by C. de Gabriak
On the anniversary of the Occupy movement, two speakers squared off to debate what tactics are legitimate and effective for bringing about social change, and who gets to define the movement’s goals. The debate exposed assumptions about power and safety, revealing how these concepts are framed differently in the language of the mainstream than of the disenfranchised. Facing these controversies, we must find a way past the fears that would fracture this movement to embrace the irrational, the damaged, and the vulnerable into a network of support.
The most fascinating thing about the Occupy movement is its bizarre diversity—the broad sweep of humanity who poured into the encampments, sleeping, eating and working side by side for months. Drawn together by shared discontent—but not necessarily a shared vision for the future—Occupiers in most cities often found themselves butting heads with people they would never have chosen to organize or live with, people who seemed to be messing up this golden opportunity for real change. Whether they were Ron Paul supporters, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, those struggling with addiction or mental illness, black-clad anarchists, militant people of color, or middle-class journalists, many occupiers eventually wanted to draw a line around “us” and “the other” in an attempt to define who Occupy really was. Surmounting all these factions was the rallying cry, “We are the 99%”—a hopeful, if simplistic, call for unity. On the streets, we experienced Occupy as a social experiment, learning to organize by navigating difference—general assemblies at their best gave marginalized people a voice in a shared process of creating and defending a commons. But the mostly middle-class journalists and writers within the movement had the chance to publicly frame Occupy, and some chose to define it as a movement of people a lot like them.
This was the crux of Chris Hedges’ argument in his recent debate with B. Traven of the CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective about tactics, non-violence, and legitimacy; Hedges repeatedly called for Occupy to be a “mainstream movement.” While never explicitly defining who fell outside that mainstream, he implied that the fringes of society harbor monsters: proto-fascist militias, agents provocateurs, hyper-masculine individualists who could bring the full force of the State on the heads of the innocent. A journalist who has covered many wars and uprisings, Hedges continually digressed into cataloging atrocities he’s witnessed and warning of the terrible power of the State. He may have wanted to emphasize the gravity of our situation, but what I saw was a man paralyzed by fear, grasping for one shining and simple solution to take us out of the war zone and into safety. While his goals may be different, his rhetoric is not too far from the fearmongering mainstream media outlets engage in—encouraging us to fear each other (or the most disenfranchised and desperate amongst us) rather than the powers that keep us oppressed.
I agree that our culture’s shadow side is one of dehumanizing violence; many of us have experienced it firsthand and bear the scars and the psychological fallout—being quicker to attack or readier to hide. But I would argue that it does not arise in greater numbers or ferocity on the fringes of society—merely that we have been taught to “see” violence there and ignore it elsewhere, a point B. Traven elaborated in one of the few moments of the debate that directly touched on the question of how we define violence, and how a seemingly semantic argument has grave implications for the disenfranchised.
As A. K. Thompson wrote in anticipation of the debate, “the proponents of nonviolence assert the strategic and ethical superiority of their position without ever acknowledging the State violence that underwrites it.”[i] This is not to defend the irresponsible use of force, or to minimize the real fear that can arise at protests when people who aren’t expecting property destruction feel caught in the crossfire. It’s easy to understand why nonviolent protesters feel threatened by these acts.
My own beliefs as an activist were originally much more in line with Hedges’. Partially in response to generations of violence in my own family, I converted to Buddhism as a teenager and devoutly practiced ahimsa, the doctrine of nonviolence. When I first attended mass demonstrations in 1999 I considered myself a pacifist. I was initially unimpressed with the masked anarchists I saw overturning dumpsters and setting them on fire—they seemed juvenile and irrelevant. I pathologized them, as I’d been taught, as ignorant and violent people. The ensuing years of activism have refined my understanding of diverse tactics—I learned the less public history of forceful struggles that have accompanied social change in this country, from the striking miners of Blair Mountain to the armed Black Panthers and the Oscar Grant uprisings, and I became close friends with a range of people whose tactics I don’t always agree with and who take risks I’d never choose to take. People who Chris Hedges would consider outsiders and parasites on the mainstream movement, I’m proud to know as loyal friends and passionate activists.
What I hope Hedges took away from this debate is that the mass movement he’s imagining will depend on a painfully wide coalition. We’ll need all of us, damaged as we are, who care enough to fight. This includes masked kids who occasionally escalate conflict unwisely, and it includes middle-aged journalists who slip up and dehumanize potential allies when they disagree with their tactics. It could include those in the “mainstream” that Hedges is anxious not to alienate—but they’re going to have to embrace those of us who occupy the fringes, with as much compassion and willingness to learn as we will need in learning to work with them. I imagine that Hedges believes we need the mainstream because they hold the most social power—but those who hold power often fear losing it too much to join an uprising, at least until their power slips. Even as the middle classes are slipping into poverty, most of them haven’t abandoned their sense of entitlement to a higher place in society than those who have historically been on the fringes. Nor have they overcome their fear of people with different ideas about how to effect change.
Which leads to the most interesting area of this debate: how do we overcome our fear—of each other and of the State—and become capable of tremendous collective courage? Hedges clearly fears Black Bloc tactics. During the debate he backed down from his original stance to asking only that there be a proper “time and place” for such tactics. His argument, that a diversity of tactics gives the police “an excuse” to attack the crowd, is a familiar one which always reminds me of the fractured logic of hostages or abusive families. When there is someone with disproportionate power to hurt many of us, we are far more likely to scapegoat troublemakers in our midst as the ones who “cause” those in power to act violently and irrationally. When we act to preserve ourselves at the expense of others we have begun to believe the logic of our oppressors; we may strive our entire lives to be good enough for them not to hurt us. Or, in the case of proponents of nonviolence, good enough that others will see our innocence as they hurt us. It’s this troubling moralism that allows our culture to demonize and condemn so many who fight to defend themselves. The same logic used to delegitimize Black Bloc tactics has been instrumental in criminalizing the most vulnerable among us who rise up to defend themselves. CeCe McDonald, a trans woman currently serving time for defending herself and her friends against a violent assault, is one example of a brave woman whose marginal social status left her vulnerable to being criminalized by the State.[ii]
As Traven concluded, the question is not whether people are going to resist with force, but “what happens when they revolt. If there is no movement for them to participate in, they’re going to act out in isolation. They’re going to throw their lives away.” Isolation is the most toxic condition of our times, and the state enforces it wherever it can. The various forms of oppressive violence in our culture—patriarchy, racism, and transphobia, to name a few—foster distrust and fear amongst us. Only when we can face the violence we’ve internalized, and neutralize the narratives of fear that surround us, will we begin to feel the power we wield together. Only when we grow sick of othering and excising will we recognize that compassion, solidarity, and courage are not exclusively tied to one narrow moralism.