In the immediacy of mass protest and non-violent civil disobedience, how can one differentiate between the disruptive violence of Black Bloc anarchists and the disruptive violence of undercover police agent provocateurs?
“The Black Bloc anarchists… are the cancer of the Occupy movement,” wrote Chris Hedges in Truthdig, calling them “a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state.”
The Occupy movement, like non-violent protest movements of the past, struggled with this question in advance of the September 17 first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street’s occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York City. Over the weekend, there were more than 40 arrests at peaceful protests in Manhattan, where police policy requires officers to refuse to talk to protestors.
Last week, in a packed auditorium at the City University of New York (CUNY), Hedges faced off with Brian Traven of Crimethinc. Ex-Workers Collective, in a two-hour debate carefully managed for civility, with the title: “Occupy Tactics: Violence and Legitimacy in the Occupy Movement and Beyond.” The mainstream media ignored this public event in the so-called media capital of the world, as did most other media as well.
The debate poster featured a hooded woman with her face masked in the anarchist style to conceal her identity, in a style similar to a burka. One of the ground rules of the September 12 debate was that reporters and others with cameras could take pictures only of the speakers and not the audience. At least one reporter, who violated that rule to photograph hecklers, was escorted from the hall.
Black Bloc, which its adherents call a tactic, not a group of people, emerges in Germany in the 1980s in response to violent police removal of squatters, among other things. Black Bloc actions were seen in window-breaking and other property damage in protest against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 as well as in Occupy Oakland in 2011. Black Bloc practitioners wear black clothing, including masks, to conceal their identities and appear as a unified group in larger crowds.
Within a context of a shared conviction that the current status quo was unacceptable and must be changed, the clearest tactical agreement between Hedges and Traven was the legitimacy of wearing masks to conceal identity. While masks might serve to protect Black Bloc anarchists from criminal prosecution, for Hedges there was sufficient justification for wearing a mask as a defense against private or state persecution, such as harassment, eviction, or job loss.
Defining “violence” proved trickier. There was no agreement as to whether violence was limited to hurting people, or included damaging property, or just throwing things even if they did no damage. Nor was there agreement whether violence was ever justified, even in self-defense.
“I’m not here to argue for violence,” said Traven in his opening statement, “I’m here to argue for a more nuanced analysis of the use of force than the violence/non-violence dichotomy, which all of us are familiar with, and which, some of us believe, plays into the hands of the state in framing the narrative of social struggles.”
In his opening, Hedges made clear that his problem with Black Bloc was that their tactics in a protest that was designed to be non-violent made that choice impossible, pre-empting any possible choice of diversity in tactics. He said that, while he would not choose Black Bloc tactics himself, he would deny others that choice, nor would he turn them in to the authorities.
In his view, Black Bloc adherents have used the Occupy movement for their own purposes and thereby diminished Occupy. He added that: “I have a hard time understanding what their goals are and how they think these tactics are going to achieve those goals.”
Having covered wars and revolutions in El Salvador, Bosnia, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, Hedges made clear that he was not a pacifist and understood that, under some circumstances, the pacifist argument was absurd. At the same time, he noted that the Russian Revolution was “largely a non-violent revolution,” turning on the Petrograd riots when the Cossacks sent in to quell the riots instead fraternized with the rioters, and the czar was gone a week later.
In this light he cited the teachers strike in Chicago, noting that when the striking teachers went into police stations to use the bathrooms, the police applauded. When the foot soldiers of the state can no longer be relied on to defend the elites, Hedges argued, the elites get “terrified.”
Traven argued that appealing to peoples’ conscience through the corporate media was likely to be futile, and cited the 15 to 30 million people worldwide who demonstrated against going to war in Iraq, to no avail. A fractions of those millions could have made that war impossible, he argued, “if we had felt entitled to use our capabilities to do that. It might have been called violence if we had, but it certainly would have averted a much greater violence.”
Our occupations last longer, and are more effective, Traven said, “when we are not afraid of our own strength.”