Saturday, February 4, 2012

Nonviolence in Today's Struggle

This is not violence. Wearing bandanas is not violence. Carrying signs is not violence. Using them as shields against police armed assault is not violence. Defiance of authority is not violence. Marching in the streets is not violence. Confrontation is not violence. Breaking free of police cordons is not violence. Throwing back munitions fired by police at demonstrators is not violence. Protecting oneself and assisting the injured is not violence. Attempted possession and reuse of vacant buildings is not violence.... Image from

Proposition: Taken as an organic whole, the entire Occupy Wall Street Movement in the United States, together with its many affiliates abroad, constitutes a Nonviolent Resistance Campaign by definition. Even its hotbed outposts of assertive activism, such as Occupy Seattle and Occupy Oakland, are by definition nonviolent resistance campaigns.

This simple fact often gets lost amid all the fretting and handwringing over a few broken windows back in November, or a flag burned in front of an AP camera in Oakland a week ago.

Let's define our terms, shall we?

A Nonviolent Resistance Campaign is characterized by a strategy of disobedience and unarmed confrontation with illegitimate authority.

A Violent Resistance Campaign on the other hand is characterized by a strategy of armed insurrection and use of deadly force against illegitimate authority.

See the difference? Armed/unarmed? Insurrection/disobedience? Deadly force/confrontation? They're not the same thing. What is the same is the object of the resistance campaign: illegitimate authority.

How then did it come about that resistance itself is called "violence," and confrontation and disobedience are seen as "tactics of violence?" To whom?

A Bit of History

[Note: I'm concentrating on these incidents because I'm closer to them; there have also been clearly nonviolent resistance incidents in Seattle that have been grossly characterized by authorities and media as protester "violence."]

We all saw incidents during the fall of last year at both UC Berkeley and UC Davis in which UC and allied police forces beat, pepper sprayed and violently arrested Occupy demonstrators who disobeyed police demands and linked arms in solidarity and defiance. And we heard and read, many of us to our shock and disbelief, administrators and police supervisors on these campuses declare those classic tactics of nonviolent resistance to be "not-nonviolence."

These events in Berkeley and Davis followed on one another, and they in turn followed on the spectacular events of Occupy Oakland's General Strike on November 2, 2011.

During the course of the day's activities in Oakland, a Black Bloc contingent (we assume that's who they were) committed acts of vandalism on selected targets such as Whole Foods, several banks and some other businesses in Oakland, by spraying graffiti and breaking a few windows. Later, as part of an attempt to liberate the vacant Traveler's Aid Building, several makeshift barricades were erected in the streets and were set alight.

There were, as I recall, about 100 arrests that night and the Traveler's Aid Building was restored to its official higher use as a vacant building. This is America; one does not "liberate" vacant buildings. It's just not done!

The Black Bloc actions during Oakland General Strike Day were defined by media and officials as "violence." No doubt, vandalism occurred and graffiti was sprayed. As many have noted, there was nothing special about this; it happens practically every day in Oakland, and it is not called "violent." It is called "vandalism." Or most often, "mischief."

It is rare in Oakland or anywhere else in America for vacant buildings to be liberated for the People's use through taking possession and squatting but even in those rare instances when it happens, possession-taking and squatting -- which generally means gaining access to the building without the use of arms or injury to people and moving in -- is not an act of "violence" by any remote definition of the word. Likewise the building of makeshift barricades from urban debris and setting them alight. It's not a "violent" act.

Clue: unarmed defiance is not the same thing as armed insurrection; vandalism is not the same as the use of deadly force.

But imaginations have been stretched to the point that simple disobedience and acts of solidarity are declared to be "not-nonviolence" and acts of vandalism or building liberation are declared to be the equivalent of "violent insurrection."

This is absurd. I use the term of art: "Absurdity on stilts."

And yet it is happening, absurdities upon absurdities adopted not just by officials and the media, but adopted by some of those involved in the Occupy Movement itself, leading to considerable internal dissension, tension and strenuous divisions among Occupy participants, factors that can lead to fragmentation and dissolution -- which is also a clue to what might really be going on. But I'll get to that.

There have been endless calls by well-meaning handwringers for Occupy Oakland, especially, to "renounce violence" and "officially declare themselves nonviolent" as if somehow their campaign of nonviolent resistance is not in and of itself sufficient. No, they must do more. They must RENOUNCE. Then they must OFFICIALLY DECLARE. Finally, as proof of their commitment to nonviolence, they must EXPEL "The Anarchists."

This has become, for many of those within Occupy Oakland (as it did in Seattle) The Most Important Thing In The Whole Wide World.

All Right, What's Really Going On Here?

Taken as an organic whole, the Occupy Movement is by definition a nonviolent resistance campaign. There is no hint of armed insurrection or use of deadly force to achieve political objectives anywhere within the Movement at all. (Sorry if I'm repeating myself, but these things have to be made crystal clear so that people in general and the handwringers especially begin to get it.)

No one within the Movement -- at least no one I'm aware of -- has advocated or attempted to precipitate or participated in armed insurrection or use of deadly force as part of the Occupy Movement.

Despite intense official violence and brutality used against Occupy Oakland and Occupy Seattle participants (as examples), there has never been a hint of adopting or using violent resistance tactics in response, even though participants in both cities, and especially in Oakland, are frequently accused of being "violent" and using "violent tactics."

Despite extraordinary levels of official violence and brutality against the Occupy demonstrators in many places in this country and abroad, the Movement remains dedicated to nonviolent resistance.

We've seen how classic nonviolent resistance tactics have been redefined by officials as "not-nonviolence." In a previous essay, I argued that the Overclass in effect has become the teacher of nonviolence, and therefore gets to determine the definition and allowable scope of nonviolence and nonviolent resistance. This has led to the notion that nonviolence must "look like" King's or Gandhi's campaigns: focused on marches, rallies and charismatic leaders. Appearance above substance, in other words.

When that is what is taught about "proper" nonviolent resistance, that is what participants are going to expect the Movement to look like. But as we saw with the Anti-Iraq War marches and rallies, "looking like" nonviolent resistance movements of the past doesn't work. It has become completely ineffective.

The Occupy Movement doesn't "look like" King's or Gandhi's resistance campaigns, and it is constantly sniped at from within and without partly because of that. It's also far more effective and on a far more elemental level than any of the activism against the Iraq War.

The Occupy Movement is actually forcing political and social change in real time, almost unprecedented since I was a young sport. And because it is effective it is dangerous to our Overclass -- and to those who seek to join the Overclass.

The effectiveness of Occupy Oakland is truly astonishing: they have succeeded in almost completely delegitimizing the rule of the city's elected and appointed leadership as well as their elite controllers, and they have succeeded in delegitimizing the authority of the police. And they've done this through a brilliant nonviolent resistance campaign that has almost no precedent in America.

Thus, Occupy Oakland especially, but Occupy in general as well, is a potent threat to the continued rule of an implacable, indifferent global elite, an elite Overclass whose rapine extractions and misrule have given rise to misery and global opposition.

This, I believe, is the key to understanding why there is so much internal dissension and external sniping over the "question" of using violent or nonviolent tactics by Occupy Oakland. I argue that there is no real question at all; the decision is plain to see: Occupy Oakland is, like all the rest of the Occupy Movement, intrinsically and by definition a nonviolent resistance campaign. A very effective one, perhaps the most effective one in the country at the moment.

OO's effectiveness in delegitimizing the authority of of officials, their police forces and the Overclass that runs them is a profound lesson that the Overclass does not want the masses to learn. My goodness no!

So rather than pay attention to what OO is doing right and well, and the actual nonviolent resistance tactics they are employing in doing so, nearly all the mass media focus and the attention they are getting from the outside, and nearly all the internal dissension that has accompanied their success in delegitimizing authority in Oakland has focused on phony charges of "violence," a largely irrelevant "debate" over whether to "renounce violence," and constant catcalling from within and without to expel "the anarchists."

As David Graeber (an anarchist, btw) has pointed out in a different context, the success of the Movement is a real problem for many people inside and outside the Movement.

What Do You Do Now?

I'm not sure there is an answer yet. But Occupy Oakland shows the way to effectively delegitimizing the authority of a civic leadership and their hired guns that has abandoned and is overtly oppressing the People. They have done it through a purposeful, directed, and completely nonviolent resistance campaign that doesn't look like the campaigns of Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi because it is not obsessed with the appearance of things, it's focused on the substance of political, social and economic justice.

Conclusion: The entire Occupy Movement is by definition a Nonviolent Resistance Campaign. Occupy Oakland has conducted an extraordinarily effective Nonviolent Resistance Campaign that has successfully delegitimized the ruling authorities in Oakland. At no time has Occupy Oakland -- or any other Occupation -- become or even hinted at becoming a violent resistance, not in the United States nor anywhere in the world. Calls for Occupy activists to renounce violence are superfluous, and demands that "the anarchists" be expelled are absurd.

One. More. Time: the Occupy Movement is by definition a Nonviolent Resistance Campaign. None of its activists have engaged in Violent Resistance, nor has any affiliate, nor has any Violent Resistance Campaign been proposed or adopted by any Occupation. At all. Anywhere.

Any questions?

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