Saturday, February 11, 2012

It's About Trust

"Occupy" burst back into the national consciousness with the roiling events culminating in the mass arrest of hundreds of demonstrators in Oakland, CA, on January 28, 2012.

Since then, the Occupy Movement's consciousness and conscience has been pre-occupied with questions of "nonviolence" vs "diversity of tactics" -- and how or whether to enforce a strategy of nonviolence on what appears to be or be becoming a much more militant movement.

What one believes and how one feels about these issues appears to depend -- at least to a substantial degree -- on the source of the information one has about what happened in Oakland on January 28, on what one's involvement and investment in the Movement has been, together with how one defines or conceptualizes Nonviolent Resistance.

As I've explored the issues being debated and the contexts of the debate, it's fairly clear that negative mass media news reports about the J28 events in Oakland have had a profound effect on many people's perceptions of what happened and how those events relate to Occupy as a whole.

Those negative perceptions based on negative (and very limited) mass media reports of what happened are then used to reinforce pre-existing points of view about Occupy and its focus, and particularly points of view about certain kinds of Occupy activism and activists that don't appear to follow -- or in point of fact, don't follow -- the precepts of nonviolence.

Disclosure: Just to be clear, I'm not in Oakland, nor am I directly involved in any Occupy Oakland or Oakland Commune affairs; my knowledge of developments and events in Oakland comes from personal contacts, the online presence maintained by Occupy Oakland, the many alternative media reports through livestream. I follow a number of other Occupys in the same manner, though I am physically closer to Oakland. I began participating in the local Occupy at its first public meeting, October 1, 2011. I have been a life-long student of nonviolence and nonviolent resistance and have been closely involved in a number of nonviolent resistance campaigns. I have encountered and engaged the sometimes explosive nature of the arguments between advocates of nonviolence and diversity of tactics.

The questions and issues being raised now in the national conversation about Nonviolence as it relates to Occupy have been there from the beginning. In some ways, this debate is continuous. In my view, it is in the DNA of the Movement and provides part of the strength of the Movement.

As I've tried to point out here and elsewhere, taken as a whole, the Occupy Movement is an organic, evolutionary, international Nonviolent Resistance Campaign. That doesn't change, in fact it isn't affected at all, because someone throws an object or curses a cop or burns a flag or even breaks a window during some Occupy action somewhere.

Rare and essentially spontaneous incidents of vandalism and mischief, and to an extent the strategic use of confrontation tactics and defiance in the face of Authority, have become the focus of the debate, however.

Some of the more strident nonviolence advocates argue that these incidents and strategies are against the interests of the Movement and should be policed and suppressed -- and often use absolutist and authoritarian language to make their point. Others are somewhat less strident and authoritarian about it, but express dismay at the perception that advocates of violence have taken over the Movement.

Much of the language involved in the debate is that of scapegoating and demonization, almost all of which, in my perception, has been coming from those who purport to advocate nonviolence -- such as we've seen in Chris Hedges' polemic. He didn't invent that way of approaching and discussing the issues involved; it was there long before he adopted Occupy Wall Street as his own.

My deepest understanding of the conflict, however, comes from any number of people who have been very honest and up front about what's really driving their anger and animosity -- no matter which side of the conflict they're on.

It's about trust and the betrayal of trust.

Time and again, the underlying issue is a perception that a handful of activists have taken over or are trying to take over the Movement to push their own interests and agenda, regardless of anyone else, and thus they are destroying a Movement that so many people have put so much faith and trust in to bring about Real Change.

The "handful" meme is consistent and it is used to characterize the Other Side, no matter what their position is. "Taking over" is also a consistently used rhetorical device used to characterize the Other Side. "Destroying" is a constant accusation against the Other Side.

Most important, however, is the concept of "trust" and the betrayal of trust through the actions and attitudes of the Other Side.

In my experience, this has always been at the root of the Movement's Big Controversies and its most explosive conflicts.

Mutual respect and trust are considered fundamental for the success of any community of like minded activists. And yet we see constant conflict within the Occupy Movement based on perceived lack of respect and betrayal of trust, combined with... remarkable successes.

From an empirical standpoint, what's happening is working. But it's not necessarily working the way many people wanted or anticipated, and that is giving rise to feelings of fear and dread that something is going terribly wrong, or that it will go terribly wrong soon enough.

Because some of the individuals on either side of the internal conflicts are perceived to be untrustworthy or lacking in respect for other points of view, they become the focus for animosity and denunciation -- which can sometimes turn into scapegoating and demonization, which in turn can become deadly.

Chris Hedges is rightly criticized by David Graeber for descending to that very ugly place, but I noticed that few others criticized Hedges for that particular failing, focusing instead on his incoherence and inaccuracies, a phenomenon I've noticed in other aspects of the conflict. The ugliest charges and accusations against the Other Side are often simply set aside and ignored. They may be hurled at will, but their effect, if any, is slight.

People who get involved in movements of this kind make themselves highly vulnerable, and they have to believe they can trust the others with whom are aligned in order to feel they are protected. They need to feel respected as individuals and valued as part of the group as well. Unfortunately many activists and would-be activists in the Occupy Movement feel their trust has been betrayed, they are not respected, and they are not valued by key Others in the Movement, and that their vulnerability is not protected. They feel unsafe and unsure -- and afraid.

Some can work their way through these feelings, but many cannot. Betrayal of trust by public and corporate officials is one of the chief reasons for Movement itself. It is at the root of the whole thing. Had the public trust not been betrayed on such a massive and continuous scale, there would likely not be an Occupy Movement. Some of those who made themselves even more vulnerable in order to participate in the Occupy Movement found themselves subjected to what they saw as even worse levels of exploitation, indignity and disrespect than they had previously experienced.

Some people will leave the movement when they feel they are not respected or valued and the see their trust betrayed; others will fight back. And that's how we get to the conflict over nonviolence we're in, a conflict that's been going on, sub rosa, from the beginning, and one that I suspect may be elemental, may in fact be necessary for the Movement's strength.

In other words, if it were ever resolved in favor of one side or the other, it could well signal the end of the Movement.... or that the Revolution has succeeded.

I've pointed out many times that Occupy is by nature and by definition unquestionably a Nonviolent Resistance Campaign. Violent resistance is not part of the Occupy framework.

It's just not there. Nor is it developing into a Violent Resistance Campaign, nor is it likely to.

On the other hand, it is becoming increasingly militant, and becoming increasingly effective as a militant nonviolent resistance campaign. Coordinated militant nonviolent resistance can be be among the most effective tactics in countering even the apparently strongest authoritarian systems.

In that overall context, rare incidents of vandalism or object throwing are simply "incidents." They don't define the campaign, no matter what mass media propaganda says about how "definitional" they are.

Yet there are nonviolence advocates who are still obsessing over black bloc vandalism that took place in Oakland on one day in November of last year even though there has been no black bloc in Oakland since then. As members of that black bloc have pointed out, and the videos amply demonstrate, they were the objects of physical assault and threats of assault (including by one man who waved around a pole of some sort as a weapon) by purported "nonviolence" advocates. In fact, violent rhetoric and threats of physical force and violence against "black bloc anarchists" are routine features of the arguments against "black bloc anarchists" by "nonviolence" advocates. (You should see my email...)

It might help matters if the accusers looked in the mirror sometimes. But that's another issue for another time.

The question under consideration now is one of trust.

When "the anarchists" are routinely threatened with physical harm or are actually being physically assaulted by strident advocates of "nonviolence," it can give rise to an understandable lack of trust in the motives of some of these "nonviolence" advocates as well as some level of disrespect for their arguments and their point of view.

The following video gives an overview of nonviolent resistance from the perspective of some of those who study and promote it. The link came through some of the same channels in my email that contain some of the most virulent hostility and hypocrisy by self-proclaimed nonviolence advocates I've ever seen.

This video stands in complete contrast to the virulence and hostility and violent rhetoric so often employed by self-professed "nonviolence" advocates. It is only an overview, it doesn't get into the weeds and the details of campaigns, though it does touch on testimonies and tactics from the campaigns of Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi and others. The point is that a Nonviolent Resistance Campaign can occur in a variety of ways, through use of a variety of tactics, and that militant nonviolent resistance can be very effective. There are other nonviolent paths than those of Gandhi and King. Really.

Points to ponder:

  • Betrayal of the public interest by indifferent and corrupt leaders is a fundamental betrayal of trust that has led to the global appearance of the Occupy Movement.

  • Betrayal of trust between participants within the Movement due to lack of mutual respect and lack of mutual understanding of the principles of nonviolent struggle has led to the current conflict within Occupy over tactics of nonviolence.

    Even though there is so much inner turmoil over these issues, the Movement remains fundamentally strong and vital, in part because the first listed betrayal motivates the resistance, and the second listed betrayal, once recognized and addressed, frequently leads to a even greater level of solidarity within the Movement.

  • Courage.

    We are winning.

    Another world is possible.


    1. My take? Personally I got a little spooked when I saw masked and robed fellow protesters; there were so many media-friendly families and kids that I worried about them, as the TV audiences inevitably would, too.
      The sad thing is that Occupy must suffer under our current media structure; like in the 60's, when civil rights workers were told to be "hatted, gloved, and stockinged," the 99% have to constantly prove that they are even more upstanding than the populace at large to avoid complete marginalization.
      Any property destroying tomfoolery will always be used to discredit the movement and set back its goals by governments and the media who serve them, and that's just the way it is.

    2. I was on another conference call this morning on the topic of The Occupy Nonviolence Crisis. One fellow was from Portland and made mention of the aggro last weekend (I think he even used that term) said it was autonomous, not an Occupy action at all, but was promoted through OPDX media -- Facebook, calendar, etc -- and it led to to an emergency meeting of the OPDX spokes council to discuss DoT and define what actions are not allowed and developing clear lines of separation.

      Makes sense to me.

      It sounds like it was completely random vandalism and hooliganism, with no "higher purpose" at all. Counterproductive is putting it mildly. Didn't know about the robberies...

      Some of the people here dress up for the demonstrations in their suits and ties or their fanciest going shopping frocks and pumps; one of the ladies even puts on hat and gloves and has a Nordstrom bag on her arm.

      She's been on the teevee news plenty of times ... ;-)

    3. The negative coverage is right out of Grapes of Wrath, a novel that speaks so powerfully to this moment. I'm constantly reminded of the scenes when the poor finally rise up in California and start to resist the slave they are demonized and depicted as animals.

      Someone, using the handy model of bifurcating the world, noted that you can divide it between those who think that the ending of the novel-- when Rose of Sharon, having just given birth to a stillborn baby which has starved in the womb, shares her milk with a man dying of hunger--is grotesque or sublime. I'm in the latter camp. Steinbeck knew that the poor have always had resources and an ability to survive, provide, and share that the 1% can only dream about. And envy, since it is totally out of the purvey of their world view where everyone sinks or swims alone... Morning's Minion

    4. Nice literary analogy, MM. "There comes a time when a man gets mad, Ma."

      Steinbeck still has his antagonists in Salinas; they do not forgive easily and they will not give up their loathing of what he did. He may have been writing fiction in Grapes of Wrath but it was God's Own Truth, and everybody knew it.

      We need more literary voices like his today...