Occupy’s tactic of nonviolence has been one of its strongest features. Peaceful direct actions, encampments and marches have won the sympathy and trust of non-activist masses, and made manifest the frustrations of the general public.
At the moment, Occupy’s debate about tactics is coming to the fore. On February 7th, Christopher Hedges posted his article "Black Bloc: The Cancer in Occupy". I’ve been been trying to keep up with the responses, so please understand this reflection as a first response, to be followed with one made from longer reflection. While Hedge’s article is not his best, historically inaccurate, and a little scary in its calling activists a cancer, I agree with his overall criticism of the Black Bloc tactic. However, I come from a different place politically than Mr. Hedges. And as I try to delve into this issue a bit, I’m again in the situation of being politically on same page as many Black Bloc advocates, in regards to economic analysis and critiques of neo-liberalism. For these same political reasons, I think the use of the Black Bloc tactic at Occupy is in effect a kind of self sabotage. I’ll say more about this in a moment.
In the Occupy political spectrum, from reformist liberals to anarchists, my reflection come from radical communal direct democracy, from the anarchist tradition. With the eruption of the OWS moment, anarchism has had an incredible and radicalizing effect on the wider Occupy movement, and has been one of the great moments of our history. Occupy is a model of resistance to economic violence, and at the same time creating free structures in public spaces - this has been anarchism at its best, anti authoritarian and building alternative processes. It's precisely from these values that I criticize the Black Bloc tactic.
While it’s true I am one those anarchists who’s personally pacifist (there’s a rich tradition of anarchist pacifism) I don’t think this discussion is about pacifism. I’m one of those pacifists who thinks property damage can have its own place in civil disobedience, when done in prophetic and non-threatening ways. I’m not equating damage to property with damage to human life. The Black Bloc, in contrast, is threatening in the extreme; in chaotic clashes with police, smashing windows in an angry frenzy, provoking repression in ways that make the police look like they’re protecting the public, the Black Bloc seems more subcultural than tactical.
By making protest space even more unsafe for folks from communities of color, people who can’t afford an arrest record, and working class people generally, the Black Bloc has always frustrated me. This is all the more so because Black Bloc advocates often have some of the most advanced analyses of white supremacy and class.
From the start, Occupy has been overwhelmingly white and middle class in its base. Most Block Bloc advocates I know are from the same privileged strata of activism, only more likely to have piercings and tats. This race and class analysis is important, since Black Bloc advocates often imply actions reflect the interests of the working poor, in contrast to the liberals. From what I’ve seen,Black Bloc advocates and participants seem more likely to be part of what’s better called an ex-middle class, having chosen an alternative to their middle class roots.Their middle class manners and pale faces make their future with an arrest record very different from a person of color from a working class background with the same record. This is only an issue because the Black Bloc, unlike organized civil disobedience, makes protest space even less safe for those who cannot get arrested; it increases the unpredictability of repression, and makes the surrounding protest space significantly more dangerous for actual working people and people of color.
Black Bloc advocates seem at their best when answering critics to their right. Archetypically, a white middle aged man quoting Gandhi and King, reformist and liberal in politics, will point the finger at the Black Bloc saying “You should be nice like I am!” That is where the Black Bloc advocate can shine, and point out that valuing property (windows) over life is violent, that liberalism only perpetuates capitalism, that diversity of tactics is a pluralistic value. In the best of Black Bloc rhetoric, there’s a notion that “direct action” (read ‘Black Bloc tactic’) has the potential of changing the rules of the game, and opening up new and undiscovered forms of resistance outside the tired old box of liberal candlelight vigils.
But criticizing the nonviolent liberal for being liberal sidesteps the question of the tactic. There are always anarchist and other anti-capitalist organizers, who fear the Black Bloc will steal the structure of their hard work of relationship-building. Among Back Bloc advocates, it often turns into a kind of circular reasoning: “I smash the window. You criticize me for property damage. Therefore you support private property.” By arguing this way, it sidesteps the tactical question altogether.
The notion that “diversity of tactics” ( i.e. Black Bloc) is a part of pluralism also falls flat. By this argument, being against it is somehow authoritarian.
It has to be said, some Black Bloc advocates I know have been among the most courageous white anti-racists at General Assemblies. They would say, “Sorry, no socially oppressive behavior at Occupy.” This is crucial and I honor them for this. We also as a movement say to the 1%: “Sorry, you can’t exploit the toiling masses for your profit margin.” Anarchism is not and has never been an “anything goes” philosophy. Just because you can pay someone less so you can make more doesn’t give you the right to do so. So the argument that the Black Bloc is an expression of autonomous action is a poor argument. Sorry, you don't have a right to hijack the efforts of thousands just because you want to.
The Black Bloc is not just another tool in the tool box. It’s a tactic whereby the thunder can be stollen from a mass demonstration by a small group of masked window smashers. In this context, Its strange to argue that critics of Black Bloc, whether pacifists, liberals or revolutionaries, are oppressive or stifling. It's a valid political debate. Movements have always drawn their boundaries, anarchism included. The question is, do they do so well, or to their detriment? The inspiring rhetoric about ‘diversity of tactics’ breaking out of the box of ritualized and pre-scripted nonviolence, on closer look, is also hard to understand. Mass nonviolent action, in human history, is a very new invention. It has been characterized by inventiveness and the unexpected. I’m not sure how dressing in uniform black and rioting is any more or less scripted. Or how it magically changes the rules of the game. To participants it may feel revolutionary and creative, but to those of us watching, it looks more like a dead end.
Occupy’s debate about nonviolence shouldn't be about pacifism or non-pacifism, about whether violence is neutral or a problem to be overcome. Instead, it is a debate about how to build a movement which sparks a radical vision within a non-activist populace.
Nonviolence is an issue because we want to broaden the accessibility and participation of our work, and take the higher path in the face of state repression, and win the sympathy of working people and the unemployed. When I see the debates about non violence and the Black Bloc, I usually see two groups of mostly white middle class activists. Of these two groups, both of which have some participation by people of color and working people, I ask, which has the better potential to break us out of Occupy’s privileged crust? Which of these tactics can help us heal from being led by folks with more time and resources than the majority who don't? This is an ongoing issue in the Occupy movement, especially given that it’s centered around economic human rights.
Nonviolence as a method is well suited to a political plurality. Accessible to those without power or brawn, it is a weapon for the whole spectrum of Occupy ideologies - liberals, democratic socialists, anarchists, and just about everyone else. As a tactic, it is a method for the pacifist and non-pacifist alike. It as a has a good record for serving the movement so far. Even if someone believes that violence is ethically neutral, it would be hard to make a cogent argument that fighting police is tactically helpful.
The news of masked suburban exiles, smashing windows and fighting police, so far as I can tell from reading or spending time in various communities, is devastating for public support.There will always be some folks in every community who cheer for clashes with the cops, but Occupy’s moment has been about incredible waves of community upsurge, —rallies, strikes, walk-outs, bringing together unions and churches, teachers and students, a truly populist movement for economic justice. If the human connections that create change are what we value, I know of no way to argue that the Black Bloc is anything but off putting and destructive of public trust. It may not sabotage capitalism, but it does sabotage Occupy.