Sunday, February 5, 2012

InterOccupy Conference Call on Nonviolence vs Diversity of Tactics

I've tended to stay away from the Occupy Conference Calls since last November. I'm not keen on the highly structured format among other things, but since I've been pretty well embroiled in the intensifying online discussions regarding the merits of Occupy Oakland's more militant and confrontational "Way" compared to the constant litany of "Nonviolent Peaceful Protest" we hear out of New York and elsewhere, I thought the discussion (however tightly it was controlled) might be interesting this morning.

It was.

When I joined, about 20 minutes into the discussion, I thought I heard the tail end of OO's Boots Riley's observations, but I can't be sure, because there's nothing in the minutes about his participation, and as far as I know, he never participated again.

There seemed to be about twenty or twenty-five participants, the plurality in New York, but there were others in Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, so it was something of a geographical cross section, but did not seem to be inclusive of a variety of positions regarding Nonviolence or Diversity of Tactics. There was instead a heavy concentration of pretty rigid adherents to the narrowest definition of Nonviolent Resistance (you must follow Gandhi and King exclusively or you are a violence advocate, it seems), and there was pretty much no one else at all, at least none (well, few) who spoke up.

I made a couple of points about the fact that overall and in the context of specific occupations like Occupy Oakland, the Movement (pdf) is by definition a Nonviolent Resistance Campaign that includes no Violent Resistance at all. Black Bloc tactics and "the anarchists," are Nonviolent by definition, and they are part of a Nonviolent Resistance Campaign. No one in the Movement advocates or practices Violent Resistance. No one. And no one is engaged in a Violent Resistance Campaign -- which is defined as armed insurrection and the use or threat of deadly force.

Well, the room exploded in furious denunciation and disagreement with my own sweet self. I never heard so many Nonviolence advocates on such a rampage!

I wasn't surprised at their disagreement with me, but their vehemence about it took me aback. These are believers in Nonviolence? Ok then...

As should be clear by now, I'm not a Nonviolence "purist;" while I certainly have respect for Gandhi and King, my view of Nonviolence is colored by a somewhat different experience set than that of many people who are highly socialized and accustomed to a very rigid and narrow definition of Nonviolence. I tend to take a broader, Big Picture view of the topic, and I am a good deal more inclusive by nature than many of the purists. Pretty much anyone who advocates and fights for civil, social and economic justice while eschewing resort to arms and physical coercion and harm toward others -- fits the Nonviolent Resister definition in my book. A purist will go full Gandhi and assert that even protecting oneself in a violent situation with authority is impermissible. I don't agree with that. Nor do I agree that one must follow Gandhi's and King's models in order to be "effective."

In fact, I would argue that rigid adherence to those models in the contemporary context is actually counter effective, because as I say in another post, our Overclass has learned the lessons of King and Gandhi very well, and their chief interest lies in ensuring that their form of Nonviolent Resistance never succeeds again.

I would further argue that Nonviolent Resistance Campaigns that are principally focused on marches, rallies and charismatic leaders and their speeches, homilies, and demands essentially can't succeed in this country any more for the simple reason that the Overclass has learned how to confront them and neutralize them nonviolently. Without the official violence and brutality aspects of the confrontation, the power of the Nonviolent march and the rally and the charismatic leader is significantly reduced or (as in the case of the anti-Iraq War protests) eliminated altogether.

There is much, much more involved in a serious Nonviolent Resistance Campaign than those few aspects, of course, but they are the ones that receive the most attention. And I argue that they don't work the way they used to, nor are they likely to be more than marginally effective for real change in this country again. Their effectiveness is declining in foreign lands, too, as the authorities learn ways and means to counter them.

Something else is needed, specifically something more militant, though not more violent. The days of passive resistance will soon be past.

(I've written before about how disturbing it has been for me to watch the passive behavior of the hundreds and hundreds of people on the Brooklyn Bridge submitting to their arrest after being trapped by police; much the same feeling of extreme unease came over me as I watched the first part of the arrest of the hundreds and hundreds of surprisingly passive people in front of the YMCA in Oakland last weekend. I couldn't watch the rest of it. The scene was too disturbing.)

When the People "stand up and fight back" -- militantly but nonviolently -- the tables are turned and Authority is de-legitimized. This happened at UC Davis in rather spectacular fashion in response to the egregious pepper spray incident. And it has worked extraordinarily well in Oakland as well.

During the call (back on topic!), Starhawk was invited to provide her insight as a long time progressive activist whose experience with Black Bloc and Diversity of Tactics could be instructive. What I got from her talk was that her ideas of Nonviolent Resistance are more inclusive and expansive than those of most Nonviolence advocates, but she can't recommend giving Black Bloc advocates free rein. The backlash against some Black Bloc tactics damaged the movements she's been involved with.

I don't doubt it, but she didn't have time to go into detail, and I would very much like to know more about her experiences, which movements she feels were effective and why. But that's for another day.

Someone talked about how the "violence meme" was constantly being applied to Occupy -- which I thought was odd, but people's perceptions are shaped so much by what they see and hear and read, and I don't have cable, rarely watch television news, have a relatively short list of online bookmarks I visit regularly, and I've decoupled from Facebook and Twitter. So my perceptions are based largely on what I have seen via the online streams, what I have read in the postings on Occupy websites, and how some in the blogosphere and online news community have reported or reacted to Occupy events. So my perceptions are clearly not the same as those who are immersed in the mainstream propaganda.

Nathan Schneider was one of the participants, but I really don't remember what he had to say, and that's too bad. He wrote a really good article for Waging Nonviolence on the topic of OWS, and their employment of Nonviolent version of Diversity of Tactics. It was so long ago in Occupy Time, it seems like centuries, but still the points he makes are valid.

There were some people who pointed out, correctly, that Diversity of Tactics and Black Bloc does not necessarily mean vandalism or other forms of destructive mischief at all. One of the things that happened during The Battle of Oak St on J28 was a classic Diversity of Tactics/Black Bloc action -- whether intentional or spontaneous, I don't know. A demonstrator appeared to be injured and was on the ground well in front of the crowd. One member of the crowd -- unprotected -- went to the injured person to see what had happened and one of them motioned to the police to stop firing. Then the shield bearers in the crowd moved forward to surround and protect the injured person with their bodies and their shields. They weren't dressed in black, but protecting the injured in a demonstration is a Black Bloc tactic. Completely nonviolent, too. Of course they were fired on by police -- which should have shocked the conscience of any onlooker, but you never know about that.

My final comment during this morning's call was that if practicing Nonviolent Resistance was so important to Occupy, there needed to be far more comprehensive and accessible training in what it is and how to do it. Most people have no idea.

The notes from the call are very incomplete, but they may be informative.

There's supposed to be a follow up call in a week to explore the Nonviolence issue further, but I think I'll be on the road that day and will probably miss it.


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