Property damage has value to the movement, even when it only achieves goals relative to the individual. It can be cathartic to a person with a need to release repressed emotion, a condition caused by living in an oppressive society. It can also be cathartic to people who experience the catharsis second-hand — glass on the ground reflects truth and police lights better than wet asphalt. Beyond this catharsis, there is another benefit to the individual experience. Property damage can bridge the gap between the way the world looks and the way it can feel. People often attempt to bring together their personal experience and the appearance of the world, because the disconnect can be disconcerting at best and traumatic at worst. This is affirming and healthy for people, but it also means they and others have less cognitive dissonance when they experience the world. This in turn ideally leads to a reduction in trauma from that experience.
I believe in the power of property damage beyond catharsis and bridging the gap; what follows though explores certain personal benefits of the tactic only. It is not to suggest that because the focus is on benefits within, no benefits exist without. Intentionally wrecking shit has an important role to play even when some of the goals do not extend beyond the individual.
There is a cathartic aspect of property damage and the unruly nature of “violent” protests, where media incorrectly applies the word violence to property damage.
Analysis of these acts of property damage must begin not with the act itself but with its genesis. A human being is freedom. That freedom is vulnerable to external forces and oppression, but a person in their natural state is in a state of freedom, whether you agree with Locke or Hobbes or Rousseau or whomever. People exercise that freedom through expression, through painting, poetry, literature, and other fine arts, but also through the so-called “low” art of crafts, the development and maintenance of communities, the evolution of societal norms and expectations, and tradition. Expression is anything that helps to create or develop our concepts of identity into the external landscape.
When an authority exerts itself upon a person, it cuts away at that person’s ability to express themselves. The drive to express does not dissipate just because a person cannot formulate any kind of real expression. Instead, it sits in the belly, fermenting. As it grows and rots, this formerly-positive expression builds pressure, which must be released. The longer someone goes before finding an outlet, the greater the pressure, and therefore the greater the release. If a person goes too long with this thing growing inside them, they may break.
This is not a new idea. Often catharsis is called “letting off steam.” Some have suggested that seeking this catharsis reinforces the behavior that necessitates it because the flush of cortisol can become habit-forming. There is no unified view on whether repressing expression intensifies a feeling or causes it to dissipate. In fact, over a hundred years ago doctors were arguing whether this release could be effected with words alone, or if it could only be effected by a significant act, such as revenge, and this debate continues today. (Catharsis, as most psychological phenomena, is not nearly so simple. A good introduction to the concept is the essay Anger and Catharsis: Myth, Metaphor or Reality by Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D. Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evil-deeds/200909/anger-and-catharsis-myth-metaphor-or-reality (last visited Mar. 7, 2017)). But the catharsis is still valuable. The cathartic effect of smashing a bank window or a police floodlight is symptomatic of the repression of the individual. It is evidence of a person’s inability to express themselves in a state of total freedom. This catharsis is an intermediate point between a condition of unencumbered freedom and a condition of complete repression, under whose pressure people eventually risk a total breakdown or internal collapse. It is necessary and good.
Liminal spaces help to experience the nuanced complexity of the world. Experiences like smashing a window can occur in the crepuscule of the evolution of a person’s political understanding. It can be a point of ideological departure between activists who would otherwise have solidarity from their fight against the same opponents. These cathartic events allow people to make a decision, and it is my hope that the discussion about the necessity of catharsis in an oppressive society might allow people who strongly disagree on the role of property destruction could find common ground once again.
Bridging the Disconnect Between Sense and Perception
There is another value to seeing property damage and the aftermath of the black bloc, as in this aftermath the world begins to look like it feels. There is ordinarily a disconnect between the way the world looks and the way it is: ordinary, mundane. White supremacists and neo-Nazis are openly advocating for their despicable nationalist agenda, fascism is in its ascendancy, and people are still buying bread. The world is on fire and people look like they’re just going about their daily lives as best they can, even when we all feel this desolation internally. This rift between collectively-asserted “normalcy” and individual awareness of a dire situation can be confusing and traumatic.
Another example of this rift between what a person sees and what a person feels is gender dysphoria. As someone who has experienced this, I noticed parallels in the disconnect I felt when staring at the world and staring at myself in the mirror. In this sense, dysphoria is the very real physical, mental, and emotional trauma caused by a person’s experience of the difference between the normative and positive realities in which they live. While these two examples of rifts or disconnects are not directly comparable, the conceptual framework is useful to understand and explain different subject matters and their associated traumas.
One way I deal with my gender dysphoria is to use gender-affirming external symbols and expressions, like nail polish and makeup, to alter my presentation to better represent my identity and experience. I recognize my privilege in being able to do this relatively safely: I am not in the closet. Merging the external and internal — specifically, by changing presentation to reflect identity — diminishes the experience of that trauma. Likewise, this rift is assuaged when the world’s presentation begins to reflect our experience of the world. This individual action becomes socially visible. A cathartic act, as defined above, or the aftermath of that act, could be an experience-affirming symbol. It brings the internal understanding and the externally visible into closer alignment. Humans are excellent pattern finders. We like to find meaning within everything, in order to define things in terms of relationships. We develop internal systems of meaning, and we apply these systems to the world in order to make sense of it. Some symbols have cultural significance, which means there is a generally agreed upon field of meaning that certain symbols communicate to members of a culture. In the chaos of a shattered window, an observer may discover a reflection of the invisible chaos around them. In sequential images of the destruction of a limousine at Washington, D.C. on January 20th, the whole world saw a symbol of wealth and class stratification dismantled by force.
First, the limousine was parked on the street, already a trespasser because the streets are the people’s. We live on the streets, off them, by their languages and cultural imperatives, while the wealthy live high above them, removed from the minutiae, from the noise and violence their politicians’ laws do. Second, the people were dancing on top of the limousine, as if to say “this is mine, I will feel joy and express myself in the ecstasy of the moment. You cannot touch me here — here is where I touch you.” Third, the tinted windows were smashed. The limousine, with its tinted windows, rolls slowly down the peoples’ streets and turns the world into a zoo for the wealthy, so that they may feel immersed in our world while remaining protected from the retribution they must know is coming sometime. Their symbol is conspicuous while their identities are simultaneously obscured by that symbol. Finally, the limousine was set on fire and “WE THE PEOPLE Ⓐ” was spray painted on the side in gold. Graffiti is the art of the street, while gold is and always has been the baroque display of conspicuous wealth. The symbolism of the fiery limousine was direct and powerful. Regardless of what they thought about it, a burning limousine with gold spray paint is a pretty blunt metaphor for the reversal of the power dynamic between classes.
The progress mirrored what I think a lot of us seek to see in a broader sense. I can’t speak to anyone’s goals but my own, but I want to make what was done to the limousine an explicit threat. “This is you, this is what we will do to you, and this is how we will reclaim your useless symbolism and make it poignant through its theft.” This is the world we feel we are in. We can sense it, but it has remained just out of our sight, or out of our grasp. By dismantling the limousine, we create the world as we understand it to be. We need no longer feel the traumatic disconnect between our internal desolation and the external calmness of people who only appear to be going about their daily lives without expressing the horrendous nature of our current reality.