Riot Tourism on the Rise: 2009’s Best International Hotbeds of Anarchy & Dissent

Editor's note: To be very clear, Vagabondish.com does not suggest nor condone violence in any way. However "riot tourism" is fast becoming a part of the global traveler's lexicon. Jesse Cooper's is but one traveler's experience that offers keen insight into this alarming trend.

We travel for a multitude of reasons, but here’s one that’s just coming on the radar: riot tourism. Traveling to attend a riot is more common than you might think. Being part of a riot is a unique experience, and it has a different meaning for each person involved. While many travelers might be shying away from destinations where the headlines include violent riot threats or political unrest, there are some travelers who do just the opposite.

Why Hit Town When A Riot’s On the Cards?

When you think about it, a riot provides a valuable experience for a variety of people. Dissidents and revolutionary groups can confront the State head on and feel solidarity with members of their community engaged in fighting for the same cause. Groups of people feeling wronged can lash out at their oppressors, and people seeking to right an injustice can take matters into their own hands. Police officers receive priceless real-world experience in large-scale conflict while quelling a riot. And journalists emerge with stories that rival some of what their colleagues dispatch from a war zone. Sometimes a riot even feeds the hungry and gives to the have-nots.

Why Riot? What Could You Experience?

With the foundations of global capitalism buckling under the weight of media panic, mass unemployment and a slowdown in consumer spending, social change tends to take a back seat. At times like these, it takes more than a politician to bring about positive social change, and diverse protest tactics come into play. Non-violent direct action is popular in many places, and prevalent in any resistance movement, but the most common form is the mass protest.

At times like these, it takes more than a politician to bring about positive social change, and diverse protest tactics come into play.

Large numbers of people coming together to picket an issue usually face anxious, outnumbered police officers clad in menacing storm-trooper gear. At these public square powder kegs a bottle might get thrown at police or a protester might catch a beating from an aggressive officer. Windows are smashed. Crowds are sprayed with chemical solvents designed to burn the eyes and skin after officers throw loud concussion grenades. Demonstrators overturn cars while arsonists set fire to banks and car dealerships. Men in gas masks throw tear gas canisters back at police. It’s an exciting, if dangerous, place to be.

Riot Art, Athens
Riot Art, Athens © heretakis

The Development of Riot Tourism

It’s pretty recent that people identifying with the anti-globalization movement started “summit hopping” to different world economic meetings (International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, etc) and made headlines by clashing with well-funded riot police. Riot tourism works because activists can take advantage of the internet to organize things. It’s now easier than ever to drum up massive crowds of people, and a subculture has coalesced around so-called “riot tourism.”

Housing and ride boards are generally set up by the hosting city’s radical community. Shooting for the most spectacular action means you have to pay close attention to the revolutionary momentum in regions with communities in resistance. Timing your trip tends to revolve around summit meetings or planned protests, or you might just end up in the right place at the right time.

If you would like to feel the rush of adrenaline while dodging tear gas, pepper spray and being blinded by Molotov cocktail explosions, there are plenty of beautiful countries with restless people to head to. Remember that violent dissent in some countries earns hefty penalties if you’re arrested, but experienced journalists, tourists and dissidents know that you should always have a good cover story and always stay moving. Observing social revolution (or destruction) can be a life-altering experience for many different reasons. It may affirm ideals or crush dreams, strengthen the will to fight or cripple a movement — or if we’re getting extreme, you may die!

That said, these are the best places to go in 2009 if you think you belong on the barricades.

Europe

Greece

In late 2008 and into this year, Greece hit the headlines for civil unrest with what are being called the worst riots since 1973’s student uprising. A teenage anarchist was shot and killed by police in an area where anarchists and left-wing student groups clash with police on a near-constant basis. As retribution, youths took to the streets, torching cars and lobbing Molotov cocktails at police. Every major city in Greece erupted in violence, and even now, some demonstrations continue. The last similar incident was in 1985, when a youth was also shot and killed by police at a demonstration. Clashes between outraged youth and police became daily incidents for months.

Anarchists in Greece have been figures of legend for like-minded groups and tactics perfected by the Greeks have been deployed all over the world. Even before the most recent violence, they were notorious for confronting the police from their neighborhoods. Maybe 2009 will see the toppling of the unpopular right-wing government in response to this violence, and even with socialists dominating the public’s favor, there’s still no telling whether the anarchists will let up their insurrection. If it’s riots you’re after, Greece could be your candidate.

Burning Car in Strasbourg, France
Burning Car in Strasbourg, France © Francois Schnell

France and Italy

France’s infamous 2005-2006 uprising against the First Employment Contract (which allowed employers to end job contracts for anyone under 26 at any time during a two-year period without explanation or warning) has led speculators to believe that social welfare cuts and economic reform in the wake of the credit crisis could lead to another spirited reaction from the French people. Italy is in a similar predicament, and still feels the effects of 2001’s anti-G8 riots in Genoa which left a protester dead in the street.

In many European countries, where so much of a country’s infrastructure depends on government programs, changes and cuts aren’t received well by the people. Unhappy situations are rapidly escalated by political rhetoric and radicalized community organizing. With every government tightening belts in attempts to balance their budgets, the people will probably feel the repercussions of their government’s mismanagement soon. And that could lead to violent reactions in volatile countries like France and Italy.

Denmark

Denmark’s extremely militant squatting network in otherwise affluent Copenhagen makes it another country to get lucky in if you’re traveling to find a riot. In 2008 we saw violent repelling of the police around the “Free State of Christiania,” as cops and local politicians continued to put pressure on the squatter community that has operated semi-autonomously since the 1970s. Police were pelted with firebombs, stones, and bottles while attempting to navigate blockaded roads to deal with increasingly successful attacks by youth. As 2009 sets in, Denmark’s resistance community will be ready to oppose another forcible eviction. Like most of Europe, the motorcycle helmet is an unbelievably popular accessory during uprisings in Denmark, as is the gas mask, so dress accordingly.

Russia

Russia has been hit hard by the financial turmoil, and with revolutionary communists looking to take back the reigns there’ll be many chances for social unrest. As the government tightens the grip on military issues and resistance highlights totalitarian policies, broken windows will be the least of Mother Russia’s worries. The Kremlin has a brutal reputation for repression, but again, the internet will make resistance and unrest in Russia visible to the entire world. Keep a close eye on Vladimir Putin, who is looking to make an authoritarian comeback in Moscow, to gauge the public’s tipping point.

Iceland

Iceland is a relative newcomer to large-scale, headline-grabbing rioting, but its small population is quickly making a name for itself after the entire country went bankrupt. Protesters are attacking police, dropping banners from state buildings’ balconies, destroying property and freeing arrested comrades. As prices skyrocket with inflation and more IMF loans pour into government coffers, expect more Icelandic unrest.

North and South America

Mexico, Chile, Columbia

With sustained struggles in the semi-autonomous region of Chiapas by the Zapatistas (EZLN) and the popular people’s uprising in Oaxaca (APPO), Mexico continues to be a key destination for seeing active resistance.

In Colombia, government forces clash with dissidents regularly, and the radical arts scene developing in Bogota is truly something to take in. Colombian students work closely with activists in strikes and actions, effectively doubling their threat to the State.

Chile’s radicals, commemorating the resistance to Pinochet’s regime, hold “Black September” every year to confront State power and avenge fallen comrades. Pitched battles are held in the street between masked youth opposing the neo-liberal exploitation of indigenous people and the hapless police.

The United States

In the United States, after a dismal anti-war effort by complacent left-wing groups, there has been resurgence from anarchists and anti-authoritarian groups. Gaining momentum from confrontational riots in Denver and St. Paul during the political conventions, autonomous groups take action almost nightly, transplanting Greek tactics like bank vandalism and small-scale arson into America.

Radical direct action hit a downturn after 9/11, but 2009 already started off with plans for Presidential Inauguration protests. Networks established from the convention protests are busy planning the next action, and radical groups like “Bash Back” have been hard at work stirring things up in the wake of Proposition 8. Tensions between activists and police have been rising steadily since the Patriot Act, and protests everywhere have been peppered with degrees of violence. It’s only a matter of time before something erupts in a city hit hardest by economic disaster, like Chicago or Detroit.

Sunset Flag, Heiligendamm
Sunset Flag, Heiligendamm © rastafabi

Asia

Thailand

Thailand has just recently seen victory from an intricate network of street-level conflict and backdoor bureaucracy leading to the dissolution of the Thai government. At the end of November 2008, after months of protest, activists swarmed airports leaving hundreds of thousands of travelers stranded in Bangkok. Even though courts opted to dissolve the unpopular government, it isn’t likely that the replacement will do much better. Thailand has a thriving tourist industry but government stability isn’t nearly as successful, and prolonged conflicts between oppositional political groups and standing government forces break out regularly.

China and the Middle East

China and the Middle East are for experienced participants only. Due to the extremely oppressive response to dissent by Chinese and most Middle Eastern governments, not only will it be difficult to be in an area where uprising is happening, but if you did find yourself in a riot in any of these countries you could expect to be brutalized, thrown in prison, or violently killed. Simply traveling to these regions to help a cause or to cover the resistance as a journalist as many do in Europe isn’t recommended. (This advice also pertains to African countries, which should go without saying.)

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t active resistance in these areas. “Black Cat” worker strikes have become popular in China, and one major talking point in the debate against war in Iran is that student groups risk their lives protesting and taking revolutionary action against the Theocratic Islamic government.

Joining the Resistance

Sentiments of anti-capitalism and anti-globalization are rising all over the world, and the violent measures taken by State power to quell these rebellions will typically cause a massive response, especially amongst militant youth. Traveling to witness the power of the people firsthand should be at the top of anyone’s riot tourism list. Whether you wish to lock arms and fight for a cause or just hope you and your camera live to tell the tale, a riot has a place for everyone.

The way to stay plugged in and plan trips of this type is to pay attention to radical independent media. Infoshop.org runs a fantastic news site showcasing resistance and direct action all over the world. Whether you’re a political radical or just a curious observer looking to witness a piece of history, Infoshop can guide you to the right place for action.

A riot can simultaneously be a tragedy and a triumph, and still stands as one of the most exhilarating activities in human history.

Another great resource is the Center for Strategic Anarchy, a blog offering advice for dissidents and revolutionaries everywhere. Their speculations as to where major actions might be and which groups are actively pursuing the fight against the State have been right enough times to be accepted as valuable information in the search for the next nights of war.

For some, it might be the carnage and morbid curiosity that attracts them to a riot. Others might be drawn to fighting for what they believe in or in it for the story. A riot can simultaneously be a tragedy and a triumph, and still stands as one of the most exhilarating activities in human history. The risk can be high, but perhaps for you the awe-inspiring sensation of feeling rage turned into jubilation, justice being served, and watching change from the ground up is worth it.

See you on the barricades!

13 Responses

  1. Marion

    Interesting travel blog post and controversial topic. I have never heard about “riot tourism” before and I’m wondering what kind of people – except journalists/writers and policitians – would travel just to see a riot.

    Reply
  2. Gennaro

    I experience civil unrest in San Sebastian a few years ago. ETA set fired to a few big garbage canisters in the middle of a street along with tying a banner across a major roadway.

    It immediately catches your attention. Best to leave the crowd right after. It hard because it’s so interesting, but anything can happen though that situation quickly calmed.

    Reply
  3. Rob

    This article is right out of the Fox News playbook. It is unfortunate that this young author, probably without the acumen to even realizing he is doing so, delegitimizes and minimizes the serious concerns and issues that would compel someone to travel to a protest. By labeling protesters as “riot tourists” he paints them as shallow youth looking for kicks and feeds into the perceptions so carefully cultivated by the corporate media. People who are serious about these very important issues do not want to be denigrated as tourists by some kid who is not even bright enough to know he is doing so. On the bright side, he has a great future as a mainstream journalist.

    Reply
  4. Jesse Cooper

    @Rob

    Whoa, whoa, whoa man. As someone who has traveled because of my “serious concerns” about compelling issues, I understand that an insurrectionist needs to be where the insurrection is. Like it or not, and I speak from experience, there are a lot of people who travel specifically to confront the State, and I would imagine it is something of a cottage industry; as ironic as that is.

    Vagabondish, as you can see by the “non-violent” disclaimer up top, is not my blog. This isn’t the arena to be exploring the socioeconomic motivations for every theater of resistance on the planet, this is a zine about unconventional traveling.

    Quite frankly, the shit is hitting the fan in case you haven’t noticed. Hopefully, some people would want to know where, perhaps to progress things for a better world or to tell the stories that aren’t ever even reported by the corporate media in the first place. I’m less than pleased of your skewed perception of my intentions, but I’d hope you’d understand the audience I’m writing to.

    Thanks for reading anyway.

    Reply
  5. rob

    Jesse
    I believe your heart is in the right place, but like I said, you are doing others like you , who travel to oppose the state, no favors, including myself. If i care enough to drive for 3 days to protest something, I sure don’t want to be labeled a tourist by someone who is supposed to be on my side… so they can make money off of it. What you are writing denigrates us, please consider what you write.

    Reply
  6. Jesse Cooper

    Rob

    I completely understand, and I’m glad that for the most part, it seems the terminology may have been the only problem you had on the article. I (nor did anyone on this blog) didn’t coin the phrase “riot tourism” at all, but in fact got it from the Center For Strategic Anarchy (link is in the article) which I believe was referencing the idea to traveling to Italy in the coming months for some major summits and anti-CPE style protests. I hold them as a pretty good authority, and considered the phrase to be relatively clever and used it in this frame for what I assume is a somewhat “uninitiated” audience in terms of radical politics.

    Sorry if I had offended you, but I hope that clears some things up.

    Reply
  7. Jamaica My Way

    I’ve never heard of anything like this but I have to say that if I wasn’t a single parent and need to return home to my son all the time, I’d be up for exploring this.

    I regularly travel to Jamaica which is as politically corrupt as I can handle and even though I love that island to death, the sheer volume of things that need advocates and activists there, boggles my brain.

    Wicked article though. Loved it.

    Reply
  8. darla

    have you actually even been to colombia in order to suggest that ‘In Colombia, government forces clash with dissidents regularly, and the radical arts scene developing in Bogota is truly something to take in’???
    if you had you would know by now that this are very rare cases and not things that happen regularly,this are most likely to happen in a very hippie university where they basically protest about pretty much everything from the government to the bus tickets price, so please get your facts straight before worsening the already terrible reputation we have,thanks

    Reply
  9. May Day! « Backside of Berlin

    […] One of the biggest issues is not the locals but the Riot Tourists. A quick google search will bring you the latest and greatest in locations, handy hints and tips, and of course a Best-Of Guide. Want to know where your best local riots are? Where you can find iron bars, members of the opposite political persuasion, and filthy capitalist establishments? Thanks to the information age, it’s all at your fingertips. […]

    Reply

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