Friday, February 10, 2012

History for Beginners -- Militant Nonviolence vs Polite Protest

Video of first day of Occupy Wall Street, September 17, 2011

One of the constant themes of the current Occupy Crisis Over Nonviolence is the insistent belief that Occupy Wall Street was originally an entirely peaceful, nonviolent, welcoming protest against the Wall Street bankers and predatory capitalism, and that it was full of music and strollers and families out on balmy fall days, and it was wildly popular.

According to myth, OWS was not meant to be some militant, confrontational, violent marauding Black Bloc Anarchist Thing. It was not supposed to be an uprising. Certainly not a Revolution. It was supposed to be a peaceful assembly for the redress of grievances against the banks and Wall Street. NOT what it is becoming. And what it is becoming is terrifying.

I've been sifting through the hundreds of emails that have come to me on the topic, and many of them are filled with real anguish at the violent, confrontational, and altogether non-peaceful tactics that have been adopted by OWS/Black Bloc/Anarchists in their determination to just make trouble for everyone and ruin what was once so beautiful and wonderful.

Dear me. WTF? No, I mean really. WTF?

This is not just revisionism, it's fantasy. A nice fantasy, sure, but were these people ever paying attention? Or were they somehow lulled by a propaganda campaign I wasn't aware of? Because I don't recall OWS ever promoting itself as anything but a nonviolent militant resistance campaign, initially to take and hold public space in defiance of authority, wherein the interests of the People, the 99%, could be and would be discussed, debated, and advocated. From its first moment of existence, OWS engaged in militant nonviolent civil disobedience. The encampment at Liberty Square/Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan was an act of militant defiance, not a nice, polite family-friendly protest that precisely followed the rules of the MLK and Gandhian civil rights and independence movements.

Liberty Square for a time became a family-friendly, festive affair, but only after it was established in defiance of authority and held against eviction by highly motivated and militant activists.

The mythology continues on this pleasant revisionist fantasy that somehow OWS has been taken over by Black Bloc anarchists and that anarchists had little or nothing to do with the origination (as I call it, founding) of OWS, which is simply absurd.

They were there at the beginning and they're there now. The entire structure of OWS and most of the Occupys that spontaneously arose subsequently, utilize concepts and processes and ideals that have been part of anarchist practice for decades; autonomy, respect for people's rights over property rights, General Assemblies, direct democracy, consensus decision making, working groups, affinity groups, even the later spokes council all came directly out of anarchic thought and practice. Black Bloc wasn't utilized as a tactic, but people who had been part of Black Blocs were very much involved in the OWS process. Anarchists were founders of NYCGA and Occupy Wall Street, they provided the intellectual space for there to BE an Occupy Wall Street, they provided much of the original energy of the movement, and they provided most of the horizontal leaderless structure and process used by OWS to this day. Anarchists are not some alien intrusion into OWS; they've always been there, as have the Dreaded Boogie Men, the all-powerful "Black Bloc anarchists."

Revisionists like to conflate OWS (Occupy Wall Street) with "Occupy," as if OWS defines the whole, OWS is one Occupy among several autonomous Occupys in New York City and one of hundreds around the United States and the world. It is not the headquarters; it is not run by the Occupy Central Committee, and it doesn't have any operational control or authority over any other Occupy. Since the raid in November that evicted the camp and destroyed the encampment, OWS has had a relatively low profile in Occupy affairs (though it is still an important element in the whole).

Another revisionist notion is that the concept of Occupying public space began in the United States with OWS last September, and that nothing like it had happened in this country before. It's a particularly beguiling pious fiction in that OWS quite consciously pretended to come from nothing, appearing suddenly fully formed and without precedent to press its case for social and economic justice. Of course, that's not quite the case, either. Something in, I believe, Wisconsin happened earlier in the year. In February and March, the Wisconsin State Capitol was occupied continuously sometimes by thousands of demonstrators protesting various rightist economic and labor policies enacted or about to be enacted by the Wisconsin legislature. Protests continued outside the Capitol, sometimes involving a hundred thousand marchers, into July. The Wisconsin occupation and demonstrations were inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings in January. Spanish protesters occupied the Plaza del Sol in Madrid from May through June to protest the lack of peoples' representation in the government and a growingly dire economic situation for millions of Spaniards. The occupation of Plaza del Sol was evicted by police in June. The Plaza del Sol occupation was used as a model by OWS. There was a student occupation of campus buildings at UC Berkeley in October, 2009, that was violently attacked by campus and area police forces, setting the pattern for the violent and brutal crack downs on the US Occupys in many locations, including the campus of UC Berkeley, in November of 2011. In other words, OWS was preceded by a plethora of similar occupations that served to set the stage for the occupation of Liberty Square/Zuccotti Park.

Perhaps the most pernicious myth being circulated now is that somehow the OWS and the Occupy Movement have been taken over by Black Bloc and anarchists who are forcing the Movement to become violent. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

There has been very little violence initiated by Occupy activists, none of it involving weapons or firearms. There have been a few autonomous Black Blocs during Occupy demonstrations (Black Blocs are autonomous actions), the most notorious being the Black Bloc that paralleled part of the November 2, 2012 march in Oakland as part of the General Strike during which a dozen or so windows of banks, a few businesses and the City Hall were broken and a number of buildings were sprayed with graffiti.

In fact, Occupy has been subject to relentless police violence and destruction of property, mass arrests, and torturous conditions of custody virtually since the beginning of the Occupations. None of it has been in retaliation for isolated incidents of vandalism or object-throwing. Hundreds of demonstrators have been wounded by police fire and thousands have been arrested. Encampments have been wantonly destroyed and the property of Occupiers has been routinely confiscated and destroyed. In one of the most notorious incidents of that sort, the People's Library of the OWS encampment was trashed and its contents thrown into garbage trucks during the eviction from Zuccotti Park, even as occupiers pleaded with authorities to allow them to remove the books safely.

The idea that Occupy has become violent or that Occupy endorses or approves violence is absurd; there has been minor and incidental violence during a few Occupy events, that's it. Meantime, Occupy has been subjected to ever increasing levels of police violence in city after city. And that police violence is not due to any violent incidents that have occurred during Occupy events. Police violence against demonstrators doesn't need an excuse. Violent suppression of Occupy encampments and demonstrations is a matter of policy and command. No matter how much Occupy attempts to suppress violence at its events (as has been done), the police are still violent toward the demonstrators on command.

Occupy practices a variety of nonviolent tactics including militant and confrontational nonviolent resistance. Occupy does not engage in violent or armed resistance, but some of the militant tactics, such as confrontation with police and public officials, or, as happened at UC Davis and UC Berkeley, linking arms and sitting in acts of non-violent civil disobedience, have been declared "violent" or "not-nonviolent" by some observers and officials. They are in fact classic forms of nonviolent resistance.

There have been many examples of "polite" resistance during Occupy actions, and there have been many examples of "militant" resistance as well; there are very few examples of violence initiated by Occupy demonstrators, but hundreds of demonstrators have been wounded by police fire against unarmed and nonviolent demonstrators.

Being loud is not violence. Defying authority is not violence. Impolite does not mean violent.

Last November, Jaime Omar Yassin, a participant in Occupy Oakland, wrote a blog post titled "What Violence Isn't." It's worth a read to get some perspective on the issues that are still roiling Occupy.

It's as if the discussion hasn't moved an inch since then -- except to become more hysterical.

The militant nonviolent Occupy Oakland OccuBus cruising San Francisco's Financial District, January 20, 2012

Sector of parking lot at Democratic National Convention wherein polite protest was allowed, Denver, 2004

Cage within which polite protest was allowed to those who were admitted during the Republican National Convention, St. Paul, 2008

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