Hamburg, and My Issue with Riot Porn

By Natasha Lennard

We call it riot porn — it’s a pretty self-evident term to describe videos of riots and protests, viewed and shared for enjoyment. They contain a few standard aesthetic elements: fire, smoke, black bloc participants, and confrontation, preferably in which the protesters appear to have the upper hand. They give little room for context, relying instead on the idea that we know an insurrectionary spectacle when we see one. Between online denizens of the far left, eager to share in what revolution looks like, riot porn gains swift social media traction and memefication.

The Hamburg G20 and its attendant riots produced a rich stock of riot porn, and duly, in recent days, anarchists this side of the pond have been re-posting with glee. A huge black bloc under the banner “Welcome to Hell” formed a wall of aesthetically unified resistance. Riot cops aggressed with water canons. Cars burned. Smoke billowed. Riot porn par excellence. Meanwhile, a reliable cleaving of opinions and summations has emerged within the broader left in Europe and the United States. Anarchists and far leftists share riot porn with giddy celebration; liberals condemn the violence of the black bloc and highlight the peaceful aspects of the protest. Happily, at least, many share condemnation of the police. But both responses — especially from the comfortable distance of detached digital space — are inadequate.

In response to the London riots of 2011, then-prime minister David Cameron deemed the days of protest, arson, and looting “criminality pure and simple.” There was nothing pure and simple about the nationwide eruption, sparked by the police killing of Mark Duggan and undergirded by structural racism and classism. But the broader British left — to its shame — made no room for the riots; liberals picked up brooms to sweep the rage away. Summit riots are a different sort of animal, ripe for criticism of white anarcho-tourism and cosplay rage. But that would be too “pure and simple,” too. Summit riots have their own metrics of usefulness, unity, and significance.

There’s much to celebrate about G20 protests: the flows of capital through Hamburg’s vast harbor were halted; the city was paralyzed by mass dissent; Melania Trump was unable to take a tour. “Mutti” Merkel and her ranks are being rightly censured for bringing the summit to the stomping ground of Germany’s historic left. But beyond the predictable criticisms of the black bloc from liberals and conservatives, there has been condemnation from within the broadly bloc-supportive left for attacks on poor, left-leaning and refugee-dense neighborhoods. Riots are imperfect; they will never be contained to the (arguably defensible) targets of government buildings and banks. Using a defense of “innocent” local property to condemn riots tout court is as tired a trope as that of “good protesters vs. bad protesters.” Which is to say, it does more harm than good.

However, to reject the good/bad protester distinction does not entail a total free-for-all — we should and must be able to weigh in on good targets and bad targets if we are willing to make room for radical protest tactics, especially on an occasion like a summit within an international stage, for which marches and black blocs are planned in advance. We must do better than a giddy reaction to videos of burning shit. We need to problematize our relationship to the truncated spectacles of riot. It’s a nuance rendered difficult when the content of a riot is shared through the reductive currency of YouTube clips and gifs.

I wasn’t in Hamburg; I can’t speak for or to the black bloc there (no one can, that’s the point of the tactic). But I can speak to my rumbling discomfort with the base reactions of armchair riot porn viewers, thrilled by any old burning car or smashed window. It’s an unreconciled unease, and one over which I’m willing to be corrected. My issue is not with property damage; it is, I think, is with affect.

I first started to think about riot porn about six years ago, a few months into dating my now-ex husband — a self-defined anarchist like myself, and publicly defined asshole. We were watching YouTube videos of anarchists in austerity-punished Greece facing up against riot police in 2008. In the historically anarchist neighborhood of Exarcheia, police had murdered 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos, catalyzing riots for weeks in Athens and across Greece. My ex was showing me some of the more spectacular moments, captured and uploaded. In one video we found, protesters lob a Molotov cocktail at a cop, who is lit on fire. The cop, knocked from his motorcycle, writhes and stumbles, encased in flames. My ex laughed. I said I didn’t think it was funny. He explained (I think we call it mansplaining now) that it was funny because he’s a cop, and it’s joyful to see symbols of oppression burn. He had a point, but not the point.

Police officers can’t have it both ways. They choose to wear the uniform and enjoy the authority accorded to them as a force — a uniformed whole — and then demand to be individuated as people when that force is recognized as one for ill. If all cops are maligned for the violence their uniform has come to represent, I see no problem with that. No one has to be a cop.

My problem was with my ex’s laughter. And over the years I’ve heard that same laughter from innumerable anarchists, many good friends, at the sight of burning cops, or cars on fire, or broken glass. The laughter has animated social media responses to the G20 riots. Every time, it sounds blasé and detached. A whiff of bullshit. The laughter of a movie goer watching the Bond villain explode; the laughter of someone who I doubt has ever watched someone burn alive with any proximity (do correct me if I’m wrong). At times it feels like the anarchist equivalent of liberals laughing along with the Daily Show, as if it were enough to laugh along — in order align you with the right side.

Maybe I shouldn’t have such a problem with it. I know that it is by virtue of the violence being transmuted as YouTube spectacle that enables consumption with unburdened delight. Watching a video of a person burning is of course different from observing in meatspace, it will produce different affects. And who am I to ask that fierce anti-police, anti-capitalist sentiment to be expressed only with solemnity? Who am I to police the responses of others? And am I more at fault here? I want to burn the institution of policing, the G20, capital, which can hardly happen without some real fire. Why not enjoy the idea of it? Fuck the police, after all. Am I like the meat eater who does not want to see the animals slaughtered but is pleased by the shape of a steak? (Bertolt Brecht said of those who would decry fascism but not its antecedent capitalism that “They are easily satisfied if the butcher washes his hands before weighing the meat.”) I don’t want to shield my eyes from the burning of institutions, but I don’t need to laugh at all attendant fire to approve. It’s not funny.

And what of burning cars? Running through the streets of D.C. on Inauguration Day, I had no problem (quite the opposite) with watching a limo go up in flames. And, again, I’m not interested in condemning the car burnings in Hamburg. It’s a shame, as seems to be the case, that a number of working class, uninsured locals lost their vehicles to the riot. Again, shutting down a city, even briefly, is never pretty, and the G20 summit itself deserves primary blame for local collateral damage. Yet it is with the knowledge of the imperfectness of riots, the mess definitive of moments of political excess, that I’m bothered by an ebullient response to a YouTube clip — the sort of which we’ve seen 10 times before in the riot porn canon. Perhaps the discomfort I have stems from concerns about how violence gets mediated into bite size spectacle for Silicon Valley leviathans. Perhaps I’m just a killjoy?

Riotous imagery can be inspirational. As we saw during the revolt in Ferguson, images of militarized police phalanxes raining down tear gas and flashbang grenades produced outrage. But images like that of a protester lobbing back a flaming flashbang grenade can remind us that there are stronger responses than outrage available to us — rage and resistance. The resonance of the rebellious content is obvious. But riot porn risks putting form above content, which is a reductive tendency that fits better with fascist than anarchist ideology.

Riot porn is not within the sole purview of the left, nor the unique framework of political protest — sports riots are riot porn fodder, too. If police clashed as readily with neo-Nazis as they do with left wing protesters, there’d be more fascist riot porn. The enjoyment of riot porn tends to be connected to some affinity with the rioters’ position, but assuming there is affinity just because there’s fire and fight could lead one to cheer for the very wrong side just because they’re fighting cops and smashing windows. My enemy’s enemy is not necessarily my enemy.

We can be pleased that Hamburg was paralyzed without finding mirth in an old lady’s car being destroyed without insurance. There’s no reason that radical politics, which (I believe correctly) refuse to call property damage “violence,” should not draw lines when it comes to preferred targets. This is not to promote the weeding out of protesters who we feel chose poor targets in Hamburg — solidarity is not about throwing each other under the bus over tactical disagreements. Rather, mine is an urge to apply nuance to our reactions at the spectacle of riot, such that our targets, strategies, and terrains of confrontation are not flattened into the homogenous field of that which is flammable.

I think writer Maggie Nelson touches upon my discomfort when she writes in The Argonauts that she “understand[s] revolutionary language as a sort of fetish.” She writes that she’s never been able to share the “fantasy of attack.” I want the attack, but the “fantasy” element gives me pause. “Our diagnosis is similar, but our perversities are not compatible,” Nelson suggests as a putative reply to those so enamored with a revolutionary parlance. She has nothing against perversity, quite the opposite. If I at times possess a desire for revolutionary language and imagery, I know I’m not alone, but perhaps Nelson is right that this shared perversity does not give us the answer to that old, necessary refrain, “which side are you on?”

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