Means to a Means (Reflections on the anti-prison struggle)

In August of 2012 voters in king county approved a tax levy to fund the construction of a new Juvenile Detention Center at 12th and Alder. Those in opposition to this re-build began to organize themselves amid a flurry of activity and conversation. In the end, some posters went up, an anarchist analysis of the new project was published in the local anarchist periodical, a few meetings happened, a few noise demos? and then nothing but the same old activist strategies, the same old campaigns.

Recently a call has been issued for the re-emergence of an anarchist response to the construction of the new jail. This is an effort to begin to ask ourselves why and how we would answer this call. It is not an attempt create a program for struggle or an outline for how conflict should play out, but to share a process of reflection with a broader group of anarchists in the Seattle area. The struggle against prison society is comprised of many on- going and specific battles against existing prisons and attempts to disrupt the building of new jails and detention centers. We seek to reflect on some of the ways that conflict against prison society has manifested in the past and to apply lessons learned in the Northwest and elsewhere to the context that is unfolding before us. This text is our humble contribution towards the development of an ongoing project of (self) critical analysis and attack.

The Pacific Northwest has a history of resistance to prisons and the police. The current focus on the Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) is only the most recent iteration of a long struggle against the prison society in which we live. This new direction comes on the heels of the occupation movement, a winter of resistance to the police after the murder of John T. Williams in 2010 and 2011, a concerted campaign of resistance to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma between 2008 and 2010 and years of diffuse attacks against the police.

While resistance to police and prisons has been evolving over the past few years, the state has also been developing new strategies for control. The construction of the CFJC is part of a much larger project of ‘community policing’ that is becoming prominent in the Seattle area and around the country. Newly Elected Mayor Ed Murray declared, “Community policing must be the department’s operating philosophy, not merely a series of special projects.”

Neither a new or particularly dynamic concept, community policing is a direct response to liberal campaigns and calls for more oversight and accountability into local police forces. On their surface, such calls are obvious and worthwhile responses to the horrific brutality and inequalities of incarceration aimed at more marginalized communities. Unfortunately, these campaigns only end in driving the root of these issues deeper into hiding. Like a well-run bid for public office, these community- policing efforts create the facade of change. These reform efforts merely make the role of the police more insidious. The jail proposes to provide a variety of community-based alternatives to incarceration, increasing the influence of prison-style control within society. The jail is a concrete manifestation of this new logic of policing and therefore an interesting focal point for a continued struggle.

A means to a means…

Often anti-prison struggles prioritize the goal of preventing the construction of a new prison and build a campaign towards this end. To us, a ‘campaign’ is a form of struggle that aims to make a specific change to a single issue with a linear goal oriented strategy. A well-organized strategy sets up a series of means that lead to a clear and static end, making it easy to declare victory or defeat. Often defeat. This defeat will eventually lead to an abandonment of that particular issue for another, or a scaling back of goals until the most impotent and useless gestures of conceit made by the enemy can be called a victory. We are surprised that the constant repetition of post-campaign burnout and the obviousness of failure, even when it is named something else, still manage to entice anyone to this form of struggle.

An important distinction between what we are calling for and campaigns is that their ends and not their means define them. We are not suggesting that individual tactics that have been used in past campaigns be thrown out in whole, but only adopted as a means when they make sense for continuing or enlarging the conflict we are engaged with. This is not an argument against trying to stop the jail from being built; rather it is an argument against seeing that as the only worthwhile pursuit inside a broader fight against prisons. If the state decides not to build the jail, the old one will still be sitting right next-door full of prisoners, the police will still be on the streets and millions of people will still be behind bars.

Soft policing, restorative justice, etc are all the logical outcomes of liberal reform campaigns. At times this is based on the recuperative nature of the state and at other times it is an inherent quality of campaigns that are in reality, pro-state and are just asking for a different and kinder way to lock people in cages. Attempts to improve the material conditions inside facilities or to decrease the frequency with which people of color are stopped and arrested are obvious and worthwhile endeavors. By the nature of our critique, anarchists could never be satisfied by these goals. If people fight for cheaper phone calls, better legal access, more nutritious food options, etc, that is great, but we refuse to limit our struggle to these goals alone. Although we present no solutions, it is through our desire for the negation of all forms of domination that we find a constructive path that is more in line with our critique.

We are not naive to our insignificance. It is unlikely that we have the agency to prevent this prison from being built. We also do not have a realistic strategy that guarantees the generalization of popular revolt, but it is in the means we employ, not the ends that we will find strength. It is daunting and confusing to decide how to engage with the asymmetric nature of this struggle and the diffuse nature of our enemy. We are strong precisely when we learn how to collaborate with each other in moments of attack, in moments of solidarity, in moments of support (materially as well as interpersonally). As we build affinity in this struggle, our experiences will be carried into the next, whether it is against another new prison or coal train or whatever.

Reproduction or contagion?

The rejection of activism is not a new point, nor is the rejection of some sort of ‘insurrectionary campaign’, however, these distinctions can easily become muddled and we can quickly find ourselves either sliding towards a single issue, or losing steam over the lack of results we are able to produce. Just because we’re critical of campaigns, formalized structures and single issue organizing, does not mean we’re invulnerable to falling into these traps. Formulating this critique is a first step in avoiding this problem. However, critiques are only useful to us in their practical application. It is therefore crucial that this critique is consistently used as a reference point as we decide how to act.

While anarchists in recent years have emphasized the importance of reproducible attacks, we prefer to emphasize the contagion of autonomous struggle and perceive a qualitative difference between the two. The emphasis on small reproducible acts can easily lead us to rhetoric conducive to the construction of an ideological program for struggle that can be signed onto and copied without analysis or imagination. We understand that the sharing of tactics is important for the spread of antagonism and that all acts of rebellion against the dominant order are exciting and inspiring. However, we are interested in organizing our own struggles and encourage others to autonomously organize their own. This is the contagious outbreak of rebellion, which is not reliant on a unity of means. Our goal is not reproduction and repetition but the intentional action that emerges from a contextual analysis of the situation. To consistently engage in this difficult challenge can lend itself to a self-critical and permanently developing projectuality.


Experience and historical analysis has shown that moments of rebellion inevitably disintegrate. This is not necessarily a problem that can be fixed. A projectual struggle does not take place in a single moment shared by friends, but over many years and in a broader context. The results of these experiences can rarely be seen in the short term, especially when things are falling apart. This disintegration is often characterized by court cases, jail time, interpersonal conflict and burn out. However, if we are not expecting revolution as an end goal, an end that anarchists alone do not have the agency to create, then we can prepare ourselves to face this disintegration with integrity by continuing to create a stronger network with an increased capacity to create conflict. It is not our intention to present a vague proposal, but to try to understand where we want to be when the current form of struggle comes to a material end. How do we develop and strengthen new and old relationships of affinity? How do we develop real relationships of care and support that last through moments of inactivity? How do we avoid fragmentation of autonomous groups along aesthetic or interpersonal lines rather than discovering and engaging with the very real hostility or camaraderie that can exist along political or tactical lines? How do we create the space to flesh out critique and analysis in order to develop new ideas and experiments? These are not passive, abstract questions. If nothing else we hope that this text serves as a call for anarchists to discuss these questions now.

Our means of struggle are not a means to an end, be it revolution or failure, but a means that lead inevitably to another means, thus continuing the struggle. Within the framework that we are proposing the only goal is conflict and the opening up of more conflict. Contagion is not the ‘end’ that defines our purpose; it is but one potentiality that we desire.