To finance our movements at this critical moment in history, expropriating money from certain targets is the most ethical option. There are many ways it can be done.
Originally published by Abolition Media Worldwide.
At least as early as the first century A.D., shiftas of the Horn of Africa renounced their allegiance to emperors, government and law, and took to the wild where — through their disruptions of the usual business and trade — they would manage to survive as outlaws. For centuries, the Balkan haiduks roamed their lands, stealing from their Ottoman occupiers. Yi brigands and others from across the Chinese frontier sustained their economies in large part through raiding during the early 20th century. From 1917-1937, Peruvian women led bands of sharpshooters by horseback to rob the rich and give to the poor.
Despite limited research and the folkloric fictionalization of the Robin Hoods of our past, social banditry seems to be present wherever even the most primordial forms of civilization have offered class inequalities. The phenomenon of social banditry — theft for the good of the poor — transcends history, geography and culture.
Industrial capitalism and neoliberal economics have necessitated changes in methods for bandits. No longer do the rich travel highways by road, vigilant for wilderness hijackers. Only approximately 8 percent of the world’s money is circulated today in the form of cash. Information about the wealthy is protected by obscure tax havens. The brigand’s task today is a fundamentally creative one, and the historical shrouds of machismo and bush-fame do not offer quite the same leverage of terror they once did.
Groups on the radical left all around the world have been finding ways to commandeer money and assets and redistribute them to their allies and oppressed communities. A recent noteworthy example is the requisition of a Minneapolis Sheraton hotel during the George Floyd protests, when participants transformed it into the Share-a-Ton. Historical social banditry may offer inspiration, but today’s radical left are yoinking their way into a future where popular struggle will have the resources needed to sustain itself beyond sporadic revolutionary moments.
Why banditry now?
Never before has our species faced an existential crisis like that of global climate chaos. The scale and pace at which we have to make concrete change must far supersede the historical scale and pace of industrialization and colonization. For perspective, we have six years and five months to put a complete end to fossil fuel use and shift 100 percent of our planet’s energy consumption to renewables, or we warm the planet by 1.5 degrees Celsius and cause catastrophic damage at unfathomable scales.
Obviously the main emergency shortcut we can take is people power. Popular struggle has proven that drastic change can in fact be expedited. The climate justice movement is arguably the largest and most diverse movement in world history, and its members — a substantial mass of whom are far too young to have to carry this colossal burden — are raising the stakes.
To take advantage of this brief window of opportunity, we need to engender more drastic change more urgently. Money can help make this happen. With the global economy in the hands of a fraction of one percent of the world’s population, we need more creative strategies to hasten the redistribution of funds to the coffers of our most powerful movements and their syndicates.
Those with the most money have often been defeated by those with the most people power. Ultra-wealthy dictators have on many occasions fallen where people have risen in defiance. But those at the center of resistance movements need resources to sustain their lives and work, and to build and strengthen infrastructure for their struggles. Modern people-powered movements often resource themselves through in-kind contributions, volunteers, solicitations or dues from members and allies, partnerships with nonprofits and businesses, and philanthropic institutions and similar donors (who often hold center-liberal values and may attach strings to their support).
These are not the only options for movement financing. There is another option: stealing.
At this historical moment, it is less ethical not to expropriate money from certain targets than to continue scraping by piecemeal. There are many ways it can be done.
The most intuitive way to steal money is to rob, and the most obvious place to rob is a bank. But that does not mean bandits must enter through the front door, guns blazing.
In 2008, Catalan activist Enric Duran published a statement concerning half a million Euros he had stolen through obtaining 68 bank loans to finance popular struggles. Duran sought hiding after renouncing the authority of the judicial system. He urged comrades not to waste a moment campaigning for his amnesty, but rather learn from his false loan tactics and pull off similar heists at greater scales.
Duran’s defrauding strategy expanded the Catalan modern legacy of activist banditry. In 2002, The Barcelona-born movement Yomango (“I swipe”) harnessed the talents of shoplifters to publicly and unashamedly fight austerity and the corporate powers behind it. Their movement of open thieving quickly spread across Europe and Latin America.
In Denmark, the crew that came to be known as the Blekingegade Gang had pulled off a large number of heists in the 70s and 80s to fund allied activity at the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. One of their famous jams involved posing as police driving a Ford Escort.
Shortly before the Blekingegade Gang’s rise, the Young Lords, Puerto Rican revolutionaries, stole an underutilized truck, equipped with a tuberculosis-detecting X-ray unit. They brought it to East Harlem where they ran tests for residents while flying a Puerto Rican flag above the vehicle.
Social banditry is class warfare inasmuch as it enables the brigand or band — marginal even in societies where they have popular support — to preserve itself over the long-term. The poor and the peasantry are taxed with a “pie in the window” — or similar minor concessions offered to the local outlaws. The bandits are in turn expected to protect the peasantry from those in power, and should they pillage a good loot, share a portion of their plunder.
For instance, John Kepe hid in the Boschberg caves of the Eastern Cape in the 1950s, ransacking the homes and farms of Afrikaners. Although the loot offered him his own survival, he redistributed useful household goods and items to fellow black South Africans. This helped keep his whereabouts mum. One might say his passive alliances with mainstream society offered him more favorable “working conditions.”
The late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm — perhaps the most authoritative writer on social banditry — observes a similar pragmatic economics and politics in the historical bandits. They support the revolution, but are rarely themselves the revolution. Their niche contribution toward the struggle of the underclass rarely offers scalable infrastructure for, say, nationwide peasant revolt. They are generous in their economic sentiments toward any movement of the poor, though. It was said that Brazil’s famous bandit Lampião bought supplies at thrice the usual price from traders. Such “bandit generosity” expresses sympathies for mass rebellion and for the freedom of life outside the immediate throngs of the empire and its landlords.
Straightforward robbery — that is, transferring money or assets from party X to party Y through theft — is not the only means of liberating funds. Money laundering — practiced daily by billionaires with impunity — can also be used for good.
One group interviewed for this article applies for grants from large institutions. The funds they are awarded are accounted for through receipts collected from trash bins at bus stations, or wherever else they can be found. The amount accounted for through false receipts is then distributed to allied grassroots activists or direct action groups whose activities cannot comfortably fall under the grant agreements without raising eyebrows. “NGOs do dirty things all of the time to advance their self-interests,” said a member of this group. “Why shouldn’t we use similar approaches for more radical ends?”
The modern bandit is not limited to small-scale laundering like this. In some cases, a nonprofit “shell company” like an NGO can be established to solicit for large — and usually politically moderate — donor funding. When grants are awarded, funds can be distributed to a more radical group — i.e. a “partner” — that invoices for the sum shared. In this way, the official grant recipient, in this case the “NGO shell company,” can avail financial accountability, satisfy auditors, and still report on their seemingly moderate activities while creating a buffer between the donor and radical group, thus availing greater autonomy to the radical group.
One youth organization cleans their grant monies by hosting large events — activities meant, in the donor’s perspective, to promote cultural diversity and inclusion. The community activities they organize are exactly the activities they claim to do in their applications and reports. They charge a fee for attendance, though, and in this way make back more money than they spent. Accountability for the funds has already been made through spending the capital received. The proceeds from their “suggested donations” are then distributed to antifascist groups.
Sometimes requisitioning funding from the right need not be so convoluted. “Usually, we don’t need to do stuff like this,” explained my informant. “It’s really quite easy to get a large amount of money from a right-wing donor, especially if you have a formally registered organization with a board and membership that is ‘in on it’ while maintaining a nice-looking front.”