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Occupy and Black Bloc debate on violence and nonviolence

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.”

Occupy Tactics: Violence and Legitimacy in the Occupy Movement and Beyond from brandon jourdan on Vimeo.

Doctor Hedges misdiagnoses the Decline of Occupy

The police have raided many of the encampments across the country. Protests and actions called by Occupy are declining in number, with reduced participation. Workers and marginalized people, like the homeless, who were initially drawn to Occupy have, in many instances, departed. It is discouraging, and someone or some people must be responsible.

Chris Hedges has the answer: Occupy has a cancer known as the Black Bloc that must be aggressively treated before it becomes terminal. According to Hedges, the Bloc, its violence, its contempt for collective social organization and its hypermasculinity are turning the public against Occupy. If Occupy is to survive, the Bloc must be expelled. His answer has a superficial allure especially given his skillful elaboration of it. As a consequence, his article has been posted all over the Internet. For those with a legitimate grudge against the Bloc, like Louis Proyect and other Marxists, it is a golden opportunity to drive a stake through the heart of it. Perhaps, that would be a good thing, as I’ve never been very enthusiastic about people who knowingly put others at risk by precipatating violent confrontations with the police. Anyone who does that, Bloc or not, has no place in Occupy or any other movement for social justice.

But it’s all just a little too convenient. Preliminarily, there’s a conceptual problem. Contrary to what Hedges, and even Proyect, would have you believe, the Bloc isn’t nearly as monolithic as they suggest, as this perceptive comment by Black Bloc at Pink Scare demonstrates:

There is no the Black Bloc. A black bloc is a tactic, not an organisation, engaged in by anarchists (yes, even us boring old neo-Platformist anarchocommunists, not just Insurrectionists) in which anarchists show up en masse at a protest, take steps to preserve their anonymity (as defense against state profiling), band together, ignore demands from illegitimate authority (i.e. the cops) and act together to defend participants’ bodies and autonomy against state violence. It does not necessarily include sabotage-style direct action nor confrontation with cops (except for the fact that cops in general *seek* that very confrontation with any black bloc that forms on the ground). In fact there have been numerous black blocs on the east coast that I have been a participant in and that did not result in any property damage nor violent confrontation with cops whatsoever.

Surely, this must be true. Given the decentralized nature of what anarchists describe as the Bloc, the existence of Bloc groups around the country, some that act out violently and others that do not, sounds probable. Accordingly, the question becomes less about the Bloc, and more about why some people gravitate towards violent forms of political activity, and the consequences of such activity for Occupy. As such, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to treat Occupy consistent with Hedges’ diagnosis. There are few readily identifiable people that can be characterized as Bloc (for example, consider this photo of the Occupy Oakland Tactical Action Committee, promoters of the weekly Fuck the Police marches, who’s Bloc and who’s not?), and, even if there are, they may or may not be involved with the violent police confrontations associated with some occupations, like Occupy Oakland. One can read the comment of Black Blocas an implicit approval of Bloc violence in self-defense, but, if so, it is hard to rely upon it to justify a characterization of such Bloc behavior as cancerous, although such an interpretation does raise thorny, but less polarizing, issues of personal responsibility within a collective movement. Possibly, for this reason, Hedges prefers to expound upon Zerzan and Bloc ideology to avoid engagement with them.

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Indeed, Occupy Oakland, an occupation that appears to be the target of Hedges’ polemic, illustrates the lack of factual support for his theory. On November 2nd, I participated in one of the several marches during the general strike. Some masked people broke windows at a couple of bank branches, a Wells Fargo one and a Chase one. Interestingly, the media gave little attention to these incidents, perhaps because the vandalism was so trivial in nature. Instead, the media was much more engrossed in the attempted takeover of the Traveler’s Aid Society Building near Oscar Grant Plaza later that night, as the police responded to ineffectual efforts to take the building and defend it with tear gas and flash grenades. A large crowd of young people, still out in the streets, participated, and, as the situation with the police escalated, some of them looted a Tully’s Coffee Shop. Hedges describes them as Groups of Black Bloc protesters.

But were they? I have looked in vain for pictures of the people who did it, but I did find this article about the episode, which questions the utility of describing it within the confines of Bloc theory and practice accessed over the Internet by Hedges:

At the Oakland encampment, Hale Nicholson, who described himself and others as pacifists, said he participated in Wednesday’s demonstration and march to the port and then went to sleep at the camp around 9:30 p.m. Around 1 a.m., he said, he was awakened by the sound of flash-bang grenades.

A group of protesters broke into the former Travelers Aid building in order to, as some shouting protesters put it, reclaim the building for the people. They voiced anger over budget cuts that forced the closure of a homeless aid program.

They blocked off a street with wood, metal Dumpsters and other large trash bins, sparking bonfires that leapt as high as 15 feet in the air. Several businesses were heavily vandalized. Dozens of protesters wielding shields were surrounded and arrested.

They voiced anger over budget cuts that that forced the closure of a homeless aid program. Think about that for a moment. Doesn’t sound very Bloc like, does it? Instead, it sounds like a group of people influenced by a variegated mixture of direct action principles, motivated to do something spontaneous by their involvement in the strike. Of course, such behavior can be damaging to a social movement, but it is not something that can be so easily addressed by subsuming their behavior within the repository of a Black Bloc, specifically designed for this purpose.

Susie Cagle, in an article posted at Truthout, refutes Hedges even more categorically:

Hedges condemns property destruction in political protest by condemning black bloc tactics, regardless of the facts. The local coffee shop vandalism Hedges contends was committed by black bloc was in fact one window of a corporate coffee chain smashed in that post-strike fog of war – and by someone not wearing a mask, not wearing black. The people who broke into City Hall on January 28, and many of those who destroyed property there, were also largely unmasked. And both of these acts came immediately after, as in within minutes of, violent mass kettling and arrest actions.

As Cagle relates elsewhere in the article, the challenge presented by some involved in Occupy Oakland is their willingness to embrace more and more confrontational forms of protest, forms that make people like Hedges uncomfortable, at least when they aren’t happening in Greece:

Here’s to the Greeks. They know what to do when corporations pillage and loot their country. They know what to do when Goldman Sachs and international bankers collude with their power elite to falsify economic data and then make billions betting that the Greek economy will collapse. They know what to do when they are told their pensions, benefits and jobs have to be cut to pay corporate banks, which screwed them in the first place. Call a general strike. Riot. Shut down the city centers. Toss the bastards out. Do not be afraid of the language of class warfare—the rich versus the poor, the oligarchs versus the citizens, the capitalists versus the proletariat. The Greeks, unlike most of us, get it.

My, my, Hedges comes across here, does one dare say it, as very much like his characterization of the Bloc, or close to it, certainly more so than the people who attempted to take over the Traveler’s Aid Society building. Here, it seems, we have on old activist stereotype, one who exoticizes political violence in other places, usually lesser developed ones, but finds himself alarmed when it emerges close to home. Proyect, in a post otherwise sympathetic to Hedges, perceptively observes that, to date, the riots, general strikes and attacks upon businesses celebrated by Hedges have failed to stall the ruthless imposition of austerity measures upon the Greek populace.

Consistent with this, while Hedges confined his condemnation to the Bloc, I suspect that the popularity of the piece, the reason why it went viral, is because liberals and progressives, non-socialists, in other words, have become fatigued with the direct action ethos of Occupy. For example, read through the comments to this post, written by someone who participated in the January 28th attempt by Occupy Oakland to seize the vacant Kaiser Center Auditorium and convert it into a community center. Numerous people, who, because of their local knowledge, appear to be Bay Area progressives, posted hostile comments, showing no sympathy for the people who were attacked and arrested by the police, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority were not among the few who threw rocks, bottles and firecrackers at the cops. Confronted with an excessive police response, especially at the end of the day, when officers kettled protesters, subjected them to a barrage of tear gas and flash grenades, and then arrested over 400 in front of the YWCA building, the commenters were either silent, or dismissed it as predictable. Clearly, they objected to the attempt to seize the building just as much as they did the people who threw objects at the police.

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The reason for this hostility is simple: they, like Hedges, are alarmed at the increasing intensity of the confrontations with the police. Hence, liberals and progressives will be critical of any action, even non-violent ones, like property seizures, if they degenerate into street violence between protesters and cops, while conversely, ones that actually involve property destruction, without a violent police response, like the windows broken during the day of the general strike, or, more recently, the windows broken at an upscale car dealership on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco during the evening of the Occupy Wall Street West action, generate much less comment, except by those who learn of them during the real time livestreams and Twitter feeds or subsequent YouTube videos.

Such a response exposes the fault line that runs between older progressives and the young militants of Occupy. Older progressives live within existing institutional structures, unions, universities, schools and the public sector, and have become, in many instances, middle and upper class. Overall, they have a positive opinion of the police, even as they believe that officers should stop treating poor people and peole of color so badly. In other words, they believe that the police are necessary to preserve social order, and that they can be reformed. Conversely, many of the young militants of Occupy now consider the police to be an implacable enemy, a bulwark of the existing system of social oppression. And, in Oakland, they knew about the predations of the police prior to Occupy, which explains the intensity of the conflict there.

Here, finally, we begin to recognize some of the challenges currently confronting Occupy. On the one hand, we have people who purportedly want to support it, and may have even done so in the initial period of occupations, but cannot do so now because of the violence they perceive associated with it. On the other, we have others, rightly outraged over the conduct of the police, who risk substituting confrontations with law enforcement over direct challenges to crony capitalists responsible for the economic distress experienced by so many. Occupy also initially attracted marginalized people, but they seem to have departed.

Is there a path out of this dark forest? If so, it may lie within the processes of Occupy itself. As Pham Binh and others have observed, Occupy is a direct action social movement where those who dedicate the most time and energy disproportionately influence the outcomes. There is nothing unique about this, it is true of most institutions in this society. But such an approach will not work for a movement that seeks to represent the 99%. As Tiny, also known as Lisa Garcia-Gray, wrote about her experience during a march and bank occupation in San Francisco:

POOR Magazine was in the march on this day, sadly with only three members, we did have four family members but several of our poor parents are houseless and jobless and so our fourth member had his phone cut off the night before and so we couldn’t find each other in the masses of people, and all of our other family members were working one of several jobs and hustles and so they didn’t even have the privilege to be there at all.

At first I was taken by the almost flawless organizing by Bay Area non-profit organizations. From the emcee to the turn-out from group after group, the whole event was wound tightly as a rope on a drum. Each act of civil disobedience, set-off at the mouths of Wells Fargo bank branches, were beautifully orchestrated stages of theatre and action. It was obvious that funded organizations with time and paid staff had organized this event down to the last balloon, slightly like a party we at POOR Magazine had never received an invitation to.

As we left the protest to get our young kids to school on time, Tony and I spoke about the power of the resistance that we had just been part of. I brought up how although I am excited and about all of the issues peoples were speaking and acting on I remain vexed by the fact that as poor peoples of color and indigenous peoples we are constantly in battle, in protest about the genocide and violence perpetrated on us and yet it is a struggle for us to get 50 people to show up for protests, so what is the difference? and what really is our role in all of these resistance occupations as poor peoples of color in struggle who are also in struggle with the occupation of our time due to no-wage and low-wage work, system abuse and ongoing criminalization and why do our resistance movements stay at the margins of what is important to show up for?

At last, Tiny, not Chris Hedges, has revealed what ails Occupy, the difficulty of reaching and empowering the people most victimized in this capitalist society. By targeting the ephemeral Bloc as the source of the illness, Hedges evades this much more challenging social and political dilemma. Accordingly, Occupyshould evaluate its internal processes and future actions by the extent to which they bring these people into the movement, and not by simplistic bright line rules about violence and non-violence.

For now, and, perhaps permanently, that means trying to avoid violent confrontations with the police as much as possible, not because the conduct of the police should be considered acceptable, far from it, but, rather, because many of the people that might embrace Occupy most enthusiastically are terrified, and for good reason, of being beaten, arrested, and, if undocumented, deported. I actually accidentally had the opportunity of seeing Tiny request Occupy Oakland support for an immigrants rights march during a general assembly in mid to late November, and someone asked, because of the attempted Traveler’s Aid Society takeover, whether there would be any violence. She emphatically said something like . . No. . No . . absolutely not . . we are going to have families with children with us on the march. In relation to the attempt to take over the Kaiser Center, such considerations might suggest an initially more covert effort to seize it, with a subsequent display of public support, as occurred at Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley in November 2010, instead of a mass attempt to storm police lines at mid-day. Similarly, the manner by which Occupy Oakland organized in advance of the port shutdown, and provided picket line support for striking workers might serve as good examples as well. All three constituted effective efforts to support workers at the base.

(Polizeros welcomes Richard Estes of American Leftist as a contributor)

Violence vs nonviolence

I considered writing something with Black Bloc in the title, but does that mean anything at this point? After the latest misadventure by Chris Hedges, “The Cancer of Occupy,” Hedges does a wonderful job of obscuring and misinforming his readers. It’s not often that such a crack reporter gets his very first sentence with his very first fact so horribly wrong:

The Black Bloc anarchists, who have been active on the streets in Oakland and other cities, are the cancer of the Occupy movement.

Whether the tactic causes cancer in movements, I cannot say. But by way of a point of information, there are no “Black Bloc anarchists.” It is a tactic, not a group or an organization. Anarchists don’t even have a monopoly on the use of the tactic. In fact, anarchists didn’t even really come up with the tactic.

But I digress. But instead of treading in the murky waters of Black Bloc, I just wanted to say a few things about the underlying issue: Violence vs nonviolence. I’d hate to know how many people have learned the hard way, like Dr. Michael Parenti and scores of others, that merely putting up your hand when a police officer is bashing your skull in with his baton can result in charges of assaulting a police officer. If someone is hitting you it’s pretty hard not to protect yourself. It’s a basic reaction. And yet that meek act of self-defence is considered violence by the police.

In contrast, when the police surround a group of peaceful Americans,  who are committing no crimes,  in full riot gear, deadly weapons at the ready, and plenty of potentially deadly less lethal weapons ready to be used at the drop of a hat, this is not considered violence. They irrationally bark out demands and no matter how ridiculous or irrational those demands are they are expected to be followed to the T in seconds. Any number of things can set these uniformed thugs off resulting in any number of injuries up to and including death. And yet this is not considered violence. It may be deemed an excessive use of force–interesting phrase. But it will not be deemed violent.

If you think back to Oakland’s latest mass arrest this really stands out. On the one hand you have a group of peaceful Americans marching, protesting, standing together. They are doing nothing wrong. They are in turn surrounded by a paramilitary force that simply announced that they were under arrest and that they should submit to their arrest. Rubber bullets were fired. Flash grenades and tear gas was used. People were beaten. Later as prisoners at the jail they were tortured in various ways. Female arrestees were forced to strip in front of male guards and perform urine tests. People were left with bound hands for hours. And yet the violence we hear about again and again is some minor property destruction.

There are bigger questions than one particular tactic at stake here. Why on earth would we let the 1% frame this debate for us? It’s not violence vs nonviolence. It’s a question of basic self-preservation. They use their media to diminish, demonize, and misinform people about what Black Bloc is; they never mention that police have been caught carrying out so-called Black Bloc tactics. They never mention the people saved from arrest by Black Bloc tactics. 

Do we have the right to protect ourselves? What does that look like? This is the discussion we should be having.

The cancer in Chris Hedges analysis

I don’t recall Chris Hedges being voted Moral Compass of Occupy, do you? Yet his temper tantrum in Truthdig implies just that. He knows what is best for the movement and it sure isn’t those icky Black Bloc anarchists. Yes, I think the Black Bloc are often misguided. But saying Occupy’s problems are due to them is simply not true. He also seems to think that lying around passively waiting to get your head cracked is a fine strategy indeed. To me, this seems almost as pointless as tossing a rock through a Starbucks window.

There’s a cancer in Occupy, says Hedges, blaming the Black Bloc.

The presence of Black Bloc anarchists—so named because they dress in black, obscure their faces, move as a unified mass, seek physical confrontations with police and destroy property—is a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state. The Occupy encampments in various cities were shut down precisely because they were nonviolent. They were shut down because the state realized the potential of their broad appeal even to those within the systems of power.

He almost seems to be saying if you fight back you might not get shut down but if you’re nonviolent you surely will. Well excuse me Chris, put what possible good is a movement that meekly waits to be shut down?

Chris Hedges’ very public meltdown

It doesn’t even make rational sense. For example, Hedges claims that violent police crackdowns on Occupy encampments came “precisely because they were nonviolent.”

And yet he and others make the contradictory claim that the police justified their violent crackdowns on Occupy encampments because of “the Black Bloc anarchists” and their supposed violence — which is patently false.

He attacks a writer for an anarchist journal that’s no longer published for criticizing the Zapatistas. He falsely asserts that Black Bloc is yet another of the innumerable Occupy Movement hijackers, yet he can point to no example of hijacking by Black Bloc — in a Movement that was founded by anarchists.

Anarchists are the ones who made the intellectual and initial physical space for there to even BE an Occupy Movement.

This is the crucial point. Occupy wasn’t started by Marxists (or the Democratic Party) operating through front groups. It came from anarchists, who exist in all shades and stripes, not just the Black Bloc. Marxists are mostly clueless about Occupy as are the Democrats. The standard attempts by both to jack a growing movement have failed. This is definitely a good thing.

Occupy is something new, a viral movement with no national leaders that has successfully resisted being jacked by the Democratic Party or the Marxist fringe. Sure, its’ got problems now but that’s hardly all due to the Black Bloc.

Good for Chris Hedges. But can we do better?

I applaud Chris Hedges.  After years of writing apocolyptic, often hauntingly accurate and incisive columns for TruthDig, there’s finally a sign that he is going to take tangible action and, as they say, put his money where his mouth is.

On Dec. 16 I will join Daniel Ellsberg, Medea Benjamin, Ray McGovern and several military veteran activists outside the White House to protest the futile and endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of us will, after our rally in Lafayette Park, attempt to chain ourselves to the fence outside the White House. It is a pretty good bet we will all spend a night in jail.

Hedges presents the argument that futile resistance is to be celebrated, it is the source of hope, and that it is what must be done.

Hope has a cost. Hope is not comfortable or easy. Hope requires personal risk. Hope does not come with the right attitude. Hope is not about peace of mind. Hope is an action. Hope is doing something. The more futile, the more useless, the more irrelevant and incomprehensible an act of rebellion is, the vaster and the more potent hope becomes. Hope never makes sense. Hope is weak, unorganized and absurd. Hope, which is always nonviolent, exposes in its powerlessness the lies, fraud and coercion employed by the state. Hope does not believe in force. Hope knows that an injustice visited on our neighbor is an injustice visited on us all. Hope posits that people are drawn to the good by the good. This is the secret of hope’s power and it is why it can never finally be defeated.

Yet, and perhaps I am just unwilling to entirely embrace Hedge’s bleak and desperate worldview, it seems that something is lost in Hedges’ vision of hope.  Why would we desire to be unorganized?  Why would we chain ourselves to a fence, an act of symbolism, rather than sit in the middle of a road and stop traffic, which forces others to take notice?  Hedges’ argument is based on the idea that we are, as a society, beyond the point of no return in terms of corporate dominance, ecological destruction, the dominance of the war machine, the corruption of our politics, and similar themese.  But even if that is 100 percent true, doesn’t it make more sense to resist in ways, which can be equally nourishing of the soul, that have more of an impact than symbolism alone?