Are there “good protesters” and “bad protesters”?

One of the enduring ideas to emerge from the diversity of tactics debates of recent years has been the idea that the activist left should refuse to distinguish between “good protesters” and “bad protesters.” The concern emerged in the wake of the acrimonious infighting among the organizers of the Seattle anti-WTO protests in November of 1999. After the protest, in the course of which black bloc participants had engaged in high profile property destruction (mostly targeting chain retail store windows), organizers argued bitterly about who “belongs” inside the activist left.

Some critics went so far as to claim that bloc participants were not “real protesters,” but outsiders who had no place in the movement. Unwittingly, or perhaps in some cases strategically (as a device for enhancing their own “mainstream” credibility), these organizers had adopted the rightist trope of the protester as “outside agitator” and “troublemaker,” a supposedly suitable target for police repression, unlike the “good people” whose protests are law-abiding and respectful.

The use of this language by some organizers against others, and the way it seemed to confer legitimacy on the criminalization of some protesters, led many people to highlight the toxic and self-destructive implications of accepting this good protester/bad protester distinction into the discourse of the activist left.

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