February 16, 2012
Chris Hedges’ recent articles starting with “The Cancer in Occupy” (Truthdig, Feb. 6) have created quite a controversy among supporters of the Occupy movement.
The article came out in the aftermath of an incident in late January when Oakland police attacked protesters who were trying to occupy an abandoned building to use as a community center and new space for the movement. Police kettled and arrested 400 demonstrators, and at various times used tear gas and rubber bullets. During one standoff, members of Occupy Oakland defended themselves with makeshift shields and tossed tear gas back at the police.
Hedges calls the Black Bloc tactic the “cancer” of the movement and “a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state.” The movement is tolerating wanton violence, according to Hedges, and in doing so is inviting repression and negative press attention, thereby failing to win over more people. His essay has touched off a wide-ranging debate about the philosophy of nonviolence and if violence has any potential legitimacy in the movement.
Making a non-issue
The problem is that this is largely a straw-man—it is inventing a controversy, and the Black Bloc tactic is far from the most pressing issue for Occupy. In fact, the Black Bloc tactic—in which groups of masked activists dress in black, and without announced plans, attempt to escalate marches, directly confront the police and destroy property, usually that of corporations—has been an extremely minor aspect of the Occupy movement as a whole.
What took place on Jan. 28 in Oakland was principally an act of collective self-defense against police repression. When protesters pulled down the fence surrounding the building they sought to occupy—or months earlier when New York marchers seized the orange nets the police used to box them in—these represented not purposeless and reckless Black Bloc violence but the maturation of street tactics. The same can be said in the instances in which groups of protesters, masked or not, have spontaneously intervened to pull those facing wrongful arrest out of the arms of the cops.
The rare use of the Black Bloc tactic in Occupy is not the cause of its problems, nor is it the main challenge. As Hedges admits, the “security and surveillance state” did just fine in repressing entirely nonviolent Occupy encampments from coast to coast.
This is not to say that the movement must now escalate towards violence—in fact, no one is arguing for this. But it shows that with or without Black Bloc tactics, the state will move aggressively to silence those who challenge its rule.
The same is true of the media, despite its initial coverage—and to some degree, promotion—of the Occupy movement. For Hedges, a properly nonviolent movement must “on some level embrace police brutality” because it makes for a better media clip to have people sustain injury instead of standing up for themselves.
While it is crucial that we seek and use positive media coverage whenever possible, the media in general belongs to the 1 percent. The media’s demonization of the movement is bound to increase as it becomes more anti-capitalist and more successful in challenging Wall Street.
To embrace police repression so that it leads to more outrage reduces these protests to a marketing campaign, in which participants are largely passive and defenseless. Our tactics become oriented towards being “media friendly,” as if the problem is how to conduct ourselves in front of the cameras, not the nature of the corporate-owned media itself. This tactical view reflects a broader strategy aimed at winning enough public sympathy until the government finally reforms.
The real issue: creating a strategy to move forward
Instead, it is better to view Occupy as part of a resurgent fight-back movement, which has the potential to inspire action and confrontation against capitalism on many different fronts, and ultimately aim for its overthrow. We are still a long way from there. That will require taking on the hard strategic questions: how to revive a fighting labor movement of organized and unorganized workers; how to build organization and leadership in the most oppressed communities; and how to take the “occupy” idea into the struggles at the workplace and against evictions and foreclosures, budget cuts and school closures.
In an article last year, Hedges told his readers to “not be afraid of the language of class warfare,” and called for people here to follow the Greek workers and youth who called a general strike and “shut down the city centers.”
Yes, but none of this happens without resistance. In fact, for such actions to take place, and this has been proven in Egypt, Greece and elsewhere, the people must also begin to lose their fear. That idea—that you can fight back and you do not have to run—might not always play perfectly for the cameras, but is a critical part of the process of building a revolutionary movement.
The Black Bloc tactic should be criticized when it is clearly being harmful to the Occupy movement. There is certainly room to critique it, especially when it is used offensively.
The action of a few is substituted for—or is even in direct confrontation with—the initiative and organization of the many. It can put people at risk who often have far more to lose from police repression. In its spontaneity, it is typically disconnected from a broader strategy. It often induces fear rather than confidence among those who are entering political life. It can provide an easy entry point for police provocateur activity—as we saw in March 2009, when several masked individuals posing as part of the Black Bloc helped disrupt an anti-war march on the Pentagon before discreetly walking behind police lines.
But all such actions—which, again, have not been seen broadly in the Occupy movement—must be distinguished clearly from self-defense, which is an inviolable right.
The debate about tactics should not revolve simplistically around interpreting the Civil Rights movement (often by omitting those who did ascribe to self-defense). While recognizing how the Occupy movement grew as a result of the heavy-handed police response to peaceful protest, the discussion should instead focus on when certain tactics are appropriate or not.
How do we plan protests that dramatize our cause, exert our rights to the streets and at the same time keep our participants safe? How do we occupy a site when there is a police fence in the way? How do we occupy an apartment building or a workplace when the landlords and capitalists call in the police to enforce their property rights? How do we do all these things in a way that take us forward, giving people more confidence to struggle?