Occupy and black bloc debate

Violence Begets Defeat or Too Much Pacifism?

By Michael Albert
Friday, February 10, 2012 from Z magazine

“But remember that if the struggle were to resort to violence, it will lose vision, beauty and imagination. Most dangerous of all, it will marginalize and eventually victimize women. And a political struggle that does not have women at the heart of it, above it, below it, and within it is no struggle at all.”
– Arundhati Roy

Chris Hedges has written a very aggressive attack on what is called the black bloc element of the current occupy movements. There have been a number of replies and reactions. The issues are actually not new, but have a long lineage. How do we evaluate matters of violence and non violence? What even characterizes obstruction, property damage, or aggressive or violent options, and how might folks reasonably argue their preferences?

Pacifism often comes from a religious or a philosophical stance and says violence, or even property damage, is a bad personal choice – no exceptions. Many pacifists argue publicly on behalf of political nonviolence using evidence, values, and experience. They usually respect and interact positively with those holding different opinions. In my experience, perhaps the best exemple of this type of stance was by David Dellinger, someone whose work is worth revisiting today. There are some other pacifists, however, who don’t primarily use evidence, logic, and experience to argue for nonviolence, but instead assert that to reject nonviolence is immoral. Their morality/religion trumps political debate.

When adherents of a political view assert that all other actors must agree or be irrelevant, it is often called sectarianism. Agree with me or you are a political infidel. In philosophy or religion, similar rigidity is often called fundamentalism. Agree with me or you are a moral infidel or mental midget – or worse, an ally of one type of devil or another.

Here’s the hard part: When a pacifist says that everyone must be a pacifist because all other options are immoral, it is fundamentalism.

Lifestyle, philosophical, or religious pacifists have every right to argue that the movement should always be nonviolent. But if they do it by proclaiming they have greater morality and dismissing those who have different views as morons or badly motivated, they can’t expect to be taken seriously. The same also goes for those who assert the limits of nonviolence and the merits of militancy from atop a high moral horse. Those who say disruption and violence are essential to building movements and winning change, and add that anyone who thinks otherwise is a tool of the state, are also sectarian.

So what characterizes obstruction, property damage, or aggressive or violent options, and how might folks reasonably argue for their preference?

With any tactic we can usefully ask:

What are its effects on those who utilize it?
What are its effects on those it seeks to pressure?
What are its effects on the those protestors seek to reach out to?
What are its effects on enduring movement organization and culture?

The “black bloc” side of this debate claims that tactics “exceeding” nonviolence tend to be good in that they delegitimate authority; reduce tendencies to obedience; uproot accommodationist habits and culture; inspire participation among working people and minorities; enlarge courage; graphically pinpoint protestor’s anger; promote increased media coverage that communicates the movement message more widely; and also raise social costs for elites, pressuring them to relent. In their view, “cannibals prefer those who have no spines.”

The “pacifist” side claims that tactics “exceeding” nonviolence tend to be bad in that they help authority rationalize its legitimacy; increase tendencies to thoughtless individualism, amorality, and paranoia; put off unorganized working people and minorities (not to mention those unable or unwilling to participate in violent settings); curtail open discussion and democratic decision-making; obscure the focus of protestor’s anger; distort media coverage from substance to bricks and fighting thereby disrupting communication to broader audiences; and also give elites an excuse to change the rules of engagement to their advantage. In their view, violence is suicidal.

The point-by-point contrast highlights the complexity of judging tactics.

Is having teach-ins, marching, rallying, doing civil disobedience, and obstructing large numbers of people the best way, or is destroying draft card files, a missile nose cone, a war-making facility, or targeted windows, trespassing, rioting, resisting arrest, or even escalating to pro-active aggression against police, scabs, or other sectors, a better choice?

To know, we have to decide which claims by advocates of different stances are true and which false, and how we regard the overall tally. A complicating factor is that we have to consider each case on its own merits. We can’t we have an across-the-board, always-binding judgment, as convenient as that might be, because in some situations aggressive tactics yield all the positive affects their advocates expect, yet in other situations aggressive tactics fail to deliver any potential benefits. Likewise, in some situations aggressive tactics yield all the debits their critics anticipate, yet other times aggressive tactics minimize or even eliminate the debits. Thus there are no universal rules about abiding or exceeding non violence, and the best we can do is to assess each tactic people might opt for in each situation, seeking to maximize potential benefits and minimize potential ills. Thus, with this mindset, a person is neither black bloc or pacifist – but, instead, open about the options, careful to choose good ones, and then to implement them in worthy ways, case by case.

For example, proponents and critics of aggressive tactics need to pay priority attention to not providing authorities a rationalization to obscure the government’s wrong-doing. Proponents and critics must be sympathetic to those disagreeing with them and work hard to increase democratic participation and reduce tendencies to anti-social individualism, paranoia, or passivity. They must try to find ways to increase the possibility of wide participation and open discussion and decision-making, and particularly to prevent their tactics from alienating sought-after constituencies. They must put a high onus of evidence on themselves on behalf of avoiding adventurism or endangering others or otherwise weakening the balance of power between the movement and elites, whether by action or inaction. They must raise social costs today consistently with being able to do better tomorrow. They must undertake or refrain from actions in ways that don’t fracture the movement, reduce sympathy for the movement, or obscure its message among constituencies it seeks to reach. And both advocates and opponents of any particular tactic must avoid pressuring movement participants into hostile stances toward one another, rather than battling only opposed elites.

Pursuing violent tactics by disdaining participation and democracy or by wildly imagining non-existent conditions appears to be macho play-acting rather than seriously seeking maximal impact. Opposing violent tactics by equating minor disruptions or destruction with the catastrophic violence of elites looks like fundamentalism rather than seriously seeking maximal positive impact.

On the upside, when groups pay serious attention to strategic concerns so that others are aware of their motives, logic, and attentiveness – as well as of how they take into account the views and agendas of their protest partners – then while folks may still sharply disagree about choices, the dialog can be one of respect and substantive debate.

Surely we can all agree that respect and substantive debate are worthy goals. Then doesn’t it also follow that having protest norms that facilitate differing groups communicating usefully is much better than having protest norms which pit differing groups against one another in ideological death matches? “Different strokes for different folks” is a good slogan, as long as we add that the different folks need to also pursue mutual concern, understanding, and empathy.

There are demonstrations in which trashing, for example, grows organically from the event’s logic and intentions. An example might be clearly enunciated assaults on particular draft boards or ROTC buildings. There are other demonstrations where trashing is counter-productive and irresponsible due to endangering innocent folks and diluting the message and solidarity of the event.

Consider a massive event where those who tirelessly organized it were committed to legal marches and rallies and also to illegal but nonviolent civil disobedience. Imagine 100,000 people attend. Imagine in the first days success is overwhelming and mutually respectful ties develop between usually fragmented constituencies, (for example Green disobedients and Teamsters, Lesbian Avengers and steel workers). Imagine developing optimism is contagious. Movement participation is climbing and, targeted meetings or events are effectively disrupted.

But then the police begin to employ gas, clubs, and rubber bullets. At this point, highly organized trashers break off and attack windows and police. Afterwards they celebrate that due to their mobility and organization none of them was arrested or harmed. Perhaps these militant dissenters taunt and otherwise provoke police and then disappear, leaving others, often utterly unprepared families, to bear the brunt of the response. Do we admire more the courage of knowing folks who could easily see what was coming and escape if they wished to, but who instead used their talents to help protect their less well prepared co-demonstrators, or those who brought down escalated repression and then fled the scene?

Imagine that various contingents who provided energy, song, creativity, and militancy at the rallies and civil disobedience, had then also, on top of that, not gone off breaking windows when the police got violent, but remained with other demonstrators, shielding them, assisting those who were hurt, helping those suffering from gas. This would have capped their otherwise positive involvement with exemplary behavior on behalf of their fellow demonstrators, rather than tailing off into counter productive window breaking. The image of dissent and activism conveyed by this would have been creative militancy plus humanity and solidarity.

Does this mean, however, that there cannot be a time and place for confrontation and property damage? No, it doesn’t mean that, at least not to me. Instead, the time and place for such behavior is when it will meet widespread approval and increase the power of protest rather than providing an excuse for folks to tune out or to become hostile to protest. Up to the trashing, in the above example, the most militant contingents likely added energy, creativity, art, music, and often greatly needed militancy, courage, and steadfastness to many demonstration venues. They uplifted participants’ spirits and otherwise played a very positive role within the rubric of the demonstration’s guidelines. It was only when some went off breaking windows against the demonstration’s norms, in this example, that a problem arose. And we should note that it isn’t just trashing that is sometimes warranted and sometimes not. Sometimes civil disobedience is out of place, too. It too can be at odds with the mindsets of people’s planning so that spontaneously undertaking civil disobedience would violate an event’s logic and the expectations and plans of most people present. It would then, at least in part, alienate people who were moving toward dissent, and not spur new insight and solidarity. Other times, however, employing civil disobedience makes excellent sense and is even pivotal to success. For that matter, sometimes even a march can be adventurist; other times it can be the ideal tactic.

In other words, what tactics at an event are warranted and will help a movement grow and strengthen, and what tactics at an event are unwarranted and will hurt a movement and its cause, is very rarely a matter of unyielding principles but instead depends on how the event has been portrayed and organized, who is at the event, what their expectations are, what the event’s prospects are for impacting social outcomes, and how the event and the tactics are likely to be perceived by constituencies beyond the border of the event.

Regrettably, though, this is not inevitable. It has often typically been the case that once activists enter a trashing mindset, they most often don’t care about such calculations. At that point their inclination becomes a feeling that to trash is good because, after all, the targets are criminal corporations and damaging them is a step toward demystifying and destroying them. Anyone against that must be pro-corporate, they announce. Their mental energy no longer tries to determine the impact of possible tactics, but only what target to hit. They begin to think it is the height of wisdom to deduce that McDonalds and Nike are better targets than random passersby or a family grocery store. For a relatively minuscule number of participants to impose on a massive demonstration tactics that are contrary to the demonstration’s definition is not only unwise for its effects, but also undemocratic in a way that should never typify movement activism.

Of course, the above hypothetical example is largely real. The anti corporate globalization uprising that took place in Seattle, Washington, in the U.S. – which is just one among a great many similar cases – had, before any trashing occurred, already hamstrung the WTO. They had evidenced militant creativity, organization and knowledge. They had begun to generate new allegiances and ties among diverse constituencies. They had combined many levels of creative and militant tactics in a mutually supportive mix. Speeches at rallies, in many instances, made the obvious leaps from opposing free trade to opposing free markets, and from opposing global profiteering to opposing capitalism, per se. The ground work was laid for gains to multiply. Then, the addition of trashing, however emotionally understandable it was, predictably did not win useful visibility that would otherwise have been absent. It did not enlarge the number of folks participating or empathizing with the demonstration. It did not cause more substantive information to be conveyed either in the mainstream or on the left – on the contrary it replaced substance about globalization with an endless litany of noise about police and activist tactics. It did not respect much less enlarge democracy. What it did do, instead, was (a) divert attention from the real issues, (b) provide a pretext for repression which would otherwise have been unequivocally seen as crushing legitimate dissent, and (c) and, arguably most important, cause many to feel that dissent is an unsympathetic undertaking where some feel that they have the right to undemocratically violate the intentions and desires of most others.

Again, the issue is not whether trashing or other aggressive actions per se are good or bad. Suppose that back during Seattle the black bloc hadn’t embarked on breaking windows but had become a support group for those suffering police assaults, rallying spirits and protecting bodies. Suppose that hundreds and then thousands more students and workers had joined the civil disobedience efforts because of the sense of community they embodied and the clarity of their aims. Suppose that support actions had occurred all over the country, spreading like Occupy spread more recently. Suppose that the state had used gas and charging cops repeatedly to break up such efforts. And suppose, in this context, a good part of the city’s population, the “audience” around the country, and a huge majority of the constituencies that had gone to Seattle, or wherever, to demonstrate felt solidarity with the demonstrators. Now imagine, after a long pattern of totally non violent response, including efforts to actually talk with police troops, that the police charged some peaceful convocation or march yet again, and folks finally had had enough and didn’t accept a beating, but instead suddenly stood their ground. Suppose they then turned and decided it was time to push back. Imagine that this led to battles, and then even to cars turned over, barricades built, and so on. The property damage by protesters in such a melee would dwarf anything committed by the trashers in Seattle and it would no doubt exuberantly (though not wisely) extend beyond corporate targets and damage even some property of innocents. Some would say this couldn’t possibly be good but in fact, instead, as described, this could have had a completely different flavor and logic from the trashing in Seattle – and could have expanded, rather than diminished, the involved movements and constituencies. There is always a judgment call in the use of tactics.

Sometimes a tactic is wise, other times the same tactic is mistaken.

What was wrong about the political folks who trashed in Seattle or in our hypothetical first case, above, or in some non violent Occupy events and engagements, was that (1) despite their other genuine and valuable contributions to the events, their judgment was horribly faulty. And (2) they egocentrically thought that their judgment alone was sufficient justification for them to dramatically violate norms accepted by hundreds, thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands of other demonstrators.

Changing society isn’t a matter of breaking windows, obviously. It is a process of developing consciousness and vehicles of organization and movement, and of then applying these to win gains that benefit deserving constituencies and create conditions for still further victories, leading to permanent institutional change.

Cultivating movement coherence, trust, and solidarity – not just in a small affinity group but far more widely – is a big part of this agenda. Coherence, trust, and solidarity are typically not furthered when small groups undemocratically violate the agenda of massive demonstrations to pursue their private inclinations, even when the small group has a plausible case for its preferences.

The fact that corporations are so vile that attacking them is morally warranted if it will do good, doesn’t mean they are so vile that attacking them is morally warranted if it will do harm. Organizing against the Vietnam War, I often used to appear in front of very large and animated audiences, give long talks, and then field questions. It was a tumultuous time and the most prevalent question was often, “Would you burn down the school library if it would end the war?” My reply always took more or less this form, “who wouldn’t burn down a library to save a million lives? Of course I would, in an instant. But there is no connection whatsoever between burning a library and helping the victims of U.S. imperialism in Indochina, nor is there any connection between burning a library and altering the fabric of our own society so that the U.S. no longer engages in such pursuits. Worse, such behavior would have exactly the contrary impact, benefiting those committing the vile bombing. Can we now please get on to something serious such as how to communicate effectively to new constituencies about the ills of the war, and how to build sustained and serious resistance to it, and leave the posturing and baiting behind?”

Back then, it was often very brilliant, well-trained, and highly capable minds that drifted into the Weathermen and other such formations bent on violence as a kind of tactical and strategic priority. What was always quite notable was that these individuals could engage carefully, critically, and caringly in many domains, but reverted to odd leaps of faith and fancy regarding their out-of-touch lifestyle and tactical choices. Our movements must do better.

The events in Seattle, for example, were stupendously successful in bringing the WTO into the awareness of people in the U.S. – and adding to awareness and hope all over the world – in making clear to tens of millions that there was great opposition and in laying seeds for further effective activism of many diverse and powerful constituencies willing to respect and relate to one another, to pursue multiple agendas, and to use diverse tactics. This was all achieved, however, not via the trashing, but in spite of it.

I think it is fair to say that the Occupy phenomenon is an extension of, and owes much to, the anti corporate globalization movement, among others, and is now dramatically extending the impact of activism, though also entering a very rocky period. And the same issues keep arising. Some of the pronouncements of defenders of contemporary trashing recall a very brilliant and eloquent friend of mine, who came to my apartment one 1969 night, about 2 AM, and with a bunch of others snuck in and said “We are the Vietcong, we need a place for the night…the revolution is imminent, we are underground, don’t mind us, go back to sleep. Wake to a new society.”

They had as an excuse for their delirium that they hadn’t done just one demonstration, but had been enmeshed in full-time activism for years. Their environment was almost exclusively their friends in Weatherman and they had all lathered themselves into a well motivated but utterly out of touch turmoil of hope, rage, desire, paranoia, anticipation, and abstract rationalization that was so divorced from reality as to render them, so long as the mindsets persisted, very nearly useless as positive agents of social change.

These were in many cases the best minds and best hearts of the sixties generation. So we need to please note that those who find themselves angry at young activists who trash should not make the callous and ignorant mistake of thinking trashers are by nature all anti-political, uncommitted, insensitive, or unsympathetic – much less police agents. Life is not so simple. It isn’t the case that those you disagree with are always in some way abhorrent. Militants – even those who violate non violence agreements thus subverting the vast majority of voices – are overwhelmingly movement people, indeed some of our best movement people.

For those who are involved in or who have supported trashing to sharply disparage and even pose as enemies of change those who don’t support trashing, or vice versa, isn’t going to get anyone anywhere useful. There is misunderstanding on both sides, but the distance to unity and progress is much less than many other chasms we need to traverse, if only we don’t unnecessarily widen it. We all should be able to carefully bridge the gap and agree on the broad logic of how to assess tactics – though not to always agree on every judgment about every single specific tactic, of course – and especially to agree on how to abide collective norms at our demonstrations.

Hopefully those who have trashed, at times – which includes me – won’t take these words as disparagement of your potential and aspirations. Hopefully, instead, you will seriously consider that perhaps with the best intentions you have, at times, mistakenly repeated one flawed part of sixties movement history – indeed the saddest and least functional part – and will in reaction to this insight rise above the temptations and confusions that bedeviled many of the best in that generation.

The simple fact is that we live in a world, particularly in highly industrialized societies, where the means of violence are almost entirely the province of states. The prospect for any dissident force to overcome military and police violence with counter violence is zero. Watch any video of any conflict between police – much less military – and activists, in any such society – and it is obvious that the military aspect of the conflict is entirely one sided, and would only get much worse if escalated. The only real mitigating factor is growth in the numbers of those dissenting and refusal by the military elements to follow orders. These are the aims those concerned about violence need to focus on.

Sometimes self defense is essential. Sometimes even aggression is desirable. But for the most part, and certainly in the large, violence is the turf of the status quo, not of change, and certainly not of a new world. Little forays into violence – which is all anyone on the left in industrialized countries can do – typically curtails broad participation, justifies repression, diverts consciousness and focus to the inessential, promotes attitudes and mannerisms and habits that are contrary to healthy movement building, all to engage in a battle on turf that is without any doubt theirs, not ours. There is, therefore, a very high burden of proof on exceeding non violence because in the world we inhabit violence typically neither works to win gains, nor, even more, to build support.

What would be sensible is choices aimed at turning cops and military away from their commanders, on the one hand, and increasing the numbers and committed awareness of dissenters so much that we can’t be intimidated by shows of force, and the use of force will only add to our ranks and entrench our commitment.

So, on balance, on the question of violence and non violence, such choices are contextual and should be made in light of the whole panoply of effects we can predict. More, choices by a few should not be made in ways that trump choices of the many, imposing violations of non violence on those favoring it by deeds undertaken against agreed norms. Those favoring any tactic that others reject should undertake their own separate efforts, not piggyback on larger ones that do not accept their views. And finally, in any event, at the very least in highly industrialized countries, choices to utilize property damage, much less great violence, have a very high burden of proof, precisely because we know that typically their negative effects are great, and their positive benefits minor, if real at all.


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One Response to Occupy and black bloc debate

  1. Peter Curtis February 14, 2012 at 8:00 am #

    The question is, what will be the best tactic to build a mass movement. Violence as a primary strategy does not win the hearts and minds of others who we want to build the movement. That the class dictatorship – sometimes openly so and sometimes hidden is very violent, by necessity. At a critical point there must be a violent confrontation by the working class, the 99%. But it must be organised and decisive.