Liberatory Community Armed Self-Defense: Approaches Toward a Theory

  • Posted on: 4 December 2017
  • By: Anonymous (not verified)

by scott crow
Editors Note: This is an excerpt from the new book 'Setting Sights: Histories and Reflections on Community Armed Self Defense

Notions of Defense

The world has been in tumult for decades, with more crises still ahead of us—from ecological and economic to political oppression and wars. These slow disasters will demand new approaches and open new possibilities. I think it’s time for all of us within civil society to think about how we want to respond, autonomously and collectively, without waiting to be saved by the same reactionary governments and corporations that have produced the crises in the first place.

In this essay, I will try to sketch a set of potential practices, praxis, and thinking centered on the narrow use of what I name as liberatory community armed self-defense. This distinct concept draws upon the histories of community self-defense, as practiced by various groups of people worldwide, and from the liberatory principles derived from anarchist and antiauthoritarian traditions.

The concept of community armed self-defense is a distinct development from grassroots social and political organizing models and notions of community defense, which at their core assert the right of oppressed peoples to protect their interests “by any means necessary.” That would include signing petitions and voting on one end of the spectrum to extralegal means of direct action, insurrection, or rebellions on the other. The Black Panther Party, for example engaged in community defense not only through their armed patrols but also through their survival programs, which opened health clinics and free schools in poor black neighborhoods otherwise lacking these kinds of services. This essay is an attempt at a critical reassessment of liberatory community armed self-defense: to re-envision the histories and analysis, to examine the praxis and bring these lessons forward to future engagements, and to broaden and strengthen our tactics and responses to crisis.

A Working Definition

Liberatory community armed self-defense is the collective group practice of temporarily taking up arms for defensive purposes, as part of larger engagements of collective autonomy in keeping with a liberatory ethics.

I am proposing liberatory community armed self-defense as a distinct idea borne out of a reassessment, spanning decades, of the historical experience of armed struggle and broader theories of the right of self-defense.

Self-Defense usually describes countermeasures employed by an individual to protect their immediate personal safety, and sometimes their property. Within the US, self-defense is discussed almost exclusively in legal terms relating to “rights” recognized by governments or constitutions, and only occasionally as human rights. By limiting the discussion to the rights attached to individuals, this framing fails to consider community interests, structural violence and oppression, and collective actions. The discourse thus completely neglects the defense of communities as such, and especially leaves out the political demands of people of color, women, immigrants, queers, and poor people.

Community self-defense in any form is not defined by laws but by ethics based in need (to protect) and the principles of anarchy (whether people call it that or not) by which groups of people collectively exercise their power in deciding their futures and determining how to respond to threats without relying on governments.

As a concept, Liberatory Community Armed Self-Defense attempts to take into account unrecognized types of violence and the limits marginalized groups face in their ability to determine their own futures or collectively protect themselves. For example, in 1973, when the American Indian Movement took up arms to defend “their people” in the occupation at Wounded Knee, they did so to bring attention to the horrible living conditions on the reservations and the violence their communities faced both from a lack of basic services and from armed vigilante squads. The town of Wounded Knee was not itself under attack, but it represented what First Nations were facing everywhere. AIM’s stand was a clear example of community armed self-defense, but it doesn’t fit neatly into existing typologies of self-defense.

Some Important Distinctions

Liberatory community armed self-defense is different from other forms of armed action for two major reasons. The first is that it is temporary but organized. People can train in firearms tactics and safety individually or together but would be called on more like a volunteer fire department—only when needed and in response to specific circumstances. Second, and possibly more importantly, power-sharing and egalitarian principles are incorporated into the group ethics and culture long before conflict is ever engaged. These two overarching ideas separate it from most armed conflicts.

For instance, right-wing militias—like the anti-immigrant patrols of the Minutemen Militia along the U.S./Mexico border, or the racist Algiers Point Militia operating in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—have nothing to do with the type of community armed self-defense rooted in collective liberatory principles. These militias are built on abstract fears and racist beliefs, conspiracy theories, and a macho culture where the strongest or loudest is the leader. They are typically organized in military-type hierarchies with no real accountability to the people in civil society and the communities they operate within. These types of militias are far too similar to the types of the groups liberation movements have had to defend themselves against.

That said, the adoption of armed tactics in any conflict or threat situation always has the potential to morph temporary defensive measures into permanent military hierarchies unless conscious efforts to counter that tendency and share power are maintained. A liberatory approach is necessary to minimize, or at the least mitigate, that danger.

Proposed Principles

The armed component should never become the center; otherwise we risk becoming standing militaries. To avoid that, and to equalize power as best we are able to, a liberatory analysis is necessary to nurture those who are learning to exercise their power, and for those who need to be accountable to their groups or communities. The liberatory framework is built on anarchist principles of mutual aid (cooperation), direct action (taking action without waiting on the approval of the authorities), solidarity (recognizing that the well-being of disparate groups is tied together) and collective autonomy (community self-determination).

Defensive arms should be used only for the goals of collective liberation and not to seize permanent power, even if their use could potentially, and possibly necessarily, escalate conflicts. In any case, arms are not the first line of defense and are only taken up after other forms of conflict resolution have been exhausted.

The use of arms is only effective for the long term if it is part of a dual power framework. Dual Power means resisting exploitation and oppression, while also developing other initiatives toward autonomy and liberation as part of other efforts in self-sufficiency and self-determination.

Those engaged with guns should hold the same power as others involved in other forms of community defense or self-sufficiency. Carrying arms should be seen as a privileged task, with the same importance as childcare, growing food, or taking out the garbage—and not more. To maintain a balance of power, rotate all armed tasks and training among all those willing to participate. All firearms training needs to include dynamic and evolving liberatory ethics and practices in addition to how-to and safety. Within any training or operation, there should be an emphasis on challenging internalized assumptions about class, gender, and race to interrupt typical gun culture.

Reflections and Questions Toward a Theory

These notes are only a beginning. Many questions remain, including those concerning organization, tactical considerations, the coercive power inherent in firearms, accountability to the community being defended and to the broader social movement, and ultimately, one hopes, the process of demilitarization. For example: Do defensive engagements have to remain geographically isolated? Are small affinity groups the best formations for power-sharing and broad mobilization? How do we create cultures of support for those who engage in defensive armed conflict, especially with respect to historically oppressed people’s right to defend themselves? What do those engagements of support look like? Additionally there are many tactical considerations and questions to be discussed and debated to avoid replicating the dominant gun culture. How do we keep arms or arms training from becoming the central focus, whether from habit, culture, or romanticization?

There can be an end to the senseless violence for domination or resources. But if we want to transcend violence in the long term, we may need use it in the short term. We thus need to ask ourselves some tough questions about our approaches and our methods. When is armed engagement appropriate? How would we want it to look? How do we create cultures of tacit or direct support and include people who would never themselves engage in armed defense? How will we keep from centralizing power? When do the consequences outweigh the benefits? There are no blueprints; we have to create this together, step by step. We need to challenge ourselves and overcome our self-imposed limitations and shed our preconceptions of what resistance and liberation are like. When we do, we will gain confidence in potentially using deadly tools with a liberatory consciousness. That means we have to understanding that the values of power-sharing and openness are every bit as important as the power of carrying loaded weapons.

Arms will never offer the only answer to exercising or equalizing power. Only we can do that, but they can be a deterrent against real threats, and can greatly expand our tools of liberation. Community armed self-defense opens up the possibility of changing the rules of engagement. It doesn’t always make situations less violent, but it can help to balance the inequity of power among individuals and diverse communities. I am not calling for us all to rise up in arms but to rethink how we defend ourselves. We can dream, we can build new worlds, but to do so we must not forget to resist on our own terms.



I am a student having concerns about the anarchist in the Spanish civil war being unable to organize an effective army against the nationalist. Does anarchist theory provide historical lessons for the centralized management of an army?
Another question is with the understanding that the Spanish anarchist used labor credit vouchers for goods and services within the collective. However why did they need to go to the banks for cash? This seems to have been the Achilles heel in the extortion of the means of production by the Republicans.
Thanks for comments and advice.

perhaps a better location for these questions is here:

Is it within ettiquite to copy this post and repost?

In Chris Day's 'The Historical Failure of Anarchism' subsection The revolutionary army. He correctly states:
"..... I would argue that the Chinese experience is still an important one from the point of view of trying to develop a revolutionary libertarian military strategy."

In my estimation of all historical accounts, a centralized army is necessary.
We should look to the Maoist for further development of theory.

sounds great! Maybe we can also have our own cultural revolution as well! Not! The very idea that we should to look to Maoists for a development of anything other than a critique of Maoism is absolutely stupid. As for your centralized army assertion, it seems to me that your claim is ignoring the criticisms of these approaches, like Perlman's criticism that the form of your resistance determines the kind of society you will create, you want a centralized resistance then you will get a centralized society.

The whole premise of the concept of liberatory community self defense - as laid out in the essay and the theories around it - in general is to avoid the traps of Maoism , standing armies, armed propaganda or becoming hierarchical militias. To actually see if there are different ways to engage with arms and to challenge ourselves to think beyond current leftist and general gun cultures.

From my limited armed experiences we did find it useful to have a hierarchy within our tactical defense caucus aka security affinity group. It was more about flow of communication and the need to able to make life or death decisions quickly rather than assuming power over people who were unarmed.
Our TDC, taking a page from the Spanish anarchist in the revolution or the Zapatistas, had the same amount of power as both the core and medical collectives that were operating, but no more, and was also accountable to the wider neighbors whose were engaged as advisors at that time.

My role was as a subcommander, again taking a que from the zapatistas, of taking directions from the people around us but having discretion to make TDC decisions within our affinity group without having to bring everything to the larger groups. When people were on patrols or the distribution security, the people on them could either all share power and decisions or promote someone among themselves for temporary leadership which rotated.

Again this was all on very small and limited scales that lasted all of 8 weeks or so with small numbers of people in the early days after Katrina until late Oct when we stopped carrying in public.

We then disarmed largely in the spring of 2006.

Hey Scott, I'm very interested in this topic and I've been exploring it (not just in the theoretical sense) for a few years now. I'm struck by how difficult it is for people to relate to, if they don't have much direct experience with crisis/conflict situations. I'm not talking about name-calling and heated theoretical discussions here; more like real emergencies or physically dangerous conflict.

The anarchist and wider leftist/activist milieus have plenty of relatively sheltered people and a certain reading of anarchist theory results in a very lazy association with "maoism" and what I would characterize as serious organizing at all. This is a huge theoretical problem for sincere people trying to effectively apply their politics to the problems we face and worse, a very easy way for hostile actors to undermine and disrupt our efforts.

The obvious tensions between antiauthoritarianism and responding effectively to dangerous situations as a group are very interesting realms of enquiry. I believe they hold the key to breaking out of the worst dynamics of the anarchist tendency in the western world. It's not just about guns although I understand why that's central in the discussion too. A truly horizontal affinity of serious militants is obviously proven possible by history, although it seems to be quite rare too. Me and mine look forward to exploring the possibilities there.

Book ordered; I’m looking forward to being challenged, irritated, offended, and inspired. My review will be short enough to appear here

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