Friday, April 20, 2018

Christian Reflections on Locke Street Anarchism

by Kiegan Irish

This post is part of the series "Human Rights and Human Wrongs," an attempt to create a space for authentic dialogue about justice and injustice.

Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.
--Martin Luther King Jr.

On Saturday, March 3rd, in Hamilton, Ontario, a group of anarchists marched on Locke Street and destroyed many of the storefronts that lined it, a direct action that has been widely condemned. Police linked the attack to an anarchist book fair that took place the same weekend. An outpouring of support for the Locke Street businesses followed.

Those responsible for the damaged storefronts were hoping to elicit a reaction and expose the fault lines in the community that liberal discourses of urbanization work to smooth over. I did not participate in the actions on Locke, nor do I know anyone who did. At first, I felt simply shocked by the action. But having observed the response from many people and communities, including fellow Christians I love and respect, I wondered if there might be another kind of Christian response. While it takes some inference and understanding of the perspectives and goals of the anarchist community to make sense of their praxis, shouldn’t Christians be precisely those people who can understand the perspectives of people who are, historically, against the violence of the state and who have so often attracted prominent Christians like Dorothy Day and Jacques Ellul?

The way the church has been mobilized in this case—as a tool to morally legitimate the violence that elicited “ungovernable” actions—shows the dearth of thoughtful analysis that too often afflicts the church’s engagement with its world. As someone who is interested in following Jesus and understanding what his life might mean for the world, I found their response inadequate. For those who are interested in seeing genuine engagement and mutual exchange between Christian communities and leftist politics, or simply between Christian communities and those who are marginalized in our world, this is distressing.

The Process of Gentrification and the Deep Violence of Capitalist Society

The problem with the nonviolence that Christians espouse in this case is that it leaves the violence of the oppressor completely unexamined while opposing the violence of the oppressed. Anti-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon argues that violence is not a neutral space where all actors are equal. There is an older, slower, and greater violence that demonstrably privileges private property above the well-being of one’s neighbours. What many call economic development, and the promise of progress that it implies, masks the deep violence of dispossession. When we talk about economic development in our cities, it is worthwhile to remember who drives these forces and who suffers and is displaced as a result.

In Hamilton specifically, the process of gentrification—the process whereby one group is displaced by another considered more desirable—has been ongoing for decades. In an interesting document published anonymously by the Hamilton Institute, gentrification is discussed in the following terms:
Urbanism seeks to reproduce social hierarchies in the physical urban space, without conflict. When urbanists talk about improving lives, they are usually talking about projects designed to mask the contradictions of capitalism and of urban space: if we are to be an uprooted and flexible workforce, at least let there be affordable public transit so the commutes we are forced to make aren’t too much of a burden; if we are going to work minimum wage jobs, let there at least be housing we can afford; if we are going to live in crowded, oppressive conditions, at least let there be public art, good services, and native tree species slowly dying in roadside planters. However, as we get bedbugs from our library books and are hit by cars in the bike lane, we remember that these gestures are actually shit. They are meant to ease the discomfort caused by the purpose of urban space – to provide a density of physical and human resources to maximize value for capitalists. And once an area becomes a comfortable one in which to be exploited, you can bet someone is going to pay more for it than you can.
If the purpose of urban economic development is understood as generating a workforce to maximize profit, and the improvement of commercial infrastructure serves the purpose of creating more comfortable living conditions for that developing workforce, then those who are marginalized as ineffective workers will inevitably be displaced in favour of those who fit the mould of the effective worker. Displacing people—steadily increasing the cost of living to drive them out, eventually evicting and even incarcerating them—and shifting economic fortunes are part of a process involving innumerable acts of violence borne over the course of years. And more direct violence, like police action and incarceration, is also an indispensable component of this process.

If we can recognize the massive scale of the violence that takes place through capitalist expropriation, we can much more easily contextualize the sporadic and symptomatic violence of property destruction. If you push bodies far enough, if you physically and socially repress human beings to such a degree, they will convulse. They will respond by lashing out, unleashing the kinetic energy that had been building like pressure inside them from the claustrophobic violence of expropriation.

In his 1967 speech “The Other America,” Martin Luther King Jr. made a similar point. For the American context, but with broad relevance, he said that “[c]ertain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?” He goes on to say that “As long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”

Gentrification and urban development are not purely top-down processes. They depend on individual subjects participating in a larger vision or plan in myriad ways. These include establishing businesses, developing a vested interest in the “safety” and “cleanliness” of communities, and relying on police to enforce these ideals. Participation in the project of policing is participation in a violent strategy. We have simply monopolized violence in the hands of the police and legitimized it through law. But we all participate in the project of policing. Philosopher Michel Foucault says that with the invention of the police, state power becomes coextensive with society itself—it occupies the same space as the entirety of society. We live in a profoundly violent society, and if we are interested in discussing non-violence, it is important to first recognize the far reach of violence in our society.

The Hamilton Institute explanation does an excellent job of articulating the history of gentrification in Hamilton and identifying the kinds of ideas about urban development that perpetuate it. When Hamilton was vacated by the industries around which it was first established, this created opportunities for property speculators to buy up large swathes of land at extremely low prices. Many people in poverty were located in Hamilton, and social services in Toronto made an effort to concentrate people who depended on social service in the area. An arts community developed, renting space at low prices or for free. But as their scene grew and gallery businesses were established, they worked with police to “clean up” the area. As the poor and marginalized began to be displaced, this created opportunities for more conventional capitalists who steadily replaced the artists. According to the Hamilton Institute,
Coffee shops, restaurants, and bars took advantage of the customer base created by the artists; however, unlike the art business owners, these capitalists could actually compete in the market. So as the grants slowly dried up and rents and property taxes in many instances doubled, the artists began to be pushed out in turn. Now, as the area becomes cooler and more expensive, offices for consultants, architects, tech start-ups, social entrepreneurs, and other small ‘creative class’ businesses replace the arts studio spaces… The influx of capital and physical improvements carried out by small-scale developers in the core sent a message to the big property speculators that it was time to act.
With the violence of our society established, and with the ongoing violent reality that is rendered invisible by the language of economic development, I think we can do away with the notion that the “violence” on Locke Street was “senseless.” But if we are interested in offering a loving response, and we do want to talk about non-violence, how should we respond to what took place?

A Plea to Abandon Reactionary Politics

The response that I have observed from Christians and Christian organizations to the events on Locke Street has been deeply reactionary--by this term I refer to politics that wish to impose the status quo without taking seriously the grievances expressed in revolutionary politics. They have lacked a sense of historical context and lacked a serious analysis of violence. In calling for nonviolence, Christian reactions to the events have actually deepened and reinforced the violence of gentrification. As observed above, gentrification is not a top-down process, and it depends on these kinds of spontaneous (and genuine) reactions in order to reinforce its grip on communities. For example, by giving information to the police, one might then subject poor and marginalized people to the horrors of incarceration. It is difficult to overstate how violent the police and the court systems are. Christians who care about nonviolence should also oppose subjecting anyone to the violence of these systems.

The Hamilton Institute document discusses the way that the logic of charity reinforces gentrification and plays an essential role in giving moral justification to the process of urban economic development. Even the language we use of “affordable housing” and “inclusive zoning” implies that these are temporary and partial measures in the context of the overriding imperative to profit financially. We are to include the poor, and make sure things are affordable. This betrays the provisional nature of these measures and a lack of regard for the integral autonomy of communities.

Churches have been holding benefits for the businesses that were damaged on Locke Street and encouraging their members to go and spend their money at these institutions. These actions reveal clear political intent. Churches have taken the side of urban economic development. They have adopted a reactionary stance toward the violence of gentrification and its police enforcement rather than tackle the deep, complicated, and pervasive material problems that make and keep people poor. To see churches, institutions under the direction of the example and teachings of Jesus, so easily align themselves with the political agenda of the most powerful in our society, and give this top-heavy vision of society their blessing, is disheartening.

Who is the Person Named Jesus?

I heard a number of people talking about what they heard in church the Sunday after the events on Locke street, and how they thought it related to the incident. The trend I perceived was one where Scripture was used to reinforce the narrative of overcoming conflict unproblematically. Love your neighbour—the deep irony here being that the history of neighbourhoods and the displacement of people who had previously lived as neighbours is precisely the issue.

I was in church on that Sunday morning as well. We read from the second chapter of the Gospel of John, the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple. In so many ways this is an incredible story. In the homily, our minister discussed how in the other Gospels this story is told near the end, representing a final straw leading to Jesus’ execution. But in the Gospel of John, the story comes right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. John tells a story where the Word becomes flesh into Nazareth, a backwater town of a colonized territory. Jesus is baptized, gathers his disciples, and immediately enters the heart of religious and commercial power in his society and destroys the marketplace. The minister asked us to consider what is new about John’s telling, and how it depicts Jesus, as opposed to the other Gospels?

In my reading, this narrative structure sends a clear message about who Jesus is and what his mission is about. The institution of animal sacrifice remained from an older, agrarian world. By Jesus’ time, the Romans have come to Palestine, and the Greeks before them, and a formerly agrarian society has become urbanized. Animal sacrifice is no longer a sacrifice from one’s own herd as an offering to God. Rather, urban people buy animals to slaughter in the Temple, and the penitent religious people are a captive market for those who sell the animals. Merchants grow wealthy from the devotion of the people. We can recognize the growth of an urban exchange economy. Jesus overturns this lucrative and “peaceable” business. He makes a whip to drive out money-changers. He overturns their tables and spills their accumulated capital in the dirt. He makes a scene and calls on them to stop making his father’s house into a marketplace!

Jesus, from a poor and subjugated village in a poor and subjugated province, enters the heart of power in his world and rages against it, disturbing and overturning the established order—an order of peaceable exchange. Jesus is disruptive, some might even describe the use of a whip and the destruction of property as violent. Jesus attacks the system of power that reigns in his world. He does not do this in a polite fashion, he disrupts the order in such a way that it leads him to the cross.

The Gospel is good news to the poor. It probably didn’t look like good news from the perspective of the money-changers when they were having their property destroyed. In saying this, I don’t want to be understood to be arguing that the protestors on Locke Street on Saturday are simply equivalent to Jesus. What I want to say is that Jesus—the person to whom the church is fundamentally devoted—was an extremely disruptive figure in the context of the economic, political, and religious world in his time, and his ministry is composed of shocking transgressions and acts of political theatre. That’s who Jesus is. And by recalling this vision of Jesus’ ministry, I hope I can complicate how the church thinks about its response to something like the destruction of property by anarchists. The Gospels tell us that the Temple authorities in Jesus’ time were vehemently opposed to his actions. And in John 3:23, after Jesus has cleansed the Temple, we’re told that “many believed in his name because they saw the signs he was doing.” Jesus’ opposition to the dominant order, and especially the economic injustice on display in the Temple, is the sign that people need to take hope.

Can the Church Step Up?

Having said all of this, I wish to add that I personally do not identify as an anarchist. In fact, I find it difficult to understand that night’s actions as part of a broader strategy to fight back against the forces of capital which so insidiously destroy communities—even masked behind hip bars and artisanal small businesses. But when we see actions of this sort, we need to be incredibly thoughtful in our reactions. I hope it is clear that what I have written here is not just about that Saturday night. Rather, it is about the uncanny ease with which people, especially Christians, have taken comfort in the “love of the community” against the “violence of extremists.” I think that we need to be significantly more self-critical. When actions like this take place, the first thing we say shouldn’t be, “Oh what despicable and senseless actions!” Rather, we need to ask, “Where does the pain come from that would drive someone to do this?”

We clearly did not ask this question. We simply doubled down. We implicitly asserted that Locke Street was targeted at random, and that the destruction of property was incomprehensible. At the same time, I have not come across any Christian standing up to say that the revenge violence the police immediately promised was wrong—or even naming it as violence! And when The Tower, an anarchist community space in Hamilton, was vandalized by reactionary mobs, no one decried that misplaced revenge violence—against an organization who did not plan Saturday night’s events. Instead, you could see written on the boards on Locke Street that an anarchist bookstore has no place in a “cultured” society. This is frightening. Meanwhile, the words of the Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti were written on the board of the shattered window of The Tower: “we are not in the least afraid of ruins, we carry a new world here, in our hearts.” To my ear the words of Durruti resonate much more closely to those of Jesus, “the kingdom of God is within you.”

Jesus is someone who took sides. Jesus sided with the poor against the dominant forces of his society, and he did this through disruptive, jarring, illegal actions. People saw these signs and believed. At a time like this, the church would do well to remember this, to pay attention to what Scripture tells us about Jesus’ ministry, and its real, historical context, instead of falling back on empty platitudes about love. Jesus shows us what love looks like! Let’s not deploy Christian love to baptize and moralize the systems of expropriation that attack the lives and bodies of the very people to whom Jesus brings good news. Before offering solutions and condemnations or hosting benefits, let’s dwell with the complexity of the situation, especially with respect to the church’s calling. Let’s take this opportunity to reflect on the church’s complicity with a deep structural violence, and out of that reflection determine what it might look like to follow Christ. In wrestling with the violence of the church’s history, how can we be like Nicodemus, who recognized God in the sign of Jesus cleansing the Temple, walked away from the Pharisees and asked: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”

Kiegan Irish is a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing on social and political philosophy. He is currently working on a thesis exploring Hannah Arendt’s attitude towards economics and her idea of natality.


  1. I just have a few comments I'd like to make. You say:

    In fact, I find it difficult to understand that night’s actions as part of a broader strategy to fight back against the forces of capital,

    but I think this position depends on denying that there could be an individual response. Obviously if a person embodies personal rage at targets x, y, and z, it takes courage to do something satisfiable about it. And the satisfaction might be enough. Or not. Most anarchists, in other words, are not productivity minded marxists. One need not act because it leads to the glorious REV; one might find joy in the mere act itself. For more on this, check out the post-marxist thinker Alfredo Bonnano.

    Second, I don't think it follows that just because Christ overturned the tables, that Christians are therefore to act similarly, however ambiguous your gesture is intended to be. Is it not possible that that holy rage is akin to YHWH torching the guy that touched the ark? or sodom? If God himself carries out the act, so be it; but I'm not invested already in some random person's claims to be YHWH in the context of just violence just because he is Christian. If there is just violence, it must be YHWH. It cannot be us by a flimsy analogy. We're not zealots.

    What this leads me to wonder about is how the production of the kingdom now is like living on the holy mountain after the terrible day of the lord. Our future utopia has very little to do with the humanistic world of the marxists and the anarchists.

    1. Thank you for this considered comment. You have given me lots to think about, my response here isn’t exhaustive, but I’ll offer a few remarks.

      My comment about finding it difficult to understand the actions as part of a broader strategy was meant to own my own stance. It's very true that most anarchists are not productivity minded marxists. Thanks for the reading recommendation!

      You raise a really interesting point about YHWH and holy rage. However I think there is a distinction to be drawn between this sort of Old Testament violence and the actions of the incarnate Jesus. Christians are called to emulate Jesus. And what I hope I was able to call attention to in my interpretation is the social context of Jesus' actions. Jesus disrupts the stability and 'peace' of the economic processes in his world.

      I absolutely do not want to be understood to be saying that we should be invested in just anyone's violence due to their claims to be acting as/for God. I'm saying that Christians ought to be attuned to disruptive action even--or perhaps especially--when it disturbs economic processes and hierarchies. My reading of John places Jesus' opposition to the dominant order and economic injustice as foundational for his ministry.

      And finally, I’m not sure if building the kingdom has very little to do with the world of Marxists and Anarchists. I’m reminded of Walter Benjamin who poetically brings these temporalities together as opposed to an empty vision of the future where facts continue to pile up. Instead each moment is a revolutionary chance in the struggle for the suppressed past. Every second is the “narrow gate through which the Messiah could enter.”

  2. Hi Kiegan Irish,

    I no longer live in Hamilton, but still connect regularly to a Mennonite Christian Community there called The Commons. The event in question was of particular interest to this community as they have members who provide leadership at The Tower (the anarchist group) and others who own a targeted storefront on Locke Street. Although I don't subscribe to their radical pacifism, it was interesting to observe their response. In addition to an earnest consideration of the events and despite some significant criticism from within and outside the community, one way they responded was by raising money for The Tower to help repair the broken window and build understanding.

    What initially attracted me to this group of inspiring commoners was their commitment to opposing the displacing power of gentrification through neighbourhoods. Recently a friend from The Commons gave a fantastic talk on this topic, you can find it here:


    1. Hi Caleb,

      Thank you for calling this to my attention! It's really encouraging to see a different Christian response to these events. I will definitely check out the talk.