hamilton. Gentrification is an extremely complex, multi-layered issue that does not resolve nicely into a dogmatic class-warfare analysis, but there is no question that the urban revitalization dynamics unleashed in Hamilton over the past few years have distributed their benefits and costs unevenly.

What we call “gentrification” is made up of at least three distinct phenomena that are interacting in Hamilton right now:

1. Middle-class residents choosing to move into urban neighbourhoods that were previously low-income;

2. A nationwide upward trend in housing prices over the past two decades, due in large part to historically low interest rates; and

3. Steadily widening income inequality since the 1970s.

Taken together, these trends are a real crisis for people who are being indirectly squeezed out of their homes by rising prices or, more directly, evicted by landlords looking to raise rental prices. As a city, we are not doing nearly enough to understand what is going on, let alone to address and mitigate it effectively.

We need to have a serious conversation about how to reinvest in urban neighbourhoods without driving out the people already living there. Unfortunately, incidents like the Locke Street riot makes that task more difficult, by turning the violence and vandalism into the story.

As for the attackers themselves, we still don’t know who they are but I am not persuaded for a moment that they were marginalized victims of gentrification struggling for recognition. The attack looks exactly like the work of bourgeois radicals looking for cathartic kicks.

Meaningful civic advocacy is hard work. It involves organizing, building relationships, listening carefully, finding common ground across sectors, developing policy tools and engaging in constructive exercises to raise awareness and build a democratic constituency that can effect change. Unfortunately, the branch of Hamilton’s anarchist community that advocates rock-throwing has already foreclosed the potential of engaging in more constructive dialogue and capacity building.

In a bizarre exercise of intellectual laziness, the anarchist manifesto plastered around downtown a couple of years ago rationalizes away every effort to make our society more humane, inclusive and just by claiming that such efforts merely legitimize the system of capitalist exploitation.

They oppose public services like transit, affordable housing, and healthcare because they merely serve to make us “more valuable to the capitalists while also experiencing less starkly the fact of our oppression.” They dismiss democracy as a “smothering blanket” under which people who oppose development “contribute to its legitimacy” by “obligingly stepping into the role of loyal opposition”.

Instead of doing the hard work of organizing, this group advocates “a purely negative approach” in order to “bring fault lines to the surface and force the contradictions that urbanists and leftists try to plaster over.” That approach entails attacking developers, rejecting the arts, refusing to go to trendy places, refusing to support transit, and refusing to participate in charity. Instead, they advocate graffiti, propaganda, vandalism, and sabotage.

And what happens once those contradictions have surfaced and we cannot ignore them any longer? With what do we replace the messy collage of capitalism and liberal democracy in which we live today? That’s where the manifestos and propaganda pieces fall silent. It’s easier to throw a rock through a window and feel pleased with yourself for a few minutes than it is to work toward building a better world.